The latest newsletter from taiwanreporter Klaus Bardenhagen
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My first Chinese class ever

Below you'll find part V of my "How I ended up in Taiwan" story. I will tell you about my very slow first steps learning Chinese in Taiwan.

Remember, you can still read the previous episodes in case you missed them.

If you would like to support me and my work in Taiwan, there is a way that will not cost you a penny:

The next time you order anything from, simply start your shopping via this link:

This is an affiliate link. No matter what you order (a book, toilet paper, a sofa...), I will get a small percentage from Amazon. Your price remains unchanged, and I will not know who ordered what.

Here's an idea to start: Green Island, the much acclaimed historical novel about Taiwan by author Shawna Yang Ryan.

No matter what you decide on: Thank you very much!

Want to re-read the previous newsletters? They are right here.

Taiwan Resources in English

Taiwan's economy, explained

I am not an expert on matters related to the economy, but I am willing to learn and process new information. All the better if it is presented by someone knowledgeable and in a readable way.

Here are two sources for in-depth, fact-laden AND interesting English articles about Taiwan's world of business and the economy:

  • Commonwealth Magazine
    One of those printed magazines you'll find in every convenience store. They translate a lot of their excellent reporting into English and publish it online: economic policies, business trends, profiles of industry leaders and more.
  • Topics Magazine
    Published monthly by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. Here's how they put it: "Readers look to the magazine for in-depth reporting on such subjects as Taiwan's infrastructure development, healthcare system, regulatory regime, environmental conditions and quality of life, and the political and legal system." I agree.
If you want to support my work in Taiwan, here is what you can do.

My Taiwan Story (Chapter 5)

My first serious encounter with the Chinese language took place in March 2008 in the Cheng-chi University’s (NCCU) Foreign Language Center, on top of the hill on their Muzha campus. I was quite intrigued to see the campus was so large they even had a shuttle bus only to drive students and teachers from the lower-level area up the hill.

Cramped into our little classroom were nine or ten students. There was another German, a guy from Hungary and one from India, girls from Mexico, Nicaragua, Japan (two of them), and even a chief’s son from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati – my first encounter with Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. None of us spoke any Chinese. It was the prototypical beginner’s class in Taiwan.

Our teacher, who later admitted she had never taught a beginner’s class before, decided to start out with an all-immersive approach: She just spoke Chinese. So we were a little shocked to be confronted with sentences like “我是老師。你們是學生。“ without being able to understand a single word.

We started with volume one of the NTNU-designed “Practical Audio-Visual Chinese” series that generations of Chinese learners in Taiwan probably still know by heart. It has only recently been given a complete makeover – no more Gao Weili (but he would only show up it volume 3 anyway).

It’s hard to express how utterly clueless I felt during these early stages of learning Chinese. Not that I think Chinese is a terribly difficult language to learn. The grammar, for example, is a piece of cake compared to German, and pronunciation, including tones, is totally doable. The problem was just that, as Chinese is not related to any of the European languages, I started with a completely blank slate and had trouble storing those important first bits of information. I remember it took a while until I stopped mixing up ni 你 and ta 他 – both, after all, were just sounds that both carried no significance whatsoever for me.

So during the first half of my three-month class, I felt quite out of place, just glad that I could muddle along and make a little bit of very tedious progress. However, I had a lot of free time on my hands, did my homework and was generally not willing to fall too far behind compared to my classmates– no one likes to be the worst student in class.

Eventually, progress started to creep in. The more vocabulary we learned, the easier I found it to memorize new words. As new synapses started building in my brain, information stuck better. So after about six weeks, with two hours of class Monday to Friday, I realized three things:

  • It is possible to learn this language
  • It is even fun and gives me a sense of satisfaction
  • I need to keep doing it, or I will fall behind and eventually forget everything

Sometime around this point, we also started learning Chinese characters. Up until then, we did everything using Hanyu Pinyin only. (It had been decided early on that we won’t need to memorize Bopomofo, or Zhuyin, so I never learned it – and don’t miss it.)

The earliest character exercises included learning the correct stroke order. My Japanese classmates had a distinct advantage here. Out teacher also passed out little paper cards with the most basic characters written on them in huge characters, divided us up in teams and made us compete in identifying words or building sentences. This, too, was fun.

So, at the ripe age of 31, I started learning Chinese. There was no fast track, I just needed to keep on doing it. At the same time, I started exploring Taipei, and also looking for subjects to report about. More about that in the next chapter.

(To be continued.)

Photo of the Week

I love to watch old people's faces and try to imagine what kind of life they might have led, what experiences they made. It's heart-warming to see couples still showing affection in old age, to the point where they seem to be living in symbiosis. Sometimes I think I can see a younger version of themselves shining through.
I took this photo seven years ago.
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