Learning Chinese Mandarin in Taiwan

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Learning Chinese Mandarin in Taiwan

Language immersion study abroad is the best and quickest way to upgrade all language skills, and it is an excellent way to acquire target country cultural knowledge. For one year spanning 1984 and 1985, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to immerse myself in Chinese Mandarin and Chinese culture at the the American Institute in Taiwan Chinese Language and Area Studies School (AIT-CLASS) in the vicinity of Taipei, Taiwan. This was a highly successful and rewarding experience resulting in much higher proficiency in listening, speaking, and reading skills as well as a greater appreciation for Chinese culture.

The Need for Immersion Study

My study of the Chinese Mandarin language began in 1967 with an intensive 37 week aural-comprehension course at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California. Further study in vernacular and literary courses followed at the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature of the University of Wisconsin during 1972-1973. Vernacular courses included beginning and intermediate conversation, reading, and grammar. The literary courses gave introductions and overviews of contemporary Chinese literature and classical Chinese literature. In addition to language courses, I had a traditional Chinese history class and a modern Chinese intellectual history course dealing with events since 1911.

After living and teaching English as a foreign language in Taiwan up until 1979, I returned to the States and resumed taking Mandarin classes after I got a job with the federal government. The tutorial and small group classes which I was now enrolled in with the government were aimed at trying to improve my translation and transcription skills.

Although I had excellent teachers both at the University of Wisconsin and with the government, I was never able to get my listening and speaking and reading and writing skills above an intermediate level. The reason for this was because I was not completely immersed in learning Chinese Mandarin. Therefore, I could not think in Mandarin, because I had never studied the language before in an environment where I was forced to use the language to satisfy personal needs. The language was still foreign to me and had not been internalized as part of my life. I was also still lacking in cultural knowledge which is so important to get a higher understanding of a language.

The government recognized that it was essential for me to improve my Mandarin skills to become a better translator and transcriber. Since I could not get the best training for this in the States, the government nominated me for one year of language immersion training in Taiwan.

Getting Selected for Immersion Study

During the early 1980s, Chinese Mandarin immersion study for State Department Foreign Service Officers and other government employees was conducted at AIT-CLASS. Prior to 1980, the immersion study had been at the U.S. Embassy's Chinese Language and Area Studies School at Taichung, Taiwan. The establishment of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China or Communist China in December of 1978 necessitated that America break diplomatic relations with the Republic of China or Taiwan, and now represent its interests with the people on Taiwan with the formation of the American Institute in Taiwan, a private organization.

Upon being nominated and eventually selected for immersion study, I had to take language placement tests at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute. One of the tests was a face-to-face interview with a native Chinese speaker to assess my listening and speaking skills. Another test accessed my reading comprehension ability with questions in Chinese about passages which I had to answer in Chinese. I remember the interview started out with relatively easy questions about my daily life, and then progressed to questions where I had to give opinions about social or political topics. About a week later I received the results of the placement tests. I was at a 2-2 or intermediate level in both listening and speaking and reading and writing.

Arriving in Taiwan for Immersion Study

At the start of August in 1984, I arrived in Taiwan with my family to embark upon a year of immersion study. On a hot and humid night, I was met at Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport in Taoyuan by AIT personnel who transported my family and me to our housing on the mountain of Yangmingshan about 20 kilometers northwest of the center of Taipei. I was assigned quarters in a big old one-floor house in an area directly behind the gates of the Chinese Cultural College. This was in an old housing area originally constructed for the U.S. military in the 1950s. AIT-CLASS was within walking distance as well as the small village of Shantsehou and the main road with bus transportation into Taipei. All of this didn't matter because the government had paid to ship my car over to Taiwan.

Learning Chinese Mandarin in Taiwan

CLASS Facilities

A few days after arriving in Taiwan, classes began at CLASS. The school was situated in two or three older one-story buildings in a little valley in the mountains. It had a school director's office, small one room library, and an audio-visual room. All of the other rooms were classrooms for tutorial or small group classes.

CLASS Staff, Teachers, and Students

Staff and Teachers

AIT-CLASS was administered by a director or school principal who was an employee of the State Department's Foreign Service Institute. His duties were to manage the 10-15 native Chinese instructors, and he was also responsible for ensuring that the State Department and other agency students were making progress in upgrading their Chinese Mandarin skills. The native instructors were both male and female and of various ages. Some were born on Taiwan, and others came from different provinces in China. The chief native instructor, an elderly lady called "Ta Ch'en," struck fear into most students because she handled the interviews for assessing listening and speaking skills. Throughout this hub I will be using Wade-Giles Romanization which was used at the time for rendering of names into English.

Students

The student body was very small, and I found myself in the company of 10-15 classmates. We were all assigned to a year of immersion study to upgrade our intermediate listening and speaking and reading and writing skills to a more advanced minimum professional proficiency. Based on FSI placement test results, we were assigned to small three person group classes at the beginning of the year. We were also given tutorials.

A Typical CLASS School Day

My immersion study at AIT-CLASS lasted for 11 months. Classes ran from 0800 to 1500 Monday through Friday. There were four morning classes from 0800 to 1200, and two afternoon classes from 1300 to 1500. We were allowed time off for U.S. holidays and most major Chinese holidays. I remember a typical school day at the beginning of the immersion study year running as follows:

Period One - 0800-0855

I remember this class quite well because it was a conversational tutorial conducted by a young enthusiastic male, Hsiao He. We used a text with numerous conversations about life and travel around Taiwan. The entire class was held in Mandarin, and I did have to memorize dialogs again as I had to do previously at DLI.

Period Two - 0900-0955

This was a small group reading class run by an elderly gentleman, Lao Tan. During this class with two other students, we read Chinese Communist documents from a school published documents reader during the first month of the year. Unlike my first period conversational class, I got a lot of practice in reading Chinese simplified characters.

Period Three - 1010-1105

After a 15 minute morning break, I had the most dreaded class of the day - a small group grammar and sentence structure class with the chief instructor, Ta Ch'en. The class was so dreaded because it was like being interrogated and raked over hot coals whenever Ta Chen knew you were having trouble producing a grammatically correct sentence. No one could ever relax in this class, because you never knew when the chief instructor would call on you and put you in the spotlight.

Period Four - 1110-1205

This was a small group Taiwan TV news broadcast class. The purpose of the class was to develop a student's listening comprehension of current events. In this class under the guidance of a young energetic man, we listened to and viewed a series of short recorded national and international news reports. This was done using the old VCR and VCR tapes. Our task was to summarize or gist a news article after viewing it maybe two or three times. The native instructor was there to present listening strategies and help in identifying words and sentences we could not understand. This was the second most challenging class of the day.

Period Five - 1300-1400

I recall this being the least stressful class of the day. Together with a group of 5-6 classmates we had discussions in Chinese of various cultural topics . These discussions on such topics as food, religion, education, schools, festivals, and customs were led by an elderly female instructor.

Period Six - 1405-1500

The final period of the day was another tutorial in which the student could choose his own study materials. I remember having this class with a young female instructor and choosing to read editorials and other news items from Taiwan newspapers. After reading the news articles, we would discuss them in Chinese. A lot of new useful vocabulary was really learned in this class.

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Assessment of Language Skills

Every three months our listening, speaking, and reading skills were assessed by the school director and the dreaded chief instructor. Listening and speaking skills were assessed through a lengthy interview with the chief instructor witnessed by the school director. Everyone knew that in order to upgrade listening and speaking skills it was necessary to be able to answer opinion questions related to current news events. Bearing this in mind, I prepped myself on such issues as the Cold War, Nicaragua, the Iraq-Iran War, and President Reagan's Star Wars Initiative in my school tutorial sessions. When the assessment interview date came, I was able to perform quite well and was given a more advanced minimum professional proficiency. The reading proficiency assessment tests were less stressful. Practice in reading editorials helped me to increase my reading proficiency to that of a more advanced minimum professional proficiency.

Learning Chinese Mandarin in Taiwan

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Extra-curricular Activities for Cultural Knowledge

Extra-curricular activities leading to enriched cultural experiences were the most enjoyable part of my immersion study. It was during these activities that the students had ample opportunities to apply the language skills learned in the classroom. Some of my most unforgettable extra-curricular activities included field trip excursions to different parts of Taiwan.

Field Trip to Kenting National Park

CLASS's first field trip took place one week after our classes began in August. The purpose of this trip was for all teachers and students to get to know each other. We did this by taking a chartered bus trip down island to Kenting National Park which is at the southernmost tip of Taiwan. While at Kenting, teachers and students stayed at the Kuomindang (KMT) Youth Corps Hostel next to the beach. I vividly remember sleeping in a small primitive pillbox of a room on a tatami mat with two classmates and a teacher. We were confined to the room for a long windy and wet night with a passing typhoon. The next morning we were introduced to traditional Chinese and Taiwanese breakfast food much different from an American breakfast. This excursion was an excellent exciting experience, and I began to make new friends and understand my teachers better.

Excursion to Central and Southern Taiwan

Our second excursion in November was even more rewarding, because we had a number of educational, political, technological, business, cultural, and sightseeing activities packed into a four day trip once again down island. The first two or three days were spent in the cities of Pingtung, Kaohsiung, and Tainan. While in Pingtung, we had a meeting with the county magistrate which was all conducted in Mandarin. We learned a lot about the structure and problems of the county government. Next, we visited the Chinese Cultural Center in Kaohsiung City, and then had a meeting at City Hall with Kaohsiung Mayor Hsu Shui-teh. I remember asking him an unpopular political question in Mandarin, and seeing how he judiciously avoided answering it. While in Tainan, we toured a tennis racket factory, and learned how the rackets were produced and exported to foreign countries. All of the briefings and questions and answers with the factory were conducted in Mandarin. Before returning to CLASS, we toured the beautiful scenic Sun Moon Lake, and then stopped to tour a semi-conductor plant in the newly built Hsinchu Science Park. Although we were all exhausted after the trip, our experiences had been so rewarding.

Field Trips in the Taipei Area

When CLASS wasn't taking excursions around the island, we had monthly day field trips in the Taipei area. During my year of immersion. we toured a Chinese Peking Opera School. visited the National Palace Museum at Waishuanghsi, and visited elementary and high schools. No English was ever spoken on these excursions, and most of the students were finally starting to be able to think in Mandarin.

When the year long immersion ended in July of 1985, I was really saddened to leave the island. In a span of only 11 months I had made great strides in my language proficiency. I also had a heightened knowledge and experience of Chinese culture

© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn

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Comments 12 comments

Scott Dunbar 4 years ago

Thanks for taking the time to write up such an interesting piece. I'm studying Mandarin. It still at beginner stage. As much as it sounded a challenge I'd love to get involved in such a great programme.

Hope you are reaping the benefits.

All the best.

Scott


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Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Thanks for the comments, Scott! I have been reaping the benefits of this immersion for the past 30 years.


Rich W2K profile image

Rich W2K 3 years ago from Gold Coast

I really enjoyed reading about your experiences in learning Chinese in Taiwan. Have you been back to Taiwan recently?


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

RichW2K,

I'm glad you enjoyed reading my experiences in learning Chinese in Taiwan. Taiwan was a much different place then than it is today! I haven't been to Taiwan since 2009. At that time I went to Changhua to see my son who is living and teaching English in the city. Prior to that, I was all over Taiwan for a week in 2005. That was the first time I had been back in 15 years. I was surprised at how Taiwan had changed since 1968 and was so much like the West, especially the cities.


rajan jolly profile image

rajan jolly 3 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

This is a very enlightening account of your study of Chinese Mandarin. It is really benefits to learn a language better if one knows the culture too. After holidaying in China for close to 2 months I can appreciate the finer points in this article, Paul.

Voted up, interesting, useful. Shared, pinned and tweeted.


DreamerMeg profile image

DreamerMeg 3 years ago from Northern Ireland

What a fantastic opportunity you had, both for you and for your family. I hope they enjoyed their time in Taiwan too. It is so important to be able to think in the "learned" language to really understand and communicate in it. That also was a great deal of work you did in those 11 months.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

rajan,

I'm very pleased that you found my Mandarin learning experience in Taiwan enlightening. If an immersion is structured correctly, it is the best way to achieve fluency in a language. Thanks for sharing, tweeting, and pinning this hub.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

DreamerMeg,

Thanks for reading and commenting on this hub. My wife and children greatly enjoyed the year long experience because my wife was a native Taiwanese and my children were born in Taiwan. Yes, there was a lot of work, but I enjoyed every minute of it.


gclitty profile image

gclitty 2 years ago

Hello,

I am a college student in California right now preparing for a year-long study abroad in Taipei beginning this September. I have taken only one Chinese Language class thus far, but am very keen on pursuing the language further.

As a beginner in the language, I am interested in your experiences as a beginner. In this hub you discuss your efforts to accelerate your language competency from an intermediate to an advanced (professional) level. Which is, of course, my goal. However, maybe you can give me some tips that a dedicated beginner student in the language might like to keep in mind.

This is my first hub of yours I have read. The first thing I'm going to do is read your other hubs. But I am so thrilled by your hub I had to write this comment first.

Thanks,

Giovanni


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Paul Kuehn 2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Giovanni,

As a dedicated beginner student, you have to immerse yourself in the language. I would advise getting into individual tutorial or small group classes of no more than five students. Live in an area of Taipei where your neighbors are Chinese and they will speak to you rather than in English. Practice is so very important. Practice using your spoken language to satisfy personal needs in social situations rather than relying of English. I would concentrate on your listening and speaking first before getting into more reading and writing. It would be great if you find a Chinese friend who will talk with you every day in Chinese. Please let me know if you have more specific questions. Paul


gclitty profile image

gclitty 2 years ago

Thank you Paul. I am going to be living in the foreign student dorms at NTU, unfortunately. But I am outgoing enough to where I should be able to make enough local friends who will speak Chinese with me.

Because I only have taken one semester of Chinese prior to applying for my study abroad at NTU, I am forced to take English classes mostly. However, I will be taking 10 hours of Chinese classes each week. Four hours of which I am told are dedicated solely to speaking and listening comprehension.

My tentative plan is to reapply to NTU'S prestigious "Learn Chinese" program for a follow up year of study only in Chinese. By this time I will have completed my Bachelors in Economics. I have a four year scholarship with the CSU system and so my next two years will be paid for no matter what I do. My hope is that I can significantly improve my Chinese in the coming year of study (completing my Bachelors degree in Economics at NTU) to really facilitate the prospective follow-up year in the truly immersive NTU ICLP Learn Chinese Program. The classes are 3-5, and the instruction is promised to be very rigorous.

Also, I am considering doing an intensive one-month summer program at NTU in the ICLP Learn Chinese Program prior to my first year-long study abroad mission starting this September.

I know I am kind of crazily spewing information, but learning Chinese has become a foremost goal of mine recently. I am extremely keen on being successful in my Chinese language pursuits.

Giovanni


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Paul Kuehn 2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Giovanni, Excuse me for taking so long to respond to your comments. When you start your program, I strongly suggest that you listen to as much Chinese as you can. If you can't understand it all, just trying to catch the main meaning will be helpful. Also, try to use the language is strictly Chinese settings so that you will know exactly what the words and phrases mean. Good luck and keep me posted on your language progress.

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