Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Taiwan: 2011 Summer Fellows – Language Exchange

Some of the cooler experiences I’ve had so far in Taipei have involved language exchanges with local friends. I meet with two Taipei residents, Lynn and Angela, separately once or twice each week, and we alternate between English and Mandarin conversation for a couple of hours. For me it’s a good way to practice with a native speaker and someone familiar with the country, while for Lynn it’s a way to practice her spoken English before she leaves this August to work in Hong Kong, and for Angela it’s a way to keep up her oral English since returning from a year abroad in England.
From a language-learning perspective, these meetings are a nice break from the classroom environment. We can chat casually about a range of topics and move at our own pace. I find it helpful for picking up the common parlance that I don’t really get from standardized Chinese textbooks and regarding which I don’t always have the opportunities to ask my instructors. It’s useful because I still struggle day-to-day not so much with getting my point across but with being able to produce natural turns of phrase that won’t elicit double-takes from the person I’m talking to.
From a social perspective as well, language exchange has been pretty rewarding. I mentioned in an earlier post that it’s been a challenge breaking out of the English language bubble around my university and moreover making friends with people outside of my program. Getting together for language exchange has been a good way to branch out and meet different people and learn new things about the city. Although I don’t think when it comes to straight Chinese-learning that language exchange is nearly as effective as being in the classroom (since it’s so undisciplined and unstructured), it’s still been great for chatting and learning by extension about politics, education, youth culture, and other topics.
Usually I’ll meet Lynn or Angela at a coffee shop or tea house close to campus or the central train station, but we’ve visited different places around the city as well. Last Tuesday for example, Lynn suggested that we see the National Taiwan University symphony orchestra perform at the national concert hall, since she was a former member herself and knew many people involved in the show. It’s something I never would have checked out on my own since I’d never attended a symphony before anywhere. Or last Sunday morning instead of doing our usual thing at Starbucks, I met Angela near the Taipei 101 skyscraper and she showed me around a famous local bookstore after we finished our exchange.
Before coming to Taiwan, even though I’d heard of language exchanges, the possibility of trying one out wasn’t really on my radar. At home I’ve only seen the occasional flyer advertising them on bulletin boards in Gelman Library or in the Elliott School. It seems to be a pretty common practice here in Taipei though. The foreign language center on campus has tons of flyers from people seeking language partners, and the bulletin board in the lobby of my dormitory is the same (although you have to use your better judgment to shift through the sketchier-sounding posts). That’s not how I met Lynn and Angela, since it was mutual friends who originally introduced us, but finding a language partner still isn't a particularly difficult thing to do here if you're willing to reach out to someone. For me it’s been a fun way to get in extra Chinese practice time, meet new people, and also learn more about the city.
Christopher Wong
MA International Affairs, 2012
Sigur Center 2011 Chinese Language Fellow
National Taiwan University, Taiwan

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