The difficulties of studying Chinese in Taiwan

茶Today's Taipei Times has a big article on studying Chinese in Taiwan in the features section. Jules Quartly writes, 

Over the past three years the number of students studying Chinese in Taiwan has risen by around 1,500 to 9,143, according to MOE statistics. This is a 5 percent annual increase, but set against the explosion in demand for learning Chinese it is a meager return. Taiwan should be riding the wave of learning Mandarin, instead it appears to be floundering around in the shallows.

It is disappointing that Taiwan has failed to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the rapidly expanding market for learning Mandarin. The article discusses some of the reasons why. These include difficulties obtaining visas and the use of traditional characters and various systems of pinyin.

I think the visa problem is the most serious one. The problem of people abusing student visas and working illegally cannot be ignored. However, instead of a knee-jerk reaction which makes it more difficult for people to study legimately other options should be explored. 

Writing calligraphyI think people often make too much of a fuss about different systems of pinyin. While I think Hanyu Pinyin should be the preferred system, any student who has a good knowledge of one system can quickly learn another. Similarly for traditional and simplified characters there is a lot of overlap between the two systems. Switching from one to the other doesn't mean starting again from zero. 

Given China's massive size Taiwan cannot hope to compete with it directly. Instead it has to market its differences and advantages. Most people will automatically look to China as the place to study Chinese. Even capturing a small percentage of the growing market for Chinese language learning will bring many benefits to Taiwan.  

Perhaps there are already people in government and education thinking this way. The article mentions,

Toward the end of last year a conference was held in Taipei titled, Opportunities for Taiwan Amid the Global Craze for Learning Chinese. Participants touted Taiwan as superior to China culturally and educationally and emphasized the high standing of National Taiwan University's (NTU) International Chinese Language Program (台大國際華語研習所), or ICLP, formerly known as the Stanford Center. The aim here is to take the high ground of teaching Mandarin and leave the mass market to China.

I hope these ideas translate into workable policies and results. While China will always take a bigger share of the market for Chinese language learning than Taiwan there is no reason why Taiwan can't be the best place in the world to learn Chinese. 

Update: Mark has posted his thoughts on the article on his blog. Prince Roy has also left some interesting comments below.  

11 thoughts on “The difficulties of studying Chinese in Taiwan

  1. I agree Taiwan is attempting to take the high ground, but it is a short-term fix. In the end, the PRC will grab that too. IUP (Stanford Center) made the move to Qinghua in Beijing in the mid 1990s, and while ICLP remains the best option in Taiwan, it has had to relax its former rigorous admissions standards in order to survive. Still, I think it is probably still better than IUP-Qinghua, though the gap is closing.

    Taiwan continues to shoot itself in the foot, while at the same time insisting it wants to be a serious player. The biggest problem is the visa issue, like you point out. Next is its laughable attempts to supplant the PRC with its own romanization and HSK knockoffs (Doubting to shuo made an excellent post about the absurdity of the latter). How an island of 23 million could ever expect to seriously challenge a nation of 1.3 billion in the Chinese-as-second language pedagogy game is beyond me.

    Taiwan would be far better served to use pinyin, enter an agreement with the HSK to offer a traditional character version, and market to its strengths, which are a better learning environment and an open, free society.

    I think you understate the problems created by multiple romanization systems. I would bet that most people who come to Taiwan to learn Chinese have the eventual goal of utilizing it in the PRC. By not adopting pinyin, Taiwan is making a long-term strategic error. What’s worse, it can’t even decide on any system. ICLP uses pinyin, which is what most of the other schools are going to have to do as well.

    The main thrust of the article is that Taiwan is the better place to learn Chinese, which may be true, but probably only if one attends ICLP (I attended it when it was still the Stanford Center). I also studied at the MTC at Taiwan Normal U, and although I had a very good experience there, I’ve heard it has gone drastically downhill in subsequent years.

    Finally, I have to question the statement made by Diana Freundl. I’ve never known anyone that learned to ‘read and write Chinese in 8 months’, at least a Westerner. Unless she had previous study that she isn’t mentioning, I don’t find that at all believable.

  2. PR, thanks for your comments. You make some good points. Taiwan has to stop continually reinventing the wheel with ever-changing pinyin systems and Chinese proficiency tests.

    Perhaps Diana Freundl studied Chinese in a previous life 🙂

  3. I second Prince Roy’s comments on romanization systems. I’ve seen 中 romanized as “zhong”, “zong”, “jong”, “jhong”, “chong”, and “jhorg”. While we could learn to adjust to Wade Guiles, if it were done correctly, we can’t adapt to no system. It was impossible for me to figure out some characters on signs in Guishan last year, and that was after already knowing 1500+ characters. Using traditional characters, though, isn’t really a problem at all. I’m pretty sure I could make the switch quickly if I moved.

    All in all, I liked the article until the last few paragraphs, at which point it stumbled a bit. Simplified characters are much easier to remember, at least in my experience, and Taiwan’s literacy rate is no where near 98%.

    Franc, you might be interested to know there already is a traditional character version of the HSK, and it’s offered in the US. I know someone who took a traditional version test in New York.

  4. When I mentioned pinyin systems I was referring more to what is used in the classroom rather than the mess on Taiwan’s street signs. One would expect that teachers of Chinese language would use whatever system correctly and consistently.

  5. After some experience at Shida, Taiwan’s largest center for teaching Chinese as a second language, I no longer have such lofty expectations. You know that series of books for foreigners that focus on culture and history? My first two books use Yale romanization, and the next several use MPS2. Naturally, some classes use standard pinyin, too, and other teachers shun everything except for zhuyin. Keep in mind that the vast majority of language students have a different teacher each semester, and also change text books frequently, too.

  6. Pingback: Prince Roy’s Realm » Blog Archive » Why Can’t Johnny 捲舌?

  7. China is always going to get the lion’s share of any advantages presented by the growing demand for learning Chinese, but it’s a shame to see Taiwan competing as dismally as it is.

    Seems to me that the main problem is an obvious lack of high-level coordination between government agencies, as well as pig-headed short-sightedness on the part of the people in decision-making positions.

    Maybe the people in charge at the Ministry of Education see foreigners coming here to study more as a tedious problem to be dealt with, rather than as a potential opportunity. Seems they remain more focused on the job opportunities that foreigners on student visas may be taking away from Taiwanese English teachers. Penny-wise and pound-foolish.

    Maybe the people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are loathe to make it any easier for foreigners to be able to feel secure about staying long-term.

    I think the article mentioned that the PRC grants year-long multiple-entry visas for students. Why would it be so hard for Taiwan to follow suit?

    The MOE should set up a task force to research the policies that are proving so sucessful in the PRC, and begin phasing in similar policies here.

    The PRC bureacracy often appears so backward. But in certain government ministries, they apparently do have people who know what they are doing.

    If the MOE doesn’t get its act together soon, then the best Taiwan-educated Mandarin teachers here may begin leaving to take good jobs in the West, or even in the PRC.

  8. Maybe the people in charge at the Ministry of Education see foreigners coming here to study more as a tedious problem to be dealt with, rather than as a potential opportunity. Seems they remain more focused on the job opportunities that foreigners on student visas may be taking away from Taiwanese English teachers. Penny-wise and pound-foolish.

    How true this statement is. It is just sad to see Taiwan continually marginalizing itself time after time (after time after time…..)

    BTW: I wrote an article to the TaipeiTimes back in 2005 in regards to Mandarin study, if interested: http://tinyurl.com/2mganv

    This is a golden opportunity for Taiwan to show the world who they are and to contribute something meaningful to humanity, but they just don’t see it. Selfishness and narrow-minded thinking once again dominates Taiwan administration.

    The visa issue is by far the biggest problem.

    Perhaps what they should do is not allow Taiwanese to have dual citizenship passports anymore. This way the government can save millions of dollar on the cheapskate Taiwanese that live in the USA (and elsewhere), but come back to Taiwan for expensive medical treatment. At least the foreigners that are here struggling to study contribute by putting all their money back into the local economy. (including expensive visa runs every 30 days). Taiwan has to stop looking at the small picture.

  9. As an online Mandarin Chinese instructor I have to face this issue almost everyday in email I receive from our listeners. It almost makes me laugh with anger. Most people in the west really don’t have any idea what the pros or cons of studying Mandarin Chinese on either side of the lake. The Zhuyifuhao vs. Pinyin topic boils down to which system is the widest accepted tool for learning the same language. This is not the same as teaching “color” vs. “colour.” Making something like MPS2 different just to make a point that you are different doesn’t hold water well.

    The muscles in charge have a hard time facing this debate. It’s well known that many of those who have control in this debate are just holding this 刀槍不如 tone for personal gain. Taiwan can’t compete with the fact that schools of Mandarin learning outside of Taiwan only use Pinyin. No point in putting up a fight.

    Now, the next issue may now come to the use of Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese characters. I went to college in Beijing and had characters poured down my throat. While studying in a history class, my classmate and I had to learn traditional characters. This is where we discovered a major fault with the Simplified Chinese form. To make things “simple” many simplified characters are used in place of characters that have the same sound….but not the same meaning! This sucks if you have to learn classic poems and other “higher” literature. This “simplifying” has taken away the art in many forms of classical Chinese writings. Which character set is harder to learn is another topic for discussion and another bowl of 豆漿。

    So both sides are adding to the language confusion.

  10. Perhaps standards have declined, but when I first studied Mandarin in Taiwan 8 months is about right– both I and most of my (fairly diligent) intensive course classmates were able to gain proficiency in speaking and basic reading ability in that time. And believe it or not, some of them were white people. Mandarin instruction used to be very good in Taiwan, but Taipei simply is not a good place to practice it. There are just too many “fake foreign devils” (假洋鬼子, as Lu Xun called them) in that city.

    Prince Roy again takes the side of China on this (and most other) issue, mistaking Taiwan for that other — yes, correct, much bigger! — other country, China. So, what gets left out again is that Zhuyin fuhao / bopomofo is universally used in Taiwan society, where foreign students are expected to live and adapt while they learn the language. Zhuyin is used on the cellphone you will buy and use here, it’s used on the computer you will buy and use here, it’s used in most of the educational texts for students that you can use to pick up vocabulary while learning to read (as I did), and it’s even used in casual conversations in the internet chatrooms you might want to visit to practice your Chinese in.

    Failure to learn it is, judging from the experience of my friends who haven’t yet, fairly crippling if you plan to stay in Taiwan any length of time. Face it, this isn’t China (yet) and there’s no reason why learning it is going to

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