The Payoff

I know I haven’t been posting here much lately. That’s a situation that’s likely to continue, unfortunately. I’m too busy, and I don’t know if I have much to say that’s relevant, because the stuff I’m doing these days is more specialized to my field. That is, I’m reading a lot of classical Chinese, history, historical phonology, philology, etc. I don’t have anything to say about that stuff because I don’t know much about it yet, I’m just starting out.

But, I know this blog gets a lot of hits from people planning to go to either the MTC or ICLP, and probably other programs in Taiwan. Search terms that show up include things like “how long before I’m fluent” or “how far will this or that program get me” and the like. A lot of people are just starting out, or they’re coming here with some Chinese already under their belts, and they’re wondering (with good reason) what their Chinese will look like after a given amount of time. If that’s you, hopefully this post will serve as inspiration.

I came to Taiwan in August 2011. From September that year through November of 2012, I studied at the MTC. I tested into PAVC Book 2, which, if you’re familiar with the series, is at a very basic “just starting out” level. Some of my classmates had literally just started from zero at the MTC 3 months earlier. I worked hard most of the time I was there. Harder than just about anyone else I knew. I did have a few periods where I slacked a little, but I was still doing more than most. Since leaving the MTC, I’ve done a lot of self-study and worked some with a tutor. I’ve audited graduate classes in my field, joined Classical Chinese reading groups with other foreigners, and generally just worked my butt off.

Oh yeah, I worked smart too. SRS, basing my study on the ICLP program, reading as much as I could about how other people have successfully learned languages, etc. But no matter how smart you work, you still have to work hard.

Another thing is that I’ve stuck around longer than most. Most of the people in my classes went back to their respective countries after a year, some even less. Their Chinese, as you might expect, has stagnated, or even regressed. Some of the academics I met (some on the verge of completing their PhDs) are still unable to read books by Chinese scholars in their own fields, even though their 文言文 might be excellent.

Last month the hard work and tenacity finally paid off. After 1 year and 8 months in Taiwan, I got a job as a translator. Chinese has gone from being a hobby that I hoped would be useful one day to now being a marketable skill.

I’m getting as much translation work as my brain can handle, all paid by the character, not the hour. And the pay is pretty good, and will go up once I’ve “proven myself.” I can make as much translating for 20 hours per week as my wife does at her more-than-full-time international school job. More than that though, is that it’s really interesting work, and really good for my Chinese. I’ve done CVs for big-time CEOs, academic papers, articles published in Taiwanese magazines, you name it.

I’m actually putting off the MA programs I applied to, for multiple reasons unrelated to this post. I’m allowed to defer for up to a year if I get accepted, but I may not even do the MA here. We’re also trying to find my wife a job in Japan starting in the fall of 2014, so if that happens I’ll continue working as a translator, learning Japanese, reading as much as I can in the field and getting ready to apply to PhD programs back in the US whenever we decide to go back. If we end up staying in Taiwan, then I’ll start the MA next year, and do this translation job until then, and maybe on a more part-time basis once I start. Either way, it’s a good job and my Chinese will be all the better for it when I do start grad school.

I’m not posting this to brag. I’m very much aware of how much I still need to improve, and my shortcomings stare me in the face every time I come across an unknown word. But let this serve as proof that if you put in the time and effort, you can reach a level where you can use your Chinese professionally. You can probably even do it faster. My wife speaks very little Chinese, so a good portion of my life is still in English. If you’re single or married to a Chinese speaker, you should run circles around me.

Work hard. And don’t come to Taiwan for a year, you’ll just leave with half-baked Chinese. Give it two years, at the very least. Really, I feel like I’ve only just gotten my black belt. Now is when the real learning can begin.



Rethinking Fluency Development

A while back I mentioned that I’d no longer be using the “X-thousand Sentences” type books because my language exchange partner said they weren’t natural-sounding sentences. In retrospect, I’ve been wondering if that wasn’t a mistake.

Here’s the thing about those books. They may not be the exact sentence that a Taiwanese person would choose in whichever situation they appear in, but the thing is, I’m not memorizing the sentences to use, I’m just repeating them. So it doesn’t matter all that much that they’re not all perfectly idiomatic. They’re still acceptable Chinese, both syntactically and semantically, because they’re written for native speakers, by native speakers. And there are thousands of sentences, with MP3 recordings, just sitting there on my shelf waiting for me to shadow.

I can shadow 250 sentences in half an hour using these books. And I don’t have to put any effort or time into finding or preparing them. Sentence mining, by comparison, is extremely time-consuming. I might find and input 20 good sentences in half an hour of mining TV shows or movies, and that doesn’t even include actually reviewing them. For the purposes of developing muscle memory and strengthening the neural pathways in the brain required for immediate, non-thinking production of fluent speech, it’s quite obvious which approach ought to be more effective.

I’ve also spent some time recently (which probably should have been spent on preparing MA applications) looking into methods used by high-level interpreters, military personnel, field linguists, and other people who have a real need to become fluent in a short time. I’ve found some really interesting, useful stuff in the process. For instance, there’s a paper here by Christopher Guichot de Fortis, a senior staff interpreter at NATO, describing how he works on developing his ‘C’ languages into ‘B’ languages. ‘C’ languages are ones which he can interpret from (that is, languages in which he has a strong receptive ability), as opposed to ‘B’ languages that he can interpret into (languages in which he has a strong productive ability), and his ‘A’ language or mother tongue. It’s a really good read, and well worth your time.

What I’ve been doing recently is watching a TV show or part of a movie, selecting sentences from it to type into Anki, and then reading the sentences aloud while reviewing my Anki deck. Like I said, using the “sentence-mining” model I might add 20 sentences in half an hour. I think on average, I probably added 30 sentences per day, weekdays only, and usually reviewed about 50. To reach the magic number of sentence repetitions Mike Campbell often talks about (which is 100,000), it would take just under 5 years at this rate.

My plan going forward with this is to do 250 new sentences three times per week, and repeat a total of 750 sentences (whether new or review) 6 days per week. And at 750 new sentences and 4500 total repetitions per week, it would take just over 22 weeks to reach 100,000 repetitions. I’m not sure I’ll be able to sustain that volume with everything else I’ve got going on (after all, repeating 750 sentences takes about 90 minutes each day), but I’m sure going to try to.

After reading the paper I linked above, I also decided to take another pass through Thought and Society 思想與社會, choosing one article/lesson per week that I’ll shadow daily. After that, if I’m seeing positive results from it, I’ll choose some lectures from ICLP’s Speech Series: Real World 社會大學 to work with, but of course that will be a couple of months down the road.

So after all this reading and researching and such, this past Friday I tried something new for my morning routine. I shadowed a lesson of Thought and Society, which took about 15 minutes. After that, I did about 250 sentences from one of my books. That’s fairly intense, tiring work, but it paid off when I met my tutor that afternoon. “What happened to your Chinese? It seems so much easier for you today than it usually does.” She does not say things like this lightly (read: ever), so I take that as a pretty solid preliminary indication.

This is not especially pleasant work. It’s actually fairly fatiguing, but if the results are there I’m going to stick with it. I’m aiming for ILR4-level by the end of this year, and while I feel like my receptive skills (reading and listening) would get there fairly easily with what I’m doing, that’s a serious jump in speaking ability. I really don’t think “more of the same” is what I need here, especially considering “the same” is exactly what got me into this situation in the first place. I need to focus on results-driven approaches, regardless of how much fun they may or may not be, and I feel like this is what I need to be doing right now for my speech. The real fun for me lies in being able to use the language easily.

I know a while back several people got excited about Glossika’s method, and I wonder if anyone stuck with it. I’d be interested in hearing about how it’s going and what kind of results you’ve seen with it in the comments.

Still alive

I know it’s been quiet around here for a couple months now. I’ve been studying hard, trying new things, etc. I just haven’t had much time for blogging. Anyway, I figured I’d pop in for a quick update on what I’m doing right now.

The most important thing right now is applying for grad school. I’ve finished my autobiography, and I’m now working on my study plan/research plan. I intend to finish that by the end of February, so I can put the final touches on everything before the mid-March deadline. I’m also getting stuff together for the scholarship application, and I’m pretty much just waiting for my letters of recommendation to come in before I send it off.

In other news, I’m still working with TV shows and such, but in a slightly different way than before. I’m essentially just mining shows AJATT-style, watching a show and throwing useful/interesting/difficult sentences into Anki, but then reading them aloud during reviews. It’s working very nicely without taking up too much time (I spend about half an hour on this specific thing). The catch is, I’m mining only for colloquial spoken Chinese since that’s what I’m working on, and specifically natural spoken Chinese, not scripted. That pretty much leaves me with talk-show/綜藝節目 type shows like 康熙來了 like I mentioned before, but that’s OK for now. I’ll probably move on to more formal speech later on.

I’m also reading a bit more widely than before. Some newspapers, some magazines (《遠見》 is nice). Basically an article per day, and I throw all the new vocab into my Pleco flash card deck. I thought about using The Independent Reader, but then I figured using current articles would be much more interesting (and I was right). If I’m feeling extra crazy I’ll read the article aloud, which I find does help but is much more taxing mentally.

For Classical Chinese, I’m taking 裘錫圭’s advice to would-be palaeographers and focusing solely on the 左傳 for right now. I’m not happy about it, because it’s a very difficult read compared to say, 四書, but it will be good for me.

I haven’t been as good lately about reading for my MA as I should be, but I am still trudging along with some 音韻學 books. My reading list has changed some, but I won’t bore you with the details. I’m also working through 古文字學概要, which is like a reader of 甲骨文, 金文, 戰國文字, etc. Good stuff.

In other other news, I’m still working on Japanese. I switched to Assimil from 大家學標準日本語, and although the audio is painfully slow, I’m pretty happy with it. I’m also using a book called Shadowing: Let’s Speak Japanese! which is very much like Assimil in many ways, but has recordings at a natural speed (read: fast). It’s a great course, but there’s almost nothing in the way of explanations other than translations of the dialogues into English, Chinese and Korean. No grammar, etc., so it’s really intended as a supplement, not a primary course. But it’s a really fantastic book.

I’m working here and there on Taiwanese, but it’s really not a priority right now. Maybe later I’ll be able to devote some more time to it.

OK, well that’s all for now. I’m not sure when I’ll have time for blogging again, but I’ll pick it back up again when I can.

Setting goals for 2013

I wrote before about how I’m terrified of starting my MA next fall. My Chinese isn’t good enough yet, on any front, to be successful in a real graduate class. Naturally, all of my goals for the coming year (and more specifically for the first 9 months or so before the fall semester starts) revolve around getting me ready.

I mentioned recently that I want to read a novel per month in addition to the reading I’m doing in my field. The idea is to increase my comfort with reading Chinese, ideally with progressively more difficult books. I’m still planning on doing that, but it’s going to take a back seat to books more specifically relevant to my field. That is, if I don’t finish a novel each month, but I’m successful as far as preparing for my MA, I’ll be happy. At worst I should still be able to get in a novel every two months.

I’m still doing the TV and movie thing. I’m not doing it as intensively as I thought I might, because I think I’ve found my Pareto sweet spot with this. Rather than going through a 15-minute chunk of a movie or TV show every day and drilling the sentences from it (which altogether takes a significant amount of time), I go through a chunk or two every week and then just passively listen while occasionally shadowing over a period of several days. I end up essentially memorizing each chunk anyway. This also frees up more time for extensive watching. I’ve found that as insane as the variety shows like 康熙來了 and 大學生了沒 are, they’re really excellent as far as natural, unscripted speech and (mostly pop-)cultural knowledge. I’ve learned a lot by doing these two things, and it doesn’t take up as much of my day as before. I’m pretty happy with the way my speech is improving just from doing this and speaking in Chinese more throughout the day.

So, onto the meat. I’ve been poring over undergraduate course syllabi recently in the three basic areas of my field (文字學, 聲韻學, and 訓詁學) and speaking to other graduate students about them, and I’ve picked out a few books for each subject (as well as 國學 and history) that seem to be most recommended, bought them, and put them on my shelf to read. I figured the other students starting their MAs at the same time I do will at least have read these books or similar ones (most will have BAs in Chinese too), so it’s my attempt at catching up as much as I can.

These are the books I will have read by mid-September, when the fall term starts:



I’ll also be working through a book called 《商周古文字讀本》 by 劉翔 et al. It’s very much like any 文言文 reader you might find, except the selections are all from Shang and Zhou dynasty oracle bone and bronze inscriptions. Every selection has a rubbing or other image of the inscription, along with the text transcribed into modern traditional characters, and copious annotations.

There’s also a book called 怎樣學系《說文解字》 that I might pick up, along with a few 說文-related reference books. I need to get some practice with some actual research methodology, rather than just reading about it.



If I have time, I’ll also read 《聲韻學》 by 竺家寧, but that’s a fairly hefty tome at nearly 700 pages. There’s also an 《音韻學教程》 by 唐作藩 that I’d like to read if I can find a copy. But the three books listed above have priority.



I don’t know so much about this subject yet, so this list may grow. Hopefully not, because I’ve already set myself up for enough reading.



That last book is secondary to the 《商周古文字讀本》 mentioned above, but I still hope to finish it before starting my MA. One unit per month should be doable. I’d like to read more 文言文 (particularly post-Han, as my reading list is heavily weighted toward 先秦兩漢) if I have time, but again, that’s secondary. At the least, I’ll be bringing some with me on my trip to the US next summer.



Yeah, those last two are popular history, not scholarly, but I’m OK with that considering everything else I have on deck. Looks like they’re used in some undergrad classes anyway.

We’re looking at around 5000 pages over the next 9 months, just related to my field, not counting any other reading I may do. And that’s just for now. I’m sure the list will grow to an unmanageable size, but I’ll just have to do the best I can.

Oh yeah, and I’m studying Japanese now too. This only takes up maybe 30 minutes of my day. I got fed up with how slow the Assimil recordings are, and couldn’t find a reasonable textbook in English because they all tend to assume you’re terrified of 漢字 and introduce them very slowly, so I found one published for Taiwanese people instead. It’s called 《大家學標準日本語》 by 出口仁, and it seems just fine so far. At the very least, it presents all the sentences the way Japanese people would write them, kanji and all, and the MP3 recordings are clear and at a reasonable speed. I’m still finding my pace with this book, so I’m not making any concrete goals yet.

As I mentioned before, I’m also working on writing with a tutor. For now, I’m preparing my applications for grad school and scholarships, but once I’m done with that I’ll be working on the sort of writing I’ll need to do for my classes.

Here’s an idea of what a day may look like for me:

Reading 《文字學概要》: 1 hour
Reading 《基礎音韻學》: 1 hour
Reading 《商周古文字讀本》: 1 hour
Watching TV shows and movies: 1 hour (on the bus, doesn’t count)
Studying 1 lesson from 《大家學標準日本語》: 30 minutes
Working through movie subtitles: 30 minutes (only on some days)
Writing: 30-60 minutes

So that’s 4-5 hours per day of study, plus an hour of TV/movies on the bus. Not all that bad, right?

I’ll set specific goals for January when I post my December goals update.

November Goals Update

It’s that time again. And again, I didn’t really make any goals for last month. It was a fairly chaotic month for me, but things have slowed down now, I’ve finished my last term at the MTC, and I can really start to grind. So I’m going to talk about that instead. This post will be about what I plan on doing going forward.

I’m going to divide it into Speaking/Listening, Reading, Writing, and MA Preparation. I’m combining speaking and listening because they’re pretty much being covered by the same activity.


I’m going to be watching a lot of TV shows and movies going forward. I’ve been doing two tracks with this: intensive and extensive. With extensive watching, I essentially just try to understand as much as I can without pausing too much for lookups. Just relaxed, easy TV watching, not worrying about every word I don’t understand.

The intensive track, on the other hand, is tough work. I print out the subtitles (I haven’t been able to find subs for everything, which limits what I can do this with) and work my way through them, highlighting and defining unknown words. That occasionally includes stuff in 台語. I ask my Taiwanese friends about anything I don’t understand (and since right now I’m watching a fairly coarse movie, it has made for some really funny conversations). After going through a section of the subtitles, I’ll listen to that section of the movie/show repetitively until I understand every word being said. This is perfect for the long commute to and from 師大 everyday. I review yesterday’s chunk of audio on the way to school, and the freshly-learned chunk on the way home.

Every morning, I also select sentences from the audio track to practice (chorusing: highlight in Audacity, shift+space to play on repeat, speak simultaneously until I can say it in unison with the native speaker). This is great for developing pronunciation and intonation, as it allows you to compare yourself with a native speaker in real time, and since it’s from media rather than a person sitting in front of you, there’s no interference from the native speaker being self-conscious about their pronunciation because “you’re learning, so I should speak as clearly and correctly as possible.” With this, I don’t actually aim for perfection (which is very time-consuming), I just want to be close. I also cut out a lot of sentences to put on my phone, so I can practice repeating them on the go. In this part of the process, I pay close attention to how everything is worded, especially if I think I would have said it differently. I also try to select sentences that contain useful new words, and have learned a good deal of vocabulary in the process.

This has all proven to be very effective so far. I’m already starting to become a bit more sure of myself when speaking Chinese, likely due to the large amount of repetition I’m getting with these sentences. One of my Taiwanese friends, out of nowhere, said that she noticed my speech was sounding more natural and wanted to know what I’ve been doing (so she could apply it for English). That’s anecdotal of course, but I do feel like this has the potential to be very effective.


I’m starting a new project here. Inspired by several posts by imron at, I’m setting a goal to read one novel per month at least, in addition to the other reading I’m doing. So while I’m carrying The Independent Reader around with me, I only touch that book if I’ve gotten my novel quota in for the day. I’m currently reading 《流星·蝴蝶·劍》(上)by 古龍, and I will probably read the second volume (下) in January. I’ll be working on making a list of books to read next year. My only requirement is that they be interesting and originally written in Chinese. No translations. Although I’m tempted to make an exception for 1Q84.

I’m using SRS again in conjunction with this, but only adding a limited number of words per day rather than trying to learn every single new word that comes up. I deleted all my old decks, hoping that since I’m starting fresh it will be less boring.

Like I mentioned, I’m also using The Independent Reader, but it’s very much secondary.


If I’m going to do an MA here in Taiwan, my writing needs to improve a lot. To that end, I’m doing a little writing every week to go over with a tutor. Most of it will either be for the research plan I have to include with my application or academic writing related to my field, but I will do some other writing too.

MA Preparation

This one big category really includes two things: reading in my field, and 文言文. Right now I’m using 《文字學概要》 by 裘錫圭 for the former (it will likely take some time to get through this), and 《古代漢語教程》 by 周光慶 et al for the latter (same deal, hoping for one unit per month). I have a whole list of other books that I want to read before starting the MA, but first I’m going fairly slowly and deliberately in order to get a firm grounding in the basics of the field.

In other, but related, news, I’ve been told that it’s exceptionally difficult for a foreigner to get into a Chinese department in Taiwan, so I’m also applying to history departments. The idea there is to take both 文字學 courses and history courses, and apply the philological skills I develop in the former to help me in my research on early Chinese history. I really like the way the history programs are set up at both 師大 and 台大, so I’d be very happy going that route. Anyway, I need to brush up on my early Chinese history, so I’ll add some of that in there soonish.

So that’s the deal right now. I have a lot of time right now to devote to this, so I’m going to hit it as hard as I can. I’ll have even more time starting in February, because one of my tutoring jobs (which takes up 6 hours per week) ends then. Learning Chinese is essentially my job right now. I won’t be taking on any more students, but I will take on the occasional translation job (which pays much better and actually helps my Chinese). December’s goals are:

Finish 《流星·蝴蝶·劍》
Finish 《古代漢語教程》 Unit 1
Do 3-4 TV episodes, or an equivalent amount of movies intensively
Get a solid start on my research plan
Finish 4-5 chapters of《 文字學概要》
Watch TV and read as much as possible, speak as much Chinese as possible

Oh, and my goal for Japanese: through Assimil Lesson 24(?)

That’s all, folks!