Slow Chinese

It’s the October holiday in the PRC, and I’m enjoying a slooowww 8-day vacation. Fittingly, I recently also discovered a site called Slow Chinese (via Chinese Forums), and thought I’d share it here.

slow chinese

Slow Chinese, as far as I know, is the first site to do this (and just this) for Chinese. I know that the same “slow” concept has already existed for some time for learners of German (Slow German), and that it is quite popular among that learner community. The idea, of course, is that if learners are exposed to enough slowed-down input, they will not only get better at recognizing the words they know, but will also be able to more easily pick out the words they don’t know, and the gains will gradually transfer to normal-speed input.

The linguistic question, of course, is: does this work? Is it a good idea?

First I’ll quote friend and fellow linguist JP Villanueva on what he once said about slow input:

Listen to me: slow input does NOT help you learn language. No! NO NO NO. At best, slow input helps you learn SLOW LANGUAGE. [...] Whenever you get mad at someone for “talking too fast,” you need to remind yourself that you don’t speak that language, and no amount of SLOW is going to help you understand.

Counter-intuitive? Remember when you learned to ride a bike, and you found that it was easier to balance when you had a little speed? Remember when you first learned to drive, and you realized you had more control with a little speed?

Same with language. Slow speech doesn’t help your memory. You don’t need every word in a sentence in sequence in order to understand what someone is saying.

Besides, that’s not how your brain listens to your own native language, anyway. Your brain listens for semantic landmarks and then fills in the information in between. You need to learn to do that in your second language. Slow speech levels semantic landmarks, and over-emphasizes the non-content words that hold sentences together.

When it comes to Slow Chinese, there are actually two relevant questions:

  1. Is slow input valuable?

  2. Is slow input for news (or other media intended for native speakers) valuable?

In answer to question #1, I’d say yes. JP knows what he’s talking about, but earlier in the same post he also made a few caveats where confidence is concerned, and with good reason. There is a period when a beginner has a really tough time distinguishing the sounds of the target language. Yes, the purists are right when they say that continued, persistent exposure can overcome this obstacle, but most learners are not so hardcore. They’re emotional and easily discouraged. They want some help beyond “don’t give up,” and slowed-down input can provide that much-wanted crutch. It is a crutch, however, so if used, it should be withdrawn as soon as possible. It is most useful for learning the phonetics of the language as a beginner, in individual words and short phrases.

In answer to #2, I’d say no. If a learner is ready to take on media intended for native speakers, he should already be comfortable with the language at natural speed. If he has the vocabulary to take on the media but can’t handle the speed, it is likely because communication as a learning goal has been neglected. One can’t carry on normal conversation without comprehension of speech at a normal rate (unless one limits one’s conversation partners to slow-talkers only). So it seems to me that one would be tackling slow-speed media instead of tackling normal-speed listening comprehension and communication, which under most circumstances is a big mistake.

So my conclusion is that the learner’s time would best be spent working on simpler normal-speed input to improve listening comprehension (for Chinese, most Elementary and Intermediate ChinesePod dialogues are good for this; users can listen to the dialogue-only audio, all of which also have transcripts), and then later tackling normal-speed media.

Still, enthusiasm for learning is a valuable thing, so if Slow Chinese is what you’ve always wanted, I say go for it. (Plus, it’s free!) Just don’t forget that it’s not likely to help you out with conversational fluency, if that’s your goal.

24 Comments to “Slow Chinese

  1. Matthias says:

    Interesting article.

    It was quite shocking for me that my listening comprehension was so bad when I finally arrived in China for my honey moon.

    It’s tough when you tried to learn the differences between s,z,c and suddenly realizes that they don’t matter as the accent does not care about them. Or at least not distigushable for laowei ears. :(

    But I believe that slow input gives you the chance of focussing on distinguishing between the foreign sounds, an aspect that is important for learning new words.

  2. Changye says:

    Listening to Slow Chinese is very good for improving your writing ability.

  3. I don’t really get this argument, I think this looks like a great site. My Chinese is pretty decent right now, but I would love Slow Hindi for example. For the people who argue that this won’t help you understand quick speech – would you also argue that if you want to eventually learn to understand slurred Sichuan dialect, it would not help at all to learn standard Mandarin, you should go straight to slurred Sichuan dialect?

  4. Min Min says:

    I have a Chinese Mandarin learning website – Learn a Chinese Character a Day – at http://www.learnchineseeveryday.com/. What do you think about the learning a Chinese character every day ?

  5. I’m definitely with you: listening to language at its normal pace is a great way for your brain to learn which words to pay attention to, and which ones do little for communication.

    That being said, occasionally asking native speakers to say the same thing again more slowly sometimes helps me to figure out which part of their long iteration caused my brain to get completely derailed (usually a particular vocabulary item). This is often useful as I then get an explanation of a new word/phrase in the target language, as well as an in-context usage example.

  6. Klortho says:

    The linguistic question, of course, is: does this work? Is it a good idea? …. … So my conclusion is <blah, blah, blah>

    My question is — what do either you or your “linguist” friend actually know? You fancy yourselves linguists, but all I read here is a bunch of handwaving arguments. It reminds me of how frustrated I was with the teaching and the textbooks while I was in China learning Mandarin.

    I want to read and learn about empirical, scientific studies. Studies designed to determine the best methods for learning a language. You should know that any opinions that you have are worth just about zero — and that’s not meant as an insult — it’s true of everyone! We all have our biases, and our anecdotal evidence, and for the most part, we all disagree and can argue ourselves blue, and never reach a consensus. I think real progress on the language-learning front (on any front for that matter) can only be achieved through careful peer-reviewed studies. Show me the studies!

  7. Nicki says:

    I use the Slow Chinese articles as reading practice – I think they are great for that!

  8. Stian,

    would you also argue that if you want to eventually learn to understand slurred Sichuan dialect, it would not help at all to learn standard Mandarin, you should go straight to slurred Sichuan dialect?

    Most definitely! Again, though, most learners would greatly appreciate the crutch of slow, clear Sichuan dialect when they first started studying.

  9. Changye and Nicki,

    I totally agree. I think Changye’s suggestion of using Slow Chinese for dictation practice is an excellent one, for those learners that want to work on that aspect of their Chinese ability.

  10. Klortho,

    It’s hard to tell whether you’re commenting to make a point or simply to insult people, but I’ll assume the former. It’s a good point.

    I actually did want to include links to relevant studies (I agree that those would be very valuable) for this post, but I didn’t have enough time to dig any up. I may be able to for a future post.

    While continued studies are clearly the only way linguistics can keep advancing as I science, I find the notion that there is no value in the views of trained, experienced teachers/linguists who have dedicated their careers to the trade a bit silly.

  11. Xuchen says:

    I come here because I can’t be bothered to read long boring studies on language. I like language, a lot, but I’ll never be a linguist. At least this way I can have my cake and eat it too..

  12. Klortho says:

    It’s hard to tell whether you’re commenting to make a point or simply to insult people,

    Well, I know I often come across too strong sometimes — it’s a problem. In this case, I really have been frustrated for a long, long time, on this question of what works and what doesn’t, when learning a language (Mandarin in particular). So your post brought that up for me, and I vented a bit.

    I find the notion that there is no value in the views of trained, experienced teachers/linguists who have dedicated their careers to the trade a bit silly.

    I stand by it. As an analogy, look at the state of psychotherapy for most of the twentieth century (it’s still pretty dismal today, I think). There were plenty of trained experts, but not a lot of consensus on what works and what doesn’t, and the field as a whole was (is?) very lacking in rigor. I’m not an expert, but I’ve been the subject of plenty of therapy, and the more distance I get from it, the more I believe that it was 90% crap.

    Now, with regards to language acquisition, I’ve had mostly the same experience. I studied for a couple years at Xiamen University. About half of our teachers were grad students in “Teaching Mandarin to foreigners”. I was friends with several of them, and often I would talk to them about their theses, or I’d participate in surveys that they used in writing their theses. My experience was that they wouldn’t know a real scientific study if you dropped one on their heads. The survey questions were very poorly designed, and completely lacked any real focus. They would basically start with a thesis, and then go about gathering evidence to support it.

    Now, I know Xiamen University is probably not among the best schools in this field. But that’s the point — I don’t know the status of this field at all. I would love it if you could write some more posts to really introduce this topic to us laymen.

    Regarding this post, You and your friend posit several hypotheses, but they’d all need to be tested. For example, “… he also made a few caveats where confidence is concerned, and with good reason …”. Studies could be designed that attempt to answer the question of how important confidence is. Some measure of confidence vs. discouragement could be devised, and correlations could be drawn between confidence and success rates in eventually acquiring the language. Then, maybe controlled studies could attempt to measure the influence of various learning techniques (traditional vs. slow chinese) on confidence.

    I suspect that there hasn’t been a lot of work done like this, but I’d love it if I were wrong.

    On the other hand, I shouldn’t be casting stones. My blog is a pathetic thing. It’s an interesting topic, and I guess you’re just bringing it up for discussion.

  13. Ben Ross says:

    I am going to agree with JP on this, and cite as examples numerous language learners I have come into contact with (students of both English and Chinese) who get in the same rut…..”But Chinese people speak too fast when they talk.” EVERYBODY speaks fast when they’re speaking their native language to fellow native speakers. I’ve found it’s far better off to focus language learning on natural speed speech. That being said, slowing things down isn’t the only way to make things easier for beginners. You can simplify a language greatly without making it unnatural. The best way to do this (it sounds goofy but works great) is to practice your language skills with small children if at all possible.

    To further the argument, I’ve also been a long time believer that people who listen to only standard, clearly-dictioned, textbook, putonghua often suffer greatly when they get out of the university walls and find that most Chinese people do not speak putonghua like CCTV announcers. People who attain “fluency” without exposure to various accents (as well as more natural rates of speech) often seem to have trouble once they get out of their linguistic bubbles. That’s just my 2 mao.

  14. 阿皮 says:

    I’ve worked myself into such a small a linguistic bubble that I can’t understand anyone except for Jenny Zhu.

  15. imron says:

    I tend to agree with John. Slow listening materials can be valuable, but they are a crutch. It’s like training wheels on a bike – great when you’re getting started but you’ll never learn to ride a bike properly until you take them off.

    From personal experience, my ability to understand native level materials started to improve once I started listening to and learning from native level materials.

    I think sites like Slow Chinese would really benefit from having normal speed versions in addition to the slower ones. That way people could first develop confidence and familiarity with the slower version and then switch to the normal speed version to help bridge the gap.

  16. Klortho,

    OK, I see what you’re saying, but it seems that you’re equating the failure of the pedagogical approaches you’ve experienced in China with a general failure in the field of linguistics. That doesn’t make sense.

    It’s true that the state of Chinese pedagogy isn’t very good. You’re totally preaching to the choir on that one. With my experience at ChinesePod, my experience learning Chinese abroad and in China, and my experience earning a masters in applied linguistics here in China, I am keenly aware of this fact.

    I’m not going to go into how applied linguistics forms and tests its hypotheses through studies, but it does. I don’t have any numbers, but from my own research I get the impression that far fewer studies are done in China than abroad, however. In fact, many Chinese linguists do their research abroad in places like the USA, because the atmosphere is much more experiment-oriented. There’s also more of a willingness to apply the findings of new research to pedagogy abroad, whereas Chinese programs often attempt to teach Mandarin to adult students in nearly the same way they teach their own children.

    Studies and discussion are mutually reinforcing, though. Discussion leads to studies. Studies lead to discussion. Science moves forward. (And yes, this is one of those pure-discussion posts, as many of my posts are.)

  17. Klortho says:

    OK, I see what you’re saying, but it seems that you’re equating the failure of the pedagogical approaches you’ve experienced in China with a general failure in the field of linguistics. That doesn’t make sense.

    I thought I made it pretty clear that I was just speaking from my own experience, and that I’m admittedly ignorant of the field in general.

    And of course there’s nothing wrong with a discussion, but I just reread your original post, and this line still bothers me a bit, “So my conclusion is …”. I’d suggest that a bit of academic humility would be reflected by changing “conclusion” to “opinion”. It’s a minor point, but there it is.

    I just found this page: http://www.appliedlinguistics.org/applied-linguistics-journals.html which lists some journal titles. Any recommendations? Do you have any links to your favorite articles in the field? You could add them to your “Language” page.

  18. SeekTruthFromFacts says:

    The BBC and VOA must have poured millions into BBC English and Special English through the years, which suggests there’s at least some pedagogical value to slow speed. English learners and ESOL speakers must be a seriously large community.

  19. Max says:

    I do not think listening to slowed down speech is very productive. Mainly because it distorts the natural rhythm of the language. Of course if the people making text books recordings could speak with their natural speech rhythm when speaking slowly it would be okay, but very few people can do this. What usually happens is that all reductions disappear and every word is stressed in a very unnatural way. The problem being that most people are unaware of the reductions they make when speaking ther native language and think that they pronounce every word as it is written on the page. This very much applies to 北京话 which is full of reductions. But these reductions seem to magically disappear when beijingers read aloud. The most “famous” reductions is of course changing all sh- and zh- sounds to “r” sound. 不是 becomes 不日, 看上去 becomes 看让去 etc. But another common reduction is that “x” is reduced to “y” so that 小 becomes 咬。 李小龙 may sound like 李咬龙 in fast speech. I am pretty sure that most beijingers are unaware of these reductions. As I said they usually disappear when reading aloud.

    I would try to use natural speed material as much as possible and instead use software like Audacity to slow down unclear parts.

  20. mike says:

    I totally disagree with those who say that slowed down Chinese is of no use. For me, in order to understand speech, it is first necessary to become accustomed to the sound of the word spoken in different contexts; only then can you almost unconsciously recognise the word when spoken. If spoken a little slower, there is a better chance of recognising the word. In any case, the speed used in the Slow Chinese site is not very slow. There are people who speak at a similar speed. Also I note that the http://www.mandarin.com site has news headlines slowed down a little – they clearly believe it of help and use to learners.

  21. calicartel says:

    I agree making slowed-down speech your main learning material would be disastrous. But mightn’t it be useful as an adjunct to stock up on specialized vocab and formulaic phrases like those of the headlines? Hearing “Food and Drug Administration” and “Security Exchange Commission” in Chinese five times in a slow World News reading may do wonders to hammer in such concepts. While tackling them in normal speed (the more so without transcript) may only bring frustration. This being said, my ideal news broadcast in Chinese would be :

    1) One slowed-down reading, followed by 2) One reading at normal speed with 3) A word-for-word transcript available

    In all this one should remember that slightly different rules may apply to the learning of Chinese (as opposed to other languages) because of the special way in which Chinese is written.

  22. David Lloyd-Jones says:

    Query for your friend Villeneuva: Does he or she have any experimental evidence to support that opinion?

    Or is this just one more example of a supposed professional getting a cheap frisson out of attracting attention by saying something counter-intuitive and getting away with it on the strength of a claimed credential?

    Just on the feel of things, this looks like the latter. References to two sound studies would encourage me to think otherwise.

    -dlj.

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