Alan Kwan was born in Hong Kong, and went to high school and law school there, then was an exchange student in Singapore and pursued graduate studies in International Relations at the London School of Economics (LSE) in England. There, he applied for the MOE (Taiwan Ministry of Education) scholarship to study Chinese, and is currently studying at National Taiwan University (NTU).
ALAN: I decided to come to Taiwan because I wanted to improve my Chinese, and heard Taiwan was a better place to do it. I had some friends who studied Chinese on the mainland, and they didn’t seem to improve that much, so that’s why I decided on Taiwan. I did all my research online.
Even though I speak Cantonese at home, I’ve hardly ever learned Chinese in class. All my schooling was in English, so I felt I need to work on that. I wanted to live and work in Asia, so even though I haven’t exactly decided how to use it yet, it will definitely be useful in one way or another.
I started in June last year, and it’s been really, really great so far. I feel like I’ve definitely improved a lot. It’s a separate department at NTU, the International Chinese Language Program (ICLP). Our schedule is basically three group classes, and one individual class a day. In the group classes, there are at most four students, so that means you get a lot of personal attention. Also, the workload, homework, is pretty heavy. Every day you spend 4-5 hours on homework. So I guess because it’s so intensive you improve. All the classes are in Chinese, meaning that they don’t explain it to you in English. I came in at the intermediate level; even though I hadn’t studied Chinese before I could still recognize the characters, so that helped. Keeping the scholarship is based on attendance, and there’s a term final, so you can’t fail that! But it’s not that hard to pass.
There was no cost to apply, and the application period is right now. They pay for tuition, which is normally about US$3,000 a term — probably because their classes are so small — and a monthly stipend of NT$10,000. I’m sure ShiDa (NTNU) is cheaper, but they have 25 students in a class. [My scholarship] is good for a year. I’m not planning to apply again, because I think one year is good enough for me. I’m not really sure yet what I’ll do after that. I like Taiwan a lot so I kind of want to stay, but I don’t have any concrete plans yet.
I think Mandarin’s definitely a lot easier to learn if you’re a non-Chinese speaker, because for not just Cantonese but all Chinese dialects the tones and grammar are really hard for foreigners to pick up. I don’t know how else to say it. Cantonese is definitely harder [than Mandarin] for foreigners. If you put a lot of time into it, you can speak Mandarin without an accent. but to learn Cantonese, or even Taiwanese, it’s really hard.
ICLP organizes a lot of social events for their students. They take trips to various places in Taiwan, and for the Chinese New Year they actually organized a homestay with local families. ICLP also started publishing a newsletter, completely written and designed by their students, all in Chinese. They have a lot of computers and a good language lab, with free printing. You can listen to a lot of the material on their Web site, and there’s an audio library where you can borrow a lot of tapes and CDs for free.
I’ve heard NTU has the most intensive program, but it depends on what you’re looking for. If you think you want something less expensive or more relaxed, then it probably isn’t for you.
– Interview by Trista di Genova, The China Post, 2/9/09