There are a few reasons why we chose these unconventional summer camp programs in Taiwan:
- We have family and friends in Taiwan, and for our children, it is important to maintain these family and cultural connections.
- We wanted our kids' Mandarin to improve. For our oldest, it was shaky before she started (despite lessons in her American public school), and for our youngest, it was practically nonexistent. An immersive language program was the ideal situation for us.
- Since I started my own publishing company, it is possible for me to work practically anywhere, including overseas, so I could supervise them in Taiwan.
For those readers who are unaware of Taiwan's history, it is a modern democratic island nation of more than 20 million people that China's communist government claims as its territory. Most people in Taiwan speak Mandarin (the same dialect spoken in China) as well as a much more difficult dialect known as Taiwanese. Taiwan uses Chinese characters, although the more traditional "difficult" characters that China largely abandoned in favor of "simplified" Chinese more than 50 years ago.
We began to research summer language programs in Taiwan late last year. I quickly discovered there were very few resources to turn to. Of course, there were about a half-dozen programs that had their own websites, but there were no independent reviews that I could find for any of them, other than some short posts on expat forums. Besides having a strong Mandarin language component, we wanted to make sure the programs we selected were age-appropriate (many are aimed at kids under 8) and affordable.
We eventually settled on the NTNU program. The university's reputation was an important reason -- it's the premier teaching school in Taiwan, and the Mandarin Training Center has been running the camp for more than 5 years, which seemed to validate the quality of the program. The cost was surprisingly affordable compared to American camps, although our Taiwanese friends with kids who are used to more subsidized experiences thought it was expensive. It came to roughly $1500 per student per 4-week term, with classes starting at 9 and ending at 3. They also fed them lunch and a snack, and had all kinds of activities, from arts and crafts to limited sports. I thought that was very reasonable, considering many American day camps cost more than $2,000 for one month, and sometimes a lot more, particularly if there is some special sports activity, technical specialty, or artistic element involved.
We also decided to enroll them in Camp Taiwan, which was billed as a "North American-style" overnight camp for a week in rural Taiwan. It targeted Taiwanese parents who wanted this sort of experience for their kids (the official camp language is English) and it was staffed with a mixture of Taiwanese and foreign young people, and had all kinds of outdoor activities, from archery to kayaking to ziplining. Importantly, there were no electronics which was very appealing. The cost was about $500 per child per week, which I also thought was reasonable, although most of the other kids appeared to come from well-off families.
I have to say that the registration and pre-start communication for both camps left a lot to be desired. Here were the specific issues that we encountered:
- Fees for international students had to be paid by bank wire, which is an absolutely terrible arrangement that is prone to error and extra fees. I understand why a Taiwan business would be reluctant to accept a personal check from someone in another country, but credit cards are widely used in Taiwan and offer various protections for all parties involved.
- There was no confirmation in writing that our payments were received and the kids were all set. We had to circle back to the staff via phone and email to confirm, and even then it was like "we have recorded the deposit" not "we have received the deposit and your kids are confirmed for term X." NTNU had a website confirmation, but it was simply a "Yes" next to our kids' registration numbers. The fact that the confirmation was not clearly explained in writing meant if we were asked by anyone -- such as airport immigration officials -- what we were doing in Taiwan for the summer, it would have been quite difficult to prove that we had registered and paid for camp, and had a legitimate reason for being in Taiwan for such a long period of time.
- Communication from the time we paid to the time the camp started was poor. American camps send emails from the directors, reminders about XYZ, and lots of other information before camp even begins, but this sort of communication was practically nonexistent from NTNU and only partially handled by Camp Taiwan, which sent a big information packet to my brother-in-law about two weeks before camp started. However, once camp started daily communications was great (see below) -- maybe even better than most American camps.
We arrived in Taiwan in early July. We stayed with friends in a suburban area of Taipei, which was conveniently located near the MRT, which is the capital city's inexpensive and well-run subway system. It took us about an hour to get to camp each day, via walking, the MRT, and a bus. It was roasting hot and very humid. My weather app said "Temp: 91, feels like 105" and it was true. Fortunately, the NTNU camp was almost entirely indoors with air conditioning.
The NTNU camp started the following Monday. It was the second term, which ran until August 8. There were counselors outside the building on Taipei's Heping East Road to point us to the right place to go on campus. We had to finish up some registration details (including giving local phone numbers and addresses) and then the kids had a placement test while the parents went to the orientation.
Immediately it became clear the NTNU program staff were very, very serious about Chinese language instruction. The materials, pedagogy, and other elements were very well thought out, and it was immensely reassuring.
To give you an example, the textbooks used both traditional and simplified characters, and students could use pinyin (the romanization system used in China) or bopomofo (the phonetic system used in Taiwanese schools). The faculty understood that some students may have studied Mandarin with mainland teachers or teaching materials based on simplified characters, and wanted to make them feel comfortable. On the other hand, if the kids wanted to learn traditional characters, that was OK, too.
We were warned that the teachers would not speak English in class, but that was not completely true -- if someone was struggling, or didn't get a particular word, the teachers and their assistants would switch to English to help them.
All of my interactions with the teachers (usually the assistants, who I would see every morning when I dropped off my kids) were in Mandarin. The orientation was also in Mandarin, although they translated some parts of the presentation (not the Q&A session, though). For parents who couldn't speak Mandarin, this might have been difficult, although at the end of the day everyone seemed to make it through the program OK. NTNU was very good about communication during the program, compared to the lack of communication before the start of camp.
There were about 85 students in all, most of them American- or Canadian-born Chinese with parents or grandparents from Taiwan. There was a sizable number of students who attended expat schools in Hong Kong, some Europeans and Australians, and a small number of Japanese and Korean kids. About a quarter of the kids were mixed race. When they all got together, they were loud (or louder than Taiwanese students in the presence of teachers) but clearly they had a fun time being together.
The camp was organized according to age and ability -- five classes for "big" (大) and five for little (小). The youngest students in the little classes were about 7 or 8, while the youngest in the big classes were 12, going up to about 15 or 16. Our children were placed in the beginner levels for their respective age groups. We found that the range of abilities even within a group was large -- for instance, there was a child in the little beginner's class who could actually speak Mandarin pretty well, but could barely write.
There were four core activities that were emphasized: Listening, speaking, reading and writing. My youngest, who had almost no Chinese language skills before he started, made very great progress in all four, to the point where he could ask and answer very simple questions and even write down the characters after a few weeks. I was so impressed.
Mandarin Homework at NTNUThere was a lot of homework, but it was varied -- sometimes they had to practice writing, other times they were supposed to read sentences or ask questions. It was about 60-90 minutes each day after camp. I found that I had to be involved with this -- my kids didn't understand some of the characters in their homework, or needed to practice Q&A with someone speaking Chinese. Fortunately, my own Mandarin and Chinese reading was sufficient to assist (I lived in Taiwan in the 1990s) and I was happy to help them and keep track of their progress (it even boosted my own Mandarin and Chinese reading comprehension, which was a nice bonus). The only drawback to this is I had planned on doing work every evening, and between homework, getting dinner, doing laundry, and making sure they cleaned up, there was very little time (I was the only parent in Taiwan in July). This impacted the amount of work I could do, which was basically limited to about 5 or 6 hours during the day (I went to a local coworking space not far from NTNU called CLBC).
The NTNU program wasn't all work, though. One of the teachers told me they did not want to cram the kids with Chinese, because they wouldn't be able to remember it all and they would be miserable. Therefore, there was a daily limit of about 6 characters, plus speaking and listening exercises, and lots of opportunities for other activities, from field trips (glass and pottery factories, kung fu) to arts and crafts and basketball on campus. It was just the right pace, in my opinion. Of course, we had lots of other family and cultural activities on our own (see my video about this, called Quick Taipei), and there is so much to do in Taipei that we rarely felt bored.
The program had a nice graduation ceremony, which included performances and the receipt of certificates and grades. The school also made sure that we had access to all kinds of online resources, although in our case we try to keep up their Chinese at home with one-on-one instruction from my wife.
After NTNU ended, we got the kids ready for Camp Taiwan. We had to get some supplies (poncho, flashlight, etc.) but once we dropped them off at the bus they were the camp's responsibility for the next 5 or 6 days.
Before Camp Taiwan started, I was honestly worried because of the heat and humidity, but it turned out that the camp was in the hills near the coast, so it was notably cooler. There were all kinds of outdoor activities except swimming, but they did manage some water activities -- river tracing and kayaking for our older child. The camp was a lot of fun for them, even for my oldest who is not an outdoorsy kid. The camp was also great with communication -- there was a daily password-protected blog with pictures and an account of the day's activity that we could review every night. The camp warned parents about attempting to contact their kids or drive to the camp during the session, which I think speaks to the fact that overnight camps are a bit unusual for most Taiwanese kids and parents.
One other thing about Camp Taiwan: Even though the official language of the camp is English, and some of the counselors only speak English, practically speaking it was mostly Mandarin when the kids were amongst themselves. There were very few non-Taiwanese kids at the camp -- I'm guessing maybe 5% or 10% during the session they were enrolled in. This was fine with us -- it gave our children more opportunities to practice Mandarin and make friends from different backgrounds.