Saturday, September 11, 2010

Program Report: HBA 4th Year, Summer 2010

Below is my final report on my experience at HBA this year. Feel free to hold out for an upcoming post (with pictures!) on my travels to Xinjiang if you find it too dry.


Harvard-Beijing Academy: Final Report
Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, summer 2010, 4th year

Note: In an effort to make this comprehensive and gear it toward future Fellows, I will begin with some basic information about the daily schedule, curriculum, etc., and conclude with my personal experience, including an evaluation and suggestions for improvement or program choice.

Program Basics

Weekly routine:
 - Mon-Thu: Lecture (16 students) 8:00-9:20, reading aloud (4 students) 9:30-9:50, small class (same 4 students) 10:10-11:00, small class #2 (same 4 during first semester; changes to 2-person conversation class in second semester) 11:10-12:00. Lunch 12:00 (Tue & Fri: Chinese table - semi-mandatory, tasty, free), one-on-one class 1:30-2:20 or 2:20-3:10. Then some extracurricular options, one lecture-type event a week (usually not mandatory), an optional (up to) 3 hours per week with a Chinese language partner, and of course homework.
 - Fri: Testing in the morning following a similar schedule; afternoon is free.
 - Weekends: free, though HBA organizes (and pays for) various trips in/around Beijing (Great Wall, Lao She Tea House, etc).

 - Fourth year, while it takes some getting used to if you haven’t had the HBA/PIB experience in the past, is very doable, and tests are actually easy. Not counting morning review, o n average I would consider 4 hours a solid amount of time to prepare the next day’s lesson, 5 if you want to review and thereby master a greater % of the material. That said, I know that my preparation time is generally longer than most others’.

Class size (this year): high 30s in 2nd year, low 20s in 3rd year, 16 in 4th year, 8 in 5th year. Total: 86. Of those, 6 in 4th year and 7 in 5th year were heritage learners.

Length: 9 weeks

Other features:
 - Social study project: 5th week. Options: Inner Mongolia, Shanghai, Qingdao, Beijing (self-directed), Hebei villages, Shaolin Temple, Xi’An (anticipated). Note that these trips are self-funded and can be expensive! (Inner Mongolia, the most costly, was about 2500 RMB all told.)
 - Language pledge: very well respected, though this varies between friend groups. Begins to break down over the social study week in the middle of the program.
 - Fantastic “dorms,” essentially single hotel rooms with bathrooms inside each.

Experience & Evaluation

HBA was probably the best program for me this semester; that said, my experience was mixed. I will try to write from every angle I can think of, and then add more content if I think of it later.

Overall improvement has been most obvious in the areas of writing and speaking. My speaking improved mainly because of the environment and adherence to the language pledge; among other things, it no longer feels tiring to speak in Chinese, and that’s a big step in itself. I also realized soon after arriving in Beijing how comparatively terrible the language environment in Taipei had been (though I’m sure that one factor was my very low level of Chinese last summer) and how glad I was to be in Beijing at a program where the language pledge was respected. In terms of writing, I put my improvement down to the curriculum and the frequent writing requirements (mainly expository, but some also descriptive). Also, I can clearly see some foresight in the curriculum’s focus on grammar/sentence patterns as opposed to vocabulary: we can always look up new words on our own as we read more Chinese in the future, but we won’t always have a teacher on hand to explain a new grammatical construction.

My abiding disappointment is that I still find myself unable to communicate effectively by most standards. This is mostly due to my weakness in listening comprehension. I think this is partly natural – I’d say that whether it’s song lyrics in English or learning a phrase in a new language by ear, I have a bit more difficulty picking out words and pronunciation than the average person, and besides that, Chinese is a language of homonyms. That said, I also regret that 4th year of HBA had no real listening component to it; most of us can understand the teachers most of the time, but real-world Chinese is another question entirely. And as it turns out, the best way to improve spoken and heard Chinese – i.e., talking to people – is a dead end if in every conversation one’s interlocutor has to put a lot of effort into making him/herself understood. In short, despite particular efforts (until halfway through this summer, I always prepared Chinese lessons by first listening three times, even spending all of third year picking out new vocabulary by sound instead of reading), my listening has become a very obvious barrier to improvement, and to the extent that the issue isn’t limited to me, I blame HBA’s 4th year curriculum for failing to foresee that problem and help compensate for it.

This brings me to an observation I’ve made about systemic curriculum failure in the Chinese as a Foreign Language community. The Chinese classes and curricula that I have encountered I would count as some of the best in the world; however, a lot of Chinese programs (not just Yale and Harvard, I’ve discovered) have decided that somewhere in the second or third year it’s time to get serious and start delving into politics, economics, and literature. I would have no problem with this were Chinese as (comparatively) easy to acquire as a Romance language – but it’s not, and we’re not young enough to naturally pick up the colloquial expressions and key vocabulary that they skip over in order to discuss the 1979 Opening and Reform in second-year HBA. And once you’re into fourth year, any hope of building your base of common vocabulary and expressions is but a fantasy: in between reading a piece by Lu Xun (early modern, and full of now-unused vocabulary) and an article on the economics of traffic jams, you simply don’t have the time to learn how to recognize, repeat, and write words like “purple” and “elbow,” let alone learn colloquialisms. Every semester of Chinese I take feels a bit like building on a house of cards.

And now for some commentary on specific aspects of the program and the summer as a whole:

1. Language pledge: As I mentioned earlier, the language pledge was instrumental to the leap that my spoken Chinese took this summer. That said, there are pitfalls and I definitely stumbled into quite a few of them. I became friends with two classmates who were basically opposite in speaking ability: one spoke Chinese at home and one definitely had some trouble expressing himself and talked pretty rarely. The problem with the latter is obvious; having a conversation with someone whose Chinese is worse than yours, especially someone who doesn’t speak much, isn’t going to do a whole lot to raise the bar. The problem with the former (besides constant envy) is that there’s a continual push to speak faster, sometimes at the expense of accuracy, and the best speaker tends to be the de facto representative when a small group is ordering food or asking a question.

2. Heritage Learners… and their uses: It’s been a love-hate relationship. They speak fast and tend to have area accents (some of them quite strong), and have some very set errors and inaccuracies in their speech. Except for the most conscientious, they are also much more likely to break the language pledge; they see it as not very necessary. On the other hand, they were my bridge to speaking with actual Chinese people: they speak semi-fluently but their language tends to be pretty simple, and they would sometimes throw in some common colloquial expressions I’d never heard. It was also much easier to go on outings with the teachers when the heritage learners were around to make conversation.

3. The Area: Conducive to staying inside one’s room. The majority of the students on campus are foreigners, especially during the summer, and it’s small so not much is happening – especially during the summer. Also, Wudaokou is itself full of foreign students, and mostly good for the weekends (read: eating out and drinking).

4. Dating: I very briefly dated a Chinese girl. Looking back, I don’t think the language barrier is insurmountable, but for it to work you need to have similar interests or a similar sense of humor, or click in some very noticeable way. Chatting with someone with whom one has little in common can be awkward in English, and it seems like it’s going to be the last thing that I learn in Chinese. As far as relationships with classmates go: if you’re not going to keep the language pledge (at least for the most part), it’s going to undercut much of the hard work you’re doing at HBA. But if you both have the same goal – i.e., putting your Chinese first – it can work out just fine.

5. Teachers: Despite the pittance they get paid (something like $4.50 USD an hour?!) and the fact that the vast majority of them are still graduate students (mostly at the BLCU), I think that most of them were excellent, and all of them incredibly dedicated. Competition for an HBA position is apparently pretty fierce, as it’s great experience to put on a resume, and the strength of the (very structured) curriculum and continual evaluations allows even the inexperienced teachers to pull through and improve. My only source of disappointment was that most of us only got friendly with the teachers near the very end of the program, as the barriers only started to come down during the social study week.

6. Attendance Policy: Overboard, even ridiculous. I got sick during the second week, and the “if you’re not in the hospital, you’re in class” rule made that entire week a haze for me; retention dropped to new lows, and I’m sure that it would have been much more efficient had I been able to sleep it off for two days and come back swinging. Also, some of the activities that are nominally optional are in practice mandatory, e.g. some lectures (even if they’re not that good) and Chinese table.

7. Free Time: I can’t really say that I took advantage of Beijing this summer. I have all of this fall to do so (hopefully), but at the same time, it was a very one-sided summer and I didn’t do a lot of basic life things that one should do – e.g., regularly attend cooking class, keep up on the news, exercise a bit, see more than a few sights around town, start regularly watching some Chinese TV and reading a Chinese novel.

In sum, I learned a lot, retained a decent amount, and improved significantly. I still have a ways to go, though, and am looking at ways to expand my Chinese education and make it more practical. Fortunately I still have one full semester in Beijing and another in Taiwan to make this happen.

1 comment:

  1. Ethan: This is a superb report! Thank you, and I'm glad HBA proved mostly superb to you as well. Looking forward to the Xinjiang bit. =)