Learning Mandarin in Taiwan

A few months ago, a CNN article declared that Beijing residents were chanting “Add Gas!” in preparation for the Summer Olympics. The article painted the phrase and the act of chanting it as comical, perhaps some kind of communist control scheme orchestrated by the political elite. As for me, I knew the phrase well, the phrase I’d heard at local baseball games, the same phrase friendly onlookers had called out as I climbed the steep mountains of Taiwan on my bicycle. Something in that article showed me that I had been attempting to learn a language that was almost completely misunderstood by most of the outside world.

Mandarin, which is commonly referred to simply as “Chinese,” is the official language of Taiwan and mainland China and is also spoken by many elsewhere in East Asia. Learning this language has fundamentally changed my living experience in Taiwan and has brought me new, unexpected opportunities. As a result of the experience of learning Chinese and using it in my everyday life, I’ve come to the conclusion that to truly learn a foreign language, one must love the people who speak it, and to love a people, one must speak their language. If this seems like a paradox, you’re dead on, and it’s one of the many conundrums that one faces in talking the talk and walking the walk of a foreign culture.

Years ago, after traveling abroad solely in French- and Spanish-speaking countries, I found myself – much to my surprise – on a plane to Taiwan, a country that previously I couldn’t even locate on a globe. Twenty-three years old and fresh out of university, I had a backpack and a scraggly beard when I got here. I was bewildered and confused by the rush and roar of the traffic, while simultaneously electrified by the foreign sounds and sights. A friend of mine who’d traveled in East Asia described Taiwan as “The farthest the industrialized world has ever strayed from the West,” and this phrase alone brought me across the Pacific to the busy streets of this island on a trip that would end up changing my life.

After one crash course on how to teach English and another on using chopsticks, I was ready to begin my new Taiwanese life. This included learning to communicate. I’d always thought of learning Chinese as impossible, but soon realized that it was just highly improbable.

Within a few months I’d learned to give directions in a taxi, choose my desired cup of tea, and order my noodles without onions. Past that, I relied on the kindness of others; the Taiwanese were incredibly warm and open to me, and the vast majority had some (though quite limited) English skills, so it was possible (especially in the big cities) to get by on a next-to-no-Chinese diet.

For a while, I just responded to anything people said with a few of the Chinese terms and phrases that I’d learned. These included “American,” “twenty-three years old,” “English teacher,” and “I’m not married.” Often, while eating my lunch or resting after a bike ride, a stranger would approach me, say a bunch of Chinese words, and then pause, waiting for me to respond.

I’d wipe the sweat from my forehead, clear my throat, and shoot out “American,” or “teacher,” praying that I’d answered the question correctly. The person would then either smile and nod, or look puzzled and amble slowly away. Today I’ll find myself laughing about these encounters, imagining that this is what may have happened when being approached:

Stranger: “Excuse me, you’re sitting on my motorcycle.”

Me: “No, I’m not married.”

After some time I made the fateful decision to get serious about getting to know the people around me. What did my next-door neighbor do for a living? Why did the Taiwanese people love firecrackers so much? What was there to eat here besides fried rice and dumplings? I was feeling lonely and alienated being, in effect, deaf and mute. In a country of almost 23 million I was seriously limiting my chances at making new friends, requiring them to speak fluid English.

There was also the convenience that would come with learning one of the local languages. Playing charades (chicken, cow, pig, etc.) each meal had become tiring, and “twenty-three-year-old English teacher” hadn’t gotten me too far when I was in a doctor’s office for a head cold.

And so began my love/hate (usually love) relationship with Chinese.

I started off by using a local networking site (tealit.com) to find language exchange partners. The principal idea here is that an English speaker and a Chinese speaker hang out and teach one another about their respective cultures and languages. As I had virtually no Chinese skills and my partners had virtually no teaching skills, these liaisons became a good way to meet people but a crummy way to learn anything.

I next went to a private language school called TLI (Taipei Language Institute). This school has locations in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung, offering classes to meet any budget and any schedule. This enterprise offers highly-qualified teachers who understand exactly what a new student needs. I slowly accumulated Chinese vocabulary and grammar, following their carefully mapped-out curriculum. I am today still friendly with the director of the Taipei outlet, and I often joke with her that she was my Anne Sullivan (Helen Keller’s teacher). In truth, however, this is no joke – she was the one who “gave me my voice.”

After over two years at TLI, I found myself quite fluid in Chinese and able to hold long conversations on an array of topics. I could express my feelings, eavesdrop on conversations, and make friends who knew no English at all. The next step was to look into university classes. There are dozens of universities on the island offering intensive Chinese classes, but the two big names are National Taiwan University (NTU) and National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU). Both of these internationally recognized schools have intensive language-study departments and welcome hundreds of foreign students each year. After just two semesters in NTNU I’ve seen dramatic improvements in my writing, reading, and spoken grammar, and would recommend a university program to anyone who is committed to mastering Chinese.

At this point I am quite comfortable with my level of mastery of the Chinese language, though I’d be lying if I said the road has been smooth along its entire length. Yes indeed, there have been a few bumps and potholes; here are a few of my less graceful moments.

One day, while I was practicing yoga on the roof of my fifteen-story apartment building, an autumn breeze came along and slammed the stairway door shut, leaving me trapped. I , to be honest, got a little freaked out and had to discontinue my meditation, but about five minutes later a man came up to hang his laundry. I asked him to hold the door and as he held it for me, he asked how long I’d been up there. Still agitated, forgetting the word for minute, I replied: “Not long, about five days.”

There’s also the time I lost my keys and had to call the landlord for replacements. Mispronouncing the word for key, I kept repeating, “I want to die! I want to die!” The landlord, not knowing what to do, called my boss, who drove to my house, concerned, asking me if I needed professional help.

While shopping for towels one time, I wanted to know how big a certain packaged towel was. Mixing up the word for swim with the word for sleep, I held up a small face towel and asked the store manager, “Can I sleep with this?” He looked at me, bewildered, before saying, “I guess so.”

These types of stories could go on forever, but I’ll instead finish up by addressing some of the most common questions that people put to me regarding my studies, for I sense you may have been wondering about the same things yourself.

 

Some tips on learning Chinese

1. Isn’t it hard?
To this I always reply: “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it’s really not as hard as it sounds.”

Most learners will say that the hardest part is mastering the infamous four tones; the same sound has many completely different meanings based on which tone is used. This can create ambiguities like: My mother loves me vs. My horse loves me or Excuse me vs. Please give me a kiss.

2. Why study Chinese abroad?
To this, the answer is easy: immersion. When you study a language in its “proper environment,” every moment can be a learning experience. Watching ridiculous game shows on TV, listening to people chat in the street, and going out to get a cup of coffee, all become part of the language-learning process. A teacher can help with pronunciation and grammar, and a podcast can help with listening skills, but: What does a person utter when you’ve stepped on his foot? How do Chinese speakers mimic a cat’s “purr”? How do you say yuck! in Chinese? All of this comes from immersion.

3. Why not mainland China?
This question is a little hard to answer, because I haven’t had much experience with people from the mainland. What I do know is that, in general, the people of Taiwan love foreigners and are really moved when they see others trying to speak their official language. I’ve experienced nothing but patience and enthusiasm from everyone I’ve interacted with here.

A few weeks ago, on a crowded subway car, I was writing my Chinese homework when the woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder. Apparently she’d been looking over my shoulder and noticed a mistake in my work. She pointed out the mistake and wrote the character correctly for me, congratulating me on my hard work. As I said earlier, learning a language is dependent on enjoying the people, and folks in Taiwan are indeed very easy to like.

Another factor in Taiwan’s favor is that here, in contrast to mainland China, traditional Chinese characters are still officially used. Simplified characters have been used on the mainland since the 1950s, erasing much of the history and cultural significance each traditional character possesses. An example is å?? (guo; country). In traditional Chinese, this character is made up of several constituent characters – one for spear or weapon, æ??, another for mouth, å?£ (signifying population), and a border, å??, to enclose them all. With the simplified character å?½, however, this meaning is completely lost. For no logical reason the character inside the border is that for jade. Many traditional Chinese characters have “stories” like this to tell, in fact making them easier to remember than the so-called simplified characters, and to understand them is invaluable in understanding the semantics of the language and its unique writing system.

4. Why Chinese?
As an ESL teacher, I constantly tell my students: The beauty of learning a language is that you can meet new people, hear new perspectives, and make the world that much smaller. Mandarin has an estimated 1.05 billion speakers across the world, more than English, Spanish, and Arabic combined! That’s a lot of new friends and a lot of new perspectives. Besides this, all economic indicators point to mainland China as the next great superpower; as this unfolds, ability in Mandarin will become a skill more and more valued.

For me personally, my experience in Taiwan has been inseparable from my ability to speak the language, and I can’t imagine having tackled my studies any other way. I have developed deep affection for the people here, and that couldn’t have happened without hearing their stories and letting them hear mine.

(Source: Taiwan Events & News / Writer: M. Davidoff / Date: April 2010)
 


Studying Chinese in Taiwan

Alan Kwan was born in Hong Kong, and went to high school and law school there, then was an exchange student in Singapore and pursued graduate studies in International Relations at the London School of Economics (LSE) in England. There, he applied for the MOE (Taiwan Ministry of Education) scholarship to study Chinese, and is currently studying at National Taiwan University (NTU). I decided to come to Taiwan because I wanted to improve my Chinese, and heard Taiwan was a better place to do it. I had some friends who studied Chinese on the mainland, and they didn’t seem to improve that much, so that’s why I decided on Taiwan. I did all my research online.

ALAN:

Even though I speak Cantonese at home, I’ve hardly ever learned Chinese in class. All my schooling was in English, so I felt I need to work on that. I wanted to live and work in Asia, so even though I haven’t exactly decided how to use it yet, it will definitely be useful in one way or another.

I started in June last year, and it’s been really, really great so far. I feel like I’ve definitely improved a lot. It’s a separate department at NTU, the International Chinese Language Program (ICLP). Our schedule is basically three group classes, and one individual class a day. In the group classes, there are at most four students, so that means you get a lot of personal attention. Also, the workload, homework, is pretty heavy. Every day you spend 4-5 hours on homework. So I guess because it’s so intensive you improve. All the classes are in Chinese, meaning that they don’t explain it to you in English. I came in at the intermediate level; even though I hadn’t studied Chinese before I could still recognize the characters, so that helped. Keeping the scholarship is based on attendance, and there’s a term final, so you can’t fail that! But it’s not that hard to pass.

There was no cost to apply, and the application period is right now. They pay for tuition, which is normally about US$3,000 a term — probably because their classes are so small — and a monthly stipend of NT$10,000. I’m sure ShiDa (NTNU) is cheaper, but they have 25 students in a class. [My scholarship] is good for a year. I’m not planning to apply again, because I think one year is good enough for me. I’m not really sure yet what I’ll do after that. I like Taiwan a lot so I kind of want to stay, but I don’t have any concrete plans yet.

I think Mandarin’s definitely a lot easier to learn if you’re a non-Chinese speaker, because for not just Cantonese but all Chinese dialects the tones and grammar are really hard for foreigners to pick up. I don’t know how else to say it. Cantonese is definitely harder [than Mandarin] for foreigners. If you put a lot of time into it, you can speak Mandarin without an accent. but to learn Cantonese, or even Taiwanese, it’s really hard.

ICLP organizes a lot of social events for their students. They take trips to various places in Taiwan, and for the Chinese New Year they actually organized a homestay with local families. ICLP also started publishing a newsletter, completely written and designed by their students, all in Chinese. They have a lot of computers and a good language lab, with free printing. You can listen to a lot of the material on their Web site, and there’s an audio library where you can borrow a lot of tapes and CDs for free.

I’ve heard NTU has the most intensive program, but it depends on what you’re looking for. If you think you want something less expensive or more relaxed, then it probably isn’t for you.


Mandarin Chinese Learning Centers

The Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan has for many years been home to numerous Institutions devoted to the study of the Chinese Language. Perhaps this is one reason why the number of foreign students coming to the ROC for all levels of language study has been increasing for so long.

 

Students find that in addition to being able to enjoy the benefits of language training facilities, there is a much to be learned from experiencing the blend of tradition and modernity found in Taiwan. Students can simultaneously observe traditional Chinese culture as well as enjoy the advantages of a modern, developed society. This, combined with ease of association with native speakers, is enough to make the ROC a fine Chinese language learning environment.

Listing of Chinese Language Centers

National

Central

University

Language Center

No. 300, Jhongda Rd. , Jhongli

City, Taoyuan County 32001,

Taiwan

Tel:+886-3-4227151 ext. 33807

Fax:+886-3-4255384

Mail: mailto:ncu3802@ncu.edu.tw

National

Taipei

University

Of

Education

Chinese Language Education Center

Room 700C, No.134, Sec.2, Heping E.

Rd., Da-an District, Taipei City 106, Taiwan(R.O.C.)

tel:+886-2-27321104">Tel:

+886-2-27321104 ext.2025, 3331

Fax: +886-2-27325950

Mail: clec@tea.ntue.edu.tw

National

Taiwan University

Chinese Language Division

Language Center

Room 222, 2F ,No.170,Sec2,

XinHai Rd, Taipei, 106, Taiwan

Tel: +886-2-3366-3417

Fax: +886-2-83695042

Mail : cld222@ntu.edu.tw

National

Taiwan

University

International Chinese Language

Program(ICLP)

4F., No.170, Sec.2, Xinhai Rd.,

Da-an District, Taipei City 106, Taiwan

Tel: +886-2-23639123

Fax: +886-2-23626926

Mail: iclp@ntu.edu.tw

National

Taiwan Normal

University

Mandarin Training Center

No.162 Hoping East Road,

Sec.1 Taipei, Taiwan 106

Tel: +886-2-77345130

Fax: +886-2-23418431

Mail:mtc@mtc.ntnu.edu.tw

National

Chiao Tung

University

Chinese Language Center

No. 1001 Ta Hsueh

Road, Hsinchu , Taiwan 30010

Tel: +886-3-5131231

Fax:+886-3-5711431

Mail:mandarin@cc.nctu.edu.tw

National

Chengchi

University

Chinese Language Center

No.64, Sec. 2, Zhinan Rd., Wenshan District

Taipei City 11605, Taiwan(R.O.C.)

Tel: +886-2-2938-7141/7142

Fax:+886-2-2939-6353

Mail: mandarin@nccu.edu.tw

Chinese

Culture

University

Mandarin Learning Center

4F, No.231, Sec.2, Chien-Kuo S.

Rd., Taipei, Taiwan

Tel: +886-2-2700-5858

Ext.8131-8137

Fax:+886-2-27081257

Mail: mlc@sce.pccu.edu.tw

Tamkang

University

Chinese Language Center

No.5, Lane 199, Kin-Hwa

St., Taipei, Taiwan

tel:+886-2-23216320">Tel:+886-2-23216320 ext.24,34

Fax:+886-2-23214036

Mail: dce@mail.tku.edu.tw

Fu Jen

Catholic

University

Language Center

No. 510 Zhongzheng

Rd. , Xinzhuang

District 24205, New Taipei City Taiwan.

Tel:+886-2-2905-2414/3721

Fax:+886-2-29052166

Mail: flcg1013@mails.fju.edu.tw

Ming

Chuan

University

Mandarin Studies and Culture

Center

B204, NO.250 Zhong-Shan N. Rd.

Sec.5, Taipei 111 Taiwan

Tel:+886-2-2882-4564 ext.8321

Fax:+886-2-8861-3491

Mail: mscc@mcu.edu.tw

Kainan

University

Chinese Learning Center

No.1 Kainan Road, Lujhu(Luzhu),

Taoyuan 33857, Taiwan

Taipei Center:

No.38, Tai 6, Sec.1, Jinan Rd.,

Taipei, Taiwan(Room 109 A)

Tel:+886-3-341-2500 ext.4639/4640

Fax: +886-3-270-5542

Mail: mandarin@mail.knu.edu.tw

tel:+886-2-3322-4533">Tel:

+886-2-3322-4533

Fax:+886-2-2396-0071

Mail: mandarin@mail.knu.edu.tw

Chung

Yuan

Christian

University

Center of Mandarin Learning

No.200, Chung pei Rd., Chung-Li

City, Taiwan 32023, R.O.C.

Tel: +886-3-2651308

Fax: +886-3-2651399

Mail: cmlcycu@cycu.edu.tw

Chung Hua

University

International Program

No.707, Sec.2, WuFu Rd., Hsinchu 30012 Taiwan

Tel: +886-3-5186175

Fax: +886-3-5186174

Mail: international@chu.edu.tw

Taipei

Chengshih

Mandarin Center

No.2, Xueyuan Rd.,

Tel: +886-2-2892-7154 ext.2730

Fax: +886-2-2891-0145

University

Of Science

and

Technology

Beitou, Taipei,112 Taiwan

Mail: cschen@tsint.edu.tw

China

University

Of Science

And Technology

Language Center

No.245,Sec3, Academia Rd.,

Nangang Dist., Taipei City 115,

Taiwan(R.O.C.)

tel:+886-2-27821862">Tel:+886-2-27821862 ext.271

Fax:+886-2-27852344

Mail:wendy@cc.cust.edu.tw

Lunghwa

University

Of Science

And Technology

Chinese Language Center

No.300, Sec.1, Wanshou Rd.,

NGuishan Shiang, Taoyuan County

33306, Taiwan(R.O.C.)

Tel: +886-2-82093211 ext.6670

Fax: +886-2-82094650

Mail: chinese@mail.lhu.edu.tw

Soochow

University

Chinese

Language

Center

Language Center

Room A305,3F,Wang Memorial

Hall,No.70, Linhsi Road, Shihlin,

Taipei 11102, Taiwan(R.O.C.)

tel:+886-2-2881-9471">Tel:+886-2-2881-9471

Ext.5921-5922

Fax:+886-2-2883-8350

Mail:mandarin@scu.edu.tw

Tunghai

University

Chinese Language Center

P.O.Box 898. Taichung, Taiwan

tel:+886-4-23590259">Tel:+886-4-23590259

Fax:+886-4-23594408

Mail:clc@mail.thu.edu.tw

Feng Chia

University

Chinese Language Center

No. 100 Wenhwa Rd.,

Seatwen, Taichung, 40724 Taiwan

tel:+886-4-24517250">Tel:+886-4-24517250 ext.5871

Fax:+886-4-24510243

Mail:clc@fcu.edu.tw

Providence

university

Mandarin Studies and Culture

Center

200, Sec.7 , Taiwan

Boulevard, ,Shalu Dist, Taichung

City County, 43301 Taiwan

Tel: +886-4-26645009

Fax: +886-4-26330340

Mail: yhsia@pu.edu.tw

National

Taichung

University

Of

Education

Chinese Language Center

No.227, MinSheng

Road, Taichung City, Taiwan R.O.C.

tel:+886-4-22183286">Tel: +886-4-22183286

Fax:+886-22183250

Mail:clc@mail.ntcu.edu.tw

National

Chiayi

University

Language Cener

No. 580 Xinmin Rd., Chiayi

City 60004, Taiwan

Tel: +886-5-273-2981

Fax:+886-5-273-2982

Mail: cslncyu@mail.ncyu.edu.tw

National

Kaohsiung

Normal

University

Chinese Language Program

No. 116, Hoping 1 st Rd., Lingya

District, Kaohsiung, 802 Taiwan

tel:+886-7-7172930">Tel: +886-7-7172930

ext. 2603-2605

Fax: +886-7-7166903

Mail:s2@nknu.edu.tw

National

Cheng

Kung

University

College of Liberal Arts, Chinese

Language Center

No.1 , University

Road, Tainan City, 701 Taiwan

Tel: +886-6-2757575 ext.52040

Fax: +886-6-2742516

Mail:shuling@mail.ncku.edu.tw

National

Sun

Yat-Sen

University

Chinese Language Center

No.70 , Lian-hai Rd., Kaohsiung

80424 Taiwan

Tel: +886-7-5252000 ext.

3030-3031

Fax: +886-7-5253039

Mail:alfc@mail.nsysu.edu.tw

National

University

Of

Kaohsiung

Chinese Language Center

No 700, Kaohsiung University

Road, Na-Tzu District, Kaohsiung,

811 Taiwan.

Tel: +886-7-5919261

Fax: +886-7-5919258

Mail:clc@nuk.edu.tw

National

Pingtung

University

Of

Education

Chinese Language Division

No 1, Lin-sen Road, Pingtung,

900 Taiwan.

tel:+886-8-7226141">Tel:+886-8-7226141 ext.24001/24002

Fax: +881-8-7226141 ext.2639

Mail:ann0315@mail.npue.edu.tw

Southern

Taiwan

University

Of

Technology

The Chinese Language Center

No 1, Nan-Tai St., Yungkang

Dist. City, Tainan City County,

71005 Taiwan.

Tel: +886-6-2533131

ext.6010/6011

Fax: +886-6-6010067

Mail:chilance@mail.stut.edu.tw

Wenzao

Ursuline

College of

Languages

Center of Chinese Language

900, Mintsu 1 st Road, Sanming

District Kaohsiung 807, Taiwan

Tel: +886-7-3426031

ext.3302-3303

Fax: +886-7-3464672

Mail: ccl@mail.wtuc.edu.tw

National

Pingtung

University

Of Science

And

Technology

Chinese Language Center

No.1 , Shuefu Road, 91201 Neipu,

Pingtung Taiwan, R.O.C.

Tel: +886-8-7703202 ext.7715

Fax: +886-8-7740274

Mail: clc@mail.npust.edu.tw

I-Shou University

Chinese Language Center

7 F., No.21, Wufu 3 rd Road, Cianjin District, Kaohsiung City 80145, Taiwan

Tel: +886-7-216-9052

Fax: + 886-7-271-0381

Mail: EEC@isu.edu.tw

Kao Yuan

University

Chinese Language Center

NO.1821, Chung Shan Rd., Luju

Dt. Kaohsiung City, Taiwan

Tel: +886-7-6077916

Fax: +886-7-6077917

Mail:clc@cc.kyu.edu.tw

Kun Shan

University

Chinese Language Office

No.949, Dawan Rd., Yongkang

Dist., Tainan

City, Taiwan(R.O.C),71003

Tel: +886-6-2727175 ext.561 or 562

Fax: +886-6-2050006

Mail:clo@mail.ksu.edu.tw

Tzu Chi

University

Chinese Language Teaching Center

No.67, Jieren St. Hualien 97074,

Taiwan

Tel:+886-3-857-2677 ext.1682

Fax: +886-3-8466065

Mail:cltc@mail.tcu.edu.tw

Fo Guang

University

Chinese Language Instruction Center

No. 257, Zhongshan Rd., Sec. 3,

Yilan City,260, Taiwan

Tel: +886-3-9313343 ext.103

Fax:+886-3-9315904

Mail:clic@mail.fgu.edu.tw

 

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