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HELEN T. LIN (MARCH, 29, 1928 – APRIL 6, 1986)

Helen Lin’s Formative Years

Born in Hongzhou, Zhejiang Province, Helen Lin moved to Beijing (Peiping) as a child when her father, a Chinese philologist and scholar of ancient bone oracle writing, accepted a teaching post there. During Helen’s adolescence, she and her family fled to Xian to escape increasingly dire circumstances in Beijing due to the Japanese occupation and WWII.  Her family moved to Taiwan in 1947 with the appointment of her father as chairman of the Classical Literature Department of National Taiwan University (NTU). In 1950, she graduated from NTU with a degree in agricultural economics, where she conducted research and taught until 1954. She married Andrew W. Lin (LIN Wen-chan) in 1953.

Helen Lin, Educator

Establishing a Teaching Career in the US: Helen Lin at Yale University

In 1957, after Helen’s husband assumed a position at Tunghai University in Taichung, she secured a position at the United States Foreign Service Institute (USFSI) Language School in Taichung, where she taught Chinese until 1962. Hugh M. Stimson, the Assistant Director at USFSI, had deep ties to Yale University and encouraged Helen to teach at Yale’s Institute for Far Eastern Languages (IFEL).  While at IFEL, she worked on Henry C. Fenn’s “Speak Mandarin,” a leading textbook for teaching Chinese.   This marked the beginning of her enduring professional interest in the systematic presentation of Chinese grammar, building upon the pioneered work by Gardener Tewksbury and Fenn.  Helen’s continued commitment to this approach of teaching Chinese later earned her body of work the appellation “Instant Grammar.”

Working with Henry C. Fenn, the original architect of Yale’s Chinese language program, Helen’s co-authorship of Speak Mandarin Workbook (Yale University Press, 1967) was significant.  She became one of a few native speaker teachers viewed by leading American authorities of Chinese language pedagogy at that time as capable of teaching Chinese syntax in a systematic and methodical way.  The prevailing view during that era was that native Chinese speakers were best employed not to explain linguistic features of Chinese, but as “drill masters” to conduct repetitious practice with students to strengthen their pronunciation, speaking ability, and listening comprehension.

Building a Chinese Department from the Ground Up: The Wellesley College Years

In 1966, Helen Lin assumed a position as Lecturer at Wellesley College to start the College’s Chinese language program, with funding from the Edith Stix Wasserman Foundation.   Initially, only elementary and intermediate level Chinese were offered, as “extra departmental” courses. Helen personally created all the teaching material used for each class.  These materials became the basis for the Chinese character version of the textbook Speak Mandarin (Yale University Press, 1969), to accompany the Student’s Workbook. 

In 1970, through the support of Helen’s colleagues at Wellesley, the Chinese Program became the Chinese Department.  Helen was its Chair, with tenure-track status as an Assistant Professor.  Course offerings by then ranged from Introductory to Classical Chinese.  Interdepartmental and Individual Majors in Chinese Studies and East Asian Studies were established, with Helen and Professor Paul Cohen of the History Department as co-directors.  In 1976, the Chinese Department created a Teaching Assistant position for non-native speaking graduates who learned their Chinese at Wellesley, to serve both as a role model and a “drill master” for undergraduate students. 

In the 1980s, Helen led the effort to hire native speakers from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), believing their life experience more than compensated for the absence of academic credentials from American universities.  These teachers brought with them current Chinese expressions and usage much richer and more relevant than could be found in existing textbooks.  They also provided students with insight into life in China when the opportunity to travel to, or study or work in PRC was still extremely limited.  Demand for Chinese at Wellesley College (including exchange students from MIT) grew rapidly, and by 1986 the Chinese Department had eight faculty members and offered twenty courses, including Chinese Culture, Chinese Literature in Translation, Expository Writing of Revolutionary China, China on Film, and 20th Century Chinese Literature.  In addition, introductory level Chinese courses were held at nearby MIT by Wellesley faculty.

From 1980 to 1982, Helen Lin held the William R. Kenan Jr. Professorship, a rotating honorary professorship that recognizes individuals who have distinguished themselves both as scholars and as teachers, particularly those involved in undergraduate teaching.  Helen was awarded the Pinanski Teaching Prize honoring excellence in teaching posthumously in 1986.  In 2001, The Wellesley Magazine named Helen to the “faculty pantheon” in celebration of the College’s 125th Anniversary.

Immersive Intensity and Creativity: Summers at Middlebury College

From 1972 to 1976, Helen Lin was also associated with Middlebury College Chinese Summer School.  Her first year, she taught Second Year Chinese; the following year she became Director of the Chinese Summer School and served in that role until 1976.  Helen was well known, especially at Middlebury, for her “Instant Grammar” tutorials that helped students tackle the more daunting aspects of Chinese syntax.  Instant Grammar was the germ that grew into her book Essential Grammar for Modern Chinese (Cheng & Tsui, 1989).  For Helen, the highlight of each summer session at Middlebury was “China Night,” when students took to the stage and performed -- in Chinese – original material they created over the course of the summer session.  

Teaching Chinese to Bridge Cultures

Throughout her life as a teacher, Helen firmly believed that successful language learning is predicated on understanding the language’s social and cultural context.  Further, with that cross-cultural understanding, a non-native speaker can achieve a command of that language equal to native speakers.  Helen strove to put this conviction into practice and instill it in her students at a time when China was isolated from the United States and much of the West, and still perceived as “inscrutable.”

Accordingly, Helen advised her students to take courses in history, religion, political science, and art history and become either East Asian Studies, History, or Chinese Studies majors, instead of focusing solely on language learning.  She did not want to train for superficial fluency, but expected her students to speak Chinese with an appreciation of Chinese culture and what makes China an important country on the world stage.  Likewise, she emphasized that mastery of Chinese is more than the scholarly pursue of parsing texts and translating documents.  Helen stressed self-expression through speaking and writing in Chinese, supported students who felt so inclined to write a research paper or thesis, or perform on stage, in Chinese.  She encouraged her students to aspire to communicate in Chinese with insider fluency.

Pathbreaking Pedagogy

Early in her career, Helen overcame the predominant bias in US academia that while native speakers of Chinese might have an innate understanding of their language, they were not capable of systematically elucidating the deep underlying syntactical structures of the language.  Thus, Helen’s co-authorship of Speak Mandarin Workbook was truly a milestone. Prior to her untimely death in 1986, Helen completed Essential Grammar for Modern Chinese, a book she considered the culmination of her life’s work.  Planned as both a textbook and a teacher training tool, Essential Grammar provides “a quick and comprehensive overview of the sentence structures of modern Chinese grammar for students who have already had one year of Chinese.” 

She created teaching assistant positions for non-native speakers at Wellesley – and to a limited extent at Middlebury.  These not only blurred the boundary between domains historically assigned to native and non-native speakers, but also provided her students experience in an immersive Chinese language environment at a time when PRC was still off limits to students from the US.  Teaching Assistants were able to work with both native speaker teachers and learners of Chinese, while assessing their own interest in pursuing Chinese further.

At the same time, Helen recognized the contribution of native speakers to Chinese language teaching as the embodiment of culture practices and social attitudes that keep a language alive and evolving.  She made every effort to hire teachers from post-Cultural Revolution China, teachers whose formative years were spent in the PRC. Several of these teachers were children of Westerners who grew up in China and while culturally Chinese, were not ethnically Chinese. She valued not only their life experience, but also their linguistic expertise in terms of new expressions and terminology, new usage, and the intonation of Putonghua (PRC Mandarin) they brought to their teaching.  The Chinese language textbooks commonly used in American universities at that time often reflected a variant of Chinese either found outside of mainland China or frozen in time from before 1949, or both.  

Other Accomplishments

Helen Lin served on the Executive Board of the Chinese Language Teachers’ Association (1972-75), where she chaired the nominating committee (1973-74), and consulted to multiple high school language and educational travel groups in the Boston area.  From 1979-81, with a grant from the William R. Kenan Foundation, Lin traveled to China to conduct extensive surveys on the evolving language. Hosted by The Central Academy for Nationalities, she shared her pedagogical methods with over 60 Chinese specialists and visited senior faculty of the Chinese literature and language departments at 14 major universities to exchange ideas about teaching Chinese. 

These efforts led to the establishment of a Wellesley language program in China and at least four updated publications reflecting Helen’s pedagogy and her vision for bringing the U.S. and China closer together: Essential Grammar for Modern Chinese, published by Cheng and Tsui (1981); “Survey of Commonly Used Expressions of People from Various Walks of Life in the People’s Republic of China” through the U.S. Center for Applied Linguistics (1982); Beginning Standard Chinese in two volumes, published by Beijing Foreign Languages Printing House (1988); and Speaking about China (话说中国) in two volumes, co-authored by Lin and DU Rong (杜荣) and published by Foreign Languages Press (1985).

In 1971, when Nixon made his historic trip to China, Helen Lin directed a full-scale production of Sun Rise by China’s great 20th Century dramatist Cao Yu, with a goal of unifying the Boston-Cambridge Chinese community. It was performed in Cambridge, MA, and New York.  In 1984, Helen was enlisted by the US State Department to equip Ronald Reagan with bridge-building proverbs when he traveled to China.

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