Q&A: Meditation for Chinese Language Learners | MIT News
With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the well-being of students has become an urgent issue for many instructors. In this interview, Panpan Gao and Kang Zhou, Chinese teachers at MIT Global Languages, discuss their plan to produce original meditation videos suitable for Chinese learners. Together with a team of collaborators, they launched their Meditation for Chinese Learners website. The team has just received funding from MIT’s MindHandHeart Community Innovation Fund to further expand the project for the next academic year.
Question: What was the inspiration for this project?
Thumper Gao: I had the idea before the pandemic even started, but after the Covid-19 hit, I saw the stress everyone was going through. I noticed in class that some students seemed to have a huge emotional burden, but they didn’t talk about it during class. It got me thinking if it’s possible to create a ‘third space’ through a second language, for students to combine language learning with pressure relief, so learning a second language doesn’t add no more pressure, but rather helps them cope with existing pressures.
Question: What is the connection between language learning and meditation?
Kang Zhou: It is important for us, as language teachers, to create an immersive language environment for our students. At MIT, we strive to provide our students with various opportunities outside of the classroom to use the language and interact with Chinese culture. The meditation project serves both purposes, and is therefore accessible to students. They can be in their dorms, on our campus, next to Charles [River], or at home. As long as they start the video, they can enter a colorful Chinese learning world with a rich embedded culture. We tell our students to just relax, enjoy and let the learning take place naturally.
Gao: Meditation has become popular in recent years, and there are more and more meditation materials available in different languages. But this project is the first attempt, to our knowledge, to combine meditation and learning Chinese. The scripts are suitable for different skill levels so that even beginners can begin to enjoy meditation in Chinese. In addition to improving language skills, this project helps students appreciate the beauty of the language by feeling its rhythm. The project also shows the possibility of using a different voice – a foreign language – to relax, think, heal and find inner peace.
Zhou: Teachers can sometimes ignore the anxiety felt by students. Learning a language is very difficult. What we are trying to explore is to help learners reduce their anxiety levels through meditation by immersing them in the second language, so that they can face their study and life in general with a healthier and more positive attitude.
Gao: We live in an age of information explosion and meditation is like a âpause buttonâ in our busy lives. It allows us to slow down, look at ourselves and find peace. It helps us get along with the people around us and with ourselves. For me, as a native speaker of Mandarin, meditation in English is a unique experience. Using a second language can sometimes get you into a whole different “thought bubble”. It will also strengthen your sense of security and belonging to the second language and culture.
Question: Was it particularly difficult for a beginner-level student to write?
Gao: We had to restrict the vocabulary and grammatical structures for beginners, but at the same time, we wanted the language to be natural and authentic. It is not easy to find a balance. We have tried to integrate emotions and points of view in simple language, in order to create a powerful context that leaves room for the imagination. For example, in âFun in the Snow,â which can be used right after learning some phrases about the weather, we created a scene inside a cozy cafe on a snow-covered mountain, and the script says : âWe sat there watching the snow for a minute, two minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutesâ¦â Using very limited words, we are able to guide our beginner level listeners to experience âliving the worldâ. ‘present time “. Another example is color. In âA Horse on the Grasslandâ we try to convey the idea of ââdiversity and inclusion by saying, âYou can be a red horse, or a black horse, or a white horse. No matter what you are, you are free.
Question: How did the students react to the material?
Zhou: I started using these meditation materials in my Chinese class this spring. When the students seemed tired or under a lot of pressure, we used the last five minutes for meditation. From my own observation and feedback, they really enjoyed the process. I hope all of my students can walk out of my classroom with an inner peace and healthy attitude that can help them deal with the pressure in school and even outside of MIT in their own lives. A student told me that meditation sometimes helps them sleep. I’m happy to learn this, because at MIT students need a good sleep.
Gao: We have a script for advanced students called âA Ride on a Time Machineâ where we describe a scene in a traditional Chinese house, with the grandfather drinking tea in the courtyard with his grandson sleeping in his arms. . Details are added – like the Chinese characters on the front door, the tea set on the table, the grandfather wiping off the child’s sweat – so listeners can walk around the house and experience the happy life of a big family. After listening to the recording, a student said, “I saw the vast blue sky in the yard and it made me feel really at peace.” Another said: âI feel like I’m part of the picture, like I’m the sleeping child, and it was my grandmother holding me in her arms. It made me feel warm and safe. I think mediation is like a cultural journey where students deepen their understanding and appreciation of Chinese families and at the same time find inner peace.
Question: Panpan, I understand that you initiated the project, but the materials are produced by a team of collaborators. How does the team work?
Gao: I am mainly in charge of proposing the themes and writing the scripts. After writing a script, the whole team will read it and make adjustments to make the sentences more natural or to make sure the script is at the correct level of difficulty. Kang is in charge of the vocal work. Once Kang finishes recording, the whole team will listen to him and share ideas about editing, such as what background music to use or what sound effects to add at any given time. Zixian Peng is our âsound engineerâ which is great because he has both language teaching experience and audio editing expertise. He is currently a graduate student in Beijing and taught Chinese at Williams College and Middlebury Chinese School. It mainly takes care of reducing noise, eliminating verbal blunders, and adding sound effects, as well as background music. Yanting Li, who previously taught at MIT, is our media manager. Yanting Li works at Northwestern University as a Chinese teacher.
Question: Kang, why is voice work important for meditation videos?
Zhou: When I read the scripts, I hope to send peace, warmth and attention to the listeners. They need to see inside themselves and find their own breathing pattern, so my role is a âguideâ. I hope that with good use of my voice, we can guide our listeners through the time and space created in the script. Then they can forget about me and focus on communicating with themselves, and finally, find their real selves.
Question: Is the project in progress?
Gao: We publish a new video every week. We are currently working on the third theme âAnimalsâ and are starting the next theme âSpringâ in May.
Question: Can you leave us an excerpt from one of your scripts?
Gao: Sure. Here is the English translation of a few lines of “A Horse on the Grassland”, a meditation script for beginners:
Now you are no longer you. You are a horse, a horse in the meadow, a free horse in the meadow.
You run happily and freely on the green meadow.
You can be tall or short.
You can be very young, or you can be old.
You can be a red horse, or a black, or a white
Whatever you are, you are free.