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Zeppa

Intermediate Mandarin classes in London (1) SOAS

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Zeppa

I mentioned in another thread that I have been doing an evening class at SOAS in London, and Roddy thought others might be interested in my comments on SOAS and Meridian.

 

Perhaps I should start by saying that I don't believe any 2-hour course once a week is going to be enough, so I hope I can keep up with a class without using all my Chinese learning time for the whole week.

After learning Chinese beyond A level a long time ago, I started again in 2012, first at an evening class in Nuremberg using the German version of Chinese Conversation 301, then in spring 2014 at SOAS using Chinese in Steps Book 3, in summer 2014 at Meridian using A Trip to China, and in autumn 2014 at SOAS again using Chinese in Steps Book 4, which we’ve just finished (are going on to A Trip fo China).

I think the most important thing about a class is that the teacher and the other students are good. So it would be good to try a class in advance, but it’s rare to be able to try a class without paying ifor the whole term first.

SOAS: spring 2014 - Lower Intermediate 1: well-lit room, good tables, audio equipment excellent. Teacher would write characters and pinyin on whiteboard in different colours. He could also use a projector from the computer.
Teacher starts by a bit of conversation with all of us. Very lively and interested teacher (he can be seen on SOAS website video, but in winter 2014/2015 the furniture doesn’t look like that), involved us all in the discussion.

The SOAS book Chinese in Steps has the advantage of accompanying CDs. It has a full key. For the listening exercises, you can find character texts in the back, and for the dialogues and texts you can find the pinyin. I don’t use the key much, but if I don’t understand an exercise, it really helps.

Pro: excellent teacher, varied exercises, good access to audio and computer materials, textbook has a lot of self-help elements and accompanying CD (although the audio sections are oddly divided by a Christmas carol tune, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen).
Contra: Not much feedback on written homework, but what can you do in 2 hours?

 

Meridian: summer 2014. I couldn't manage the Monday evening in the summer, so I went to Meridian instead. But I will write about that in a second message.

SOAS: winter 2014 - Lower Intermediate 3: The class is a bit too difficult for me. I wanted to go into a level 2 class, but there weren’t enough enrolments so I took this one.

Because of rebuilding we have a room which is not very good, no big tables and the folding table attached to each chair is not big enough to spread out book, paper and smartphone (for Pleco), all rather uncomfortable. Teacher writes a lot on whiteboard, but you can’t see it well from every chair. I haven’t heard any audio or seen any video excepr audio for the end-of-term test.
Teacher speaks Chinese all the time, of which I understand some but not all. She sometimes asks us questions and gives extra vocabulary. One problem is that she ploughs through the chapters at a rate of knots, relentlessly. I can’t work out if this is because she wants to get the book finished.

There are problems with the book which I didn’t anticipate. There is increasingly vocabulary which is both totally new and not introduced in the vocabulary lists. Either the book was published too hastily, or it is intentional. If we were studying Chinese 5 days a week, this would make sense, but it doubles up the preparation time. In addition, some of the characters in the exercises I need a magnifying glass to read - they are a bit blurred.
The teacher says that A Trip to China is easier.

Pro: good teacher, varied exercises, speaks Chinese all the time.
Con: Book 4 is not suitable for once-a-week lessons. I think the teacher was obliged to use it. Rate of progress was very fast, too fast not only for me, I think. If I missed a class I risked being totally lost the next week. Unsuitable furniture, little use of media.
 

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Shelley

Interesting.Thank you for posting this.

 

I used the Chinese in Steps books when I did my evening classes at the university of Southampton. I found them quite good. I didn't realise they were used by SOAS.

 

I have to agree about the speed of the classes, we had to get through one entire chapter in a 2 hour lesson. As you say I learnt to do some prep to get the most out of the class.

 

I know it is not very important part of the books and in no way takes away from their usefulness, but I hated the drawings. They just didn't come up to the standard of the rest of the book for me. I know its "a style" and all that, but still not for me.

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Zeppa

Thanks for the comments, Shelley.

Chinese in Steps was developed by SOAS and European Business School London. There was an earlier SOAS book which was developed by the same (main?) author, George X. Zhang, together with David Su Liqun who now runs Meridian but taught at SOAS before. It was Book 4 of Chinese in Steps I found disappointing - Book 3 was fine.

 

About the drawings - you are so right: all Chinese books produced by Chinese authors/publishers seem to have that kind of drawing. For example, the new series of readers produced by Sinosplice also have drawings like that. As for Chinese Conversation 301, it actually has a crummy drawing depicting Hallowe'en pumpkins which is supposed to show Christmas decorations!

 

Another thing most of those books have in common is that it appears no native speaker of English read it through. some of the translations of words, and quite a few of the sentences, are in mystifying English. For example, we just did an end-of-term test where we had to choose the correct Chinese sentence translating an English sentence. One of the English sentences was 'You are unable to come out within a couple of hours'. Hmm.

 

It's also great having teachers from Beijing or other parts of northern China, but when we translate sentences into English in class they not only want a word-for-word translation, which is understandable, but they want the final version to be very literal and not slightly free, the way you would do it in English.

 

I am just going to try an intermediate book from Yale University Press by Julian K. Wheatley, Learning Chinese - Intermediate Level, published in 2014. It has masses of pinyin, with a version in traditional and simplified characters at the bag, and lots of cultural information. I am tending to feeling that learning a lot of Chinese with pinyin and speaking is a good separate stage from concentrating on characters and reading. I think the SOAS and Meridian method of expecting you to take in a lot of new words in the form of characters is too concentrated, and makes it hard to learn either the meaning or the characters thoroughly. 

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Johnny20270

Interesting review, thanks for sharing.

 

I too went to SOAS for about 8 weeks and quit. I can compare it to a language school in Beijing. I found SOAS teachers very good but to be honest the whole, experience was pretty useless for one main reason,. Just too many in the class. Personally I think anything above 4 is not great, 6 at a max

 

I would never recommend SOAS to anyone but its just one opinion. Glad to see you had better time than I :)

 

How many ways in your class?

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Zeppa

Thank you, Johnny.

 

I know what you mean about class size. In the first SOAS class I was in, there tended to be about 4 there, although there may have been 6 in the class.

The second class started with about 14, which was definitely too many, and made worse by the constricting furniture. It had dwindled to 3 or 4 by the end of the term, and as I said, only two of us signed up for the next term, which was cancelled.

The class was definitely too big, but on top of that and perhaps not only because of that, the teacher didn't really focus on the individual students.
I don't mind there being 8 or 10 in a class if the teacher is good, but this is because I would hope that class is not my only contact with learning chinese during the week.

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AaronUK

@amytheorangutan Hey Amy! Thank you for the reviews. How as your Chinese progressed since you started? what type of things have you been learning in class that you enjoyed?

 

Regarding number of people in classes, I had a friend at another school who told me her class had stopped at SOAS due to lack of students interest for intermediate. I think there is a problem with Chinese learning in general that lots of people giving up after beginner level.

 

For classes that continue at different levels Practical Mandarin is quite good, I went from HSK1-3 there and the classes were quite friendly as we were forced to speak with each other to practice our conversations and new vocabulary which was very effective. However, I recently started learning at one of London's Confucius Institutes as it was cheaper, and I actually had classes running even if they were 1 on 1, which was quite intense, but good. (Think I was paying £8-12ph for one on one tutoring!) Both Practical Mandarin and my Confucius Institute offer some trial classes if that is ever of interest.

 

I agree it is difficult to increase in fluency in UK as we don't get that much input but like you say if we make effort during the week we can make progress. I probably spent a lot of time at Practical Mandarin listening to other people speak also with different proficiency of getting tones right, but it still helped me get used to all of the new vocabulary so I wouldn't say its completely useless just listening to other people speak.

 

 

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amytheorangutan

@AaronUK Hey Aaron! I feel my progress is pretty OK for a beginner so far. I do a bit of work outside of class and I think that's what help me most. I use skritter around 20-30 mins a day (around 480 characters now) and listen to Chinesepod around 30 minutes a day too. I also just started reading Mandarin Companion Level 1 and watch a bit of Chinese dramas in my spare time. I'm actually quite a reserved person, so speaking is my biggest challenge so far. I try to use my 2 hours class to speak as much as I can as I feel less self conscious speaking to my classmates and teacher than to random strangers. I also try to text in hanzi as much as possible. 

 

I actually really enjoy the conversational part of my lessons because I get to practice my pronunciations which are not that good. Also I get to use new words or phrases I learned from Chinesepod and TV dramas and have the teacher to correct me. Last week we were talking about cities and places in China and the teacher sometimes brings props to class like real Chinese money, map etc which makes it fun. 

 

I think you are right about a lot of Chinese learners giving up after beginner level. I'm only guessing here, but I think this might be because a lot of people started learning the language because they think it will help with their career/business/future prospects without being interested in the culture, history or the actual country and then made worse by suddenly realising how much work they have to do to progress. 

 

May I ask where is the London's Confucius Institutes that you are learning at? I was under the impression that they are always affiliated with Universities and I couldn't find their own independent website. The fee seems reasonable and I think I might have to go down that road if my class at SOAS is cancelled at some point. 

 

I'm definitely with you about listening to people speak. I also find that very useful. What I didn't like about the sentence pattern drills was that the sentences were dry and sometimes a bit meaningless so it got a bit boring hehe

 

Did you do the HSK exams by the way?

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Zeppa

Hi Amy and Aaron,

In the classes I went to at various schools in London there were quite a few people who had done some Mandarin at school, so not beginners. But I have never found a good intermediate class, in the sense that the classes tend to be big (or the school cannot afford to run them) and the students tend to have varied backgrounds/levels - for example I could not speak at all well but I was good at reading and understanding, but others might have just spent a year in China and be totally fluent. I finally did a course at the University of Westminster. It was cheap and potentially good, but I did not get on with the teacher - in fact, she disliked me, I don't even know why, so I never commented on it here.

 

If you can't continue at SOAS, there are many other places in London. Look online at King's College and Imperial College, neither of which I have tried, then University of Westminster and probably others. The price should be similar. 

 

I have given up going to class. I did have a few sessions one-to-one with a Chinese teacher at her home, but I never came to an agreement of how we should work together. I will get back to it some time. I think I found a fairly expensive school that does small classes. 

 

One of my problems with SOAS was that the administration didn't seem interested in keeping classes going. They probably have enough courses anyway. But that might have totally changed now. 

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AaronUK
19 hours ago, amytheorangutan said:

May I ask where is the London's Confucius Institutes that you are learning at? I was under the impression that they are always affiliated with Universities and I couldn't find their own independent website. The fee seems reasonable and I think I might have to go down that road if my class at SOAS is cancelled at some point. 

 

 

Hi Amy,

 

You are correct, the CI's are based out of different universities and run separately, they all have websites though.

 

I had some HSK3 Revision sessions at Queen Mary which were one to one, their website can be a bit out of date but they respond to emails.

 

I also attended Goldsmiths Summer Camp in Beijing and Shanghai, they have a good crowd of people and also organised Chinese dance classes.

Currently I am attending classes HSK4 at CIBL (LSE) there is 3 people in my class, last term it was 1 on 1 and the teacher is very lovely. There is also London Southbank and possibly at some other Universities with CI too. The benefit is that you can pick a school that is near to your work or home which might be easier to commute (if they have classes at your level), but hopefully you can continue in your current course. I think it's really beneficial to stick to a particular curriculum while you are making progress and not get too distracted by other materials. Sometimes I feel I spend as much time thinking about resources and Chinese culture as I do actually studying!

 

I've sat the HSK exams and found them helpful for short term goals to give me something to work towards.

 

 

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amytheorangutan

Thanks so much @AaronUK that is really helpful. I was excited to find out about the summer camp only to realise that I’m too old to apply :lol: 

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AaronUK
3 hours ago, amytheorangutan said:

Thanks so much @AaronUK that is really helpful. I was excited to find out about the summer camp only to realise that I’m too old to apply :lol: 

If you are interested, then ask them anyway. I technically was a year too old for the Goldsmiths one, when I asked they told me to not worry. All they can do is say no. There is the obvious age difference with everyone else though, also we had a couple travel on our trip, but they had some negotiating to do to try and get into the same hotel room from swapping around with people.

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amytheorangutan

So... my beginner 3 class at SOAS that was supposed to start this weekend has been officially cancelled as there are only 4 people registered. This is actually quite frustrating but I’m looking at alternatives now. One is Practical Mandarin as per @AaronUK post above, CI or a private one. The inconsistency of these classes at SOAS is a big problem. I was told that this term only 1 class of Beginner 3 is running and it’s already full (meaning there are probably already around 12 people or more in the class). The amount of people dropping class is incredible considering at the start of Beginner 1 they have class every day of the week except Sunday around 10-12 people per class. 

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Christa

To be honest I find that almost all university Chinese courses are exactly like this. Nothing is reviewed properly so that you remember it. Too much is introduced too quickly and then they just move on.

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Zeppa

Hi Christa,

I haven't thought about it much - I would regard SOAS as the experts, because they teach Chinese as a degree subject. But what about King's or Imperial? Afaik they only offer evening classes, so presumably it's a way of making money out of their language labs. Then there are private schools like Meridian, which actually does more of the reviewing and is better thought-through, but I prefer something freer myself. 

 

Which university courses have you done? 

 

I think the problem is with all once-a-week classes with ten or twelve students, most of whom scarcely find time to do the homework anyway.

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somethingfunny

I would expect King's and Imperial to be the same.  The degree programme at SOAS should be good, but this doesn't mean the languages for all classes will be.  They probably won't even be taught by the same people.

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Zeppa

Yes, I expect so. I did encounter some of the daytime teachers at SOAS and University of Westminster, but they are bound to fill up the courses with others. Another problem is that if they offer several levels of courses, they need to coordinate how far they get in the textbook, and all will be obliged to use the same textbook. I forgot to say that the administration of evening classes at SOAS  was a disaster when I was there. It was quite obvious that some of them could not be bothered to do anything to keep a class running.

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somethingfunny

Similar elsewhere.  I passed up on SOAS classes as their highest level available wasn't high enough, and would probably have been cancelled anyway due to low numbers.  I ended up doing ten weeks at UCL.  I did a placement test and got put in the highest level, but then so did everyone else who had already done all the other levels.  It wasn't pretty.

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AaronUK
2 hours ago, Zeppa said:

It was quite obvious that some of them could not be bothered to do anything to keep a class running.

 

I think that this is true not just of individual teachers but institutions in general. Very few do any online marketing. The private school I learnt at did a lot and although you end up paying for it indirectly, it has the benefit of full classes at every level and thats kind of what you want if you are aiming for longer term study.

 

Although learning Mandarin is not a common hobby ~10million people in london is still a large base of people to recruit from. In fact people at my private school even commuted in from Hampshire, Essex and Guilford,.

 

Academic institutions rely too much on people looking them up in my opinion.

 

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