Not All Child’s Play

For Taiwan Review

What the dozen or so international students repeat after their teacher does not quite sound like the same language: two Korean students at the back of the classroom do not get anywhere near the right inflection, while the pronunciation of a proper “zh” sound eludes a young Austrian woman completely. Realizing that enthusiasm is taking a nosedive, the instructor shows mercy and calls it a day. But that is not to say that anyone leaves the classroom without a serious homework assignment: on Monday, each student must give an oral presentation on the national flag of his or her country, in Chinese, of course. With “Zhoumo kuaile, zaijian!” or “Have a nice weekend, goodbye!” the class ends at Chinese Culture University’s Mandarin Learning Center (MLC) in Taipei.

Close to one-fifth of the world’s population, or more than one billion people, speak Mandarin Chinese. Although most grew up in mainland China or Taiwan, where Mandarin is the national tongue, it is not necessarily easy for them to become literate in the language as the matching script comes with more than 10,000 characters, a feature requiring nothing less than lifelong learning. But the task of mastering Chinese as a foreign language also involves learning tones, which can be many times more daunting. In addition to the writing system, which does not use an alphabet but combines characters that represent objects, ideas or sounds, would-be speakers must pay particular care to their intonation. Whereas in most of the world’s languages, tonal distinctions are only used to express emotions or for singing, in Chinese, it is a decisively different matter. At best, foreigners who ignore tones have little chance of being understood, and in the worst-case scenario, unknowingly end up expressing something they would under no circumstances want to be heard saying.

On the other hand, mastering the Chinese language is undoubtedly rewarding. To those foreign learners who hang in there, the skill becomes key to understanding fascinating societies and cultures, especially if students study in vibrant Taiwan. Getting to that point, however, takes time and dedication.

“Chinese is so different—grammar and pronunciation have nothing in common whatsoever with what we speak in Europe,” says Tom Wong, a German national in his early 20s who has been taking Chinese classes for three months at MLC. “But what caps it all is the script; it’s not only that we have to memorize a new character for each new vocabulary word, but even the order of the strokes must be strictly adhered to.” Wong’s grandfather immigrated to Bavaria in Germany from Shanghai in the 1950s after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. His Chinese heritage is of little to no value in the classroom, however, according to Wong, as Chinese is spoken hardly at all in his family. He says it is difficult to keep up with his Japanese and South Korean classmates.

Coming to Taiwan

The Ministry of Education (MOE) says some 14,800 foreign nationals studied Mandarin in Taiwan in 2011, up from around 10,000 in 2007. About 2,000 foreigners from all over the world are currently taking Chinese classes at MLC. The ministry recognizes 36 language centers across Taiwan, most of which are affiliated with local universities. Along with MLC, some of the better-known programs are those at National Taiwan University and National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, and Providence University in Taichung, central Taiwan.

But no matter which school international students settle on, they had better allow sufficient time for their studies. While newspaper and Internet ads for private language schools in Taiwan are notorious for the spectacular promises they make, such as being able to teach basic Chinese within a few consecutive Sundays, most students find it takes hundreds of hours of study to gain a reasonable level of fluency.

In MLC’s case, students take 15 hours per week. One semester lasts 11 weeks and learners begin with Pinyin, a romanization system, and perhaps also bo po mo fo, a phonetic system used in Taiwan to teach children to read and write Chinese characters and which is also used for typing on a computer or cell phone. Grammar instruction begins with simple sentences such as “What’s your name?” and “How tall are you?” Most of the teaching material is in Chinese and English, but as many of MLC’s students are non-native English speakers, vocabulary is generally introduced with the help of comic-like drawings. Each word comes with a written character, or more accurately, characters, given that most written words are made up of at least two characters. Next, stroke order is practiced and the historical evolution of the character is discussed, the idea being that learning will be easier for students if they understand the origins of a character. Most characters began as rather simple ideograms and became more complex over the millennia.

From the beginning, students learn about the four tones (five if one counts the “neutral” tone) of Mandarin words. For most non-native speakers, the only way to reproduce the tones accurately is to listen to them again and again, and for that reason, the first semester in particular is defined by endless tone drills.

From then on, ever more complex sentence structures are presented each semester. As a rule of thumb, 50 new vocabulary words are added per week. Words become more abstract little by little, for example, as the teaching emphasis moves from concrete words such as those for “table” and “tree,” to concepts like “love” and “fear.” Before long, the dialogues introducing new words span entire pages. But it is not until the seventh semester— in other words, after a year-and-a-half of classes—that the simple role plays and reading passages give way to real essays. By then, genuinely challenging topics, such as the difficulties single-parent families face in Taiwanese society, environmental issues or Taiwan’s national health insurance, can be read about, written and discussed by students.

For those who persevere to complete approximately two years of classes, the subject matter turns to philosophical and political topics: the ancient Chinese thinkers Confucius and Mencius, and also contemporary Taiwanese newspapers and television programs.

Getting the Order Right

Having barely finished his first semester, Wong is not anywhere near that level. But despite the daunting task ahead, he remains upbeat. This is because the MLC student has found out that things get easier the longer he studies.

“There are basic rules for writing a character: from outside inward, from top to bottom, from left to right. And they’re all made up of repeating patterns,” Wong says. “Once you know the patterns, you know the stroke order; and then it comes to a point when you get the hang of it.”

Much more of a headache, however, is pronunciation. As a native speaker of German—in which, like all European languages, the tone of a spoken word does not change its meaning—he finds this feature of the Chinese language somewhat frustrating. By contrast, he says Chinese grammar is an obstacle hardly worth mentioning. “It’s strikingly simple. There’s no declension of verbs [verbs do not change according to tense]. You put ‘I’ first, then the verb in its base form and then a noun,” he says. “When I learned French at school, we had to memorize endless lists of verbs; there’s no such thing in Chinese.”

Wong is confident that after three months of classes, he has learned enough Mandarin to pick up most of the meaning when Taiwanese are speaking to him. During his stay in Taipei, he has been living with a host family, and although he is still a beginner, he says his Chinese-language skill provides him with a good amount of insight into everyday culture.

When wandering through the corridors at MLC, international students from Western countries seem to be in the minority. A fair portion of the Mandarin learners at the center come from Southeast Asia, most notably Indonesia and Vietnam. Conversations in Japanese and Korean can also be overheard easily. It is tempting to think that students from other Asian countries might find it significantly easier to learn Chinese, but according to Mongolian student E. Batjargal, this is a fallacy. Batjargal has been learning Chinese in Taipei for about two years, and although Mongolia is one of mainland China’s neighboring countries, she has never felt she had a particular advantage over her Western classmates.

For one thing, Mongolians use the Russian script, meaning she too had to learn everything from scratch. “In the first few semesters, I spent two hours a day writing the characters over and over. It wasn’t before one year had passed that I could take it a little bit easier.”

Batjargal says that it was the daily dictation in class that helped her improve. It was also beneficial when the teachers took the time to explain in detail the evolution of the characters and their historic context. This made it easier to grasp the rough meaning of a word without having ever formally learned it, she says.

The young Mongolian woman agrees that it is the tones that pose by far the greatest challenge. To illustrate this, she tells a joke that many foreigners who study Chinese in Taiwan have learned: “A young foreign guy comes into an eatery. He says ‘yi wan xuejiao duoshao qian?’ The waitress says ‘You are a foreigner, so I forgive you.’” Batjargal chuckles, pauses, chuckles again and subsequently explains. The foreign patron innocently intended to ask how much a bowl of dumplings costs, but got the tones very wrong. Instead, he asked how much it cost to sleep with the waitress for one night.

Most linguists agree that the best way to master a foreign language is to study where it is spoken. Even the driest sentence structures in textbooks come to life when they are applied outside the classroom with real people. To help students experience Taiwanese culture, many local language schools offer a range of activities bundled together in the form of so-called culture classes. For example, at the Mandarin Training Center (MTC) of National Taiwan Normal University, students can choose from as many as 15 subjects related to Chinese culture. On the list are Chinese music, both classical and contemporary, instruction in playing Chinese instruments including the erhu (a two-stringed instrument played with a bow), as well as a Chinese tea ceremony and tai chi, the latter being a world-famous Chinese martial art practiced for both its self-defense training and health benefits. By far the center’s most popular cultural subject, however, is Chinese cuisine. One classroom has been made into a kitchen where international students are taught how to prepare Chinese goodies such as sweet and sour soup and xiaolongbao, a type of steamed bun found in all corners of the Chinese-speaking world.

To help students gain more practice speaking, MTC arranges “language exchanges” with the university’s regular students. In such exchanges, participants converse in Mandarin for a time, then switch to the foreign student’s native tongue. The mutually beneficial encounters between international students and their local peers are much sought-after outside campus, too. Eager language learners often post ads on Internet sites, in local cafés and other community notice boards in search of a language-exchange partner.

Making an Impression

Once foreign students have a fairly good grasp of Mandarin, they find that Taiwan generally makes a deep impression. Young women from other Asian countries, most notably Indonesia, Japan and South Korea, often express admiration for the gender balance they witness in Taiwan, saying that the situation is far ahead of their home countries. Public safety is also given the thumbs up by many Westerners, as once they can understand news stories they often find that reports of crime are blown out of proportion in the Taiwanese media. Students also experience the streets of Taipei firsthand and most find them significantly less frightening than those of their home cities. After picking up enough Chinese, some Southeast Asian students are surprised to realize that bribing police and other officials is not part of everyday life in Taiwan. Others say they are very impressed with Taiwan’s freedom of speech.

Many male Japanese students enjoy Taiwan’s relaxed social customs. Whereas in Japan, suits and neckties define nine-to-five life, and even singing at a karaoke bar with colleagues after work involves social pressure due to strict rules of acceptable behavior, in Taiwan, personal relations are generally easygoing if you speak enough Chinese. In addition, the dress code in many local offices is much more relaxed.

Back at Chinese Culture University’s MLC, He Bao-sui (何寶穗) sheds light on what teaching Chinese as a foreign language demands from instructors like her. While grammar is child’s play for most Westerners, it often stumps Japanese and South Koreans. No nationality has it really easy when it comes to the spoken language, as Japanese, South Koreans and Westerners are all prone to confusing the fourth and second tones, she says. The teacher emphasizes the amount of practice she must give her students, even going to great pains to show them how to curl their tongues to make the correct sounds. With Western students, she must be very patient when it comes to writing, while the script is naturally easier for Japanese students since the two languages share some written characters. At the end of the day, though, she says it all comes down to a general sense of art as the characters are essentially pictograms.

When asked about the most challenging aspect of her job, the teacher answers without hesitation. It is bad when she teaches, but gets no reaction from the students, she says. And the most rewarding aspect? “When the students correctly apply vocabulary and sentence structures I’ve taught to make fun of me,” she says. “That’s truly satisfying. Then, they are well prepared to venture into Taiwanese culture.”

Jens Kastner is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.

Copyright © 2012 by Jens Kastner


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