I am here because I should be able to continue my cultural heritage," said Huang You-gong (黃友恭), a student in National Taiwan Normal University's (NTNU) Overseas Youth Chinese Language Training Program (師大 海外青少年華語研習班), which is currently midway through its summer term.
The 67 students attending this rotation of the program are in Taiwan largely because they or their parents think it is necessary that they have some acquaintance with their mother tongue and Chinese culture.
Hidden away behind the higher-profile Mandarin Training Center (MTC), the Extension Division for Interservice and Continuing Education, has for the last three years, operated the Overseas Youth Chinese Language Training Program at the behest of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC). The program has a broad mandate to introduce overseas Chinese, who feel they have lost touch with the wellspring of their culture, back into the fold.
The program, which offers places for young overseas Chinese aged 14 to 24, is subsidized by the MAC, so that students only pay slightly over NT$20,000 for the seven week program, including accommodation, language teaching, cultural activities and travel around Taiwan. "It is very much cheaper than regular Chinese training offered by NTNU," said Jocelyn Tsai (蔡思真) of the Extension Division for Interservice and Continuing Education.
For the younger students, it also offers a more community-oriented atmosphere than MTC, as all the students live and study together. With its 10:30pm curfew and penalties for missing class, it is not unlike a boarding school, and Tsai said it was not particularly surprising that not all the students, especially the more outspoken Americans and Europeans, adapted well to it.
Moreover, not all the students are there of their own volition. The school faces enormous difficulties creating a program that can cater to such a diverse student population. American Chinese make up a significant proportion of students this term, but overall, students from countries with significant ethnic Chinese populations such as Indonesia and Thailand are among the most numerous.
"Chinese education in these countries is quite poor," Tsai said, "so the training we provide is valuable. We don't get many students from Malaysia or Singapore, where Chinese education is already highly developed."
The Overseas Youth Chinese Language Training Program is one of a number of MAC-sponsored programs designed to appeal to overseas Chinese, and was the only one to continue, albeit with reduced numbers, despite the SARS scare.
Programs such as the "Love Boat" focus on simply providing an opportunity for travel around Taiwan; the Chinese Language Training Program has a strong academic component. For many of the students, this is the key benefit.
"We go to Chinese school on weekends back in the US," said one advanced class student, "but it is not really much use. There isn't the environment. Here we are forced to talk Chinese."
The practicalities of providing language education are complex, and Yang Si-wei (楊
The level ranges from students who are not even able to speak a single word of Chinese, to those with fluent verbal skills but who are unable to read or write; some students have more moderate conversational ability but are able to read, while still others are confident in Taiwanese but unable to speak in Mandarin. "This year we have started grading students separately on reading, writing, speaking and listening," Yang said, rather than giving students a single rating, "this way, students can get more out of the class."