A faculty member examines how we learn language—especially Chinese—and why it matters.
Long before China became an economic and political powerhouse and host to the 2008 Olympics, Michael Everson knew that neglecting Chinese language and literature was foolish—perhaps even fatal.
“If you look at where American bodies are buried since, say, 1945, there’s almost a direct correlation to areas we don’t teach in school,” says Everson, an associate professor in foreign language education in the University of Iowa College of Education. “Why is it we always seem to be fighting people we don’t learn about? Doesn’t that tell us something?”
Everson has dedicated his entire career—two careers, actually—to helping illuminate how we learn language and why it matters.
“I think America has to decide how it’s going to educate its young people, and I believe we have to train them to be global citizens,” Everson says. This means teaching students to understand other countries, cultures and, especially, languages.
In some ways, Everson’s entire life has been dedicated to this goal. His father served in the first and second world wars and brought home Japanese codebooks, dictionaries, newspapers and other artifacts from his World War II service in the Pacific. As a boy, Everson would rummage through his dad’s stuff, asking what it was and what it meant.
“I was very curious, and when I would start to see Chinese and Japanese people in my surroundings, they looked very different and they wrote differently,” Everson says. “I’ve been interested in Asia ever since.”
Everson’s Oak Park, Ill., high school offered an Asian history class that sealed this interest. “After I took that course, I can honestly say that the pattern for my life’s work was set,” he says, adding that he still corresponds with the course’s teacher.
Everson received a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, where he earned a master’s degree in Chinese literature. In 1970, he traveled to Taiwan and studied for a year at Taiwan Normal University.
At that time in the field of language studies, there were really only two educational tracks to pursue—linguist or literature specialist. “What we now call Second Language Acquisition or language education was simply not done,” Everson says. “The state of the art had not yet developed in these fields.”
Upon completing his master’s, Everson wanted to see the world. So after a stint teaching English in Japan, he joined the Air Force, embarking on a 21-year military career that took Everson and his family to Australia and Korea. Most of his work involved military intelligence and air defense.
He later taught Chinese at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The military also funded his return to graduate school, and in 1986 he received a PhD in foreign language education from Ohio State University.
While at Ohio State, he befriended fellow scholar and current colleague Leslie Schrier, who encouraged him to consult on an ambitious initiative— the Iowa Critical Languages Program, a combined effort by the College of Education and UI language departments training Russian, Chinese, and Japanese teachers for high schools.
While working on the program, Everson learned of a UI position that matched his interests and expertise. He joined the Iowa faculty after his 1994 retirement from the Air Force and has spent the last 14 years pursuing his second career as a scholar.
Everson’s primary research interest is exploring how Western students whose first languages employ alphabetic writing systems learn to read Chinese. Most research in this area has focused on university-level students.
“It's exciting to think of the research opportunities that will avail themselves if Chinese is introduced to elementary, middle, or high schools,” Everson says. “We will gain a rare glimpse into how literacy skills develop among children and adolescents learning to read languages that involve two qualitatively different writing systems.”
Everson was one of the first scholars internationally to study Chinese second-language reading through empirical research. “Many that have followed me have told me that my research studies and the way I've conducted them have been very influential to their work,” he says, describing this contribution as both humbling and gratifying.
Though a scholar of Chinese language almost his entire career, Everson didn’t visit mainland China until 2007.
“I’ve always studied China from afar and over a longer trajectory,” he says. “China has gone on that super trajectory of engaging us in a very different way, and will continue to do so.”
Story by Lois Gray; Photo by Tim Schoon
July 7, 2008