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The kamikaze approanch to learning Chinese

There are several theories out there describing how to best learn a foreign language (or indeed to learn anything), and one of them promulgated by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. He views the learning situation as a sort of construction project, where the teacher uses scaffolding to create support for a student to attain ever higher levels of ability. When the student can stand alone on a new level, the scaffolding is simply moved higher up the planned tower of knowledge. The construction work should then be focused on the appropriate level, meaning that it shouldn’t be too easy (in which case the student already know what is taught and doesn’t need scaffolding)  and not too difficult (because scaffolding can only reach to certain height). The question this gives rise to is of course what is too difficult and what is too easy; what level of scaffolding is appropriate?

I have studied at Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages for two weeks now (this is the third week), and I know for sure that the class I attended in the beginning was too easy. Of course, it depends on what “too easy” means, but in this case I mean that I felt we spent too much time in class on things I already knew. I had the feeling that I could handle more difficult topics.

Thus, I resolved to check what possibilities there were to alter my learning environment. It turned out I had two choices, either a slightly more difficult class (same book, but eight chapters further on) or a class twice as difficult (different series, but at least two books ahead). I didn’t need to think for long before deciding that the slightly more difficult one was out of the question, because it wouldn’t make any significant difference. So, how about the significantly more difficult class?

Last Thursday and Friday, I attended both classes to try and see if it would at all be possible to survive on this higher altitude. The answer was a hesitant yes, I would probably survive, although the book they use is book five in a series I’ve only managed to finish book three (which alone took us one semester in Xinzhu). Monday through Wednesday, the responsible teacher is different and so is the text book, which is even more difficult than the one used Thursday and Friday. Basically, it’s a book about Chinese journalism and reading newspapers in Chinese, something I predicted that I would do in five months, not now.Today, I talked with the teacher and attended a two hour class. It was great!

Apart from this, I also have six hours of supplementary classes: two hours calligraphy writing, two hours Taiwanese and two hours media (listening to music, watching films and so forth). I don’t know very much about these classes yet, but I hope they will be interesting rather than useful. To be honest, I don’t need more subjects which require me to study diligently.

So why kamikaze? Because this isn’t simply immersion, this is like a combat diver attacking an aircraft carrier, but having the air tank removed and equipped only with a spoon to carve through the one-foot-thick steel hull. Perhaps it’s impossible to get all the way through, but I’ll be really good at holding my breath and carving when this semester comes to an end, believe me. In more practical terms it will mean that I have to study a lot. And I mean a lot, even compared to what I normally consider as a lot. To give you some sort of idea, we are currently studying a one-page article which I needed to look up 124 words in order to fully understand (I assume that we will finish it in three lessons or so). In class, I understand about 90 % of what the teacher says, slightly less of what my classmates say, but that’s okay.

This kind of situation might ring a bell for some of my more devoted readers, mainly because of what I wrote after my first language lesson last year. In that class, I not only managed to survive, but in the end I thrived (my score was 94/100, I learned today). The scaffolding of my Chinese pagoda might be reaching to the stars and with crossbeams few and far between, but I’m quite confident that I can negotiate my way upwards nonetheless. Banzai!

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  1. Xhakhal’s avatar

    I have faith, confidence and trust in you! Banzai!


  2. Slippery Jim’s avatar

    I have faith in you! You are such a great inspiration! Keep it up, mate!


  3. Alva’s avatar

    Haha, du är ju för underbar :)