The ICLP Approach

I haven’t gotten opportunity to write on the first few experiences I have had at ICLP here in Taiwan. ICLP (InterChinese Language Program) is a well established program. Many scholars in Chinese studies from all different academic backgrounds deem this program to be among the top to get good and solid training. It is a title that is well deserved. I have never had such a full throttle educational experience. The place is less of a school and more of a training camp…boot camp? Without a frame of reference the school can be difficult to understand so let’s hit on that important note first.

ICLP, located at National Taiwan University, has made its mission to teach scholars good Chinese into a mantra that is focused on finding the strongest teaching method. The school is filled with brilliant pedagogues who constantly attempt to find the best and most appropriate training method for any given student. They start off with a general rule of not having any class larger than about four people as its maximum. Right now for instance I have two classes that are a total of three people (myself included). The smaller class sizes eliminates the possibility of a student hiding within the crowd. The hiding element commonly creeps up in normal language courses at universities across the states. You don’t know how to say such and such phrase or didn’t do the homework? Okay, just hide behind someone else and don’t get seen. Well, that doesn’t work here. At all! With smaller classes, each student receives a great deal of attention. Most importantly is also a fair amount of pressure to perform at higher levels, lest ye hold backeth the class! There aren’t really grades, although you do take an exit exam to assess your gains since entering the school, but the distinctly personal approach leaves students wanting to do well. Another key factor, ICLP makes use of extensive testing on both written and oral skills in order to gauge where each student’s level is at. This has some major benefits. If your speaking is pretty solid you will get put into a higher speech course. But say if your reading abilities suck, okay so you start off at a lower level for writing. Although each student is placed in classes that are meant to challenge and push them, I have yet to see a student get put into a course that is inappropriate for their skill level. Certainly students will groan about the amount of work. Yet everyone is equally dedicated to progressing. Upon entering the school you sign a contract to speak only Chinese in ICLP’s classroom, hallways and offices etc. Interestingly enough they allow you to write in your own punishment clause if you fail to stick to the Chinese only rule. I wrote in that I have to scrub both levels’ floors by hand. My lack Chinese skills have effectively made me silent when not in class unless it is using some of the pocket phrases that I have on hand.

Once classes start, ICLP’s awesome teaching style gets cranked to a whole other level. The teachers that you have for your classes will talk to one another about your performance, books, lessons and vocabulary. What they try to do is establish a core class which all of the classes connect to and reinforce. The bridges between classes have been absolutely helpful for me. One book may describe a piece of grammar better than another etc. The books function together very well.

This has me thinking about my school’s approach to teaching Chinese. ICLP’s methods get me very excited about the potential directions my institution could take their language training. What ICLP does here could be somewhat mimicked at other universities. No school has the resources to fully does what ICLP successfully does here, that’s not what we should be going after either. We need to be thoughtful planning how and what we teach our students about Chinese language. The courses, no doubt, could be more intensive and perhaps other books than integrated Chinese could be used. Integrated is geared specifically towards foreign students, but this comes with a penalty. The grammar tends to be explained from a very Western perspective. Chinese grammar however has little to no connection to English’s way of constructing sentences. While Chinese grammar seems much more simple than English, it still takes a little getting used to. There are many concepts in Chinese that simply have no cross over to English. What this may mean is the use of multiple books and the absolute requirement for every single student to purchase a dictionary. Anyway, I’ll get off of my horse for right now. I keep wondering what I can do to help with the budding Chinese program at Mary Washington. I think it has a lot of potential, because students at UMW have a strong dedication to learning and are very passionate about the courses they take. No one goes into a Chinese class lightly, and I firmly believe that if we were to intensify the courses somewhat, that the students would rise to meet the challenge.

To be honest, my experience at ICLP has been highly frightening. My two semesters of Chinese does not take me very far here. My training before ICLP did not internalize grammar and vocabulary. I could essentially make the sounds and some of the tones, but in no one was producing language…just sounds. There’s a difference just parroting and full on taking the language as your own. Language is not just a grammar structure and vocabulary. It is a feeling, a feeling of communication, of connection. I have started a new blog space to talk about my homework and new lessons. The space is more focused to just saving the information I gain rather than being a flowery swirl of thoughts and confused sentences! More extended posts on language training and difficulties of Chinese, for instance I could talk for days about tones, will still be on the Panda Musings, because that’s what they are! So if you are interested, check out: gongke.umwblogs.org

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