Showing posts with label grad_school. Show all posts
Showing posts with label grad_school. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Coronanxiety

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Not at all related to the post. I just figured we all deserved a nice picture of a fancy tea set. 


We're all feeling anxious these days. That should be so obvious that I'm not sure why I'm writing this at all. Maybe someone will read it and realize they're not alone - that's the best I can hope for.

Knowing that most people reading this are in Taiwan or connected to Taiwan in some way, my guess is that your anxiety is similar to mine: not so much fear of bodies piling up due to the CCP Virus - the government seems to have the actual spread pretty well under control - but worrying about our loved ones abroad, and what will become of the Taiwanese economy, and our jobs, at the end of it all.

And, yes, anxiety over a possible lockdown. If community transmission becomes apparent, we can be sure a lockdown will shortly follow, before it can get out of hand. 


On top of that, I've been dealing with diagnosed generalized anxiety for almost a year now, though frankly I've probably had it longer than that. Alongside the pressures of working full-time while writing a dissertation, the CCP Virus has been poking at that anxiety nonstop.

So yes, I've been worried about all those things, but I've also found that wearing a mask triggers my anxiety. It's something about having my face constricted, with breathing made more difficult. It's a feeling of being trapped, and it freaks me out. I've been known to rip my mask off and stand in place so I can just breathe. I'm able to breathe physically in them, but psychologically being able to breathe is a different matter entirely. Oddly, wearing one without a cover is worse than slipping it inside a cloth barrier: the softness of the cloth helps mitigate it somewhat.

It's a difficult position to be in when I want to support the social ritual of donning a mask to show we're "all in this together", regardless of whether or not they're effective (I have no idea if they are, but as an obstacle keeping me from touching the lower half of my face, it can't hurt). But, when I wear a mask for too long, I can't actually function in the society where they've taken on this symbolism. I find myself staying home more for this reason.

Besides, when I've tried to go out without one, as I don't think the risk of infection is serious enough to warrant it all the time, I've been asked why I'm not wearing one, or made to answer for my whole country, or all Westerners: why aren't they wearing masks? Don't they know that masks can help?

I usually don't feel like representing my entire country or hemisphere (yes, I realize people of color in the West are faced with this expectation all the time and if anything, it's a privilege that I am usually not). I truly don't feel like explaining to strangers that I have anxiety and the 'trapped' feeling of a mask triggers it. It's rough.

I have no easy answers for that, other than to mentally prepare myself for donning a mask every time I go out - it does help. So does practice - short trips with a fixed end time when I know the mask can come off. I walk when I can, as bus and taxi drivers are likely to ask questions if I don't wear a mask, and it's straight-up weird not to wear one on the MRT these days. In any case, I'm not in confined spaces with random people if I'm walking in the open air.

The anxiety also tends to fold in on itself: that I have anxiety about the CCP Virus makes me feel anxious, so I'm anxious about my own anxiety. I bet that's a familiar feeling for many.

Let me pile on some cliches: there's also the waiting for the other shoe to drop: Taiwan's been doing a great job, but we're not out of the woods yet. I feel like - if there's going to be a lockdown it would be more mentally reassuring if it just happened already (not that I want it to, but the waiting is almost worse). If the economy is going to ruin us all, I don't want to feel like that's a future thing for me to stew about in the present. It's like a tsunami coming in. Sure, you're safer when the tide is going way out, but watching it recede, you know the massive wave is coming in. For Taiwan, that'll probably be an economic shock, but honestly we could also start to see that dreaded community transmission.

It's so weird reading about how the rest of the world is falling apart and economic collapse is surely coming, when life in Taiwan is more or less normal. A bit more teleconferencing and a lot more masks, but otherwise there's been minimal disruption.

And while this country feels safe, it's not a great feeling to know that so many of my loved ones are not as well-protected. Their governments are failing them, and one of those governments is the one I vote for, the one my citizenship is tied to. That I jumped ship to a country that actually knows what it's doing was purely a matter of luck. 


On top of all of that, I'm trying to write a dissertation. I can do that from home, and do videoconference interviews. But I worry about the operations of my university, how preoccupied my supervisor surely is, and frankly, I don't even have the free time to sit and work on the damn thing. And anxiety over that is also folding in on itself, so I'm anxious about the dissertation and anxious about my anxiety over the dissertation.

So what am I doing about it? Rather than taking medication more regularly (I don't have to take a daily pill) and staying home more, with low lights and pleasant music rather than radio broadcasts from the US, where it sounds like the zombie apocalypse is upon us, I've found that approaching it like a frontierwoman helps.

In addition to stocking up on non-perishables, making a few jars of pickles and filling my freezer with blanched fresh vegetables has kept my hands busy and helped convince my wayward brain that it's doing something useful and proactive. It helps. We have a few weeks' worth of food, and healthy food at that. If the lockdown never comes, we have lower grocery bills for awhile, as we weather the economic storm.

I've been focusing on Taiwan's excellent response, not just from the government but the people. There is a sense here that "we're all in this together", and I see people being generous and forgiving with each other more than cruel and opportunistic. It's calming to witness, as I watch the US government outbid state governments for medical equipment, people steal masks from hospitals, Chinese cities steal masks from each other, the UK deciding that it was okay for lots of people to die (a decision they reversed too late) and the US government floats the same idea, so that rich people can stay rich.

In Taiwan, the government is doing its job, people are doing as asked, businesses are starting to take precautions (as opposed to risking lives). It's not perfect but if I focus on the local situation, I can wake up every morning not wondering what fresh hell awaits.

Yes, bus drivers have asked me why I don't wear a mask, when I just can't take it anymore. But, rather than hector me, one gave me an extra mask he had. 


Oh yeah, I've been drinking a bit more frequently (though not more heavily) too. I have a list of people that I would be happy to see get the CCP Virus (Xi Jinping is at the top of it. Trump and Mitch McConnell are there too). One guy on my list already has it, though that's not entirely good news.

Basically I'm also a dark-hearted person.

So, just in case you thought I was dealing with this in only healthy ways - I'm not! 

Saturday, June 8, 2019

My favorite Taipei cafes: 2019 rundown

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In the past I've done reduxes of my favorite cafes for atmosphere - which is mostly accurate still, though a few places have moved (such as Nancy), rebranded as restaurants (Anhe 65), are now noisy tea shops (Red House Theater), or closed (Mono Cafe). I've done one for good coffee in Taipei as well - though that's a bit more outdated: My Sweetie Pie is long gone and there is now more than one George House in the Yongkang Street area. I don't think Naruwan Indigenous People's Market is still a thing anymore, either, though I haven't been in awhile.

Both posts are now badly in need of an update - most of the places I mentioned are still open, but I've found new haunts that I like just as much.

To deal with that, I'll leave those old posts as they are (links above) and provide here a new redux of where I'm imbibing right now. This isn't just for folks who live here - when I've traveled to other cities with hopping cafe scenes, I've found blogs in English by committed residents of those cities to be helpful guides as to where to go. So I want to be one of the people who does that for Taipei. Plus, as a grad student, I spend a lot of time in cafes getting reading done or writing papers so my list of good spots has grown.


You'll see some of my old entries repeated here, with new ones added, and I've prioritized places with outdoor seating, as that's so hard to find in Taipei. I've also noted where some cafes are near other good options, as seating can be so hard to come by. There's also a bias towards southern Taipei because that's where I live and hang out. Overall there's simply a lot of bias for "places I actually go to", so there's not much more to unite them thematically than that. No pretension to "the best" or "the top 10" or whatever - just my real world.

Instead of looking up each address like it's still 2010, I've gone ahead and made a Google Maps list, which you can access here. (I realized after I'd made it that I could actually create a map rather than just a list, but I'm too lazy to go back and re-do it, so this'll do for now.) 



Heritage Bakery and Cafe

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This 'newcomer' (opened in 2016) has quickly become a go-to spot in the Taipei Main Station/Ximen area. Pretty much everything about it is excellent - you feel as you walk in that you're somewhere in New York being exceedingly posh in that middle-class hipster sort of way. If that doesn't sound appealing to you - a bit to gentrificationy - don't let that deter you (you're not gentrifying much here - the neighborhood is much the same as it always was). Go for the bright, attractive upstairs seating with exposed brick walls, the very good coffee and other drinks (non-coffee drinkers can choose a variety of teas or fizzy drinks, or beer) and most of all, the desserts.


Oh, the desserts.
Westerners who complain that Taipei doesn't have good dessert options can shove some of this cake in their cakehole - from fluffy, perfect, cinnamony cinnamon rolls which sell out quickly to pink guava cheesecake to sea salt caramel Belgian chocolate cake all in generous or even huge servings, this place knows how to do Western-style desserts. The foccaccia sandwiches are quite good too - try the chicken avocado club.


It's not particularly cheap - drinks, sandwiches and a cinnamon roll for 2 will cost you NT$900 and change - but it's not insane. 90-minute limit on holidays and weekends. Otherwise, pretty much the only downside is that the air conditioner is often on full-blast, which makes it a bit chilly. Bring a cardigan.

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This Cafe ((這間咖啡)


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This is quickly becoming one of my favorite work cafes. Very strong social movement bent (check out the "I Support Taiwan Independence" banner in the back), good wifi and lots of plugs - it's quiet and you can usually get a seat. It's a little dimly lit but that just adds to the charm and isn't a problem if you're on a computer, and the table in back is set under antique Taiwanese milk glass hanging lamps. They have non-coffee drinks including beer, and a small selection of sandwiches and salads which are reasonably priced. I think I also like it because the guy who most often works there knows me on sight and knows my order by heart now. Plus they're open pretty late. There are other cafes nearby, such as Perch (nice, but often crowded) and PuiBui, which I haven't tried yet. 


Cafe Le Zinc


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Set in the back of an old Dihua Street shophouse, Le Zinc can be accessed through the Art Yard ceramics shop from Dihua, or directly from a little lane that snakes around the back. Seating is limited but I've never had a problem, and the well-lit long table has plugs. There's also strong wifi. Windows look out into the narrow courtyard of the old house, where the bathroom is. There's an extensive (but expensive) wine list - house wine by the glass is more affordable - beer, coffee and light food. Music leans toward the jazzy and old-fashioned, which I like. It's a good place to work (on account of the big table, wifi and plugs) and also a good place to meet friends just to chat.

In fact, this whole area is bursting with cafes - if you can't get a seat at Le Zinc, you can surely get a seat somewhere. There are so many that I can't possibly put them all on my map.

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Fleisch

Dihua Street is actually bursting with cafes these days - a huge change from my first few years here when it was a somewhat forgotten corner of the city where you could do a little fabric or dry-goods shopping and check out the old buildings, but not much else. If anywhere in Taipei has gentrified, it's here - and yet the fabric and dry-goods sellers still mostly seem to be in business. Where Le Zinc stands out for its table space and wine/beer list, Fleisch has some unique coffee drinks - my favorite being a latte with dried Mandarin orange (dried citrus slices are fairly common dried goods in Taiwan - they make a nice drink steeped in boiling water.)



Hakkafe

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A very new addition to the Dihua Street cafe scene, Hakkafe was opened by an entrepreneurial Hakka guy named Terry who is friendly and enthusiastic about his mission to create a modern cafe space with a traditional Hakka twist. The space is large, minimalist and quiet, done in shades of black, white, gray and wood. We especially liked the Hakka BLT (with Taiwanese pickled green chilis), and the brownie was wonderful. I highly recommend the Hakka breakfast tea - Terry noticed that England has a 'breakfast tea' culture but Taiwan, another tea-drinking nation, does not. So he set out to blend his own. The results are stunning.

This is the only place on the list that doesn't actually serve coffee, but you won't miss it if you try the Hakka Breakfast Tea.

It's also near funky-looking Chance Cafe (
一線牽), which I haven't tried yet. 
 

The Lightened

Formerly Backstage Cafe, which had a student activist/social movement theme (yes, a theme, but the former owner was apparently active in those circles), The Lightened is now associated with Anmesty International Taiwan. Located on Fuxing South Road near the back gate of National Taiwan University, The Lightened is unpretentious, well-lit, there are lots of plugs and good wifi, and you can always get a seat. The coffee is good (and fair trade), there's a small selection of beer and the desserts are homemade. On weekends a spunky black-and-white cat might be around.



Rufous Coffee


Almost directly across the street from The Lightened, Rufous is a bit darker, more famous, and is known for having top-notch coffee. Any of the single origin choices are good, and the Irish coffee is spectacular. That said, non-coffee drinkers won't find much here, and they don't have much in the way of food, either. I like it for its cozy, friendly atmosphere, though it can be hard to get a seat sometimes. Not far away there's a 2nd branch, which is quite close to URBN Culture. 



Shake House (雪可屋)


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 I simply cannot write a post about coffee without including my long-time hangout. I don't know why I go to Shake House. There's no wifi, nor any plugs. The bathroom is tiny and through a dilapidated passageway. Lamps are hanging flower pots with ribbons. The chairs are ancient. But I just love the place - it's like, in every city I live in, I need my student hangout in some old building that's falling apart, and I just get attached to it. That's how it is. The coffee is good, the chicken sandwiches above average, the beer selection excellent (and affordable as cafes go), they're open very late and the music is...eclectic. From odd movie soundtracks to church music to Johnny Cash to John Coltrane to whatever. You just literally never know what you'll get. Also, I know the owners and they know me.


If you really need plugs and wifi, Cafe Bastille is just across the lane (and there are other cafes in the area, including Drop Coffee and its new neighbor).


Drop Coffee (滴咖啡)

Drop is another coffeeshop I always include. On Xinsheng Road just across the street from NTU, the space is a renovated Japanese wooden house. The owner is passionate about coffee and does a mean siphon brew. The dog - 橘子 (Orange, although he is black) - is unfriendly in a comical way. There are a few teas on the menu as well as some desserts but really you come here for the coffee. A new place has opened across the lane which has more space, but I haven't checked it out yet.


Cafe Philo


If you go to any sort of political or activist talks or activities, you know Cafe Philo. They have a space downstairs just for that. Upstairs, they have generous space and a wide menu which includes food. I've been going there recently as I'm taking a course (not related to my Master's - because I'm insane) and I can always get a seat.



8%

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This large black-and-white space on Yongkang Park advertises itself as an ice cream shop, but you can absolutely get coffee here. They have a good deck if you want to sit outside, and the coffee is high-quality. You can get some interesting coffee drinks here that you may not find elsewhere - I had iced coffee in a glass flask that I could pour over a giant ice ball, and my friend had a huge ball of iced coffee that melted as he poured foamed milk over it.


Caffe Libero


Another classic, I've found myself going here less ever since Red On Tree left (they used to sell excellent French-style pastry confections on-site), and they close early on Sundays. But I still love the place for its outdoor seating, quirky indoor decor, cigar selection and more.



Yaboo

Near 8% and Libero, Yaboo has decent sandwiches and - most importantly - cats! Also a nice atmosphere, but it fills up on weekends. A seat is not guaranteed. But the cats are sweet and friendly.


Angle

Another minimalist place, I like it for its weird shape and good coffee (though all they really have are coffee and a small dessert selection). Big windows let the light in, and it's called Angle because it's set in a weird triangular building outcrop on Rui'an Street (Pillow Cafe, which is also good and used to have a corgi, is nearby. They're under new ownership - hence no more corgi - and friendly.) I find myself here on the occasional Sunday as one can usually get a seat, and there are good views from the bar seats.



Slo-mo Cafe

This place has generous indoor seating and an outdoor area partitioned off from the lane - although smoking is allowed outdoors, it's never too overwhelming. The lane is not particularly busy (except at rush hour) - you may know it as the shortcut between Keelung Road where the gas station is and the Far Eastern Hotel or Carnegie's. The only real downside to sitting outside is that there are some mosquitoes - but that's an issue with all of the outdoor options listed. The desserts are standard cafe fare - though I like the lemon cake - and the glass of white wine I once got on a scorching day was pretty good. Even better? This place never seems to fill up.



Beautiful Tree Coffee (美樹咖啡館)

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This place is tiny and odd, run by a friendly older man. I absolutely love it. There's something of a rainforest theme going on, with a little outdoor area that has birds. And a ceiling with faux stained glass skylights! I'm not sure how to describe this place beyond that, it sort of defies description and, like many quirky spots, is in a gussied-up old building. The coffee was fine, and I genuinely liked their ham and cheese sandwich. Not too expensive, either. It's very close to Slo-mo as well as another place called Kaldi that I haven't tried yet. 



A8 Cafe

A8 is one of my favorite workspaces. It was opened by world-famous Taiwanese indigenous pop star A-mei and employs indigenous staff. The space has a sort of industrial decor (concrete floor, warehouse windows, exposed brick) with good lighting, big shared tables as well as individual tables and couch areas (one of which is set under a real potted tree - my favorite spot), quirky decorative elements, plugs and good wifi. They have a full menu of cafe standards as well as meals and alcohol, but they close a bit early (around 9pm, but they'll let you stick around until they really pack up for the night.) They're closed on Mondays and sometimes take business breaks, but nearby 青沐, which is technically a restaurant, will let you order a drink and just hang out if they're not too busy. There's also a nearby place called Pachamama which I haven't been to, but looks cool. 


The FOLKS

I go here because it's near my home - it's not really a workspace but you can sit outside on the little deck, and it's basically a cool, bare-bones espresso bar in a quiet lane. 


Cafe Costumice

The Big Mama of cafes where you can sit outside, Costumice is that cafe everyone knows about, and yet you can usually get a seat (not always outside, though). Its major selling point is the huge front deck (bring bug repellent) which feels like an outdoor urban oasis. Though they are a little expensive, they're worth a splurge. There's a modest but pretty good food menu, wine (including a sparkling white which makes for a decent champagne on a hot brunch-y day) and beer.



The Key

I'm including The Key's cafe - The Key is my gym - because I've been spending a lot of time there, and they make a real effort to provide quality fare at good prices (and members get discounts). Strong wifi, plugs, a range of sandwiches and a protein-rich chicken meal if you're keto and a good range of drinks beyond coffee make it a fine place to hang out. It's been useful for me to go to the gym, do a short session on one of the cardio machines, and then head to the cafe to get some grad school work done. There are a few tables outside as well. Just down the road is another cafe decorated with hanging plants which looks promising as well - I think it's where the churro place used to be - but I haven't checked it out yet. 


Coffee Tree (咖啡樹)

This spot near Zhongxiao Dunhua has a range of fattening desserts, beer, coffee and more. The interior decor is interesting, but we go because they have outdoor seating along a lane popular with pedestrians. It's near Quay Cafe which I haven't been to but would like to try. 


Coffeeology

My go-to spot when I'm in the Taipei Arena neighborhood. Coffeeology has truly excellent coffee at great prices. No food - just some cookie-like snacks - but you can get a large latte with Irish cream (real Irish cream, not just a flavor syrup) for very little money by coffeeshop standards. There are a few chairs outside, but the whole space is fairly open so you feel like you're outdoors even though you're technically not. Great beans to bring home at good prices, too. 



Zabu (in its new location)


I actually haven't been in ages because it's quite far from where I live, but if I'm in the north Tienmu area, this is my spot. It's the same Japanese-influenced hipster haven it's always been, with great rice balls, cats, and student-funky decor that it used to be in Shi-da all those years ago before the jerks made that neighborhood boring. 


cat.jpg


Every few months, I teach a six-week course at the Shi-da school of continuing education, on the campus that Yongkang Street hits as it ends. During one of these classes, I have to give my trainees their final exam and then stick around to pick it up, so I go to cat.jpg while they work.

You'll find cat.jpg one lane behind that Shi-da campus, where are a small klatch of cool places, including Bea's Bistro (friendly, but more of a restaurant), Nom Nom (below) and cat.jpg. There's also a local population of yellow-and-white street cats and an urban garden, some of whom are friendly and all of whom seem to be kept healthy and fed by the local community.

cat.jpg has two of their own cats who are sociable enough (one is firiendlier than the other). They have wifi, a big work table and sandwiches on the menu. 



Nom Nom


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Nom Nom is not only a great cafe (and place where you can buy ceramic ware), but also a decent brunch spot. Sandwiches and fried chicken are served with luscious little salads, and there's French Toast on the menu. Try the cumin chicken sandwich with apple and honey for sure. Their milkshakes are straight-up luxurious, served overflowing on lipped coasters so they don't mess up the table. The mint chocolate milkshake is garnished with mint leaves and a dried orange slice and then sprinkled with chocolate bits. Also, the place is Peak Taiwanese Hipster.

 

Classic Coffee (品客經典咖啡)


Classic Coffee, in the Shi-da Road neighborhood which used to be fun, doesn't look like anything special. There's food and perfectly good coffee. But this place has a major selling point - a super friendly old cat who will aggressively love you, and a similarly friendly fat corgi who gets jealous of the cat. It's my favorite cat cafe because that cat is just so in-your-face with the cuddles and snuggles, and it's a fluffy cat, too. 


Notch (Front Station)


I don't typically expect funky, studenty coffeeshops in the Taipei Main Station neighborhood - it's an area loaded with cram schools, cheap shopping, a few government buildings...not a place where students really hang out. But this particular branch of Notch brings it. It's also not particularly far from the Legislative Yuan, so if you need a place to go after a good hearty protest, this is a great choice. When the same-sex marriage bill was passed last month, I spent a period of time here out of the pouring rain, watching the deliberations at the Legislative Yuan on their good wifi (far better than trying to connect alongside 20,000 other people standing outside in bad weather). 


Look Upstairs (上樓看看)


An excellent 'work cafe' in Xinyi near City Hall Station, this place has good drinks and beer. There's food too, but it's a little expensive. Lots of space, good light, wifi and plugs - you can settle in here to get things done, especially upstairs. Some tables and countertops even have desk lamps. 


2730 Cafe

Another cat cafe! This little place in a tiny shack-like building is very close to Liquid Bread and is attached to a vintage store (of which there are not too many in Taipei). I've only had the beer and coffee - they have a DPP beer! Which...odd, but tasted fine! But a big selling point here are the two cats, one black and the other white. It's also easy to get to from Xinyi, an area that isn't exactly known for its great cafes, so it's a solid choice in that neighborhood.



BreakFirst Cafe & Studio (棗點咖啡)

Sometimes we take care of a friend's pets in the Dazhi area, and this is our go-to when we're around there. The main selling point (beyond seats usually being available) is that they have several cats! 



Lion / LineUp Dessert


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I ended up liking this place because I reviewed it for FunNow - but it's a funky little spot in an area not known for cafes (the Zhongshan Elementary School MRT area), with great desserts and solid croque sandwiches. The coffee is just OK, but I go for the desserts.


Jing Xin Cafe (晶心咖啡館)


To be honest, this isn't a place I go to hang out - it's sort of a hybrid coffeeshop and crystal shop in an odd corner of Taipei. But, they roast Taiwanese coffee beans which make great gifts (and they sell them at a reasonable price), so I wanted to include them for this reason. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Delta vs. Masters Throwdown

I've only been at Exeter for a few weeks and haven't started the assignment writing part of my course yet, so I may come back and edit this at some point in the future. However, I do feel qualified to comment on what it's like doing a modular Cambridge Delta compared to doing a Master's degree in TESOL.

In the introductory section on the first day of my MEd program, I walked into the classroom remembering this completely preposterous exchange on Facebook: the admin of a CELTA-specific group grew inexplicably angry when I ventured that a Delta was likely just as challenging as a Master's, and a Delta holder will have learned just as much as a Master's graduate (although they may have learned some different things, and certainly in different ways).

"A Master's is a one-year or several-year high-level program. A Delta can be completed in 12 weeks. There is no way a Delta can compare to a Master's," the admin insisted.

Although I had not yet started a Master's then, I was basing this suggestion on anecdotes from friends and colleagues who have done both, many if not all of whom feel Delta was actually harder. I was also considering the Ofqual rankings, which award Delta the same level (7) as a Master's. Surely they wouldn't do so for no reason. I was also considering my Delta experience, which consisted of deep and intensive exposure to the academic and practical corpus of research into teaching and learning English, from the fairly unacademic, somewhat beginner 'How to...' series all the way up to dense analyses in Applied Linguistics. Most of our work was self-directed, with the expectation that we would, after Module 1, create thoughtful and worthwhile output rather than a regurgitation of our reading.

For this insolence, I was banned from the group, but whatever. I was mostly amused by the other person's complete certainty that the Delta was the cakewalk and the Master's was the rigorous training program. I am not certain the holder of this deep and anger-inducing opinion held either degree.

That's a part of why I'm writing this - there are a lot of opinions out there, mostly by people who have taken one course or the other (but not both), or who have done neither. I'm not sure I'm better qualified than those people quite yet, but I have some experience and an 'Edit' button for future thoughts, so I figure it's worth having a go. Don't take this as my final opinion on the matter: my thoughts on this are very much a work in progress.

I also want to take some time to discuss which one is the better choice if you want to teach English in Taiwan.

The short version of my opinion is that, in fact, those who compare the Delta unfavorably to a Master's: my original supposition that they are roughly equal in difficulty and content learned seems to be holding up. The Master's program feels easier now, but I suspect that will change. What will certainly remain constant is that the way of transmitting knowledge and its intended application is very different indeed between the two types of program.

The Delta is hard. It took me three years; it's not at all true that "it can be completed in just 12 weeks". First of all, for those who do take that option, that 12 weeks is more intensive than anything you'll encounter on a Master's with the possible exception of the final stretch of thesis writing. Spread out to create a workload more similar to that of a Master's - say, completing the modular courses in quick succession rather than taking one per year as I did - a Delta will take at least a year, and likely more given the breaks between when the modules are offered. If you take Module One in September and finish in December, the next module is likely to be starting in March of the next year, finishing in June. You may have to wait until September again to take the third one, finishing again in September. Your workload will be similar during those times as that of a Master's.

That sounds an awful lot like the amount of time it takes to complete a Master's in the UK (generally one year), and nearing the amount of time it takes to complete one in the US. There is no basis for dismissing Delta on those grounds. In fact, if you contrast that to my current program, it will take me three years (exactly the amount of time it took to do a Delta), with a much more spread-out workload and likely less crying into a pillow overall (though ask me about that again in 2019).

Even if one does take the 12-week course, you are not done in 12 weeks. In that time, you crash-study for the Module 1 exam, which you generally take when the intensive program ends. Your Module 2 is complete. You receive a crash course in how to do Module 3, but you don't actually do it: that is completed after the intensive course ends and can take up to another full semester. Two semesters' worth of work, one of which is highly intensive? Again, that sounds similar to a Master's program.

As for the content, so far it's much the same. If anything, I feel sympathy for my non-Delta-holding classmates who are currently taking Language Awareness. I remember having to learn that, and what I learned is not that different from what's being taught in the core module, although I tended to focus more on pure mechanics (e.g. the actual phonology system of English including use of the phonemic chart, manner of articulation and the like rather than ideas of what phonology is and how one might teach it). The basics of testing, approaches to teaching and issues in teaching  are also much the same, and it seems as though principles of teaching and syllabus design will be similar, as well. The same names - Richards, Nunan, Krashen, Thornbury, Kumaravadivelu, Kachru, Vygotsky, Tomlinson to name a few - pop up in both.

So far, I have found the content in both to be of about equivalent difficulty, although I'm interested to see what writing my Master's assignments will be like. I may well change my mind.

That said, the aim and application of the content is radically different. Delta is practical - any theory you learn (and you do learn quite a bit) is meant to bolster your classroom practice more or less immediately. Master's programs vary, but the Exeter MEd TESOL leans more toward the cerebral end - learning theory because it develops your knowledge base as a teacher. That's a compliment: it's exactly what I wanted after the relentless practicality of Delta. Or, as we discussed on the first day, programs like this are a part of teacher development. They are not teacher training. Teacher training is about making teachers more immediately effective in the classroom, whereas teacher development is about cultivating the knowledge that informs what one teaches in the classroom. I've had teacher training - I did a Delta. Although professional development - like learning a language - is never really over, I don't need another program like that. I needed, and found, a program focusing on the theoretical underpinnings of what I did in that program.

A few examples of what I mean when I say Delta was training, whereas the Master's is development:

On Delta, we did have to do background reading but what really mattered was how we executed our ideas in class, or how well we built a syllabus as a result. For Module Two, the written assignments mattered, but what really made or broke a candidate was their assessed teaching. You could know all the theory in the world and it wouldn't matter if enough of your classes sucked (ahem, were deemed substandard in execution), whereas you could pass the written assignment with an imperfect grounding in theory and still do well if your classes were amazing as rated against the course specifications.

On the Master's, there are no practicums. Nobody is going to assess my teaching - I'll mostly be assessed based on my written work. On one hand that's a shame, as I find observation and feedback to be the most efficient route to improved teaching. On the other, I'm relieved because I've been through it already, and what happens in a one-hour class as per Delta specifications cannot fully capture the depth and breadth of what goes on in a real class over time. In either case, having walked over that bed of coals, it will be good to immerse myself more deeply in theory without necessarily having to stop when I reach a point that a grounding in it is sufficient for me to teach a given one-hour class. It's not a benefit that is as immediately apparent, but over time I do feel it will grow to inform my work in valuable ways.

The assessed lessons were far and away the hardest - yet most practical - part of the Delta. There are ways in which I am sure a Master's will be more challenging, however. The closest you get to writing a thesis on Delta is your Module Three assignment. However, the main paper is capped at 4500 words, with everything else going in appendices. Although my final product easily topped 100 pages, the main paper only took up 17 of them. I can't imagine a passing Master's thesis with that ratio.

I also suspect - and I am usually right about these things - that our assignments will be judged to a very high standard. Once my blissful month in England is over and I hit the books in Taipei, I suspect what seems very interesting but basically easy now will become much harder extremely quickly. The British educational system, especially at the Master's level, places a high value on self-directed reading and output. It only makes sense that the input sessions, then, would be the breeziest part of the course, but are not at all indicative of what will be expected of us once we start producing. I have a suspicion that, academically speaking, much more will be expected of our written work in terms of depth and breadth of research covered as well as ideas birthed from that process than Delta ever expected. The trade-off is that we will not be expected to demonstrate our ability to actually write a lesson plan or teach a class (we do, however, have to demonstrate our ability to create materials, conceptualize a teacher development or training course and critique as well as write a test).

That said, I can't deny that these past two weeks have felt more like a lovely vacation with some interesting TESOL classes, in a way that Delta never did. Delta was pure - and purifying - pain. An intensive Delta (or even CELTA) is several weeks of all-day input with further work on the weekends. You don't get a day off, ever. "Intensive" summer input sessions for a Master's are four, maybe five days a week where only occasionally does one have more than three hours' of class to attend, with some reading that is not onerous. Yesterday we went to the seaside town of Beer. Today we'll go to Powderham Castle and have cream tea. It's so very intensive.

I'm still surprised I never descended into functional alcoholism on Delta, whereas here at Exeter, if I drink too much it will be because of all the pub-crawling students in Britain do, not because the course is particularly stressful. We'll see how I feel about that when I actually start writing, however.

I am learning a lot, though. For example, what I had thought the term 'construct validity' meant turns out to be not at all what it means when considered in depth. We'll be going more deeply into the concepts of validity and reliability than I ever had to on Delta. Delta Module One had one section on issues in ELT, whereas this course offers a whole module on it (and the issues - such as culture clash in the classroom, the native speaker myth and others are pertinent and worthwhile). Delta only touched on materials development in that you had to create or adapt materials, with no background reading on how to do so necessary, whereas I'm now taking an entire module on exactly that.

Another benefit of actually studying TESOL at a university is that I am an educator by profession. Training in how to execute my work better is important, but an educator who doesn't herself seek higher education feels like an oxymoron of sorts. It will also loop back to training in that eventually I am likely to find myself teaching EAP classes to non-native-speaking graduate students. How can I claim to be qualified in teaching a graduate student how to absorb content and then write and present it if I have not done a graduate program myself?

It is also important to repeat something I pointed out in my last post: I have learned more from my classmates, most of whom are non-native speakers, and had more productive discussions with them in two weeks than I have in ten years of interacting with mostly average, often unqualified teachers in Taiwan who were mostly hired on the basis of their being native speakers rather than their having any training (or in some cases ability) in teaching. It's cruel but true. If you only focus on the practical, you begin to treat education as a purely practical channel. It then becomes about market forces - students become clients, teachers are hired based on optics more than ability, and the goal is a happy customer, which is not necessarily an educated customer despite education being the ostensible goal. I've heard more justifications for this practical approach than I care to consider, including defenses a lack of qualifications on the part of both teachers and school owners (not principals, not head educators - owners), with little emphasis on what is actually learned if that is not necessary to create happy clients. I appreciate getting away from all that.

Delta never advocated such an approach, but the idea that learning should only ever be immediately practical (being specifically trained for some kind of job, without actually knowing much beyond that in any deeper way) eventually brings one to that logical conclusion.

I'm happy that I did Delta first, though. If I had done the MEd first, I'd be getting a lot of developmental input with not as much guidance as I'd like on how to actually use it. I might have started to question why I was doing it at all. What I needed when I did Delta was exactly what it provided: practical and efficient training to be better in the classroom. Having that, it's time to dive deeper - something Delta doesn't offer. If I'd never done the MEd, I'd be fighting a nagging feeling of hollowness, that there is so much more to how we teach that I never touched upon because it was not immediately necessary, regardless of whether it might be someday.

I have to say I also appreciate the access to academic journals that I get as a real live student, rather than a sort of in-limbo person in training. Delta was difficult, in part, because I needed academic references but didn't always have access to them. The Distance Delta attempts to remedy that, but ultimately the online library is insufficient.

A final note on Master's programs that is worth mentioning: more than one person I've talked to regarding more than one program has mentioned that many of them are full of a certain cohort. The students are mostly young women and mostly inexperienced - mostly candidates who might struggle doing a Delta, if they are accepted on a module at all. They mostly have to get the basics down of TESOL theory and practice. Yes, they are mostly from China, but that shouldn't be a point against them (I only bring it up because it's a recurring theme in conversations I've had with those familiar with MA TESOL programs in several institutions, including some quite prestigious ones).

This is not at all specific to Exeter - in fact, the person who first mentioned it to me did so in the context of a completely different university - and certainly does not apply to the summer intensive program I am currently doing. That is to say, if that's the common denominator you are teaching to, someone who comes in with a Delta and a wealth of experience might feel that the work is not sufficiently challenging. In fact, the person I talked to told me straight-up that I would be disappointed with the academic rigor such a program and it's a major reason why I applied to this program specifically.

I'll end with a short exploration of which path is right for someone who wants to make their career in Taiwan. I wish I had an easy answer, and could just shout "Master's!" or "Delta!" and have that be it, but as with most worthwhile issues, it's more complicated than that.

If your goal is to simply be an excellent teacher, and you have a good work situation in which teaching well is generously remunerated and which doesn't require a Master's, get a Delta (it should go without saying that I recommend you get a CELTA regardless). The Delta is training, and you will be well-trained. You'll have exactly the amount of theory you need to do your job effectively, but not much more. Get a Delta if you want to go into teacher training as well, if you don't have a teaching license of PGCE - you can train teachers without one, but you are not likely to be a great trainer.

Keep in mind, though, that the Delta is not recognized by the Taiwanese government because they have some who-knows-what-dunce in charge of foreign language education policy. You get Delta to better yourself, and it's a good filter for separating good employers from bad when interviewing (pro tip: a good employer will recognize the value of a Delta and reward you accordingly. A bad one will not know or care what a Delta is and why it matters - if you have a Delta, don't ever take a job with a school that doesn't care about it unless you're desperate).

If, however, your goal is to explore employment opportunities outside of the deeply exploitative cram school industry (although good cram schools do exist - I teach classes through two of them), get the Master's. That is your entree into university teaching, may help you get into international school work and should be sufficient for public school teaching if you have permanent residency or a marriage visa (for everyone else, a teaching license is specifically required). A Master's degree is recognized, and therefore matters more for this type of advancement. If you do, though, I'd recommend getting a CELTA or Trinity TESOL certification as well, simply for the practical component. I know Master's degree holders who have done that and said it was worthwhile, as their graduate programs never actually taught them how to teach in the way that a series of practicums with targeted input sessions can.

If you've had good training, with a solid teacher trainer who took the time to observe you and help you grow as a teacher as you gained experience, get the Master's. Do this especially if you are interested in the theories and ideas that inform your beliefs and priciples as a teacher.

Do not, however, mistake being trained in one school's specific - and potentially not-research based - 'house curriculum style' for actual training. If you have unbiased, outside feedback saying that you are already effective in the classroom - perhaps you have a CELTA or equivalent and did a lot with it, or received good but informal training - get the Master's.

If you think you might leave Taiwan someday, and you want to teach but are worried about how to get a good job doing it in another country, get the Master's, or a teaching license if you want to work with children. It's an unfair but true fact that outside of Europe - if you can get a teaching job there, which as an American is nearly impossible - and possibly the Middle East, the Delta just won't be widely recognized enough to help you.

If that's never happened and you'd be going from "online TEFL certification and being thrown in a classroom without guidance" to "Master's student", get the Delta (or at least get it first).

If you think you'd like to do both, get the Delta first. It will not only give you the practical framework  that helps make sense of the theory in real contexts, but many programs will give you credit for it which will reduce your overall workload and fees on the Master's.

If you need something you can start from Taiwan, and want to start as soon as possible, get the Delta. You might have trouble finding a Module Two tutor, but everything else can be done with minimal problems from Taiwan. That's not true for a Master's. Although some Taiwanese universities do offer graduate programs in TESOL, I am not convinced of the quality or international portability of any of them. It is similarly hard to put together the time and money to do a full-time program abroad and then come back, but options like the program I'm currently at at Exeter are available. 

If you not only want to expand your career horizons but dive into both training-by-fire and deep theory, get both.

After all, nobody except the twin devils of money or time ever said you had to choose.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

One of those stupid year-in-review posts (#8 will shock you!)

I mean, I generally don't like these and I am not sure I have ever done one. But I feel like doing one for 2016 because the general consensus seems to be that it was a shit year and we're thankful it's over. And on a societal level, that's true.

However, there's something I really can't deny - in fact, on a personal level, I had a pretty good 2016. I did! My shit year was Dec 2014-Dec 2015, for reasons you know if you know me.

So, this isn't to gloat, it's to point out that a bad year on a sociocultural level doesn't necessarily equate to a bad year in total. I am sure good and bad things happened to us all despite the fact that the world is in a political shambles and we're probably all going to die.

A look back:


1.) Taiwan elected its first female president and, for the first time in its history, is not controlled by the (awful) KMT (not that I particularly love the DPP) - I know this isn't personal but it's worth mentioning. A few of these are not personal, but I think good enough to include

2.) My cousin spent several months in Taiwan

3.) I published my first ever journal article

4.) I passed the final module for, and received the full diploma for, the Cambridge Delta

5.) I was accepted into grad school

6.) I visited the US twice

7.) American women had the chance to vote for the first ever female presidential candidate (no, she was not a perfect candidate, and yeah, that turned out kinda bad, but I refuse to give up on that milestone in political history)

8.) I accomplished what I feel is my greatest achievement to date

9.) The Taiwanese legislature got the wheels rolling on marriage equality

10.) Hong Kong elected a slate of pro-democracy, pro-localization candidates (that, again, didn't turn out well thanks to Stupid China, but it still meant something)

11.) I made a fair number of interesting new friends

12.) I went to the Grand Pasta'ai

13.) I went to Vietnam for the first time (post forthcoming) and Indonesia for the second

14.) I traveled a fair bit around Taiwan, visiting Tainan three times, Kaohsiung, Yunlin, Xinpu (again, post forthcoming), and probably more that I can't recall exactly as I try to leave Taipei frequently to keep in touch with the rest of the country

15.) My closest and oldest friend in Taiwan got married

16.) I went to Hong Kong for the first time in five years (again, post forthcoming)

17.) Taiwan actually made the international news (kind of a mixed blessing though)

18.) I was invited to observe a session of the Legislative Yuan - watch my video here!

I would call that a pretty good 2016, wouldn't you? At least, it offers a chance to see the good parts, or find a few gems among the burnt rubble of the political and social sphere. Don't get me wrong, things were bad. The whole world with the possible exception of Taiwan is trending towards reactionary politics and fascism. The climate is, well, getting worse and it will probably be a massive problem very soon. A horrific mass murder and total destruction of a once-great city took place very close to my ancestral home, and the West did nothing. We elected quite literally the worst person in the world to be the leader of the "free world", a thing (I don't mean the event, I mean the "person") I can never accept as my president. As a result, I no longer consider myself American in anything but name and have no loyalty whatsoever to the USA. There is no forgiveness for this.

So yeah, things are bad globally. But personally, I have a few gems.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mutiny, I Promise You

Back in 2009 I wrote about studying at Shi-da and gave my overall review of the place.

Final verdict: you'll improve your writing and vocabulary and there is a strong sense of structure so you always have a concrete idea of how you should be progressing. It's great if you a.) want to learn textbook Chinese to communicate and don't care how you sound to locals or b.) if you are interested in going into Chinese as a field of academia. That said, what they teach is entirely too formal, entirely too "Mainland" Putonghua (including heavy use of the 兒 sound), with lots of grandmotherly, old-fashioned words that nobody uses. I also criticized the fact that there are far too many tests, the place is far too politically blue (pro-KMT) and some of the teachers don't attempt to be more moderate.

Today, I'm back to criticize not only how Chinese is taught at Shi-da's Mandarin Training Center, but how Chinese and other non-European languages are taught generally.

You may have noticed - or at least heard discussions about - how few Westerners ever manage to pick up Chinese, Japanese or other Asian languages to a reasonable point of fluency. It certainly happens - I speak reasonably good Chinese myself, and I know others who are quite good, even fluent, in Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese and other languages. I'm talking ratios here: how many Western foreigners come to Taiwan and never get beyond a high beginner level of Chinese - the "I can order in a restaurant and ask for things at 7-11" phase? How many other Asians come to Taiwan and pick up Chinese comparatively quickly? How is it that Westerners are perfectly able to pick up European languages but flounder when they encounter a language like Chinese, which is arguably grammatically easier?

I want to note here that if you attend Shi-da, you'll notice something striking: at the lower levels you get either a majority of Westerners/non-Asians or a somewhat even mix of non-Asians and Asians. This is difficult to explain with sensitivity - yes, I'm lumping Africans, Latin Americans, Indians and Middle Easterners in with "Westerners" although I realize many of them come not from the West but from their home countries, but they are similar in their learning curve to Westerners and thus can be compared similarly against Asians.

At the higher levels, you get classes that are majority Asian - some Japanese, a few Koreans, students from Southeast Asia, occasionally a Mongolian. In that class you may have one, two, maybe three non-Asians. In my first class it was me and another guy, who almost never showed up and probably failed the final. In the second, it was me and two other Westerners outnumbered significantly by Asians.

It's partially true that while Asian students in Taiwan may not speak a native language related to Chinese, the languages they do speak are often Chinese-influenced, both in terms of spoken words and writing. You can hear echoes of Chinese in Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese and the idea of characters are far more familiar, even if not commonly used (of course, in Japanese they are). It's just as true that native English speakers will have an easier time learning a language that they are culturally attuned to and closer to - there is far more in common culturally between speakers of English, Italian, Spanish, French and German than between speakers of English and speakers of Chinese. That cultural affinity probably does have something to do with learning the langauge more quickly.

There's also the fact that it's easier to learn a language that is related, even if distantly, to your own, especially if there is a similarity in many vocabulary words. I'm not denying that these things are all factors.

What I wanted to cover today is how the methodology/pedagogy used in Asia to teach Asian languages - focusing on Chinese here, because it's where my experience lies - almost certainly has something to do with why Westerners often struggle with those languages. Yes, I'll attach a value judgment: I'm not going to be all moderate and say "the methodology is different but neither is better". I do think the Western system is better, and I do think that the system in Asia is in dire need of reform.

In short, it sucks. Here's why.

Flashback, 1996: the poorly-funded foreign languages department at my high school only offered two language options - French and Spanish. Wealthier districts often offered Italian, German, even Latin and occasionally Chinese but being a small-town high school, that was never going to be an option for us. My French teacher, Mrs. Q (now known as Ms. S) taught both French and Spanish in a myriad of creative ways. We made posters, we had cooking days, we enacted scenarios, played games, asked each other questions, occasionally did drills, had contests, wrote stories, watched and discussed movies, wrote (terrible) poems and held discussions and debates at whatever level we could. Occasionally we'd take quizzes, Mrs. Q paid attention to us as we practiced so as to offer feedback, and there would be a few tests every semester. Each test included an oral portion in which we had to talk to Mrs. Q and answer a few questions. The focus was more on communicative ability and less on grammar in this section.

The edges of this memory may as well be soft-focus, and the colors tinted with peach and rose.

I thoroughly enjoyed French class: in fact, I enjoyed it and excelled in it to such an extent that I also took Spanish just because I could, and excelled in that, too. If I could have added another language, I probably would have. I've since left most of my French and Spanish by the cerebral wayside - my brain gets choked with Chinese whenever I try to piece together sentences in either language - but traveling experiences have shown that the information is latent, not dead. In India, we met a group of French travelers and after about an hour of stumbling I was able to chat with them at a reasonable level of fluency. A month in Central America helped bring back a good portion of my Spanish skills.

Flash forward, 2009: more than ten years since my love of French propelled me into a Spanish course "just because language is fun". I'm at Shi-da's Mandarin Training Center in an upper-intermediate Chinese course.

We go around in a circle, day after day. Each chapter has approximately 45 new vocabulary words, some with sub-words. We learn them by going around the classroom, each student in turn reading a new word and an example sentence. Never a break, never a change. Around and around. Three students down, my Swedish classmate is reading some now-forgotten nubbin of vocabulary and the accompanying sentence. I do a few quick calculations to figure out what I will have to read. I find it, go through it, and realize I don't know two characters in the sentence.

One of them is easy enough to fake - I can tell by the sound element how it is probably said and have a reasonable chance of being correct. The other reads as a giant question mark: no idea. I tune out for a bit as two more students read their bland, unrealistic sentences - things like "Little Chen is always curious when he sees a Satellite News Gathering Van". Because I'm definitely going to say that or something like it in my life someday. Riiiight.

I get to my sentence, acceptably fake it through the character I can say but don't know the meaning of, and never will learn the meaning of, because while I do look it up and put it on my study list, it's forgotten in about a month. I admit that I don't know the other character; there's nothing else I can do.

"Really," the teacher says in Chinese - this is an upper intermediate class after all - "you should know this one. It was in Book 2."

Fair enough, except I never did Book 2. I self-taught my way into my placement. I know most of the material from the first four books, but there is no way I could have serendipitously learned every single one of the same things taught in those books. Even if I had taken the course that goes with Book 2, who's to say I wouldn't have forgotten something? At this point, I'd spent a year in China picking up the basics of beginner-level Chinese on my own, including very rudimentary writing and a few years in Taiwan improving steadily through self-study and one previous Shi-da course, in which I'd performed fairly well.

The next day it will be the same - we'll go around yet again on the Pointless Carousel reading sentences. Occasionally we'll stop to answer one or two discussion questions. We'll do the same kind of homework for each unit - it reinforces the lesson but is very repetitive and rarely anything better than yawn-inducing. We'll go through a bunch of grammar points - again taking predictable turns answering questions - with a few examples each, with very little time to expand on any one point. There were grammar bits that some students simply didn't understand, and after a few minutes of trying to explain them, the teacher would give up and say "study it at home. You'll get it".

Half the time the grammar "lesson" was a bunch of sentence structure examples, many of them too formal or old-fashioned to be remotely useful in daily life in Taiwan.

That repetitive routine was regularly punctuated by a test that focused more on grammar detail than genuine communication. Not until the final were we ever tested on our speaking, and even then we were tested on reading, not actually talking to someone. Every three tests we'd take a big test - generally we'd take the third smaller test one day and the big test in the very next class. At the end, we'd take an even bigger test.

Amusingly, the end-of-class feedback we were asked to complete was a bubble-sheet, with no room for actual individual feedback. There was a bubble for "not enough tests". Is anyone surprised that there was no bubble for "too many tests"?

So there you have it.

That right there is what's wrong with foreign language education in Asia. That system may work to an extent for other Asians who are more used to it - they probably received similarly styled schooling back home - but I'd argue they're more likely to attain a higher level in Chinese because the jobs they often hold demand it. An Indonesian, Thai, Filipina or Vietnamese domestic helper, restaurant worker, fishing boat laborer, factory worker, grocery clerk or wife is more likely to have to speak Chinese daily with her family, her bosses, her children and her customers than a foreigner arriving from the West, who often socializes with other Westerners and really only needs to be able to use Chinese in restaurants or taxis (at least in Taipei). If they're teaching English, their job, unlike their Vietnamese classmate's job, might require that they not speak Chinese.

For the Koreans and Japanese at Shi-da, I've noticed that while they often have the same employment or scholarship situations that the Westerners have, that their commitment to learning Chinese is more long-term. You're likely to see them for several semesters at Shi-da, whereas a Westerner might attend one or two semesters at most before heading home.

For the American-born Taiwanese and Chinese, I found at Shi-da that they progressed quickly in spoken Chinese and vocabulary (possibly because of growing up around the language at home) but moved just as slowly as the other Westerners in reading and writing.

Of course, not every non-Taiwanese Asian learning Chinese here fits into those categories, and not every Westerner only hangs out with other Westerners or teaches English. I'm being general, and those generalities break down at the individual level. Meditate on it for awhile, though, and see if I'm not right on a large scale.

In short, it's not the methodology at schools like Shi-da that cause other Asian students to forge ahead while Westerners often don't - it's the fact that they will use what they learn daily whereas a Western student may not.

I don't think that it has anything to do with studiousness or diligence, by the way: my Western classmates and I studied just as hard as the Asians in class.

I do think it might have something to do with the fact that other Asians who move here commit to a longer-term immersion study of Chinese, and the Western kids tend to go home after a year - and let's be honest, you're not going to learn nearly as much Chinese, and you won't learn it nearly as well, when you leave an immersion environment.

Really, though, back to the main point: it has everything to do with pedagogy.

I've seen some impressively bad teaching in my time in Taiwan - since when is going around in predictable circles to recite pointless sentences a good way to motivate students to remember and use what they're learning? - and it's led me (and some friends) to ask: is it any wonder that American students don't tend to pick up Chinese that well, when the teaching is so truly lacking?

This can be seen in language classrooms worldwide - I have taken a grand total of one Chinese course in the USA, but have heard from trustworthy sources who have taken more classes that the pedagogy really isn't any better over there. The teachers tend to be Chinese or Taiwanese, and often earned their teaching credentials in Asia. They go abroad and teach the way they've been taught to teach, which is to say badly. (Yes, I'm making a value judgment. So there). They apply the same drills, tests, repetition, archaic and overly formal vocabulary, useless bits and bobs of dowdy grammar, memorization and recitation to teaching abroad, and then they wonder why Western students just don't pick it up.

Or they don't wonder, because test scores are acceptable, and nobody has thought to actually talk to the students in Chinese to see if they could, in fact, speak it.

I've seen it time and time again: the guy in my first Shi-da class? It wasn't entirely his fault that he (probably) flunked out. I was partnered with him on the first day, when we'd introduce ourselves and then introduce each other to the class. I can honestly say that he could barely speak, though his writing was pretty good. He placed into the class partly on the merits of classes he'd already taken, and while I can't imagine that he aced his speaking assessment, he must have done well on the grammar and reading placement. He'd studied Chinese for years in the USA and come over here to improve, and yet he could barely communicate. Nobody had thought to have him practice actual speaking skills.

This has been a recurring theme in my Chinese education, by the way. I've always been among the best speakers and communicators in class, but I've never been among the best readers, writers or grammarians. When the grammar being taught is the sort of thing that nobody ever uses, though, I'm not sure that's such a bad thing (although it would be nice to improve on the reading and writing skills).

Another friend of mine, B., majored in Chinese in college. She can speak fairly well and for awhile was in a Master's program. She would tell me about people in her program who could quite literally not speak Chinese, but they'd passed all the relevant coursework and been accepted to the program, and they could more or less get by. Put them in a situation where they'd have to actually deal with life in Chinese, though, and they couldn't.

What you get from these programs are students who can pass a test in Chinese and know a lot of words and abstract grammar. You get students who can get into graduate programs and go on to academic careers focusing on literature, classical Chinese, Chinese linguistics or Chinese history. You get students who can do research in academic texts in Chinese.

What you do not get from these Chinese language programs are students who can actually speak Chinese.

Yet another friend is currently studying in a graduate program at Shi-da and has told me a few things that scare me about the program.

First, the pedagogy classes seem (from my perception on listening to this friend) to be something of a joke. They can be summed up as saying, "If you explain the grammar rule well and give a few examples, the students will know that rule and be able to use it."

Err...NO. If you want to really teach grammar and get it into students' heads where it'll stick and come up naturally, well, anyone who's taken a CELTA course can tell you how to do that. Here's a hint: an example and a few exercises won't do it. You have to make the students use it, over and over, in sentences they generate that have some bearing on real life (asking for opinions, narratives and predictions are always good ways to bring abstract grammar to the real-world sphere).

He's also mentioned that it does happen that other foreigners accepted to the program can speak Chinese on paper but in real life, they are often not that fluent.

What they're basically churning out are more MTC-style teachers who simply can't teach. Those newly-minted teachers will go abroad, teach Chinese and then wonder why the students just aren't picking up on it.

On an online forum, I came across a woman living in Japan because her husband works there. She didn't really want to live there, but was trying to make the best of it by learning Japanese. She quit the course that his work arranged for her, because it was very formally taught, very academic, and very "perfect grammar" oriented. She couldn't learn anything: too many rules, too little step-by-step speaking practice, too much impractical knowledge, nothing that she could exit the class and immediately put to use. Is it any wonder that she quit? Does anyone doubt that her classmates will learn beautiful Japanese and possibly do very well in more academic situations, but never have the comfortable, "wearin' my old jeans" vernacular familiarity with Japanese that a second-language speaker should strive to acquire?

I've felt for awhile that while there is still a lot to learn, that I've had that "old jeans" familiarity with Chinese for awhile, and it astounds me how few people at my level or even above it can claim that. Shouldn't it be one of every learner's goals?

When I said earlier that after years of being away from French and Spanish, I was able to dive to the back of my brain and pick up words, phrases and structures that I thought I'd forgotten, the image that popped into my head was Leo's crumbling subconscious in Inception (the image in that movie of the old dreamspace he built that was now in tatters is how I imagine second-language knowledge in someone's brain after years of non-use). I could do it, because I genuinely enjoyed learning those languages and the speaking, student-centered methodology by which I learned them helped them stay, a bit damaged but basically intact, in my brain for later retrieval.

I wonder if any of the examples of Chinese students above - the guy in my first Shi-da class, the students in my friends' graduate programs - will be able to do a similar quick recall of Chinese years from now if they ever stop using it? Will the less-communicative ways they learned the language work against them, compelling their brains not to store, but rather to dump, that information as it was not efficiently and deeply learned?

I've also met plenty of Westerners who are beautifully fluent in Chinese. Guess how most of them learned it? Some classwork, sure, but mostly from years of immersion, practice and self-study along with those classes. I've met people fluent in French who have only studied it in French class, but I have never, not once, met someone fluent in Chinese or Japanese who learned the entirety of the language in class. Of course, real-life experience is always going to produce better fluency (just compare Taiwanese who have spent time in the USA to those who haven't), but poor teaching methodology in Asian languages makes it all the more imperative for anyone who actually wants to speak well to take their own practical initiative.

In short, the Asian style of teaching simply doesn't work for foreign languages. It just doesn't. It's not how people learn to communicate. Drills and tests do not breed fluency or communicative ability. They don't increase confidence (if - no, when - I get my MA in Applied Linguistics, my thesis will probably be on the issue of confidence. Check back with me in a few years). I don't think this is even a new revelation.

When students - always adults - come to classes I teach at their companies - I see a quick surge of enthusiasm followed by rapid improvement in speaking and fluency, with slower improvement in grammar. I do think it's because I stress real-life learning and go through no repetition, drills, stand-alone round-the-table sentence-reading or memorizing. In contrast, many of my students have told me that in junior high school their English learning consisted of memorizing articles and being able to recite them, or drilling for hours. If I introduced a new, fairly common grammar point, I'd hear a lot of "Yeah, we learned that in school but we all forgot."

Why did they forget? Because they never had a chance to practice it through generating their own speech. You aren't going to learn and remember through memorizing and reading sentences created by others. The simple act of your brain reaching for that word or grammar point while creating its own piece of speech is much more powerful. The act of work, grasping and creation builds links in the mind, and builds more effective memory. I still do not understand why this phenomenal (and phenomenally simple) tool is not often used in classrooms in Asia. Of course, repeated and varied use of these things will cement that ability, and their use needs to be long-term and preferably through immersion.

And yet the teaching style that my students describe - the one that leads to "we learned it, but we forgot" - is just what teachers of Chinese and other Asian languages are using today, to pathetic results.

Compared to this dire situation, European languages come hand-in-hand with European pedagogy, and they've been taught in the USA for so long that more contemporary, student-centered teaching methods have sprung up around them. They can be genuinely enjoyable classes to take. With that sort of history and long-developed methodology, of course they'd be better taught.

I can only hope that the same will be true of Chinese and other Asian-language education in the future.

I'd like to see a mutiny, basically. An overhaul of how Chinese is taught. A re-vamping of what it means to be a Chinese teacher at MTC, another language school (TLI is somewhat better, I will say) or abroad. I'd like to be able to promise future students of Chinese that they'll be learning in the most effective ways and that they can trust that if they work hard, they'll attain some measure of true fluency or at least natural communication skills. I can't say that now.

So whoever is captaining this Ship of Bad Chinese Teaching, I'd like to chuck him overboard.

What's your story when it comes to learning Chinese? Think I'm wrong and want to tell me why? Got your own bones to pick with the system? I'd love to hear more stories about and experiences with language learning as well as (mature) debate. So tell me - that's what the comments are for!