Learning Chinese Mandarin in Taiwan
Alishan in Southern Taiwan
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 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 that 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 United States, the government nominated me for one year of language immersion training in Taiwan.
Getting Selected for Immersion Study
During the early 1980s, the Chinese Mandarin immersion study for State Department Foreign Service Officers and other government employees was conducted at AIT-CLASS. Before 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 that I had to answer in Chinese. I remember the interview started 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 beginning 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.
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, a small one-room library, and an audio-visual room. All of the other rooms were classrooms for a tutorial or small group classes.
Learning Chinese Mandarin in Taiwan
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 in Taiwan, and others came from different provinces in China. The chief native instructor, an elderly lady called "Ta Chen," struck fear into most students because she handled the interviews for assessing listening and speaking skills. Throughout this article, I am using Wade-Giles Romanization which was used at the time for the rendering of names into English.
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 in 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 conversation 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 Chen. 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 on 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 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 learned in this class.
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 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.
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 the island to Kenting National Park which is at the southernmost tip of Taiwan. While at Kenting, teachers, and students stayed at the Kuomintang (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 several educational, political, technological, business, cultural, and sightseeing activities packed into a four-day trip once again down the 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 semiconductor 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 saddened to leave the island. In only 11 months I had made great strides in my language proficiency. I also had a heightened knowledge and experience of Chinese culture
Learning Chinese Overseas
If you could participate in an immersion abroad to learn Chinese, which place would you like to go?
Learning Chinese Mandarin in Taiwan
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn