Category Archives: Chinese

The Value of the Beginner Language Class

In my junior year of college I enrolled in two language classes: one for Japanese and one for Chinese. For Japanese I enrolled in something called “Advanced Integrative Japanese”, which was a fancy way of saying “fourth-year Japanese class.” And as a complete beginner in Chinese, I also signed up for the “Chinese 101” class that I’m sure is offered at colleges around the world.

One thing I have noticed is that language classes get a lot of flack on the Internet, perhaps unsurprisingly by the self-studying crowd, which tends to be especially active on online forums and blogs. Traditional classes are often shunned as obsolete relics of the past, and perhaps that’s because of the breadth of material we have at our fingertips. After all, we’re all on the internet now, and we have (especially as a self-studier) more access to native-language material than ever before. Three popular blog posts come to mind that are particularly critical of language classes:

Why Language Classes Don’t Work: How to Cut Classes and Double Your Learning Rate (4-hour work week)

Classes Suck (AJATT)

Using AJATT to Pwn Japanese Classes (Which Still Suck) (AJATT, again)

There are a lot of good points in all of these posts, but their messages are similar: classes slow you down, and that the fastest way to learn is through native interaction, either with native speakers or native materials. The post on 4-hour Work Week is especially critical of classes when it claims that classes merely create “the illusion of progress” for students who are too lazy/scared/uninterested in using the language in the real world through interactions with native speakers.

This seems particularly true of most students who are forced to learn a foreign language they’re not really interested in, such as in high school. Often the only real speaking practice that goes on for languages learned in high school classes ends up occurring in the classroom, and as a result the language is merely treated as another academic subject that will be quickly forgotten by the end of the year. I certainly don’t remember every fact that I used to have memorized when I took American History back in high school, and that’s because I don’t constantly place myself in an environment where I would need to recall any of those previously memorized pieces of information. The same goes even more so for foreign languages. If I don’t care about the material enough to study it beyond what is presented in class, then the best teacher in the world is not going make a difference.

That’s why language classes outside of a mandatory curriculum are so much better—that is, classes taken in college by choice—and why I think they deserve more credit. These classes are populated (ideally) by students who, for some reason or another, care about taking the class. That means that even when the class ends, the studying goes on. Especially at the beginner level these students want to learn the language on some level, and are ready to dive in.

The Beginner Language Class – A Time-Wasting Hell of Poor Speakers or A Bastion of Language Learning?

My Chinese language class had the following format: once a day, 5 days a week, about 10 people in the room. The teacher puts a new grammar structure up on the board and asks a question—in Chinese, of course—to one of the students at random. He answers. She asks another person a related question. He stumbles, she starts the sentence for him, he finishes it. She tells another student to ask the person next to him a related question. That person answers. And so on.

The in-class pace is fast, and the content is all speaking. There’s no writing during this class, no worksheets, and no handouts—that’s for your own practice as homework to be done outside of class. The textbook is a collection of ~30 conversations presented in both English and Chinese, with grammar notes explained in English and Chinese on subsequent pages. Homework involves memorizing the current week’s conversation, translating short paragraphs in English to Chinese (there’s your writing practice), memorizing short speeches in Chinese that you’ve written, and being able to transcribe short spoken sentences into Chinese characters. There’s a comprehensive quiz every week.

That was my Chinese Class, and for me it was awesome. I learned a lot, and I probably made as much progress as an average student does in 1-3 years of Chinese in high school. Seriously, it was hardcore.

Study the Language to Study the Language

I’m raving about my Chinese 101 class, but now let’s flash forward 1 year after finishing it. The result? I have forgotten most of what I learned. If I walked into my Chinese 101 final today I know I would surely fail; it has literally been over a year since I studied or engaged in the Chinese language in any serious way.

So does that prove the “class haters” points? After all, I took a class and now have few results to show from it—surely that means classes don’t matter. And if I can’t remember any Chinese, doesn’t that mean I’m in the same place as where I was after finishing my Spanish classes in high school? The answer, however, is no; and it’s because my mindset is quite different. Let me explain.

The Chinese class mattered because I’m still excited about picking up Chinese at some point in the future. Had I not taken the class, I might have had a vague desire to start learning at some point, but no language foundation or starting momentum. On the other hand, I have no desire whatsoever to study Spanish, regardless of how “useful” it is considered. The difference here is that the Chinese class instilled an interest in the Chinese language. I made rapid progress during the class and I feel confident I could do it again. I enjoyed speaking in Chinese and would love to be able to do it again at a higher level. There were very few lessons on “culture” in my Chinese class, but that’s because the class made the language challenging and interesting enough to be worth studying because it was fun. In other words, I studied Chinese because I wanted to become a beast at Chinese.

In my high school Spanish classes, the teachers tried to introduce students to Spanish culture, music, etc, as an attempt to give us reasons to study the language. While I understand the reasoning, I tuned most of it out. I didn’t give a damn about Cinco de Mayo, and it just turned me off to studying if this was supposed the “fun” part of the language. I should first be excited about studying the language because I simply like studying the language. For me, this is the purest and best form of motivation, and it’s something that a good class can do for a student. Cultural/native-language stuff like movies and music can be found on one’s own and can come later once the student has a decent foundation to actually make sense of the material.

Plus, since cultural stuff has to do a lot with personal taste—I would rather have my eyebrows plucked out than be forced to learn about traditional Japanese festivals and ancient shrines—trying to appeal to everyone in a single class is impossible. Classes in the beginner level, therefore, should focus on making the language challenging and interesting. And because an entire language can’t be taught in a single class, the goal should be to provide motivation and basis for further study if the student chooses to do so. Chinese 101 did that well.

Later I want to talk a little more about “Advanced language classes”, something I feel could be done a lot better than what I have experienced so far in my study of the language. Until next time…



Filed under Chinese, Japan, Japanese, Language, Self-studying

New Challenger: Chinese

I’m not good at updating blogs. They’re too easy to ignore and I’m too good at procrastinating. And it’s not just blogs either; emails, Facebook messages, texts—you name it and I’ll be sure to read it and not reply. Oh sure, I’ll think of a brilliant reply in my head, and carefully formulate exactly what it is I want to say, but I won’t write it down. My friends who wonder why I take so long to reply sometimes hate me for it. I swear it’s a curse.

But putting that aside (after all, I’m blogging right now!), I’ve decided to blog today to talk about two things near and dear to my heart:

  • I passed the JLPT N1 (that’s the highest level)
  • I am going to start learning Chinese again more seriously, this time through self-studying.

I have always been a Japanese language focused person, but seeing that I have been able to come pretty far with Japanese gives me hope I’ll be able to something similar with Chinese. Perhaps not to the same level and not at the same rate as Japanese, simply because I actively sought out study-abroad opportunities in Japan throughout college and pursued every one of them and that’s not possible time-wise with Chinese, but I think If I worked hard enough I could get to a level I could be satisfied with. Hopefully.

But let’s start with the good news — the JLPT passing and all that jazziness.


If you’re reading this you probably have a good idea what the JLPT is, but it’s a test designed for foreign speakers of Japanese to test their proficiency in the language. The test only measures reading, grammar and listening skills, with no writing or speaking portions in the test whatsoever. As someone who believes their strongest abilities lie in speaking I think that’s a huge mistake, but it’s a widely recognized test by employers (at least while going to various career forums in Japan and abroad, required Japanese level nearly always tended to be measured in JLPT score, with N1 corresponding to “Native” in many cases, although I wouldn’t agree with that).

So I took the test in July while I was in Japan—I remember quite vividly that it was humid as balls, and that on top of this I was taking the test at a college with a giant campus, meaning even more thick layers of humidity to swim through before I made it to the thankfully air-conditioned testing room.

I also remember that after finishing the test I was 99.999% sure that I did not pass. Because even though I had purchased a few test prep books, namely the Kanzen Master Series, (which I was wary of buying at first because of the massive hype it has online, but it really does live up to it), I barely touched the books due to poor time management up until the day of the test. I had gone through about 1/3 of the Kanji book and 1/2 the grammar book, but don’t ask me if I remembered anything on test day. I simply cursed myself for not having prepared more throughly and walked away from the testing site in what I’m sure was some sort of melancholy daze.

And then I didn’t think too much about the test after that, telling everyone that “yeah, I took it, but will probably take it again because I don’t think I passed.” A total no-confidence answer, which couldn’t have prepared me for what came next:


With the applicant number edited out for security reasons (?)

Result: passed

It floored me. I didn’t check the results until the beginning of September (even though they were released on August 27th), assuming I had failed. I simply checked only because I was preparing to sign up for the December exam and I wanted to see how much more I would need to study.

I should point out one thing about my result, which is of course the ROFLOLOLMAO score of 100/180. Because it’s literally the lowest score you can get on the exam and still pass. One question more wrong and I would have failed. In fact, probably even less than that considering the exam is curved.

But I still passed, bitches.

So what do I do now? Well, as a professor at the University of Kyoto points out in a page on his website about how he passed the TOEIC exam with a perfect score:


Or in English, “people who get perfect scores on the TOEIC are a dime a dozen.” I don’t know about that, but it’s what motivated the guy to get a perfect score on the TOEFL as well. He’s certainly pretty darn badass at English. But what I’m trying to get at is that it’s the same (and probably even worse) for people who pass N1 as well:

People who pass the JLPT (N1) are a dime a dozen. And for me, I’m still not as good as I want to be. There are still so many words to know, and so many more ways in which I could get more fluent at speaking. I don’t consider being able to do Japanese some kind of parlor trick to impress Japanese people—I’m in it to actually learn it, and being at some arbitrary line in skill level as determined by a test doesn’t really mean much to me. It’s time to move on to bigger and better stuff: Novels, newspaper articles, TV shows—anything I can get my grubby foreigner paws on. I didn’t come this far to call it quits just yet.

Learning Chinese: An exercise in motivating myself… again

So I have been wanting to learn Chinese for some time now, and I even started Chinese at college two years back to get myself going. Furthermore, because my school probably offers one of the best Chinese language curriculums in the country, I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much when I say I got a fine introduction to the language at an intense pace unlikely found at many other places.

But then I studied abroad in Japan for a year and have since forgotten almost everything (at least production-wise).

Oh great.

So I find myself in a bit of a crappy position: I am currently in my last year in college and could take the next level of Chinese, but it would require me to play a huge amount of catch-up in terms of material to re-learn, all while trying to keep pace with kids who are more fresh and who have more free time to study. I feel like by not taking Chinese this year I’m turning down a super hot girlfriend who simply is too needy when I don’t have a lot of free time. Or something.

At any rate, this sucks.

So I’ve decided to study Chinese on my own and chronicle my attempts at doing so on this blog assuming I don’t run out of enthusiasm along the way. I think it will also be a good exercise for me to practice various language-learning techniques and programs,  see what really works for me, and discover if there are new ways of studying I should pay attention to. This will be all super beginner stuff, and I’ll be using a Chinese language textbook called “First Step” that I purchased from the Chinese department, as I don’t think it has actually been published yet officially. That makes me cool, by the way.

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Filed under Chinese, Japanese, Language, Self-studying