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Study Abroad: Which Program Should I Attend?

At some point, every Chinese language learner wrestles with this question: should I go abroad and enroll in an intensive language program? Is it worth the money, time, and mental anguish? Could I get the same experience for a fraction of the cost by studying on my own?

The answer depends on your current level of Chinese, your motivation level for studying the language, your future goals, and your financial resources. Do you simply want to travel around China and talk to locals? If so, then an intensive language program might not be necessary for you. However, if you want to gain true mastery and use Chinese in business, translation, or academia, I would strongly suggest considering studying abroad for at least six months or a year.

But how to choose which program to attend? It is easy to be paralyzed by the sheer number of programs out there and simply never choose to study abroad. There are many questions to consider—should I be in a big city or small city? Should I choose a well-known, expensive program or a lesser-known, more affordable one? How many hours do I want to be in class each week? What is the ideal class size? Should I live in the dorms? My goal in this series is to outline the many options available to you and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.

My Study Abroad Experiences

I started studying Chinese my freshman year of college, and after 1 year I decided that I needed to go abroad if I ever wanted to get a grasp of this quite challenging language. I spent a year at Capital Normal University (CNU) in Beijing, enrolled in their “intensive” language program. Although my Chinese improved dramatically during my year abroad, I was still unsatisfied with my abilities when I returned to the States. I could not read a newspaper, watch TV, or even contemplate the idea of reading a Chinese research paper (one of my academic goals for studying Chinese). By contrast, my friends in the Spanish, French, and German departments were writing essays, discussing literature, and doing research.

I had a strong desire to reach a high level of fluency in Chinese before I graduated. I knew I needed a faster-paced program than the one offered at my college. After my junior year, I ended up receiving a 9-month Huayu Enrichment Scholarship to study at the International Chinese Language Program (ICLP) at National Taiwan University.

I spent nine months busting my ass every day at ICLP. I lived, breathed, and dreamed ICLP. I entered 2 speech competitions, wrote for the ICLP newspaper, and received one of the Most Improved Awards at the end of the year. It was challenging, but I loved the intensity of the program. It pushed me harder than I thought was possible. ICLP accelerated my skills so that I could give speeches, write coherent essays, and finally conduct original research on my undergraduate thesis in Chinese. I went from someone who studies Chinese to someone who actually speaks Chinese.

Looking back now, my experience studying at ICLP was vastly different from my study abroad experience at CNU. Both programs are considered “intensive” study abroad programs, but the level of instruction, course structure, and curriculum could not be more different. I had positive experiences at both, but I think each program is geared for a different type of student, each with a certain mindset.

You should have clear goals for your Chinese before applying so you can get the most out of your study abroad experience. If you want to have free time to travel, socialize with people from all over the world, and learn some Chinese, then a study abroad program like CNU might be the best option. However, if you have a few years of Chinese under your belt and are serious about attaining fluency in the shortest amount of time, then a program like ICLP might be right up your alley.

Two Types of Study Abroad Programs: Normal and High-Intensity Programs

A less-intensive program like CNU is often connected to a Chinese university, usually administered by international student services department. I refer to these programs as “normal” study abroad programs. In Chinese, “normal” 师范 means teacher’s college, and many of the long-established language programs are at such “normal” universities. The most notable being Beijing Normal University, East China Normal University, and National Taiwan Normal University (often just referred to as Shida 师大). These schools historically specialized in training future teachers, including teachers of foreigners and foreign languages.

The “high-intensity” programs offer smaller class sizes, individual tutorial sessions, distinctive pedagogy, in-house produced textbooks, weekly lectures, language pledges, and, at some programs, English classes about Chinese culture taught by foreign faculty. Some of these programs include cultural activities and overnight trips included in the price of the program. Housing and dorms are sometimes arranged and, at some programs, you are assigned a Chinese university student who serves as your personal language partner.

These “high-intensity” programs are significantly more expensive (from a few thousand dollars to a full semester of US college tuition), but you are paying for more individual time with teachers and a more curated experience of Chinese culture. Some of the well-known programs are ICLP, IUP, CET, Middlebury, Hopkins–Nanjing, CIEE, and PiB.

Normal Study Abroad Program: Affordable Language Instruction and Immersive Experience

Teachers

The quality of any language program hinges on the quality of its teachers. The teachers are the ones who will make or break your overall experience. Teachers at normal programs are mostly all native teachers educated in China or Taiwan. They have gone through government certification to be teachers, but may be only a test, rather than a degree in Chinese language. They may or may not have experience teaching foreigners and the specific problems that they face when studying Chinese. Moreover, most Asian teaching styles and learning strategies rely heavily on memorization. Adjusting to the different teaching style can be difficult for Western students, while in my experience Korean and Japanese students seem to do well in this environment.

Teachers in these programs can be underpaid and overworked. They have large class sizes and teach back-to-back classes with dozens of students. As a result, they cannot provide extensive feedback on your pronunciation, grammar, and written compositions. In this environment, it can be easy to fossilize bad speaking habits because the teacher overlooks your small speaking errors, and this can compound overtime. In the normal programs, resources are scarce and the teachers are spread thin. There are also no office hours in these programs, which many college students might be used to at home.

Most teachers speak little or no English, which can be good or bad depending on your level. It can be great because you can’t resort to speaking English when things get tough. It forces you to speak Chinese and work through difficulties in the language, which is the main reason you are there! Using English to understand Chinese gets you in the habit of constantly translating from English. This is one of the main reasons American students speak Chinese with English grammar.

Despite all this, there are still high-quality, amazing teachers at these programs—but it can be hit or miss. In my year-long program I had 2 phenomenal teachers, but the rest were pretty average teachers.

Class sizes and make-up

In the normal programs, the class sizes range anywhere from 4 to 30 students from all over the world. At CNU, my classes usually had 15 people. Before applying, check how big each class is and what method the program uses to place students. CNU was very rigid in their placement process. I took all my classes with the same students. There was no flexibility—you could not, for example, move to a higher listening or speaking class but stay in a lower writing class. This policy ignores the fact that students develop their speaking, reading, and writing levels at different paces and thus could be assigned to different classes based on their level in each area of the language. Instead, students are all lumped into vague categories like Intermediate.

My first time studying abroad was a real eye-opening experience and a crash course in international relations. One of the best parts of the program I took at CNU was that my classmates were from truly diverse backgrounds. In the first semester, I was the only American in a class of Korean, Japanese, German, Russian, Indonesian, and Thai students. There were also a many British and Italian students at CNU. In a matter of months, I had friends from all over the world; I was constantly exposed to different languages and cultures. Although this was a wonderful social experience, it was not the best thing for my Chinese—I mainly used English when I communicated with my international friends.

You should think carefully about how this international student body can impact your Chinese classroom experience. While at CNU, I was initially confused when my Japanese and Korean classmates had such beautiful handwriting and did so well on the tests and quizzes, but were unable to speak very well. I always felt like I was behind and could never catch up with my Asian counterparts. My tones and pronunciation were much better, but their reading and writing skills were light-years ahead of mine.

It wasn’t until after I starting studied Korean and Japanese years later that I realized most of them had to learn a minimum amount of Chinese characters in school (about 2,000). They had been writing Chinese characters since elementary school. They had a huge advantage over Western students; it seemed unfair to be compared with them in my exams. My Asian classmates seemed to understand what was going on in class while I was often the lone American, confused and lost. Since I started teaching English in Japan through the JET program, I have come to realize that the style of teaching in China is very similar to what Japanese students are used to at home.

I would say that this is a typical experience at many normal study abroad programs across China and Taiwan. While I was at ICLP, I met some Shida students through a speech competition held there and went out to dinner with them. Two were Korean and one was American. As they described their program to me, it sounded very similar to my experience at CNU: classmates from all over the world (many from Korea and Japan) with a heavy emphasis on reading and writing characters.

Lack of Individual Speaking Time and Emphasis on Rote Memorization

A large portion of the class in a normal program involves listening to the teacher give a PowerPoint presentation. There is nothing wrong with PowerPoint necessarily, but sometimes it is a crutch to actual learning. Most of the time students are asked to repeat from the PowerPoint and copy down notes from text on the screen. Presentation and speaking skills are not heavily emphasized. Rather, reading and writing characters play a key role in succeeding in this class environment.

There is also not much time for individual speaking practice in the normal programs. If you do speak, you will most likely be repeating a grammar pattern that the teacher provides or doing an exercise from a textbook. At the intermediate level, you might have a speaking and listening class—but conversation class is more like “repeat after me” class, and listening class involves listening to an audiotape. There was not much time spent having freeform conversation in any class. Freeform conversation flow was seen as “off-topic,” and teachers would gently bring us back to the textbook.

A certain amount of memorization is necessary in any language learning endeavor, but constant character writing tests (听写) often slow down the process of acquiring new vocabulary for speaking proficiency. In the beginning I would spend hours and hours writing characters because that is what my teachers told me to do. However, for Western students not used to rote memorization training, there are more effective ways of learning how to write and rote memorization is not one of them.

Curriculum

These programs mostly use standard textbooks created by university publishers such as Beijing Language and Culture University Press (BLCU), East China Normal University Press, The Far East Book Company, and National Taiwan Normal Press. In Taiwan, at the beginning levels, most language programs use the same textbooks. ICLP, The Chinese Language Division (CLD) of National Taiwan University, and Shida all use Practical Audio-Visual Chinese and Chinese Moral Tales. ICLP and CLD both use Mini Radio Plays and Taiwan Today. At CNU, most of the textbooks were from BLCU.

Tuition

The normal programs are very cheap compared to US college prices, and you are often paying similar prices to native students for your education. These programs may not provide dorms on campus, but if they do you provide housing, it is usually sectioned off in an international dorm with other foreign students from your program. Usually there are taiji, Chinese painting, kung fu and calligraphy classes offered, and perhaps one day trip offered to everyone.

Conclusion

Normal language programs are ideal for beginning and intermediate students. They provide a structured environment for you to learn Chinese from native speakers. For the amount that you are paying, you are getting quality language instruction and an immersive experience. The next post in this series will cover the pros and cons of attending a “high-intensity” program like ICLP.

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Question: What is the biggest thing holding you back from studying abroad? Please share in the comments!

Photo: Bernard Goldbach