Language Learning Pains [Year in Taiwan, Ed. 4]

Classes at the National Taiwan University (NTU, 台大) have finally begun, and what a mixed bag.

It’s hard to believe that I started learning Mandarin about five or six years ago in college, but the extended breaks that equal to almost three years total within that period mean that the inconsistency of language learning continues to set me back every time I begin again.

I modestly remain somewhere along the intermediate range across speaking, writing, and reading skills, but my exposure to the language especially over recent years has also meant my listening skills are deceivingly better than one would expect.

So this week has felt particularly disappointing being placed in what I would say is an intermediate-low class, which NTU claims is the highest for practicing speaking, with the two levels above me focused more on reading. Unfortunately, NTU has a very strict seven-person class size limit, so I was unable to switch up. While I could have jumped to the highest class, I realized it would be better to review my foundations and teach myself traditional characters, thus making class substantially more challenging.

With difficulty, I came to accept that I would rather have the certainty of earning a grade of close to 100%, than jump into the struggle of keeping an A while grappling with traditional characters. Yes, given my experience last summer in Tainan, I am sure that I can earn a final grade of close to 100%, especially since this NTU teacher treats us like kids, with the first day of introductions actually leaving me in offended disbelief:

NTU CLD Far East 3 class

Our PPT slides are all LINE sticker-themed, and worksheets are outlined in cartoons. Even if targeted at the younger students, such childish, elementary teaching materials and irksome slow speech would be offensive to an 18-year-old adult, let alone a 25-year-old. I came to feel regret for not choosing to study at a different language center this season, but I still have a year, and I am seeking private tutoring to challenge myself further.

Certainly if I weren’t able to challenge myself by writing test answers in traditional characters, I would have jumped ship immediately. But I don’t want to come across as “holier than thou,” like another student who, during introductions while everyone else in our class expressed interest in improving speaking, directly told the teacher that she, in fact, did not need to practice speaking since she “lived in China for two years,” and instead wanted to improve reading. By the end of the week, she left for a higher level, and I wish her good luck.

After all, I hadn’t studied Chinese this entire year, and the one semester at Georgetown last fall did almost nothing to improve my speaking. So it makes sense that I would want to spend time reviewing at a slower pace.

There’s also a pain point that I perennially feel awkward about: my Taiwanese boyfriend with whom I speak English. While I dislike having to defend myself, I just feel so helpless sometimes when the extreme awareness of how bad my spoken Chinese is prohibits me from having any confidence in speaking in social settings. It’s a mind-numbing cycle that both prevents improvement and further diminishes any confidence.

It’s always easier in shorter daily interactions with strangers, but I often worry when I will ever feel comfortable enough to contribute meaningfully in larger social situations (a challenge even in English TBH).

So although classes are simple, this first week of September was tough psychologically and physically. The persistently high temps and humidity have me longing for dry, fall weather…and taking naps and two showers almost daily. I also haven’t had the balls to take off my hat during classes this week, but my hair has grown to a point where I could and should. For the past month, I have been telling myself “maybe next week,” but I actually think next week is the time, at least for a day, heh.

One piece of good news is that I was able to see the final proofs of my two (!) articles in the September issue of AmCham’s Taiwan Business TOPICS Magazine, to be published within days!

New normals take time to figure out, and thanks to those who take the time to read about my highs and lows.