Monday, May 01, 2006

Chinese Learnin'

Wow, I've been studying Chinese here for two months and this is the first post to mention it. Naturally, the factors which bring me to finally broach the subject aren't entirely positive. The crux of the matter is that after two months of going to class for 2 hours a day, my ability to conduct basic activities in Chinese has only marginally improved. Perhaps I'm expecting too much progress, too quickly, but I honestly think that I could have made just as much progress listening to Pimsleur(or any other high quality aural learning tool) for 1 hour a day and working through the book myself. My current problems with my classroom environment, as I see it, are threefold.

First of all, I'm in a class that isn't perfectly suited to my level. I've had probably the least experience with Chinese of any student in the class, but too much experience to get much out of the pure beginner's class(At least, so I thought. I'm starting to regret the decision to move up to the next class. After all, I don't think I could do much worse.) Since virtually all classroom discussion is conducted in slightly-too-difficult Chinese, a lot of the immersion is lost on me. Immersion only works if the input is comprehensible and for me a lot of it isn't. I don't feel like I'm necessarily alone in this because I haven't noticed any real improvement in my classmates either. I could be wrong on that account, but I do know several of my classmates have expressed disappointment of their own. I don't completely blame the school for this; it is difficult to construct a program that works for everyone when most people don't enter it at the introductory level. I think they could make a little more effort in forming classes of equivalent students though. They could make a good approximation by simply separating western students from the Japanese and Koreans; although I would miss the cultural diversity quite a bit if they did do this.

Second, Chinese spoken in the classroom barely resembles what I hear on the street. I guess this is unavoidable in the beginning due to students' limited vocabulary and the need to speak a little slower and with proper pronunciation. Also, most spoken interaction is between fellow students, and we all suck at Chinese. Part of the problem here is the organization of our text. Topic wise and vocab wise, it isn't ideal for students actually living in a Chinese environment. Personal anecdote: I still don't understand what people are saying to me when they ask if I want something 'here' or 'to go'. They don't construct the question the way I would, that is for sure(and unsurprising).

Third, the class moves way too fast and there isn't nearly enough repetition. Perhaps I could overcome this if I studied more outside of class, but I still think way too much is being crammed into this class. In addition to flying through the text, the instructor supplements it with extra materials including tons more vocabulary. I ignore as much of this vocabulary as possible unless it seems particularly useful. The end result is that I don't have a solid grasp on anything that I have covered in this class that I didn't have some exposure to before. The grammar patterns I learned from Pimsleur during my evening commute back in the States are the ones that flow most naturally for me. Before coming here, I took a class back in the States that met once a week for 2 hours. We spent more time going over the text in class(the same text I'm using here) and the gap between classes allowed for plenty of time to digest vocabulary before the next class. With only 20% of the class time(plus a little Pimsleur), I probably made 50% of the progress that I am making in my current class. Also, the teacher of that class would correct pronunciation mistakes fairly frequently, something which rarely happens here.

For those who are curious, I'm studying at National Chengchi University, or Zhengda, as it is often called. Aside from my personal circumstances, I'm pretty happy with the program here. I even like my teacher despite it all. I'm also not sure if my experiences are really representative of Zhengda as a whole. I choose Zhengda because people seemed happier overall with Zhengda than with the better known program at Shida. Perhaps I just suck at foreign languages or am lazy. I really don't know because I have little to compare my current experience with. I do recognize my complaints as being fairly common among students of Chinese here in Taiwan however, and this leads me to believe that the methods used are not ideal.

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At 10:27 PM, Anonymous Todd said...

I still sound like a pirate when I say "2". Arrrrrr!!!!

Yi and corn.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger Mark said...

Wow... I've only heard good things about Zhengda before. Brian Mathes loved that place, and my old buddy Ryuta did, too. Both of them were in the "intermediate" class, though.

What books are you using and how fast are you guys going through it? I spent nine months at Shida a couple of years ago. It was a pretty mediocre school, and we used the PAVC books and went through a chapter per week or a little bit less. I always wanted to go faster, though. At Shida, over half of all the students are Japanese. It's pretty much a given that you'll have classmates who can read nearly everything but can barely speak if you go there.

At 11:07 PM, Blogger Jon said...

Yeah, we used the PAVC books. The first week of class we 'reviewed' material which I hadn't learned yet. The second week, we did chapters 10-12. Although the pace slowed considerably after this point, I was already way behind -- I started the class having just finished chapter 7.

Now, at the end of the course, we have completed chapter 19. The worst part, and my biggest complaint however, are the tons of supplemental materials that were used in class. Although these materials mostly followed the grammar points from the book, they added a ton of extra vocab. We only spent about 1-2 hours going over each lesson in the book.

At 12:50 AM, Blogger jingyang said...

Funny you mention the idea of putting Japanese/Koreans in a separate class from other non-hanzi reading students since this is what was done in my school in Japan with Chinese/Koreans and others. The Japanese students in my Chinese class always made me very jealous :-) On the other hand though, a lot of the textbooks only had Chinese/English translations and exercises, so I guess the Japanese had their own problems.


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