john [dot] liang [at] biola [dot] edu
Dr. Liang: I am originally from China. I grew up speaking three languages in China: Mandarin, Hokien, and Cantonese. As for foreign language, English was my first and Japanese my second. (I have to say, though, I can now speak only a little Japanese.)
I came to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies a year after I graduated from college. I received a B.A. in English from Jinan University, Guangzhou, China, and I received an M.A. in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania. In 1997, I obtained a Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education with a concentration on TESL from the University of Texas at Austin.
Soon after I finished my doctoral studies, I joined University of California, Riverside and supervised the university’s ESL program in the Learning Center. I joined the MA TESOL program at Biola University in 2001, and have ever since then been doing teacher training in TESOL.
Ana Wu: In one of your workshops, you said that Chinese people would compliment on your English and ask why you did not go to an MBA program. How did you respond to this compliment? Why did you decide to become an educator?
Dr. Liang: While in graduate school in the U.S., many of my Chinese friends complimented on my English communication skills. Some of them couldn’t understand why I would pursue studies in English rather than seek training that is more practical, like an MBA degree. I don’t blame them. For many of my Chinese friends, they didn’t choose their field of studies because they were interested in it or were passionate about it. Rather, they chose it because it could easily help them land on a job. At that time, many of my Chinese friends chose either business or computer science – whether they liked it or not.
For some time, I was really seriously considering changing my career choice as well. I had a lot of doubt of my credibility as a non-native speaker of English. In fact, many of my friends laughed at me when they heard that I was studying English. Their comment, though not friendly at all, sounded realistically correct! Why would an ESL program hire a non-native speaker of English to teach English? One day, a very close friend of mine, who was also an administrator of an ESL program, confided that if he had an interview with me on the phone, he would hire me right away since he could barely detect any sign of non-native accent. But if it was a face-to-face interview, he would hesitate since my skin color had betrayed my true identity – I am not a Caucasian.
While I was thinking about switching to pursuing a business degree, I received a postcard from a past student of mine in China. In the postcard, she said that at their graduation party a classmate of hers commented that I was her only best college instructor in her four years of studies and she really benefited a great deal from my classes. That postcard was a timely note of encouragement. As I revisited my decision to come to the U.S. for graduate studies in English and language education, I found renewed strength. I came because I wanted to be better trained in the language and language pedagogy so I could return to be a better language teacher. That postcard marked a turning point in my teaching career and teaching life. It affirmed my passion! At the same time, I remembered another encouraging comment by a young Canadian English professor I enjoyed in one of my college English classes back in China. He wasn’t really religious, but in one of his class meetings, as he explained the difference in meaning between the two words, “confidence” and “faith,” he commented that one shall live by faith – with a belief in something that is invisible but you know is there – rather than live by sight, such as by confidence as a result from knowing that you are for sure capable of doing something. I guess I made a decision to choose the English teaching career with a conviction coupled with my passion – I believed I could be a good English teacher that can benefit many even though I am not a native speaker of English.
Ana Wu: You came to the US for an MA in English, with a BA in English and Literature from China. As a graduate student, was it difficult to be accepted by the people surrounding you - Chinese and non-Chinese students and professors? Did you constantly find yourself changing roles and identities in order to be accepted among peers? How?
Dr. Liang: I am indebted to an American professor who taught me in college in China for her influence on my perspectives on cross-cultural identity. I remember one day when I told her on the phone that I was going to see her in her hotel room (at that time all of our English professors from America or Canada were given a studio in a university-owned hotel). To my surprise, she said that was her home. I said that her home was thousands of miles away in Chicago, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, but to my further surprise, she commented, “Where I’m, that’s my home.” So, when I came to America, I said to myself, “This is going to be my new home, so I will need to learn to be an American in my professional life – while I will continue to remain Chinese in my private life.”
Also, as I had already been a bilingual when I came to America, I felt that a bilingual or multilingual and multicultural spirit would help me rather than inhibit my career development. So, in school, I was very open to making friends with my American classmates and with my international classmates from other countries, i.e. from Turkey, Palestine, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Japan, Korea, etc. I enjoyed spending time with them during the breaks and during the weekends.
However, it was interesting that while many of my Asian classmates were fine with me socializing with my international friends, some of them were upset that I got too close to my American classmates. One day, a Thai doctoral student came to me warning me not to spend too much time with my American classmates since, in her words, we are Asian not American. Ironically, one time I overheard a conversation between two of my Japanese classmates. The older student in her forties warned the younger one in her early twenties not to be too close to other international students and American students. While somewhat upsetting, these two incidents actually strengthened my belief in multiculturalism. As a teacher trainee, I needed to be open to different cultures as this would only enhance rather than inhibit our classroom teaching and it would increase my intercultural sensitivity as well as my intercultural understanding. So, I continued to socialize with both my American classmates and international classmates.
Ana Wu: You have been very active in the teaching field and professional organizations, specially taking leadership roles at the California - TESOL organization (CATESOL). Having served on the CATESOL Board in various capacities, what advice would you give to graduate students who seem themselves as NNES and want to pursue a fulfilling career as an ESL/EFL instructor?
Dr. Liang: As a language teacher, our teaching world is not confined within the classroom walls. Instead, it extends way beyond the classroom. This means while our students do represent an immediate teaching and learning community, as teachers, we are also members of a much larger community: a community of professionals that have the same kind of passion for the well-being of students. Therefore, connecting with this larger community is crucial to our professional growth. It will not only inspires us with new pedagogical perspectives but will also deepen our commitment and sustain our spirit of service.
Ana Wu: As an associate professor of Applied Linguistics and TESOL, training international graduate students, NNES and NES, what are the things that you do (if any) to address the needs and concerns of the international and NNES students? Why?
Dr. Liang: In my classes, I have both NES and NNES graduate students. While they have different needs, I don’t treat them differently in the sense that they both need encouragement, genuine care, and investment. When they are down or disoriented, or showing lack of confidence, timely encouragement helps them see their strengths in the positive light. Aside from verbal encouragement, your demonstrated passion for what you are doing represents another dimension of encouragement. Your sharing of your personal development and professional growth often makes good narratives that will renew their strengths and confidence. Furthermore, making yourself available beyond the office hours breaks the wall between the teacher and student, and creates a trusting relationship that enables them to be open to your advice and guidance. Last and perhaps the most important, invest in them. This can be accomplished by providing feedback on their work, spending time counseling them, offering advice on their classroom teaching and research projects, and guiding their preparation for professional work such as conference presentations. True investment motivates them and strengthens their determination to take on challenges. All in all, developing a trusting relationship with them is crucial to fostering their growth as a professional language teacher. These are the main principles I adhere to when I interact with our graduate students.
Ana Wu: Thank you for this interesting interview!