I’ve noticed something recently. If I sit outside the MTC building to study (as I often do), I get compliments from native speakers on how 厲害 I am to be reading a book in Chinese. Either that or I get bewildered looks from the foreign students who know how far they have to go before reading any serious book in Chinese. Even foreigners who are arguably already “there” say things like “Wow, I didn’t know you were that advanced” (note: “can read a book” and “advanced” are not the same thing). But then if I go to the other side of campus, say, to the Chinese department and hang out there, my ability in Chinese suddenly plummets.

Now, my actual ability doesn’t plummet. If anything, hanging out over there helps because Taiwanese people don’t generally go to the Chinese department looking for foreigners to practice their “English” with, so I can get more work done. But my perception of my ability changes. When I sit near MTC, I’m in the top few percentile points. When I sit with all the university students, I’m very near the bottom. I can almost hear them: “He’s still on that page?”

I’m auditing a graduate course on palaeography this semester in the Chinese department, and every time the professor reads some 文言文 from a slide or says something somewhat difficult, this one student looks directly over at me as if he’s wondering “did he understand that?” Well for the most part I do, but thanks for your concern, guy. But the example is telling of the situation I’m putting myself in.

I’ve studied Chinese for a few years on and off. Mostly off, and before moving to Taiwan, the “on” time was very slow going (when I first moved here, I tested into the what’s essentially a second-term class at MTC, so some of my classmates had only been studying for 3 months). So I’ve now studied seriously for just over a year. I’m sitting in a class full of people who have spoken this language for 20 years or more. They received their grade school education in this language. They didn’t read Chaucer in high school, they read 左傳. That would all be one thing if it were a business or science course, where much of the material is available in English. But I’m in the Chinese department. And that’s terrifying.

I get asked a lot how I stay motivated to study Chinese. Sometimes I give the standard answer about how I’m finally doing what I love, and that’s what drives me. But I’m starting to realize that it’s not passion so much as it is terror that’s driving me to study. Terror that in less than a year, I won’t just be sitting in class observing, I’ll actually have to be doing the research and writing papers (in Chinese!). Terror that I won’t be able to keep up with the reading (10-12 pages per hour just isn’t going to cut it). Terror that a teacher will call on me to defend an argument, and I’ll have to stand up in front of the other students and talk to them about their own language, in their own language. Terror.

Now of course, if it were only terror then I’d have no business being here. I’m utterly fascinated by the field I’ve chosen, and the more I learn about it, the deeper I realize the rabbit hole goes, and the more I want to know about it. I jokingly said to my friend this evening that maybe I should have taken the blue pill, but there’s no chance. The trite answer I mentioned above is absolutely true. I love what I’m doing now. I love the field I’ve chosen. I love coming home mentally exhausted every day because I forced myself to read more than I planned to, or because I spent every spare minute with headphones on, shadowing sentences.

But then there’s still the terror. And it’s because I know that I’m not anywhere near this “advanced” level that the MTC students think I am.

We Chinese learners need to be honest with ourselves about what “advanced” really looks like. Can you read an introductory book in Chinese related to whatever field your degree was in? Or, if you’re like me and haven’t done anything remotely related to your degree since you graduated, can you read a book related to whatever your current field or profession is? Can you pick up a copy of this month’s whatever-magazine-you-read, or today’s newspaper, or a bestselling novel and read it from cover to cover? Can you watch the evening news and then discuss it afterwards? Can you tell me the significance of 「兼愛非攻」 and 「明鬼非樂」(something I’m assured Taiwanese middle school students can do)? If I say “醉翁亭”, is your first thought “醉翁之樂不在酒”? Can you go to the bike shop for a repair without resorting to calling the pedal “這個…東西”? It’s 踏板, as I found out. I can’t do most of that, and the stuff I can do does is far outweighed by the stuff I can’t.

Or to frame it differently, in a way that’s very close to home for me: there are nearly a million international students studying in US universities. I went to school with many of them (there were more Koreans and Japanese in my department than Americans), and I know their level of English wasn’t outstanding. But I’m  pretty sure it was better than my Chinese is right now. And now I’m planning on doing the same thing, but I won’t be in the music department (my undergrad field), I’ll be doing research on my classmates’ mother tongue! Will they tell me my Chinese is “advanced”? I seriously doubt it.

Taking a class labeled “advanced” does not make you an advanced learner. At the very most, it makes you a black belt: you’ve finally gotten a foundation in the basics, and now the real learning can start. I’m taking 思想與社會 Thought and Society this term at MTC, which is labeled an “advanced” text. I can read it with no problem. When I go to read a non-fiction book or other serious material, the vocabulary pops up constantly. But this vocabulary is like the entry-level requirement for even beginning to make sense of this stuff. Even if you don’t count all the specialized vocabulary, some people can write in a very 文 style, and it’s slow going trying to read it.

So what can be done to bridge the gap between that “advanced” level and truly advanced ability in Chinese? Well, I don’t really know. I do know that over the next year I’ll be focusing on a few specific areas that I think will give me the most benefit (your situation will of course vary):

  1. Reading in my field. I have a whole list of books I want to read before starting classes next year.
  2. Reading in general. 《從精讀到泛讀》 The Independent Reader was written with this in mind, but as it’s specifically for more “serious” reading I’m also reading for fun as much as I have time to.
  3. Shadowing thousands of sentences on any and all topics. (See my recent post on Glossika’s Mass Sentence Method)
  4. Watching a lot of TV. (I’ve noticed an interesting trend among highly successful English learners, and it’s that they’ve all watched tons of TV in English)
  5. Reading lots of 文言文. Right now I’m using a high school reader. I’ve got a 大學國文選 book on deck, and I’ll probably work some of 王力’s 《古代漢語》 in there too.
  6. Writing. This is like a big blurry question mark right now, but I know that starting next term I’ll be working on this intensively with a private teacher.

I don’t know that I’ll be able to bridge the gap I’ve outlined in this article within the next year. In fact, I’m terrified that I won’t be able to, and that’s what will keep me going.