I attend class at the Chinese Language Division (CLD) Center at National Taiwan University.
At first, the diversity of the student body surprised me. My first class had someone from Russia, Switzerland, Japan, Malaysia, and Italy. My second class has another American and four Japanese. At first, when I saw a white person I assumed they were American; however, listening to people’s accents in the student lounge made me reconsider. Perusing the schedule of classes that includes student nationalities, I was astonished.
The largest contingent are the Japanese, followed by the Europeans if you combine everyone all European countries, and the Americans. From my quick perusal here are the countries represented by continent:
- Northeast Asia: Japan, South Korea, China/Hong Kong, Philippines
- Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia,
- Europe: France, Italy, Switzerland, Russia, England, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Norway,
- Central and South America: Peru, Guatemala, Belize, Panama, Mexico, Honduras, Brazil
- Other: Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Turkey, Jordan, Tajikistan, South Africa
Students’ reasons for studying are probably as varied as there are students. My Italian classmate is specializing in Eastern language and culture and plans to do a Ph.D. involving Chinese issues; one of my Japanese classmates is planning to work in trade/import/export when she completes the program; another person from Southeast Asia said she hopes to use Chinese to help her family’s business; I’m here to improve my literacy.
Chinese language involves “pictures” or ideograms/characters that represent an action, noun, or abstract idea. Looking only at the character alone will not reveal how it should be spoken nor its meaning. Books for young children may show phonetics paired with the word but the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and books do not.
The language feels like a 5,000 character version of the American board game, Memory. One of the first steps to learn characters is rote memorization. If you don’t use characters frequently, it’s entirely possible to forget what you have learned.
Types of Students
Roughly speaking, the student body can be divided into three groups: Japanese and Korean students, ethnically Chinese students living outside of Asia, and non-native speakers.
Visiting Kyoto made me realize that the Japanese language borrows heavily from Chinese. According to Wikipedia, kango, words borrowed from Chinese, represent “60% of the words contained in a modern Japanese dictionary are kango, and they comprise about 18% of words used in speech.[a]” I could read many characters to get the gist of the placard but not know how to pronounce anything.
Therefore, native Japanese speakers should have the hardest aspect of learning Chinese down because they have already memorized what the characters mean and have some foundation of what certain character elements mean.
Korean language is a bit more divorced from Chinese than Japanese. Dare I say, they were smart enough to introduce a phonetic system of writing — saving brain cells — that was supplemented with Chinese characters. Nonetheless, Korean also have a leg up on non-Asian students.
At the other end of the spectrum are non-Asian/non-native students hailing from the far corners of the world. Since they have no basis in the language, everything is new and alien. I have been impressed by many of the more advanced students who seem to be thinking in Chinese and speak relatively fast with more complex grammar.
Lastly, contrary to what you might expect, I believe ethnically Chinese students are at a bit of a disadvantage compared with non-native/non-Asian students. Many of these students were raised in homes where Mandarin was spoken so they are familiar with how the language should sound. Of course, they may also have developed incorrect pronunciation or grammar because of a misperception or misunderstanding of what they were hearing. Thus, these students also have to unlearn their bad habits.
In my case, I tested into an intermediate level because I could speak okay; however, once in class I realized I had forgotten or didn’t know many of the words and grammar that were appropriate for my level. Compounding my problems, I felt that learning Chinese should be “easy” because I was raised with it. Wrong!
Last term, I often complained that the pace was too fast. We were expected to learn around 60-80 characters a week. Without a good foundation, I felt I had to do double duty with the new words and the ones I was expected to know.
This term, I decided to go down a level because the pace would be slower (40 – 60 words per week); I hope it will give me time to catch up on many of the rudimentary words and structures that I felt I was missing.
While the benefit to these students comes from learning Chinese and living among the Taiwanese, I believe cross-cultural exchange is one of the main benefits of this type of program. Taiwan is a relatively homogenous population consisting of indigenous Taiwanese and ethnically Chinese people; foreign workers from Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines who are treated as second-class citizens. Furthermore, Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency makes it rather difficult for people from Africa (Ghana and Nigeria singled out), South Asia, and the Middle East from entering without a good reason.
Unfortunately, one by-product of these policies is that Taiwanese people’s perceptions of outsiders is largely shaped by Hollywood and Western media. Having all of these students from all over the world can help Taiwanese people gain more exposure and understanding of cultures beyond their island.