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Go high or go low, go fast or go slow? Which class is for me...?


Gymnosopher
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Hey guys - I have a quick question that I'm hoping someone can advise me on re Chinese classes.

I have just started a semester-long full-time course studying in a university in Xi'an and am finding it hard deciding which level to stick with. As my only previous 'formal' study has been a month or 2 of evening classes spread out at long intervals over the past two years supplemented by a little on-and-off self study I was put into the level 1 class however as I'm a little more than absolute beginner (which all the other students in the group were) the teachers suggested I try the next level up to see if it suits me better.

Now I'll be the first to admit that my ability is pretty lop-sided, with reading and writing way down as study was previously less serious and more conversational, however I do seem to be in a position between the 2 levels and thus lies my dilemma. So here's hoping that someone else has had a similar experience and can point me in the right direction.

And for anyone that wants to have their 2c my initial opinion is this: a) if I go for level 1 then I may have 2/3/4 weeks (or more, depending on how fast slow the group moves) at really basic pronunciation practice before moving onto anything slightly newer for me. Of course, I'd be able to use my spare time to do other self-study. B) if I go for level 2 I'll be playing constant catchup. I tried the lesson today and they were definitely a bit much for me, I got maybe half of what was going on and other have 0.5-1.5 years dedicated study behind them. So not only will homework and prep be harder but I'll be trying to fill in my hanzi/ci gaps at the same time. Understandably this route will be much harder and more stressful though potentially more rewarding if I make it.

Extra background? 4 hours of study in the morning, I am living with my Chinese girlfriends family so in theory could get extra help/tuition from them.

Plan thus far? See if I can preserve with level 2 without getting so stressed that my enjoyment of the language is killed, otherwise drop back and take it easier.

Thanks for any replies in advance - I need to make my mind up before next week when groups are set for the semester. Wish me luck!

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I would suggest that you stick with level one. My opinion is to spend more time in the beginning getting the basics down such as proper pinyin pronounciation and learning how to learn new words with pinyin. Once you get that down, it's easy to self study later. Even if you were to finish level 2, you probably wouldn't be "that" much further along than level 1 other than a few more words and grammar. Good luck.

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I am in a pretty similar situation right now. My character and grammar knowledge is far ahead of my listening and conversational skills. And I am wondering whether I should take a lower level as indicated by my placement test results or opt for a higher one according to my word knowledge. I think I will go with the lower one for the first semester, since that would give me ample time to build my listening and speaking. I'd suggest you go with level 1.

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I'm also going to chime in with a vote for level 1, assuming that as you said, it'll only be the first few weeks that you're repeating.

It never hurts to go over the basics again and often by doing so you'll pick up things you missed out on before. On the other hand, it *will* hurt if you miss some of the basics due to trying to skip ahead. If you're serious about learning Chinese, you've got *years* of learning ahead of you. In that context, it seems silly to worry about a couple of weeks.

Anyway, in the first few weeks, you can use the extra time you would have spent doing homework to learn ahead in the textbook. This will mean by the time the rest of the class gets to that point, you'll already have an initial understanding on the text and going over it in class will help reinforce what you've learnt.

In my view you'll be far better off in the long run to build a solid foundation of the basics, rather than trying to rush over everything to get into a higher level, but then not understanding most things once you're there.

As mentioned at the top of the post, this advice only applies if most of the stuff in the level 1 classes will be new to you.

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My advice is to choose as difficult a class as you can handle. This assumes that you have time to spend on your own or wit helpful friends, thus enabling you to fill in the gaps you might have. During my own time studying Chinese full-time, I've done at least three such leaps into classes that are way above my level and have learnt an extraordinary amount of Chinese by doing so. How high a level you can manage depends on your willingness to spend time outside class and your ability to stay motivated even though you will probably have the worst Chinese in your class. I think a healthy attitude towards mistakes and failure is a good start. I've written quite a lot about this, check it out if you're interested:

About making mistakes

About being corrected

How to regard people who are better than you

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If you do stay in the lower class, explain to the teacher why you're doing it, and be careful you don't impact on the rest of the class by being ahead of them - someone using language not yet taught can be pretty discouraging for the rest of the class. I'd explain this to the teacher, and say you'll avoid doing that, but in exchange could he / she be very strict on correcting any mistakes you do make - that should give you a very solid basis by the time you're done.

If you do go up - is there the option to repeat the higher class if it doesn't work out - if so, you could do that, and if you have to repeat, you're not actually any further behind than where you would have been anyway. You'd want a chunk of discipline to makes sure you catch up on the basics, but you're a disciplined kind of guy, no?

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I guess it really comes down to where you lie in the spectrum between level 1 and level 2. If you think it's closer to 2 go for that. If it's closer to 1 then I think that will be better.

Otherwise, if you have the time, energy, and discipline to essentially catch up on a semester's worth of Chinese in a couple of weeks (certainly not impossible if you work hard because university classes tend to move quite slowly), then to me, I would also start wondering what was the point of continuing at university for the next level compared to just continuing disciplined self-study. Most of my Chinese has been learnt through self-study and I think it can be a viable option if you have the right discipline (I wish I had had more).

Anyway, in the one year of language studies I did at a university in Beijing (after I had been living in China and self-studying for a year), the first semester I placed into upper beginner but found the class too easy and so moved into intermediate. That was a good decision because my speaking/listening were at a higher level so I could follow along in class fine, it was just that my reading/writing weren't quite up to speed at that stage which resulted in a lower score on the placement test. These skills quickly caught up thoughout the semester so everything worked well.

The second semester I placed into advanced for speaking and upper-intermediate for reading/writing. I had decided however that I deserved to be in advanced for reading/writing too, and convinced the university to let me move up. It certainly didn't harm my Chinese, and I could keep up well enough in class, but for a long time I always felt there were gaps in things that I probably should have known, and looking back I can't help but think that at the time perhaps I would have been better off swallowing my pride and staying in upper-intermediate.

@Snigel, I really liked that third post of yours, and agree with everything in it - especially the bit about unicycles :D

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Thanks for all the insightful (even if contradictory!) advice, it's definitely given me a few extra angles to think about things. I suppose this comes to show it's not such a clear cut issue and depends on individuals and circumstances - along with mettle, pride, commitment and sanity... Yet part of me was a little happier when the initial polls urged for caution before a swing towards sink or swim and the return to choices to be made.

With regards to how long it would be before things are that new to me are the majority of level 1, well it's not straight forward (when is it ever?). For instance, say by lesson 14 in this text book there are plenty of hanzi to keep me going still only 1/3 of the ci are new to me and increasingly so after that (though familiar 'new words' seem to forever show up). However, that's not like 14 lessons of study in the same way that the general course has 5 lessons a week - as in level 2 thus far (3 classes in, though I missed the first and assume part was introductory and finding where they wanted to start in the book) 1 week may just about get past 1 lesson. The kick is that I'm here for one semester and think I heard that it ends on december 10th (I don't live on campus and seem to be without some primary information...) giving me exactly 14 weeks! To make things further confusing, the level 1 course continues in another text book upto lesson 30 and though level 2 starts at 31 they've decided to start at lesson 39.

Anyway, that's just some numbers/statistics/speculation for the curious, I didn't initially want to weigh down my post with so much but feel it sort of responds to what some people have said - that I feel more towards level 2 than 1, though not so much now that that level 2 is jumping ahead lessons. That the sheer number of lessons to try and cover may be more like 2 semesters meaning I'd need to work at more than triple speed. That the semester probably wouldn't finish level 2 and it is pretty far ahead That this can all weigh on ones mind and make swallowing ones pride not such a bad option :wink:

@imron, I was wondering whether anyone could speak from the other end of the spectrum having had such an experience and it sounds like your catching up with reading/writing chimes with my situation - though on balance it seems there's no definitive.

@roddy, I'm just doing one semester - so have the opportunity to repeat the higher class ad infinitum in self study afterwards :mrgreen: though this will be back at home no longer as a lao wai :D and whilst entering the rat race :-? requiring a whole different kind of devotion :shock: though to a less unwieldy master... What you mention about disturbing the lower class dynamic does give me some reason for concern too - the whole getting little out of the classes PoV.

@snigel, maybe I should take the opportunity here to regard those that are better than me huh? I suppose there is something to recognising limits though - I'd love to be able to work my butt off to pull through and yet though in more immersion than other students this seems to have it's drawbacks, for instance having the whole coming weekend out to be destroyed at a wedding... Anyway, I do like your blogs and have found hackingchinese quite insightful over the past couple of weeks - yet alas, in trying to be the good student I now find myself trying to cut back on the time I spend on here and the blogosphere and get out my books.

So where does this leave me? Still trying to plug away like a good little 学生 and waiting to see whether reading class tomorrow puts me over the edge!

Thanks again for all the advice, though still difficult in my situation I think it can't be that uncommon so may help others in the future too.

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If I were you, I would stick to level 1. I have seen many people who skip that level and they always have problems with pronunciation but if your pronunciation is good and you know some basic grammar then go to level 2. As far as I know level 1 and 2 in Chinese universities are pretty easy(but important). You can easily learn the rest of level 1's grammar and vocabulary by self-study or using a tutor.

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Well I think my basic grammar and pronunciation are okay but the thing is the 2 levels seem (to me) quite far apart - though perhaps that's telling enough of where my position is. Like I said above -hidden in the jumbo post- having reviewed all the textbooks I just feel that I am bang between the two and that this distance is a semesters worth alongside needing to learn so much hanzi I neglected to do so before, whilst as a series of textbooks the words I don't know having had less interest in learning are making a habit of showing up pretty often.

So despite the ubermensch approach advocated above I feel perhaps for me this is a leap too far, though if sticking with level 1 I could end my course having picked up little new knowledge but the hanzi I should/could review on my own...

Perhaps a u-turn is in order though - so I'm going to go and ask the teachers the speed their lessons are moving at and where this will leave me by the end of term.

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@Gymnosopher - I'll just list a few things that I would consider important in a "level 1" class. Again, I don't know what they teach at your level 1 class but these are the fundamentals in my mind:

1. Pronounciation - This is probably the best time to get it right. Don't overlook the mundane b, p, m, f, ... excercises. Tell the teacher that you want to sound like a native (or as close as possible) and that you want to get to a point where natives can not tell you are a foreigner over the phone. Sometimes, teachers (and native Chinese also) won't correct your pronounciation as much because they assume you are a foreigner and it's ok to have "foreigner" pronounciation. Tell them it's not ok. Think about it this way, if your pronouncing is wrong, you'll make the same mistake with every new word you learn. Why not get it right early on when you don't know that many words before you exponentially increase your mistakes?

2. Radical meanings and etymology - Learn about radical etymology and their meanings. This will help you in the future when you need to guess a character's meaning. For example, the character 月 means moon but as a radical, it also means "of the body". A lot of body part names use this radical such as 肚=belly, 肝=liver, 腿=leg, 心脏=heart (as the physical heart), etc. The reason why the radical 月 represents "of the body" is because it's a "simplification" (not to be confused with the PRC simplification of Chinese characters) of "肉" which means meat. This is the type of knowledge that can help you understand characters better in the future.

Another important part about knowing radicals is when you pronounce a character incorrectly, you can use the radicals to describe the actual character you are talking about. I can't tell you how often I have had to do this when talking to native speakers. Even native speakers do this with other native speakers, especially when describing proper names, names of places, etc. characters that have the same pronounciation but written differently.

3. Phonetic component in Chinese characters - Learn how to guess the pronounciation of a character from the phonetic component. This doesn't work all the time but it helps to know this method. Here's a better description:

http://eastasia.hawa...phoneticLee.pdf

Here's a link to a dicussion in this forum

http://www.chinese-f...ise-characters/

4. Stroke order - Get the basics of stroke order when writing. Even if you plan to use a computer to write later on, you might need to know the stroke order to input a word you see on a sign in a dictionary app for example. I don't assume everyone has an OCR app. From my experience using the handwriting tool in an iPad / iPhone to input Chinese characters into a dictionary app, I've found that even if the word looks right and my stroke order is wrong, the app won't recognize the word. But if your stroke order is right, even if the word looks cursive, the app will recognize it. (And yes, there is a cursive way to write Chinese characters)

5. Basic differences in simplified and traditional characters - Learn the basic differences in simplified and traditional characters. Unfortunately, this is something that they probably won't teach you in Mainland China. At the least, you should know how to recognize the simplified and traditional version of a radical. This will help you later on in recognizing whether a character is simplified or traditional. Wikipedia has a good link on the topic that you should read to understand the history.

6. Finally, read up on the history of Chinese language in general. I find this really interesting. I am not sure how much they will teach this to you at the "level 1" class but you can always surf the Internet or get a book on the topic. For example, what is Classical Chinese 古文 / 文言文 and how is it different from vernacular chinese 白话文.

Good luck.

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Just wanted to thank everyone above again for all your advice, thought I'd quickly offer my perspective one week in for reflection and anyone else who finds themselves in a similar situation.

In the end I tried level 1 again (perhaps I forgot how much further behind level 2 it seems) for 1 day and spoke to my teachers some more - I guess they know best about my course structure and where they felt I'd fit. They encouraged me to stick at level 2 in that it would literally be a waste of time for me to stay with level 1. I guess this really is a personal thing as you can't measure your ability by time - some people in level 1 have a years worth of studying chinese (and having spoken to their classmates it seems they're forcing classes on at a rate too fast for the beginners) and are starting the basics whilst others with that are 2 classes up. I feel it was good to get a feel for both classes and find out where I was at before making a final decision so would urge anyone else in the same position to feel things out.

Furthermore, though at the start (and at times still) it came across as overwhelming as I've settled in and got my study on it's not always so bad! Perhaps this is in line with the Snigel camp above that forcing a steep learning curve kicks your brain into learning mode or just that with the one courses are built to repeat and ram home material once you start to grasp it the initial struggle calms down - but either way perseverance seems to pay dividends. I suppose it's a case of wait and see whether anything missed in level one comes back to haunt me in this instance - though self-study grammar should be fine which leaves pronunciation as the clincher.

@jkhsu your list definitely seems interesting (and I'm trying to hunt down a eng-chn paper dictionary that lets me search by radicals) though incidentally aside from pronunciation and stroke order seems a bit aside from what seems to be taught. Either way, I'll check out the links you posted and try to get far enough down my to-do list for this sort of extra self-study. Next step is definitely to hit up the large bookstore when I have time - which seems to be an increasingly scare and precious commodity!

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I'm a big fan of steep learning curves, but in this particular case, I'd have advised for caution, primarily because of the pronunciation aspect, which is so utterly important and yet so utterly brushed aside by most learners.

But if your teachers urge you to go for the advanced class, then that's what you should do. Just make sure you work on the basic pronunciation too -- perhaps with a tutor. Chinese is not hard to pronounce if you nail it right at the beginning. Otherwise, it's years of struggling. That's one step you don't want to skip and where it pays to be a perfectionist at the very beginning.

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I wish I had read this earlier. I was in literally the same situation last week. I tested into a lower class than I thought was appropriate, but my skill imbalance was the opposite of yours. My reading comprehension is quite far ahead of my speaking and listening, and because of that my teacher thought it would be best for me to stay at the level I tested into so I could get my 聽力 and 口語 up to speed. And at this point, I'm glad I did. I sat in on a class that was one up from my level and everyone spoke pretty well, so I think it would have been a real struggle. I'm in an intensive course, which I'd guess moves about 50% faster than the regular courses, so I'm not worried about falling behind where I think I "should" be. They tell me that by the end of three terms (one academic year since they're on the quarter system here) I'll have done the newspaper reading class or something equivalent, and if I stick around a second year I'll be able to take 2-3 terms of 文言文. Which would be awesome.

Anyway, I think it sounds like you made a good choice. I did the opposite thing because I had the opposite problem, and I'm happy with my choice. 加油!

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My reading comprehension is quite far ahead of my speaking and listening, and because of that my teacher thought it would be best for me to stay at the level I tested into so I could get my 聽力 and 口語 up to speed

It would also seem you're in Taiwan using all that traditional character jazz - so I guess the imbalance of reading and listening is pretty wide if you're up on that.

Anyway, just goes to show that teacher knows best ;)

Best of luck to you in this stage of your chinesequest!

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