AT the center of a nationwide English language learning program in China is ``Professor Mary'' (first names being surnames in China). San Diego State University English professor Mary Edel Denman developed and videotaped 46 hours' worth of English lessons that have made her instantly recognizable to millions across China - the programs air nightly on prime-time TV. How did this soft-spoken Scandinavian type come to hold such a pivotal role in the lives of a quarter of the world's population? ``Well,'' Professor Denman responded modestly in a recent interview here, ``when I was returning home [after a summer 1982 program at Wuhan University in central China], my Chinese colleagues said, `We hope you'll return.'''
``I wasn't at all sure about doing so,'' she continued, given the heat and humidity of midsummer there. But when she had an opportunity to take a sabbatical the next year, she asked to research the teaching of English in China. Her work resulted in a surprise invitation to return to China this past May to prepare the videotapes now being broadcast by satellite.
Each hour-long lesson is broadcast on two consecutive nights. The text used for the course is available throughout China; each lesson runs about two pages. Typically, Denman reads aloud the current story-lesson from the text, then repeats it with paraphrasing. She previews the accompanying questions and linguistic points, anticipating and explaining difficult parts. Before the story-lesson is presented the following evening, students are to read and study it themselves, writing out a pr'ecis and responding to the questions. They also write a short composition based on the story. During the lesson's rebroadcast, they check their work. The course provides a semester's work.
Denman, along with two colleagues, had traveled to Wuhan University in July 1982 to inaugurate an exchange program. The three San Diego State professors spent nine weeks at the university, making contacts and developing a faculty and student exchange program. All three taught classes in English.
Among Denman's assignments was teaching a reading class of 170 undergraduates. It was a particularly demanding class - physically as well as mentally. ``A battery of fans whirred overhead,'' Denman recalls. ``I taught from the stage, a microphone in front of me, and the students sat in fixed rows of contiguous desks and chairs.''
Since the Chinese consider it disrespectful to ask questions of professors during class, Denman queried the students instead. She knew that, although they were well versed in grammar from their high school English classes, they had difficulty understanding spoken English because they had never been taught by a native speaker. At first, following an oral lesson from the British-written text, she would ask, ``Do you understand, yes, no?''
Within a couple of weeks, at her invitation, the students began to ask questions. These fell into roughly five categories, including student customs, academic matters, US life and customs, comparisons between Chinese and US life, and personal questions. A poignant example, Denman recalls, was: ``In the US, do many students learn Chinese, as Chinese students learn English?''
Another method Denman combined with question-and-answer periods to foster the class participation necessary for learning a language was teaching her students American folk songs. Learning the songs, she says, not only broke down students' shyness, but it also helped their rhythm and pronunciation and gave them insights into American culture.
Later, during her sabbatical year, she had an expanded teaching role. This included consultation at all levels of English instruction, from elementary school on up, and a live-television reading class for 1,000 second-year students.
Because of the great demand for the live-television reading course, Denman videotaped a three-semester series of 60 English lessons (120 hours' worth), now used in 16 other Chinese universities. The intermediate-level course generated such interest and enthusiasm that, early this year, when China's Education Commission asked for prototypal programs to teach American English on a nationwide basis, Wuhan University submitted Denman's tapes.
The Commission spent thousands of hours viewing and listening to samples from all over China, and selected Denman's. But the tapes that worked well for closed-circuit college classroom viewing required upgrading in technical quality for satellite broadcast. For Denman, this meant four weeks of 16-hour workdays in front of the cameras back at Wuhan to complete 46 lessons and correlative study materials.
The lessons are available to all who tune in to the nightly satellite broadcasts throughout Asia, including English learners in Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. The primary target audience is China's English teachers. But Denman's precise enunciation and measured pace, which so impressed evaluators at Peking, also provide an admirable model for students struggling with the phonic difficulties of English.
Denman's colleagues and students speak of her with respect and with love. Wuhan University president Liu Daoyu, who recently visited San Diego after a cross-country tour of American universities participating in exchange programs with China, commended her ``working spirit,'' remarking on her ``profound understanding of the major difficulties in English studies of the Chinese English learners.''
Geography Professor Elmer Keen and speech communications Professor Stephen King, the San Diego colleagues who went to China with Denman in 1982, express equally high regard for her approach. Both men attribute Denman's continuing popularity with the Chinese to her dedication. As King puts it, ``What distinguishes Mary is her willingness to work. She's always been one to give more than to take.'' Keen remembers how quickly she established rapport with her large classes. ``She enjoys teaching so much, and she's innovative. Why, she even had them singing `On Top of Old Smokey.' And they loved it!''
Perhaps most significant, though, are the feelings of Denman's former student Jin Qiao, who attended all of her English classes at Wuhan, and is now a graduate exchange student and teaching assistant in chemistry at San Diego State. ``At first we were afraid,'' recalls Miss Jin. ``We knew that American and Chinese education were totally different. We were not supposed to ask questions.''
Jin Qiao's face radiated warmth and affection as she summed up her learning experience in Denman's classes at Wuhan: ``We learned not to be afraid to write and speak the English we had been learning to read in high school. She was so nice. She'll always be my teacher.''