Sunday, May 24, 2009

Shi-da

I had a commenter ask about this so I'll go ahead and post it here (comments box deemed the reply "too long"):

Shi-da

The good points about Shi-da are that they do teach you a lot in a very short amount of time, and even though I whine about the daily quizzes when they're happening, I have to admit that they do force you to study and retain information. You learn a dizzying amount of vocabulary and most of it is useful stuff (I'll get to the stuff that is not useful below). If you study and you spend a good amount of time each week talking to people in Chinese, you will retain it. They are also very good at placing students in the right level.

Now for the critiquue. My biggest annoyances with Shi-da are the teaching methods - go-round, say the vocabulary, read the sentence, move on...same for grammar. It's fine for Asian students who have learned this way before but can be a huge challenge for Westerners who aren't used to this sort of methodology (which I'd argue isn't a very good methodology) - I find after many grammar points that I still don't quite 'get it' because one example and a few exercises is simply not enough.

But...you'd be getting the same treatment at NCCU as at Shi-da, though my sister studies at NCCU and her teacher seems to be a little more into Western teaching methods.

I also find that the vocabulary in the Shi-da books is way too formal for everyday use (mostly). They tell you - with a straight face! - that when you meet someone new you should say "Xinghui" (which is so formal as to be laughable), later on they teach you things like 'xi du' ("to consume narcotics") when your average person says 'ke yao' ('to do drugs'). They teach very formal grammar constructions that you'd never find outside a newspaper and they try to make you use the Beijinghua "er" sound, which is just ridiculous in Taiwan. I used a construction I learned in one of my classes ("Na li you _______________ de daoli?" or "What's the sense in _______ing?"). Sasha, who is commenting here, actually snickered at me! Far too formal. They teach that if someone compliments you you should say 'nali nali' when almost nobody in Taiwan really says that - they say 'bu hui'. That's just a few examples of content that I feel is quite divorced from how Chinese is actually spoken.

I also don't like the politics of the place. Shi-da is a deep blue school and teachers do say things like "Women Zhongguoren" ("We Chinese" but not even "Chinese" as in "people of Chinese origin" - they say it as in "People from China") and the emphasis is on Chinese customs, Chinese traditions - things that came from China. It's as if a unique and parallel Taiwanese culture and populace who hasn't had family in China for 400 years doesn't even exist. It really grates, and I find the whole attitude to be extremely elitist.

I don't find the tests to be entirely fair, either, but that's a separate issue that you'll encounter all over Asia, so no sense bothering about it here. It just reinforces my feeling that the Shi-da program doesn't take into account the needs, obstacles and learning styles of Westerners, which biases the higher levels in favor of the Asian foreigners.

I also don't say this to insult my teacher. She's a very nice lady whose politics I happen to disagree with, but she does to a good job so who cares. It's Shi-da I've got the problem with, not her. I have heard on good authority that the director of the MTC doesn't care about whether MTC teachers have training (the "if you can speak Chinese, you can teach it" attitude, which is so wrong), but haven't personally felt this to be an issue, other than the fact that the grammar is not sufficiently reviewed and practiced.

NCCU -

I'm basing most of this on the review of my sister, who studies there. I feel it's fair to do this, because my critique above was based on my personal experiences at Shi-da and nothing more, so why not base an assessment of NCCU on my sister's experiences?

On the upside, they use the same books as Shi-da, so you get the same vocabulary and grammar at about the same rate. She also speaks highly of her teachers there. The one she has now has a very modern approach to teaching, with lots of reinforcement, activities and practice which she changes around so the students don't get bored.

The thing is, when it comes down to it, NCCU isn't really that much better than Shi-da, and if your NT $30k quote is correct, it's also more expensive.

My sister was shunted around to various levels because the classes at the level she was at were full...and she's a study abroad student so she can't just go elsewhere. She complained that it felt as though they cared far less about her level than their own convenience in terms of class numbers, and therefore didn't care if she learned effectively (seeing as they wouldn't/couldn't place her in the right level). She felt that she was expected to learn an impossible number of new characters per day and that, just like at Shi-da, the testing methods weren't geared well to her level.

I can say in Shi-da's defense that they put me exactly where I needed to be.

And a quick word about TLI and NTU -

As for the specific question of said commenter...

I don't think your placement would be any better at Shi-da, as you have to take a written and oral placement test. If you can't read at all, you'll bomb the written and they'll stick you in a lower level class to compensate for it. Tai-da would be about the same.

So basically, if you want to take a group class, no one university is better than the others (though Taida charges the most so I avoid them, because I don't see any added value to make the extra $ worth spending).

With all that in mind, and considering your situation, you ought to look into TLI (Taipei Language Institute). You can get a one-on-one teacher - for the same price you'd get fewer hours, though - and spend a semester getting your writing caught up to your speaking while setting aside time to work on speaking before enrolling at a university, or just continue there and take a group class. If you can find a few foreigners in a similar situation you could even get a class opened just for your group (Shi-da also offers this but with a minimum of five guaranteed students. I think TLI's minimum is three, but I'm not sure).

TLI isn't a university, it's a business, so in general they're more in tune with their customers' needs. They're a lot more efficient and a lot more flexible and accommodating. They're also cheaper. I really liked my teachers there, and hope to ask at least one for a recommendation I apply for graduate school. The front desk was approachable and efficient. Their class options were more tailored to students' needs, though the standard group classes run about NT$25k per semester and are three hours a day compared to Shi-da's two. I can't take them as I don't have three free hours at the same time every day.

As for prices, it goes something like this:

Tai-da - most expensive (though at NT $30k maybe NCCU can compete for that title)
NCCU - if it's NT$30k as you said
Shi-da - NT $21,000 or so per semester
TLI - NT$25,000/semester, but you get five extra hours of classtime per week

My bone with TLI? For any course, if there is a typhoon day the class is cancelled. For a group class this is no big deal. But at TLI, for a one-on-one, if there's a typhoon day your class is also cancelled and there's no make-up and no refund. That one-on-one student loses the money they pre-paid for the class (same deal if you skip due to illness, work or anything else). I can understand in cases of a person having to cancel, but due to a typhoon day? I lost NT$840 worth of classtime for just that reason and you can bet your butt I was annoyed.

8 comments:

Cahleen Hudson said...

Thanks for such a thorough reply! NCCU is actually 27,000, so I kind of rounded up for the shock effect. Still though, that's expensive!

Out of all the university programs, I've only tried the one at Chinese Culture University, and at 15,000, I think they're the cheapest in Taipei. I've also done the group class at TLI, so here's my take:

Chinese Culture: cheap, teachers seemed to be younger and more modern (but I had one boring old one), nice facilities, pretty small classes, if you didn't need the student visa (like me) you just did the 10 hours a week of class. If you needed it, you just enrolled in another small class (pronunciation or something) that was the extra 5 hours a week you needed. As for the bad stuff, pretty much the same stuff you said about Shida except for the politics. I ended up leaving because a group of students joined our class that wouldn't stop speaking English to me and I got fed up with all the characters.

TLI group class: Liked that I had more control over what kind of class I took. Liked the almost nonexistent focus on writing characters. I didn't like that all students had to take 3 hours of class a day (2 is my limit) because some students needed a visa. Didn't like that some of the other students there didn't seem to be very serious about improving and learning, as everyone would be passed no matter what and there really weren't any tests or anything. Also, some teachers used too much English and the students were lazy and welcomed this.

This was just my experience! =)

Jenna said...

Hmmm, interesting!

I was considering TLI for the fall, because I'm annoyed with Shi-da to the point where I am looking at other options (NCCU is too far away and NTU is too expensive so they're off the list). But I don't think I'd like a group class there, because I'm fine with speaking; I actually do want to improve my character-writing!

Shi-da is more structured - you need to 'pass', there are lots of tests (too many, methinks) and other than at the lowest levels (maybe not even there, I've never taken a low-level Shi-da class; I started on Book 4) the teachers don't speak English at all. But...they're very old-fashioned. Our teacher is an exception, and even she isn't quite a 'modern' teacher though she's younger and more talented than the usual old ladies. Not to diss old lady teachers; I'll probably be one someday.

I don't think the entire Shi-da testing process is unfair, just that whoever wrote their multiple choice questions didn't think long and hard about what questions would be clear for non-native, not-yet-fluent speakers and I feel the grammar is a little ridiculous and formal. I do want to learn formal Chinese, I just don't want it to be my focus.

I'm thinking of taking a TLI one-on-one over the summer to focus on tones, character-writing and learn a little more Taiwanese and make my decision about schools in the fall.

Sasha said...

As a Taiwanese student who studies English in Taiwan,i have no idea how the class goes abroad. ( in the States or in UK). but actually we are taught formal English,too. We are told to it's always right to speak polite way. As for speaking slangs, we all know slangs change,and probably that's why the language center doesn't teach practical Chinese to the students. (like Ke Yao and Xi Du). have fun in learning Chinese loh.

Jenna said...

BTW, I'm pretty sure the basic slang I'm talking about - like 'ke yao' (instead of 'xi du') and 'bu hui' (instead of 'na li') has been around for awhile and will continue to be around for long enough to make teaching it practical - or at least teaching it alongside the more formal speech.

Doesn't change the fact that I don't want to be taught how to talk like a newspaper.

I think they teach the more formal forms because that's what they think 'students' should learn, because formal Chinese is seen as somehow better and more appropriate. I don't think they quite get that students who actually talk that way sound ridiculous.

It's not as bad now...our new chapter has some useful slang that I've known for awhile, like 'chi X de doufu' (to grope/sexually harass X). If they're willing to teach that, what's the deal with teaching us that in Taiwan we should say things like 'xinghui' and 'deng yihuir'?

A Shida Student said...

A classroom is not for learning slang... If you learn something in a proper setting, and pay for it no less, it's probably going to be proper grammar. The easiest way to learn slang is to watch TV, though you may argue that it's too daunting, fine.

The fact that you're learning the 兒 isn't a big issue, in my opinion. The fact of the matter is, that unless your teacher marks you INCORRECT or says 'BEEP. WRONG' when you omit the piece when speaking, then you shouldn't be worried about it, because you're right that it's not commonly used in Taiwan outside of a Mandarin class setting.

Look, I'm a Shida student too- and I also came from NTU's ICLP (the expensive one) and I can tell you that the programs are wayyyyyy different. My Shida teacher HEAVILY emphasized proper grammar and proper everything. It was much more challenging for me, a native speaker (ABC), than the more 白話/口語 ICLP courses. There are differences, and you should embrace proper grammar.

You need to ask yourself what your ultimate goal is. Are you learning Mandarin for a job where you speak to clients, like say a receptionist in a hotel, or are you looking to do business? Because regardless of which kind of job you choose, you NEED to be formal. This is not a secret. Chinese are extremely formal to strangers, and if you're doing business, most likely everyone is a stranger. Learn formalities first, then tackle slang when you're more fluent. You don't know how long you're staying in a country, and slang changes every week, month, year. Formalities don't change as quickly.

PS: Of course your teacher would say 'we are all CHINESE' -- you're learning Beijing Mandarin. Don't be confused, you are absolutely not learning Taiwanese Mandarin; but you know this already.

Jenna said...

I'm OK with saying "We are all Chinese" if she would use the term 'huaren'...I find 'Zhongguoren' offensive because while a Taiwanese person is Chinese as in 'huaren', she says it as though all Taiwanese are from China ('Zhongguoren') - and I'm not talking about her reference to the text...but to herself and other Taiwanese people. I disagree deeply with this assertion.

It's not that I disagree with you on the formal grammar. Sure, there is a time and place for learning it. However, I don't feel that it should be taught as the only way to say something, which is is at the MTC. Same for ultra-formal vocabulary. I realize it exists and am fine with it being taught, as long as Chinese as it is normally spoken is also taught.

I also disagree that formal grammar = proper grammar. Proper grammar is the grammar one uses when speaking Chinese the way a native speaker would without making obvious mistakes. That does not mean it has to be formal. I don't care if some long, elaborate construction that nobody uses anymore is 'proper' - if I'm being teased about using it, it's no good! How can anyone say that the best/only Chinese worth learning is the Chinese that your friends will chide you for speaking?

By the way, I do disagree that one only needs formal Chinese if they are learning it for work. I do corporate training here and I can tell you that while Chinese are extremely formal to strangers who are clients, they wouldn't be so formal to, say, a new colleague...and that the barriers of formality break down more quickly than one realizes between representatives and clients who know each other well. If you're going out with clients to karaoke (the legit kind or the sleazy kind, take your pick) or downing Gaoliang or Grey Goose with them, I can assure you that formal Chinese goes out the window. I don't think many people realize that because second language learners rarely get to that less-formal stage if they are learning Chinese for business purposes. Why? Because nobody teaches them!

So I guess I'm saying that formal Chinese has its place, but I also want to learn to speak Chinese the way one normally does...because besides using it for business, I have to use it in everyday life, too.

Plus, as I mentioned above, the slang I want them to incorporate doesn't change every month or year...it's just the normal, informal way of speaking.

Jenna said...

I'm OK with saying "We are all Chinese" if she would use the term 'huaren'...I find 'Zhongguoren' offensive because while a Taiwanese person is Chinese as in 'huaren', she says it as though all Taiwanese are from China ('Zhongguoren') - and I'm not talking about her reference to the text...but to herself and other Taiwanese people. I disagree deeply with this assertion.

It's not that I disagree with you on the formal grammar. Sure, there is a time and place for learning it. However, I don't feel that it should be taught as the only way to say something, which is is at the MTC. Same for ultra-formal vocabulary. I realize it exists and am fine with it being taught, as long as Chinese as it is normally spoken is also taught.

I also disagree that formal grammar = proper grammar. Proper grammar is the grammar one uses when speaking Chinese the way a native speaker would without making obvious mistakes. That does not mean it has to be formal. I don't care if some long, elaborate construction that nobody uses anymore is 'proper' - if I'm being teased about using it, it's no good! How can anyone say that the best/only Chinese worth learning is the Chinese that your friends will chide you for speaking?

By the way, I do disagree that one only needs formal Chinese if they are learning it for work. I do corporate training here and I can tell you that while Chinese are extremely formal to strangers who are clients, they wouldn't be so formal to, say, a new colleague...and that the barriers of formality break down more quickly than one realizes between representatives and clients who know each other well. If you're going out with clients to karaoke (the legit kind or the sleazy kind, take your pick) or downing Gaoliang or Grey Goose with them, I can assure you that formal Chinese goes out the window. I don't think many people realize that because second language learners rarely get to that less-formal stage if they are learning Chinese for business purposes. Why? Because nobody teaches them!

So I guess I'm saying that formal Chinese has its place, but I also want to learn to speak Chinese the way one normally does...because besides using it for business, I have to use it in everyday life, too.

Plus, as I mentioned above, the slang I want them to incorporate doesn't change every month or year...it's just the normal, informal way of speaking.

v said...

just as taiwan parents really need a native english speaker friend to evaluate the quality (accent/up-to-dateness of grammar, idioms) of language at a buxiban, so do foreigners learning chinese in taiwan need a native mandarin speaker to evaluate their mandarin materials. if i were a chinese speaker, i would not want to learn english expressions like 'i am so cross today' or 'do we have anything left in the icebox?' this is how my 91 year old grandfather talks. abc's might not be the best judge either if their mandarin comes from family members who have lived away form china and taiwan for years with only occasional visits back. i do think one poster has a good point. you have to think why you are learning mandarin. if it's not for a situation where you will be heavily judged for you language skills (you want to work with native mandarin speaking customers or as a chinese teacher), you need to make sure you learn to speak both formally and informally. but if you just want to use mandarin as a way to communicate with mandarin speakers and learn from them, i feel there is more room for imperfection. i went to the mandarin daily news training center for a couple of weeks and then dropped out since the mandarin taught was substantially different than what i heard coming out of the mouths of people on the street. i bought grammar books, learned zhu yin fu hao, and wrote down new stuff i heard in it. i learned mandarin without going to a school.