For the past 15 years, Chuanren Ke has built a resume at the University of Iowa that many professionals would envy – initiating and directing UI Institutes, chairing a UI department, and many years of teaching and researching. Though Ke could boast about his success, he said he does it all for one reason – to educate Iowans about China.
Ke’s research and teaching has been focused on Chinese language and culture as the director of the UI’s Confucius Institute and professor in Asian and Slavic languages and literature. He also directed the UI Center for Asian and Pacific Studies and he headed the UI department of Asian languages and literature for four years.
“People in this country … their knowledge of China is very limited,” Ke said. “There is a bipolar world revolving between the U.S. and China and whether or not the process is peaceful will depend on our knowledge of China.”
In 1993, Ke came to the UI with a Ph.D. in linguistics from Indiana University and a year of teaching at the University of Oregon under his belt. He said officials were looking for someone to coordinate the UI’s Chinese language program.
Over the years, Ke has worked to strengthen Chinese education and most recently, the 54-year-old received a three-year, $230,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation for a research project focusing on Chinese as a second language.
“It sheds light on an area most Americans don’t know much about,” said Downing Thomas, associate provost and dean of UI International Programs, of Ke’s research. Ke will conduct research at universities across the United States and China to find out how Chinese as a Foreign Language proficiency is gained at various times and settings of learning. A total of 1,200 students will participate in the study.
“Chinese is a truly foreign language -culturally and linguistically,” Ke said. “Our knowledge of how our students acquire the language is actually limited.”
The Shantou, China native said he hopes the research data will help develop standards for language learning and the results will also help show what kind of student would benefit from study abroad programs.
Although Ke will be spending time researching soon, he is still focusing his attention on the Confucius Institute. Dr. Ke became the founding director of the Confucius Institute in 2006—one of the first in the nation. His international reputation as a leading scholar in Chinese second language acquisition was the decisive factor in Hanban’s choice to base the Confucius Institute at The University of Iowa.
The Confucius Institute’s signature program is teacher training and research. “[Knowing a foreign language] is a good thing to have to understand the culture,” Ke said. “It’s important for us to know more about China.”
Ke recently wrote a proposal to Hanban – an office under the Chinese Ministry of Education that establishes Confucius Institutes across the globe – in hopes of continuing the program for another five years.
“[Ke] brings visibility to both International Programs and the University of Iowa with his distinguished research record,” Thomas said. “[I hope the Confucius Institute] expands opportunities for people both at the university and in Eastern Iowa in general.”