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andrespi

Mandarin course at university: extremely hard

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andrespi

Hi,

so I just finished my first year in a university in UK (I'm italian, so I can udnerstand english quite well but it's not my mother tongue). I'm doing a BA in International relations and Chinese (joint degree). I have been extremely unsatisfied with my chinese course. They told us (at the beginning of the year and during the open day) that the course was suitable for a complete beginner and if one studies hard enough he could get good scores. But now I found out that it wasn't true for the following reasons:

1) Out of 20 people, 3 persons didn't pass. Half of the class (people who were complete beginners like me) got a bare pass (which is bad if I want to get a good degree in UK), and the other half of the class are people who studied chinese for years or have lived in China. I'm really demotivated, because I didn't pass my final exam for 3 points, but I passed all the other exams during the year. During the year I studied between 10 and 15 hours per week (only for chinese, not including lectures and without the other IR modules and lectures)

2) In the course they didn't teach us radicals, we have no idea of what they are or how to identify them. We just have to learn about 40 characters for week without knowing how they are composed by radicals.

3) They didn't teach us how to use a dictionary looking up a character (I had to buy one for myself because they didn't even tell us to buy one). Because since we NEVER did radicals we can't find a character without its pronunciation. We can look for the pinyin, but we are not able to find characters (because of our lack of knowledge on radicals).

4) If we complain about not being able to use a dictionary, they say we don't need one and we must use a touch screen phone to "paint" the character on NCIKU. Which is a joke, since so many times we are not able to find the one we are looking for or it takes forever. I had to buy a dictionary on my own and use it by myself at home.

5) we did in the first year the first two full volumes of NPCR (new practical chinese reader) and on top of that every week teachers gave us 1 or 2 additional papers with other characters or structures to learn. To me this seemed way too much. we did on average about 40 characters per week. For people studying with NPCR, how many volumes did you do in a year? 1 or 2?

Also we didn't use an additional grammar book, but only the NPCR volumes, which are a nightmare to revise quickly only the grammar points. I bought during the second semester a grammar book (Basic chinese - routledge by Yip po ching and rimmington) by myself, even though they said we didn't need to buy one. It helped me a lot.

6) in this first year we are required to master something like 700 characters, if not more. To me it seems way too much for a university course (considering that I do also IR and it's only a joint degree in chinese), considering that we do other modules.

I would like to know how was your course? How did you study it? I'm really regretting do it, and I would like to understand if it's just our course that it's unbalanced7bad organized or also in other places/courses/uni it is that hard. consider that we have other modules (chinese literature, history and IR modules).

I really studied like crazy during the year (on average 15 hours per week only for chinese), but I feel so demotivated now. I managed to pass all Chiense examinations during the year (but I didn't pass the final exam for 3 points), in the IR modules I got great scores (first class). My lowest module is Chinese right now.

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Wang7

Congratulations for completing and passing your first year of university studies. As far as your Mandarin course work is concerned, "I feel your pain," because I was equally as frustrated with the completion of my first year of Mandarin. However, the frustration that I experienced motivated me to study better and smarter. Like the saying goes; "no pain, no gain." I think when you have time to deconstruct what you have learned you feel better about this year's experience.

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andrespi

I don't know, i'm seriously thinking of changing degree and going to single honours IR or IR with spanish. And maybe do in the future just an intensive course in the future, directly in china. Or just study chinese outside university in private courses or at languages centres.

I fear that if next year the course will be so disorganized and hard as it was this year, I may not be able to cope: especially considering that next year I will have to work part-time.

I started with a lot of good intentions and motivation, but at the end of this first year I'm really demotivated.

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abcdefg

Not sure how to say this gently, but 700 characters for a year of study doesn't sound like much. Are you sure your study methods are efficient and are you sure you are using the best tools available?

Might be more productive to look hard at issues like that than to blame the school and your teachers.

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imron

700 a year is a bit less than 2 a day, however the OP mentioned 40 a week, so perhaps what the school said they expected and what actually happened were different.

Anyway, I agree with abcdefg that 700 a year is not an unreasonable amount. Even 40 a week is not so bad, that works out to 5-6 a day, which is the amount I would typically recommend if someone is looking for a long-term sustainable rate.

It would be well worth investigating your study methods and tools, including the use of SRS and flashcard software and the like. If you have a smartphone (iOS or Android) I would also recommend looking into something like Pleco - it's far better than trying to draw the character using nciku.

Finally, I'm not sure how you were spending that 15 hours a week, and whether it was 2 hours a day each day, or if it was 7 hours each on the weekends and then nothing until the next weekend, but personally I've found that an hour a day, everyday, is more productive than long bursts of studying following by a break of a few days, followed by more longs bursts of studying and so on.

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andrespi

That is an academic year, at a UK uni for a bachelor degree, not an intensive course at a private school with a full year. An academic year at my uni is composed by 24 weeks only. (and I think also in other UK unis it's about the same).

There are 2 readings weeks for semester (used for exams, revision and feedback), so there are are only 20 real weeks for every academic year.

And this was together with other modules (in english), I'm talking of 2 other modules for chinese culture, and 2 other modules for IR.

I started in september and finished in april (so it's not a full year), as I said this an academic year. The exams were in May.

usually I did (for chinese) one hour per day of independent study during the week (usually in the evenings) because the morning and early afternoon I have lectures (of both Chinese and IR) and then during the weekend I did most of my studying.

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skylee

What are the objectives/expected learning outcomes of this Chinese degree programme? If, say, you are expected to be able to read a Chinese newspaper article without using a dictionary and understand an episode of TV soap opera before you get your Chinese degree, or achieving a certain level of the HSK, do you think the requirement of learning 700 characters in the first year is unreasonable?

I think that at university a student is expected to rely more on himself than waiting for the teachers' instructions. Is this not true?

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li3wei1

imron and abcdefg, 700 a year is certainly reasonable once you're at a certain level, but this is first year we're talking about, when you're also getting your head around the grammar, and every character seems strange. I don't remember how many I learned in my first year, but I do remember my second year it was ramped way up (and crammed into 9 weeks at Middlebury).

The Open University's 1st year course is based on around 500 characters, and it lasts a full year. Many of the students find it hard going.

I would also say that if the OP's description is accurate, it is not very well taught. No mention of radicals, or explanation of how to use a dictionary? That's like not explaining tones and just expecting people to pick them up.

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abcdefg

I'm not trying to put the OP down in any way. And I agree the course sounds like it was not well taught. Only trying to come up with constructive suggestions on how to cope better with a difficult situation via beefed up study methods and tools.

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imron
not an intensive course at a private school with a full year

The amounts I quoted are what I would recommend for people self studying the language and who don't have more than maybe an hour a day they can commit to studying due to other life commitments. For an intensive full-year course at a private school, my expectations would be higher.

In any case, I still don't think it's an unreasonable amount. September to April is 8 months or approximately 240 days. For 700 hundred a 'year' that still works out to under 3 a day. The weekly figure doesn't change. Note I also include time between the end of the semester and the beginning of the next, because if you want to learn it well, Chinese is not something you can just put down for several weeks over the holidays unless you're happy to forget large amounts of what you've learnt - especially at the beginner levels, and there's nothing to stop you reading ahead in the text book over the break.

An hour a day outside of classes is a good minimum amount to study, and I think should allow you to reach those targets quite comfortably if you are using things like flashcards and SRS to help with revision, so it might be worth investigating such tools if you haven't already.

I agree that not teaching radicals or how to use a dictionary doesn't exactly make it the best sounding course ever, but one volume of a text book per semester doesn't strike me as unreasonable. Maybe it has just been too long since I was a beginner.

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jiacheng

This sounds like Chinese style education in the UK :mrgreen: . I myself have encountered some very unsatisfactory teaching recently, so I can completely identify. My first university experience was much more leisurely, 3 classes per week, 1 hour per class. We completed the original PCR v1 in one year. I think the rate at which your learning is reasonable if you are spending 5-6 hours a week in class and I would think that 15 hours of study time per week should be sufficient. I will list some advice below.

1. Do not rely on your teachers to give you any insightful study methods. In my experience, many of them are totally clueless about what is required of foreigners to learn chinese. Take some time to investigate new methods. Learn to use new tools on your own because your teachers are unlikely to have any knowledge of them.

2. It's already been mentioned by others here, but use some type of SRS religiously.

3. Preview vocabulary from future lessons. You have the advantage of using a graded reader like NPCR, so take advantage of this. In the end, you study the same amount, but you will get much more out of your classes and feel more encouraged if you have seen the new vocabulary ahead of the lesson.

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andrespi

Surely part of the fault is mine. i can surely improve my study methods. for example I started using flashcards only on the second semester.

And i should have informed myself better (from other students) on the difficulty of balancing Chinese with IR. I probably relied too much on what the uni reps told me during the open day.

Also about the breaks, I never stopped during christmas holiday to study, but i have to be honest i studied Chinese a lot less during christmas holiday, after all I also had essays to start for IR modules. I continued studying during holidays (so outside the 20 teaching weeks which I described in my previous post) but I studied Chinese less than usual because I had to focus on my other modules.

@jiacheng: yeah, my teachers too were really clueless about different study methods.

For chinese language we did about 6 hours per week of lectures.

I'm not sure what is this SRS, to be honest.

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renzhe
For people studying with NPCR, how many volumes did you do in a year? 1 or 2?

NPCR is designed so you use one volume per semester, or two per academic year.

I studied NPCR on my own, so it might not be relevant, but I went through one lesson per week, or one volume in about 2.5 months. I should point out, though, that I already knew over 1000 characters when I started NPCR, which helped immensely.

in this first year we are required to master something like 700 characters, if not more. To me it seems way too much for a university course

This seems rather slow, or at least average. You need at least 3500 to be functionally literate at a level worthy of a university degree (reading newspapers and easy literature easily). Chinese is simply a subject which takes lots of daily work.

I can't comment on the quality of the course, it's quite likely that it has serious problems, and doesn't let you in on a lot of useful tools like Spaced Repetition Flashcard Software (SRS), or recommend good grammar books, or have feudal ways of teaching characters. But even with the best tools, it will be at least 10-15 hours of study per week, for many years. The workload you mention does not sound excessive to me, and is easier than some of the programmes my friends went through when studying Chinese at university level.

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andrespi

MAybe then it's just me that I'm not fit/suitable into studying Chinese. I mean I studied English and Spanish before and never had a problem, but for chinese it's a whole different story. Probably it's just that I'm not fit for this language and the workload. It's quite sad, I really started with the best intentions because I was really interested in China. And I even planned to move one day to China.

But it seems I'm just not fit for this workload, since so many people/users say that the one we did is just an average or even "easy" workload.

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jiacheng

andrespi,

Don't let a poorly organized course demotivate you. Chinese is something that will take years to master, so progress is not going to be anything like Spanish or English, but that doesn't mean you're not capable. Read up in these forums about SRS because it can make a huge difference.

It sucks that your Initial experience had to be like this, but you need to take the attitude that you are going to learn Chinese no matter what. If the class is good, go to class. If not, find another way. The ability to study Chinese indeoendently is a huge asset. I have sometimes even skipped classes because I felt they got in the way of my studying. My oral Chinese class this past semester was garbage. He teacher has absolutely no clue how people learn. My solution was to make that class my lowest priority and concentrate on my other classes. I skipped the midterm and final exams as sort of a protest and it felt really good. I feel more motivated than ever to study and am eager start my classes next semester.

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yonglin

I think the first-year modules don't actually count towards your final degree classification, no? At least they didn't at my university in the UK.

It seems somewhat strange that people with such different backgrounds were put in the same level language class... are they strapped for cash or something...?

I guess it's *big decision time*, and you have two options:

1. Change your degree course, dropping the Chinese

2. Stick with the Chinese, making a *thorough* effort to catch up. You can do self-studying over the summer, and maybe it's not even too late to apply for an intensive summer course, preferably in China/Taiwan. I think a couple of months in a Chinese speaking environment would probably help immensely in preparing for your second year. This really isn't *too expensive* (especially if you choose a second/third-tier city), and would be a good investment I think.

By the way, I was never taught radicals either, but had a one-hour or so class learning the basic five(?) strokes. I don't think that learning how to look up characters in a paper dictionary should be a top priority in a 2012 Chinese course given the large number of electronic/computer based dictionaries rendering this skill redundant.

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andrespi

@yonglin: - yeah, first year modules don't count, but Chinese next year would if I continue on this degree. And I couldn't see myself getting better scores than this year if the pace was the same 8especially considering I would have to work part-time.

- there are different levels/class, mine was for complete beginners, the problem is that people during enrolment (at the beginning of the year when they test their language level) just lie, saying they have never done it before or that they haven't spoken in it for years (or that they just don't remember), and ask to be put on the easieast level, even though it's not true and they studied it before (or lived in china).

Yeah I contacted today my course leader (he answered just a few hours ago), it seems I may be able to switch to single honours IR, and drop chinese without too many penalties (I would have to do an extra module in the next two years to compensate). I still have to decide, but I will think about it in the next few days

It seems I will go this way, and drop chinese from the name of the degree and maybe do it as an optional module next year (i'm not sure if they will allow me to register for that module, since places are limited) or in the third year in the worst case.

Anyway thanks to everybody.

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Lugubert

Too different systems to make direct comparisons. First, for a Swedish academic year, it's supposed that you study (in class plus on your own) for 40 hours per week for 40 weeks. For 1st-3rd semester Chinese, I had 9 teacher hours per week. We were for 1st and 2nd semester supposed to learn at least some 500 characters per semester.

Understanding radicals and dictionary lookup were totally basic. And fun! We weren't even told that there were electronic gadgets. BTW, how could we even have acquired such things as beginners a deade plus ago? We sure did not have the expertise or economy to find and import them from China. Students of Japanese had some info, and there were more of them, and many of not most were students of Business school, but I still doubt that too many went for those gadgets because of the price. I invested in Wenlin for my PC in my 3rd semester. Well spent money.

Knowing how to look up in a dictionary might sound old-fashioned, but it isn't more outdated than knowing how to use your alphabet for looking up in dictionaries or thesauruses. And if you aim at higher levels, sooner or later you'll have to use paper stuff for specialized vocabulary or proper names. Also, being able to identify the parts of a character will make it much easier to memorize word families and why and how they connect.

I'm a chemist (M.Chem.Eng.), and I just love the Chinese chemical names. If an element has the 'metal' radical 金, it's a metal, if the radical is 'stone' 石, it's a non-metal, if it's 'gas' 气, it's a gas.

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li3wei1

Just as a matter of trivia, the Yale Chinese 110 and 120 courses cover a total of 549 characters. I'm assuming that you do both in one year.

I also remember intense frustration at all the 'heritage learners' breezing through my university Chinese courses.

Make whatever decision you have to make about your path through university, and then make another decision about whether, and how, you're going to study Chinese.

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jbradfor
In the course they didn't teach us radicals, we have no idea of what they are or how to identify them. We just have to learn about 40 characters for week without knowing how they are composed by radicals.

I'm pretty sure I was never taught that either. Not as a put-down again, but don't radicals (and, much much more importantly, the fact that most characters are composed of a couple hundred smaller parts put together in different ways) become rather obvious after 300-400 characters?

Maybe they should teach it? I don't really know. At the beginning level, all they can really say is to be aware of radicals and how characters are decomposed into smaller parts. Would that really have helped much?

What I personally wish they had taught earlier is that the vast majority of characters (especially past 750 or so) are composed of radical - phonetic parts. Again, I eventually figured that out on my own, but someone pointing that out to me earlier would have saved me some time.

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