Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pipa (琵琶) - Studying at IUP

(Writer's Note: The following blog is the third part in a series of entries that will summarize my life as a student at the Inter-University Program at Tsinghua University (IUP). In this entry, I will write about my Chinese language program in Beijing for Light Fellows.)

When one first crosses into the realm of IUP, one will see a work of caoshu calligraphy hung on the opposing wall. One may make out the very first character, xue, 學. The rest looks like gibberish in print. Kind of like the reflection of the tree on the Tsinghua river - colorful and vibrant, but blurry.

IUP was created originally for scholars who wanted to research Chinese art and history and for future officials who wanted to discuss policy and economics. Now, the student population at this program is diverse, accepting undergraduates, graduate students, professors, investment bankers, consultants, journalists, curators, doctors, lawyers, musicians, to name a few. The students at IUP come from very different life backgrounds - a SAIS graduate fluent in Thai and strategic studies, a Harvard Chinese philosophy postdoc interested in green energy who worked as lead cook in Kyrgyzstan, an ex-engineer-cancer-survivor planning to teach English to children in Yunnan, a filmmaker with crushes on Three Kingdoms military strategist Zhu Geliang, a public health researcher who's smoked marijuana in Burma - to describe a few. And then there's that undergraduate who's having a mid-college crisis and seeks escape in Chinese. The learning is not just in the classroom.

Class size and textbook design are the pillars of IUP. Class size is limited to three students per teacher. The textbooks are designed so that vocabulary is purposely repeated. While the ambitious student may criticize this tactic as a cheap way of repeating words, it's actually repetition that reinforces and consolidates your mastery of the language. Most intensive programs constantly list new vocabulary without allowing students adequate review time - in IUP's textbooks, review is built in. Once your Chinese language level is high enough, you can take independent tutorials, where you select your own reading material.

The teachers are at once your educators and friends. The teachers at IUP are young (relative to your average Chinese language teacher back in the United States) - most are somewhere around 25. The older ones either act unbearably young or outrageously old. They are also female (except for the one male teacher in the picture above). They are very approachable but cliquish at the same time, especially the older teachers. But don't let the way they group together intimidate you. If there's anything that psychology books and Sex and the City has taught me, women coagulate so that they can be approached. A seemingly self-defeating dilemmic answer, but true. Eat lunch with them, hang out in their offices, make random jokes - eventually they all change.

Studying for classes varies from student to student. Lots of students enjoy Wenlin, found on all computers at IUP, as well as various dictionaries in the library for the usual vocabulary search. Some students rely on flashcards and rote memorization, associating English translations of words to their Chinese counterparts. While this strategy works for maybe through third-year Chinese, I feel that to really make a leap in Chinese learning you should graduate the cards and rely only on recordings and incessant reading of the text. Chinese is learned best when learned as native Chinese students learn it - through memorization or deep familiarization of entire passages. Also, the sooner you can exclusively use Chinese-Chinese dictionaries instead of Chinese-English dictionaries, the better.

After a few modules of hard studying at IUP, I looked down at the river and saw the trees' reflection in the water. I was pleased to see the outline of the trunks and clumps of leaves and branches - an improvement from the yellow green mixture from before.

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