August 2013: After years of watching China from afar, I am now in the country for the second time in a few months. My time here has impacted my perception of the country, and helped me develop and sharpen my future plans. Like many graduate students, as I move forward I have to make decisions about where I’m going to be in a few years, and every new experience helps.
I’ve also reached the point where I need really to press forward with my language capability, so an intensive language program is just the ticket. Last time around — just a few months ago — the many demands of working on an archaeological survey left me with very little time to practice speaking Chinese; after a hard day’s work the temptation to get along by pointing at things usually won out.
Now, thanks to the generosity of the Polonsky Foundation, some 50 students — yours truly included — have the opportunity to learn Chinese in China itself. For some, it’s their first time learning the language so the beginners’ class allows them to hit the ground running. For others, like me, it’s a chance to put into practice years of effective, yet somewhat stilted, classroom language studies.
Most of us are from the Hebrew University’s Department of Asian Studies — which has been teaching Chinese since 1958, before it was cool — although some students from other Israeli universities have joined us in our quest for glory in language. The predominance of Hebrew University students is not surprising when one considers that it was Dr. Lihi Yariv Laor, the Abraham Miller Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the Hebrew University, who wrote the textbook that is used by most Israeli universities to teach Chinese to Hebrew speakers.
The course is taking place in Jilin University, which is also cooperating with the Hebrew University on the Fuxin research project on the transition to sedentary living and agriculture in North China which I participated in earlier this year (see my earlier blogs).
We’ve taken over a floor of the foreign students’ dorms, and seem to have settled nicely into an academic community of sorts. Advanced students help others prepare material for class, suave globetrotters help the greenhorns find their feet, and the bold explorers share their discoveries with the rest of us. Naturally, we marked the end of our first week here with a festive Friday night dinner.
The schedule is demanding — four to seven hours of classes, five days a week. It’s a heavy workload, and we’re assigned new vocabulary and advanced grammar on a daily basis. We have to drill for hours to be able to recognize and write new characters, as well as understand their meaning and how to use them in a sentence.
Another component of the course is hearing comprehension, training our ears and minds to pick up the four tones of the Chinese language and — with any luck — understand a full sentence before the speaker moves on. There are also oral comprehension classes, where they try to get us to overcome our language ‘stage fright.’
Although it’s been hard to adapt to the pace — and to learning Chinese in Chinese, rather than Hebrew — for most of us, our progress is already palpable.
Yochana Storch, 26, is a graduate student in East Asian studies at the Hebrew University. She is from Jerusalem; she completed her army service as a sergeant of operations.
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