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I feel like I’ve spent the entire week doing little else than saying good bye to people I love in various senses of that word. In less than a week, I’m leaving Taiwan, the country that has been my home for almost two years. I feel that life is like water, the more I try to grasp it and keep it close, the quicker it runs through my hands and is gone. Even if I return to Taiwan in the future, the time I have spent here is gone forever and will remain only as memories.

The above paragraph is a good summary of how I feel right now, even though I can easily break that kind of attitude down and show why it’s flawed, at least to myself. I also know that this is a transitory state of mind and that it’s far from how I usually regard life. Because leaving a country is just one aspect of a deeper problem, only the tip of the iceberg. Life in general is very much like this, but does that mean that a negative outlook described above is the only reasonable one?

Absolutely not!

Alan Watts once said that being born is like being thrown over a precipice and we all know that we are going to die at the end of that fall when we hit the ground, and that’s it. Therefore, the point of living is not to accumulate something that has a semblance of permanence, because whatever it is, that will also come to an end when we die.

So, what is the point, then? It is to live and experience things as we fall to our deaths. Since death is an integral part of life, as much as birth is, it should not be feared or have too much influence on the way we live. The point is what we choose to do with the time we have, not what we manage to accumulate during that time. Check the clip below to hear Alan Watt’s describe this by using music as an analogy (the animation is rather silly and of course added by someone else):

Apart from this principle of simply spending time in a way I think is worthwhile, I also try to avoid things that will stop me from doing that in the future. Borrowing huge sums of money to do what you want to do now might make you unable to continue doing things you want to do later, but studying something you enjoy might even earn you some money and make sure you can keep doing things you want to do. Living in Taiwan has mostly been something I do because I enjoy it, but it might also be useful in various ways.

Leaving Taiwan is probably the biggest emotional change in my life and probably the most difficult one as well. The change is a lot bigger than moving to Taiwan in the first place, because I only left Sweden with the intention of coming back again to pick up things where I left them. Sure, I leave Taiwan with the intention of coming back some time in the future for some unknown purpose and duration, but thaẗ́̈́’s only an idea, a concept, not a plan. I know that most of the people I say good-bye to I will never meet again. That indeed is something that has provoked much thought.

Do I regret coming here then, because it now comes to an end? Is it worth falling in love with something or someone, even though you know that you’re rushing towards the ground with every heartbeat and that you are inevitably going to crash?

Of course it is worth it!

I have done very few things in my life that I regret and going to Taiwan is certainly not one of them. I would make that decision a hundred times over without the slightest regret. If I had the choice, I would fall in love with the same people again and I would part with them again, even though it would be painful. The point is what we do with our time, not the inevitable crash at the end, because whatever we do, there will be a final collision of some kind.

I will miss Taiwan a lot, but I will miss some people here more than words can possibly express. I’m not going to write anything about specific people, I think those involved know that without my explaining it here. But precisely as death is a necessity of life, departure is also a necessity of arrival. Life goes on and there is no real reason to feel sad about leaving Taiwan, although I might be difficult for a short time, it’s simply a change among many. The change is neither good or bad, it simply is. Every choice opens some doors and closes others.

Furthermore, the digital society we live has shrunk space a lot, which means that there are no final departures any more. Fifty years ago, you would not be able to read what I think about this so conveniently. Likewise, I would not be able to keep in touch with you, regardless of where we are located on the globe.

I still have time left here in Taiwan, though, even if it’s only a few days, and it’s time to leave the computer to meet yet a few people for what might be the last time. This will make me feel a bit sad, but on the whole, I will feel happy to meet them again rather than sad about that it might be the last time. Death and departures are scary concepts when we encounter them without forewarning or reflection, but after a closer look, they are both natural parts of life and nothing to fear.

We might be falling to our deaths, but with the right attitude, the tingling sensation in our stomachs can be interpreted as exhilaration rather than fear.

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolote. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

This article is the first part of three concerning the study of Chinese. I have composed these articles for various purposes, but mostly because I enjoy writing. I also feel that I have something important to share, and even though I am sure that others have written about the same concepts elsewhere, this is how I view it. Hopefully, these ideas will be helpful to other students. Another reason for writing these articles is that I want to show those of you that do not study the language a little bit how I feel and think about Chinese. These are the three parts:

Part 1 – Attitude
Part 2 – New characters
Part 3 – Revision

Learning Chinese characters – Attitude
Learning to read and write Chinese takes exceptionally long time compared to other languages, the reason being that there is little or no relationship between how a character is written and how it is pronounced (see this article for further details about this). Learning English or French, it is possible to guess how a word is spelt, and even though the guess is perhaps not perfectly accurate, most of the time communication is possible nevertheless. Not so with Chinese. One has to learn to write every character separately and there are few shortcuts. Still, there are different methods to learn the characters, and some work better than others. I feel that I have developed a fairly good way of learning large amounts of Chinese characters, and this way of studying I intend to share with the world in these three relatively short articles. In this first one, the focus will be on the importance of attitude when studying Chinese (or any language, really).

If one wants to study Chinese characters, the first thing one has to consider is why. This is not a simple question, because it requires one to think about the future, in what situations one will use Chinese and why it is important to learn it. For instance, is it enough to only be able to read Chinese, but not write it by hand? This might be the case, because in the modern world of computers, it is not strictly necessary to be able to write by hand (in fact, many young people’s handwriting skill deteriorates today because they use the computer rather than write by hand). Still, living in a Chinese-speaking environment will be very difficult if one cannot write, especially if one intend to use Chinese for study or work. Taking some time to ponder questions like this is important; the student should make sure to have a clear idea of goals and motivations for studying Chinese. Without determination failure is the most likely outcome.

Studying languages is very different from studying most other subjects, especially at beginner levels. The main problem here is that every new section is based on all those that go before. If one fails to understand the first section, the second will be even harder, and so forth. This is a vicious circle that can kill anyone who is not careful. The only real solution is not to start spinning in the first place. Hang in there, never let go. Being left behind not only means that one does not know what one in supposed to know, it also means that it will be much more difficult to learn new things. If I for some reason fall behind, I will try to catch up as soon as possible, because the longer I wait, the less chance I will be able to pull myself up. Try not to live in an imaginary world where it is easy to catch up if one is left behind, because it never is. Not only will there be the old chapters to study properly, there will also be new chapters coming at a steady pace.

Another problem I have encountered is that my goals and the requirements for my courses do not match perfectly. Most of the time, they agree on some points, but there are essential discrepancies. When I say “the requirements for my courses”, I do not mean the official goals or what is theoretically implied there, I mean what the teachers actually require of the students. Be aware that these are seldom the same. For instance, the teacher might say that the students have to know all characters they have studied, but then fails to enforce this by means of examinations. A good teacher will be able to design exams so that there is no difference between the actual requirements and the stated goals of the course, but no teacher is perfect.

Knowing my own agenda as well as what is required of me, it is time to compare these two and find the key differences. It is important to realise that one studies Chinese for one’s own gain, not to complete a specific course, although the latter might of course be a short-term goal that is important in its own right. Let me give an example of a major difference I have found between my own goals and the two courses I have taken so far (one in Sweden, one in Taiwan). The tests on these two courses only require the students to know how to write the new words from a chapter once. This means that it is not a requirement of these courses to be able to write Chinese characters, because writing them once is almost the same as not at all. If the goal is to learn to write Chinese characters, one has to set up a system of one’s own devising that will allow truly learning the characters. Diligent revising is necessary even if it is not a requirement of the current language course!

It is time to say something about the goal for studying characters. The relationship between time spent studying and the percentage of characters known is not linear, but rather exponential. It means that increasing from 85 % to 90 % requires much, much less time than adding the five percent required to reach 95 %. Aiming for 100 % seems not only wasteful, but possibly also stupid. I have considered this goal carefully and decided that I think 95 % is necessary for the characters that are covered in my class (because I need to be able to write them on exams), but for other characters I decide to learn for some reason, 90 % is good enough for now. By no means does this mean that similar number are suitable for other students in other situations; perhaps much lower percentages are suitable for writing, although I believe that fairly high results should be the aim for reading and pronunciation.

Bear in mind that the requirements may change. To illustrate my point, I will give an example. If one studies Chinese full-time for one year, one might perhaps learn around 1500 characters if one studies diligently. Let us assume that after each chapter, there is a small test for writing the characters. On the more important exams, the students can use some phonetic system or handwriting is simply not on the menu (the focus might be on reading, translation, multiple-choice questions and so forth). This means that one will be able to read 1500 characters after one year.

However, provided students not endowed with an exceptional memory, studying in this manner also means that one can only write a couple of hundred of these (admittedly, some characters are fairly simple and very common, so one will be able to write them even though without revision). This will be a great shock if the requirements for next semester changes, and one is suddenly required to write characters by hand (this is bound to happen sooner or later). Basically, it means that one has to learn to write more than a thousand characters really quickly, because the students are assumed to know them already. Of course, it will be easier because the characters have been learn once already, but learning to write them again will not be a walk in the park. I am going to stress the key point here again; knowing to read Chinese is not the same as knowing to write.

This is of course only one example; there are probably many more that might be relevant to a specific situation. It is essential not to focus simply on the minimum requirements of the course, but instead aim for the goals one has set. Hopefully, each student studies Chinese for his or her own good. This also means that planning has to reach much further into the future than the specific courses currently running. The primary goal is to learn Chinese, not to pass the exams (hopefully, though, these will mean the same thing). I think it is of paramount importance to have at least a rough idea of what one’s goals are and how to achieve them. Sometimes, it will be tempting to go for the minimum requirements, but such complacency will bite back and cause great trouble in the future.

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