Classes have been underway for about a week now—not long enough to really assess them, but I can at least give you a taste.
When I first arrived I had to take a placement “test” to determine which classes I need to take. The test consisted of a teacher having a casual conversation with me in Chinese. In the end, they placed me in level 5 (the last level) of the “beginner’s” bracket. They also have an intermediate and advanced bracket.
At first when I read “Level 5” my heart pounded because there is a huge difference between language levels in the U.S. and their counterparts in their given countries. So, for example, Chinese 5 in the U.S. might be equivalent to Chinese 2 in China. I let out a sigh of relief when I found out it was in the “beginner’s” section…but don’t let that fool you.
My classes have been VERY challenging, especially the listening and speaking aspects. All of my classes are taught exclusively in Chinese. In the U.S. they were mostly taught in English, though the upper levels included more and more Chinese. As a result, I have to ask all of my questions in Chinese, which has been very frustrating. I’m finding it easier and easier to be a head-nodder, though I’m trying to force myself to look like a fool in front of the class by asking questions I’m not really able to ask. But I must admit I’ve done a good share of head-nodding, as well.
I have 11 classes throughout the week that are 1 hour 40 minutes each, which equals about 16-17 hours a week. I’m taking speaking, reading, writing, listening, and an integrated class that combines everything. I wasn’t offered any sort of extra-curricular class like Chinese flute-making or tea-tasting, but even if I had the opportunity I wouldn’t take it because these classes are really time-consuming.
Even though I’ve studied for two years in the U.S., my textbooks here are teaching almost completely new material, though some of it is repeated. What has been especially difficult is when the dialogues use words or grammar that they assume I know but that I don’t know. So a given chapter might officially teach 33 new words but I’m having to learn 50.
And for those who aren’t aware, often times when you learn a new word in Chinese you must also learn one or two new characters (symbols). Most Chinese words are two characters. There are thousands of characters in the Chinese language. Sometimes they look like what they mean, but most of the time you just have to memorize how to write them. So if you just started learning 30 words, you would probably have to memorize 60 characters.
“How do you do that?” you ask. Here’s my method:
I write them many, many times in my notebook. Then, the next day….I write them many, many times in my notebook. Then…you get the idea. But certainly seeing them more often now helps me to better retain them.
In addition to studying material from 5 textbooks, I also have to learn a whole host of words and phrases for daily use. I keep a notepad in my pocket and constantly write down things I see or think about or hear. As you can imagine, they add up quickly.
So, most of my free time is spent studying. And even after all that time, I still often feel like the farthest behind in class. Most of the people in my class have already been living here for at least a semester, so their listening and speaking are especially better than mine.
I’m trying to figure out a good balance between studying at my desk, spending time with people, and just doing my own thing—but it’s hard…especially when I feel paralyzed in the “outside” world because I can’t seem to understand or say anything. But, as a favorite preacher of mine once said, “By perseverance the snail made it to the ark.”