[Fragriver in Taiwan] On my Chinese learning experience in general and Chinese learning experience in Taiwan in particular

Last Friday, when I struggled to finish my writing assignment in Chinese related to feminism, and my mind incessantly switched between Chinese, English and Vietnamese, mixed feelings of thrill and somehow pride suddenly came across my mind.

Learning language should be the most favourite hobby of mine, to which I have dedicated lots of my time at university. Even now, when I have already graduated and struggled to find my time for reading books, I often read books written in foreign languages. Sometimes I cannot distinguish if I really love the book content or I love the languages used to convey such idea only. Of course, if the book has no content at all, I think that I cannot love it no matter how beautiful its languages are used. However, when it comes to books filled with worth-reading content and beautiful language, it is a little bit difficult for me to decide whether I love the content or the language more. But sometimes, it is not that difficult to figure out when I read text books in finance. Enthralled by the knowledge provided in these books though, thing that made me re-read the books should be the author’s humour embedded in his smart use of languages. (Mishkin or Mankiw, you know I am writing about you two :P).

I am always attracted by languages. Language, what I mean here, is a complex system, which affords people with ability to communicate with other people. Language is not limited to the spoken and written languages commonly shared by people of a nation. Language, in its widest sense, should be referred to the set of definitions, terms or ideas shared among a group of people. For example, we learn language of accounting to understand the information implied by the financial statements, we read about Hume or Locke to understand what people really mean when they talk about rationality, etc. Everytime when people talk about something really new to me, I often talk to myself that I should give it a try to look at what it really means or read all the information related to this issue to understand the background related to this issue. I often wish I could force myself to focus on mastering one language only but I often find myself reading too many things which are often not related to each other. I learned CFA to understand more about language spoken by people coming from the world of finance. I learned economics to understand how the world economy is operated. I read philosophy to make sense of the logic underlying many complicated concepts like morality or justice. Perhaps, if there are languages, of which its learning never makes me bored, it should be Vietnamese, English and Chinese. I really love such feeling when I start making sense of their grammars and feeling comfortable to enjoy reading well-wrought writing in these languages.

Recently, some friends of mine and some readers of my blog asked me about my Chinese learning experience. Therefore, I decided to write this post to recount my Chinese learning experience, which I hope to be of use for ones who read this post and this post will be itself a reflection of mine on how I have learned Chinese so far. Unlike studying English, which I must say I owe a lot to the intensive training of English grammar and vocabulary during my preparation for national entrance examination (people often blame Vietnamese students’ bad performance in English for such focus on grammar and vocabulary training, however, I thought the focus on grammar or vocabulary itself was not the problem but the lack of comprehensive training of English skills or inappropriate attention to English teaching at schools should be blamed), I am almost alone when it comes to Chinese learning. I started learning Chinese 7 years ago and I was taught by a friend of my mother at that time. When I entered into the university, as Chinese has long been my favorite language since I was a little girl (Thanks to lots of Chinese movies broadcast in Vietnamese during my childhood), it was among the top priorities of mine. Therefore, when my mother suggested me to learn Chinese, I agreed immediately without doubts. This friend of my mother was a researcher in an institute and her work necessitates frequent use of Chinese. She taught me Chinese and I taught her little daughter English in return. Though she was not experienced in teaching Chinese but I do think that this first Chinese learning experience was really important as it decided whether I would pursue the learning of this language. After more than 7 months learning with her, due to my heavy workload at university and my mother’s struggle with cancer at that time, I decided to take a break from class and self-studied Chinese until now. When in Vietnam, I followed the six books of Hanyu Jiaocheng published by Beijing University of Foreign Language (漢語教程 – 北京語言文化大學) and bought other textbooks published by Beijing University of Foreign Language which are used by students majoring in Chinese language of Hanoi University to enhance my reading and listening ability. In addition to learning Chinese by following the textbooks, I feel lucky that I am strongly interested in listening to Chinese music and watching movies in Mandarin Chinese, which attributes a lot to my current Chinese proficiency. It came as surprise to me when lots of my friends who studied Chinese said that they did not listen to Chinese music and Stefanie Sun or Fish Leong are totally unknown to them. Of course, everyone has his own way of learning Chinese but I do think listening to Chinese music and reading Chinese music lyrics made me enjoy learning Chinese more. Trust me, lyrics written by famous Chinese composers like Vincent Fang (方文山), XiaoHan (小寒) are really worth reading and reading lyrics helps me a lot when it comes to reading some pieces of Chinese literature. Regarding the music, my favorite singers are Tanya Chua, Stefanie Sun, Jay Chou, Fish Leong, Wang Lee Hom, Zhang Zhen Yue, Twins, etc. My playlist of Chinese music mainly includes songs from the 1990s and 2000s and it is a little bit difficult for me now to listen to other singers other than the aforementioned. In 2012, as you may be aware, I started translating the novel of Giddens Ko and it was not until September 2013 that I finished my translation. During my translation of this novel, one of my friends asked me if I used translation machine to translate the novel. My answer was yes and no. I know that in Vietnam, there are lots of young people using translation machine to convert Chinese/English into Vietnamese and then customizing the converted passage by making it more natural. I do not know if it is only me who always bump into very bad translation created by Google Translate or not but I strongly oppose to such method. From my own experience, translation works go beyond the practice of converting word by word but it necessitates a thorough understanding of the context, included but not limited to cultural, social, and historical backgrounds underlying behind the words and the ability to appreciate the beauty of languages of both sides. Therefore, I often felt uncomfortable when reading a bad translation or identifying that the junior colleagues of mine using Google Translate to translate a piece of advice from English to Vietnamese and vice versa. I still used Google Translate, however, when I need to understand the meaning of a separate word but my current Chinese – Vietnamese dictionary or English – Vietnamese dictionary fail to give me a proper understanding of these words. As my father is a translator and interpreter as well, I find it lucky that I can keep talking with him in hours about topics related to translation. “You are the apple of my eye”, as other novels of Giddens Ko, is easily comprehensible so I do think it is really good for improvement of Chinese reading skill for learners of immediate level. In 2014, I took a three-month course in Chinese grammar and it should be the first time I studied in a formal Chinese class, I mean a class with teacher and classmates and I was amazed at how I surpassed some classmates majoring in Chinese at university (a minute for the sake of vanity but such experience did strengthen my confidence in my pursuit of mastering Chinese language). For the last two years, due to my heavy workload at KPMG, I did not learn Chinese as frequently as I did when I was at university. There was time when I felt disappointed that I could not do anything to lift up my so-so Chinese level or wondered if I felt into the trap of “intermediate level”. Such state of disappointment should be among various factors leading to my decision to come to Taiwan for a three-month Chinese course in Chinese Language Center in National Chengchi University.

Up to now, I really enjoy my study in NCCU. Before coming here, I made a quick research related to Chinese Language Centers in Taipei (I already explained for my choice of Taipei in my previous post related to NCCU) and National Chengchi University’s Chinese Language Center (NCCU’s CLC), National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center (NTNU’s MTC)  and National Taiwan University’s Chinese Language Department (NTU’s CLD) were the last three choices coming up in my shortlist. I browsed through Forumosa and several blogs. NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center has long been famous for its rigorous training program of Mandarin Chinese, however, when I browsed the forum, there are mixed reviews related to the quality of the program offered by NTNU. And I felt more relief on knowing that there are lots of Vietnamese students coming here to study Chinese so it was a smart choice of mine for not studying in NTNU (And my Japanese classmate said to me that many Japanese come to NTNU so he decided to study in NCCU). NTU’s tuition fee is a little bit more expensive than that of NCCU and its limited offering of housing made the choice of NTU less ideal. I finally decided to choose NCCU for its focus on conversational Chinese skills, which I really need to improve now. I also chose NCCU for its wide offering of free language and cultural courses such as “Selected Reading in modern Chinese literature”, “Vocabulary difference between Mainland China and Taiwan”, “Listening to News”, “Daily usage of Chinese idioms”, etc. Rumor has it that there were lots of foreign students in NCCU (when Taiwanese talks about “foreign students”, they means “students coming from Western countries”) so it should be difficult to practice my Chinese here. Rumor also has it that foreign student mainly come to NCCU for party and they pay no heed to studying Chinese. And these rumors are proved to be wrong as I hardly had any chance to practice my English with my English classmates and friends I know in CLC are really determined to practice Chinese everywhere and they even refused any chance to speak English here. We are given with chances to listen to updated news of various topics and have discussion in various topics ranging from feminism, politics to culture, economics. We have writing assignment as homework on a daily basis and a presentation and report on a weekly basis. Every week, we have a dictation test and a writing test. I am really satisfied with such intensive language training and find my Chinese proficiency improved a lot after one month studying here. When I am not in class or preparing homework, I try to participate in many different speaking events held inside or outside NCCU to improve my listening skill. For all of the reasons above, I felt that I have made a good choice when deciding to study in Taipei in general and in NCCU in particular.

Learning language with people coming from different cultural background is also a totally new experience to me. Unlike in Vietnam when I learned English with other Vietnamese friends, when studying Chinese in Taiwan, I have chance to study with friends coming from Japan, UK, France and Korea. It is the first time when I get immerse into such multicultural environment on a daily basis like this and such experience never ceases to surprise me. Four years ago, when I attended an English writing class held by Mr Vu Ho (so far the most admirable English teacher I have ever known in Vietnam), he introduced to me some concepts related to different thinking patterns of the Easterners and the Westerners, which made it really difficult for the Westerners to comprehend the written English of the Easterners. At that time, these concepts were totally new to me and I believed that it helped me a lot with my English writing. However, it was not until when I came here, studying Chinese in such a multicultural environment and witnessing how the Westerners study Chinese, I realized the difference between the Westerners and the Easterners in thinking patterns or culture, which in turn led to our different approach to a language, in this case, Chinese. For example, recently, when we had a grammar session, in which an example like this appeared:

“我雖然不必負什麼法律責任,可是我還是覺得很抱歉。”

(Although I am not legally responsible for such incident, I am still sorry about it.)

I accepted this example without any concern but my English classmate felt that it was a little bit weird and he said that he found it unnecessary to feel sorry in this case. I remember that Mr Vu Ho once shared in his class about the hidden linkages between clauses in sentences written by the Easterners, which confused the Westerners on making sense of the idea conveyed. In this case, it should be not difficult for me, an Easterner, to constitute such hidden link from the first clause to the second one and hence, make sense of the sentence owing to the hidden link stemming from the cultural background already embedded in my mind. To put it another way, as a girl growing up in Eastern culture, I can easily relate to our daily stories in this regard and form a background or context for the incident stated in the sentence to take place. However, for my English classmate, without a context due to a lack of cultural background, it is difficult for him to make sense of the sentence. Such experience is awe-inspiring indeed as it helped me recall some linguistic ideas in this regard. I think that experience like this should be of great help for ones who want to investigate further in linguistics.

My father once said learning foreign language provided learner with a chance to improve his understanding of his mother tongue. In my case, I am not only provided with chance to improve my Vietnamese or English but also given with opportunities of exploring lots of topics which I have long been ignored due to my tight working schedule in Vietnam. As we are required to actively participate in discussion on various topics ranging from economics and marriage to feminism or culture, I have to take a look at Vietnamese economy, Vietnamese law related to marriage or other aspects which I have ignored while I was in Vietnam. In addition, getting to know the differences in political system, education system, or legal system is something that I have not expected before when registering for course in Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan. My learning experience in Taiwan already went far beyond my expectation before I came here and I am really thankful about that.

3 thoughts on “[Fragriver in Taiwan] On my Chinese learning experience in general and Chinese learning experience in Taiwan in particular

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