> you look at me one moment
> and at clouds the next.
> I feel
> when you’re looking at me, you’re far away,
> but when you’re looking at the clouds, how could we be nearer!
> translated by Gordon T. Osing and De-An Wu Swihart.
The only potentially challenging aspects for a learner (armed with a dictionary tool) are:
1. Use of 一会 (also written as 一会儿), meaning “for a moment,” which is often pronounced “yíhuì” or “yíhuìer” (make sure that you know your tone change rules!)
2. Use of 时 (shí), a more formal equivalent of 的时候 (de shíhou)
I’m going to have to look into Gu Cheng more. He also has this great 2-line poem (taken from the Wikipedia article just linked to), which is basically at the intermediate level:
> Hēiyè gěi le wǒ hēisè de yǎnjing
> Wǒ què yòng tā xúnzhǎo guāngmíng
> The dark night gave me black eyes,
> I use them nonetheless seeking for the light.
There are a few words in there that would definitely need to be looked up by an intermediate learner, but the only challenging grammatical point is the use of 却 (què).
It’s so great to have material like this accessible to learners.
The Chinese textbook My Chinese Classroom has been around since at least 2005; I once reviewed it on this site, in fact. I was amused, then, to see a new textbook, Our Chinese Classroom (《我们的汉语教室》) on the shelf of a local book store, right next to My Chinese Classroom (《我的汉语教室》).
Upon closer inspection, the main editor is the same (徐文静), but the publishers are different.
I’m curious: is this the next generation of the series, with a rather unimaginative title evolution, or is this a new project for a new publisher that blatantly rips off the old one?
I didn’t have time to check this out today, but I will examine later. (If anyone knows the inside scoop, let me know!)
Let’s face it, learning the tones of Mandarin Chinese is a challenging endeavor, and the stereotypical “mā má mǎ mà” example isn’t super helpful. Of all the alternate systems to help learners develop a feeling for the tones, my favorite is the “dude system,” originally developed by Kaiser Kuo for The Beijinger. He recently reposted it in Quora, and I’ve gotten his permission to share it here (with a little audio addition of my own):
The Dude System:
1. First Tone: Dūde, the disapproving tone, as to the clumsy roommate who’s just knocked over your three-foot Graphix and gotten bong water all over your Poli Sci 142 reader: “Dude, I can’t believe you spilled my bong again!”
2. Second Tone: Dúde?, in the concerned but creeped-out way you might address the roommate you discover sitting naked and cross-legged in the dark, chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” and sounding a little brass bell.
3. Third Tone: Duǔde, scornfully, as if your roommate has asked to borrow 50 dollars so his sensei can align his chakras: “Yeah right, dude.”
4. Fourth Tone: Dùde!, as if you are exclaiming in triumph to your roommate when coming home from class having gotten a date with mega-babe Elena from your macroeconomics class.
In case you don’t get it and need to hear it, here’s an MP3 I made: dude1234.mp3. (It adheres more to Kaiser’s descriptions above than to the exact Chinese pronunciation.)
A while back I was having a conversation with my friend Ben about the challenges he faced learning Chinese. He said that one of the problems was that whenever he didn’t understand even part of something that was said, the whole conversation would shut down pretty fast. I asked him for some more details on these types of encounters, and pretty quickly it came out that he was using the phrase 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng, “I don’t understand”) exclusively, anytime he had trouble following what was said.
Big problem! While 听不懂 is a useful phrase that any beginner needs to learn, it can’t help in all situations. In short, Ben’s strategies for communication were long overdue for an upgrade. His Chinese was good enough to go beyond just 听不懂; he really needed to start communicating his non-comprehension better. What he was communicating with that 听不懂 was essentially, “I don’t understand anything you are saying,” when in fact it was only part of what was said that gave him trouble.
There’s a solution to this problem. It involves better communication on the part of the listener. When you don’t understand, you can communicate what you don’t understand better. Because sometimes the person talking is drunk, or old, or young, or suffering from a speech impediment, or mumbling, or even drugged! None of that is your fault (one would hope), but you do have to deal with it.
Here are some options for when you’re ready to go beyond 听不懂:
什么？我没听清楚。What? I didn’t hear clearly.
This one is good partly because it’s not the over-used 听不懂, which immediately clues the listener into the fact that you may, in fact, know more Chinese than just a handful of phrases from a phrasebook. Also, claiming that you didn’t hear clearly (whether true or not) kind of implies that if you had heard clearly, you may have understood. Give yourself a little credit. People frequently don’t speak clearly.
我没明白你的意思。I didn’t understand what you mean.
Don’t be fooled; this is not the same as 听不懂. This sentence may be used by native speakers when they understood every word, but the sentence doesn’t make sense to them or the speaker’s meaning is unclear. So this one is perfect for those situations when you understood every word but don’t know what the person means. This is a really good one to add to your repertoire.
你在说谁？Who are you talking about?
This one only makes sense if you’re reasonably sure the person is talking about somebody, but you’re not clear who. Obviously, this can really backfire if they weren’t talking about any person, but most things people say involve some person, so there’s a little room for error here.
你的意思是……So you mean…
Sometimes your best bet is to just guess what the person means. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of this strategy! I’ve seen beginners with 5% comprehension totally guess what a speaker means (and then articulate it in super basic Chinese), while an intermediate learner stands next to them with 60% comprehension, dumbfounded. The difference is paying attention to context. One of the advantages of guessing the speaker’s meaning (even when you don’t guess right) is that you’re kind of “showing your cards.” You’re giving the person an idea of your vocabulary and listening comprehension level. And sometimes the words you use are enough to help them modify what they said originally into a form you can understand.
There are a lot of others you could use too, and probably all of them are better than 听不懂. You just have to put yourself out there a little. Don’t shut people out with your non-comprehension. They’ll help you if you let them.
Update: Fiona Tian has created a useful video based on this blog post:
The Chinese Grammar Wiki has been steadily growing over the years. In its early days, when tons of articles were “stubs,” and lots of grammar points still needed appropriate example sentences, we decided not to include pinyin for those sentences, and instead outsource that work to browser plugins. We recognized that once the page contents stabilized eventually, it would definitely be better to add both English translations and pinyin for all sentences, or at least the sentences at the lower levels.
Well, that time has come! AllA1 (Beginner) and A2 (Elementary) grammar points on the Chinese Grammar Wiki now have both English translations and pinyin. Thanks to our tech team and volunteers for slowly but surely making this happen. The Chinese Grammar Wiki is now way more accessible to beginners as a result.
Oh, it also has lots more colorful images now! Not exactly vital to the learning experience, but not bad either.
If you’re learning Chinese and haven’t checked out the Chinese Grammar Wiki recently, please pay it another visit. If you like it, please help spread the word!
[…] Cooking shows are an absolutely awesome resource for studying any language, because:
They’re pretty focused in terms of spoken content. Sure, you get hosts who yammer on about how their grandmother used to make such-and-such a dish for holidays or whatever, but when you get right down to it, the core content — “this is a thing; this is how you make the thing” — is pretty predictable.
Most of the discussion involves objects that are onscreen — usually being handled or pointed at — and actions that are being performed for you. If your hypothetical host says “把整头大蒜掰开，用刀切去根部的硬结，放入碗中倒入清水,” you don’t even have to know all of the words: he’ll be picking up the 大蒜 and 掰开’ing it right in front of you, then 切去’ing the 硬结 at the 根部 using his 刀, etc.
At the end of it you’ll know how to cook a dish.
I like this idea, but I must admit I’ve never done it. There are a lot of highly-specific action verbs that might take years to master if you just learn them as you come across them, but cooking shows are one way to get exposed to a high number of them in a relatively short period of time.
Anyone out there tried this for Chinese? What are the good Chinese cooking shows?
Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. You’re not helping them by calling yourself some easier-to-pronounce English name. I would have thought that this was obvious, but after all these years in the business, I can now see that it is not obvious to many otherwise well-meaning teachers. So I’ll spell it out here. (Please forward this to your Chinese teacher who doesn’t ask you to use a Chinese name in your interactions.)
So why should students of Chinese call their Chinese teachers of Chinese by a Chinese name? I’m glad you asked…
Using your actual Chinese name shows respect for the culture
My dad is one of those people that enjoys befriending recent immigrants in the United States. He likes to find out where they’re from, why they came to the U.S., etc. One of the things he always asks “Bob from Iran” or “Alice from China” or whoever is, “what’s your real name?” He does this not only out of curiosity, but also to show a genuine respect for their culture and interest in their identity. Most of the time immigrants are thankful for this gesture (even if he can’t always accurately reproduce the sounds that make up their names).
As a teacher, you get to decide how your students address you. But in Chinese culture, it’s a non-question; teachers are simply called “[Surname] Laoshi” by their students. As a teacher of Chinese, why would you not use this opportunity to start teaching your students about Chinese culture in an easy, practical way? Get the cultural respect going from lesson one. Students will be totally on board.
Using Chinese names is good practice
One of the main arguments for NOT using real Chinese names is that “my Chinese surname is too hard for foreigners.” OK, maybe your surname is hard for most foreigners, but your students have decided to learn Chinese. They probably already know it’s not easy. Even if your surname is particularly difficult to pronounce, it’s probably only one syllable. And it’s one syllable your students are going to be able to repeat over and over every lesson, and they’re eventually going to start getting it right.
So don’t baby them. Let them struggle a little bit. It doesn’t matter if your surname is “Xu” or “Zhu” or “Jiang” or “Zhang” or “Yu.” They’ll get it eventually.
It’s a vote of confidence
So it’s a pretty safe bet that your students will not be pronouncing “Xu” correctly on day 1, and that’s OK. But when you tell them, “You don’t need to try to say ‘Xu.’ Just call me Vivian,” you’re casting a vote of no-confidence in their ability to learn correct pronunciation. That’s a terrible thing for a teacher to do.
Not only are you saying, “you can’t learn this,” but you’re also saying, “you can’t learn this, and I won’t even be able to teach you.” So it’s also a vote of no-confidence in yourself as a teacher!
Cast a vote of confidence in your students by telling them, “my name is a little tricky to pronounce, but don’t worry; you’ll get it eventually. Just keep trying.”
Have confidence in them from the first lesson, and they will keep trying. They need you to believe that they can learn to correctly pronounce your name.
Chinese names are hard to remember
This is totally true. Chinese names are hard for foreigners to remember. But you know what doesn’t help? Enabling learners to never even try to remember, and always copping out by using English names. That’s just lazy.
Chinese names are hard to remember in the beginning. But learners get better at it by learning more real Chinese names, and the process starts with you, the Chinese teacher. With each new Chinese person the learner meets, he learns a real Chinese name, and one by one, the names start to seem less insane. They become manageable.
Start your students down this road.
But what about Hong Kong?
One thing I’ve heard over the years is, “but in Hong Kong, Chinese people often use English names. It’s also a Chinese thing.” OK, yes, that’s true. But as a learner, I really don’t need help learning names like “Jacky” and “Coco.” What I need is more practice with the less familiar names… the ones starting with “Zhang” and “Wang” and “Hu.”
So Hong Kong-style English names are easy freebies that we sometimes get, but they’re certainly not the norm for everyone in mainland China, and they’re not an excuse to avoid Chinese names altogether.
Don’t be absurd
Lastly, let me leave you a counter-example. Imagine a blond-haired blue-eyed foreigner living in China and working as an English teacher. We’ll call him “Carl.” He teaches English, but he also knows Chinese, and uses it a little bit with beginners.
But here’s the thing: Carl has chosen “Zhang” (张) as his Chinese surname, and in his English classes he has all of his students call him Zhang Laoshi (张老师). It’s because “Carl” is hard to pronounce, and he just finds it easier.
Is that not absurd? Would the Chinese students not find this odd? Does it help the students to call Carl “Zhang Laoshi” in English class?
Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. They’ll thank you later.
You’ve probably heard of analysis paralysis, but where does it come into Chinese studies? Studying a language is fairly straightforward, right? I’m referring not to being overly analytical about grammar, but rather about vocabulary. How can one be overly analytical about vocabulary? This is something that technology has made easy in recent years.
Most of my AllSet Learning clients use Pleco or Anki to review vocabulary. Both have built-in SRS flashcard functionality, so doing occasional reviews pretty much solves that problem, right? Well, maybe… SRS drawbacks aside, certain personality types like to take a more active role in the vocabulary categorization process. Yes, categorization. That’s the trap.
You see, when you save a word to your flashcard system, you can also categorize it. Where did this vocabulary come from? What type of vocabulary is it? How high priority is it? You can go as deep down this rabbit hole as you want. And you can spend a lot more time organizing and re-organizing your flashcards than actually reviewing them.
So typically when a client comes to me with “flashcard organization problems,” the way forward is pretty clear: it’s time for some serious vocab axing. The situation can be as bad as physical packrat (or even hoarder) tendencies, except with vocabulary data instead of old newspapers or whatever. In most cases, the learner is much better off chucking the majority of this carefully collected information. Usually the most exquisitely categorized lexical items are the least useful. Reducing everything to one “high priority” list is the way to go. This really is all you need, and you get back all that time you used to waste endlessly organizing words (without actually learning them).
For those that are seriously attached to their accumulated lexical data, technology offers a solution: you can back it up! Back up the data, dump it somewhere, and keep your active word list as simple, focused, and clutter-free as possible. (Chances are you’ll never go looking for that backup.)
If this problem sounds vaguely familiar, you may be thinking of the bookshelf problem. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how we humans can be motivated to do something related to learning a language, but actually pour the majority of our efforts into useless activities? The worst, part, of course, is that even a meticulously curated collection of lists which are somehow regularly reviewed don’t guarantee any kind of conversational ability. But then actually talking to people is a bit too random for the analytical brain to handle.
The solution is simple, though: less organizing, more talking. A more bare-bones vocabulary list will help you move in that direction. If you’re a vocabulary hoarder, I strongly urge you to reconsider your approach.
It was in the summer of 2012 during a talk with all-star intern Parry that I first discovered that confidence-based learning was a thing. The concept had occurred to me before, but it really gelled when I saw this graph:
Confidence-based learning applies to any kind of learning, but I think it applies especially well to mastering the tones of Chinese. Let’s take a quick walk through the four quadrants of the graph above…
Uninformed. So this is your typical beginner. You don’t know much, and you know that you don’t know much. It’s hard to say much of anything, and tones are only a part of the problem. Obviously, study and practice are needed.
Misinformed. In this case, the learner has learned a lot of Chinese, but has either not had sufficient practice, or has gotten bad feedback, leading him to believe that his tones are much better than they actually are. Part of the problem may be Chinese speakers’ tendency to overpraise any ability to speak at all. If no corrective feedback is ever given, how will the learner know his tones are still in need of work? This is the “unjustified confidence” I’ve talked about before in my post Laowai Delusions of Fluency. It helps to stay humble, and honest feedback is essential.
Doubt. If you’ve learned to be humble, and worked hard at improving your tones, they may be pretty good. But you may still lack confidence. You may speak quietly, or try to rush through words you’re not 100% sure of the tones for. This is actually a pretty good place to be, because you have the knowledge, and you just need some extra practice and corrective feedback. You’re probably used to not getting any feedback, which results in the doubt.
Mastery. You may not be perfect, but you know you’re pretty good, and you can speak with confidence. You know your tones, and you can pronounce them correctly. This doesn’t happen in a short amount of time; it comes as a result of extended practice with good feedback.
You need to KNOW the Tones
A friend once asked me what the correct tones were for a certain word. I told her: “3-2” (or something like that).
She then looked at me and asked, “how can you just do that? How do you know the tones for so many words?”
“I memorized them,” I said.
This is not the answer she wanted; she hoped there was some trick or pattern she could learn. There is another option of course: to learn like a child. Children, immersed in the language environment don’t “memorize” tones per se; they hear them so many times that there’s only one “natural” answer. This isn’t realistic for most adult learners, though, who frequently have to go from dictionary lookup to written or spoken communication. You have to know the tones of the vocabulary you know, and then you have to be able to correctly pronounce those tones.
This knowledge of tones corresponds to the “knowledge” axis of the graph above.
You need to be able to PRODUCE the Tones
Confidence in tonal production comes from the knowledge that you can consistently and correctly pronounce the tones correctly. This starts with being able to produce the tones of single syllables correctly, and then later progress to being able to produce tone pairs correctly, and eventually extends to longer phrases and whole sentences. But you need to practice, and you need good feedback. You need to know when you’re right and when you’re wrong in order to progress and gain that confidence. (See also The Process of Learning Tones here on Sinosplice.)
The way that we build confidence in tonal production at AllSet Learning is through regular pronunciation practice with a teacher (almost every lesson, for about 10 minutes). This is important well into the intermediate level. We have developed our own exercises for this, which are available online as Pronunciation Packs.
At this point in history, I don’t recommend computer feedback to work an tonal production. Perhaps some tonal feedback is better than none, but human perception is a weird thing, and computers do “logical” things which seem extremely strange to humans sometimes. Right now, only humans can reliably tell us how good tones sound to humans. Maybe someday that will change.
So build up your knowledge of tones, and get some good practice with corrective feedback to build your confidence. Mastery awaits.
I’m really exited to announce that AllSet Learning now has its own Online Store. After releasing several new products on Apple and Amazon’s platforms in recent years, I’ve discovered that those channels can sometimes be more than a little “challenging.” But those platforms don’t support all of AllSet Learning’s ambitions. Some of the things I want to do won’t be realized even in the next few years, but others can be broken down into simpler units that people can use right now to improve their Chinese. AllSet Learning clients have been benefiting from some of these for years already. And those are what we’re putting in the new store first.
The title of this post is “Pronunciation Practice: the next Evolution” referring to Sinosplice’s own Tone Pair Drills. We actually used those with AllSet Learning clients in the very beginning, and they worked pretty well, but we wanted to keep improving on the concept. Over the years we tried some things that didn’t work so well, and others that worked great. Each client had different needs, so a modular approach made the most sense. We’ve organized the best of these different drills into “packs,” added professional-quality audio, and it’s with that material that we proudly launch our new store.
If the idea of pronunciation practice is boring to you, I can sympathize. As a student, I totally blew off my “mandatory” language lab sessions, and still got A’s in my Chinese classes. But I had to pay later when I arrived in China and people actually couldn’t even understand me. That was the real wakeup call: pronunciation matters. Besides the occasional reminder, AllSet Learning clients do a regular pronunciation practice over an extended period of time to achieve dramatic progress.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: pronunciation practice in Mandarin Chinese should be a regular part of any formal study, starting from day 1 and extending well into the intermediate level. Two weeks on pinyin at the start of a beginner course is far from sufficient, and it’s rare than an intermediate learner wouldn’t benefit from tone pair practice or other focused pronunciation exercises. So clearly, this is an aspect of Chinese study materials that could could stand a little expansion.
Thank you, Sinosplice readers, for the support you’ve given AllSet’s endeavors in the past. As a thank you for your readership, I’d like to offer this 20% discount voucher to Sinosplice readers (valid for 3 days):
At AllSet Learning, I hear about a lot of different learner problems. One of the more common ones from intermediate learners is, “I just keep having the same boring conversations over and over again: where are you from, how long have you been in China, are you used to eating Chinese food, etc.” Learners tend to see these limited, unchallenging conversations as contributing to the intermediate plateau they are on.
You’re being too passive. Here you have a friendly, willing conversation partner, and all you can do is sit back and let them pick the topics from the same old boring set?
The small talk is just a signal. They’re trying to tell you they are willing to talk to you, and you’re wasting a good opportunity with your passiveness.
You can’t really expect a Chinese person to outright say to you: “Hey, I’m interested in you! Let’s talk! You can talk to me about anything you want.” So what does it look like when a Chinese person conveys this same information with other words? It looks exactly like boring small talk. So when you start getting hit with boring small talk, take it to mean this: “Hey, let’s talk! I can’t think of any good topics, though, so I’m going to throw boring topics at you until either you get brave enough to start a real conversation, or we both tire of this.“
That’s a lot better, isn’t it?
Now about being too passive… All you have to do is keep a few interesting questions handy to pull out when you are in this kind of situation. Sure, not every situation is appropriate… You might be more willing to ask a cab driver about bizarre things than your girlfriend’s aunt. But at least have them ready for when you are “prompted” the next time. Keep updating your questions if you find certain ones are getting old.
Is Mao your hero?
What’s the best foreign food you’ve ever had?
What do you think of India/the USA/Japan/Israel?
What do you think of religion?
Do you give money to beggars? Why or why not?
Do you play games on your cell phone? What games?
Do you believe aliens exist?
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
Yeah, some of them are a little serious or weird, but those tend to have one of two effects: (1) they stop talking to you (no more boring small talk!), or (2) you get an interesting perspective from them.
I recently published a guest post by Scott Young, who just spent about three months in China, attempting to stay immersed in Chinese the whole time (even while traveling with his non-Chinese friend, Vat). I didn’t comment on my own interactions with Scott, though, or my thoughts on his experiment. So I’ll do that now.
Here’s a video we took in the (then) empty office next to the AllSet Learning office. We were plagued by technical problems, but Vat’s persistence got us through.
On “No English”
I was expecting that Scott would be taking a break from his “immersion” while talking to me and talk to me in English. We had exchanged emails before we met in person, and it was all in English. But no, from the get-go, Scott spoke nothing but Chinese to me. (And Vat too.) So we talked for quite a while (before and after the video), and it was all entirely in Chinese.
I part of me finds this weird. I suppose it’s because it violates the “efficiency” principle I talk about in my language power struggle post. We both knew that we could communicate absolutely effortlessly in English.
But he was a man on a mission, with a “no English” rule, and I totally respected that. In fact, It’s becoming less and less weird for me to think of Chinese as an international language. Chinese is the language of our office, and I speak to our (non-Chinese) interns mostly in Chinese as well (as long as they’re not absolute beginners).
On Studying before You Arrive
Scott mentions that he had studied Chinese for 105 hours before coming to China. Vat didn’t. I’m sure there are other factors at play, but there was a noticeable difference between Scott’s and Vat’s Chinese levels. I think Scott was also putting more time into Chinese in China (Vat also had video and architecture-related interests to pursue). But the head start undoubtedly helped Scott a lot.
This is a common thread I’ve seen in a lot of success stories, though: for China, in particular, prior study seems to help immensely. I’ve heard and discussed with friends theories about having to deal with the “triple threat” of (1) unfamiliar language, (2) tones, and (3) Chinese characters leading to higher levels of frustration when tackling Chinese. In fact, it’s a good reason to delay studying characters a bit, if it means less frustration and a stronger foundation in pinyin and pronunciation.
I had three semesters of Chinese before setting foot in China. I sure struggled when I got here, but I was essentially focusing entirely on listening and pronunciation for the first couple of months. I knew pinyin, had the grammar basics down, and knew all the characters I needed for a while. I know that focus helped me tremendously.
On Preventing Friendships
In the guest post, Scott states:
> What matters is that you are not speaking English to prevent: (1) Forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese….
This is key, but it seems quite harsh. Can you imagine bumping into Scott while traveling around China, trying to strike up a friendly conversation with him about areas in Yunnan he’d recommend visiting, and being totally blown off by him in Chinese? Would you be heartless enough to similarly rebuff a friendly fellow traveller? This is exactly what Scott is advocating, though: “prevent[ing] forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese.”
I know that Scott is right, though. I also know people that have followed less extreme versions of this policy in order to make the most of their time in China, although those people tended to have more than just three months, so a few conversations here and there weren’t a huge deal. And then there’s the “expat bubble” crowd, of course. Most of those people didn’t intentionally form the bubble; it just “kind of happened.”
When I first started teaching at my first job in China at Zhejiang University City College (ZUCC), my only co-workers were four Australians. I fully expected those guys would be my new friends, and I was excited to finally get to know some Aussies. But they cruelly brushed me off; they were a tight-knit group, and not at all interested in letting me in. So I was on my own, lonely, and motivated to learn Chinese. I hung out with my Chinese roommate a lot. I studied. I went out and practiced with random people. I made more Chinese friends. I learned Chinese. I was kind of lucky, really.
This is one of those personality things, though. I’d be curious to hear from readers who have tried this, whether successful or not, and what the results were.
This is a guest post by blogger Scott Young. He got in touch with me before we met in China, and I was impressed by his “All Chinese All the Time” enthusiasm. In this post he shares some advice on how to create an immersion experience if you’re only in China for a short time and really serious about learning Chinese. (Oh, also the video his friend Vat made is pretty cool, too.)
In China and can’t access Vimeo? See the mini-documentary on YouKu
I think most people would agree immersion is the best way to learn a language. Unfortunately, that can often be difficult to pull off, even if you live in the country with the language you’re trying to learn. Immersion in China can be even trickier, where both difficulties with the language and the culture can be difficult barriers to surmount.
After a three-month stay in China, I’m hardly an expert on learning Chinese. However I did go from a minimal amount of prior self-study (105 hours, exactly), to passing the HSK 4 and being able to hold fairly complex conversations in Chinese after my brief stay.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I believe immersion was the key to my progress and I believe it’s the biggest component most new learners in China lack which holds them back. In this article, I want to spell out exactly what steps I took to create a sustainable immersive environment to improve my Chinese over a short stay.
Immersion from the First Day
One of the most important factors is that I aimed for an immersive environment, from the first day in China. Given I was barely able to make up a sentence and couldn’t understand anything Chinese people were saying to me, that might sound too difficult to replicate.
However, I believe it is possible to create an immersive environment from the first day, even if you aren’t enrolled in one of those fancy boarding schools which force you to speak Chinese. Second, I believe this step is one of the most important you can take for your overall rate of improvement.
A Tale of Two Languages
Chinese isn’t my first foreign language I’ve learned. That was French.
I lived in France for a year during my senior year of university. Despite four years of grade school classes, my French was nonexistent. I had always wanted to learn a foreign language, so getting an opportunity to live abroad was the perfect time to do that.
Three months into my stay in France, with roughly the same advance preparation as I had for China, I wrote a French exam that all students were required to take. I scored a D. (Which according to the school roughly translated into an “A2” by the CEFR)
I’m still mostly the same person I was four years ago. Certainly any innate talent for learning languages, if such a thing exists, would have been the same then as it is now. My motivation for learning French was at least as strong as learning Chinese. So why did I fail to do what I have done in Chinese with an “easy” language like French?
I believe the difference was immersion.
Although I was living in France to learn French, most of my friends were other foreigners who spoke English. Even the French friends I had tended to speak in English with me because we were part of an English speaking group.
By the time I had realized my mistake, it had become very hard to change course. The only way I could start an immersive environment now would have been to cut off all my non-French speaking friends and force myself to speak in an unfamiliar language with people who were used to me speaking to them in English.
After this experience, I resolved to do things differently next time. So when I came to learn Chinese, I wanted to make sure I was building an immersive environment from Day 1.
How to Build an Immersive Environment with Limited Chinese
Immersion sounds great, but it’s definitely easier said than done. I believe that managing the development of your environment while living in China can be trickier than learning Chinese, and it’s very easy to get into some bad habits (or friendships) that will hold you back.
The no-English rule is not possible to perfectly implement (at least for mere mortals like myself). I had to speak in English when I arrived to the landlord. I had to use English in some brief moments to coordinate with possible tutors. I had to use English with Vat, my friend who I traveled with and shot the documentary you can see at the top of this article, as he hadn’t done the same amount of prior preparation as myself.
However, even an imperfect attempt at not speaking English can still be good enough for practical purposes. What matters is that you are not speaking English to prevent:
Forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese.
Beginning friendships with Chinese people who want to use you to practice their English.
Using a bit of initial isolation to motivate yourself to learn Chinese and make Chinese friends.
This is an intense strategy, so you might be wondering whether it’s something you can successfully execute. I’ve done this now with Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and I’m currently in the beginning phases of applying it with Korean. While it can be very intense, I want to stress that the intensity is mostly temporary.
Chinese may take a little longer to break in than a European language, but you will break through, and when you do, you’ll be in the immersive environment you need to make rapid improvements in your Chinese.
What happens if you fail? Don’t worry, pick yourself up and try again. The goal isn’t perfection, simply enough commitment to using Chinese that you get the three benefits I listed above.
Specific Strategies for Getting Over the Hump
Simply not speaking in English is rather vague, so I want to add some concrete examples of steps I found useful, both in China, and in other countries where I’ve applied this technique.
1. Make friends with your tutor and ask him or her to introduce you to new friends.
China can be a hard country to befriend strangers when your ability with the language is quite low. It wasn’t until the third month that I found myself starting to make friends randomly, as before my Chinese was too limited to have more than basic chit-chat.
My strategy in China was to actually get a couple tutors around the same age as myself (I ended up settling on two), who I could have lessons with. From the day I first met them, I mentioned that I was interested in meeting other Chinese people, so I tried to pick tutors who could introduce me to other Chinese speaking people.
That strategy is a bit slow, and it took me two weeks before I was getting introductions, but it ended up resulting in dozens of new friends, all in Chinese.
2. Get a home-base restaurant and talk to the staff.
This is a good one in China because restaurants are so cheap and numerous, but I’ve used it in all of the countries I applied this method, so I believe it is easily replicable.
Basically, find a place where you (a) like the food enough to eat there everyday and (b) the owner or staff is very friendly and chatty with you. Even if you can’t have great conversations with them yet, this can be a good first friendship in the language because you will see them often enough that there is no need for complex introductions or swapping of contact details.
3. Go to language meetups, once you’ve successfully had all-Chinese tutoring sessions.
I like language exchanges for making friends in the language. But these can be a trap in China, where everyone just practices English on the largely non-Chinese speaking foreign population.
The problem isn’t that Chinese people won’t speak in Chinese with you. Just the opposite, I’ve found most Chinese people like talking to foreigners, and are quite happy when they don’t have to use their English (even in language meetups). Most people I’ve met have been quite patient with me as I’ve stuttered out broken sentences.
The problem is that, if you haven’t successfully had a conversation with one of your tutors entirely in Chinese (or at least mostly in Chinese, where you weren’t constantly switching back to full English sentences), it is easy to get sucked into the English speaking groups.
You might have a job in China where you need to speak English, so fully avoiding the problems I mentioned are out of the question. However, the same steps can be applied privately to start surrounding yourself in a Chinese-speaking social circle, so that you can at least get the benefits of partial immersion.
Immersion is an intense strategy, but it’s also one you must design. Unfortunately, many first-timers believe it is guaranteed by living in the country and then lament at the difficulty of learning Chinese when they’ve made little progress despite years in China.
The intensity may be uncomfortable for the first month or two, but that’s a one-time cost. Once you reach an intermediate level of Chinese, continuing to improve by making new Chinese-speaking friends gets easier and easier. Averaged out over years, I believe immersion actually takes less effort than constant amount of Chinese study within an English-speaking bubble, it just happens to compress most of that effort in the first bit.
Scott Young is a blogger, traveler and author of Learn More, Study Less (recently published in Chinese). If you join his newsletter, you can get a free ebook detailing the strategy he uses to learn faster.
A better title for this post would be “never trust a native speaker completely.” We all know instinctively that the mind of a native speaker is an essential resource for learning a language. Put enough of these native speakers together, and you can create the immersion experience which all learners crave in order to truly level up their fluency. But as for an isolated, individual native speaker… there are a few issues to keep in mind.
Below I’ve summed up the three big reasons why you can’t trust native speakers (completely), and then rounded it off with some advice:
Put simply, most native speakers don’t know their language inside and out. Sure, they can speak their native language, and maybe even write it well. But when you start asking them more “meta” questions, many native speakers will struggle to give a straightforward or meaningful answer.
The kinds of things native speakers often struggle with when queried on their native tongues:
– Why is this wrong?
– What is the difference between these two words?
– How do you express this obscure idiomatic phrase from my language in your native tongue?
A lot of times, the native speaker honestly wants to help, but they’re just not equipped to do so. Being masters at their own native tongue does not make them qualified to answer your metalinguistic questions. They may even refuse to answer your crazy learner questions (and in some cases, they may be well justified, since we learners tend to over-analyze at times).
So while it sounds strange to call a native speaker ignorant of his own language, when it comes to the “meta,” most native speakers are.
So to address the types of questions mentioned above:
– Native speakers don’t normally have to identify why something in their language is wrong. If something they say ever comes out wrong, they can fix it, based on their intuition. But they don’t ever have to say why they had to fix it. “It sounded weird” is the furthest they ever need to go down that line of thinking. (You don’t actually need to know why either, just as babies don’t need to know why. But sometimes you really want to know, and it can save time.)
– Native speakers know how to use similar words differently, but it’s not likely to be conscious. Or the differences they are conscious of (like “they’re, their, and there” in English) seem painfully obvious to even half-way diligent non-native speakers. (Having these types of questions answered well can often save you a lot of time spent on trial and error learning.)
– If the phrase from your language is obscure but this person has learned it, it’s possible that they learned it specifically because it was hard to translate. There’s a big chance they’ll fall back on a stock explanation for this that eclipses the myriad of untranslatable nuance. (This kind of question is typically not something you really need answered anyway, though.)
When it comes to the problem of ignorance, this is where language teachers have a huge leg up on the average joe. Especially experienced language teachers will have addressed the “why is this wrong” and “what’s the difference between these two words” many times, and will have gotten good at them. They might even be so good that they can give simple answers that enable you to grasp the essence and move on, instead of needlessly delving into endless minutiae.
OK, some some native speakers do have some meaningful metalinguistic insight into their own language. They might be language teachers, or translators, or just people that like to reflect on the peculiarities of their native tongue. These people are super helpful, and likely even enjoy answering your questions, so they’re great to have around.
The problem can occur when these people get a little cocky and start trying to make sweeping claims about their native tongue. They’re like the over-eager cop outside his jurisdiction. Allow me to illustrate with a little story from my own English-teaching past. (Oh yes… I was the cocky bastard in this story.)
Learning English from a cocky teacher
When I first started teaching Chinese English majors, I noticed they were really bad at informal spoken English. One particularly glaring example was that the only greetings that they could handle were “hello” and “how are you?” I quickly banned those two, forced them to start using “hi” and “hey,” and taught them these greetings:
– The “how greetings”: How’s it going? How are you doing?
– The “what greetings”: What’s up? What’s new? What’s going on?
When a few of my students wanted to say “how are you going?” I made quite clear that this was wrong (bad English), and they were not to say it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that Australians regularly say “how are you going?” To make matters worse, some of the students I taught were preparing to study abroad in Australia!
I meant well (and those students seriously needed to learn some new informal greetings), but I presumed to speak as the authority on the entire English language (at the ripe old age of 24, no less), as an American, without even having substantial contact with non-American English. And that was just overstepping my bounds. I was cocky.
It’s surprisingly easy to do this as a teacher, though, even if you’re pretty sure you’re not cocky at all. There will always be weird exceptions and unfamiliar dialects, as well as new expressions coming into vogue. Teachers do their best, I know, but it can be difficult to play the role of “language authority” without buying into the vastness of one’s own “enlightened native speaker” knowledge at least a little.
This is what I was alluding to at the end of the last section: it just isn’t possible to know everything about a language, even if you’re an educated native speaker. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences between similar words. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences in dialects of your native tongue. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just what words are falling out of common usage (becoming outdated), and what new words and phrases the kids are using these days. But what you can’t do is all of those things, in one lifetime (and definitely not by the age of 24).
In Linguistics 101 in college I was intrigued by the the concept of the ideolect, the idea that no single person uses the entirety of a given language, and no person uses the language they do use in exactly the same way. The entirety of a language exists as the sum of all speakers’ ideolects. It is inherently distributed (across the minds of speakers), and can never be fully centralized (except maybe by SkyNet some day?). This pretty much blew my mind.
And so linguists and language teachers will make efforts to see beyond their own ideolects, and to see the fuller picture of the language they are trying to understand. But the human brain can only hold so much, and there’s only so much time. A language is a big thing.
So… what now?
I hope I’ve convinced you that native speakers are fallible, and they cannot help but be so, when it comes to perfectly representing The Ultimate Truth about their mother tongues. But each has the most insight of anyone into his own ideolect.
No, you can’t trust a native speaker. But you can trust native speakers, as a group.
If it’s an important or tricky question, always get a second opinion. Better yet, if you’re an advanced learner, present conflicting evidence collected from multiple native speakers to those native speakers. This can produce fascinating insight for learners, and often for the native speakers themselves.
Here’s one simple experiment for Chinese learners which can reveal the multiplicity of opinions native speakers can hold: ask help from Chinese native speakers in choosing a Chinese name. For best results, ask for suggestions from multiple native speakers as well, and add those to the list. Then ask lots of different Chinese people what they think of the different Chinese names. Here’s what typically happens:
1. Some names will sound bad to almost everyone
2. Some names will sound fine to almost everyone
3. A few names will produce wildly different reactions
When I went through this process myself, years ago, I expected to find the “perfect name” that everyone agreed was awesome and perfect for me. That didn’t happen. I still remember quite clearly the dissenting opinions on the name I eventually chose (which got mostly positive feedback):
1. It sounds like a peasant’s name
2. It sounds like a monkey’s name
(I chose it anyway, because enough people thought it was a decent name, and I liked it.)
Whether you’re a learner or a metalinguistic advisor on your own native tongue, though, my advice is the same: Stay humble. Stay curious. And talk to lots of native speakers.
Yesterday Project Naptha hit Hacker News. It offers a way to extract electronic text from image files through a simple Chrome browser extension. Excited to see that simplified and traditional Chinese are both supported by the extension, I immediately installed the extension and tried it out.
The results? Unfortunately, Not so great.
When it doesn’t work at all
First of all, the script needs to recognize the text in the image. This first step doesn’t always go too well, even if the text seems relatively clear to the human eye. Let’s look at some cases where the extension found nothing, despite the Chinese text being pretty legible.
In this first case, the font is non-standard. OK, fair enough. That’s to be expected.
In this next case, the text is pretty clear, but the contrast is poor.
In this final example, the text is fairly clear to the human eye, but also low-res and slanted. That probably makes it difficult for the algorithm.
When it sort of works
In many other cases, some text was identified, but not enough for the extension to be really useful for anything. Here are some images where Project Naptha could identify some text, and the “select all text” function was applied. (The blue boxes show what Project Naptha identified in the images as “text.” Sometimes they are bizarrely incorrect.)
I found the last two quite surprising, considering how clear and straightforward the text is, and also high-res.
When it actually works
Sometimes it was relatively successful in identifying the text. In these cases you must first set the language to Chinese (either simplified or traditional, depending on the text). There’s a cool effect showing you that some processing is going on. When that’s done, you can copy and paste the text.
But… it might not be exactly what you were hoping for.
This selected Chinese text yielded the following copy-paste results:
> 总统亲 ã热ﬂ地接
If it had correctly captured all the text, it would have been:
This one is better:
> 化武器况妹俩也不示弱 麝芦神功连
> 连使出 胭宙电二怪打入深深的山沟
It should have been:
Also, my sample size is too small to make any definite conclusions, but it seems like the extension works better for simplified characters than for traditional.
I don’t mean to sound overly critical. This is amazing technology here, and the fact that it launched with any support for Chinese characters at all is pretty awesome (and brave)! I’m sure the technology will improve with time, and that is going to be tremendously helpful to Chinese learners.
To put this in perspective, the development of OCR (optical character recognition) for mobile devices meant that you could point your cell phone’s camera at any characters you see, and get feedback on what the characters say (sometimes). Project Naptha means the same thing, but for your home browsing experience. For me, that’s when I do a lot more Chinese reading, so it’s even more important. Once this technology is perfected, as long as you have a tool to help you read electronic Chinese text, you’re all set!
Personally, I think this is especially great news for comics. It’s no coincidence that I tested this extension out on comic book text. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this extension develops.
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this review, FluentU is showing a lot of potential as a learning platform and a content producer. In this review I’ll look more closely at FluentU’s self-produced video series, and finish with an interview of content director Jason Schuurman (my ex-co-worker at ChinesePod).
Fluent-U’s Video Series
So, assuming you have a FluentU account, where do you find the FluentU-produced videos on the FluentU site? It’s not quite as obvious as you might think. They’re not aggressively recommended. But if you go into “Courses,” you’ll notice that some course names start with “FluentU.” Those are the ones FluentU has produced on their own. Unfortunately they’re not really grouped together for easy identification, so I went ahead and listed out all the ones I could find currently available on the FluentU website:
So only 1 Newbie series, 3 Elementary, a whopping 5 Intermediate, and 1 Upper Intermediate. I was hoping for more video at the lower level, but at least I got to see what FluentU created across 4 levels.
One of the things I really like about these series is that although they’re broken up into short episodic clips, there’s also a “full” version that ends each series, putting all the clips together. This is great for review, and it also meant that I could easily watch each series without having to watch them one by one. (Watching a series on FluentU isn’t quite as easy as watching a playlist on YouTube.)
The video themselves are professionally made, using young, attractive actors. There’s a bit of a Taiwanese flavor to them all (unsurprising, since they were all shot in Taipei, I believe), which may upset the Beijing-centric putonghua police. I think it’s fine, though, the videos seem to be designed to be universally applicable to mainland China learners as well. I didn’t encounter any Taiwan-only vocabulary, pronunciation was pretty standard (although not perfect, by Beijing standards). There was also some Taiwan-style usage of sentence-final modal particles, like 哦, 啦, and 咯, but I didn’t find it too distracting.
At the lower levels, it’s clear that the creators slowed down the speech and added additional pauses for lower level learners. While this is nice, it has a funny effect, making some scenes feel quite awkward. You know those conversations where neither side is quite sure to say, and there are long awkward silences? There’s a lot of that feeling in some of the lower-level video series. Even within just the Elementary series, though, we quickly see the awkwardness in one series–FluentU: Making Friends and Drinking Coffee–fade to a much more natural rate of speech in FluentU: A Trip to the Supermarket. By Intermediate, the language is a lot more natural, while still being quite clear. I found the Upper Intermediate surprisingly accessible (read: not difficult), meaning it will be more useful for more learners, which is a good thing. (Other material marked “Upper Intermediate” on FluentU is usually quite a bit more challenging.)
I noticed that the writers also went to great pains to make the dialogs full of high-frequency words and phrases. While it’s usually easy to pick out words that aren’t useful in most videos or even standard textbooks, there really aren’t many at all in FluentU’s videos. In fact, the language is usually so simple and everyday that the videos don’t really through you any cureveballs at all. There aren’t “twist endings” like you frequently find in ChinesePod dialogs. One thing that keeps the videos interesting, though, is a pervasive flirtiness running through many of the male-female dialogs. You kind of expect the video to devolve into a “what’s your number?” or “we should hang out sometime,” but they stay innocent.
In fact, it’s the flirtiness, combined with an amusing awkwardness, that makes these original videos memorable. Probably my favorite example of this is the elementary video where the cute flirty waitress informs the young protagonist where the bathroom is, immediately followed up by a cutesy “don’t forget to wash your hands!” (Ha ha, wut??)
Then there’s also the very awkward pre-interview high-five (between strangers) in the Upper Intermediate job interview lesson:
(The girl and guy from that video are going to end up as co-workers, and if that sexual tension doesn’t later erupt in a sequel series, I really don’t know what the writers are trying to do here.)
Overall, I enjoyed the videos. Especially at the lower levels, they still feel like “studying,” but they’re very usable and easy on the eyes. I can see these being useful in the classroom, especially for college students.
Interview with FluentU’s Content Director, Jason Schuurman
Me: Although it’s a very different service, FluentU kind of reminds me of ChinesePod in that it offers a lot of material and tools, and it’s up to learners to put them together in the way that makes sense for them. Can you comment on how that might work at FluentU, and how different types of users use the service?
Jason: Yeah, we definitely provide a lot of freedom and flexibility. We feel this not only allows for a broader range of users to benefit from the site, but it also let’s our users take their learning into their own hands and not get bored with materials they weren’t interested in learning in the first place.
That being said, we still do provide structure for those who want it in the form of recommended content and more specifically, ‘courses’. Courses at FluentU are something like a playlist-meets-lesson plan, and guide users through various sets of content ranging from multi-part video series, to topically related materials and textbook vocab lists.
As far as users go, on one end of the spectrum, you have users who only use FluentU for the content itself. Our library of videos and audios is very large and already organized for you, translated into English, and completely annotated. These users usually already have a system for review they prefer, prefer not to review at all, or are in Chinese classes already and looking for engaging authentic content. Most of these users are intermediate and above and subscribe to our Basic subscription plan.
On the other end of the spectrum, are the users who use FluentU as their single source for most or all of their language learning and are Plus subscribers. Not only do they get all the content, but they have access to and can create decks (vocab lists), and are able to actually learn everything within the FluentU library using our personalized review tools. Learn mode integrates videos you’ve watched and tracks your progress so that we can do things like make sure clips you see are comprehensible to you and do an even better job recommending you content. All that adds up to a pretty complete learning package.
How big is the video library, exactly? How many FluentU-produced videos do you have now?
Jason: Our total count in the video library as I write this is 1251 videos, with 65 at newbie, 86 at elementary, 138 at intermediate, 257 at upper intermediate, 360 at advanced, and 340 at native. Of those, we’ve produced 10 ‘Courses’ of videos of our own, each about 5-10 videos apiece. Though, it’s ever-increasing because we publish at least 12 videos a week, sometimes more.
In addition to that we also produce our own audio dialogs, which we call ‘Audios’. They’re similar to some videos, but are more lesson-like and practical, and of course, don’t require the user to actually watch anything, which is great for mobile. (They’ll also be available offline on our upcoming mobile app.) Right now we have 228 of those spread across the levels, and also publish around 10 a week.
And as for ‘Decks’, which are vocab lists of various types available for learning via the Learn Mode, we have 124, and continue to publish more as well.
How have you been growing the library? Are you focused on particular levels, or topics, or styles of video? What are the plans for that?
Jason: We’re always looking for and preparing new videos. In general, we make sure to cover a wide range of topics and formats, and also keep difficulty in mind so that we can continuously publish a good mix of content. Though we also keep things like the overall library balance and user feedback and requests in mind as well. So far this has worked really well, so while we have no plans to change much in that regard.
How should learners decide what videos to watch on FluentU?
Jason: Browse! The videos in our library are divided into different topics, formats, and difficulties, which help users choose what to watch based on their interests and Chinese level. We also display the percentage of vocabulary the user already knows for each video, which allows them to chose videos that are more precisely at their level.
In addition to that, we have “Courses”, which if you don’t know exactly what to you want to watch or are looking for more structure, organize the content into playlists for you. Courses are also popular because they’re longer forms of content. You can slowly pick away at a course, with your next video, deck, audio, or learn mode session waiting for you every time you sign in, meaning you don’t always have browse for new content.
How do your difficulty levels relate to textbooks or other online services like ChinesePod or the Chinese Grammar Wiki?
Jason: We based our difficulty levels on a lot of things, but mostly a combination of our own knowledge and expertise (bolstered of course via sources like the Chinese Grammar Wiki), and other helpful standards like the new HSK levels. When actually determining difficulties, we consider things like speed and clarity, but linguistically we place a strong emphasis on frequency and usefulness to ensure that lower-level videos are filled with the stuff you really need when starting a language.
Can you explain the process for how you went about creating and filming your original video series?
Jason: When we first started compiling our library of videos, we realized there was a lack of quality, entertaining, video content for lower-level learners. There’s certainly stuff out there, as our current library reflects, but nothing as well-produced and linguistically-minded as we would have prefered. The stuff out there was either very entertaining but not practical, or very practical, but not entertaining. We wanted both, and so we decided to just make them ourselves. Essentially, we wanted to make sure our lower-level learners were getting as great of a video-learning experience as our more advanced users, and making some of our own videos was the best way to do that.
To produce them, we teamed up with a small independent film production company who we felt really understood our ‘vision’ with the videos. From there, we decided on what scenarios were most needed/wanted, wrote the scripts with our pedagogy in mind, and produced the videos.
You say the FluentU video series is for “lower-level learners.” Can you explain that a bit more? Is it for someone with a year of formal Chinese under their belt, or is it an absolute newbie, or someone who’s learned pinyin and a few basic phrases but nothing else, or what?
Jason: We’ve produced our own video series at the newbie level all the way up the upper intermediate level, but we made sure to produce more at the newbie, elementary, and intermediate levels simply because there’s less good material at that level.
The ‘newbie’ level courses are meant for learners with a little bit of understanding as to how the Chinese language works in particular in terms of tones, pinyin and characters, but without any prior master of them. Through a combination of the scripts, which are written for language learning, and a filming style that is meant to take full advantage of the video-learning format, we wanted to make understanding the content just come naturally, which is very important for newbies. To do that we emphasize things like repetition of key vocab, visual cues, slightly slower speech, etc.
The video player and learn mode also allow the user to start with pinyin first, and graduate up to characters when they’re ready. And finally, we also other courses meant specifically for learners who aren’t familiar with, or who need more practice with, things like tones and pinyin.
I’d say with a year of formal Chinese under your belt, you’d be just about at our ‘intermediate’ level. With ‘elementary’ being somewhere in between that, and what I’ve just described above.
How are your own videos different from other video-based learning material? What makes them special?
Jason: Well, I think for one we put a ton of care into making sure they were not only useful, educational, and pedagogically sound, but also interesting and worth watching. I think the biggest problem with a lot of language learning video series, is not unlike the problem that many textbook dialogs have, in that they end up being either boring, or unnatural and feel somewhat stilted in the end. We tried really hard to make sure ours were visually interesting (and hopefully even sometimes funny!) and also that our actors did their best to speak and act naturally, while still maintaining the clarity of speech that is so important to a language learning video. That’s probably the biggest difference in my mind.
That’s the end of this two-part review of FluentU. Check out Part 1 if you missed it.
FluentU has quickly become the most talked-about video service for learning Chinese online. The site sports a clean, modern feel, and the team have been very responsive over the past year, as user feedback has informed a number of nice changes. Although I’ve been following FluentU’s development (and even met with the founder a while back), I haven’t reviewed the service myself until recently. It’s not a coincidence; I’m actually a bit skeptical of video-based learning (it’s really hard to get right), and I wanted to wait until FluentU got a few more features out before I reviewed the service.
For the most part, I’m going to assume that most of my readers have already heard about FluentU (it’s certainly not new anymore!), and I won’t provide an in-depth introduction to how the service works. This is part 1 of a 2-part series.
Why video? This is a really important question. Working at ChinesePod, we were often confronted with the “why don’t you guys do video?” question. The logic seemed to be: “if audio is good, video is better.” ChinesePod has done a few experiments in video over the years, but never fully committed to it. The reasons are:
1. Professional video is much more labor-intensive than audio (by a factor of 5-10)
2. Users often say they want video, but don’t really want to pay extra for it (poor ROI)
3. Many users use audio material in a way that doesn’t work with video (e.g. listening while working out, or while driving)
What conclusions can I draw from this? Not a whole lot. Maybe video is just not a good fit for the ChinesePod brand. Building up a big fanbase over years and years, all centered on audio, probably doesn’t naturally lead to demand for video. If ChinesePod were to really commit to doing video, it would have to be a concerted, long-term effort, and more than just a few experimental videos.
FluentU, on the other hand, has focused on video from the start. In its early days, it utilized tons of clips from YouTube, which meant its resources could go into translation, vocab management, and other tools (rather than video production). More recently, FluentU has started producing its own professional video content.
Video is great for providing the full visual context of language, including both cultural elements and body language. This is especially powerful for learners not in China (learners which can also take advantage of the unblocked internet and faster speeds for viewing FluentU videos).
FluentU: the Video Player
FluentU does a great job of presenting video. The player is great, right down to all sorts of tiny details. If you know FluentU at all, you know this, so I won’t say too much here.
Some specific details I like:
1. Being able to loop a specific clip within a video.
2. Color coding in the video timeline so you can see where the dialog happens in the videos and where there’s no speaking going on.
3. Hovering on the subtitles automatically pauses the video, so you can check the meanings or pinyin of the words you’re hearing.
4. When you first select a video, you’re presented with the entire video transcript up front (which you can also download). This is especially useful for intermediate and above; if you can read enough to get the gist of the transcript, you don’t have to suffer through 5 minutes of a video before discovering it’s not what you want.
But there’s a catch… because FluentU makes extensive use of YouTube, it doesn’t work flawlessly in China. I have a VPN, of course, but it’s still a little slow. It’s usable, but the lag is quite annoying, I must admit. I imagine using FluentU on a fast (unfiltered) internet connection would be pretty awesome, though.
FluentU: Learn Mode
The is one of the key features I want to focus on. It wasn’t around in FluentU’s early free/beta days, and it has a lot of potential. Basically, “Learn Mode” is FluentU’s take on SRS, an idea which isn’t so great all by itself, but holds a lot of promise for enhancing other methods of learning.
When you choose a FluentU video at your level that you’re interested in, you can choose between “Watch” and “Learn.” “Watch” is just watching the video, as expected. “Learn” takes you to a new interface which is focused on figuring out which words in the video you actually know, and familiarizing you with the ones you don’t know. This process should feel very familiar to anyone who’s used Anki or other SRS vocabulary review software, but FluentU has done its own take on SRS.
When you don’t “know” a word, you have the option of watching one or more short video clips which include the word. It’s a very cool cross-section of the word in action across all kinds of video content and contexts. Imagine that all those sample sentences you love so much in your favorite dictionary (or Chinese Grammar Wiki) were all mini video clips. That’s what it does, complete with transcript for each individual sentence.
After you “learn” the word and continue, the system will cycle back and test you on the words you should have “learned.” There are multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blank, and straight-up translation mini-quizzes for each word.
So I’m totally on board with the idea of extending SRS into something more interesting, and I like seeing innovation around the boring SRS model, but there are a few issues (which I’m sure FluentU is working on). First, if you’re in China using a VPN, the lag issue is even worse for these tiny clips than for the full videos.
Second, the “Learn this word” vs. “Already Know” dichotomy may be a little hard for some types of learners to deal with. There are just so many words we learners are working on in learning, which fall in that fuzzy region somewhere between “Learn this word” (as if it were new) and “Already Know,” that being forced to choose may be just a little agonizing.
If you choose “Already Know,” then BAM, that word is forever (?) on your “known” list, which might make you feel like you damn well better know it before clicking “Already Know.” Perhaps that’s the idea: getting you to browse clips more, and make fuller use of FluentU’s archive of annotated video. Fair enough. I just think it will be hard for some users (read: super-serious learners with perfectionist tendencies, like I used to be) to confidently click on “Already Know.”
One thing is for sure: the “Learn” mode offers a much more focused way to “study” FluentU’s video content, rather than just casually browsing. It really is a very different experience from the site’s main video-watching experience, more similar to a quiz than enjoying a TV show. I can see how this might attract some users and turn off others.
If FluentU can get “Learn” mode right and get more users actually using it, it has huge potential. Any learning service that can accurately determine what its users “know” is very well poised to offer an amazing, personalized learning experience. Right now, FluentU offers a little green strip next to every video displaying what is “known” (based on feedback from “Learn” mode). There’s a lot of potential here.
Mini-Interview with FluentU’s Founder, Alan Park
Me: The FluentU video player is fantastic! How did you design/develop it?
Alan: Thanks for the kind words! We designed/developed it through the same way that we develop the rest of the site: by going back and forth with our users and adjusting based on feedback, until they loved it. And then adjusting it some more.
FluentU has some great video content, but it seems to also be branching out into audio too. Are you having second thoughts about a “pure video” approach?
Alan: Our team doesn’t have many “sacred cows.” We experiment a lot and are always trying new things to make the best language learning site possible. We started with real-world videos because video has many advantages. Video is exciting, and it opens your eyes to a whole new world and culture. People talk naturally on video. It’s memorable and helps words stick. And most of all it’s fun. On the other hand, audio has 2 huge benefits: it’s cheaper to create than video, and it doesn’t require as much active engagement for the user as video. We’ve found that there is definitely a place for audio alongside video.
Is FluentU primarily aimed at individual self-study learners, or at schools and other institutions?
Alan: Our focus is individual learners, but many schools and institutions tell us that their students are loving FluentU.
You’ve launched other languages on the FluentU platform. What does this mean for Chinese? Will Chinese get any “special treatment” going forward, or are new features now “all or nothing”?
Alan: Chinese is our first language, so it will always get “special treatment.” And by virtue of the fact that there is pinyin and Chinese characters there is no way around it. Besides, it’s my favorite foreign language.
The “Learn” feature on FluentU is a unique take on spaced repetition. Is it popular with your users?
Alan: Yes, they love it. Instead of saying that it is a take on spaced repetition, I would say that spaced repetition is just one small part of it.
The “Learn” feature is really a personalized quiz for learning vocab through video contexts. Instead of learning vocab through flashcards, why not learn them through short video clips which are handpicked for you?
What’s next for the “Learn” feature?
Alan: We’re making it mobile friendly. Right now, it involves a lot of typing, which wouldn’t translate well for smartphone. Stay tuned!
Just a few takeaway points:
– FluentU has a great, learner-centric video player with awesome features and real attention to detail
– FluentU may not work well in China, even if you have a VPN
– FluentU has “Learn” mode, which may not be for all users, but it definitely takes FluentU well beyond “a site with a bunch of videos,” and looks very promising
In part 2 I’ll be looking at the FluentU-produced video series, with a more in-depth interview with Content Director Jason Schuurman.
The following is a guest article written by a Sinosplice reader, Julian Suddaby. I have followed it with some commentary of my own.
Warning: if you’re a member of the “Chinese is super easy” faction, this article might annoy you a little, but be sure to read through to the end!
How Many Characters?
by Julian Suddaby, 2014-02-13
I asked Google “how many chinese characters do I need to learn” and the best sites I found pointed to linguist Jun Da’s website and used his data to argue that 3,500 characters should be enough for most people, being that you’ll know around 99.5% of the characters in general circulation.  Is that really enough?
Well, if you’ve got to that point, congratulations. It’s an achievement. But you may not want to stop accumulating characters just yet. Indeed, sad to say, at 3,500 you won’t even be able to read Jun Da’s name, being that 笪 is way down at frequency #5,231.  So how many, then, do you need to learn? Well, that depends on one question that you should ask yourself: what exactly do you want to read?
Students often want to read Chinese newspapers. The Southern Weekly 南方周末 being a popular choice, I took the ten most popular articles over the previous thirty days and ran them through a computer program that checked them against Jun Da’s most frequent 3,500 characters. The results are fairly encouraging for the Chinese student, I think: if you knew the 3,500 you’d only encounter forty-four new characters over the course of those ten articles, and twenty-nine of those you’d only see once and so would probably just take a guess at from context and move on. But you’d possibly want to look up 甄, a pseudonymous surname given to the subject of one of the articles (and thus appearing thirty-five times); 闰, used in the name of a Zhejiang corporation which appears to have buried five hundred tons of poisonous chemicals in their backyard (seven appearances); and 驿, used in the name of a company involved in a online security breach (also seven appearances). 
So, while you probably shouldn’t throw out your dictionary just yet, it does seem that trying to read a newspaper won’t be a disheartening experience.
A Children’s Book
Children’s novels are another popular choice of reading material for language students. Shen Shixi is a well-regarded children’s novelist, whose Jackal and Wolf has recently been translated into English by Helen Wang. I ran an analysis on another of Shen’s novels, 《鸟奴》(lit. “Bird Slave”). This is, character-wise, much more difficult than the newspaper articles, with two hundred and one characters not in the top 3,500. Ninety of those are used more than once. As you’d expect from Shen, the “king of animal fiction”, animal-related vocabulary is one particular problem here, and you’ll probably end up very confused if you don’t look up 鹩, used two hundred and eighty-four times; 喙, used thirty-six times; and 獾, used twenty-two times. 
The novel is about two hundred and forty pages long, and so you should expect to find a character you don’t recognize on most pages.
A wuxia novel
Jin Yong’s novels remain firm favorites. Rather than starting with the four volumes and 1,300 pages of The Legend of the Condor Heroes 《射雕英雄传》, students might perhaps try A Deadly Secret《连城诀》, which is just four hundred pages or so. In those four hundred pages you’ll encounter two hundred and ninety-six characters not in the top 3,500.The most frequently used are from the protagonists’ names (水笙, 水岱, and 万圭), but there are plenty of new common nouns and verbs used multiple times as well. 
On a page-by-page basis, you should recognize more characters than in the Shen Shixi novel above. In terms of total characters, however, A Deadly Secret is more of a challenge.
A modern classic
Lu Xun’s A Call to Arms 《呐喊》, despite collecting stories he wrote at a very early stage of modern Chinese literary vernacularization, should not be much more difficult than the two novels above—at least in terms of basic character recognition. Two hundred and thirty unseen characters in total, with 闰 (remember that one from above?), 珂 (used in a name) and 锵 (a sound) taking the top three spots. 
Even from this very cursory analysis, it appears that if your goal is to read Chinese fiction comfortably without a dictionary, you’re going to need to recognize more than 3,500 characters. Chinese writers use characters well into the four or five thousand frequency range very regularly.
So although reaching 3,500 is worth celebrating, I wouldn’t stop trying to acquire characters just yet. Keep reading and dictionary-checking, and don’t abandon memorizing/spaced repetition if that’s something you find helpful.  You’ll still be coming across new characters for a long, long time…. 
笪 Dà (a surname here, but means “a coarse mat of rushes or bamboo”, with 旦 dān providing the phonetic). Here and later I’m using Wenlin as my main reference for character glosses.↩
甄 Zhēn (a surname here, but originally meaning “to make pottery” and thus composed of 垔 and 瓦, but with no phonetic clue), 闰 rùn (used in a name here, but means “intercalary”; the much more common 润 shares the same pronunciation), 驿 yì (used together with 站 to mean “post/courier station”; right-hand side is the phonetic, as in 译).↩
鹩 liáo (“wren”, with the left-hand side providing the phonetic), 喙 huì (“snout; mouth; beak”, with both 口 and 彖 radicals semantic; no phonetic clue), 獾 huān (“badger”, with the right-hand side phonetic).↩
笙 shēng (“reed-pipe instrument”, bottom is the phonetic), 岱 Dài (“Taishan mountain”, top is the phonetic), 圭 guī (“jade tablet”, cf. 挂 or 桂 for the pronunciation).↩
珂 (“a jade-like stone”, right-hand side is the phonetic), 锵 qiāng (“clang”, right-hand side is the phonetic).↩
For the more technologically-oriented student, another option may be available: thanks to the increasing availability of texts in machine-readable formats students could run their own frequency analysis on a text they wanted to read and pre-learn characters they don’t already know. It’s a pity there don’t seem to be any easy-to-use programs or websites that offer this functionality.↩
It should also be noted that single character recognition is only part of reading Chinese, and is not on its own a good measure of reading proficiency. That said, the relative ease of measuring character recognition and frequency may justify its limited use as a self-diagnostic and motivational tool for learners of Chinese.↩
The following is my response:
Interesting! This sort of helps make a case for the importance of graded readers. (Have you seen Mandarin Companion?)
While I know your intent is to SEEK THE TRUTH, the overall tone of the article is, unfortunately, a little discouraging for struggling learners. For me, this totally highlights the need for materials that give the learner a sense of accomplishment for having reached 300, 500, 1000 characters, rather than an incessant message saying, “STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH.”
You’re quite right, I suppose I am a little too rigidly 实事求是 in the piece! I completely agree with you about the need to avoid the demotivating “still not good enough” feeling and message that permeates most Chinese teaching materials (how I remember my exasperation when the 高级 textbook still required fifty plus new vocabulary items per short text!). There’s really a huge need for more good reading materials with limited character/vocabulary ranges, and your graded readers look fantastic.
I recently discovered gotCharacters, the personal project of Kathleen Ferguson. I was impressed by the logical organization of the character components, and the clean, attractive design of the site. It was clear that a lot of work went into the site, and it’s all available for free! The following is my interview with her.
What made you decide to create a new resource for learning Chinese characters?
I came to Chinese in 2006 as an adult learner and struggled to remember even the simplest of characters and pinyin. There were few resources that suited my learning style, so early on I started developing my own mnemonics. I’m sharing them on gotCharacters.com with the hope that it will make someone else’s learning experience easier.
How is your work on gotCharacters different from that of “Chineasy” (of TED Talks fame)?
Based on ShaoLan Hsueh’s TED Talk and a quick look at the Chineasy website, I think we share the same goal: offering ways, like visual aids and other mnemonics, to make characters stick and to make learning Chinese less intimidating.
In developing gotCharacters, however, my perspective is different. English is my first language, and I’m a Chinese language learner (an adult learner at that); to me, my content represents material I would have liked to have had earlier in my learning curve. As an example, gotCharacters includes lookalikes—characters that look similar (like 人 and 入, or 千 and 午). To the experienced eye the differences are clear, but for a newbie these characters can be indistinguishable (as they were for me).
How did you create all the content on gotCharacters? Do you have a team? Do you have Chinese teachers involved?
Most of the content started out as reams of handwritten notes accumulated over the years. With the benefit of time and mulling, an idea evolves and it’s sketched on a yellow pad. Then I use a variety of tools like graphics, Flash animations, audio recording, and eLearning software to develop the online content. Cecilia Lindqvist’s book China: Empire of Living Symbols and Claudia Ross’s Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar are my two bibles.
I’m a visual learner, and animating characters brought them to life for me. My first animations were in 2010; in my mind’s eye, I could visualize 人 (person) walking, 飞 flying, and 马 rearing back on its hind legs and neighing. Every time I would come across these characters, as part of another character or as a stand-alone, I remembered the animation and thus the character.
Some ideas take time to come to fruition. I created the “Radical View” map (www.gotCharacters.com/radical-view) in 2011 as an independent project for class. Two years later I presented a more fully formed version at a World Language Teachers conference (my topic was “Overcoming the Challenges of Learning Mandarin: An American Student’s Perspective”), and the Chinese teachers’ enthusiastic response inspired me to make a color-coded, interactive version for the website, which was launched just this month.
As far as a “team” goes, I’m it. My family is supportive of my passion for Chinese and my desire to share that with others. My first Chinese professor, Wu 老师 at Central Connecticut State University, and several Hanban and StarTalk teachers, including Wang 老师, who currently teaches Mandarin at our Newtown High School, have been strong supporters as well.
How far have you come with your Chinese studies?
I’ve come a long way since 2006 when learning everything was a struggle and remembering how to count to ten was elusive. I’ve taken four college classes and continue to self-study using podcasts, books, Chinese movies, and anything else that helps me to learn and remember Chinese.
My reading proficiency is good, and I can carry on a basic conversation with a native speaker as long as they speak slowly and deliberately. My goal is to become fluent in Chinese, and though I have a long way to go, I’m enjoying the journey a great deal.
Did some of the characters you learned at a more advanced level influence how you designed the material for beginners to learn characters?
Technology has actually had the greatest influence on how I designed the material. With the evolution and easy availability of software and web tools, I can do more today than just a few years ago to extend the functionality and versatility of the content.
What’s next? Is this a growing business, or a side project?
It is my passion and avocation (I’m doing what I love), and I hope that I can make a living with it at some point. There is much more content coming to gotCharacters, and I look forward to opportunities to collaborate with others, to develop course curriculum, and maybe someday to teach characters. My mother always told us “Your goal should be just out of your reach” so my goal is for gotCharacters.com to become for Chinese what Kahn Academy is for math.
If you follow me on Twitter you may have heard of Mandarin Companion already, but this is the first time I’m directly mentioning it on Sinosplice. I was waiting until all five of our Level 1 digital editions were released for both Amazon Kindle and iBooks, and now they are.
Mandarin Companion graded readers are for learners with 1-2 years of formal study under their belts (or the equivalent), looking for something longer and more interesting to read for pleasure, without having to constantly reference a dictionary.
Mandarin Companion’s Level 1 books assume a foundation of only 300 Chinese characters, and it’s 300 characters you will know if you’ve studied virtually any standard course.
To create this graded reader series, I’ve teamed up with a partner, Jared Turner, while also leveraging the tools and talent at AllSet Learning.
What are the titles?
We released five Level 1 stories in 2013, all based on western classics and adapted into Chinese stories (more on that in a future post). Here are the first five titles:
The Secret Garden:《秘密花园》 This was our first book, and it was an awesome choice. It’s an excellent story, free of complicated settings or plot twists. There are more characters in this story than in most of our other ones, but they all have easy (and very Chinese) names, and the story ends up feeling very Chinese itself, despite the British roots. (Just look at the cover!)
The Sixty-Year Dream:《六十年的梦》 You can’t tell from the name, but this graded reader is an adaptation of Rip Van Winkle. In adapting this and making it totally Chinese, we had a lot of issues to consider. The original work is about going to sleep as a colonist before the American revolution, and waking up afterward in a newly formed country. It’s a story about change. Well, what country knows change better than China? For maximum dramatic effect, we chose a 60-year time span, going from pre-Communist China to post-Mao China. The relevant Chinese history of the periods adds a lot of color to the story.
The Monkey’s Paw:《猴爪》 I remember reading this classic story as a kid, and it totally creeped me out. The first time you’re introduced to the idea of pre-determinism it kind of blows your mind, right? I initially had my doubts as to how well this story could be adapted into simple Chinese while preserving the feel, but we pulled it off pretty well, if I do say so myself.
The Country of the Blind:《盲人国》 This graded reader is based on a classic H.G. Wells story, and I actually blogged about it not long ago, in conjunction with China. (Now you know why I was thinking about the story so hard!) The text of the story doesn’t get into any of those details, really, though… I just wanted as close to an “adventure” story as we could do at the 300-character level (it really is a challenge), and this one fit the bill. The sci-fi connection was icing on the cake! This one is also notable because we altered the original ending just a little bit.
Sherlock Holmes and the Red-Headed League:《卷发公司的案子》 What if you adapted Sherlock Holmes to 1920’s Shanghai? Well, this what happens! This one was fun, because we had to research styles of the time to get the illustrations right, but actually none of that affected the text of the story itself. (But hey, details matter, right? Sherlock.. errr, 高明 would approve!) It was definitely a pleasure to create our own take on the world’s most famous sleuth.
I’m really proud of these books we’ve created, and I wish I had had material like this when I was just starting out on my journey of learning Chinese. You don’t have to wait until you can read a Chinese newspaper to enjoy reading Chinese, really.