I’ve been taking Chinese classes at Chicle Language Institute at night, and really getting a lot out of it. (This is not a sponsored or requested post at all, I’m linking the language center’s site because I had a hard time finding a Mandarin class in Carrboro. And when I did find Chicle, I hesitated a bit before investing so much money in a language class without hearing from any other students.)
There are a lot of unique challenges with teaching Mandarin to foreigners. Chinese teachers rarely hear foreigners speaking Chinese, so there can be a whole lot of ni de zhong wen shi hen hao! to wade through before receiving any constructive feedback. Also, in general Chinese people don’t expect foreigners to speak Mandarin, and it’s not a great classroom experience to have the teacher giggle whenever a language student uses the target language. (This did create a bond with some of my coworker-classmates at Yangzhou Global IELTS, so it wasn’t a complete loss.)
Plus, with traditional characters, simplified, pin yin, and Wades-Giles, pretty much whichever way you’re writing the word is wrong.
My class at Chicle was effective because my spoken Mandarin improved a lot over this class. I know classroom Chinese is much slower and clearer than everyday Chinese, but I’m still happy with the improvement in my comprehension. Our teacher was really great about speaking slowly, with a nice clear Beijing accent (the Beijing television presenter accent, not the Beijing cabbie/pirate accent). My understanding continues to outstrip what I can actually say, though. This was a fairly frustrating situation in Yangzhou, when I was often able to understand what others said to me, but lacked the ability to explain what I thought. Except in the lesson on ordering food, of course, because I can rock some restaurant Chinese.
I had to psyche myself up for the first couple of lessons — You’re paying this teacher to correct you, Meg! Start making some mistakes! — but after a bit I felt less nervous speaking. I didn’t focus all that much on writing during this class. I barely ever handwrite anything in English, and typing in Chinese is just based on knowing the pin yin, you don’t even need tone marks, and recognizing characters from the list of homonyms. So I devoted most of my time and effort to speaking and listening, and taking advantage of having my grammar corrected and the correct usage clearly explained.