Interview with Better Chinese's James Lin
James Lin’s first ACTFL Conference in 2005 was a lonely time. The foot traffic to his booth for his company, Better Chinese was light. 11 years later, over 1100 ACTFL attendees are offering Chinese to their students. Better Chinese is thriving.
I catch up with Lin —where else?— on a California highway near his office.
“We are inquiry-based and student-centered,” he says. “Connecting language learning with Chinese learners’ lives and concerns. That’s the magic sauce that keeps us successful.”
Engaging pedagogy is baked into the company’s DNA. Lin’s in-laws founded Better Chinese in Hong Kong in 1997 to help children of expatriate families learn Chinese. Better Chinese learning centers helped children acquire and use the Chinese language through fun and engaging activities and stories, unlike traditional rote memorization.
Through a Harvard Business Plan competition, Lin relaunched Better Chinese in the US in 2005. Now, they work with over 1,800 schools from kindergarten through college, including Punahou, Philips Academy Andover, Stanford, all the immersion schools in Delaware, etc. He felt most gratified that they currently serve schools in Orange County, California where he grew up.
“The focus is always making learning accessible, relevant, and meaningful,” says Lin. “Proficiency is the ultimate goal. To be able to use the language and be functional in that language is what we envision all of our students will be able to do. “
“Education is changing. Learning doesn’t just happen in the schools but also outside of schools. We see various modalities for learning, whether it’s with school or self-directed. We envision that our learning Apps coupled with teachers, online or not, can offer another outlet for students that want to learn Chinese in areas where Chinese is not offered in schools. The key is to help students realize that they are learning meaningful skills.”
That’s when Better Chinese and Avant Assessment came together.
“Avant is great. It provides a summative measure of the real-world language skills. After learning on Better Chinese’s system, students are able to know exactly where they are on the proficiency spectrum. So, they know what they can do,” says Lin. "In addition, students can be recognized for their efforts through the Seal of Biliteracy."
“If you have put in the effort to learn Chinese, you deserve a medal to prove it,” says Lin.
Better Chinese has stayed a step ahead of the dizzying changes in the Chinese language field over the past twelve years. James Lin intends to keep it that way.
“Partnering with Avant,” he concludes, “is going to help us reach the next level.”