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5 Minutes with Darwin Tsen

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Department: Modern Languages
Title: Assistant Professor
Best Office Artifact: Student-made Pikachu door decoration

Professor Darwin Tsen strives to create a connection with his students. As a professor of modern languages, he finds the use of American pop culture beneficial when helping his students learn a new language.

We sat down with Professor Tsen to discuss how he transitioned from teaching literature and film to teaching Asian studies, Chinese, and Japanese. 

How did you get into teaching language?

Like many other language instructors, I’m a self-taught language teacher. My doctoral focus was in comparative literature and Asian studies. I first started teaching at age 24 during the second year of my master’s program. The department at SUNY Binghamton gave me an opportunity to set up a class of my own. At the time, I had no idea how my class would fit into the curriculum, so I gathered a series of books that I had read throughout high school and undergrad that I thought would be worth teaching. Fast forward about three years and I was doing my doctoral work at Penn State. They were in need of a Chinese teacher and asked if I wanted to give it a try. I had been teaching literature and film, so I decided to try something different. As a native speaker of Chinese, I already had an advantage, so while I wasn’t cocky, I was confident that I could do it. 

How did your teaching in literature and film influence your teaching in language?

Because I teach literature and film, I try to keep up with things that not only I’m interested in, but what students would potentially be interested in. I can’t keep up with everything current — I’m not sure I’m willing to listen to all of Cardi B’s work in order to be able to crack a few jokes, but I’ll catch up on Marvel Universe or what popular books students are currently reading. My familiarity with those things creates a reference point for students to latch onto within the language class. 

How do you push students beyond their comfort zones?  

It took me many years to be comfortable with students’ silence. When we do Q&A’s or communicative activities, I have gotten more comfortable letting students inhabit that silence and let the language come to them. I’ve also started to encourage students to communicate freely, disregarding grammatical and pronunciation difficulty or mistakes to make them feel comfortable using the language. We do correctional activities later. By letting myself be comfortable with the language output, I am pushing them out of their comfort zones. You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable when learning a foreign language. 

• • •

“You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable when learning a foreign language. Fear is the only thing you have to fear.”

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What are the challenges you face when teaching a foreign language?

I am a native speaker of Chinese and English, so a lot of this comes naturally to me. It takes a lot of empathy and patience to understand what foreign language learners of Chinese will be going through. It pushed me to think about more effective teaching strategies for particular types of grammar other than explaining and drilling them. I’m still working on being able to put myself in the shoes of the students who are not heritage or native speakers and better understand their difficulties.

What is your favorite class to teach?

Right now, it is the new catalog course I proposed when I came to Carthage in 2017, Chinese and Japanese Language and Literature. The last two times I taught the course the module was focused on the interactions and relationships between Chinese and Japanese literature from 1920-1950. This fall I’ll be teaching it with an emphasis on urbanism and contemporary Chinese and Japanese content. It has a lot of great conversations and challenges. It’s my first baby here. 

What are some hobbies you have outside of teaching?

I play video games, practice guitar, collect vinyl records, and hang out with my cat. I just tinker with the guitar as it is a great release. I don’t think my playing has improved in the last ten years and that’s okay.

What advice do you have for students going into the Modern Language department?

Fear is the only thing you have to fear. More than learning the foreign language itself, learning languages allows you to learn the discipline of learning. You can practice habits that will not just benefit your language learning but will benefit your ability to navigate different knowledge disciplines. Really think about building a method that you can start in the two semesters that are required. Learning a foreign language will benefit all other avenues of your life.

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