In this article, I will continue the story of how I learnt Chinese. In previous parts, I have already talked about why I started learning and what it was like to study Mandarin in Sweden. After the first year, I moved to Taiwan to continue learning.
This post is part of a series; here are the other parts:
- Where it all started
- Learning Mandarin in Sweden
- My first year in Taiwan (this article)
- My second year in Taiwan
- Returning to Sweden
- Graduate program in Taiwan
- Teaching, writing, learning
Going to Taiwan
This meant learning in an immersion environment combined with fairly traditional language lessons. This brought me into contact with a whole new range of issues with language teaching as done in the Chinese-speaking world. As a result of this, I started experimenting more on my own and learnt a lot about how to compensate for the weaknesses in courses and curricula.
The decision to continue to study Chinese in Taiwan was mostly a coincidence. My teacher in Sweden forwarded a note about a scholarship (the Huayu Enrichment Scholarship) and I applied for it without really expecting either to get it or to continue studying Chinese. When I actually received the scholarship, I sort of had to go. You don’t turn down the offer of studying a language for one year with most costs covered.
I spent the first semester at 中華大學 outside 新竹. All Taiwanese who hear that ask the same question: Why? It’s a young university with a technical profile and completely unknown for their language centre. The truth is that I went there because they were one of the few institutions who really cared about me.
You see, when I applied for the scholarship, I had missed the fact that I was also supposed to have applied to a university, which I hadn’t. I had to do that really fast. I sent e-mails to all institutions on the official list. Most didn’t even bother to reply. Out of the few that did, 中華大學 was the only one that seemed to care about each individual student. This seemed important, so I went there.
Arriving in Taiwan was overwhelming, but mostly in a positive way. All things practical went very smoothly, and I received great help from the university. The biggest chock was language, which I touched upon in the previous article. To summarise, I could say a few things, but found it impossible to understand what people said. I understood perhaps 50% of what was said in class. My classmates had studied for about as long as I had, but mostly in Taiwan, which makes a huge difference.
Even though I think spending a few months at 中華大學 wasn’t so bad, it became apparent towards the end of the first semester that it wouldn’t work in the long run. I was the only full-time language student in my class, and spent perhaps five times as many hours as they did per week learning Chinese. I was far behind when I started, but felt that things had already become too easy when Christmas neared.
Another problem was that our classes were held in the evening, which meant it was very difficult to find native speakers to socialise with; I had time during the day when everybody worked or went to class, I was busy when they had time off. I needed a bigger language centre with more options and other people who took learning as seriously as I did.
For various reasons, my choice fell on 文藻外語學院 in 高雄, Taiwan’s second-largest city located in the south. 文藻 is a language college with a bigger language centre and filled with native students interested in languages.
While this provides a better learning environment in general, larger institutions also come with some problems. Each student matters less, and it’s less likely that they will make exceptions for you or accommodate to your needs in general. At 文藻, it still worked, but I had to push for it a lot harder.
For example, after taking the placement test, I was placed in a class which focused on the third book in the 遠東生活華語 (Far East Everyday Chinese) series. This was probably accurate in the sense that it was roughly on par with the course I had taken the previous semester. However, the whole point of transferring to 文藻 was that the pace was too low! I realised quickly that I had to do something to avoid the same problem occurring again.
I discussed the issue with the responsible teachers at the school and basically asked them what the most difficult class they had was, then asked to join it. They flatly refused (and rightly so). I then asked what the second most difficult class was and asked if I could join that one instead. They said no. I pleaded a bit and asked at least be allowed to try it. They said okay, but that I only would be allowed to stay if the teacher agreed.
All my classmates were more or less fluent in Mandarin, whereas I still had to struggle both to understand and to express my own thoughts. However, I had both the time and the motivation necessary and stayed afloat throughout the semester.
I was allowed to stay, and although I didn’t catch up with my classmates who were simply too far ahead, I learnt an incredible amount of Chinese. I was miles ahead of the people who stayed in the class where I was originally placed. I’ve written more about this in Is taking a Chinese course that’s too hard good for your learning?
Social life and language learning
Learning in a classroom is not enough, even if the classroom is located in a Chinese-speaking environment. Most language schools are fairly traditional and stay close to the textbook, focusing a lot on reading and vocabulary. Even though I spoke a lot in class too (small class size is a blessing), that was far from enough. I limited my use of English to about once per week when I played role-playing games with a group of other foreigners. The rest of the time I spent with native friends, language exchange partners and foreign classmates whose Chinese was a lot better than mine. I also practised some sports, such as diving, which meant I got to know native speakers who were far from campus, both literally and metaphorically speaking.
I think this approach was just right for me; I benefited a lot from the difficult class I was in, but the danger was of course that I had skipped a lot of more elementary language that I now had to cover on my own. This is not difficult if you have the time to spend, but can result in an advanced but narrow competence if you’re not careful.
Most of the time with native speakers was spent on simply talking about things, mostly unrelated to my textbooks. An interest in languages was also a great common denominator between me and the Taiwanese students, which meant it was fairly easy to make friends.
Lessons learnt from my first year in Taiwan
So, what did I learn during this first year that other students can benefit from? Here’s a selection of important insights I think are worth sharing:
- Don’t invent the wheel – I spent a lot of time developing clever ways of reviewing characters and words. I actually developed a simple spaced repetition system on my own and kept track of scheduling manually. Spending a few hours online reading about this would have helped enormously!
- Language exchanges are great – I’ve seen many negative comments about language exchange online, but I’ve met over 30 native speakers this way, and it’s been great for my learning. It’s also an excellent way to make friends if you’re not the extrovert kind who find it easy to chat with a random stranger. I haven’t experienced the language struggle people talk about; just divide the time evenly and it’ll be fine!
- Class size matters – The most important factor to consider when you choose which course to enrol in is the size of the class. With fifteen other students in the group, you will mostly speak with other learners and won’t get much individual feedback. If you’re in a group of five, you will get plenty of attention. I think 3-5 is the ideal size, but it depends on what you do outside class as well.
- Institutions hold ambitious students back – If you just go with the flow, you will learn much more slowly than you have the potential to. This is provided that you’re not working full time as an English teacher or just want to party all the time, of course. If you have the time, try to get into more difficult classes, where just surviving requires you to learn fast. While doing this, don’t neglect the foundations. You can deal with most of that outside class, though!
- Going to class is great, but it’s not enough – I have learnt an incredible amount of Chinese from my teachers and textbooks. Even though many of the articles on Hacking Chinese are dealing with problems when learning Chinese, I still think that classroom learning is very important. You just need to make sure you take responsibility for your own learning and cover the things you won’t learn in class.
Proficiency after my first year in Taiwan
I came to Taiwan knowing a lot of words and some grammar, but without really being able to say more than the most basic things. Listening was almost impossible. After the first semester, my parents visited, which meant a few weeks of travelling across Taiwan and having to use everything I had learnt. I wouldn’t say I was fluent back then, but I could use the language to achieve most practical things I needed.
After my second semester, my reading and writing improved a lot. Naturally, speaking and listening improved too, but still suffered from the common problem of not being practised enough. Looking back, it seems like I built advanced but narrow knowledge. I don’t think that was the wrong thing to do, but spending all that time learning to read newspaper articles definitely took time from basic speaking and listening.
That’s it for this time! Next time, I will talk about my second year in Taiwan.
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