Tips on doing a master's degree in a second language
September 22, 2009 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Tell me about your own experiences and tips on surviving and working through a master's degree in a second language that you are NOT fluent in.

I am currently a master's student in Beijing, studying a major that will train me to become a Chinese teacher. This major is specifically geared to foreign students who will teach Chinese outside of China, so it includes courses in Chinese history and linguistics theory, as well as advanced Chinese.

My class is composed of about 15 students, about half of which are Malaysian students who are native or near-native speakers. The other half is composed mostly of students who have gone through the university's Chinese language studies department at various levels. That half, which includes myself, is nowhere near the Malaysian students' level of Chinese. (FWIW, I have just concluded a year's study in Chinese at my school, ending at upper intermediate.)

In our first day of classes, I realized that I would have to do some serious self-study to keep up. In our lectures, which were on the centralization of government power from the Qin to Yuan dynasties and linguistics theory, other than the very broad outlines, I didn't understand a thing. It was certainly interesting, and if it was in English I would have been fascinated. I was trying to keep up with translating phrases in the Power Point presentations, but I was literally translating every single phrase in order to understand a single sentence. Heck, I nearly died when our professor started talking about Chomsky, whose theories are difficult enough in a language I do understand.

How on earth can I survive this? After one day I'm already thinking about quitting! It's clear that it'll be a long time before I can get to the level where I'll be able to ask critical questions, and then, actually be able to understand the answers. Luckily it's not just me who feels like this, the non-Malaysian half of the class felt quite overwhelmed as well.

Possibly related: To say that I have a lot of ambivalence about doing this degree is an understatement. Before I found out that I had received the scholarship, which, since it is China, was at the last possible moment, I had actually already made up my mind to go home and repatriate. After four years abroad, I feel that my time in China is finished. My gut feeling on this is making it very difficult for me to commit to doing the master's degree, especially I have little intention of actually becoming a Chinese teacher, and I can't even say why I am doing this degree except that it is free education and will allow me to put those letters "M.A." after my name. I just have to wonder if there are better ways to spend two years of my time than struggling to understand Chomsky in Chinese.
posted by so much modern time to Education (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A good university should test to make sure that students where capable of pursuing their studies in the language being taught, did this one? If so where you honest in your representation of yourself?

You say is it worth it to get MA after your name, but are you actually going to get a degree if you can't understand the taught material? How will you be examined/assessed? Are you likely to be able to discuss the complex concepts needed with the language skills you have?

As a university lecturer I am often quite impressed by the students who realise a course is not for them, it takes a certain amount of courage to back out a decision that has led you down the wrong path. You have to make that decision for yourself. What is the value and what is the cost of continuing?
posted by biffa at 10:21 AM on September 22, 2009

My MA program was difficult enough in English! Still, we had a few Chinese students in our department who were definitely not fluent when they arrived. A few years later, the improvement has been dramatic. They worked their asses off to learn and understand English, with a helpful and patient faculty to guide them.

However, reading the last paragraph again, there are alarm bells going off. It sounds like there's a bunch of reasons you shouldn't be in that program, the language barrier being the least of them.
posted by futureisunwritten at 10:31 AM on September 22, 2009

Come on now. Be reasonable... How many ESL students do you see taking master's programs in the West? If you're not up to the point where you're capable of using a Chinese-Chinese dictionary to look up unknown words, then just quit. Really, just quit and learn the language, then come back. You'll be insulting a lot of people including yourself if you keep this up.
posted by fairykarma at 10:33 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

How many ESL students do you see taking master's programs in the West?

Uh, I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic, but there are tens of thousands of ESL students pursuing masters in the US right now. They all have a broad range of skills, but they will all improve.

OP, what kind of language exam was there upon your admittance? I don’t know how Chinese universities work, but presumably the scholarship shows that they have some kind of faith in your abilities? It’s the first day, see how your comprehension changes after a couple weeks of courses maybe?

But yeah, it is telling that you admit you were ambivalent about this degree before you even started. Even if you could cut it, it seems like you could use this apathy as an excuse to keep you from busting your ass like you would need to.
posted by Think_Long at 11:04 AM on September 22, 2009

I think that last paragraph you wrote has all the answers you need. If you can't commit wholeheartedly to doing all the extra work to learn the language you will be miserable for the next two years, and I can't see how you'll be able to commit to it when you can't see any real purpose in doing it. Go home, you'll be happier.
posted by lilac girl at 11:28 AM on September 22, 2009

I can only compare your experience to mine. I spent some time in France when I was in college and took developmental biology and genetics and their accompanying lab courses. The first week was painful, the second week less so. Unless it would be harmful to you in some way, I think you should stick with it for a few weeks to see if it gets better.

Yes, French is different (no Hanzi to deal with) and biology (a lot of visual stuff) is different.

I think that you should try to find a friend in your program whose English (or other common language) is good enough that you can communicate and find out what is going on in class. You should also try to hang out with students who don't speak a common language with your other than Chinese.

I've worked with a large number of foreign students and postdocs over the years (from China, Korea, India, France, Iran, Germany, Croatia, and so on), some have learned English quickly and some less so. A willingness to try to make friends with the people around them and a whole bunch of TV watching seemed to be correlated with English learning ability.

Your ambivalence is worrying. I can't tell if you're just freaking out because you've just started something really challenging or if you're genuinely not sure about what you want to do.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:38 AM on September 22, 2009

Record the classes and go through them with a Chinese friend in a language exchange deal where you do a similar service for them.
I've never done post-grad here, but I used to get asked to take part in academic forums on development topics at a time when my level of spoken Chinese wasn't stellar (better than yours now though by the sounds of things) - I quickly ended up in the odd situation where I could bang on at length about organic agriculture in rural development with a bunch of professors but might still struggle to order my tea at the restaurant later - i.e. if you can stick it out, the technical vocabulary soon starts to stick. It is a big ask though and you're right to consider whether you want to make the effort.
posted by Abiezer at 11:47 AM on September 22, 2009

Think_Long, I think the point fairykarma is trying to make is that since tens of thousands of ESL students are pursuing a master's in the US, the OP is just whining and needs to get real and get working.

But, I think fairykarma is wrong. ESL students purusing masters' in the West for the most part (a) have been hearing English all their lives, and (b) have many other ESL students who speak the same language as them around to help them. So I think the OP is genuinely facing a more a difficult task thatn most ESL'ers pursuing a masters in the West.

The only advice I can give to the OP is to stick it out for a while, make some friends in the class who speak English (even if poorly) and if after a month it's still feeling totally impossible, then drop out. But give it a fair shake.
posted by molecicco at 12:18 PM on September 22, 2009

Response by poster: To answer a few of the questions, in our scholarship application, we were asked to write a personal statement (in Chinese, which I did to the best of my abilities) and provide letters of recommendation. The university, at least, should have a very good idea of my language skills, as I have been studying Chinese there over the past year and my teachers provided my recommendation letters. What I cannot speak for is whether or not Han Ban, the government agency that is actually administering the scholarships, took our language skills into account when they decided on who should receive these scholarships.

I don’t know how Chinese universities work, but presumably the scholarship shows that they have some kind of faith in your abilities?

It's very difficult for us recipients to tell why we got the scholarship; it feels arbitrary. For instance, one of my classmates is a woman who has gone through the first level of Chinese studies at the university and studied over the summer, so she has about five months of Chinese language studies behind her. If I feel overwhelmed, I cannot imagine how she must be feeling.

I can't tell if you're just freaking out because you've just started something really challenging or if you're genuinely not sure about what you want to do.

Both, really!

Well, this has been a lot of food for thought, thank you.
posted by so much modern time at 8:32 PM on September 22, 2009

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