Last semester around March, I got an e-mail about possible scholarships that the Confucius Institute gives out to students to go to China. The scholarship that caught my attention was the one semester one with everything but plane tickets paid. I asked about the requirements to apply for this scholarship and they said anyone could apply but that obviously students of the institute, that is, students actually taking Chinese classes at the institute would be given priority. That obviously means that only those students ever get the scholarships. And so began my quest to make myself eligible.
I took and passed the HSKK, though just barely. From then on I’ve been studying very diligently focusing especially on my speaking, which means I get together with a teacher from italki about two or three times a week. I have to tell you that with about four months into using italki my spoken Chinese has improved immensely. Even one of my teachers said so (he went on vacation and we didn’t speak for the last two of those four months). My speaking went from being about 40/50% of my reading ability to about 70/80%. I’d say that’s some damn good progress.
I thought the HSK4 along with the HSKK would grant me immediate access to the highest level Chinese class that the Confucius Institute offered, but then they said I had to take their “official” exam. So I did. It was painfully easy, so much so that the coordinator came down and asked me why I finished so fast. After finally being granted access to the level 6 class (which is supposed to be something like between HSK4 and 5) I now have to pay for said class because my scholarship does not cover it. It’s about 1000USD which in terms of hours comes out to about $10USD an hour, not bad, and not a bad investment either.
Monday was the first day of class. There were four of us including me. All the other students had just come back from China. I’ve never been. The teacher is super nice, he asked for suggestions, so I said what I think is the best kind of advice for formal classes: assign A LOT of homework (because it means more feedback). My classmates have horrible pronunciations, well two have horrible pronunciation and the girl who spent a year in China has mediocre pronunciation at best. I truly believe in putting a lot of work at the beginning even before you really start to learn vocabulary on getting the basic pronunciation stuff right. For Chinese that means being able to pronounce all the existing syllables and TONES. I feel like if you can’t speak with tones you are not speaking Chinese. Those two guys that I say have a horrible pronunciation just ignore the tones and speak with whatever tones they want. It makes it almost impossible to understand what they’re saying. I’ve said this in the about section that I spent about 1 month just practicing all possible syllable combinations and tone combinations (not by choice though, that was the teacher’s method). Then even in second-year Chinese we would have these homework assignments where we’d have to record ourselves reading a paragraph and until you got all the tones right you wouldn’t get a grade on the homework. Anyways, little rant there, sorry about that, I feel strongly about pronunciation and tones.
Today was the second class. We reviewed the vocabulary for the second lesson of the book we’ll be using and I really like that the teacher took the time to find some other words with the same character of the focus vocabulary. For example for 遗憾 (yí hàn: to regret) he found some other words that use 遗 and 憾, also some synonyms and explained the small differences and even when a useful Chengyu used the character also included it. I feel like this kind of teaching is really hitting the spot. When you’re leaving the intermediate plateau it’s so important to work on synonyms and their differences as well as the small mistakes (like, do you know what’s the difference between 改变 and 变成?). He also makes us give example sentences for the vocab and points out major grammar mistakes. I think that’s another thing that is nice about formal group classes, sometimes people make mistakes that you didn’t even know you could make.
In summary, I feel that it’s been such a long time since I’ve been part of a formal learning environment (like 6 years…~_~) that I find it very useful and novel. I also think it’s really going to help me improve my writing, which has now become my weak point ever since my speaking got a bit more flow and stopped being so awkward and full of pauses. I also feel like you could also try this approach with a private teacher and a friend learning the same language. You could use whatever kind of material you’d like though, which is my only complaint so far. Textbooks always have really awkward dialogues in Chinese, I feel like you’d do better with sticking to something like a graded reader or even native material suited to your level. That’s it for now. I’ll keep you guys updated with the class and little useful things I learn.