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北京大学对外汉语学院 PKU School of Chinese as a Second Language

My PKU Experience Fall Semester 2018

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This post is dedicated to my Chinese course experience at the Chinese School of Second Language at Peking University in China (北京大学对外汉语学院). I am following two semesters of intensive Chinese classes, 20 contact hours per week,  in the Chinese Language Faculty at PKU, from Fall 2018 until Summer 2019.

The first semester: Starting from scratch (again)

When I arrived in Beijing last year in September, I wasn’t able to communicate in Chinese in any form or way, my written or spoken language ability was close to zero. Before coming to China, I have actually done some occasional self study regarding the reading and listening of new words for a few months, using apps such as ChineseSkill and Anki to practice basic words on my way to school. However, as it turned out, when I arrived in China, I didn’t understand a word of what the Chinese people were saying at the airport, due to the speed, accents and simple lack of listening practice. My spoken vocabulary was pretty much limited to 你好,我是娜塔莎,我是德国人(Hello, I am Natasha, I am German), unfortunately, I didn’t know the correct pronunciation for Germany and hence caused a lot of misunderstandings about my home country for the first few weeks lol.

In my first blog post, I explained how I got lost on my first day in Beijing, which by the way was definitely due to my lack of Chinese language and orientation skills. After the first culture shock, the realization has set in, that I essentially wasted some time during my commute to work on the Chinese learning app since I wasn’t able to communicate with the local people. However, the app itself I found useful when it comes to introducing new words if you have taken Chinese classes before or have some previous experience in the language. I plan to write a separate blog post about Chinese learning apps in the near future, stay posted for that if you would like to get started with the Chinese language.

Before the classes started, we had about a week time to adjust to the city and the student life at PKU. During this time, I tried to practice speaking as much as possible to catch up with my new classmates, as I ‘overconfidently’ enrolled myself for the Beginner level II class. 

Chinese Character Practice
Chinese Character Practice First Week

The reality check was REAL on the first day of school, most of my classmates could read the sentences that our teacher would ask us to read out loud and during the chapter text reading practice, I realized I was about to drown in an ocean of Chinese characters, I hence chose the only available alternative and read the pinyin, the alphabetized form of Chinese characters, instead.

Funnily enough, I remember that the pinyin would often be printed on the other side of the page, so the first few weeks were partly spent writing large chunks of pinyin above the characters to avoid embarrassing situations in which the class would be waiting for me to decipher the characters in class at a snail’s pace ~ Dear Lord, thinking back of my first weeks in the speaking class and recalling the reading practices still until today.

Have a look at my first text in the speaking class with Pinyin below.

First Chapter Spoken Chinese Book
First Chapter Spoken Chinese Book

Fast forward a few weeks later, I had crammed most of the basic characters after, before, in class and any other free minute that I had on my hands and somewhat successfully caught up with my classmates, even during the ‘horrifying’ reading practices.

I would study my new words by writing the pinyin, most of the times the Chinese character and the english translation in a book and then test myself by moving a piece of paper down the list of words until I completed about five to six pages of words. I would repeat this procedure over and over again, and quickly made progress by being able to recall the words; when I was testing myself with the book. The pitfall hereby was that I barely was able to apply those words in real-life, something that I struggle with until this day. In addition, learning the words first by pinyin and then by character proved to be less efficient as I couldn’t recognize or write the characters very well.

Chinese Character Practice
Chinese Character Practice First Month

If you are an intermediate or advanced student of Chinese characters, feel free to have a look at the photo gallery of my first writings of Chinese characters ever for your amusement, they were all written by myself in September 2018.

Back in intentensive reading class, our teacher expected us to write the characters of our textbook during the infamous daily dictation, also known as, 听写ting1 xie3). At our level, one dictation consisted of 10 – 12 new words per class per day, and it would take up to three hours per day during the first three weeks to practice those characters, pinyin and their radicals (check out my post on  pinyin, if you are unsure). I would write the characters in my character writing notebook and repeat that procedure over and over again until I could reproduce the meaning, the pinyin, the tones and the character itself.

Fun fact, many of my classmates and I truly enjoyed writing characters from day one, it has a very calming and almost meditational effect, when I study characters I am able to concentrate for up to two hours at a time, which is a level of deep focus that I haven’t experienced to this extent in recent years.

Mountain Tai


In the next blogpost, I will share the structure of the PKU classes at the School of Chinese as a Second Language. See you then!

Stay curious,


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