If you want to get the most out of studying a language in a classroom environment, you have to approach it with the right attitude. If you rely on your teacher to spoon-feed you, you won’t make much progress. You have to be aware of this one fact: self-studying is always the best way to learn a language.

I’m in a full-time intensive course in Taiwan, but I’m still self-studying. The teacher provides structure and a baseline pace, and the course material sets parameters for what must be learned at this particular time. I learn these things on the terms set out for me by the course requirements, and it really takes fairly little time to do every day. If you can save time on homework, you have more time in your day to learn other things.

At MTC, where I study, they tell you that you will have to spend 4-5 hours per day doing homework and studying in addition to 3 classroom hours in order to keep up. Realistically, if you’re using intelligent study methods (posts forthcoming) it takes no more than 2 hours per day, homework and studying combined, to keep up. Occasionally more, depending on how much homework your teacher assigns. I personally don’t need the busy work in order to make myself study hard, so when my teacher this term announced that we had to do a PowerPoint presentation every 3-4 days, I promptly switched teachers. I hope you’re fortunate enough to have that option.

So how do I fill up the remaining 2-3 hours? By studying more. I study the extra vocab the teacher gives but doesn’t expect us to learn. I study a second textbook besides the one I’m using in class (the Far East Everyday Chinese books and Taiwan Today make great complements to Practical Audio-Visual Chinese). I read manga and study the vocab I don’t know. I read the 國語日報, a Taiwanese kids’ newspaper that has Bopomofo annotations next to every single character. I study Classical Chinese. Sometimes I even study some Japanese if I have time. None of these takes up a whole lot of time (with the occasional exception of Classical Chinese), so I can usually fit a few of these into my extra time each day.

One result of all this extra studying is that I have so much extra vocab bouncing around in my head, and usually it’s vocab that will soon be “learned” in class, since most of my extra study material is at or just above my current level. My classmates think I’m having such an easy time with the new material, but it’s because I’ve already learned so much of it. Re-studying it when we get to that chapter in class just gives me an opportunity to solidify and sharpen my knowledge.

Another result is that I have an easier time than my classmates with written Chinese, which tends to be more concise than the spoken language, and borrows pretty heavily from Classical Chinese. It isn’t necessarily my Classical Chinese knowledge that helps, though it does help a bit. It’s mainly the fact that I’m reading all the time, so I’m used to it.

Of course, my goals lean more toward the literary than most people’s, so if your goal is to be able to converse like a local, then you should use your extra time to go out and talk to people. If you’re in Taiwan, it shouldn’t be difficult to find people willing to talk to you in Chinese, even if only for a few minutes.

Now, if you find that people switch to English when they talk to you, maybe you should work on your pronunciation! Seriously, everyone I’ve heard complain about people not being willing to speak Chinese to them has had pretty bad pronunciation. My pronunciation is by no means native, but it’s pretty good, and I rarely encounter people who prefer to speak English with me. My friends who have good Chinese never encounter this problem. Indeed, if you have good pronunciation you’ll often find that people will assume you can understand anything they say and just barrage you with pure, unadulterated Chinese (not textbook “for foreigners only” Chinese).

But all that is for another post! The takeaway here is you need to take charge of your own learning. You only learn well what you put in the time to study on your own outside of class, and homework doesn’t count. It’s really amazing what you can learn in the right environment with the right methods. I’ve learned 2500 new words in the last three months, and learned to write 1900 of them, all with over 90% retention. This was without actually trying to learn a lot of words. That wasn’t my goal. I just went about my daily studying, and didn’t discover until a few days ago how much I had actually learned. I’m convinced that if I wanted to push it I could feasibly learn 4000 words this term.

Anyway, until my next post, 加油!