This answer seems obvious to me, but I’m still asked this question often enough that it’s worth a public answer.
Q: What do you think about just downloading an HSK vocabulary deck for my flashcard app and learning vocabulary that way?
A: That’s a pretty terrible way to learn Chinese, even if you can accept that it’s just mindless vocabulary acquisition and not really “learning Chinese.”
Q: What? Why?
A: I’m glad you asked…
1. Unless you’re studying for the test, the HSK vocabulary list is not the vocabulary you need. It’s an arbitrary list full of vocabulary you don’t need. Sure, there’s some useful vocabulary in there, but how much useless vocabulary do you not mind memorizing?
2. Downloading a free, ready-made list of vocabulary is the worst way to study new words. It’s because it’s instant and effortless. To your brain, that makes it devoid of value. Your brain doesn’t like to retain information it deems devoid of value. The nice thing about studying something devoid of value, though, is that it’s so very easy and painless to give up on.
3. Curating your own list of useful vocabulary, taken from real-life situations or texts you actually want to read is a much better way to learn new words. You made the effort to go out and find that vocabulary, and the vocabulary itself is a means to an end: having a real conversation or reading a passage you’re interested in.
4. You know what’s better than curating your own list of vocabulary in your flashcard program? Actually getting some cards, and writing the words you want to learn on those flat dead-tree rectangles, all caveman-style. Put pen to paper and actually physically create your implements of vocabulary review. That’s effort, and your brain respects that.
Requiring personal effort makes the learning process memorable, and as a result, what you learn sticks better.
But hey, go ahead and download the free HSK vocab list. It won’t hurt anything; it’s easy to delete a week later. Your brain won’t mind at all.
Since my job at AllSet Learning is to create personalized Chinese courses for clients, I’m always on the lookout for good new sources of study material. The most interesting and promising one I’ve found lately is called The Chairman’s Bao (主席日报). More than simply a collection of interesting articles in Chinese, the site describes itself as “the 1st ever online Chinese simplified newspaper dedicated to those learning Mandarin.” This is because each article has been written (simply) to conform to a specific HSK level. The lowest level on the site is currently HSK 3, the highest HSK 6+.
This is pretty awesome, considering that many learners despair of ever being able to read an actual newspaper until their overall levels are somewhere around “advanced.” I myself put off reading newspaper articles until I was almost ready for my graduate-level studies in Chinese. Some learners feel that browser extensions provide the reading help needed, but it’s still very easy to get discouraged if you’re looking up every other word in an article.
Essentially, this is a news-themed application of the graded reader idea. While the articles themselves are not long enough to be considered true extensive reading exercises, it’s still a refreshing take on the “study the news in Chinese” idea, and it makes news far more accessible to more learners than ever before.
Here are some of my observations about the service:
– It’s free! It might not remain that way, so check it out while you still can. It’s currently not even necessary to create an account to read articles and listen to audio, unless you want to save vocabulary words.
– You’ll need an account to use the built-in dictionary. The dictionary isn’t of the “mouse-over” variety, though; you actually have to select text with your cursor. This means that if you incorrectly parse a word, the dictionary is of little help. The good news, though, is that you can also use a popup dictionary extension on the site (which could also provide grammar links), and there will be no conflict with the built-in dictionary. Hopefully the built-in dictionary will improve over time. (If you use the built-in dictionary, though, you have the added advantage of being able to save words to your account on the site.)
– The articles are pretty well-chosen. While you may not be interested in everything, you can undoubtedly find some articles that interest you, and at your level.
– The articles’ audio recordings are clear, although sometimes the person reading seems less than enthusiastic. Considering that it’s provided for free, though, it’s quite good most of the time (no robot voices!).
– The site doesn’t tell you how many articles are on the site, but there are clearly a lot.
Because I had a number of questions about The Chairman’s Bao, I got in touch and actually met with one of the co-founders, Thomas Reid, who is also Chief of Staff. He was also gracious enough to do a mini-interview about the service:
John: How many total articles are on the site? Do you have a breakdown by level?
Tom: As of [May 28th], there are 254 articles that have been published on the site (HSK3: 60, HSK4: 68, HSK5: 73, HSK6/6+: 53). I’m afraid that there is no way to get these numbers on the site itself, however you can sort the articles by level and scroll down right until the first articles published from our launch in January. All articles are available to view.
John: What is your new article publication schedule? Do you have a breakdown by level?
Tom: We aim to publish 2-3 new articles a day. This was being achieved until recently when 2 of our staff left. As such we can only publish 1-2 per day. I am currently recruiting new writers and we will soon be back up to our original quota. As for the level breakdown, I try and keep it as even as possible with the number of articles being written and the days they are uploaded and published. However there are a lot of factors that can affect the timeline here, particularly the strict editing procedure. Sometimes in order to guarantee an article’s quality according to a certain level, modifications need to be made. This can slow down the time it takes for the article to be published.
John: How do you choose what articles to do, and who does it?
Tom: Myself and my partners [CEO] Matt Carter and [CMO] Sean McGibney choose the stories. We are constantly browsing news not just from within China but all over the globe to find our stories. The main focus is on China, but we will, of course, try to include major events and interesting developments from around the world.
John: How do you level your articles, and who does the work?
Tom: Once we have found the news, we add it to a shared folder and assign it an HSK level before sending it to the writers. We judge this on the content of the article. We need to look at what words must be used in order to tell the story in its most basic form. These words are a good indication of a suitable level. If they are relatively simple, then the writers can build sentences around them for low levels. More complex words will, of course, require high levels. The writers then write the articles and submit them to the site. The editors then check the articles to ensure a good style and verify the academic quality. Finally, audio is added and the article is published.
John: Do you have any cool new features planned that you can share?
Tom: We are currently designing the App for both iPhone and android. This has already started and will be finished in time for the next academic year.
I’m not going to do a full review including the vocabulary manager; I don’t use that myself. But there’s definitely a dearth of good study material out there, and it’s great to The Chairman’s Bao breaking new ground and addressing head-on one of the issues that has plagued us for so long: we want to read something interesting.
I started a series of posts all the way back in 2007 on how I learned Chinese. I began with how I studied before I came to China (part 1), and then continued with what I did after I got over here (part 2). That got me to a low level of fluency, sufficient for everyday conversation and routine tasks in daily life. But then what? What did I do to get past that level?
I didn’t continue the series past part 2 because it was obvious to me back in 2007 that I was still learning a lot of Chinese, and it’s never really clear what’s happening when you’re right in the middle of it (that whole forest and trees thing). Now, a good 5 years later, I’ve got a lot more perspective on the big picture of what was going on with my Chinese development back then. So it’s high time I continued the account…
After finally getting my Chinese to a point where I felt like I could honestly say “I speak Chinese” (sometime around 2003), I had to re-evaluate a bit. Wasn’t that my initial goal, after all? To get in, get fluent, and get out? And then move onto another cool and exciting country? Yes, that was my original plan: to be a bit of an “immersion whore.” It’s a dangerous game to play, though… because if you’re not careful, you might become emotionally attached. And that kind of affects the plan.
And I did get attached to my life in China. (I still find my existence here to be rife with an exhilarating kind of chaos.) And I still wanted to keep improving my Chinese. And I had met someone who might possibly be the coolest woman ever. Long story short, I had decided to stay.
Just as I had concluded that I needed real all-Chinese practice to improve my speaking in the beginning, I also realized next that I needed to increase the amount of Chinese in my life. Specifically, I needed a job where I could use Chinese, or possibly higher level studies in Chinese. I always enjoyed teaching English, but my duties as an English teacher conflicted with my personal goals of mastering Chinese. I had reached the dreaded intermediate plateau, that period where getting from point A to point B takes a long time and a hell of a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like you’re making significant progress at the time. I needed a plan to propel myself beyond it, and my sights starting moving toward Shanghai.
It was at this point that I also came to the reluctant conclusion that I should probably take the HSK. I’ve never been a fan of standardized testing, and the HSK struck me then as particularly estranged from reality (and hasn’t gotten a lot better since). But the more formal Mandarin evaluated by the HSK could be useful in a work setting, and I had also begun toying with this new idea of going to graduate school for applied linguistics in China. You need an HSK score to get into Chinese universities.
The one-semester HSK prep course I took at Zhejiang University of Technology in the second half of 2003 was the first formal course in Chinese I had taken since arriving in China almost three years earlier. It reminded me that I hated studying to the test, but also that I really did have quite a few grammar points I still needed to nail down.
I recall clearly, before studying for the HSK at all, that I had some delusions of fluency, thinking that maybe I could go straight for the advanced HSK. My Chinese wasn’t nearly that good, though, and even after completing the course, I didn’t quite ace the HSK as I had hoped, although I got the score I needed for grad school in China.
Result: serious wake-up call! I still had plenty to learn. I had gotten good at the casual conversations I immersed myself in daily, but more of those conversations weren’t really helping me get to the next level (at least not fast enough). And although I had the HSK score I needed, I would still need to pass an essay exam to get into the applied linguistics program I was interested in.
Goals do help
So having studied for the HSK for about half a year and then passing it, I was ready for the next challenge: applying for graduate school in China. I learned that I needed to pass a hand-written essay exam on 现代汉语 (modern Mandarin), to prove that I had both the theoretical linguistic knowledge about the language as well as the Chinese writing skills to express myself. I was assigned a textbook to “learn” in order to pass the exam. The school directed me to the tutoring services of the student center, and I was able to hire a tutor to help me get through it.
What followed was a year of reading the textbook, discussing it with my teacher, and doing regular essay assignments. I directed my own studies and set my own pace, and my tutor (a college student) helped me along the way. Honestly, I barely even remember that year of study. I just remember writing a whole bunch of essays and seeing an awful lot of red ink. I also remember being quite surprised by how quickly my handwriting speed ramped up when I was regularly putting pen to paper with purpose.
When I finally took the essay test, I was super nervous, but all that writing practice paid off. I could bust out a decent length essay in the hour allotted. It wasn’t perfect (I think I got an 80%?), but I was in.
Remember that plateau?
The frustrating thing about the plateau is that you don’t feel like you’re making progress when you really are. It didn’t feel like my Chinese was getting significantly better as I acquired the vocabulary and grammar to pass the HSK, or even as I got steadily better at writing essays in Chinese. It’s not until well after the fact that you can look back on that period of time and realize that your skills really have progressed a fair amount since then. For me, it wasn’t until I was in grad school in 2005, pretty well adjusted after the first few weeks of classes, and thinking, “this actually isn’t so hard” that it finally hit me: wow, my Chinese has actually come a long way since those good old Hangzhou days.
For me, the key to getting through that intermediate plateau period was having a sequence of reasonable, attainable goals. I’m not sure I would have ever made it if my goal was just to pass the advanced HSK. I certainly wouldn’t have done it in order to read a Chinese newspaper. My long-term goal was earning a masters in applied linguistics in Chinese, but my first goal was simply getting a passing score on the HSK, which largely involved learning all the basic grammar patterns I had neglected (because I didn’t need them) and picking up the rather boring (but important) vocabulary I had formerly ignored. The half-year of working toward the short-term goal helped train me mentally for the next goal of passing the writing exam, and being able to switch gears from standardized testing to writing really kept things interesting. After those two smaller goals were attained, all that was left was a 3-year “make it through grad school” goal, which was a special challenge all its own, and a story for another time…
I recently met up with an old friend who said she had started studying for the HSK. The conversation went something like this:
> Me: Wow, the HSK, huh?
> Her: Yeah, I know… I felt it was finally time.
> Me: So you’re planning on leaving China soon?
> Her: Uhhh… I didn’t say that…
> Me: Yeah, I know, but if you’re not planning on doing some kind of university program here, the main reason to take the HSK is to get a score for your resume.
> Her: Exactly. I’ve gotten my Chinese to a decent level here, but I don’t have any kind of degree in Chinese, so I figured it was time.
> Me: So are you leaving?
> Her: Not sure yet, but possibly.
Few see the HSK as a useful test. It’s a necessary evil for certain purposes. HSK test prep is definitely not very helpful for improving one’s communication skills. It sure is ironic that for many, it has become the test you take when you decide to leave China.
A while back Albert of Laowai Chinese visited Shanghai. We met up for lunch and had a good chat about our experiences in China learning Chinese. He asked me an interesting question: what did I think was the biggest problem with the field of Chinese language instruction?
I told him that in general, I felt that there was way too much teaching adult foreign learners as if they were Chinese children, and I felt that more (non-Chinese) learner perspectives were needed to improve the situation. (This is one of ChinesePod‘s major strengths.)
He was looking for more specific answers, though. When pressed, I gave him these two areas:
Tones should be taught systematically, long-term. Way too many programs cover the tones in the first few weeks, followed by a few tone change rules, and then basically leave the students to sort the rest out. It’s not enough, and it’s irresponsible. Most students are going to need a good 1-2 years to really get a handle on the tones, so why aren’t educational institutions doing more to guide students through those frustrating times?
Mandarin Chinese needs a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin. There are corpora for Mandarin, but the ones that are public are not spoken Mandarin, and the corpora of spoken Mandarin are kept private and jealously guarded.
Why does Mandarin need a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Chinese? Because without it, we’re all just taking stabs in the dark as to what “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary is. Yes it is possible to objectively determine what language is high-frequency, but this requires (1) collecting lots of naturally-occurring speech samples in audio form, (2) transcribing it all. Then a proper corpus can be assembled, from which accurate, objective word counts and word frequencies can be derived.
Once that’s done, we could finally have more of a clue as to what the “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary really is. This method isn’t perfect, but it’s a big step forward from relying on native speaker intuition. And no, the new data obtained are not going to match the HSK word list you’ve got, or the Jun Da list either.
It would also be great to see a proper large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin, balanced for regional variation. That would turn up all sorts of interesting facts, like proportion of 哪儿 to 哪里 across all regions represented, and virtually any other speech variation you can think of. (Personally, I suspect that a lot of the Beijing-hua taught in many textbooks could be reconsidered on the grounds that it simply doesn’t represent the Mandarin spoken across mainland China.)
What do you think are the biggest problems with Chinese language instruction today?
I’ve been asked quite a bit lately about the new HSK, so I thought I’d share some of the information I’ve gathered. (You can also refer to ChineseTesting.cn, which seems to be an official source of information affiliated with the Hanban.)
The new HSK has been designed to meet the “western need” for assessing students’ practical communication skills in Mandarin Chinese. (Meanwhile the Japanese and Koreans will continue their frenzied test-taking with the old HSK, which has developed into quite a sizable business.)
The new HSK was administered publicly for the first time this year on March 14, 2010. If you want to take the new HSK in Shanghai this year, you can register for the October 17, 2010 or December 5, 2010 HSK examinations through Tongji University’s testing center (phone: 6598-0701). Not sure what the deadline is.
The new test is split into six levels for the written portion, each of which has its own structure and price:
– Level 1: 40-minute test of listening and reading comprehension (150 RMB)
– Level 2: 55-minute test of listening and reading comprehension (250 RMB)
– Level 3: 90-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (350 RMB)
– Level 4: 105-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (450 RMB)
– Level 5: 125-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (550 RMB)
– Level 6: 140-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (650 RMB)
The spoken segment of the exam will cost you another 300 RMB, and takes 21 minutes. The sections include:
1. Listen and repeat
2. Describe pictures
3. Answer questions
You can choose to take just the written or just the spoken portions of the test.
Oh, and just for reference, the old HSK costs 250 RMB for the intermediate version, 330 RMB for the advanced.
Hmmm, looks like the new HSK might just be a nice little source of profit for the Hanban. It’s also selling new syllabi, one for each level of the written test, and one for the spoken test [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, spoken].
> When China becomes more powerful, we’ll make all the foreigners take band 4 or 6 exams! Classical Chinese would be too simple; it’ll all have to be answered using calligraphy brushes, but that’s going easy on them. Going hard on them would be a knife and a turtle shell for each person, and they have to carve in the oracle-bone characters! The essay topic would be: discuss the Three Represents! For the listening comprehension section, it would all be Jay Chou‘s songs, two listens for “Shuangjiegun” and one for “Juhua Tai“. We’ll tell them this is a totally normal speed that Chinese people speak at! Reading comprehension will be all government work reports, the spoken component will require Beijing Opera, and the practical component will be wrapping zongzi.
I love the humor with which the poster handled (1) the frustrations of being forced to learn English through a horrible impractical exam, and (2) the ridiculous complexity of his own native tongue, while (3) it was all set against the backdrop of China’s coming ascendancy as a world superpower, which isn’t a joke at all.
Jonathan of The Art of Living has e-mailed me with a link to his report of the new HSK. Although not yet officially in use, the new Chinese proficiency test is apparently already being tested on groups of students.
Some telling passages from Jonathan’s report:
> I have to say, it was a big improvement. The test was neatly organized into four sections that covered all aspects of
communications: listening, speaking, reading, writing. The old test only covered listening and reading (receptive abilities) and ignored speaking and writing (productive abilities), which encouraged the Korean study bugs to lock themselves in their dorm rooms with tapes and books and totally avoid actually talking to Chinese people.
> They also cut out all the one-liner grammar questions, fill-in-the-blank segments, and dissect-a-sentence sections, and focused exclusively on reading comprehension, which was always the most challenging anyway.
> The listening was pretty much the same, and the writing was just a simple composition assignment, but the speaking component was crazy: we were given 15 minutes to prepare a five minute oral presentation that addressed the specific prompt questions of two different scenarios: in one scenario, we were calling a friend to arrange details for a weekend outing; in the second scenario, we were factory workers lodging a complaint with a boss.
And, perhaps most interesting to me:
> The new H.S.K. couldn’t care less about 成语. The content was fully geared towards operating efficiently in modern Chinese society: the listening content included a customer-service hotline dialogue and a television ad for cell phones. The reading comprehension material included a standard business contract and a report on a recent summit on environmental protection. For our writing assignment, we wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper to share our views on recent local government policy (how democratic!).
I hear a lot of foreigners in China saying things like, “I need to find the right method of learning Chinese,” or “I need to find the motivation,” or “I need to find the proper environment, free of distractions.”
Recently I had a chance to tour three of Shanghai’s main universities as part of a last-ditch effort to find someone for my company ASAP. The idea was to visit schools with Chinese study programs, find the foreigners, and possibly recruit a qualified one. I chose a really hot day to do it. In one day I covered Shanghai Jiao Tong University (上海交通大学), then East China Normal University (华东师范大学), and finally Shanghai International Studies University (上海外国语大学). (Notably absent from this list is Fudan University (复旦大学), but I’ve heard really bad things aboput their Chinese studies program, and it’s not in a convenient location, so I skipped it.)
Handing out my fliers to strangers was kind of a weird feeling. I felt like some suspicious salesman trying to perpetrate a scam, or like one of the Chinese promoters on the street attempting to persuade foreigners to come to her restaurant or bar. The difference, of course, was that I was just trying to find one good person for an actually decent job. But it still felt sketchy.
All of the campuses were nicer than I expected. Quite green, with lots of space. Like most Chinese college campuses, the teaching buildings were a mixture of old structures falling into disrepair and newer, more architecturally “inspired” creations with such modern wonders as elevators.
East China Normal University struck me as the most picturesque, with its emerald green streams cutting through campus and shady tree-lined streets. However, East China Normal University also flung its foreign students into an inconvenient corner of campus, a place which aesthetics seemed to overlook.
Shanghai International Studies University seemed very modern. It was also quite small, and I didn’t find any foreign students. (I think they are actually on a different campus than the one that I went to by the Hongkou Soccer Stadium.)
East China Normal University happens to be the school at which I’m considering doing a master’s in applied linguistics. During my lunch break I had time to inquire about the possibility. It turns out there are actually two applied linguistics programs; one is under the Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language Department (对外汉语系), the other is under the Chinese Department (中文系). They recommended I look into the Chinese Department program. Even though the program in the Chinese Department will be more difficult, it has a better reputation in China. I went along with that. I was sent to talk to the Dean of the Chinese Department.
That’s when things started getting scary. The Dean talked to me about the requirements for me to enter the program. I need an HSK score of 6. I have a 7. No problem. Since I’m a foreign student, the foreign language requirement is waived. Great. There are also four entrance examinations prospective grad students need to take. (gulp!) I would only need to take two. Excellent. One was Foundations of Chinese (汉语基础). I was confused for a second. Didn’t they trust my HSK score? No, that’s different. The HSK verifies that I know Chinese. The Foundations of Chinese test verifies that I know about Chinese. Structure and features of modern Chinese grammar, Chinese phonology, special features of Chinese characters, rhetoric, etc. Oh great. I haven’t really studied that. The other test is a Writing Composition test. Uh-oh.
Naturally, these tests made me a bit apprehensive about the whole deal. I talked to the dean about it, and it seems they’re willing to cut me a little slack, but I’m still going to have to bust my ass. They want me in the program, but I’m going to have to really work. Since I don’t want to start until Fall 2005, I have time to study the necessary material on my own. These are the books I was told to pick up: Modern Chinese (现代汉语), Problems in Chinese Grammar Analysis (汉语语法分析问题), Selected Readings from the West on Linguistics (西方语言学名著选读), and Essentials of Linguistics (语言学纲要). I don’t expect much trouble from the latter two other than just absorbing the Chinese for all the linguistic jargon I mostly already know. But the first might two may pose some diffilculty for me to tackle on my own. I think it’s time to start hunting for a tutor again.
Wow, this is looking like quite a challenge. But it’s a challenge I want. So, I guess it’s time to hit those books….
OK, I realize this is really boring, but some people have been asking about it, so I guess I’ll write about it.
I did not get the HSK score I hoped for. I wanted an 8. I got a high 7. I pretty much expected a 7, because the amount of vocabulary needed to ace the HSK was just beyond my ability to build in just one semester. Well, if I wanted to do anything in my free time besides study for the HSK, that is. I regret nothing.
So the surprise came Saturday when one of my classmates came to Shanghai and brought my scoresheet and HSK certificate. The test is divided into 4 sections: Listening, Grammar, Reading, Synthesis. My scores in each category were right in the middle of the range — no “almost’s” or “not quites.” My scores, respectively, were 8, 8, 8, 6. I got a 6 in the Synthesis section! I’m not sure why, and I’m not allowed see which ones I got wrong or even the test questions.
“Synthesis” (综合) is the section where you have to write in some Chinese characters, but that part was surprisingly easy. It could also have been the “choose the word which best completes the sentence” portion. They ask some tricky ones in there. I’m not sure what happened. Maybe I was tired because it was the end of the test? Don’t know.
So my total points came out to 334. The cutoff for 8 is 337. Even if I had had 3 more points on the Synthesis section I wouldn’t have gotten an 8, though, because you can’t have the score of one category so far below the others. I would have needed a full 5 points to get the 7 in Synthesis and 8 overall.
So that’s the HSK. I’m not sure if I’ll ever take it again. Overall I’m pretty satisfied, but the nerdy student in me feels a lingering bloodlust for that damn test….
It’s hard to believe that last year at this time I was arriving home in Florida for a surprise visit. Prior to last Christmas, I had been in China two Christmases in a row. Yet this year I feel more divorced from this “Christmas” thing than ever before. This year Christmas is just that Western holiday between the HSK and my move to Shanghai.
Speaking of the HSK, I think I did “OK.” I think I’m borderline between 7 and 8. Maybe it was unrealistic to expect to be able to learn enough vocabulary in one semester to get an 8 when I don’t read literary Chinese all that often at all. In any case, I’m not getting my hopes up too high for that 8.
So now I have that huge HSK weight off my shoulders, and a whole three days between today and Christmas. But I have to give my students final exams those three days.
We have a pretty decent-sized foreign teacher community here at ZUCC, but I don’t think any of the younger crowd is celebrating Christmas in any Christmassy way. No Christmas trees, no Christmas lights, no Christmas songs, no gift exchange. And there’s sure as hell no eggnog. There’s Christmas mass even in Hangzhou, but it just doesn’t feel the same.
I might even run off to Shanghai on Christmas Day to check out my new apartment there*. My girlfriend’s mom is awesome — she found me a killer pad at an amazing price (and she also knit me a cool cap). But I have to go hurry and check it out to close the deal. As chance would have it, Christmas also happens to be one of the few days my girlfriend isn’t working. So that’s that.
The thing is, I’m not really bummed about any of this. China does not really have Christmas, it just has enough little reminders everywhere to alert you to the fact that Christmas really is going on again elsewhere in the world. So my co-workers’ attitudes, rather than seeming all bah-humbuggy to me, seem perfectly natural. Enlightened, even. Why bother to celebrate Christmas?
I guess to me, Christmas is something that happens at home. And when it happens at home and I’m actually there for it, like last year, it’s just all the more special.
So does the fact that I’m fine with there being no Christmas for me here in China mean I’m more adapted to China? Does it mean China has really become a second home for me? Or am I becoming a soulless Scrooge?
Rather than dwell on those questions too long, I think I’ll just go get me an apartment in Shanghai. Merry Christmas.
*Oh yeah, I got a good job in Shanghai — more on that later. This post is supposed to be somewhat “heavy” and “introspective.” No room for good news here!
Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and ZUCC teachers and friends had a great meal at the Holiday Inn. 148 rmb per person is pretty steep, but it was all you can eat (and all you can drink), and the food was top notch. I had at least 5 plates. I was hurting. It was all worthwhile.
There was great turkey, with gravy. There was cranberry relish. There was pumpkin pie. There almost wasn’t mashed potatoes, but Heather, having read my account of Thanksgiving at Holiday Inn last year, fixed that problem. She called ahead and requested mashed potatoes at the buffet. As a result, there were mashed potatoes, and they were good. There were tons of other non-Thanksgivingesque selections as well, such as sushi, steak, “roast beef salad,” and pasta. But we were all happy to see the Thanksgiving traditional dishes represented.
So I guess now it’s back to Chinese food every meal, every day.
Regarding the melancholy, there are a whole lot of factors contributing, and it’s a strange mix of emotions. I have already committed to a move in early January, and I’m not looking forward to leaving Hangzhou and all my good friends here behind (look at Greg’s sweet Thanksgiving post). Yet it’s time for a change. So there’s a lot of excitement and uncertainty too. I think I’ve found a great job, but it’s not quite finalized yet, so I don’t want to announce it publicly.
Also, next month I take the HSK. That’s the big Chinese “TOEFL.” I have been skipping too many classes lately and not studying nearly enough. It’s time to really buckle down. If I don’t get an 8, I’m going to be sorely disappointed and pissed at myself for not working harder. I know I can get an 8.
Also, I haven’t been blogging much lately. It’s partly because I don’t have much time for it, but also because lately I’m feeling a little unhappy about the whole deal. I’m not sure why, exactly, and it’s hard to pin down the exact emotions, but I have some vague ideas.
One of the biggest changes to the “China Blog Community” of late has been the addition of Living in China. It’s a community blog in every sense of the word, and the founders did an amazing job. The site looks awesome, and there are new posts frequently, on a wide range of topics. The site is just so professional. It deserves every hit it gets.
Still, there’s something about it that feels strange. I agree with Richard’s assessment. I suppose I really like the process of browsing blogs, and I’ve never been a fan of RSS feeds. Now it kind of feels like if you don’t have an RSS feed then you’re out in the cold. I guess the need for RSS is an inevitable development given the tremendous surge in the number of China blogs. But I still feel a little bit like the Wal-Mart of China blogs has arrived, if that makes any sense.
I’m not trying to criticize Living in China, though. What they’re doing is great, and my reaction is strictly a personal one.
Along those lines, though, it’s been disturbing to me seeing the personal, nasty side of the China blogs. Attacks on Glutter, Hailey…. Why is “who’s right” always the most important issue? Why do blogs tend to encourage raging, ruthless egos?
I guess I just miss the good old days when everything seemed so intimate and friendly. But things change, and that’s fine. For the time being, though, I’m very content with being pretty quiet. But I’ll stick around.
So sometime in September, when the teaching semester started, I also started studying Chinese full-time at Zhejiang University of Technology (ZUT). After talking with the administration, I was placed directly into the advanced class without having to take the placement test. Before classes started I was a little apprehensive about that decision, but I needn’t have been.
There are only four students in the advanced class. There’s a Korean guy, a Korean girl, a girl from Kyrgyzstan, and me. Everyone is in their twenties, and we all get along fine. All conversation between us, both inside and outside class, is in Chinese (with the exception of the two Koreans).
I have five classes: Intensive Reading, Reading and Writing, Conversation Topics, Survey of Chinese Society, and HSK Prep. I like my classes, and I think they’re just what I’m looking for: extensive and intensive reading practice, and extreme vocabulary acquisition. What’s a little disappointing about my classes is that, the HSK prep aside, all the classes pretty much follow the same format: (1) discuss new vocabulary, (2) read the text, (3) go over any difficult parts in the text, (4) answer the reading comprehension questions, (5) practice the vocabulary and grammar patterns highlighted by the book for that selection.
It’s a pretty typical way of examining a text, and I suppose there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it, but was it naive of me to expect four different classes to have four different class structures? The above pattern seems best fitted to Intensive Reading. So far there have only been two minor writing assignments for the Reading and Writing class. I really like my Conversation Topics teacher, but I was hoping she’d do activities to get us to talk more. Since we’re all advanced, we could really do some fun stuff. But we don’t. The teacher of Survey of Chinese Society is a learned guy with a Ph.D. in ancient Chinese lit. He’s gotten into some different material in the form of poetry and history of the Chinese writing system, but I wish he’d do it more.
The reason I’m so critical of my classes, of course, is that I’m also a teacher of a foreign language. I’ve taken theory courses on how to teach, I’ve been teaching for over five years, I’ve written a little guide on teaching English in China, and I’ve written a book on the topic which will soon be published (but no more details until it is!). So I have certain expectations of my Chinese counterparts. Unfortunately, those counterparts were products of the same educational system which begot the listless Chinese learners I’m faced with in my own classroom. It’s not that these teachers are not enthusiastic or good at what they do — it’s that their methods largely come from a system where the students are all passive note-copying machines.
So what do I do about it? Well, I’m still trying to figure out the best way to suggest some more communication-oriented classroom activities to my Conversation Topics teacher, but I will. I might just take some of my own Spoken English classroom activities and translate them into Chinese and let her take a look. I’m going to be bring in some materials for my Survey of Chinese Society teacher to discuss with us. He’s got a Ph.D. in ancient lit, so next week I’m going to ask him some questions about the Chinese in The Art of War (孙子兵法). He already said it’s OK. I’m going to be writing for my Reading and Writing class, whether or not it’s assigned. (How can she complain about having to correct one student’s compositions, only once a week?) I’m going to be trying hard to stay awake in my Intensive Reading class. One thing that I’ve learned is that even if you already know something that’s being explained, you can benefit a lot by listening carefully to the way it’s explained in Chinese. And, of course, I’m going to show these teachers with all my questions in class just what it means to have an active American in the classroom.
For clarification, I’d just like to note that I’m only studying Chinese formally for one semester, and I paid for it with my own hard-earned RMB, so I intend to get the most out of it. That explains my attitude. Also, what’s both encouraging and annoying is that even though I ask the most questions, it seems that everyone else is really eager to hear the answers as well. So I’m either asking the questions my classmates didn’t think to ask but nevertheless want to know the answers to, or I’m asking the questions that my classmates were too timid to ask. Either way, I feel confident that I’m not the “annoying student who asks too many questions.”
Finally, I’d like to say that I think I made the right decision to study at ZUT instead of the more prestigious Zhejiang University. The number one reason is convenience. I am a 20-minute (harrowing) bike ride away from ZUT, but about an hour away from Zhejiang University, either by bike or by bus. Furthermore, I like my teachers, I like my classmates, I like my class size, and I think these classes are accomplishing my goals of increasing my vocabulary, making me a better reader, and equipping me to kick ass on the HSK which is coming up in mid-December.
[Note: I’m still looking for a job in Shanghai. All leads are greatly appreciated.]
I finally officially registered for my Chinese classes at Zhejiang University of Technology today. That means I forked over about 6500rmb (almost $800 USD), I got my textbooks, I got my schedule, and I got my new student ID.
I got a little nervous looking at my new schedule and my new textbooks. First, my week is now completely filled. Every morning, every afternoon (with very few gaps), plus two evenings. I know, most people work 40 hour weeks, but teaching can be pretty tiring, and I’m not sure how great of a student I’ll be. For one thing, I haven’t been a real student for over 3 years, and for another, these classes look really challenging. I’ve described my Chinese level as “high intermediate” before, but these classes are definitely high, not intermediate. These are the textbooks:
– 高级汉语口语—话题交际 （北京语言文化大学出版社）- Advanced Speaking
– 桥染—实用汉语中级教程(下) （北京语言文化大学出版社）- Intensive Reading
– 高级汉语读写教程 （北京语言文化大学出版社）- Reading and Writing
– 中国社会概览(三年级教材，上) （北京语言文化大学出版社）- Survey of Chinese Society
– HSK中国汉语水平考试 （北京语言文化大学出版社）- HSK Training
Looking at the textbooks, I see a lot of characters I haven’t learned. I can’t be lazy this semester.
There are only 10 students in the high level. There’s another white guy (Russian or something — not sure), a Japanese student, and the rest are Koreans.
I’m looking forward to making friends with all the other international students, and I’m really ready for another big jump in my Chinese level, but I think it’s gonna be a hard semester. I have to relearn how to work hard!
As I’ve mentioned before, lately I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with my progress in Chinese. I think there are several reasons for this stagnation. One reason I can’t ignore is that I’ve really been having a good time here for the past year and a half, and I’ve just plain been lazy about studying. I can’t deny that. But there’s more to it than just laziness. My spoken Chinese has reached a sort of plateau. I know most of the words for everyday life. If linguistists’ estimate of 10,000 words for a basic vocabulary is correct, then I know those 10,000 words in Chinese, and I can use them fairly fluently in conversation. Remember, though, that’s a basic vocabulary; it is an accomplishment, but it’s nothing to be exceedingly proud about. I’ve gotta keep pushing. Basic conversation is no longer sufficient to help me learn the more sophisticated vocabulary I want to work on, and basic conversation doesn’t help me with reading or writing, two skill areas I’ve definitely been neglecting. My conclusion? I need to take formal classes.
Besides a simple desire for further progress, there’s another reason I want to start taking formal classes. I’ve decided that I need to take the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi – Chinese Proficiency test, China’s “TOEFL”) in order for my progress in Chinese to be formally recognized. I didn’t major in Chinese; I just took a few courses in college, so at this point I have no official documentation to prove that my Chinese is decent. If you throw me into China it’s pretty clear that I can handle myself, but that doesn’t readily work itself onto a resume. The HSK score will provide a recognized standard that I might need for the future.
Also, I think it’s pretty clear that I thrive on competition. (Maybe that’s part of the reason I took up the study of Chinese… It’s undoubtedly quite a challenge, and there aren’t a whole lot of Westerners that can do it, so I could realistically compete with the best if I tried hard and stuck with it.) I think classroom competition in the form of other serious classmates will be a powerful form of motivation for me to excel in my studies.
I have already announced before that I plan to study Chinese at Zhejiang University for the 2003-2004 academic year. This past semester I’ve been putting aside over two-thirds of my income every month for that express purpose. Recently, though, it has come to my attention that Zheijiang University may not be the best choice for me, especially since I plan to continue living on campus at ZUCC next semester (and teaching part-time). Below is my comparison and evaluation of the three main choices for Chinese study in Hangzhou.
Zhejiang University (Yuquan Campus)
– Chinese Studies Program: Good – generally considered to be the best in Hanghzou
– Students: 500-900, from all over (but especially Korea)
– Campus: Pretty large, attractive with lots of trees, but classrooms are a little run-down
– Class Sizes: medium (20-35 students)
– Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:00am
– Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 30 minutes by bicycle, at least an hour by bus (requiring one transfer)
– Tuition: US$1000 for the first semester; US$800 for the second semester
– Evaluation: A decent program which perhaps charges a little too much because it knows it has the reputation of Zhejiang University behind it. It would be cool to be part of such a big international community of students, but I’m afraid the daily commute (which would necessitate me waking up at 6am for a grueling daily ordeal) would kill me.
Zhejiang University of Technology
– Chinese Studies Program: Fair – emphasizes listening and reading skills and HSK prep, but doesn’t seem to have much of a clue about conducting interesting conversation classes
– Students: about 100, mostly from Korea
– Campus: Pretty large, unattractive, classrooms are a little run-down
– Class Sizes: small (10-15 students)
– Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:55am
– Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 15 minutes by bicycle, at least 30 minutes by bus
– Tuition: US$780 for the first semester; US$750 for the second semester
– Evaluation: I’d prefer to study at a school with a more attractive campus, but I guess that isn’t the most important thing. The school’s reputation isn’t the greatest and the classes might not be the most imaginatively planned out, but as far as what I want to study, it should get the job done. The fact that it’s very close is a huge plus.
Hangzhou Teachers College
– Chinese Studies Program: Fair/poor – very personal interaction, but doesn’t seem to have an established study curriculum
– Students: about 30, mostly from Korea
– Campus: Pretty large, nice pond in the center of campus, some attractive architecture, but classrooms are a little run-down
– Class Sizes: very small (1-5 students)
– Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:30am
– Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 20 minutes by bicycle, at least 30 minutes by bus
– Tuition: US$800 for the first semester; US$800 for the second semester
– Evaluation: I really like the campus, but I don’t think the study program cuts it. First, the classes are just too small. I’m afraid I wouldn’t get the competition I’m looking for, or much of the comraderie. Second, the curriculum is just unimpressive and seems somewhat vague for advanced students.
Hangzhou University of Commerce
– Chinese Studies Program: Fair – very personal interaction, established study curriculum, but doesn’t seem to go into advanced study of Chinese (although it does offer “business Chinese”)
– Students: about 50, from all over
– Campus: Pretty large, not unattractive, but classrooms are a little run-down
– Class Sizes: small (5-10 students)
– Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:30am
– Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 30 minutes by bicycle, at least 30 minutes by bus
– Tuition: US$900 for the first semester; US$900 for the second semester
– Evaluation: The first thing that strikes me about the program is that to study for one year it’s the same price as Zhejiang University’s, and it doesn’t seem anywhere near as comprehensive. On the plus side, it’s closer and has smaller class sizes. I worry, though, that the program is not designed for higher level students of Chinese, because an “advanced” class is not even listed in the program description.
So, it looks like my final choice is Zhejiang University of Technology. Zhejiang University’s Chinese studies program application deadline is June 15th. I think I have to count out Zhejiang University primarily because of the commute, but it will also be nice to keep the money I save. Zhejiang University of Technology is a good compromise between convenience and excellence, and it should help me accomplish my goals. I can always re-evaluate the situation after one semester if I don’t like the program.
So, after three years of working full-time at ZUCC, I’m finally going to be a student again this fall. It feels good.