Learn how a couple from China are improving their English together at Speak! – and absorbing lots of local culture in Charlottesville!
ESL students Wenwen Ding and Robin Ziang are self-described foodies — or as they’d put it in Mandarin, chi huo — saying some of their favorite haunts in Charlottesville are Feast!, Bodo’s, and City Market. According to their teacher, Liz Launer, this is one thing that makes them stand apart. Like many of her Chinese students, she says, they are disciplined and hard-working , dedicated to their own learning. But Wenwen and Robin are unique in the way that they have thrown themselves into American life and made a conscious commitment to experience life in America as fully as they can. Wenwen and Robin enjoy hiking in the mountains, picking apples at Carter Mountain Orchard, tending a plot in a community garden, working out with a personal trainer, and sampling the local food culture.
The two students met as freshman 13 years ago at Remin University in Beijing, China, where both received their undergraduate degrees in law (equivalent to a U.S. law degree). Wenwen then began her graduate studies at the U. of Pennsylvania, followed by a two-year stint in an immigration law office in Philadelphia. Robin meanwhile began his graduate studies at Cornell. Both had stayed in touch with each other through the years, and in 2014, as Wenwen was starting her studies in the SJD (Scientific Juris Doctor) program at the University of Virginia School of Law, they started dating. A year later, Robin joined her in the program, and they got married.
They found a unique and challenging program at UVa. “The UVA Law school SJD program is quite different from other law schools,” says Robin. “In our first year, we had to complete 24 credits, which was eight classes.” He adds, “All of the American students work hard. [But] for us, if we want to catch up to them, we foreigners have to work twice as hard, at least.” The SJD is equivalent to a PhD in Law.
Both are now working on their dissertations. Wenwen’s, a comparative study of the labor union movements of the U.S. and China, focuses on labor law history. Robin’s research centers on how the U.S. and China regulate non-bank lending to households and small enterprises. Reaching the dissertation stage led the couple to consider their English abilities, particularly their presentation and writing skills. The question was, as Robin says, “How to make a big improvement in a short time?” The answer they came up with: “We wanted to invite a professional native speaker to be our teacher.” Says Wenwen, “When we realized that we needed to take English learning very seriously, we decided to find an English tutor. Then we did a lot of research and found that Speak! Language Center has excellent customer reviews and highly trained teachers. We determined that Speak! is the best place in Charlottesville to improve our English.”
“The biggest challenges for me are how to speak and write in clear and efficient ways,” says Wenwen. “I have a lot of opportunities to practice my English at Speak! Language Center. The lessons I am taking with Liz have equipped me with the skills of expressing myself more clearly and efficiently.”
Because English/ESL lessons at Speak! are customized to fit each student’s needs, Robin and Wenwen have been able to arrange a program that fits their busy schedule and helps each of them meet their individual goals. For Wenwen, weekly meetings with her teacher provide her with valuable feedback as she is writing the first draft of her dissertation. For Robin, the goal was to do a thorough review of English grammar and to improve his vocabulary by keeping a “reading journal” that he reviews weekly with his teacher. Both students work individually and then meet together with their teacher to work on refining their pronunciation skills.
“I know it’s almost a cliché to say this – but as a teacher, I learn as much from my students as they do from me,” says Liz Launer. “And students like Wenwen and Robin are such an inspiration.” Wenwen and Robin both hope to become law professors in China after their graduation. Their eventual return to China is an added incentive to improve their English. As Robin notes, “For most international students in our program, after graduating, they will return to their home countries. I think we all have to face the same judgment from most of our relatives, friends, and colleagues: they will think since we have studied in America for many years that our English should apparently be perfect. Well, the fact is, as we know, lots of Chinese–even if they have lived in America for many years–still have a low-level English ability. There is no exemption from hard work, so I think that international students need a scheme to improve their English ability! And I think Speak Language Center has given me this kind of help.”