I’ve been living in Taiwan for 9 months now, studying at least a little Chinese most days and i’d like to give my thoughts on how its going and what advice I could give for others when studying a new language.

This has turned into quite a large post, so I’ve split it into 2 parts.

In total, I have recorded 300 hours for Chinese study this year, mostly by myself. I haven’t done any tests to assess and have no official qualification, but my ability is such that I can introduce myself in a conversation, explain what I’m doing now and my hobbies. I can ask what the other person does and largely find out what they do, i.e. Study, work, travel, and make arrangements for meeting, restaurants, fun activities, exchange contact details, etc.

I have had 2 job interviews in Chinese, and while there were points where I had to speak English for intricate details, I felt I largely manage to convey my ideas with Chinese, hand waving and drawing pictures. It’s not quite good enough for working 100% in Chinese, but I would estimate that with another 300 hours of study, I could get to that level.


Why Chinese, and why Taiwan?

I have had this question put to me by Taiwanese people in some rather strange places. When I was applying for my ARC card (Foreigner ID in Taiwan) and at job interviews. I won’t go into specific details about why this is such a common question, but the decision came last year when I decided I wanted to learn Chinese as I saw the way market trends were moving in my field, for mobile apps. I already had Taiwanese friends who recommended Taiwan. In addition, Taiwan recently allowed UK citizens to have a work holiday visa, which makes it a great deal easier to have an open-ended plan here, over a specific plan such as having a full-time job or being a student at a university.


Studying approaches

Over the years I have undertaken various approaches and situations to studying Chinese in UK. Overall I would say each one has an effect proportional to the effort I put in to each one. My first step was to take a 1-semester beginners course at my university. In this course I studied about 3 hours per week in classes with perhaps 2 hours per week revision for about 12 weeks. My exam results gave me a “9” which was a bare minimum pass. I was by no means conversational but I could manage a short introduction and read and write a few Chinese characters.

2 years later, now working, my flatmate decided to take some beginners Chinese night classes and I decided it might be interesting to join him. This took the form of 2 hour study sessions once a week for 8 weeks. I think this was my least productive time for studying Chinese as I didn’t learn anything new and just barely managed to answer the teachers questions. In addition, I was tired after work and certainly wasn’t in the mood for studying.

3 years after that I found myself with a 2 hour commute driving each day. About the same time I found Pimsleur CDs for learning languages. So I put the lessons into the car music player and studied away every day for a few months. I studied all 3 courses, about 45 hours worth of material in total. I’ve read reviews saying that the time spent using Pimsleur might be more effectively spent using more conventional methods, such as studying from textbooks. I would agree as I don’t really think I learned as much vocabulary as I could have, and lessons felt like they became more of a drudgery over time. One critically important missing part of this was any reading skills. Of course, being an audio-only course, it’s understandable why you don’t learn the Chinese characters, nor even the pinyin required for typing. On the other hand, I did feel it helped with pronunciation (English speaking learners of Chinese find this part particularly difficult, trying to distinguish the tones. Pimsleur, to its credit, does make a point of helping with this) and it was only means I could find to offer visual distraction free and hands free learning whilst driving. Most importantly, it cultivated a methodology of listening and repeating words spoken. This I consider to be hugely important and I have taken this with me when studying alone now.

Later on, whilst in Japan, a friend studying Japanese introduced me to the ANKI flashcards app to study vocabulary. This was the first time I had ever heard about SRS (Spaced Repetition Software) and I thought it was pretty neat. I was also impressed by the huge collections of downloadable flashcards I could download. I played with it a bit, but 2 things prevented me from getting significantly ahead by using the app. One, whenever things got boring, or I hit a wall, I just stopped. And two, I didn’t get into the habit of using the software every day to learn. At the time I was concentrating more on getting a job than I was to learn any more Japanese. At that time, I was already at a conversational level, so I let other priorities take over.

Finally when I came to Taiwan, I had the tools to study and the urge to do so. Despite my previous Chinese study beforehand, I could understand very little of everyday conversations. Ordering food at a restaurant involved pointing at a menu and asking “do you have England?” in Chinese, then praying that pointing at one of the options wouldn’t generate a barrage of new questions that I wouldn’t understand. The Tea shops were particularly painful. So many options about hot/cold, how much ice, how much sugar, what size of cup. There was more than one time I got a drink I didn’t quite ask for. I’m not averse to sweet food and drink, but I swear on some occasions they must have thought I asked for triple sugar with my bubble milk tea.

Every day I used the ANKI app to study vocabulary. I had my old textbook from my Chinese class at uni, Hippocrene Beginner Chinese , so I studied from that. Later on I bought the 2nd book, Hippocrene Intermediate Chinese, and had it sent to me to continue study. I ended up studying between 2 and 4 hours a day. I had few problems with the grammar (Chinese grammar is easy compared to English or Japanese) but the vocabulary and pronunciation was exceptionally difficult. Thankfully each of the 10 chapters in the book was structured the same. A conversation text section, followed by vocabulary section, some notes about new grammar points in the text, then some exercise questions to practise. I evolved a method of first inputting the new grammar in to the ANKI app, and memorising the words first before than looking at the rest of the chapter. This way I wouldn’t be struggling through the text in the book because I couldn’t read it. This significantly reduced blocks when it came time to reading from the book or doing the exercises. Because of the interactivity of the Flashcard app, it felt easier to spend time memorising the word lists.

A side result (and huge benefit) was now having a vocabulary list in the mobile phone allowed me to study on the go, without having to be sat down with my Chinese book. I could then study on a train ride whilst standing or waiting for a friend. As an experiment, I attached sounds to the Flashcards, which worked so well that it allowed me to study even while walking. I now walk every day outside for at least an hour and study at the same time. It combines the Pimsleur approach of audio-only learning with the interactivity of the Flashcard apps. I occasionally glance at my phone screen for translations and pinyin if I don’t quite understand the spoken words, but largely this is only for new words I haven’t repeat-studied before. I can remember the positions of the buttons on the screen so I can press them without looking at the screen. I wouldn’t recommend this for driving or cycling, but certainly it’s little enough of a distraction that walking is no problem.

The biggest challenge I found was to get into a routine that allowed me to study for long periods of time. Beforehand, I usually only studied for about 30 minutes, until I hit the first wall. Then I would stop, and do something else and never get back into studying. The best thing I ever did was to get into the habit of fighting through the wall and continue studying. This was driven by the thought that if I didn’t learn Chinese, I would forever be drinking super sweet tea and eating sandwiches from the 7-Eleven. I couldn’t even order a coffee or burger from MacDonalds!

The combination and evolution of tools has allowed me to study for at least 2 hours a day, as part of my daily routine. As a result I am making remarkable progress in my Chinese. After 9 months I would say it has surpassed my Japanese level (after 2 years living in Japan and 3 years studying back home using more conventional methods)

One important note to make is I am not studying how to write Chinese. This is because I feel no need to do so as I almost never write any more. I feel my time would be better spent studying reading and pinyin as these are the skills required as a foreigner to type Chinese in to a computer. A user would type in the pinyin and a list of predicted characters are presented to select from. I must admit its annoying for the few occasions that I must write something (i.e. my name on an application form, or address) usually I will write out what I want to write using my mobile phone, then copy the characters on screen by hand. Its slow, painful and very untidy but I have to do this so infrequently that I would rather concentrate my efforts on reading and typing on computer. I have found however that studying stroke order is useful for those occasions (I studied some writing in uni for Chinese and Japanese) which increases the chance my written text is readable.

The tones are important  in Chinese. For example, (你)好嗎 (Ni) hǎo ma means how are you, 號碼 Hàomǎ means Number. 升遷 Shēngqiān means promotion, 省錢 Shěng qián means save money. Upon first listening these sound identical, which makes differentiating them in conversation hard. Its important to also pronounce them differently so listeners can understand you. To help with this, I practise speaking out the vocabulary and listen to the words using the Flashcard method mentioned above. I find this practise has helped me significantly in getting the tones right.

I found that, as with Japanese, my Listening skills were substantially worse than my Speaking and Writing skills. Especially being able to differentiate between tones in real life conversation settings. On more than one occasion I paid 14 Dollars when I should have paid 40. Over the months of living here I have found it to be less and less of a problem, I can tend to understand people more, but its certainly something I am looking to improve. Perhaps watching TV programmes might help more with understanding.

Part two continues here

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