From 1989 to 1993 I studied Chinese and Japanese at the University of Leeds. The Chinese part of the course was very intensive with tests every two weeks. Our main textbook was the Practical Chinese Reader, which taught simplified characters and hanyu pinyin. In the third and fourth years we studied Chinese literature, cinema, history, law, economics, politics and religion using original documents.
During my second year I spent four months studying Chinese at the National Chengchi University in Taipei (國立政治大學 - Gúolì Zhèngzhì Dàxúe or 政大 - Zhèngdà for short). All the classes at Zhèngdà were taught in Chinese. We had to learn traditional characters and bopomofo, which took a while to get used to.
I rented a room from an elderly Taiwanese couple and spent most afternoons chatting in Mandarin with my landlady, who also spoke Taiwanese and Japanese but no English, apart from the very useful phrase "You owe me money!". From my landlady I picked up a Taiwanese accent, which did not impress my teachers. I also had a number of language exchange partners: local students who helped me with my Mandarin in exchange for help with their English.
After studying Chinese in Taiwan, I went to Japan to study Japanese for four months. Then I spent seven weeks travelling in southern China before returning to the UK. My knowledge of Chinese proved invaluable in China, especially in rural areas where few people speak English.
After graduating I won a scholarship administered by the British Association for Chinese Studies (BACS) to study Chinese for another year at the Mandarin Training Center (國語教學中心 Gúoyŭ Jiàoxúe zhōngxīn) of the National Taiwan Normal University (國立台灣師範大學 - Gúolì Táiwān Shīfàn Dàxúe or 師大 - Shīdà for short) in Taipei. I took classes in Chinese literature, reading Chinese newspapers and Classical Chinese, some of which were interesting, others were a bit tedious. Outside the classroom I practiced my Chinese as much as possible by chatting with Taiwanese friends, flat mates and various other people, and also by listening to Chinese language radio and watching Chinese TV programmes and films.
Towards the end of my course I started looking around for a proper job and quickly found one with the British Council in Taipei. I worked there for just over four years as an education counsellor, external liaison officer, information manager and website consultant. Most of my colleagues were locals, as were many of the visitors to office and other people I came into contact with, so I spoke Mandarin with them most of the time, with bits of English and Taiwanese thrown in from time to time. In 1998, after spending over five years in Taiwan, I was fluent in Mandarin Chinese but needed a change of scenery, climate, etc, so returned to the UK.
I can still speak Mandarin fluently and can read, write and type both traditional and simplified Chinese characters. I talk to Mandarin-speaking friends fairly regularly in person and online, I listen to online radio in Mandarin from time to time, and occasionally read news stories and other texts in Chinese.
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