USF Student Wins Chinese Competition

Victor Florez captures the coveted win after just four semesters of studying the language.

By Barbara Melendez News Writer


TAMPA, Fla. (June 17, 2010) – Most people would be daunted by three minutes’ worth of a tongue twister in their native language, but for a bi-lingual American to do so in a third language – Chinese – goes beyond extraordinary.


But University of South Florida Honors College sophomore Victor Florez did that and more to become the winner of the 2010 Chinese Bridge Competition for College Students in the southern U.S. region in Houston, TX. A high school student from USF’s Confucius Institute also placed in the high school competition.


Florez emerged as one of 10 winners from preliminary competitions held at the region’s 10 Confucius Institutes. Their Chinese language abilities were tested in three parts – a prepared speech, answers to questions about Chinese culture and a display of talent. That tongue-twisting feat plus a speech about his experience in the USF Learning in the Culture Program, and answering a difficult question about the stone grottoes in the Gansu Province of Dunhuang, put him over the top.


What makes his win all the more remarkable is that Florez is only in his fourth semester of studying Chinese and he was competing against students who have been studying the language much longer. 


Florez will represent the Houston region in China this summer competing against winners of other regional competitions around the world. Ten Confucius Institute programs in eight states comprise the region under jurisdiction of the Houston Consulate. There are 64 Confucius Institutes in the United States and 300 worldwide in 78 countries.


Rigorous preparation was the key to Florez’ success. He participated in last year’s Chinese Learning in the Culture Tier I Education Abroad program at USF and is in China completing the Second Tier and had excellent support. Visiting Professor Xiaomei Zu and Chinese Professor Eric Shepherd helped him perfect his speech. 


“This fantastic showing speaks to the outstanding leadership and innovative approach to teaching Chinese language that Professor Eric Shepherd has shown,” said Amanda Maurer, director of USF’s Education Aboard program which coordinates its programs with a variety of departments, faculty directors and professors. “Having studied a non-traditional language, in my case, Russian, I know how long it takes in the average university language program to acquire enough to be able to speak. Through Eric’s on-campus and education abroad programs, he has made it possible for students to become fluent at the end of their four years. This is very unusual.”


King High School sophomore Jessica Cummings brought distinction to the USF Confucius Institute with her third place win in the Chinese Bridge Competition for High School Students.  Her speech was about her experience learning Chinese and she dazzled the audience with her martial arts talents.


“It is a significant accomplishment for someone who has been learning Chinese for such a short time and is a great honor for our Chinese program,” said Shepherd, referring to the work being done by the Department of World Languages and the USF Confucius Institute, which is only two years old.


“I grew up speaking mostly Spanish and English in school so I arrived bilingual my freshman year at USF,” said Florez, who is from Miami by way of Colombia, South America.  “It takes a lot for me to consider myself able to speak another language, and although I am still at the intermediate level, I am sure that I will go up a level after the tier II summer program.  I never thought that I would be able to do so much in such a short period of time, but Dr. Shepherd's teaching methods have proven me wrong and I believe can inspire other Chinese teachers and foreign language teachers in general.”


Shepherd doesn’t make it easier to learn Chinese; he adds a dimension that makes learning more effective.   


“The approach we use to teaching Chinese is unique because of the way it focuses on the higher goals of both linguistically accurate and culturally appropriate use of language, at the same time it focuses on developing the ability to effectively interact in Chinese culture,” he said. “It is a very demanding approach that sets a much higher target than traditional foreign language classes and programs have. Our goal is to get USF students to a professional level of proficiency in Chinese in their four years with us. We want them to be able to walk away from USF prepared to immediately contribute to an organization using their Chinese language skills.”


To do this, students must develop a new set of communication and cultural skills. 


“We accomplish this through a performance-based regimen, which simply means that our students rehearse performing in commonly encountered contexts found in Chinese culture again and again until they internalize the language and behaviors associated with those contexts,” Shepherd said.  “It is a form of mimetic learning, or learning by doing, in which students develop the ability to use what they are learning in classroom simulations of real life situations. The idea is to develop a memory of how to do particular things that can be called upon once in that situation in the real world.”


Interspersed with periods of classroom learning at USF are intervals of practical use of Chinese – in China, an approach built into the curriculum.


“Students rehearse what they will encounter in China during their first year at USF before traveling there for Tier I of the Chinese Learning in the Culture program,” said Shepherd.  “The seven-week intensive program there is focused on helping students internalize what they have learned at USF.”


There are currently 18 students at Ocean University of China whose trip was organized in collaboration with the USF Education Abroad program and the Confucius Institute.


Students move to a more sophisticated level of interaction during the second year of performance-based instruction at USF before returning to China for Tier II of the program.  That 10-week intensive learning and internship program readies them for more complex interactions.


“The participants apply their new Chinese skills in real work situations in Chinese companies or government organizations,” Shepherd said. 


Florez is one of 11 students in China at Qingdao University completing this phase of the program.  A third year of performance-based learning leads up to the students’ capstone Tier III experience, which is a full year living and learning in China. The very first group of students to reach this level begins this fall.


“All of our in-country portions of the program utilize a peer learning model in which USF students live with Chinese roommates and take classes with Chinese counterparts who work with them to continue developing their language and culture skills,” Shepherd said. “They are community-oriented, which means that they are geared to involve our students in local community activities that utilize their emerging Chinese skills, so much of what they do takes place outside the classroom in the course of doing everyday things.”


Florez moves on to his Tier III capstone experience in the fall and so will remain in China for another year.


Barbara Melendez covers the arts and sciences and can be reached at 813-974-4563.