Learning about China by learning its language

Among MIT students who didn’t grow up speaking Chinese, few are able to discuss “machine learning models” in passable Mandarin. But that is just what computer science and engineering senior Max Allen is able to do, and this ability comes as a result of academic work, stints abroad, an internship, and also just having the passion to learn Chinese.

With China a growing economic powerhouse and leader in STEM, it is no wonder that more and more students are attracted to studying Chinese. Nationally, enrollments in Chinese classes are up, as they are at MIT.

But for Max Allen, his interest was first piqued by a teacher’s visit to his eighth-grade class. Intrigued by the sound of the language and structure of the writing system, Allen started taking Chinese classes in high school. To him, learning the language was akin to a big puzzle whose solution is slowly revealed. And since Allen has always been fond of puzzles, he wanted to pursue this.

After only two years of high-school language study, Allen spent his 11th-grade year living with a host family in Beijing and attending school through a program called School Year Abroad. Allen returned to the United States able to converse in Mandarin, and also more adept at fitting in culturally. He found that living with a family gives you a level of familiarity with people that is hard to achieve otherwise.

Chinese has gradually occupied a greater and greater area of interest for Allen. Upon entering MIT, he decided to pursue a major in computer science and engineering (Course 6-3). After discovering that he could take Chinese to fulfill his humanities concentration requirements, Allen took Chinese V and VI, building on the work he did in high school. Even among MIT students who are known for high academic achievement, Chinese Lecturer Tong Chen noted that Allen stood out for his effort and seriousness.

The more classes he took, and the more time he invested, the more Allen began to consider how Chinese might be part of his future academic and career paths.

In spring 2018, Allen took “Business Chinese” as an elective concentration subject. Business Chinese helped Allen understand social dynamics and subtleties of social relations in a business setting in China, including how these express themselves in language. As Panpan Gao, the instructor of Business Chinese, explains, the pedagogical approach of the class emphasizes case studies: “Through case studies of multinational companies and introductions to crucial business issues in China, we try to help students better understand Chinese business culture and trends, and expand their language skills so that they can communicate effectively and professionally with Chinese speakers in the workplace.”

The class really got Allen thinking about whether he might want to pursue jobs that would employ his knowledge of Chinese.

Allen put his Chinese skills to good use the following summer. He took an engineering internship with Airbnb — on a team with a special focus on mitigating financial fraud coming from China. The team was mostly made up of Chinese nationals, and team members generally discussed work matters in Mandarin. To do business in China, the team would need to understand how to market the product to Chinese customers; how to build a secure platform; and how to build payment applications that are in line with expectations of Chinese consumer. This experience gave Allen a hands-on taste of the complexities of functioning in a Chinese business context.

After the internship, Allen realized that to take his Chinese to the next level, he would need to put aside other academic pursuits for a period and spend more time studying the language in an immersive Chinese-speaking setting. He spent academic year 2018-2019 abroad studying Chinese: the fall in Taipei at the International Chinese Language Program of National Taiwan University, and the spring in Beijing at the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies at Tsinghua University. Both programs are top Chinese language centers in the world and are intensive instructional programs with hours of work a day devoted to learning Mandarin. He particularly appreciated the intensive focus on conversation.

While abroad, Allen found that when he ventured to out-of-the-way spots, he encountered curiosity from strangers who were less accustomed to seeing tourists. But when he demonstrated he could speak Chinese, people warmed up. “Speaking their native language helps to establish trust and rapport, which is important when they see you as just another outsider. But once a certain level of trust is established, people become more comfortable talking about meaningful things. And that’s where the time investment of learning the language really pays off.”

Now back at MIT for his senior year, Allen is considering how his multiple interests in computer science, international business, Chinese language, and cross-cultural communication skills might combine into a career path. The answer will take some time to untangle, but Allen is always up for the challenge of a big puzzle, and will remain open to the possibilities as he heads toward graduation.