He has extensive experience studying and learning Chinese and we asked him to write about his experience. David answers the 10 most common questions he gets about learning Chinese and his post is a must read for anyone interested in coming to Taiwan to study Chinese.
Moving half way round the world is a daunting task. You are faced with the uncertainty of … well, pretty much with the uncertainty of everything. Maybe you are planning to move to Taiwan to teach, and wonder how you are going to survive without a word of Chinese, or maybe you are planning a move to study Chinese and wonder if you are better off moving to Taiwan or China. Either way, here are the answers to ten often asked questions about living and learning Chinese in Taiwan.
Let’s start with the first one.
Do I need to learn Chinese to live in Taiwan?
The answer is absolutely not. After all, Nick and Tim are nice guys, but there is a reason I was asked to write this guest post. There are tons of people who have lived here for years and can hardly speak a word of Chinese. At least in Taipei, most people that work in stores or restaurants are going to speak enough English that you can do whatever it is you need to get done.
On the odd occasion where the clerk doesn’t speak English, all you have to do is turn around with a look of bewilderment on your face, and someone in line is sure to step up to help you out. After all, they can’t complete their purchase until you stop holding up the line. It may be somewhat more difficult if you live in other parts of Taiwan, but I am sure you can still get by.
Having determined that you don’t need to study Chinese, the next question is —
Should I study Chinese?
Here the answer is absolutely yes, and there are more reasons than I can count, so here are just a couple.
First of all, many people come here for a year, thinking they will be gone before they could ever learn enough Chinese to be useful. Then, they find a girlfriend, or a good job or whatever and before they know it, they have been here ten years and have hardly learned a word. I often hear foreigners say “I’ve lived here 20 years and can’t speak a word.” However, even if you are really sure you are only going to be here a short time, you should still learn Chinese for no other reason than it makes being here a lot more fun and interesting.
There are times when you are going to find yourself in conversations with people that just want to practice their English. You are going to get awfully tired of answering the same few questions over and over again. At least if you can practice your Chinese at the same time, it seems like a bit more of a two way deal.
Finally, like anywhere, people are much more likely to talk to you if you appear to be taking at least a bit of interest in their culture and one of the best ways to do that is to learn a bit of the language.
Should I go to Taiwan or China to study?
I think that this question can be broken down into two parts. The first part depends on what kind of lifestyle you want. I often think of Taiwan as “China lite.” People speak the same language and share much of the same culture as people in China, but you won’t have to suffer some of the hardships you are faced with in China.
I have never lived in China, so I won’t say anything about China or the people there, but people in Taiwan are very nice and polite; they line up to get on the subway; and they are almost always willing to help out a foreigner.
The other question to consider is whether to study simplified or traditional characters. People differ on this question, but usually their answer will depend on what they studied first. From my point of view, the traditional characters are a lot more beautiful, whereas the simplified characters are, well, simpler.
Many people that learned traditional characters first will tell you that, despite the name, simplified characters are actually harder to learn because many of the elements that give clues to meaning or pronunciation have been removed. On the other hand it is hard to argue that 5 strokes in a character seems much simpler than 14. For example 台 臺 are the same two words written in simplified and traditional Chinese.
In the end, if you are serious about learning Chinese, you should probably learn both. Living in Taiwan and reading only traditional characters I am often frustrated by finding lots of study material, reading material, and movie subtitles in only simplified characters. On the other hand, it seems that if you learn traditional characters first, you will pick up the simplified ones fairly quickly, while trying to learn traditional characters after spending years learning the simplified ones might seem a lot like starting over.
Is learning to speak enough, or do I need to learn to read as well?
This is another argument that I hear all the time. I think the answer is sort of counterintuitive, so let me say it loud and clear: “LEARN TO READ.”
When people start out, they often think that reading is going to take too much work and will cause them to waste time that they could spend learning to speak. I have to admit that this was my attitude when I first started out. I remember feeling genuine despair when I turned the page in the textbook and all the exercises were in Chinese characters only. However, I just listened to the dialogue and followed along in the text and found that I was able to read enough to complete the exercises.
What was really surprising was how much knowing the characters helped me to learn new words.
Lots of words in Chinese sound very similar, especially to those of us who grew up speaking a non-tonal language. This means that it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish one word from another when. However, the characters get used over and over again in different words. If you have learned a character, you already know how to pronounce the new word and you sometimes have a logical context as well as a visual clue to help you remember it.
In short, learning to read will not take away from the time you spend learning to speak; it will make your efforts learning to speak ten times more efficient. Even now, I can only remember people’s Chinese names if I already know the characters.
If I am learning to read, do I need to learn to write?
Having heard my arguments about reading, you might be surprised to hear me say that when it comes to writing, I would say not to waste your time. I am sure plenty of people will disagree with me, so let me explain.
First of all, let me say you should definitely learn how characters are written, so that you can look at a character and copy it without too much difficulty. But as far as memorizing all the characters so that you can sit down and hand write a letter to your sweetheart, there is a very poor cost benefit ratio.
Don’t get me wrong; I would love to be able to write all the characters. It’s just that after spending two years painstakingly memorizing all the strokes of hundreds of characters, I feel that the time would have been much better spent reading. Even more depressing is that since I don’t have much reason to write by hand in my daily life, I have forgotten how to write nearly everything. Unfortunately, you will probably have a hard time finding a program in Taiwan that doesn’t require that you learn to hand-write the characters.
I would just do enough to get by and focus on reading and speaking a lot.
Do I need to take classes, or can I just pick it up by myself?
Everyone learns differently, but unless you are stuck out in some remote area where no one speaks English, I feel that the only way to really learn Chinese is to take classes. I often hear people say they are just going to get the book and study on their own, because they don’t want to commit the time to classes.
If you are not going to commit the time to classes, you aren’t going to commit the time to studying. I always thought I learned more studying by myself than I did in class, but it was because I made the commitment to the class that I was studying on my own in the first place.
Is finding a private teacher better than taking a class?
Like I said, I think the only way to really learn the language is by taking classes. Unless you are exceptionally motivated or find an exceptional teacher, having a private teacher is only slightly better than trying to study by yourself. It is just too easy to go to your tutoring session and say you were too busy to study this week. The response will inevitably be, that’s okay, we can just review this week.
So, now that you have decided to take classes:
Where should I study?
Probably the best known program is the Mandarin Training Center at National Taiwan Normal University. I studied there, and to be honest, I found it kind of old-school. National Taiwan University and National ChengChi University have similar programs and I would talk to students at all three of these places before I made a decision.
There is one program that stands out. In addition to the regular Chinese classes that cater to part time English teachers, National Taiwan University has a second program that is much more rigorous. If you have already studied some Chinese and you are coming here with the clear intention of learning Chinese, this is the program for you.
But be warned; don’t even think of doing this program and trying to hold down a job at the same time. It is that serious. Although it is only one hour more a day of classroom instruction, a student once told me “if you spend another 8-10 hours a day, you might get your homework done.
How long is it going to take me to learn Chinese?
If you work hard, you should be able to have a limited and awkward conversation in about six months. In a year, you can expect a much more in depth, but still awkward conversation. After two years of serious study, you are ready to live your life in Chinese, but expect frequent frustrations and mis-communications.
Is it worth it to do a language exchange?
Doing a language exchange is a great way to meet friends. In fact, most ads looking for language exchange are thinly veiled attempt to find a boyfriend or girlfriend. From the foreigner’s point of view, they aren’t really a great way to practice speaking Chinese.
The reason is simple economics. As a poorly qualified English teacher, you make approximately twice as much as a very capable Chinese teacher. Therefore you are better off teaching an additional hour and hiring a teacher for two than you are doing a language exchange.
The other reason language exchanges don’t work is that it is surprisingly difficult to switch back and forth between languages. You get used to speaking one language and that is the one you use. In the end, one party feels that they are not getting their fair share.
If you want a chance to practice your Chinese, go out and find places where people don’t want to speak English. I used to join various hiking groups and was forced to speak Chinese all day long. A day spent on any kind of trip will help your Chinese more than a whole year of language exchanges.
Feel free to leave a comment for David and he will respond. You can also visit his website at http://avignonflorist.com and contact him there.