As part of the Beijinger’s Mandarin Month series ahead of our June 25 Mandarin Mixer, we present Hao Laoshi, a series of Q&A's with teachers and students at various Mandarin learning centers around town. Today we speak with Jessica Gao, an American-born Chinese student at the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies (IUP, formerly known as the Stanford Center, located on the campus of Tsinghua University).

What's the funniest mistake you've made while trying to speak Chinese?
I got unsolicited pronunciation lessons on a first date with a local! It was one month into the IUP program, and we had just reviewed when to say 为 (wéi, for) with a second tone versus a fourth tone. Growing up in a Chinese-American household, I learned some pretty incorrect pronunciations and still had huge issues differentiating the two. So I meet this young local professional on a date in Wudaokou and he’s patient enough with me as we converse in Chinese. But every single time I said 为, he would unconsciously correct my tone under his breath, and increasingly louder. Over the course of an hour, it was slowly revealed to me that he was a broadcaster for Sina. There wasn’t a date number two, but I’ve rarely made a 为 mistake since!

Some people might be afraid to make such errors. Tell us more about why they shouldn't be.
Making these sorts of elementary mistakes means that you’re putting yourself out there, and the more chances you take, the more fun anecdotes you have as lessons and as party stories.

Aside from the pronunciation of 为, what other aspects of learning Chinese have been challenging?
Once IUP brought my Chinese skill to a certain level, the biggest challenge was, ironically, to craft a Chinese sentence. I decided it was not enough just to convey my meaning with sentences that were directly translated in my mind from English into Chinese, piece by piece; I wanted to think like a native speaker and write in a way that both conveyed my intended meaning and flowed in a way Chinese speakers were comfortable reading. One of the most unique aspects of IUP classes is that you are able to take one-on-one self-structured classes, so I made this my focus for a semester. Luckily, my IUP teachers had equally high standards for me and we worked together to prepare reading materials, essay prompts, and set aside a few days a week to correct each sentence whose structure sounded very "English" into "Chinese" sounding sentences. Thanks to their attention to detail and willingness to hone in together on this one weakness, I was really able to see vast improvements in just a few months.

It sounds like you've had a great experience at IUP. Why did you decide to study there in the first place?
I woke up one day when I was 19 years old, and it hit me that if I didn't take some time to truly study another language, I would likely never become fully bilingual. Not only had I grown up hearing Chinese, I had been very interested for a long time in the landscape of women's rights and gendered health access/outcomes here in China.

IUP is arguably the most effective Chinese language program in the world. Not only does IUP guarantee a 1:3 teacher:student ratio for group classes and at least one individual class per day, the highly intensive program also allows us to attain a level of Chinese fluency at a speed that I have yet to encounter with other programs. The teachers here have a deep understanding of how English speakers learn Chinese and work with you to identify and nurture your strengths and weaknesses. The relatively older age of IUP students fosters a myriad of intellectually stimulating discussions in class, and it's worth noting that there is complete freedom of speech about government-deemed "sensitive" topics within the walls of each classroom – active discussion of formal, abstract topics is encouraged between students and teachers. You walk out of the program with a rigorous foundation of the Chinese language and a very grounded sense of the Chinese cultural landscape.

Come meet some IUP reps, and teachers from a dozen other Mandarin schools at our free event. Pre-register for this free event here.

In the meantime, be sure to follow our month-long Mandarin Month coverage here.

Mandarin Month is brought to you by Pleco, Project Pengyou, Ninchanese, BenCham, BritCham, and MexCham.

This post is sponsored by IUP.

Photos courtesy of Jessica Gao


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