Next month will be my first year spent year living in Taipei, Taiwan. I think it’s a good time to reflect and share some of my experiences for those that are interested. In this article I’ll share the experience of learning chinese in Taiwan after 1 year and some useful tips.
I had a great experience in my second semester at Shida (aka Taiwan Normal University Mandarin Training Center MTC). The most important factor for me was I had a great teacher. Having spoken to numerous former Shida students this is a common explanation. To cut to the chase what are my thoughts on studying at Shida for 6 months:
As much as I hated the beginning it gave me a strong foundation in chinese
It was a good chance to make international friends and meet new people
It was a chance to revisit the college atmosphere
The program is time intensive
The teaching style is traditional old school in contrast to the western style which is more facilitative
The program at Shida provided provided a good foundation. A foundation that consisted of learning to read, write (pinyin, mps, chinese characters), and speak. Our classes were scheduled everyday for 2 hours with a chinese teacher with international students 8-10 students. The teacher spoke chinese about 70 percent of the time and English 30 percent of the time. The school in general attracted a diverse international student population. My first class had students from Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, England, and Italy. My second class had students from the US, Tibet, Germany, Indonesia, and Vietnam. This offers an interesting learning environment in the classroom as some students like those from Japan don’t speak much English, but are good at Chinese writing. Like my American and English classmates I found the most difficulty writing the Chinese characters.
The school uses the Practical Audio-Visual Chinese Second edition book. We started learning the Mandarin Phonetic Symbols (MPS) system, which are used to learn how to pronounce a word. We also learned the 5 tones, our introduction to Chinese characters, and the pinyin. I hope I haven’t lost you yet. Every lesson would introduce about 20 to 30 new vocabulary words. To learn a new word you would have to have knowledge of Chinese characters, MPS or pinyin. The Chinese that was taught was called traditional, which are the more complex characters taught in Taiwan. Mainland China uses mostly simplified characters.
When I say knowledge you need to know how to speak it, write it, and understand listening to it. I consider these different skills. After we learned the vocabulary we would get into the syntax and grammar patterns. We would receive a dictation test every week, which would test our knowledge or the vocabulary, how to write, as well as the tones of each word. Following the dictation we would receive a test of the chapter, which would require understanding Chinese by listening or reading it and responding to it the appropriate patterns.
I have to admit I was overwhelmed the first several weeks figuring out how to cope with the overwhelming information. The largest barrier for me was the Chinese writing, the syntax, and remembering the tones.
The style of teaching is more traditional and dependent on the teacher you received. My teacher in the first semester was a bit older and traditional. She encouraged a lecturing style that left little time for questions. The school in general heavily emphasized Chinese writing and grammar syntax.
In my first semester I met friends from my class and other friends that I met from friends. The age group tended to be mostly in the early to mid twenties. As someone in my mid thirties I was on the older side of the demographic, but there were a few that were my age group or older. Socially it wasn’t too difficult to make friends with English speakers.
Some students traveled to Taiwan alone to study and were interested to meet new people and local language exchange partners. Some students were interested from the Asian countries like Japan and Vietnam were studying together and tended to be very tight knitted. It was difficult to communicate with some students from Japan. I was fortunate that I met a good group form my first class and we get together occasionally to hang out.
I hated writing. I’m not to fond of handwriting in english to begin with. In the real world I do it to sign signatures, fill out the occasional forms, and make entries in my diary. In the real world we are mostly typing. Perhaps for some people you may learn to read characters by writing them out 10 times every day. I prefer to use flashcards on my iPhone Place to learn new characters. Anyhow I left Shida knowing the main characters, which I see in most words. For example: 大 (da) ，人 ，的 (de)，小 (xiao)，中 (zhong) , 個 (ge) 。In the real world if you remember the pinyin for these words you can type chinese on your phone.
Reading a paragraph or dialogue is intimidating when put on the spot. In my first class the Japanese students had an advantage and it showed. There were many times I felt helpless as I realized I was illiterate for some words. I wish the school wouldn’t do this to students. It’s cruel especially when students have different levels to begin of with. My preferred method of reading was to use flash cards and then see the words in different contexts like in the dialogue. Reading and pronouncing eventually helped the characters sink in.
We got to do some individual practice for patterns in class, and some individual practice with other students. There is not however a lot of rail conversation practice in the program and unfortunately not many students practice outside of class. You will find most of the english speaking students reverting back to english. I made an effort to speak even though I would make many mistakes and still do. I believe you have to make these mistakes to learn and practice speaking.
What Shida gave me
I left with some english speaking friends that live in Taipei
I got a foundation in chinese – tones, numbers, dates, greetings, pronouns, and most importantly some food.
Learned about good learning tools like Pleco
Learning Chinese since Shida
Continuing to study the Shida way
Since leaving Shida I have made an effort to learn Chinese experimenting with different methods. I continued to study Practical Audio-Visual Chinese Second edition book 2 (the orange one) from book 2 chapter 3 by myself. I would study the vocabulary with the pinyin and chinese characters and listen to the mp3 sometimes. I found after doing this from March – July I have picked up most of the vocabulary from book 2.
Watching Chinese Tv and Movies.
I tried watching American movies with chinese sub-titles. This didn’t work too well as the words appear to quickly. There is a lack of chinese movies with english sub-titles, which would be a better way to learn. I also took advantage of having access to local Taiwan cable tv and a satellite box that I won in a draw. I found that the disney channel on channel 23 in the mornings or the teenage shows at midnight to be the right level for me. I’m a big kid at heart so I still enjoy watching cartoons so and I found they talk slower and I’m able to pick up more. I managed to pick up some expressions by doing this.
Eavesdropping on conversations
I spend a lot of time at local cafe’s. This is a great environment to listen to natural social conversations from locals. You pick up some of the slang that they use. Eventually you begin to hear some of the same expressions being said that sticks. “對 啊“ (dui a = yeah!) ”不 可能“ (bu keneng = impossible). The beauty about Taipei is during your commute on the mrt or wherever you spend time you will be exposed to local conversation. If you pay attention you will soak in some mandarin.
Ordering food, shopping, getting a service
For myself this is probably that most effective method of learning. Live in Taipei long enough and you’re going to need to interact with locals out of necessity. Whether it’s making a reservation, a hair appointment, ordering coffee, taxi, or a dentist appoint you’ll need to figure out a way to communicate. Many times I would ask if you speak english 你 可以 說 英文 嗎？ ni keyi shuo yingwen ma? If they understand I would here (yi dian dian= a little). This would set myself up to speak chinese with some understanding from the speaker.
Lately I’ll just speak the chinese and see if they understand me. If they do I know they understand and give myself a pat on the back. If they don’t I’ll ask how to say this in chinese 中文怎么说？zhōngwén zěnme shuō.
If I don’t know a word I’ll use my handy app pleco to look up the words I need. I’ll listen to how to pronounce it and then try to say it with a local. I must admit it is frustrating when they don’t understand me, but I know this is part of the process.
Adding vocabulary through OCR
I add vocabulary whenever I see characters I’m curious about and see often where I hangout. If there is signage with english and chinese my pet peeve is that there is no pinyin, so I’lll use my app’s OCR to add the pinyin to my flashcard word bank.
This is very effective for practicing. The key to finding someone to practice with is that you need to have similar goals and that usually means the other person wants to practice english. It also works if you are at similar levels. It is ok if someone speaks a bit better english than your mandarin, but you will have a middle ground where you can both communicate. You also should enjoy hanging out so it feels natural. you should meet on a regular basis and obviously you should both practice speaking.
Hess pocket book
I recently started teaching engish at Hess. They give a pocketbook with provides english, pinyin, and chinese for teachers as a survival guide. They cover practical topics like bars, banking, hair salon, directions etc. It also comes with an MP3. I haven’t found a more practical educational resource to be honest. I’ve been listening to the mp3 on my commutes to work or look at the book when I eat by myself.
Technology to the rescue
I discovered some essential technology to help here. I downloaded the current version of google app. It still needs much improvement, but the technology is useful if you need some vocabulary on the go or if you receive a message in chinese characters and need some instance translation. Some usage scenario’s
Example 1: If I knew I going to rent a DVD or want to order a certain dish I didn’t have the vocabulary for I would look up the word in advance, the tones, pinyin, and listen to the pronunciation. I would then use the word with the storeowner to see if they understood.
Example 2: You receive a SMS message in chinese that you can’t read. Simply copy and paste into google translate to convert to English.
Another good app is called pleco, which has an chinese English dictionary and a really neat feature called OCR that lets you convert chinese characters to English with your smartphone’s camera.
These tools are useful as aids, but have not yet evolved to the point to eliminate the need to learn the language
At the one year mark I feel like I’m slowly making the climb from beginner-intermediate to intermediate. I can ask for things that I need independently most of the time.The most important being understanding a chinese menu, ordering, and understanding numbers. I can string together sentences and have basic conversations. Although I haven’t reached a level I’m happy with I’ve learned a lot more than I would being in Vancouver. Being immersed in the language in Taiwan has definately helped accelerate my chinese level. It is an empowering feeling when you are able to make an hair appointment or reservation in another language. At the moment I have started working so I’m struggling to find time. I get frustrated when a fluent english speaking Taiwanese person tells me my “chinese sucks”, but I’ll speak to a local that doesn’t speak much english telling my chinese is not bad for 11 months. So I think it’s relative to the person you are speaking with. There are some limitations to your social and professional opportunities because of the language, but this keeps me motivated.
My goal for the next 3 months is to improve my speaking and reading ability in common situations: asking for directions, applying for jobs, and social conversations. I’ve recently purchased a new book series recently published by the MTC so will add that to my learning approach. I try to remind myself this is a journey and to enjoy the experience here in Taiwan. From here I only move forward and opportunities open up the better my chinese gets. 加油！
Would you like to share your experience learning chinese in Taiwan?
Next time I’ll talk about these topics
- Could I build a life and friends in Taipei and what adventures did I have ?
- How did I survive and figure out the basics such as how to eat and find a place to live ?
- Was Taiwan what I thought it would be?