After nearly 20 months of on-and-off Chinese study, I’m wrapping up my third textbook, Far East Everyday Chinese (Book III) by Teh-Ming Yeh. Last October, I distinctly remember dropping my head into my hands and asking my Chinese teacher, “Are you sure this is the right textbook for me?”
Learning Chinese has been a real struggle. One good(?) sign is that my English is getting worse as my Chinese improves.
Group Classes Not For Everyone
Over these 20 months, I realized the techniques and practices that work for me. First, I learned that I must write a word 50 times over two sessions to really remember the word. Second, I do not thrive in group classes. At National Taiwan University (NTU) Chinese Language Division, classes are limited to seven students. Each term is 12 weeks and classes are five days a week for 3 hours. Students are expected to devote an additional 2-3 hours per day to Chinese study. Teachers take attendance. Classes and common areas are restricted to Chinese.
Therefore, it’s essential to develop rapport with your classmates as well as agree on common teaching practices.
In my first class at NTU, we had a diverse class of students. I believe no two people came from the same country. Italy, USA, Russia, Malaysia, Switzerland, and Japan were all represented. Thus, we were compelled to use Chinese to communicate because not everyone spoke fluent English. I seriously struggled in that class because I thought I remembered more than I actually did and realized I was placed at a higher level than I should have.
In my second class at NTU, three of the five students were from Japan. The Japanese students seemed to disagree with the teacher’s methods. Many of them were reluctant to speak and wanted to focus on grammar. While they disagreed with the teacher, they never asked her to change her methods. Instead, they took it out on her in their student reviews.
Lastly, in my third class, let’s just say, I had some disagreements. Due to some administrative quirk, the other six students had had the same teacher for the last three terms. Thus, they had an especially strong rapport among themselves. I had the distinct feeling that I was late to a party.
Unlike the other students in their fourth school term, this group continued to speak English in class and during breaks. Sure, they were able to excel on tests but their speaking abilities did not match the time they were in the program. I complained to the teacher but she was complicit and threw up her hands.
While NTU says that you can switch to another class if the one assigned is too easy/hard, the reality is that you can only switch if there is availability in the class you want to switch to. Thus, it’s essential you are placed in the appropriate class — but you have no control over their placement process. Good luck next term!
Thus, last August, I took a break from further NTU classes. Based on the suggestion of my cousin, I enrolled at Taipei Language Institute for one-on-one classes the following month.
ABCs Have Their Own Problems
American-born Chinese (ABC) Chinese language students have their own problems learning Chinese that is different from typical Chinese language students. Growing up with native speaking Chinese parents, they typically know what the language should sound like but lack the vocabulary and grammar/language patterns to rise above a rudimentary level. Furthermore, there might be a sense of entitlement because they “should” know the language even though they don’t.
In my case, NTU placed me in the third term class because I could speak good enough and use test-taking skills to do well on the placement exam. I struggled because I didn’t know all the words they covered in the first three books. I loathed that first term.
For instance, I generally know what my parents and relatives discussed around the dinner table; however, anything involving economics, politics, and humor always went over my head. Words such as 通貨膨脹 (inflation), 雲端運算 (cloud computing), 勾當 (shady business deal), you might hear once in years of dinner table conversations.
Similarly, Chinese has tons of homophones — words that sound the same but mean different things — and you wouldn’t know unless you seriously studied the language. For instance, the example you typically hear in school are 馬，媽，罵，麻 which mean “horse”, “mother”, “to be yelled at”, and “to be numb”, respectively.
There’s also 事情 and 色情 which mean “(business) matter” and “lust/sexual passion”, respectively. I cannot imagine a situation where my parents would introduce the latter word nor correct me if I said the former incorrectly.
Anyways, the book NTU would assign in their first term might be too “slow” for an ABC because they have probably heard all the words before. On the other hand, someone who had never been exposed to Chinese would start off as a blank slate.
Comparison and Costs
One-on-one classes work for me because I can focus on the vocabulary I want and go at the pace suitable for me. Five days a week and three hours a day is way too much for me. Going one-on-one with the teacher, I usually do pretty well with three days a week for two hours a day. At NTU, each term is NT40,000 or US$1,333 for 12 weeks. This works out to roughly US$400 per month.
At TLI, fees are based on the number of hours you enroll in per week with a sliding scale that becomes cheaper as you commit to more hours. For instance, it is NT550 per hour for 1-4 hours a week, NT500 per hour for 5-9 hours a week, NT450 per hour for over 10 hours per week. If I go every week for 6 hours, then my cost is also US$400 per month.
I can attest that at NTU I covered a lot of material — roughly 1.5 times the pace at TLI. Whether I can apply it now is another question.
Right now, I’m debating how much longer I will continue with my studies. The next series of pamphlets from TLI cover vocabulary related to the news. While tempted to continue my studies, certain realities are coming to the fore.