Showing posts with label learning_chinese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label learning_chinese. Show all posts

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Speaking in Brutal Tongues


A short post for a gray Sunday morning.

Yesterday, I visited the Jingmei Human Rights Museum (景美人權文化園區), which is a short taxi ride from MRT Dapinglin (大坪林) station (not Jingmei station, which is across the river near the Taipei/New Taipei border). The museum is a former detention center used to house political prisoners in the later part of the Martial Law era, along with the correctional facilities on Green Island. The original center was located in Taipei, but it was torn down and the Sheraton stands on that site today.

Alongside stories that make your skin crawl and your blood boil - that prisoners might well be executed with no trial whatsoever, that many still don't know why they were accused, how some were kept in prison long after it was known they had not committed the crimes they had been accused of (to "save face" for the officers), how they were housed thirty people to a 9 square meter cell and drink toilet water if there was no tap (and there often wasn't), and how only in recent years are some family members receiving goodbye letters, was a story that made me sit down and stare blankly into space for a time.

When inmates were allowed visitors - family only, no friends - they could meet for ten minutes at a time, and were only allowed to speak Mandarin.

Mandarin was not - and for many still is not - a native language of Taiwan. The KMT dictated that it was the official language of the ROC government they forced on Taiwan, and would become the lingua franca. This impacted education, government affairs (if you addressed the government - not that that ever did much good - it had to be in Mandarin), jobs (certain jobs were only open to Mandarin speakers, that is, members of the new regime and the diaspora that came with them) and more. At the Taiwanese who were already here when the KMT invaded - yes, invaded - generally spoke Hoklo and perhaps Japanese, Hakka, or indigenous languages. The native population of Taiwan was essentially forced to learn the language of the foreign power that came to rule them, and those who did not were punished either socially or overtly (anything from your neighbors suspecting you, to losing access to jobs and education, to actual fines and potentially arrest).

The purpose was, of course, not only for the KMT to force their language on locals (many members of the diaspora spoke Chinese languages that were not Mandarin). It was to remake Taiwan as a 'province of China', to erase its history and culture through erasing their languages. To stamp out 'Taiwaneseness', in all its varied linguistic uniqueness.

As you can imagine, some of the inmates themselves might not have spoken Mandarin well (perhaps some not at all), and it would have been fairly common that their family members didn't speak it, either.

What do you do when you are only allowed to speak a language you don't know when visiting a loved one you might not have seen in years?

"You can only look at each other, and speak through tears," said the tour guide.

A former victim imprisoned for a crime he hadn't committed joined us on the tour, and told his story as well: it included just such a scene, and he and his mother were not even allowed to hug. I won't narrate the entire tale here - that's his story to tell, not mine. (If you read Mandarin, you can buy his book here).

Whether such a cruel, inhumane policy was perpetrated out of a sense of 'practicality' - as a friend pointed out, the regime likely lacked the imagination to have Hoklo, Hakka and indigenous eavesdroppers ensuring their surveillance of prisoners was complete, or if they had thought of that, might not have trusted anyone to relay the truth. These are people who murdered without trial, who kept people they knew were innocent in prison to protect themselves - they placed their faith in no-one but their own (and often, not even then - many who came to Taiwan with the KMT ended up in prison as suspected Communists, as well).

Or it could have been simply because they were evil and cruel. Some of the former guards who are known to have tortured White Terror victims are alive today, living normal lives, facing no legal repercussions, seemingly at peace with themselves and their actions (though who knows).

I suspect it was a combination of both.

Fast forward to 2018: foreigners come to Taiwan to study Mandarin (though I haven't been particularly impressed with teaching methods here). I learned it so I could live here as normally as possible. It's seen as a practical language to know, something you might study out of interest, but is also internationally useful.

This history, however, and hearing it put so plainly, has made feel slightly ill about continuing to speak it in Taiwan. I'm not speaking a native language of Taiwan, not really - I'm speaking a colonial language. I don't feel good about that at all. I'd always felt a little unsettled about it, in fact, but that story pulled all of that nebulous uneasiness into sharp focus.

How can I speak Mandarin as though it is normal in a country where it was once used to keep parents from speaking to their children?

I'm aware of how odd that sounds - it is a lingua franca. Most Taiwanese, even those who are fully aware of this history, likely were impacted by the White Terror (or have families who were) and are otherwise horrified at the truth of this history, speak it - often without a second thought. Who am I,

Stripped of its dark history in Taiwan, Mandarin is merely a language. A beautiful language, even. One steeped in history that is otherwise no crueler than any history (though all history is cruel). And yet, it was used to brutalize Taiwanese - even now, those who do not or prefer not to speak it face discrimination and stereotyping, either as 'crazy political types' or as 'uneducated hicks', both deeply unfair labels that perpetuate a colonial system that dictates who gets to be born on top, and who has to fight their way up from the bottom.

Mandarin is only a native language and lingua franca in Taiwan because of this linguistic brutality. Foreign students only come here to learn it for this reason, as well. That most Taiwanese speak it natively speaks to the success of the KMT's cruelty. That not everyone does, and many who do still prefer native Taiwanese languages shows the strength of the Taiwanese spirit, and the KMT's ultimate failure as a cruel, petty, corrupt, dictatorial and foreign regime.

I can respect the idea that Taiwan has begun - and will likely to continue - to use Mandarin appropriatively rather than accepting it merely as the language of those who would continue to be overlords if they had their way. To take Mandarin and use it for their own purposes, to their own ends (this paper is about English being used in this way, but the main ideas are for Mandarin as well).

But - we're not there yet. There is still an imperialist element to Mandarin in Taiwan that makes me deeply uncomfortable. That structure still hasn't quite been broken down.

I know, especially as a resident of Taipei, that I can't just say "screw it!", refuse to use Mandarin unless absolutely necessary, and start learning Hoklo in earnest - preferring only to use that or English. Many former victims and Taiwanese deeply affected by this history do so, and I admire that, but I'm not Taiwanese.

I want to be a part, if only a very small part, of a better Taiwan, to contribute to building a truly free, decolonialized nation. But again, I am not Taiwanese. There are people who would think I was just putting on a show, and while I don't believe that, it would be hard to make the case that they are wrong.

And yet, the main reasons for not giving up Mandarin - that I would be giving up on something so 'practical', and that I'd be labeled another 'crazy political type' (perhaps more so because I'm not even from here, and this history is not my history), feel like giving the colonial ROC regime yet another brutal victory.

For now, I suppose I will keep speaking Mandarin; I kind of have to. In any case, is Hoklo not the language of oppression for Hakka and indigenous people? And yet, I don't see any sort of real world in which I can walk around Taipei speaking only Amis and a.) not look like an idiotic - if not crazy - white lady; and b.) actually communicate with the vast majority of people. As a language learner and foreign resident, where do I draw that line?

I don't feel good about it at all, however, and perhaps the first step is, without giving up Mandarin per se, to start seriously learning Hoklo. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Confucius Institute vs. British Council THROWDOWN

Some thoughts on the "I'm not defensive, YOU'RE DEFENSIVE! You don't understand our 5000 years of Chinese culture" reactions in this article: US Universities End Confucius Institutes, Chinese Reactions

1.) "You just don't understand Chinese culture" is a surefire sign that you're looking to guilt others into not pointing out your agenda. It's a sign of guilt, not a defense of innocence (in that way it's not so different from "I'm not racist, some of my best friends are ______"). 

2.) American movies may contain American cultural characteristics but that's not the same as purposefully crafted and disseminated propaganda. And it's stupid to imply that American cultural products never criticize or show America in a bad light.

3.) Sure, the BC and Alliance Francaise exist, but they don't disseminate Western cultural propaganda. You can tell the difference between "promoting culture" and "propaganda" this way: if a political party with an ideology is solely in charge of determining the content of such an institute's promotion, it's propaganda. If many different voices are heard from various parties in determining the content, it's probably not.

4.) "Harmony in diversity" MY ASS. Try telling the Tibetans that.

5.) Another way you can tell the difference between cultural promotion and propaganda is this: go to BC or wherever and ask them about unflattering/bad events in British history. The person you talk to will, while not openly denigrating Britain, will probably be honest with you about what happened and why it was wrong. Go to a Confucius Institute and ask a Chinese teacher about Taiwan or Falun Gong and see the stone-face you get.

6.) As a friend pointed out, Confucius Institutes exist within schools and universities, which are meant to be bastions of academic freedom - so when a government puts limits on what can be said in an entity within such a space, it's a big fat problem - it denigrates academic freedom to not be able to discuss certain topics. British Council and Alliance Francaise exist as independent institutions, and are not affiliated with schools and universities. That right there is a big problem. If the Chinese government wanted to open schools abroad in the same way, through legal means, and insisted that teachers hew to CCP propaganda within them, while Westerners would criticize that, they would be able to do so. If you didn't like it, you wouldn't have to take a class there. You could...enroll in a class at a local university! Whereas with Confucius Institutes in universities, often if you want to study Chinese, you have to go through them. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Of Typhoons and Fighting Back: Consumer Rights in Taiwan

Several years ago, I took a series of one-on-one Chinese classes at TLI (Taipei Language Institute), and while my teachers were fine (not particularly trained, but nice people and I did learn from them - mostly I got in some good speaking practice). I didn't continue the course for a few reasons. Because I didn't like that my two hour block was split between two teachers - I liked them both but I really just wanted one teacher so we could progress more. Because I was not allowed to take any classes off and make them up (if I couldn't take a class, it was considered forfeit), but at one point one of my teachers took a few classes off and I got a substitute (again, really hard to progress that way), meaning she could take time off, but not me. Because at one point a teacher just didn't show up and I waited 20 minutes or so before telling TLI, and they got irritated at ME - apparently I should have told them almost immediately so they could find me a quick substitute and not have to do a make-up class (again, how does this help me progress?).

And finally, because one of my classes was postponed due to a typhoon day. When I asked when the make up would be, I was told there would not be one. I asked, then, when I would get my refund as I'd paid for two hours of class (it was an hourly rate) that I would never receive. I was told there would not be one. 

My teachers seemed genuinely surprised that I was upset by this: "but we're teachers, we're guaranteed certain earnings! It's not fair to us to not get paid because there was a typhoon!"

Okay. I mean, office workers and others get that courtesy. You don't have to go in to work but you still get paid. So I understood why they might feel that way, and why the school might back them up.

But this wasn't office work, and it wasn't a course for which you paid tuition for the entire term. This was paid by the hour. As I saw it, I paid for two hours of a service (Chinese class) and as such, I was owed the two hours I'd paid for. Otherwise I'd paid for something I'd never get. It would be like paying a plumber to come to your house on Tuesday, but he's sick that Tuesday, so he takes your money but says he's not coming. Or paying someone to translate your resume into Chinese by September 1st, but they go out of town unexpectedly until September 5th, don't translate your resume and don't return your money. 

As a teacher myself, if there's a typhoon day I don't get paid. I mean, we make up the class. I always get the money eventually. But I don't get it right then, for work performed that day. Is it totally fair? No, but you deal with it because that's what it means to work this kind of job. If it was so important to me I'd go looking for a salaried position, and I notably have not done so.

And my students? If there's a typhoon day, they get a make-up class. I have a student who pays me for ten classes at a time. Last week our Wednesday class (#9) didn't happen because of Typhoon Trami. If I'd then said, "well, #9 was cancelled due to typhoon, next week is #10" she would simply decline to be my student any longer. I teach her privately, but I don't know of any English school that would have any other policy. They'd lose too much business.

Taiwanese learners of English who take one-on-ones don't stand for that sort of bullshit, so why should I? I left TLI, figuring it was one bad experience and I'd just go elsewhere. I still wasn't fond of Shi-da, so after another tumultuous semester there, I decided not to return. I happen to think the most common "methodologies" (if you can call them that) used by teachers at MTC are atrocious, even outright wrong from a language teaching/Applied Linguistics perspective.

It didn't occur to me to complain, because I didn't realize something: typhoon day policies like TLI's are illegal. If you pay for a service by the hour, you are to receive that service or receive a refund. 

So I drifted for awhile, and finally signed up for one-on-one classes at Chinese Culture University. Again I liked my teacher, my class wasn't split in half, she helped me learn some Taiwanese, and I was mostly happy. I was told that in the event of a typhoon, there would be a refund or a make-up. Yay!

About halfway through the course, right after Typhoon Soulik (which did not affect my class), they sent me an e-mail saying that the rules had changed - in Chinese - "for the next term, in the event of a typhoon cancellation, there will be no make-up and no refund" the e-mail said. "I know we promised you this term that you would get a make-up or refund, so if there is a typhoon cancellation, we will help you to make it up. For the next term, however, the new rules will apply. We are sorry for the inconvenience."

So I wrote back (in Chinese, badly), saying "unless this rule is changed there won't be a second term. I've already told you that I lost money from TLI for this reason, and I refuse to accept that this may happen again. If I sign up anyway, your management may feel that this rule is fair and acceptable, but it truly is not. I don't blame you" (the admin who wrote the e-mail - not her fault) - "but I hope you will pass my message on to the boss to let him know that this policy is not fair to students and Chinese Culture University will lose students and revenue as a result. I simply cannot accept it and I am not prepared to negotiate."

She wrote back to say she understood, and would pass on my message. Nothing happened. I posted about it on Facebook - yet another school off my list because I could not abide this policy.  

A few people replied - and I found out that this policy is, in fact, quite illegal. 

I took it up with the government, sending in a complaint (in Chinese, badly), with screenshots of the e-mail I received. They sent me a letter within a week to say they'd received it and, as it was the jurisdiction of the Department of Education (or somesuch) that they'd sent it on to them. I didn't have to do anything. I got a letter from the Education department saying they were looking into it and to sit tight (but in Chinese Bureaucratese, of course). 

Then two weeks pass. Nothing. I begin to worry that CCU has some sort of 'guanxi' or relationships in the government and so they got them to just drop this complaint from a small fry like me. Damn it. I didn't really want to write an editorial or something like that, I just wanted it taken care of. I was assured again that the policy was quite illegal. One friend noted that his school used to have such a policy, but they had to change it to offer make-ups as students complained and the government came down on them.

On the last day of my course, Chinese Culture University gave me a final letter, again in Chinese Bureaucratese. I could barely read it; we read it together as a part of my class (my teacher was well aware that I was complaining and said she agreed with me). It said, after three or so bullshit points (they always do that), that in the case of a typhoon, there will be no refund but I will be able to schedule a make-up. 

Okay. That's fair! 

I haven't signed up with CCU again yet, as I can't really take an evening class right now, but the teacher who teaches Taiwanese is only free after 4:30pm. I want to see how my September schedule might work out before resigning. I couldn't help but note, though, that on my last day I was not handed a feedback form or a sign-up form. I was not contacted at all. It was done, and I couldn't tell if this was just them not providing good follow-up, them just assuming I'd take the initiative, or them thinking I still would not sign up for a new term...or them trying to indirectly tell me that I may have won the fight, but they didn't really want me as a student anymore, so to kindly not return. I have no way of knowing.

I just wanted to share this to let you all know: if you take a Chinese one-on-one class and your school (if you take it through a school) tells you that you won't get a make-up or refund in the event of a typhoon, that it is illegal, that you can complain through official channels, and that you absolutely should.  It's not even that hard to do.

Why they think they can have policies like this is beyond me - the Taiwanese would never stand for it. Do they think foreigners are dumb (I don't think so, but I have to wonder sometimes)? Do they think they can get away with it because there aren't as many Chinese schools as there are English schools, and less competition means they can get away with more crap (see: airlines)? Or do they think this is actually a fair policy (I can't believe they do)?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know this. The state of "getting things done" in Taiwan is not totally broken. Consumer rights exist (although property rights don't seem to) and even if you're just one person you can sometimes get someone to enforce laws that are on your side. DO complain. DO make a fuss. DO stand up for yourself. DON'T let them steal your money.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Not Fluent, Stop Asking

Photo from this site

It's been 5 1/2 years. 5 1/2 years of learning Chinese - with some extended breaks, but make no mistake, I learned on those breaks, too. I suppose you could count that tortured year in China in 2002 when I taught myself basic survival Chinese, but looking back, I have to wonder. I feel now as though I knew nothing then. At this point, especially as it's clear that I do speak Chinese, although not perfectly, I get a lot of people asking me "You must be fluent, huh. What's that like?" or "So, are you fluent?"

I never know how to answer them. Am I fluent? I personally would say "no", but I don't really know because I don't know what "fluent" means in real terms. Am I fluent in that I can go an entire day and speak/read/write/hear nothing but Chinese with no problem? Yes. Am I fluent in that I can read, I dunno, Confucius? Hell to the NO. Am I fluent in that I don't make mistakes? Of course not.

After five years of mostly self-study, should I be? I don't know. I'd certainly speak at a "higher level" if I'd continued to study hard and attend Shi-da, but I met plenty of people at Shi-da at my level or above who were too nervous or just not, ahem, "fluent" enough to get sentences out that come easily to me, so I don't know.

So, let's explore this whole "fluency" thing.

The idea that "fluency" in a foreign language isn't something that can be measured easily, nor are the metrics to determine it agreed on by any stretch has been pretty well covered online and in the many conversations serious language learners have with each other.

There are some who believe that you're only fluent if you can communicate flawlessly - think on the level of interpreters or native speakers of more than one language. There are others who feel that if you can converse and basically communicate what you need to and get by in day-to-day life vis-a-vis spoken and written communication, even if you make mistakes, then that means you're fluent. Still others have what I view as a warped idea that if you're able to read, write, analyze, do research in and know the classical background of a language, than regardless of how well your speaking of that language flows, then that means you're fluent. A teacher at Shi-da's Mandarin Training Center once told me that if you complete all five books in their series and do fairly well, then you count as "fluent".

Well, let me tell you, I'm on the last book - Book 5 (I never took the class for it, but I own it and have flipped through it and there is a lot that I already know, plus a few things I need to learn) - and I don't feel as close to this "fluency" thing as this teacher confidently asserted I should.

By the first definition, I will never be fluent in Chinese. I can study and study, but I'm never going to reach a point where I speak it, ahem, flawlessly - but then, what does "flawlessly" even mean? Some snob in Beijing might listen to a perfectly fluent native speaker of Chinese from Taipei and proclaim that her Chinese is not "flawless". I might be able someday to interpret Chinese into English, but probably never the other way around. I'll always have a "different", non-native sounding way of speaking it. 

But then, by this definition students of mine who speak far better English than I do Chinese - who have done Master's and even PhD degrees abroad - are not "fluent" because they still make mistakes. I have a friend who got an Master's in the USA and still forgets to put verbs in the past tense occasionally. I have a student - a psychiatrist - who got her PhD at Cambridge and who still makes occasional mistakes or says things in a clearly non-native way or  using awkward grammar, and who doesn't always know just the right adjective or noun for specialized words ("incomprehensible" was on her vocabulary review list recently). With the grammar mistakes she makes - never big, always at a high level, but still noticeable - many language assessment ratings wouldn't put her at an advanced level; she's currently placed in high intermediate (although I teach her as though she's advanced).

But dude, she got her PhD at Cambridge. Can you really say she's "not fluent"?

I have plenty of students who score, in terms of vocabulary range and grammar knowledge, in the mid-intermediates. I'd say it's the biggest group of learners I encounter, and that there are barriers in language learning that keep many language learners at that level. Here's the thing - they make mistakes. They use prepositions of time all wrong, and forget all sorts of tenses and other bits of speech - like conditionals and reported speech - come out a bit wonky (although generally their point is clear). But they can get by just fine. They can handle - and often have handled - life in an English speaking country just fine (although they all claim it's a struggle - well, duh. Sometimes communicating in Chinese in Taipei is a struggle for me. I don't think that ever goes away). They can converse, they can make themselves clear, they can understand spoken English face-to-face. At times it's hard for me to judge how much their understanding is based on grading of my speech, because I now grade my speech almost subconsciously. I would guess that rapid English from one native speaker to another, if it were two people conversing, would be generally understandable but more challenging, with some missed meaning in idioms and nuance. They can generally read just about anything at a higher level than I can read Chinese, but that's hardly surprising. Anyone learning Chinese as a second language feels my pain, my beautiful torment! Other than in obvious spoken mistakes - which rarely obscure meaning - the only time one might question the fluency of these students of mine is in watching television or movies or trying to discern song lyrics.

Which, you know, is just about where I'm at. There are some differences: I tend to know a lot more Chinese slang and idiomatic speech than my students know in English (although they constantly surprise me: once I was discussing "charisma" in political leaders with a student and mentioned Bill Clinton. "Even after the Republicans tried to push him out of office..." Student: "Oh, I know! Because of a blowjob!" I produce a fountain of spurting coffee from my nose). I can understand bits of casual conversation between native speakers more easily. I can produce Chinese without having to translate from English in my head. If someone speaks to me in Chinese, Chinese comes out of my mouth in reply without a second thought. This isn't surprising, given that I'm learning on my own in an immersion environment and pick up most of my Chinese from friends. 

They tend to know higher level / business / professional language and read far better than I can - again, not surprising as English is, I believe, easier to read than Chinese and they use their English skills for work, not socializing. It still stuns me how few of my Taiwanese friends have other foreign friends besides me - although some certainly do, and how rarely I come across a student who answers in the affirmative when I ask if they have foreign friends. Colleagues, business partners, acquaintances, yes - friends? Not really.

So, I need to work on more formal Chinese and business Chinese (and reading/writing!) and they need to work on more casual, quick, no-head-translations-please English with a wider range of vocabulary.

But, generally speaking, I can live my life in Chinese without much problem. I can call repairmen, go to B&Q, order food (even foreign food), talk about all sorts of topics from economics to geography to religion to media to history to basic office matters and more (I remain weak in sports, but even in English I don't care about sports). I haven't tried yet but I suspect I could pull off a job interview in Chinese, albeit with mistakes. I can more or less follow the news, although I know I miss a great deal of nuance and pick up a lot from the accompanying visuals. I can do an informal business presentation in Chinese (and have) and can follow other presentations. I can participate in and head a Q&A session in Chinese (and have). I can't read that well when it comes to newspapers or books but I can and do interact with friends on Facebook in Chinese - including fairly meaty posts and messages. I can type just fine but my writing is...well, I can fill out forms and write short notes and postcards by hand, but not much more. I'd feel bad about this, but I have plenty of students who routinely forget how to write even basic characters by hand. I feel ever so vanquished when one student turns to another and asks, "how do you write putao (grape) in Chinese?") THANK YOU.

I know where this places me, and my various students, on the scale of typical "levels" in any given language, but where does it put us in terms of fluency - which I have come to believe is a separate thing?

I don't know. I know that, no matter what Shi-da says, I'm not as close to my ideal of fluent as their system implies. I know that, while my students make intermediate-level mistakes, that while they may not believe it's true, I know that they can get along in an English-speaking environment. 

I personally believe that I'll feel "fluent" when I can turn on the news, move away from the TV and do something else, and still understand in a fair amount of detail what's going on without having to look at the visuals. The other day I had to get a knife refurbished as it had developed a bit of rust (and it was a very expensive knife) -  I could explain that my knife had a problem - here, take a look! - and could you please fix it, but the word "rust" eluded me. When I came to this cafe earlier, I told them that I did not want a particular seat as my backpack would  jut out into the hallway and people could trip over it. I managed to make myself clear, but fairly awkwardly and certainly with a few mistakes. When I can get through exchanges like these with total confidence - even if there are a few mistakes - I'll feel fluent. When I can look at a menu of foreign food and read off my selection perfectly - not nearly perfectly except for that one character I don't know, dammit! What IS that? Oh but they know what I mean - I'll feel fluent. When I can read a blog post clearly or get the gist of a newspaper article in greater detail (I can get the gist now, but basically detail-free), I'll feel fluent. When the number of workarounds I need to make a point clear are diminished considerably - and it becomes a tool I employ rarely rather than fairly often - I'll feel fluent.

When will that be? I don't know. I work towards it, but I do it in my own rambling way.

Do I ever aspire to speak flawlessly? No. I have no aspirations toward interpreting English into Chinese for official purposes, and I have no aspirations to academia in Chinese. Cool as it would sound - yeah, well, I'm totally a professor of Chinese, so there! - I know that's not the path for me. My relationship with the language has always been more street-level, more everyday, less academic. I *heart* academia, but as an abstract, not as a career goal. At heart I'm a traveler and a networker, an adventure-seeker and an organic learner. I am not a researcher and not someone who believes you can put the strictures on language that so many academics would like to put on it. 
Do I aspire to speak more comfortably? Yes. I'm not sure if, after five and a half years, I've missed some benchmark that I could have hit if I'd only studied harder, or if my organic "it happens when it happens and I am learning" approach has done me more good.

I just don't know, but it's all worth thinking about.

So if you, too, are not fluent and wish people would stop asking as though fluent were a concept whose metrics everyone agreed on or as though there was a benchmark, rather than a scale, of fluency -  don't beat yourself up. You're not alone. I'm here, too!

Friday, October 14, 2011

(Spoken) Chinese is Not That Hard

A well-known essay on Why Chinese is So Damn Hard recently reappeared online. I remember reading it back when it first appeared, agreeing heartily with the main points it makes – yes, the writing system is too complex and not very phonetic! Yes, classical Chinese is freakin’ impossible! Yes, the tones are irritating!

I still agree with much of it – forget Classical Chinese unless you’re doing it out of sheer love of the language or studying it in a scholarly fashion. The writing system is ridiculous, not very phonetic and not even easy for native speakers. I will go so far as to say that the writing system is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, in the world.  Basically, I agree with everything the writer says about written Chinese with one exception: the piece makes it sound like reading Chinese is as hard as writing it – it’s extraordinarily difficult, true, but not quite as Sisyphean as learning to write. I can recognize far more characters than I can write – which makes reading approximately one order of magnitude easier than writing.

It’s spoken Chinese where I disagree with what the writer is saying.

I don’t think the tones are as insurmountable – they’re tough, they’re hard to remember, they’re arbitrary and I agree that they go against how you’d normally stress words in the native languages of many learners of Chinese, but there are only four of them and these are challenges that a little hard work – no harder than figuring out how to utter a decent “r” sound in French or sentence stress in Korean – can’t overcome. While I agree that wrong tones can at times create nonsense or misunderstood sentences, this isn’t as big a problem as the writer makes it out to be: generally speaking even with a few misplaced or wrong tones, a listener can get your meaning by context. With a little practice you can stress important words in a sentence and still use their correct tone.

I also feel that the writer is not quite correct about Romanization systems – they don’t all suck. Tongyong sucks, and Wade-Giles sucks, and that random other one I sometimes see in Taiwan that isn’t Tongyong sucks, but I think Pinyin is fine. I have friends who disagree, and that’s their prerogative, but I find spelling in Pinyin to be much more regular than spelling in English, the words as they are written, when pronounced according to the rules of Pinyin do sound like what the word actually is – unlike with other systems - and once you master its few challenges it is a straightforward system to use (those issues are “x” vs. “sh”, the use of “i” which changes its sound depending on what consonant it follows, pronunciation of “c” and “q”, and “q” vs. “ch”. The umlauted “u” can be tough, too). These are challenges but unlike English spelling, predictable in every word. The rules of how to pronounce things written in Pinyin doesn’t change – I daresay if you can’t master it after a bit of practice, that you aren’t trying. It’s just not that hard.

In Chinese’s favor, word order is not terribly rigid (there are rules, and then exceptions like the construction, and ways to change around word order by using passive voice and a mock passive, and you can get your meaning across even if you change the order in many cases), the grammar is fairly straightforward with a few exceptions – and the group of verbs that use (v)起來 being two personal bugbears of mine – and far more streamlined than anything in the Indo-European tree, not to mention Japanese or Korean. Compound words are formed fairly regularly and without all the weird prefix/affix/suffix squeezing and spelling changes of English, and using words that as a composite create the meaning you’re after when a needed piece of lexis escapes you is something you can do fairly easily, and get your point across.

I would say the main difficulty in speaking Chinese are all of the homonyms – unless you have a strong sense of context it can be fairly easy to misunderstand someone who used a word that sounds just like another word, especially if they’re speaking quickly, in a dialect or very colloquially.

All in all though, it’s absolutely true that learning to write Chinese is horrifically difficult, so much so that Chinese will never be an international language, at least not a written one because non-native learners, especially adults, will simply not be able to master it in great numbers. Imagine a busy businessperson deciding to pick up written Chinese for work and take classes in his/her slivers of spare time – how far will they get? Not far at all. It just won’t happen.

It’s spoken Chinese where I think the writer is downright wrong. It’s no harder – and in many ways easier – than learning to speak many other languages.

Which forces me to add: it seems like the writer is committing the same mistake that so many have: associating Chinese mainly with the written form, and not focusing nearly enough on the spoken language. Written Chinese is not the entirety of the Chinese language, and I wish people would stop acting as though writing Chinese was the end-all and be-all of Chinese.

If you get adequate practice, immerse yourself if possible and try to do a good job of learning to speak Chinese the way you would learn any language, you can learn to speak it, assuming you aren’t one of those folks with no aptitude for languages (in which case any other language would be equally hard).

So why do foreigners struggle so much with Chinese? Why do relatively fewer foreigners who begin learning Chinese get very far? Why is it such a problem if speaking Chinese is no harder than other languages, and in many ways easier?

Because teaching methodologies for Chinese SUCK.  They S-U-C-K suck. They are aeons behind the latest ideas in teaching for EFL and the various popular Romance languages as well as German. I don’t know where Chinese teachers train to become “teachers” but I don’t have much respect for the pedagogy they’ve learned. I’ve written about it already here and here so I won’t repeat myself too much, but I will give examples:

To learn a language effectively, you need:

-       = Many and varied opportunities to practice: this means the receptive skills (listening, reading) in both extensive and intensive ways (ie generally/for pleasure or for comprehension/detail as one would do in class, the productive skills (speaking and writing – both for fluency and accuracy in terms of speaking, and free as well as guided for writing) – I felt, in Chinese class, that I was afforded few chances to practice and they certainly weren’t varied or targeted

-       Varying interaction patterns with a focus on letting students do as much as possible, with as little teacher-led time as possible – my Chinese classes were so teacher-centered that it was amazing we spoke at all other than to read from the textbook

-       Practice in different types of activities (there’s a world of difference between a discussion question and a ‘make a sentence’ or ‘guess the word’ game, as between writing a restaurant review and creating a poster)  - yeah, none of this. “Write ten sentences for homework using these words” and the occasional throwaway question was the closest we ever got to that.

-       A strong knowledge of how students best practice (example: asking students to read out loud, especially in turn, is one of the worst ways to handle reading) – we read every single reading out loud, and honestly, I didn’t understand most of them. Not because I couldn’t understand them, but the medium of practicing them made it hard to follow

-       Opportunities to create original speech – yeah, very little of that and when it did happen, it was mostly written and assigned as homework

-       Some testing, but not allowing testing to take over the main thrust of the course – we had dictation quizzes daily, tests after every unit and a test every three units. FAR too much testing. Of course there was a section in the feedback form that allowed you to say there was too little testing, but no bubble you could tick to say there was too much, and no room to write it yourself.

-       Tailoring grammar and time spent on it to how important/useful the grammar is, and trying to present it in ways that show students how to use it in the real world – not at all. All grammar was taught with equal weight in the same ineffective “do this exercise, there now you know the grammar” way.

-       Opportunities to practice, at great length, the grammar taught in various “situations” or activities – basically none of that, maybe a workbook exercise or two

-       Knowing how much vocabulary an average student can absorb in a given class time – the teachers would cram as much unit vocabulary into us as they could in any given class, and yes, I had trouble remembering it all because it came too fast, without enough practice, in a very dry form, not contextualized enough and without enough good examples of natural usage. We went around and read it in turns, which encouraged people to basically not pay attention and was not a good way to keep students engaged or interested. It certainly did not facilitate actually remembering the vocabulary.

…and a hell of a lot more. 

I mention these because these are all of the things that I observed, in my time at Shi-da, that the MTC does not do, and they’re supposed to be one of the better institutions. Chinese teachers ‘round the world still seem to think that having students go around and read vocabulary examples with sentences in turn, with no opportunities to actually create sentences, and then quickly going through a few grammar exercises and rounding it up nicely with quizzes and tests is a fine way for students to learn Chinese…but it’s not working. It doesn’t work. It can’t work. And yet that’s how Chinese is taught in so many places.

Oh yes, and I’ve said in previous posts that Chinese language programs lean far too heavily on Chinese for textbook/academic purposes and not for daily use, and that they seem to care far more about perfect writing than fluent speaking – both of which are fine for those learning Chinese for academia, but an utter mess for someone who just wants to speak Chinese already. And those who are learning it for academia? Either they are quite erudite but sound like a textbook (sorry J – but you’ve improved a lot in that area!) or they just don’t speak it well at all (as with a few people I’ve met, and heard stories about, as in ‘how did she get into the graduate program when she can barely string together a sentence in Chinese?’).

THIS is why foreigners aren’t doing a good job of learning Chinese – not because spoken Chinese is all that inherently difficult.

Get some good Chinese teachers to really make changes in how the language is taught, and get classes with real practice on all levels of the language, and you’ll see a massive uptick in foreigners’ ability to master the language: the spoken language, at least. The problem isn't the language - it is 100% the piss-poor methodology. There's no excuse for it. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Not Too Smart, Not Too Dumb

Update: my husband wrote another fascinating perspective (of course I think it's fascinating, I'm his wife) on his own blog that is definitely worth reading. Plus he said my Chinese was good several times, so, uh, thanks honey!

I came across this post on Laowiseass about locals asking you about your ability to speak Chinese.
Rather than leave a long, ranty comment I thought I’d post it here as a rebuttal.
Maybe, despite by blackened, cynical heart, I do have a redeeming beam of optimistic light shining through after all, but I like to think the best of people. The Taiwanese people, moreover, have given me so many reasons to think the best of them.
I absolutely do not get the feeling that, when asked about my Chinese, even at length, or complimented on it after a simple “ni hao”, the reaction of locals is one of either (a) being incredulous because foreigners are supposed to be to dumb to learn Chinese or (b) thinking Chinese is so deeply complex that a non-native speaker can’t possibly learn it.
I’m sorry, I don’t buy it – it’s a cliché I’ve heard before and I’m just not on board.
Rather, while it is true that most established long-termers do speak Chinese and often speak it well, the foreigners that many Taiwanese come into contact with, if they talk much to foreigners at all, are the transients – here for a year to teach English or take two semesters at Shi-da, and gone…or they’re expats of the “businessperson” variety, sent by their companies, who may stay for a few years but rarely learn much Chinese. Looking at my Taiwanese friends’ Facebook lists confirms this. For many, I am their only foreign friend. For others, they seem to be friends with one or two foreign colleagues who have visited and maybe a language exchange partner but that’s it (others have lots of foreign friends – it does vary somewhat). So while I am not denying that the established expats generally can speak decent Chinese, that doesn’t mean that the average local comes across them rather than, say, a cram school teacher or the resident expat in their office with whom they must speak English (as I do work in various offices, most of my Taipei acquaintances are white-collar office workers).
I also feel that the questions about my Chinese are more of a friendly variety – a conversation topic from someone who may be nervous and wondering what to talk to a foreigner about. Or a compliment, because other foreigners that person has met really couldn’t speak Chinese. Or just because they’re flattered that I have taken the time to learn their language.
Which is another point – for we Taiwan long-termers, this whole “learning Chinese” thing is normal, but it’s really only been in our generation (and even then not to any great extent) that we foreigners have taken a large-scale interest in studying Chinese at any level. Of course there have always been foreigners who have learned Chinese, but in my parents’ generation you generally studied European languages unless you were intending to move somewhere for work or become a linguist or anthropologist. Now it’s not that uncommon to have a non-Chinese or Taiwanese person who can teach a Chinese class or translate, but just a generation ago it would have been exceedingly rare. In the USA we don’t comment on how well foreigners speak English because (a) culturally it’s quite rude to do, but also (b) because it’s very common to meet foreigners who speak good English. It doesn’t necessarily hold true the other way – immigrants to the USA have been learning English for generations. It’s only been recently that there has been an uptick in foreigners coming to Taiwan and learning Chinese. You can’t hold them to the same etiquette rules or cultural background, because it is simply not the same.
So when I get a “you speak such good Chinese!” I take it as a “thank you for taking the time to learn our language and be interested in our culture, seeing as usually we’re the ones expected to take the time to learn English and understand the West”. I don’t take it as “Chinese is so hard / foreigners are so stupid”.
If anything, people I talk to will say that while writing Chinese is a bitch and a half (it is), learning to speak and understand it with its pared-down grammar and compact phrasing is, as they see it, probably easier for us than it is for them to learn English.
I’ve heard more “oh, no, English is what’s hard!” than “Chinese is so hard! How did you learn it?”
I have also not felt any assumption-laden comments implying that even if I studied Chinese at a university for four years, the second I graduate it’s expected that I’ll forget it all – if anything, living in Taiwan I encounter the expectation that once I show I can speak Chinese, that it is expected that if I can do so and have been here for five years that I had better speak it well, unless I’m lazy or don’t care.
Besides, how many of us learned a language in college that we have since forgotten? Taking classes in the USA or wherever you are from in a language, even for years, is not the same as actually living your life in and around that language. I studied French for seven years, spoke it very well upon graduation from college, and now can barely stammer out a sentence (although when I ran into some French travelers in India, much of it came back in twenty minutes of chatting). I think Chinese, which I have barely studied formally and mostly learned on my own, is much more drilled into my head because I learned it in an immersion environment. If I had gone to a French-speaking country upon graduation the situation would be different. It would not surprise me to learn that someone who had studied a language in college was not able to speak it even five years later. College classes are not an optimal environment.
So please, let’s dispense with tired clichés about how Chinese speakers view their language or view foreigners. It does nobody any favors and only widens the cultural divide.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

DING! Fries are done.

I used to have this idea that if I studied Chinese long and hard enough, someday I’d be “fluent”, like Fluency was a prize I could win and maybe pin to my shoulder. Look at my shiny Fluency Medal! I worked for the prescribed X years to learn Chinese and now I qualify as Fluent! It’s Official!

OK, maybe not quite like that, but there was this idea that learning a language (for me, Chinese – but really it goes for any language) had a specific end date or final goal, and once I reached it - DING! Fries are done.

Of course it’s a myth – sure there’s a point when, if you work hard enough, you will reach a level of ability generally recognized as “fluency”, but that doesn’t mean the fries are done. There are also a lot of different ways in which one can define fluency, and a lot of different components of it that people are going to be naturally better at than others (I’m great at sounding local and speaking without turning on an internal translator. I’m fairly good at joking in Chinese and pretty adept at switching between Chinese and English. I have friends who are better at elaborate grammar constructions, others who are strong writers and fast readers, and others who understand Chinese characters more in-depth, and have met others with razor-sharp tones and pronunciation. I have met nobody who excels at all of the above who is not a native speaker, although I am sure such people exist). That would be a good post for the future, methinks.

I do feel that many language classes perpetuate this idea, as well as the idea that Fluency is one well-defined thing and anyone who possesses it will naturally possess all of the same skills and strengths of someone else who also possesses it.

Ever since I quit classes – I’ll go back once this whole Turkey trip is done – and found that my Chinese was improving regardless (not as quickly and certainly not as academically, but I am still picking up phrases, structures, vocabulary, slang and idioms and the ability to communicate ever more quickly and precisely).

Not saying you should quit Chinese class if you’re taking it, though – that doesn’t work for everyone. It just happened to work for me.

I’ve also realized that there is no moment when the fries are done. The microwave of learning will never DING!

This has made it a lot easier to put to rest my earlier plan of going to graduate school for Chinese, and instead deciding to go for Applied Linguistics. Part of my reasoning is that the Chinese I’d likely learn would be of the academic sort that, while worthy and interesting, isn’t right for me and my goals regarding Chinese. I’ve found time and time again that Chinese classes in the USA and Taiwan – and China – are focused on a sort of formal, newscasterly Chinese that doesn’t interest me as much as actual local parlance, and that there is a bias in those institutions toward that type of Chinese – as in, you must speak Chinese like an anchor on TVBS or you are Beneath Us. Why would you want to roll with common street rabble?

Which is bullshit if you ask me – not entirely so, as this type of Chinese (or any language) and the way it is learned clearly suits some people, and it is a worthy pursuit if that’s what you’re into…and that’s fine. I just feel differently. It’s bullshit, basically, if someone decides that this is the only “proper” form of learning, or that it is the “best” way, as opposed to what it is: one form out of many.

The most linguistically interesting thing about language to me is how it varies in everyday use, not how it sounds in a language lab. I’m more interested in exploring that as a speaker, neighbor and friend than as a researcher.

My goal is to be a scholar when it comes to pedagogy, educational methods, public speaking and Linguistics. My goal is to teach language as a tool and a living, changing entity, not some esoteric Idea that must be related through academia. To promote it as a facilitator and friend-maker, and to promote learning it in such a way that you might conceivably…well, if not sound local, at least better relate to local culture and people.

My goal for Chinese is to basically age gracefully into an obasan who might not be fine academic writer, but who can argue and gossip and tell stories with the best of ‘em.
As such, I’ve come to be much more accepting of a life goal for Chinese that involves making local friends, talking to people as much as possible, taking classes on an ad hoc basis, self-studying, and attending talks and courses in Chinese purely to both keep up and improve my abilities…and I’ll never be done. Continuing to learn and speak it purely for the enjoyment of doing so, and not for an academic qualification. I’m now OK with focusing more on fitting in locally than reading the classics of Chinese literature in Chinese - which is a wonderful and noble pursuit, but not my thing. Not that I don’t read such things, but that learning the highfalutin Chinese to do so takes precious time away from practice street-level fluency and everyday eloquence, and I want those things more.

It’s quite freeing really, to decide that learning a language will be a lifelong, purely-for-love pursuit, that it will never end, and that I don’t need a professor to tell me when I am Fluent.

So put those fries back in and crank that baby up!

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!