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.