If you’re considering studying Mandarin Chinese abroad, I encourage you to also consider studying in Taiwan. And, to first check out my previous post in this series, Choosing a Mandarin Chinese Learning Center in Taipei, Taiwan.
( Photo by *john668kimo, on Flickr )
I’ve been studying at CLD for just over a month now.
For better or worse I somehow tested into the most advanced class here. The bad part is that I’m clearly behind my other classmates in terms of proper study and general knowledge of the language. The good part is that it is pushing me to work hard to keep up.
I haven’t had a chance to meet too many first-year students just yet, so I will start with going over the program from my perspective, and will do a follow-up post after I talk to some more people who are just starting to learn the language here.
( Photo by *Roy0920, on Flickr )
Different classes with different teachers might vary, but we following a pretty consistent format that I’ll outline below.
Learning new words and characters
For each chapter we study, we first cover the new vocabulary and example sentences. This process can take a full class day or two since we cover it in such depth.
The teacher always pauses and takes the time to explain more culturally rich or interesting words/characters. This has actually been particularly helpful for me in remembering some of the more complex characters and words much faster than I would while self studying.
During the following class days, we almost always have a dictation covering new vocabulary and idioms (chengyu). This basically means the teacher will read some sentences in Chinese and the students write down what they hear in Chinese.
I’m not sure what this looks like in beginner classes, but I imagine they would be using a lot of pinyin when first starting if they do dictations at all.
New grammar and sentence structures
Most chapters cover several new grammar points and sentence structures. It usually takes us a bit over a day to go through all of them since we do several exercises with them along the way.
Said exercises involve each student creating example sentences that use the grammar and new vocabulary from the chapter. Other times, the class is split into two groups and we have to play out various roles or hold discussions.
I personally feel that being able to use these sentence structures naturally is one of the most important part of learning Chinese and wish we focused a bit more on this in class.
Dialogue / Essay / Lesson Text
Only after we’ve covered all of the vocabulary and grammar do we cover the lesson text. Usually we take turns reading sentences/paragraphs from the lesson. Afterwards, we have an opportunity to clarify any points that we don’t understand or find interesting.
Then, we close our books and the teacher reads the text and we repeat after her. In the end, she asks the students various questions about the lesson test/essay/dialogue to test our comprehension.
We have a written test every two lessons, which usually comes out to be one test every other week.
The test itself is comprised of using Chinese to explain/define the lesson vocabulary, using the lesson vocab and sentence structures to create sentences, various short-answer questions, reading-comprehension, and sometimes essay-writing.
I personally have to study quite a bit to do well on the tests and find the character/vocab describing to be both the most difficult and most useful component.
In fact, if there was anything I wish I did while self-studying, it would be practicing using Chinese to describe any new vocab that I learned. This skill/practice has had a big impact on my ability to learn from every-day-life conversations.
Homework style and load varies from teacher to teacher. But, regardless of the class you are in, there will likely be a fairly significant amount of homework every day.
At an advanced level, we do listening and vocabulary/grammar drills from our workbook as well as essays. We also have a 10-15m presentation that we have to prepare every week which requires a fair amount of research and preparation time.
Every time we finish covering a lesson’s sentence patterns, we have to write an essay or dialogue using said patterns. I kind of dread this part because it takes me forever to think of a topic, but find a lot of value in the exercise.
Overall, I think most all of the homework is actually quite useful.
( Photo by *JeffreySun, on Flickr )
The class moves very quickly. In our class, we cover about one lesson per week which means learning somewhere between 50-100 new characters / words per week plus new sentence structures and idioms.
There have a been a few times that I got lazy and skipped a few classes to hang out with some friends, and the class swiftly moved on without me. I ended up spending the following days cramming new vocab and sentence structures to survive the upcoming dictations and tests. Not a recommended approach 🙂
Teachers / Instructors
My teacher is a bit older and has been teaching for quite some time. She is always well prepared for class, patient, and explains things clearly. However, a couple of the younger students can’t relate to her humor and often end up taking advantage of her flexibility.
On the other hand, my friend in a different class of the same level has a much younger, stricter teacher. And, even though they are covering the same material at more-or-less the same pace, he says not 5 minutes go by in his class in which he isn’t dying from laughter.
Basically, like any school/university there will be some variance in the quality of teaching and teaching styles used. That being said, I feel like the overall teaching quality here is pretty high.
Class size and composition
CLD places a hard limit of 6 people per class, though most classes end up being 4-5 students in size.
The class composition is pretty diverse here, with people from all over the world in most classes.
My class was composed of two people from the U.S. (including myself), one person from Germany, one person from the U.K. and another from Vietnam. Another class I sat in was mostly people from Japan, and during orientation I sat around people from Korea, Mongolia and India.
In terms of age, most people are just finishing up college or on a sort of exchange program, so most students are somewhere between 20-22 years old.
That being said, a reasonable number of students are older and either studying in between jobs (myself included), learning the language for business reasons, and/or aiming to better communicate with family.
Students are allowed to sit in and switch classes during the first week of classes. I recommend doing this to get a feel of other teachers’ teaching styles, or if you’re not sure you fit in your with classmates.
China Chinese vs. Taiwan Chinese
The differences between Taiwan Chinese and China Chinese are quite similar to those you might find between American English and British English.
I feel like our class has done a pretty decent job of noting said differences and each chapter in our textbook contains a small table that contrasts the China and Taiwan variations of new words/characters.
That being said, there are still quite a few differences that you will just have to learn and accept. Particularly so when it comes to food/fruit/vegetable names as these can very quite a bit.
( Photo by *maindo007, on Flickr )
Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese Characters
Simplified Chinese characters are used in Mainland China and Singapore while Traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and by most overseas Chinese. Of course, artsy/scholarly types in China and anyone else interested in Chinese culture will probably end up learning both scripts.
Based on everything I read online, tests would be provided in both traditional and simplified characters, but this is not the case. Everything is in Traditional Chinese Characters.
As someone who enjoys the language and also has an interest in traditional culture and history, Traditional Chinese characters are the characters of choice (Simplified Chinese characters just don’t make sense for calligraphy and poetry).
Despite people’s claims that simplified characters are much easier to learn, I find the amount of effort to learn traditional characters to be more or less the same. The real downsides to traditional characters are 1. they require more time to write and 2. they are ridiculously hard to read with small font sizes.
My classmates and I are all coming from a simplified background, but I started to transition from simplified to traditional characters about a year and a half ago so I haven’t really had any problems in this area.
Also, about three weeks into the course my teacher noted that all of my classmates had converted about 90% of their characters to traditional.
Basically, If you’ve studied Chinese before and/or are concerned about using Traditional vs. Simplified Chinese characters, I wouldn’t let this deter you from studying in Taiwan.
If you’re not sure about which character set is best for you, I recently added a post to help you decide whether to learn Simplified or Traditional Chinese characters.
Usefulness / Effectiveness
It’s still a bit too early to fully evaluate the course, but I am no doubt learning a lot. And, a lot of what I’ve been learning has been almost immediately useful.
In fact, there have been several times already in which I learn new vocabulary and sentence structures that my Taiwanese friends end up using in conversation the very same day.
My ability to read signs and confidence speaking to locals has also increased quite a bit since studying here. Some of that is just from being in the environment, but a large part is from the material I’ve been learning in class.
There is a lot to cover, but I feel like this post is already pretty long. Let me know if there is anything specific you’d like to know more about and I will be happy to provide some more details!