Christy Lieu (left) and Jeff Cornelius (in costume) rehearse a play in their Chinese language class. Students are receiving extra attention this year because of the addition of Fulbright instructor Ma Xinxin, a teaching assistant from China.


Learning English was a pleasurable task for Ma Xinxin. However, the opportunity to teach Chinese to others, she says, is just “cool.”

Xinxin came to UAB in August from Beijing as a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA). The UAB Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures competed nationally for the opportunity to host a Fulbright FLTA – and getting a Fulbright teaching assistant from China is rare for an institution.

The FLTA program aims to strengthen foreign-language instruction at American universities by bringing teachers like Xinxin to teach students their native language. China’s emergence in the global market is a primary reason for American students to master the language, a skill considered necessary by the U.S. government to advance national security and global competitiveness.

The FLTA program also is designed to benefit the teaching assistants, enabling them to refine their teaching skills, increase their English-language proficiency and extend their knowledge of the cultures and customs of the United States.

Xinxin says an added benefit is she gets to have a little fun – especially when it comes to expanding her knowledge of English.

“Hey y’all – that’s one of the first things the students here taught me,” Xinxin says. “They also taught me ‘Peace out.’ I don’t use it, but it’s fun and interesting to know.”

Xinxin, 25, received her bachelor of arts in business English and her master’s in foreign linguistics and applied linguistics at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. She was an instructor of English at the Beijing university for the past year.

Her role here includes helping foreign-language instructor Lily Yang teach academic Chinese classes, leading Chinese conversation tables and founding UAB’s first Chinese Language Club for students. She is the faculty advisor to the group.

“She’s a valuable resource for all of us,” says Sheri Spaine Long, Ph.D., chair of Arts & Humanities. “I think it’s really fun for the undergraduate student to experience someone like Xinxin because the students that work with her get exposed to current youth culture in her country.”

Learning English

Chinese is considered a Level IV language – one of the more difficult languages to learn. Xinxin knows it’s not an easy language to grasp.

“Many students have problems with tones especially,” she says. “Chinese has many tones and, of course, the writing of the characters is so different.

Pronouncing tones and writing characters probably are the most difficult things about Chinese to learn.”

However, for Xinxin, learning English was easy.

English is the second language offered in almost all Chinese schools, from elementary to college. Xinxin also is an avid reader and honed her English skills reading novels.

“I like foreign novels better than Chinese novels,” she explains. “I like Oscar Wilde. I like his dramas and his plays. I read American writers, too. And I really like Death of a Salesman.”

Xinxin is one of only 40 Fulbright scholars from China this year, and this is her first trip outside of the country. Coming from a place like China to Alabama for your first taste of America might be a culture shock for many, but that hasn’t been the case for Xinxin. She says everyone at UAB has made her transition extremely smooth.

“People here are quite nice to me,” she says. “I think that’s why I don’t feel lonely and miss home that much. Also, my work here keeps me busy. I see many people and do a good bit of work.”


Teaching students


As part of her Fulbright duties, Xinxin must complete community service tasks in addition to teaching. She’s done some volunteer work with two local law firms and did the voiceover for a commercial that one local business will air in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics.

“It’s been interesting to see some of the unusual requests that we’ve been able to respond to because we have someone on staff this year for Chinese that assists the community as part of her job,” Long says.

Of course, Xinxin’s main responsibility is teaching students. The push in the language community is building language capacity due to the needs of the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of State and the business community. Chinese and Arabic are the two most sought-after languages, which means the Fulbright program is particularly interested in placing instructors who can teach those languages.

Long says adding someone like Xinxin to the staff enhances the educational opportunities of students in the department. The department focuses on providing as much one-on-one instruction in Level IV languages as it can. Students can schedule appointments with Xinxin to gain valuable experience they may not get in a traditional class setting.

“When you can pull a student out of class for even a 10-minute oral interview, it just ups the amount of practice they get conversationally per week,” Long says. “It’s more than just tutoring. It’s giving them more opportunities to have intimate contact with the language and culture. It accelerates the language-acquisition process by giving the UAB student multiple opportunities in a week to work one-on-one with the teaching assistant.”

Long says Xinxin has worked out so well for her department that she’s hoping to increase the number of Fulbright teaching assistants for next year. She would like to bring in another teaching assistant from China next fall – especially since the department is in the process of adding a minor in Chinese – and, hopefully, another teaching assistant that speaks Arabic. “We would also like to bring two more from destinations unknown, if we can afford it.”

In the meantime, Xinxin will continue to teach students and learn some new English phrases. She says she’s already looking forward to next semester. She only hopes the spring doesn’t go by as fast as the fall did.

“I don’t want to be done with UAB so quickly,” she says. “I’m enjoying the experience here.”