As a part of my degree program at the Australian National University, I was given an incredible opportunity to study in a Mandarin-speaking country for one academic year, and in return, I received a Graduate Diploma of Asia-Pacific Studies. The program is known as the Year in Asia program and scores of ANU students make the annual pilgrimage to their respective language-speaking countries. There are many scholarships available to non-ANU and ANU students alike, including:
• Huayu Enrichment Scholarships, offered by the Taiwanese Government
• Chinese Government Scholarships
• Endeavour Scholarships, offered by the Australian Government
• Check your local university for more information
In order to make an educated decision as to where I could best spend my Year In Asia, I spent two preceding summers in Taiwan and Mainland China, where I immersed myself in the local traditions, customs and lifestyles. I studied language courses in the two respective countries and learnt both traditional and simplified characters. During one of my summer stays, I chose to live with a homestay family in Taiwan and was astounded by the hospitable and charming nature of the Taiwanese people. I would highly recommend home stays as a great way to fully immerse oneself in the local culture and it’s also a great way to practice Chinese on a daily basis.
From February 2012 to January 2013, I studied at the National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan. I met many new lifelong friends, learnt to enjoy the aroma of stinky tofu, travelled to new places, my Chinese improved exponentially and I had a great journey learning about a new culture and different way of life. I travelled extensively throughout China during my summer break and went to 10 different countries in that one year.
From my experience living in China and Taiwan I would recommend:
(1) Get a language exchange partner! I’m sure you’ve heard this many times, however, language exchange partners also make good friends and can show you around cool local spots that you may never have found by yourself.
(2) Learn outside and inside the classroom. I am a great advocate of the idea that it is necessary to build a foundation of Chinese language skills within the classroom. However, you should apply your Chinese every day on the streets and use your newly acquired grammar patterns and vocabulary to really get to know the locals. Some of my most memorable conversations have been with Beijing taxi drivers.
(3) Keep an old book you’ve studied in the past to give yourself some perspective. Learning Mandarin is difficult and it’s hard to gauge how your language skills are developing, so take some time each week to reflect on your progress.
(4) Subscribe to the free online AirAsia newsletter. Flying in Asia is cheap and quite often I found fares to the Philippines from Taiwan for less than A$95 return.
(5) Learn to scuba dive. Diving in Asia is very affordable, convenient and the water temperature is ideal for diving. My favourite diving spot is the Apo Reef in the Philippines, which I accessed from Coron and did a 4-day all-inclusive liveaboard for A$450.
(6) Taiwan is the most convenient country because of its plethora of 7–Eleven stores. You can buy everything you need at any hour and undertake chores like dry cleaning, paying bills, posting and buying train tickets all at the one store.
(7) Learning Chinese is not a race. Don’t compare yourself to others, and always try your hardest.
(8) If you don’t already use Pleco, then download the app on your Smartphone.
(9) Online dictionaries – I like MBDG and NCIKU (see, http://www.mdbg.net/chindict/chindict.php and http://www.nciku.com/).
(10) Get involved in clubs or societies at your language centre or university. You will meet local friends and enjoy learning a new skill.
(11) If you really want to learn Chinese quickly then enrol yourself in a Mandarin language centre outside of the expat communities in Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei. Taichung in Taiwan would be a good alternative, as there are fewer foreigners and you will be forced to converse in Mandarin to get around.
(12) Complete an online Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course before you leave. You can teach English and volunteer without TEFL qualifications, however, this will give you a better grounding in how to create lesson plans.
(13) Last but not least, never say no and keep an open mind. If someone invites you to partake in a new activity that may not initially excite you, then don’t let the opportunity get away from you no matter how homesick you feel.
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