How do you take learning a new language, like Chinese, and make it accessible, relevant and fun? If you’re Claudia Ross, professor of Chinese in the modern languages and literatures department, you think start by — literally — writing the book on grammar. And you include a dumpling party or two.
In her 33 years at the College of the Holy Cross, Ross has dedicated her time to not only developing the Chinese program from the ground up, but engaging students and making lasting impressions through her classes. It makes sense, then, that she was awarded the 2019 Donal J. Burns ’49 Career Teaching Medal from the College, given annually to an exceptional faculty member who has devoted their life to teaching at Holy Cross.
Margaret “Maggie” Hannick ’23, who has not decided on her major, has been impressed by and fascinated with Ross — even though she’s taking her Intermediate Chinese course with another professor. The two sat down for a lively conversation about the intricacies of linguistics, the challenges of learning a foreign language and the intangible benefits of immersing yourself in a new culture.
Hannick: When were you first introduced to Chinese?
Ross: I went through four majors before I found the major that I loved, linguistics. The only hesitation I had in choosing that as a major is that it required you to study three different languages: one European, one classical and one modern non-Indo-European language. And, frankly, there weren’t that many choices. So I just thought, ‘All right, I’ll study Chinese.’
Hannick: What led you to continue studying it?
Ross: I had already gotten into linguistics enough so that when I started studying the language, I understood what was under the language. I knew why things were organized the way they were. And that was really exciting to me. I thought, ‘I’ll do another year.’ So I did another year and then I learned that there was an opportunity to go to Taiwan.
It was there I realized that if you were immersed in a language, you learn it; not just for a grade on a test, but to think in the language. And that opens up everything. It opens up all these conversations with people. You understand how people think, and then they can explain things to you if you’re wrong. And it was thrilling.
Claudia Ross. Photo by Avanell Brock
Hannick: We’ve discussed before that Chinese is such a shift for us because we are native English speakers and Chinese has no verb conjugations, no past or future, no gender and so on. So it really does shift your mind and make you think in a different way. How do you balance that now that you are both fluent in Chinese and teaching it?
Ross: For me, one of the exciting things about learning Chinese was understanding that languages have different ways of expressing things. I don’t teach linguistics in a language class, but it’s something that I try to get students to understand. You have these relationships and so this is how we’re going to express it in Chinese. And then there are some things — and you’ve already discovered this — that you just can’t say very easily in one language that you can say so easily in another.
Hannick: I feel, for Chinese, the more you know, the more you know. It gets easier.
Ross: Yes, definitely.
Hannick: One of the things I love are the cultural events on campus where I can learn more about the language. How important are things like learning how to play Mahjong or having a dumpling party? Can you speak a little more to that immersion and being in the culture?
Ross: Cooking, I think, is one type of immersion that is very effective for the students who are interested in the culture.
When I first started, we had just 36 students the first year. We’d have an event a couple of times a year, in which students would come up and they’d cook food. We’d make dumplings, we’d make all kinds of things and everybody was enthusiastic about cooking and nobody ate the food. So we started making an authentic dish that you almost never see in an American restaurant called Shizitou — it’s a meatball made of pork or beef and steamed in cabbage. The American students liked that — they recognized it as a familiar food.
Hannick: One quick anecdote — in high school, I used a book that you wrote about Chinese grammar. And so my grammar knowledge all came basically from you and my high school used it for all four years.
Ross: That’s really neat!
Hannick: What a small world. So, what are the things that stand out in your years here?
Ross: One of the things I think every professor will tell you is that there’s a connection you make with students. And then years and years later you’ll get an email out of the blue and it’ll say, ‘Do you remember me?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes, of course I remember you.’ And people will tell you what they’re doing and sometimes they’ll come through Worcester. Anyway, that’s just fun. I think that’s the kind of thing that happens if you’re teaching at a small liberal arts college where you get to know the students.
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