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Monday, July 11, 2011
Taiwan: 2011 Summer Fellows – Navigating the English Bubble at NTU
The National Taiwan University campus and adjacent neighborhoods are nothing if not extremely comfortable for the average American student studying abroad. That is, if I ever find myself in an uncomfortable or tight situation, I rarely have to worry about being unable to resort to English to get a point across. Many of the people who I meet in public speak at least passable to pretty good English, especially if they are local NTU students. I still find it amazing that one-third of the books in the university library are written in English, and moreover that when I peek over the shoulder of the person studying next to me in the stacks, they may more often than not be reading an advanced chemistry or social science book in English but taking notes in Chinese.
Almost all street signs, most store fronts, and many restaurant menus feature English translations. Pretty much everything at the local 7-11 is labeled in both Chinese and English (except for fine print nutritional information and ingredient lists). Most vendors have also learned a few important phrases to the extent that they want to attract your business. Overall, it seems perfectly possible that a monolingual English speaker could live comfortably in my neighborhood and hardly feel any pressure to study Chinese.
As a language learner, however, it can be frustrating when many of your interlocutors jump into English the moment they realize Chinese is not your first language. It doesn’t happen to me all of the time, but it happens sometimes. I couldn’t help but feel a little irked and disappointed on Saturday night, for example, when the waitress who took my order responded to me in English even though I approached her in Chinese. It also takes a lot of discipline to bother reading Chinese signs and labels when your eyes naturally gravitate towards and register the English translations right below. The NTU area is great because it’s bustling and commercial and cosmopolitan, but that’s also the same reason why people are so used to accommodating English speakers all the time.
Getting around the English bubble at NTU can be a challenge. On one hand, the language program facilities where I spend most of my weekdays are a safe-zone because students have to honor their language pledges and faculty and staff have to assist them. At the same time, all bets are off once everyone leaves the building, and people rarely engage each other in Chinese when they’re hanging out socially (the only classmate with whom I always speak Chinese is the Japanese graduate student who can’t speak English).
Classmates who are looking for an outside-the-classroom Mandarin fix go about it in different ways. Interestingly, one of the best ways to get more language exposure may be to move out of the student dormitories that the program offers. Even though I currently live in a large dorm with a wide range of students, my particular room is cloistered at the end of the penthouse in a suite with three Americans and a German grad student. Most of my classmates in the dorms have similar living arrangements. A few others have instead opted for homestays or rented rooms far away from campus, which has placed them in situations where they’re forced to use more Chinese and also feel more independent.
Language exchanges are another popular option for people who want to engage casually with native speakers, basically by swapping English conversation for Chinese conversation. At least few of the people in my program have had some luck with them so far. Still, language exchanges can be tricky sometimes because the most common way to find a partner is through online or bulletin board posting. It’s easy to be put off by the many language partner ads that read more like personal ads. For my own part, I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid that part of the process and set up a couple of language exchanges with friends of a Taiwanese classmate at GWU. I’m hoping to write a separate post about the experience once I have a few more sessions under my belt.
There are other ways people have found for engaging in Chinese outside of the classroom too. My suitemates who have been here for almost a year will play sports with Chinese friends or hang out with teachers outside of class. I have one classmate who attends church services in Chinese every Saturday and another who takes erhu music lessons farther away from campus. We’re still in Taiwan after all, and still in a city where almost everyone normally speaks Mandarin. Even though I consider the area around NTU to be an English bubble, I suppose what I mean is that you just have to try that much harder to break out of your English comfort zone. You won’t find many people forcing Chinese upon you in your day-to-day life.
Christopher Wong MA International Affairs, 2012 Sigur Center 2011 Chinese Language Fellow National Taiwan University, Taiwan