Chinese Resources

Monday, May 14, 2012

Visiting Taiwan's ICLP

As part of my Teaching Practicum class my classmates and I had an opportunity to check out Taiwan's International Chinese Language Program, better know around these parts simply as ICLP. ICLP is an amazing program (perhaps the only one in the world) that takes language learners from zero to oral competence in one year. Many students of ICLP go on to do graduate work here in Taiwan, or enter the work force, so how do they do it?

ICLP's program certainly isn't a walk in the park. Students have four hours of Chinese class a day, split into three hours of small group classes (with a maximum of 4 students) and one hour of one-on-one lessons. While in the program, students participate in a language contract. If students are found speaking any language other than Chinese during classes or anywhere in the language learning center they will not receive a certificate of completion at the end of the program.

What really blew me away about the program was how well the students spoke Mandarin after just a year or two of study. Their tones, vocabulary, and sentence patterns were equal of someone who might have been studying for years and years in another program. However, I was most impressed with how naturally they were able to respond to our questions in Chinese, that to me, showed a real display of understanding.

After talking to some of the teachings I think that part of the success of this program is the strong emphasis on oral proficiency. From day one students are made brutally aware of their tone issues and pronunciation mistakes. While it may hurt at first, once they overcome that huge hurtle it gives them a great confidence in their language skill, helping to get them to the next level even quicker. Many of the staff strongly believe that many teachers of Mandarin are simply too soft when it comes to fixing these mistakes, and if these few students are any indication that being strict is the right way to fix this issue then I whole-heatedly agree with their approach.

To be honest, the whole experience made me regret my decision to study at Shida back in 2006-07. But I suppose looking forward is really the only way to progress... who knows, maybe I could be one of those teachers someday.


  1. There's no doubt that ICLP is the best there is. If I had the money I'd be going there this fall, but as it is it looks like I'll be at MTC for another year.

    However, don't be too fooled by the smoke and mirrors. A former teacher of mine (one who teaches at both MTC and ICLP) said that in her experience a lot of ICLP students still have fairly basic problems with tones and sentence structure precisely because they move so quickly through the material. She said they also tend to speak fairly stilted Chinese due to the fact that they aren't able to get out and use the language very much (8 hours of homework per day will do that). I spent some time there a few weeks ago when I turned in my application, and some of the students I heard speaking had exactly these issues. This isn't to say that my Chinese is great (not by any means), but I can pick out stilted speech, awkward phrasing, and poor tones from a mile out.

    So like anything, it has its good points and its bad ones. Like I said, if I had the money, I'd go, because it's the best. Or if I only had another year in Taiwan, I'd find any way I could to come up with the money. But since I have another 2 years at least, I'll be making the most of my time at MTC, which will be nearly as good. A motivated student can somewhat replicate the ICLP experience by selecting suitable study materials outside of class or with a tutor.

    One benefit of doing it this way is that you can customize your learning material to fit your interests and needs. Another is that you have time and brain cells left to do something other than read textbooks. I bet you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone walking around ICLP with Chinese books, magazines, 漫畫 or other native material in their hands, or podcasts, news, and TV shows on their iThings. The problem is that this sort of thing is exactly what many of them probably need at their level.

    Anyway, I've rambled enough. Don't spend too much time regretting that you went to MTC instead of ICLP. The most important thing is what you can do starting from today!

  2. Is ICLP a recent program? I've never heard of it before in comparison to the more popular MTC program. It's also the first time I hear of such a program, with language contract, in Taiwan. It resembles some intensive mainland chinese program I've seen before.

    1. Ash,
      ICLP has been around for a long time. It was established in 1961 under a partnership with Stanford, but at the time was only focused on meeting the needs of graduate students doing research here and in Mainland China. In the late 90s and early 2000s they really started to expand the program to what it is today. They have a lot less students than MTC (even today) and the program is about 3 times more expensive, so many students don't find it to be the best option. But something can certainly be said about the success of many students who spend a year in the program.

      My favorite part about the program is the language contract, not because I didn't do something similar while at MTC, but because it forces all students to do the same thing.

    2. Thanks for the details Jake. I agree with the language contract, at least, everyone is on the same page.
      I've looked at the ICLP website, prices line up with american school's tuition fees, so it is indeed expensive. If I would have heard of it back then, I think I'd have sign up for a summer course, being on an intensive schedule throughout a year, feels kinds too much for me.

      And I don't know if you'll write a post about it someday, but to bounce off Sara's comment below, I started studying Chinese in the states, and I feel their chinese programs are actually pretty good. It's probably easier for the teacher too, because students come from usually the same background.

    3. Good to hear that your Chinese program was good.

      In Finland there's a problem that there aren't enough students to study Chinese. My teacher couldn't have any high demands for us, because she was afraid many would give up (as happened). I also only had a class once or twice a week.There are also many things my teacher didn't teach us, for example tone sandhi. And we didn't pay enough attention to pronunciation and tones, which is still problem for me.

      That's why I hope that I would have come to China earlier.

  3. I regret that I didn't come to China sooner and while learning Chinese in Finland didn't learn the basics properly. A program like ICLP sounds like burn out and amazing method at the same time.It also reminded me that I have to get one-on-one tutoring/teaching when I get the chance.

    1. I'm sure the program burns you out pretty quick. I did something even more intensive for six weeks over the summer, and when I was done I thought my head would explode. However, if you had your heart on doing graduate research (all in Chinese) after the end of one year, and you knew that you needed to get your Chinese up to that level, and quick, than programs like this are really few and far between.

      Sort of in response to both you and Ash, in the comments above, I think that programs outside of China or Taiwan cannot be lumped together. Some are good and some are bad. The largest issue, as seems to be with case with your program, is that the amount of time we are exposed to Chinese is simply too limited. While I've been studying Chinese for more years than I sometimes would like to admit, I realistically was only putting in 3 hours a week of classroom Chinese for nearly three years. That was enough to keep my Chinese from getting drastically worse after learning China and Taiwan, but simply not enough to raise my level.

      I don't think this is because my program was "bad," it simply did not have the resources to offer a more immersive environment for me and other students who had a fierce passion for learning the language, perhaps that is why we kept leaving to study abroad!

      I hope that once I'm back in the states and doing teaching Chinese there, I'll be able to comment more on these issue. However, I really feel like the job of a language teacher outside of a true native environment is more to inspire students to study than to "teach them the language." We can only get so far with a few hours of class a week, so it really falls on the students to spend time outside of class studying, speaking, and trying to immerse themselves as best they can.

    2. ICLP is so expensive that it is really only for those whose families can afford it, or those who have plentiful savings. I was lucky to have a bit of both and not take substantial loans out. I would be lying if I said those from working class families (or below) could afford it. And, let's be honest, the only people who get scholarships to go there are either already enrolled in an Ivy-league (or equivalent) program (and get something like the Freeman Asia or Blakemore) or those who commit themselves to working for the government or foreign service for a few years afterwards. (The latter is not a bad deal, really.)

      With that said, I think I've had 25 Chinese teachers or so, taken adult ed classes, university classes in the U.S. and mainland China (Beijing and Dalian), had 1-on-1 lessons at various private schools (in Beijing mostly), and still ICLP is by far the best thing I ever did for my Chinese. I went in with a high beginner/low intermediate reading and speaking level and came out ready to read newspapers and converse about my research. No regrets. I just really wish there was an alternative, with as many qualified teachers pushing their students just as hard, so that those with no chance of ever getting the cash could also learn.

    3. noncoupable,
      Thanks so much for your comment. Your "ICLP is by far the best thing I ever did for my Chinese" comment seems to be one I hear a lot from students who have gone through the program. Recently the graduate program at Shida has been talking about putting together a program like ICLP on campus, but I wonder how far these talks will actually go. It seems that the overall success of a program like ICLP is deeply rooted in its history and demand for academic excellence (which seem incredibly intensive by both Eastern and Western standards).

      I have meet many teachers who, given time and opportunity, could probably help facilitate a similar development of Chinese skills in their students, but it seems that most programs don't have the support to actually make it happen. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that many other programs teach toward a test, whether it be the HSK or TOP, rather than providing students the skills to focus on real world needs; something that ICLP seems to make a focal point for students who enter the program.

      I for one would love to see some alternative programs that do the same for less money, but at this point it seems that all roads (still) lead to ICLP.


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