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roddy

Confucius Institute Experiences

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roddy

Prompted by the posts here on the Confucius Institutes by alanmd and milin, I thought it might be worth having a new topic on them. 

 

I've never dealt with a CI directly myself, so don't have a great deal to add. I have however talked to folk who've dealt with CI's overseas and Hanban back in Beijing, including working directly for a CI, and the general opinion is pretty poor. It seems to me they've expanded so quickly that maintaining any kind of quality control is going to be a problem. Between [wiki info] 2004 and July  2013 they opened 327 CI's worldwide. That's something like three branches a month, solid, for nine years, every one requiring a deal to be struck with a new partner, being opened by an organisation with little to no experience of operating overseas (or really doing all that much at all. Lets face it, before it took over the HSK Hanban was barely relevant).

 

But how have people's actual experiences been. How many of you have taken CI classes, done a CI-hosted HSK exam, or dealt with one professionally? 

 

 

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Ruben von Zwack

Hello, the one in Munich, Germany is professional and flawless, but I believe it is rather old.

Old in the sense of traditional I mean, not run-down.

I remember seeing their advertising for lectures with guest professors - I'm not sure, 10 years ago? 5 at least. They seem pretty active. Another thing they do is organise a language exchange once a month. They offer courses too, but I haven't taken any, just taken the HSK2 and 3 recently, and been to the language exchange.

 

The tests are carried out flawlessly. You can tell they are all professional teachers and have done this many times.

Registration for the test works smooth - you get a confirmation email by them, payment information, and detailed instructions on what to do, how and when to get there and what to expect. A few days before the test they send a reminder and even a phone number for emergencies during that day. You could show up totally unprepared, with just your passport. Everything else is already prepared.

 

I haven't asked numbers, but it seems the number of people who take the test in Munich is quite big. A lot of people come from other towns. So there will be quite a few rooms occupied, many people shuffling around nervously, but they handle all this very well.

 

My only pretty minor complaint would be that the tests are held in some sort of community center - not identical with the Confucius Institute offices - not of the nice sort, so don't expect clean toilets, flower scented soap or any other convenience before and after you take the test. But that's not the CI's fault, I guess.

 

If anyone is in-between two towns and wondering where to go to take the test, I can whole-heartedly recommend Munich. 9 out of 10 stars.
 

Their website:
http://www.konfuzius-muenchen.de/

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alanmd

My local Confucius institute in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada http://confuciusedmonton.ca is extremely well run, although I just found out that they might be in the right tail of the distribution as they were recently named "Confucius Institute of the Year". They flew a guy in from Vancouver for the day to ensure that their first computerised HSK exam ran smoothly. Classes are held at their site in a middle school so the toilets are behind doors labeled 'boys' and 'girls'.

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cellofallon

It is an interesting time to consider the Confucius institutes (CIs).  Since they were first established in 2004 they have expanded to close to 400 institutes across the world in 2013. The question remains of what happens once the initial contract period of five years ends which is the usual period of financial support provided by the Hanban.  It appears in the case of several longer established institutes that the Hanban will continue to support them and provide volunteer and qualified teachers.

 

Discourse on the Confucius Institutes in China has shifted to sustainability -- how to sustain expansion and the support of existing institutes. Besides from the initial help with set up, the Hanban (i.e. the Chinese taxpayer - it is an affiliated institution of the Ministry of Education), will also provide support in terms of textbooks, teaching personnel, scholarships, and grants for teacher-training and inviting speakers. As the institutes expand, this financial commitment also expands. The Hanban is a non-profit institution - no wonder as the outward financial flow is substantial.  

 

The Confucius Institutes are varied in their focus, abilities and success in terms of uptake of courses and impact with local communities.  Some academic articles have indicated that they vary in scope: from large well-organised institutes, to nothing more than a plaque on an office wall or door. Confucius Institutes may share the same name, but their activities and scope varies from place to place. Not only are there CIs that generally teach Mandarin and cultural classes, but there are ones that specialise in areas of tourism, business, theatre etc.  The scope and type of activities the CIs engage with are dependent on the Director's vision as well as the local conditions for the hosting university. 

 

Controversy remains over the CI. The most pertinent criticism is how the presence of the Confucius Institutes affects academic freedom. While no regulations will come from the Confucius Institute to influence or curtail academic staff from the hosting university, self-censorship in order to not upset the Chinese partner or government appears to be the main bone of contention (see for example esteemed academic Michael Sahlins article on this issue http://www.thenation.com/article/176888/china-u). 

 

Finally, an often overlooked aspect is the production of Chinese culture taking place. China has five official languages and a diverse cultural and linguistic landscape. However, the institutes only teach and promote Mandarin (pu tong hua) as well as certain forms of cultural activities (i.e. Calligraphy, Tai Chi, knot-making, paper-cutting). This engages with cultural politics at home which favour Han over minorities, urban over rural and essentialise Chinese culture into a few forms. Some CIs have resisted these cultural essentialisations, but there is yet to be a CI of minority languages or contemporary popular culture. Having these very fixed representations of what constitutes "China" and "CHinese" people" means of course that many other ways of being Chinese are excluded.

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Lu

There is a Confuius Institute in Den Haag (or is it actually Leiden, not sure) and another one in Groningen. Since I got back in April I have kind of met them/been to their events. So far they seen alright. They offer a course for graduated sinologists who want to keep up their Chinese, it didn't look too interesting to me personally but it's nice that they offer. The Dutch texts on their website are adorably off, you can tell a Chinese with Dutch as their second language has put a lot of effort into them.

 

The CI helped fund and organise an evening with author Bi Feiyu (readings from his work, an interview with the man himself) earlier this year, and recently they bussed a group of assorted interested people to an evening of Chinese opera, all for free. (I think there was a preciously small minority of people in that audience who had paid for their ticket. Totally a 面子 situation, but if I'm being bussed to Amsterdam and get opera for free, I'm perfectly happy to give them 面子 in return.) If I had something China-related and CCP-politically correct that I wanted to organise, I'd go to them for money and other resources, because they seem to have a lot of that on offer.

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Meng Lelan

I taught the adult classes at a CI for about two years until they made us teachers use the new curriculum rolled out by the Hanban called 长城. The textbooks were illustrated with cartoonish characters characterized by outsized heads atop miniscule physiques (like the bobblehead toys that used to be the rage in the 1980s). The texts are completely sanitized with no mention of anything controversial or political whatsoever. Cultural notes are extremely brief and sketchy. Then the adult enrollment started dropping like crazy and of course the admin blamed me, so they brought in new teachers in the hopes the adult enrollment would be revived by a "fresh approach" (their words). Adult enrollment then plunged down to zero. The enrollment among children has stayed steady though they use the Better Chinese curriculum which is ok. 

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abcdefg

I had a teacher a few years back in Kunming who became a teacher at a Confucius Institute in Michigan. They offered him what seemed to me to be a good deal. In addition to his salary, they would cover the cost of his obtaining his masters at the host university. It was more or less a "work/study" opportunity for him.

 

He was happy there the first year, but after that we lost touch, so I don't know about now. He said there were unofficially different "levels" of Confucius Institutes in the US, with some being older, bigger, and more vigorous/ambitious.

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alanmd

Great Wall Chinese as published in 2012 doesn't have any bobbleheads. I didn't see any political content, but it would be difficult to imagine an HSK 2 or 3 textbook having that. It seemed a pretty good basic textbook to me, I don't remember any of the other adult learners expressing any particular love or dislike for it, and in the two classes I took the quality of the teacher was far more important than the textbook.

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Meng Lelan

Which CI were you at? The one in Canada? The bobbleheads were in some of the editions before 2012 and the companion website had a button where you could toggle between bobbleheads and (more realistically proportioned) figures in the dialogues. 

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Baron

The London one at SOAS is a bit weird. It could be coincidence, but they're often closed and sometimes they get a bit funny when they answer the phone, refuse to take a message, say they'll call back but don't. They seem alright at administering the HSK.

 

I had a couple of meetings some of the staff of the CI at LSE in London. They were pleasant, social and easy to talk to. I'd be interested to know what the are like for courses and working with.

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FadedStardust

The Confucius Institute at Portland State University in (shocker!) Portland, Oregon seems very professional. I've never personally taken classes with them but I know others who have who say they're great for speaking practice (though perhaps not much more). They host cultural lectures in English with a "Chinese Language Hour" prior to that each Friday as well.

 

I was actually pleasantly surprised when I showed up at their office to register for the HSK and was immediately greeted and talked to solely in Mandarin (they didn't even ask, the lady started with a 你好 and the conversation just flowed from there, when I showed up in their office they didn't know who I was or why I was there) which is different even from other places I've gone where Chinese learners go to interact with Chinese people (both locally here in Portland and in China) where they'll assume English first and only speak to you in Mandarin when you ask them to. I can see why to some learners who haven't been studying Chinese for long (or are completely new to the language and wanting to register for their first beginners course through them) this might seem somewhat intimidating but to me, I actually felt like for once - and perhaps for the first time - my white skin didn't automatically make them see me as someone who couldn't possibly have any knowledge of the language (an attitude I got even at the University I studied at IN China!!)

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Meng Lelan

That sounds like a unique and wonderful experience FadedStardust. I wish I could be at a place like that. Portland is quite cosmopolitan and progressive from what I know about the city. The one here ironically has a Mandarin-unfriendly environment. 

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FadedStardust

That's too bad, Meng Lelan. Your experience with the textbooks sounds horrible and it seems they treated you quite poorly.

 

I think ours is one of the longer established Institutes and our sister-city relationship with 苏州 where 95% or more of the people who work there are from is quite strong. The fact that it's the only place in our state where people can take the HSK means most of the people in Oregon and probably southwest Washington as well who are serious about Chinese (and that number is only growing, it seems like I meet lots of random people on the street who are learning Chinese these days) probably pass through their doors at some point probably helps the situation.

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Meng Lelan

Actually that's my general experience with San Antonio, not just the Confucius Institute but also the public schools here, in other words, an general experience that I would not call desirable. Working on getting out of here though. 

 

Something else too about Portland the public schools have immersion elementary programs for Russian, Japanese, and Chinese. That's rare to see all three in one city. Hope that someday I can come by Portland to visit and learn something from your Confucius Institute and the Chinese immersion schools there. 

 

Looks like your CI is truly award winning:

http://www.pdx.edu/confucius-institute/news/psus-confucius-institute-named-one-best-united-states

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