Asia Options recently had a chat with Tamsin, an alumni from the prestigious National Taiwan University’s, International Chinese Language Program (ICLP) about her time studying in Taiwan and her Chinese language learning journey thus far. This is her story…
How it all began…
In 2009 I travelled to Hangzhou to undertake a crash course in Chinese. After six happy weeks, I knew that I wanted to deepen my understanding of the language and culture. Upon my return to Melbourne, I joined language-exchange groups, engaged a tutor and undertook a lot of self-study. It was on a family holiday to Taiwan in 2012 that I decided to leave my full-time job as a French teacher and apply for a language course on the island. Taiwan struck me as an ideal place to live and learn. Not only did the people seem friendly, but the main cities were also very modern, clean and safe. I was also in awe of the natural beauty of places like Taroko Gorge and the fabled Sun Moon Lake.
I chose to apply to study at the National Taiwan University (NTU), which houses a well-regarded centre for learners of Chinese as an additional language: ICLP (International Chinese Language Program). As well as having a strong international reputation, ICLP reserves rooms for foreign students in a dormitory in the nearby Gongguan district. I felt that it would be stressful to have to find my own accommodation, so this housing option appealed to me. The dormitory – Taizi Shuiyuan (Prince House) – was divided into three buildings: females only, males only, and mixed. There were opportunities to socialise with local students through short courses (plasticine-moulding?!) and special cultural activities. I had access to basic cooking facilities but never used them because they were not well-maintained and the food was so abundant, tasty and cheap in the neighbouring night-market. A further reason I chose ICLP was that it appeared to cater especially well to students with an intermediate to advanced level of Chinese. Since I was not a beginner, I sought a school with a rigorous curriculum that would help me to build on my language skills.
Financing my studies…
Through internet research early on, I discovered that I could apply for a Huayu Enrichment Scholarship (HES) so long as I was enrolled at an approved Mandarin Language Centre. I was very fortunate to be awarded an HES for six months, even though I had originally applied for nine. Since the cost of living was low, I found that the scholarship money could sustain me for nine months anyway. The generous allowance – 25,000 Taiwanese dollars per month – was said to rival starting salaries for graduates in Taiwan! Needless to say, I lived comfortably within this budget, though my dormitory and tuition fees came out of my savings. At minimal cost, I subscribed to the National Health Insurance Scheme through my school. I earned a little extra pocket money by posing as a foreign student so that aspiring teachers could put their skills into practice. It was very easy to play myself, and, as a teacher back in Australia, I found it interesting to see how teachers are trained in Taiwan.
Some ICLP experiences…
Overall, I have very positive memories of ICLP. The student body was multicultural, and Americans made up the majority. It was at ICLP that I experienced my first ever Thanksgiving! The diversity among classmates allowed me to learn about many different cultures besides Chinese/Taiwanese. On one of several trips organised by ICLP, I had the chance to visit an Aboriginal town and to learn more about indigenous ways of life. I always looked forward to Fridays because I was given a free lunch and the opportunity to listen to a presentation on a variety of topics. These included biodiversity in Taiwan, the legal system and the local music scene.
My teachers were pretty hard task-masters and I was expected to prepare thoroughly for lessons. I found that there was a wide selection of courses to choose from and that students were usually very dedicated. There were only ever four students per class and one lesson per day was an individual one. This impressive student-teacher ratio maximises speaking time but also makes ICLP one of the most expensive programs. My teachers were very professional and encouraging. They spent extra time correcting my script and helping me to rehearse when I entered the National Chinese Speech Contest for Foreign Students. I would highly recommend taking part, as it helped me to build confidence in my oral Chinese. My reading skills improved dramatically while in Taiwan, as I was constantly exposed to the written language. I was apprehensive about learning traditional characters (known as ‘standard characters’ in Taiwan) at first, but I slowly learnt to deduce meanings from the extra components. If I ever teach simplified Chinese in Australia, I’m glad that I’ll be able to explain the historical roots of characters.
Living in Taiwan…
It was really easy to get around Taipei, as suburbs are well connected via the MRT. It took me 20 minutes to walk to school each day, though many of my classmates bought cheap bicycles to ride around campus. NTU, affectionately known as ‘Taida’, has many tens of vibrant student clubs. I joined the chorus and was impressed by the students’ devotion to it. Members spent in excess of six hours per week rehearsing and sang in multiple languages. I enjoyed taking part in rehearsals, though I always felt a bit on the outer. My classes at ICLP left little leisure time, but I managed to befriend a local student with whom I did a French-Chinese conversation exchange. Term breaks were a great opportunity to host family or friends from Australia. I recommend taking the High Speed Rail (HSR) down the west coast to the southern city of Tainan, where the mangoes are delicious and you can explore colonial architecture in meandering alleyways.
Back in Australia…
I’ve now settled in my hometown of Perth and taken up a teaching position. I was recently put in charge of designing a special ESL program for newly-arrived students from China, who are an ever-growing group at my school. Although I don’t personally teach Chinese, my knowledge of Chinese informs the way that I teach English as a second language to Chinese students. The ability to liaise with their parents and to understand cultural differences has helped me to quickly build rapport. During the next set of school holidays, I plan to review the mountain of flashcards that I made while at ICLP, as I’m forgetting my Chinese at an alarming rate. I was ready to return home after nine months, but I suspect that my skills wouldn’t have atrophied so quickly if I had studied less intensively. I definitely recommend building in lots of time for ongoing revision!
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