Why not to study Chinese at university

As some of you may know, I’m enrolled at Suzhou University (or Soochow University, SuDa) studying Mandarin. Having just completed my mid-terms, I want to give a bit of a summary on the problems I see studying in this way.

First, the title of this post is a bit of a misnomer, as overall I really like studying Chinese, think my teachers are great, and I really like SuDa’s environment. However…

Having lived in China now for a few years, I have a rather messy Chinese “level” in that my speaking and listing are pretty good, but my reading and writing are a bit crap (“bit” being an understatement). As it were, I was placed in the second level class (which I’ve recently been told may in fact be what used to be Level 2 and Level 3 merged).

At this level each chapter in our texts consist of about 30-35 new words or phrases, which can easily add up to 50-60 individual characters – all of which I’ve never seen before. Now multiply this by three classes and you’ve got about 100-120 characters (there’s some overlap) per week to stuff into your head.

Generally speaking, I find it hard to remember any character I don’t write (while actively paying attention – as opposed to just mindlessly repeating) at least 20-30 times. Taking the lower of those two numbers (100 new characters * 20 times), that’s 2,000 characters of writing.

The Kickers

You may be sitting there thinking that’s not all that much, or you may have survived this carpal-tunnel-to-be and are laughing at me, however the real problem comes when you factor in that despite studying a chapter a week, you don’t get seven days to commit this iconic vocab to memory.

Nope, after reviewing the pronunciation of the vocabulary on day one, the rest of the week it is expected they’re in your mushy mass already (day two generally being quiz day).

The reason for this brings me to my final point, and the point that is really at the core of why I would even suggest studying Chinese at university as being a bad idea. If you are, like me, of the non-Asian persuasion, you’re going to have the cards stacked against you learning in a Chinese university for the simple reason that you’re going to be in a class where the majority of students are East Asian (Korean and/or Japanese).

This difference quickly becomes apparent, as both the Koreans and Japanese have solid foundations in Chinese characters, or Hanzi (known in Japan as Kanji and in Korea as Hanja).

The pronunciations are, of course, different, making that first pronunciation run-through uber-valuable to the E. Asian folks in the room. And as the E. Asians make up the bulk of the class, the teacher has little chance to spend the time needed for us Westerners to get the writing/reading down.

Exchange Students Be Warned

I’ve befriended a couple exchange students who study Chinese back in the US, and are doing a semester in China as a credited course. The differences between Level 2 Chinese in an American university and a Chinese one is drastic, and unlike myself, who could care less exams are passed or not as long as something is learned, these students’ marks count towards their degree back home – and, in one case at least, towards their scholarship.

The fact that these students were just plugged into “the next level” says a lot for the dimwittedness of the administrations involved. They are essentially saying that studying a year of Chinese a couple times a week in a non-Chinese environment in the US is equal to a year of studying Chinese everyday surrounded by things Chinese. Talk about stupid and unbalanced.

The Result

I’m now faced with a difficult decision on whether or not to stay in university next term, or to explore some of the private language schools in town, where I’m more likely to be classed with other Westerners, and in turn be able to focus on the areas that are hardest for me.

The benefits I see of switching to a private school are, A) as mentioned, being paired with other folks that have the same lack of foundations in writing and reading Chinese, and B) having the more complicated grammar points explained to me in English, as opposed to having to double my needed vocabulary just so I understand the teacher’s instructions.

However, I haven’t ruled out the university yet. It’s hard, sometimes impossibly hard, and some days I just sit and wonder why the hell I’m bothering when so much of what is being taught is just slipping by me. Despite this, it still puts me in the seat. It forces me to study hard or feel the fool in class. And it guarantees that 3-5 hours a day I’ll be studying, writing, reading, speaking and thinking Chinese. That, more than anything else is extremely valuable and I fear leaving uni I might lose that.

Private classes, and particularly tutors or self-study, are so incredibly easy to skip out on. Chinese university, whether because I so quickly fall behind, or because I have some ingrained fear of truancy, forces me to attend and has caused me to learn more Chinese in a month and a half than I have in near the entire three years I’ve been in China.

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  1. Pingback: Why to learn Chinese at a University | Junjie's China blog

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