What It’s Like Learning Chinese at the ICLP in Taiwan

From February to August of 2019 I studied for one academic year at the International Chinese Language Program at National Taiwan University. Individual student experiences of the program are hard to come by, so in this post I will outline in full what it was like for me during those seven months. 

First, some info about myself

Prior to participating in the program I had studied Chinese for two years in college at Elon University. I decided to plan on going to Taiwan for study abroad approximately three months into my Chinese studies. The reasons why I wanted to go to Taiwan specifically were as follows:

  1. I became aware of Taiwan and its culture via YouTube videos I was using to study in my free time and became very interested in the country.
  2. I preferred the Taiwanese accent to the mainland one, and had already developed a slight Taiwanese accent and tendency towards Taiwanese vocabulary since I was consuming a lot of Taiwanese content.
  3. I wanted to study traditional characters since I was only learning simplified in class.
  4. The ICLP is arguably the best Chinese language school in the world with a very prestigious alumni network including ambassadors, top China-watchers etc.

After my first year of study I chose to take the HSK 5 and passed it on July of 2017. This will give you an idea of what my level was before entering the program one year later. That is to say, I entered Taiwan already with full conversational fluency, my pronunciation was great, I could understand about 80% of whatever native speakers told me, and I had an average grasp of traditional characters through watching Taiwanese content. However, because I was mostly studying informal content on my own, I didn’t know formal grammar structures, and knew very few chengyu. 

How I applied

The first semester I was at ICLP as a CET student. CET is a study abroad program that specializes in East Asia and has treaties with many colleges in the United States. Elon offered CET programs to Beijing and Shanghai, but did not offer the CET program to Taiwan. I ended up applying to CET Taiwan through Elon’s independent study abroad application. Because Elon had already vetted other CET programs, the process was easier than applying directly to ICLP. The CET program also offers some other experiences on top of participation in ICLP which were appealing to me. These included an internship, a class on cross-strait relations taught by an NCCU professor, a class on Taiwanese culture, trips around Taiwan, and living arrangements with local NTU students. 

I took the same classes as regular ICLP students while doing the CET program. The main difference was that I took three classes instead of four. Meaning, I didn’t take a second elective at ICLP my first semester. The second semester I took four classes because I became a regular ICLP student, but more on that shortly. 

Thoughts on CET

I do think CET is a good program to consider if you want to study at ICLP. Based on my experience, I became much better friends with my CET cohort than with the regular ICLP students because we CET students were taking additional classes together, going on trips together, and living together. If you want to have a Taiwanese roommate while abroad you should apply to CET because ICLP doesn’t offer this to students. CET is a much more well-rounded and guided experience than just doing ICLP in my opinion, so I recommend college students consider CET Taiwan first before directly applying to the ICLP. The benefits are worth it in my opinion. However, there is one reason why you might not want to do CET and just do the normal ICLP program instead. That reason is money. 

CET Taiwan costs $15,000 a semester. Considering ICLP only costs $4,700 a semester, you are really paying a lot more for CET. If you don’t care about the internship, extra classes, and just want to study Chinese, it makes more sense economically to do ICLP directly.

Entrance exams and placement

Going into the program my hope was to take classes at the 400 level. I wanted that level because the last Chinese class I took at Elon before coming to Taiwan was a 300 level class. In total there were six levels of students at ICLP taking classes when I was there. The program is set up to teach eight levels in total, but no students were in those top two levels when I attended the program. Class placement is done based on the following:

  1. Entrance exam score
  2. Conversational interview 

Class placement is not based on the classes you took prior to coming to ICLP. It is also not based on any tests like the HSK or TOCFL. It is solely based on your performance on the entrance exam and interview. I emphasize this because many students are disappointed when they are placed in level two or three even though they have studied Chinese since middle school. The most common level was three, with four having a slightly smaller but still large number of students. I got placed into level four, and I felt it was a very appropriate level for me.

The entrance exam is about two hours long, and is offered in both simplified and traditional characters. It is entirely multiple choice with sections including the following:

  1. Spot the pronunciation difference
  2. Listening to a short dialogue and answering questions
  3. Choosing the correct word to complete a sentence
  4. Reading comprehension for several articles of increasing difficulty

The conversational interview took place by myself in a classroom with one other teacher and had me discuss a variety of topics trying to see where my limits of expression were. I don’t remember exactly what we discussed, but I do remember having to give my thoughts on gender relations in America.

The entrance exam also serves as your exit exam when you leave the program. If you stay for one semester then you take the same exact exam at the end of the semester to see your progress. I stayed for one year, so I took the exam at the end of my second semester instead of the first. You do not have to take the entrance exam again to move up a level for the following semester. There is also a time period of one year where if you return to ICLP again you do not have to be placed as a new student, and can continue at the next level you left off at.

Classes

My first semester I took the following classes with simplified character materials:

ToCC and Chinese News had four students each. Each class lasted one hour. The daily routine in ToCC was as follows:

  1. 聽寫 10 questions
  2. Teacher asks questions to students about the assigned text and students respond with learned grammar
  3. Grammar points from the assigned text are discussed after students use them on their own first

In addition to the normal class activities, every week we gave a 600 character presentation on a topic of our choosing using at least ten grammar points from the entire lesson we covered that week. Homework every night was studying two pages of the lesson text. This seems small, but the book is quite dense, so two pages equalled about 40 new vocabulary words each day. Those words would be used for 聽寫 quizzes.  

In Chinese News we did the following:

  1. Go over our responses to last night’s homework
  2. Read a news article from the text
  3. Study formal grammar in the article
  4. Have a discussion about the article using formal grammar

This class did not have weekly presentations. Homework involved answering questions about topics related to the assigned article. Daily new vocabulary was around 40 as well.

The individual class went over the same information as the ToCC group class. The teacher is not the same as the one in your group class and also serves as your advisor. In this class you got more speaking practice and worked out any issues with the vocabulary and grammar. The individual class also allowed you to workshop your presentations for the group class. Homework for this class was not daily, and involved completing the weekly workbook pages from the ToCC lessons.

My second semester I signed up for continuation at ICLP and started level five classes after a one month gap between semesters. I took the following classes:

Thought and Society was the core course for level five. The class format was the exact same as ToCC. The only differences were that the presentation character requirement went up to 800 characters, and the daily vocabulary bumped up to about 80 new words a day.

Mini Radio Plays had only two students and consisted of the following:

  1. Present the background to a chengyu from the text
  2. Go over the vocabulary
  3. Act out the play based on assigned roles

Homework for this course consisted of learning about 40 words a day. The vocabulary for this class was very difficult because many of the words were chengyu, or didn’t exist in the Chinese dictionary because they were colloquial or slang. For this reason, the vocabulary was presented with only Chinese definitions. Every week, one student acted as a discussion moderator and asked questions to the other about the play and our thoughts on the character’s actions.

My second elective was actually a level six class on ancient Chinese. Literary Chinese II had three students and only involved converting the lesson text from 文言文 to 白話. We were given a sheet of paper with the conversions we needed to learn the night before. I would then convert the story myself as homework before the lesson.

The individual class for level five was the same as level four, just using the level five textbook.

What my classmates were like

The students at ICLP my first semester were very different from the students there second semester. This is because the summer semester takes students from the flagship programs in the United States. These students receive Chinese classes funded by the U.S. government, and have a requirement to study abroad in a Chinese speaking country twice, and they also conduct research at the end of their degree. You might think the difference would be that these flagship students were much better at Chinese, but you’d be wrong.

These flagship students had Chinese levels well below the regular ICLP students from my first semester. The most common levels they were placed in were two and three. This resulted in many of them being disappointed since many severely overestimated their abilities. Flagship students receive a longer group class and get weekly lectures from NTU professors as well. The main issue with flagship students is that because they are forced to study abroad they don’t have the same passion as normal ICLP students that were there by their own accord. Furthermore, I never once heard an ICLP student complain about being placed in a level they thought they were above, but because flagship students feel they are meant to be the most elite Chinese learners, they feel entitled to a high level placement. All I can say is that wherever the U.S. government’s flagship money is going, it’s not very effective. I did not take any classes with these students, but I did live in an apartment with them and interacted with them outside of class. 

My classmates during my first semester were from Japan, Switzerland, and the United States. The age range was from late high school to graduate school. Some lower level classes had people sent by their work to study Chinese. In level five I had a very interesting group of classmates. One was a Chinese medicine doctor practicing in America, another was a Japanese-Taiwanese graduate student of linguistics at NTU, I had classmates from Myanmar and Hong Kong, I had two classmates that were students at Yale.

How long I studied per day

If you calculate the vocabulary required each day for level five it equals about 120 new words per day. You are probably thinking that sounds absurd. How could anyone learn so many new words in a day? Yes, it is slightly absurd, but the focus of the classes are on speaking and reading, not writing, and never handwriting, so it’s not impossible per say. You are also allowed to use a notebook with all the vocabulary you’ve written down as a reference in class if you want. Making these reference lists was a daily homework activity I did. 

At first, reading the passages was slow for me because I wasn’t used to so much reading, but over time I got better at it and only needed to read the lessons probably two times to answer the questions in class effectively. In terms of actually homework time I probably spent three hours a day in level four, and five to six hours in level five. Writing a presentation usually took me about five hours as well. It is a lot of studying, but I enjoy learning Chinese so I didn’t get burnt out like some other students. I do miss the program, but it is a serious drain on the mind if you aren’t really good about managing your studies. The good thing is that as long as you make a sincere effort you’ll never get below a “B” because of their easy grading policies, so don’t be afraid of the workload, they’ll do anything not to fail you.

Tests and quizzes

There were no tests other than the final exams for each class. These final exams were very easy and required no real extra studying to get an “A” on. The core classes gave daily quizzes on the vocabulary for the day called 聽寫. The teacher would say a sentence omitting a word and the student would recall from their memory of the vocab what word should go there. Because ICLP places zero emphasis on handwriting you don’t even have to write the character to get the answer right, pinyin will do just fine.

Presentations

The weekly presentations in the core classes did not require you to memorize anything like for the final presentation. These presentations were given in class at the front of the classroom in an informal way without a slideshow. The final presentation occurs at the end of every semester and is memorized. This presentation does not specifically require a slideshow, but almost everyone makes one to accompany their presentation. The weekly presentations are generally edited by your advisor in the individual class the day before the deadline. The final presentation is edited for a period of about two weeks, and can be about any topic you choose. Weekly presentations are generally related to the lesson because you have to use the lesson’s grammar and vocabulary.

Extracurricular activities

Each semester has two trips to different locations in Taiwan students can pay extra to participate in. CET students have both these trips included in the cost. There is also a language mission each semester where you are required to participate in an activity organized by ICLP. CET students were on a separate trip during this time and were not required to participate. My second semester I did a language mission learning how to make 鳳梨酥, pineapple pastries. It’s not an overly serious event despite the name.

ICLP faculty

The teachers at ICLP are certainly the best Chinese teachers in Taiwan. Not only do they all have degrees in education, they also all possess masters degrees in linguistics as well. You are truly getting the best of the best at ICLP. The office staff is very helpful in my experience with them helping me organize housing for myself, and you can email them in English if you’d like. If your interested in learning Taiwanese you can always talk to the adorable cleaning lady who works tirelessly. ICLP faculty are truly amazing people with an obvious passion for teaching Chinese. The workload for students is high, but the teachers are very good at what they do which makes things a lot smoother. 

Final thoughts

Is ICLP a good program? Yes, if you are serious about learning Chinese it is probably the best in the world. Considering the cost of the program for the amount you can learn, it’s a great deal. If you would like any other information about my experience at ICLP, let me know and I’ll get back to you. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: