Wow, it’s been 8 months since I posted! So much has happened since the last post, I don’t even know where to start.
I said in an earlier post that I was planning to defer admission to the MA program I applied to for a year. Well, that was my plan right up until a few weeks before the fall semester, when they emailed me and offered me a really nice scholarship. Apparently somebody else declined the offer of admission (and hence the scholarship) to go somewhere else, so they offered it to me instead. That person did his undergrad in Chinese at a famous university in Massachusetts that starts with an H, so I don’t feel so bad about being their second choice.
So I started the MA program in the fall. I started it with the intention of seeing it through to the end, but also knowing that if my wife got offered a job in Japan, that we’d of course jump on it. And that’s exactly what happened, just a few weeks ago. She got a job at a very prestigious international school in Tokyo, teaching pretty much exactly what she wants to teach and is qualified to teach. The administration is fantastic, and they’re amateur/enthusiast musicians and artists themselves, so they appreciate and value what my wife does. It’s a dream job for her. We’ll be moving there in August for at least two years, and more if we really like living there. I’ll be taking a leave of absence from my department, but the most likely scenario is that I won’t end up coming back to finish. No big deal. If we love Tokyo and want to stay there a while, I can do an MA there and transfer some of the coursework that I’ve done. If not, I don’t need an MA for the PhD programs I’m applying for, and advanced proficiency in both Chinese and Japanese would likely count for more anyway.
While in Japan, I’ll of course be maintaining and hopefully improving my Chinese as well. I’ll continue doing as much translation work as I can get my hands on, and I’ll be finding some language exchange partners to talk with some every week. I’ll also watch movies and TV shows in Chinese (both from China and Taiwan), and I’ll be reading a lot in Chinese too. I have a lot of books, both in my field and more general things like novels, that I’d like to read, and I’ll also be working on my 文言文. I’ll have to divide my time between Chinese, Japanese, and whatever English tutoring gigs I can find (gotta make money, you know), so it will be interesting to see how that works out.
Anyway, back to the MA program. I took two graduate courses last semester, one on Chinese character morphology and the other on Chinese philosophy in excavated texts. The professors were well-known, respected scholars and I learned an immense amount from both. Since I didn’t do my undergrad degree in Chinese, I also have to take some undergrad courses, so I did the first part of a yearlong 文字學 class. I’ll be taking the second half next semester, which starts Monday. I also took a consecutive interpretation class because my friend teaches it and asked me to, and it was really good for my Chinese.
All in all, I wrote 3 papers last term, all in Chinese. A 5-page paper just after midterms for the undergrad class, a 14-page final paper for the morphology class, and a 26-page beast for the excavated texts class. It was a grueling process for sure, but it showed me where my weaknesses are, both language-wise and knowledge-wise, so I have a clear direction for what to learn going forward and I’ve identified research problems that I can apply my new knowledge to, rather than simply learning in a vacuum.
Next semester I’m taking a class on 書法 which will require me to learn to read—and maybe write with a pencil—行書 and 草書, a very useful skill and one I’ve meant to acquire for a while now. Another will be on the history of Sinology in Japan, which should be useful for obvious reasons. Of course, I’m going to sit in on each before making a final decision, as there are a few others that seem interesting if these don’t work out.
A few months ago, I attended a palaeography conference here in Taipei. I was one of only 5 or so non-native speakers there, two of them being a professor from Japan and his interpreter (he seems to speak Chinese just fine, but presented his paper in Japanese) and the rest Westerners. I did pretty well, and was able to follow pretty much all the presentations with the exception of a section here and there that was too specialized for me. I was pleased with that, and I’ll try to come back for the next one in two years.
So those are the highlights. I’ve been incredibly busy and will continue to be at least through the end of the school year, so I probably won’t post much here anymore. My main focus apart from the classes I’m taking is to get ready for Japan. I’m studying Japanese as much as possible, and I’ve got some new (to me) ideas and techniques that I’m trying to apply. I don’t have time to really write about it, but it essentially involves a lot of shadowing and a lot of repetition and drills with the goal of internalizing everything and making it habitual. I’m prioritizing the spoken language heavily, to the extent that I only use the books as a reference when needed. I’ve learned a lot by reading Donald Larson’s Guidelines for Barefoot Language Learning: An Approach Through Involvement and Independence as well as his Becoming Bilingual: A Guide to Language Learning. I strongly recommend those books if you can find them. I’m applying what I’ve learned in those books as much as possible (they’re written for people living in-country, so some of it isn’t possible yet), and I’m also integrating other things I’ve found useful while learning Chinese. If I write more about it later, it probably won’t be here but on another blog devoted to learning Japanese, if I decide to start one. I may post more here once I’m in Japan, but it will of course have a very different focus: how I’m maintaining and improving my Chinese while not living in a Chinese-speaking environment and while striving to learn another very difficult language as well and as quickly as possible (again).
So there it is, I guess. I started this blog a bit over two years ago as a way to get my thoughts out and also to get information out there about the MTC and learning Chinese in Taiwan. Along the way I hope I’ve demonstrated what’s possible if you can really attack the language with everything you’ve got for an extended period of time. I came here barely being able to do anything in Chinese (I started at PAVC 2 at the MTC). Within 18 months I started working as a freelance translator, and within 2 years I began grad school as one of only four Westerners in one of the top Chinese departments in Taiwan and managed all A’s my first semester. I squeezed out 40 pages of academic prose within a three-week period in January, I attended a conference entirely in Chinese with world-renowned scholars in my field, and I’ve learned to read 小篆 easily and be able to make sense of other ancient scripts like 金文 and 楚簡文字. My Chinese is still not where I’d like it to be, but I think that’s really the key to my success and the core message of ChineseQuest. Never be satisfied with where you are. Always push forward.