15 December 2014

Pedagogy of the Privileged

Listening to: Zombies, “Summertime.” At Vinyl Decision, a listening lounge in Taipei a few weeks ago, a friend of a friend got on the turntables and put on this band. I went gaga. “Who is this?!” Turns out, I’m 110% a Zombies fan. Fifty years late maybe but I’m on-board now. Currently pumping "She's Not There" on repeat! And while I’m here, try my favorite zombie related track: Dead Man’s Bones, “My Body’s a Zombie For You.” Oh yeah, Ryan Gosling is the lead singer...

So school started a few weeks ago. You know, that Chinese school I’m taking. Voluntarily. Nevermind that my entire childhood was spent cursing the many wasted Saturdays we were forced to attend Chinese school. Nevermind that I also took two years of Mandarin in college. I’m in Taiwan now and ready to begin anew. Without cheating or slacking this time. That’s right, I’m taking classes at National Taiwan Normal University aka Shida and I’m enrolled in the intensive class. Hardcore!

What "intensive" translates to is three hours of class a day, along with an intimidating four hours of homework. Or so the syllabus says. In practice, it’s been more like two hours a day. You know, only a mere two hours. For those who scoff, it’s seriously been legit school. I mean, once you’re in a classroom setting, being quizzed daily and tested weekly, the academic mindset kicks right back in. (I haven’t been in school since reading One World Schoolhouse but I keep thinking about how those principles might apply.) Also, as an indoctrinated model minority, it’s hard to let go of trying to get good/decent grades. Luckily I’ve decided that I don’t care about learning pinyin, I’m just here to learn words, words, and more words. I’ll take a B or B-, thank you very much.

My classmates are mostly from similar backgrounds. We can all understand and speak -- albeit mostly with horrific childish accents -- but none of us can really write that well. It’s mostly ABCs (or close enough), with a Brazilian, an Indonesian, and a Venezuelan thrown in for diversity. It’s a self selecting group of people who are in the arc of their life where they can spend three months dedicated to studying a language. And because my fellow students are invested, that motivates me to stay on top of my shit.

During the first week, my friend and I hopped around trying to find the right class for us to possibly be in together. After crouching by doors and listening in, basically spying on everyone, we decided that what was important, beyond even the stuff being taught, was the vibe the teacher imparted on the classroom and your fellow students. If your classmates were cool, then you were golden. A boring teacher with a room full of people who didn’t participate would make the hours drag on. Luckily, I was placed in the creme de la creme by default so I decided to just stick with the intensive class, after contemplating a move down to regular. So yeah, wish me luck. 加油, 加油!

Here’s the thing about learning Mandarin: It’s just straight memorization. There are no tricks, there’s no alphabet, the radicals only do so much, and there aren’t any cute mnemonics to help you out. It’s just rote and grind and push vocab into your brain. Enter Pleco!

Basically Pleco is a free Chinese to English dictionary but for an add-on of $19.99, it turns into an awesome flash card app. You can organize your cards with touch screen ease and there’s something very satisfying about drawing Chinese characters into your iPhone and testing yourself while on the go. I totally love it and combining just a dash of tech geekery into language learning has made it that much funner. (I’ve tried using Duolingo to learn Spanish, and the gamification helped there too, but only up to a certain point.)

There’s other good flash card apps out there, namely Anki, but Pleco is the only Chinese specific one. And I’ve found that even though there’s no online support -- it’s all iOS or Android -- Pleco's features are superior to what Anki can offer. Also, Waygo is a Chinese, Korean, and Japanese text translator app that uses image recognition to read stuff frighteningly fast. It's mostly effective for menus, and it’s not very accurate sometimes, but overall Waygo is a nice tool to have around. So until an actual Babel fish comes along, back to the iPhones and books!