Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

5 insights from the first year of a master’s program in Taiwan

I have now completed my first year in 華語文教學研究所 (Graduate Institute for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language), a program which is primarily aimed at native speakers, but that also accepts international students. The institute is part of National Taiwan Normal University and is located in Taipei, Taiwan. This is an important milestone for me personally, but since Hacking Chinese is about learning Chinese rather than about myself, I refer curious readers to the article on my personal website.

NTNU4Obviously, studying in this kind of program for an entire year is bound to have taught me enough things to write several books about it. This is indeed the case, but rather than trying to do that, I will instead share with you some of the things about learning Chinese that I have realised or understood in more detail during this year.

Hopefully, this will be useful for people who plan to take academic courses in Chinese, but it should also be interesting for learners in general. Here we go!

1. Academic courses are good for instrumental learning

First and foremost, taking academic courses in Chinese in a program you care about more than superficially is a great way to learn. Sure, language schools might look similar, but I still think the situation is entirely different. The official goal with this program isn’t to teach you Chinese, it’s to teach you how to teach Chinese to others. In other words, they assume that you already know Chinese quite well and won’t make an effort to teach you the language itself.

This means that you’re more or less on  your own and you need to use your Chinese to really communicate that you have understood what’s going on in the classroom. This is done through oral presentations, written exams, papers and essays of various kinds. The huge difference between language school assignments is that most teachers don’t really care about your language as such as long as you’re making yourself clear and can show what you have learnt. This is real communicative learning, not the fake stuff ambitious teachers (including myself) try to create in classrooms.

2. Beyond communication, the responsibility is entirely our own

The flip side of this is that if you do care about being correct or expressing yourself eloquently, you’re more or less entirely on your own. Teachers will seldom take the time to correct your grammar, word usage or pronunciation and if you want to improve, you need to do this on your own. This is mostly because the program isn’t about teaching you Chinese at all really and is mostly designed for native speakers. Sure, there are resources you can use (such as a course to improve pronunciation), but it’s up to you if you use theme or not.

The best way to keep on improving is to ally yourself with native speakers who can help you. The goal here is to be able to focus on form (as opposed to function) even if you don’t have to. For instance, even if you know that you would probably pass with an essay containing several language errors and no-one would say much about it, if you ask a classmate, friend or hired teacher to check your writing and presentations, you can improve your Chinese at the same time. Obviously, if you spend a huge amount of time just staying alive in the program, it might be hard to focus on improving your Chinese at once, but this is still the best thing to do if you can manage.

Naturally, just staying alive in the program will improve your Chinese in many ways, primarily listening and reading ability, I’m just saying that if you want to keep developing your Chinese beyond the ability to communicate accurately, you will need to spend time on your own.

3. Having Chinese-speaking classmates is awesome

Speaking of classmates, I must say that having twenty or so native speakers around day after day is quite awesome, especially since most of them are interested in languages in general and teaching Chinese in particular. The possible benefits of exchange here are vast. You know much more than they about learning Chinese (you’ve done it as an adult, they haven’t), while their language level is probably miles above your own.

If you study in other academic programs, I’m sure you still have things to offer your Chinese classmates. Just having them around means that most social communication will be in Chinese and that you have lots of people to ask for help. Having native-speaking classmates around further adds to the sense of realness, i.e. that now you’re actually using Chinese as a tool rather than studying as a goal in its own right. Instrumental learning again.

4. Chinese grammar is a wild and fascinating beast

I went into this program thinking that I had a pretty good grasp of Chinese grammar. I was wrong. When I say grammar, I don’t mean that I thought that I knew all the sentence patterns there is to know or anything like that, I’m talking about deep structure grammar that underlies how Chinese works at a fundamental level. Before entering this program, I had mostly read practical grammar books aimed at advanced students or teachers. Diving below the surface turned out to be a very interesting experience indeed.

The tricky thing with grammar is that when you point to a specific sentence structure or word usage, most native speakers (including many teachers) will just say “that’s the way it is, learn it” or “A here is the same as B”. This is very seldom the case. Of course, language is arbitrary to large extent, but sometimes there are amazingly simple rules that govern seemingly very complex surface patterns.. If it’s “just the way it is”, how come this other pattern is so similar? If two expressions (A and B) meant exactly the same thing, why are there two expressions and not one? I will write more about grammar later!

5. True interest conquers all

The main thing to consider if you plan to pursue an academic degree in Chinese (taught in Chinese, not necessarily about the Chinese language) is to choose a subject you’re really interested in. If you don’t, it will be extremely hard. Apart from coping with learning the actual content of your courses, you’ll need to struggle with doing all this is Chinese. Of course, some subjects are less language-heavy than teaching, but apart from your courses, you will also have to manage your life in an academic setting, dealing with bureaucracy, understanding your curriculum, communicating with teachers, staff and classmates. And so on. This is hard enough, you need to be motivated to get through.

Even though I’m quite interested in most of my courses, it’s obvious that I’ve done a better job in the courses that deal with my favourite subjects. The grades don’t always match, but from a personal assessment, I have performed in a manner directly proportional to how much I like the subjects. Naturally, this is again part of the greater truth that having fun isn’t something to joke about; it’s truly essential.


All in all, I’m very satisfied with my first year. I think pursuing an academic degree taught entirely in Chinese is a really good way of learning the language. It’s even better if you have the time and the discipline to keep focusing on your own learning on the side, but even if you don’t, the complete immersion environment with a very high minimum-effort level is bound to make wonders for your Chinese proficiency.

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  1. Scott says:

    I’m glad that the degree has worked out so well for you. Out of interest what would you recommend as a good guide to Chinese grammar? Perhaps something that has explanations of sentence patterns as well as many examples. Also something that perhaps provides rules for Chinese grammar. What sentences are possible and what are not. etc

  2. David Feigelson says:

    Why is teaching grammar so important,Olle? I thought grammar was intuitive (“That’s just the way it is.”). If you are teaching second-language learners something that is intuitive for first-language speakers, you are deviating from some natural language acquisition process, don’t you think?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Well, the problem is that it takes enormous amounts of time to acquire that natural feel for a language. Giving students a few hints here an there so that they know what to focus on in their listening and reading is essential. I know I would have understood some concepts much, much quicker if I had had more teachers who actually understood grammar.

  3. Sara says:

    Great post Olle! As you know, I study the same major so anything you write about your studies are extremely interesting for me.

    I study with other foreigners, but last semester we only had one language course left (综合), other courses were all about how to teach Chinese. I’ve been thinking of continuing with the masters if I can get a scholarship. Most of the courses will be with other foreigners, but those foreigners always speak Chinese with each other, just like I’m doing with my classmates too.

    It’s even better for you as you hear your classmates speaking native Chinese all the time. And as you said, they can help you in many ways.

    I think the way for me to continue learning Chinese is to learn something else in Chinese (perhaps masters in teaching Chinese).

    Basically I was just nodding my head while reading this post! 🙂 I think what you’re doing is a great inspiration for us advanced students who want to continue the journey in mastering Chinese.

  4. Sara K. says:

    I am looking forward to those articles about grammar 😉 You got me curious.

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