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Q&A: Meditation for Chinese language learners

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, student well-being has become a pressing issue for many instructors. In this interview, Panpan Gao and Kang Zhou, lecturers in Chinese at MIT Global Languages, discuss their project to produce original meditation videos tailored for Chinese language learners. Working with a team of collaborators, they launched their website Meditation for Chinese Learners. The team has just received funding from MIT’s MindHandHeart Community Innovation Fund to further expand the project for the coming academic year.

Q: What was the inspiration for this project?

Panpan Gao: I had the idea even before the pandemic began, but after Covid-19 hit, I saw the stress everyone was under. I noticed in class that some students seemed to have a huge emotional burden, but they wouldn’t talk about it during class. This made me think whether it is possible to create a “third space” through a second language, for the students to combine language learning with pressure relief, so learning a second language is not adding more pressure, but rather helping them deal with existing pressures.

Q: What is the connection between language learning and meditation?

Kang Zhou: It’s 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 it is so accessible to the students. They can be in their dorms, on our campus, by the Charles [River], or at home. As long as they start the video, they can enter a colorful Chinese learning world with rich culture embedded. We tell our students to just relax, enjoy, and let learning happen naturally.

Gao: Meditation has become popular in recent years, and there are more and more meditation materials in various languages. But this project is the first attempt, to our knowledge, to combine meditation and Chinese language learning. The scripts are tailored for different proficiency levels so even beginners can start to enjoy meditation in Chinese. In addition to improving language skills, this project helps students to 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, to think, to heal, and find inner peace. 

Zhou: Teachers can sometimes overlook the anxiety students experience. Learning a language is very challenging. What we are trying to explore is to help the learners decrease their level of anxiety through meditation as we immerse them in the second language, so they can face their study, and their lives in general with a healthier and more positive attitude. 

Gao: We are living in a time of information explosion, and meditation is like a “pause button” in our fast-paced lives. It allows us to slow down, take a look at ourselves, and find peace. This helps us get along with people around us, and with ourselves. For me, as a native Mandarin speaker, meditation in English is a unique experience. Using a second language can sometimes bring you into a completely different “thought bubble.” It will also strengthen your sense of safety and belonging to the second language and culture. 

Q: Was it especially difficult to write for a beginner-level student?

Gao: We needed to restrict the vocabulary and grammar structures for the beginners, but at the same time, we wanted the language to be natural and authentic. It is not easy to find a balance. We tried to embed emotions and viewpoints in simple language, in order to create a powerful context that provides room for imagination. For instance, in…

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