Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Taiwan: 2011 Summer Fellows: Mandarin Classes at National Taiwan University

This summer, I’m fortunate enough to be enrolled in the International Chinese Language Program at NTU. We just finished our first week of classes last week, and it’s been a pretty intensive, but it’s been a great experience so far.
The classes here are the smallest I’ve ever had for studying Chinese. I have three 50 minute classes every day from Monday through Friday. Two of those classes are capped at four students each, and the third class is a one-on-one session with the instructor, which means there’s a lot of pressure to come well-prepared every day. The curriculum here emphasizes speaking proficiency, so classroom time is almost all interaction-based. Reading, writing, and listening exercises are supposed to be completed outside of class. Most days, I will have to spend at least a few hours just doing homework.
Adjusting from simplified Chinese characters to traditional characters has also been a challenge. In my courses at GWU, and in my previous studies, I had only read and written in simplified Chinese, so many of the characters that they use in Taiwan are completely new to me. It was frustrating early on looking at menus and street signs and feeling like my literacy level was cut in half. The program has been pretty accommodating though about people in my situation. I would estimate about a third to a half of my classmates had little to no experience with traditional characters before coming over. Even though our textbook reading passages are all written in traditional characters, we have the option of writing our compositions in simplified characters, and many of the textbooks provide vocabulary lists in both styles.
With the program’s focus on oral proficiency, there’s also little actual reading that we’re responsible for. We spend quite a bit of time picking apart two to three page passages, rather than speeding through chapter after chapter. Aside from that, the overall transition from simplified to traditional characters hasn’t been quite as difficult as I’d anticipated. I feel like I’ve developed a reasonable feel for it even after only one week.
A Chinese language pledge is another important part of the program at NTU. The pledge requires that all language center facilities are “Chinese-only” at all times. This includes the classrooms, library, language lab, student lounge, and administrative offices. If you’re caught three times, you might be asked to leave the program.
I’ve heard about much more strict language pledges in other programs (which I sometimes wish was the case here), but the current pledge does a good job of encouraging language immersion in the immediate classroom area. For example, our orientation information sessions were all conducted in Chinese, although an English translator was on hand to reiterate key points, and many of the supplementary guest lectures that ICLP offers during the week are spoken only in Chinese. Overall, I think the program strives pretty hard to create a rigorous learning environment for all of the students.
Christopher Wong
MA International Affairs, 2012
Sigur Center 2011 Chinese Language Fellow
National Taiwan University, Taiwan

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