I’m back on the island from my three-week sojourn back to California (it would have been two weeks, but the visa office had other ideas. Thanks visa office!), and I’m taking advantage of my jet lag to type up a review of my time at Shida’s Mandarin Training Center.

I have no idea how systematized the teaching methodology is at the MTC, but I’ve heard from many other MTC veterans that your experience there depends in large part on the teacher you get. There are the good, the okay and the just plain awful: I heard horror stories about teachers showing up half an hour late, teachers not showing up, teachers showing up for one week then announcing they are off for a two-week vacation, teachers using class time to tell personal anecdotes that are both too-much-information and not related to the course material, etc.

Fortunately for me, the teacher (I’m not putting any of my teachers’ names in this entry, but if you want to know, write a comment and I’ll message you privately) I had for my first two quarters, during which I took an intensive course, was excellent. He did things like teach us Chinese radicals and etymology of characters, which helped me immensely in memorization. He would also take each character of a multi-character word (as most Chinese vocabulary is) and tell us what others words they are used in. This is immensely helpful as you advance in your studying, and as 華僑 (huá qiáo, or overseas Chinese/Taiwanese) this helped us connect vocabulary words we might not have seen before with ones that we were already familiar with. He also prompted us to have class discussions regularly and had a great sense of humor, which made class breeze by.

My second teacher, who I had for my newspaper reading course, was less spirited and original than my first teacher, but I can’t really complain about her. Her introduction of each chapter’s vocabulary often entailed reading from the list instead of explaining the etymology of words, but then again, there were students in the class who had not been taught radicals in their earlier classes. On the other hand, she taught us a bunch of 成語 (chéng yǔ), or Chinese sayings you can sprinkle into your conversation to make you sound all learned and erudite. My main frustration with this teacher was that her dictation quizzes and tests often included vocabulary that I’d never seen before. Not so much, but enough to make a difference in my scores — and when you are living solely off of a scholarship that is contingent on your monthly grade, it’s a little nerve wracking.

In addition to my regular class, I also signed up for tutoring in my last quarter to improve my spoken Mandarin. The way the class worked was that every week I would read Taiwanese newspapers, clip articles I found interesting, and then bring them in to discuss. I really got along well with my teacher, which was a good thing. Can you imagine spending two hours every week trying to speak in a language that you still feel awkward maneuvering around with someone who freaks you out? Her English was also pretty fluent, which meant that I could use her as a dictionary whenever I stumbled upon something I didn’t know the Mandarin for without interrupting the flow of conversation. On the other hand, I think she wasn’t hard enough on me about my American accent.

Now that I’ve reviewed the teachers, I’m going to offer up my thoughts on what your responsibility is as a student, should you decide to come here and study Mandarin. MTC is not a degree-granting program, so there might be a temptation to slack off, as evidenced by the half-empty classrooms I sometimes saw at school. Yes, there are some teachers that truly suck, and if you get them, try to transfer out of the class as soon as possible (or, if need be, you can always take your refund and go study at a private institution). In other cases, what you get out of a class is what you put into it, and not taking the course seriously, cheating or talking during tests, not doing your homework, speaking a language other than Mandarin in class, or not showing up to class at all is, of course, going to be detrimental to your (once-in-a-lifetime) experience here.

This brings me to a point I have to make in this entry: I think it’s disrespectful and self-defeating to not speak Mandarin in Mandarin class. That concept is such a fundamental aspect of language study that I can’t believe I even had to type that sentence. The thing is, I was in classes with people who thought it was perfectly okay to hold entire conversations in English during class. Ironically, huá qiáo were the worst (but certainly not the only) offenders.

I don’t care if your parents forced you to speak Mandarin at home and dangled you over a bathtub filled with scalding hot water and electrical devices if you dared uttered a word of English in front of them — if you grew up in America or another country where Mandarin is not an official language, then your Mandarin probably still has room to improve. You probably still have an accent, you probably still have inconvenient gaps in your vocabulary and you probably still make grammar mistakes that no one corrects because they think you sound cute or don’t want to seem impolite. Speaking English (or whatever your first language is) during class is disrespectful to your teacher and classmates, but, ultimately, you are just deflating your own learning curve… and why would you want to do that?

My spoken Mandarin was certainly not at the level of some of my classmates when I started and that made me feel really self-conscious, but I still spoke it, even though I made silly mistakes that were sometimes quite embarrassing. But you know what? I got every single one of those mistakes corrected, and now I know not to make them.

On a related note, it helps to make friends with MTC students who are not from your home country. Mandarin might be the only language you have in common with them, so you are forced to speak it. Furthermore, since you are both learning the language, you feel less self-conscious about speaking it. And you end up having buddies all over the world, which means you save money on lodging when you travel and makes your Facebook profile look oh-so-cosmopolitan. I would also suggest finding a language partner, either through the MTC or on your own.

Next up: I’m going to review the books I used.

By the way, if any of you are in Taipei and lost a white umbrella cockatoo, do not worry. I just saw it on the roof of the building across from our apartment building, smiling it’s crazy little bird smile at Ron and me. I don’t think you are getting him or her back, but, rest assured, she or he looks great (if a bit dingy).