Tag: Chinese study


11

Nov 2015

Chinese Picture Books as Learning Material

I remember the first time I had the great idea to use Chinese children’s books as study material. I had been in China for about a year, and having exhausted my old textbook, I was starved for more interesting material. I came upon a book store, and, realizing how cheap books in China were, had the revelation that I should start learning from Chinese children’s books. It was so perfect, and so obvious… why hadn’t I done this earlier?!

Then reality came crashing in. There was a very good reason why I everyone wasn’t already doing it already: Chinese children’s books are meant for native speaker Chinese kids, and as such, they generally don’t make good material for foreign language learners. But why??

Before I talk about my conclusions as to why, let me just share a few examples from my local book store. This is no scientific survey, but I did my best to select from a number of different publishers and different types of children’s books. The pages I photographed are more or less random. I’m adding a few comments about the suitability of these stories for a high A2 (elementary) or low B1 (intermediate) learner.

Fairy Tales

Untitled

Untitled

– Note the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character… both annoying for a learner of Chinese.
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 果然、蹲、急忙、吩咐、目露凶光、黄灿灿、铜钱、打火匣、看守、披

Chengyu Stories

Untitled

Untitled

– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 南辕北辙、中原、楚国、却、驾车、满不在乎、盘缠、摇摇头、糊涂、方向

Morality Tales

Untitled

Untitled

– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 恰巧、沼泽、女妖、魔鬼、祖母、参观、酒厂、老妖婆、地狱、一尊、石像、整天、烂泥、妖怪、谈论
– The density of hard words in this book is really high, based on this page

Xiyangyang

Untitled

Untitled

– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is less formal here, and the words used feel more oriented to kids, but a lot of the words are the type that native speaker kids could understand in the context of a story but would not use themselves; these are the words that would really trip up a lot of foreign language learners.
– You can see that on this page the character is being taught, and yet there are much, much more difficult characters on this page. This highlights the fact that the book is meant to be read to the child; the child is not meant to read it.
– Notable difficult words: 懒、踢、脚、穿、接住、并、蹦、跳、突然、轰隆、一道、裂痕、瞬间、掉

I Go to Kindergarten

Untitled

Untitled

– This is my favorite of the bunch; I actually bought this book for my daughter as psychological prep before she started kindergarten.
– The characters are not too hard, but no pinyin! Finally…
– The tone is informal, and this is the kind of language that Chinese parents would expect their children to fully comprehend, in context.
– Somewhat difficult words: 嗨、全班、春游、别提、运动鞋、背着、排好队伍

Marvel Superheroes

Untitled

Untitled

– No pinyin here, and this one is definitely higher difficulty level.
– Difficulty-wise, a high B1 (approaching upper intermediate) learner could probably tackle this, if sufficiently motivated.
– Notable difficult words: 技术、拯救、反派、威胁、社会、消灭、责任、邪恶、存在、身影、而、则、视……为……、心腹之患、试图、保护、善良、顺利、或者、完成

Conclusion

Most Chinese children’s books are too hard for Chinese learners. It’ll be a frustrating slog to read many books (especially those chosen at random), and all the pinyin is likely to be less helpful than you think. There are some good ones suitable for foreign learners out there, but those are the exception rather than the rule. Randomly choosing children’s books for reading practice is not recommended.

But WHY???

I’ve thought about this issue for quite some time already, and my conclusion is that when the average Chinese parent reads a book to her child, the goal is more education-oriented than pleasure-oriented. I know a lot of American parents that work very hard to instill a love of reading in their children, so enjoyment is extremely important. Chinese parents, however, are under a mountain of pressure to get their kids into the best schools in an environment of intense competition. Of course they hope their children like to read, but it’s kind of beside the point. The real goal is to help their children pick up characters and vocabulary as quickly as possible.

If the goal is acquiring characters and vocabulary, it makes sense that the language introduced in these Chinese children’s books is going to be more advanced than one would expect. The children are native speakers, already fluent in Mandarin, and the story provides a clear context. Therefore, why not drop a few extra difficult words and characters on every page? It’s for the kids’ own good!

But wait… there’s HOPE!

There is hope for learners that really want something to read. (Little disclaimer: the following is going to be partly self-promotional, because this is one of the major problems in the Chinese learning industry that I’ve devoted my career to solving.) If there is enough interest among my readership, I’ll consider compiling a list of Chinese books by Chinese publishers suitable for learners (kind of like the kindergarten book above). For now, I’ll focus on several resources that are available to those outside of China.

Oscar & Newton Go to the Park is a print bilingual picture book by AllSet Learning, adapted from its original app form. The language is practical and informal, perfect for A2 adult learners as well as children. It’s now available on Amazon.

Oscar & Newton Go to the Park

Oscar & Newton Go to the Park

The Chairman’s Bao is a website that takes news stories and simplifies them into simpler, shorter articles. See my longer review here. This is great for intermediate learners that want to start working toward reading actual news. Includes audio.

The Chairman's Bao: home page

The Chairman's Bao: so many girlfriends

Mandarin Companion creates graded readers (short novels without pinyin or translation) meant for learners of a high elementary or low intermediate level. We’ve got five Level 1 books out, and feedback is great. Our next two Level 2 books are coming out any day now. Books are currently available on the international Amazon website, but not the Chinese one.

Mandarin Companion: Level 1 Titles

Chinese Breeze is the original Chinese graded reader brand. It has cheaper books and more titles out, at levels ranging from high elementary to intermediate. If you’re going for quantity, look here. Books are currently available on both the international Amazon website, and the Chinese one.

If you have any other reading material to add, please leave a comment and share!


27

Oct 2015

Who’s using HelloChinese?

My friend and former co-worker from ChinesePod, Vera, is working at a new app-focused startup in Beijing. The app is called HelloChinese, and it is heavily inspired by Duolingo. The first Chinese learning app to do its own version of Duolingo for Chinese was ChineseSkill, and now that app has got competition. (Meanwhile, Duolingo is taking its sweet time coming out with a Chinese course.)

I’m preparing to start re-examining all the best apps out there for learning Chinese and do an update to my 2011 post on apps for Chinese study. I’d also like to do a post directly comparing HelloChinese and ChineseSkill, but I thought I’d ask my readers what they thought first. Also, if you’re willing to share your own experience with the two apps as input for the upcoming blog post, please do get in touch!

If you haven’t heard of or tried the HelloChinese app yet, obviously it’s not too late. It’s free, and available for both iOS and Android.

HelloChinese app for learning Chinese


22

Sep 2015

How I Learned Chinese (part 4)

It seems to have become a tradition of mine to drag this series out over years and years, but this part should be the last one I need to write for quite some time. Just a quick sum up:

  1. Part 1 (2007): How I got started in Chinese in college
  2. Part 2 (2007): How I coped with no one understanding me after arriving in China, and how I got to a decent (intermediate) level of Chinese
  3. Part 3 (2012): How I updated my goals to help me power through the “intermediate plateau”

This post is more of a look at how I learned, rather than specifically what I did. I’d also like to look more closely at the relationship between study and practice. This balance is essential to any learner’s long-term progress, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Learning Timeline

First, a quick timeline of my experiences:

  • 1998-1999 (STUDY): Started Chinese classes at UF. “Practice” consisted of meeting a language partner once a week, but it barely made a difference.
  • 2000 (PRACTICE): Arrived in China and started using my busted Chinese. Was dismayed to discover my Chinese was decidedly not awesome.
  • 2001 (STUDY): Found a professional tutor who was able to help me fix my major pronunciation issues. This, in turn, led to much more efficient practice.
  • 2001-2003 (PRACTICE): Lots of speaking practice with people around me (details here), some self-study on the side, but the major emphasis was practice.
  • 2003 (STUDY): One-semester HSK course helped me identify some holes in my self-studied Chinese, especially in more formal Chinese.
  • 2004 (PRACTICE): My first job in Shanghai was English-related, but I still got to use Chinese for most of my work. I learned a lot.
  • 2004-2005 (STUDY): Prepped for grad school, using a tutor.
  • 2005-2007 (STUDY/PRACTICE): Masters program in applied linguistics in Chinese. Heavy components of both practice (everything was in Chinese) and study (there was plenty of vocabulary and sophisticated grammar to learn).
  • 2006-2013 (PRACTICE): Working at ChinesePod was tons of great practice, but I also learned a great deal, even if I was never directly “studying.”
  • 2010-present (PRACTICE): Building AllSet Learning, learning to run a business, managing Chinese employees, was all done in Chinese. More great practice. And learning all day long.

The Role of Study

Especially in the beginning, you need a helping hand to learn Chinese. It’s very hard to start “practicing” without some kind of structured study. Many learners turn to schools for this, and tutors are another option (both have pros and cons), but it’s hard to argue that some kind of formal study is not helpful for most people.

The key is that study alone will rarely lead to real fluency. At some point (preferably in the elementary stages), you need to be given ample opportunities to speak Chinese in a natural way. Hopefully this is motivating and fun, and not something scary. If the end goal is spoken fluency, you have to start practicing speaking. Exorcise those demons of bad Chinese!

Study itself has many forms, however, and I’ve found that many learners appreciate school lessons in the early stages, whereas 1-on-1 tutoring becomes much more useful once there’s a good foundation, and concrete goals for how Chinese can be applied start to take shape. So for me, the “schooling” was OK as my first three semesters’ foundation and then as HSK prep. Tutoring helped me fix the very specific pronunciation problems I was still having when I first arrived in China (I really needed individualized attention for that). Later, again, tutoring made the most sense once I had the concrete goal of getting into grad school and needed help learning some specific material. (I also had to spend a lot of time managing my tutor, though… There was no AllSet Learning back then!)

I remember very clearly, sitting in my Chinese syntax class in grad school, listening to the professor detail some finer points on the relationships between certain Chinese prepositions and verbs, and thinking, “these are the ultimate advanced Chinese lessons. The meta-lessons that even native speakers are clueless on.” So there was always a strong aspect of “study” within the “practice” of grad school in Chinese. Once I started working, though, “practice” really became the main focus, and “study” was relegated to an ongoing “as needed” self-directed activity.

The Role of Practice

My real “practice” started when I arrived in China. It was the reality check I needed, but also a source of motivation. To quote part 2:

OK, so I already knew when I arrived that my pronunciation wasn’t great. I knew I got tones wrong sometimes. I knew I had been fudging Mandarin’s “x” and “q” consonants for two years. But I wasn’t prepared for the end result: people frequently just plain didn’t understand me. At all.

At first I tried to downplay it with “that guy was just not used to talking to foreigners” or “it must be my Beijing-centric pronunciation.” That attitude didn’t really help me. I got through the denial stage pretty quickly and ended up with a firm conviction: the problem is me. I then gathered all my resolve and launched into a relentless campaign of self-criticism.

That was kind of rough. It would have been nice if I had been prepared for actual communication in Chinese in progressive stages. I got through the initial shock, though.

The early years of practice in China were both the hardest and the most fun. They were the hardest for me because I had to force myself to talk to strangers regularly, and often my non-comprehension made those conversations quite awkward. Oh yes, I dealt with a lot of awkwardness. But my psyche was protected, in part, by this weird “I can’t believe I’m in China talking to people in Chinese” euphoria that imparted a certain delusion of unreality. And so in many ways, it all felt like a weird, fun dream.

The “delusion of unreality” slowly wears off as you get to the Intermediate stage, however. Most things Chinese people say in Chinese are no longer “funny” or “crazy” because you’re used to Chinese culture, and you’re used to the way people speak. To give a simple example, you stop thinking, “it’s so weird that Chinese people are always asking me if I’ve eaten” every time and you start thinking of it as a normal greeting. You stop “hearing Chinese” and you start just listening to people. And just talking back.

It’s at this point that the practical application type of “practice” becomes really important. For me, it was my initial training job in Shanghai first. Then it was the work of my Chinese language masters program: following the lectures, completing the readings, writing papers, etc. Then it was directing ChinesePod lesson development. And then it was my work at AllSet Learning (and later Mandarin Companion).

Bob and Weave

It’s all about a Mix

If you look at my timeline, you’ll see a lot of vacillating between “study” and “practice.” You’ll see long periods of “practice” broken up by mostly shorter periods of intense “study.” And you’ll notice that the “study” is heavily concentrated in the beginning, whereas “practice” is heavily concentrated in the later stages.

Hopefully you never have a total lack of practice in the beginning (even if it’s just with a teacher), but practice should really ramp up over time until it’s just “application” (using Chinese for normal communication or work or whatever). Similarly, your “study” looms large in the beginning, but should never go away completely (even advanced learners pick up new vocabulary all the time), as it shrinks down in overall prominence.

It’s not that I concocted this; it’s not a method. It’s a very natural process, and I’m merely reflecting on how these principles played out in my own experience. Through my work at AllSet Learning, I often help frustrated learners, and a study/practice imbalance is one of the major sources of frustration. Some learners have unrealistic expectations about how far traditional “study” can take them, fluency-wise. Others have been immersed in “practice” for far too long and are not even sure how to go about addressing the gaps caused by years of neglecting “study.” I admit that it’s partly just luck, but somehow I managed to strike the right balance over the years.

I can’t say I learned Chinese the fastest or to some mind-blowing level, but I achieved my goals and have the skills to apply it in my career. I’ll never stop studying Chinese (“活到老学到老,” as the Chinese say), but especially due to the strong “practice” components of the past 10 years, I do feel confident in saying “I’ve learned Chinese.” (Just not all of it!)


26

Aug 2015

More Effort Means More Learning

This answer seems obvious to me, but I’m still asked this question often enough that it’s worth a public answer.

Q: What do you think about just downloading an HSK vocabulary deck for my flashcard app and learning vocabulary that way?

A: That’s a pretty terrible way to learn Chinese, even if you can accept that it’s just mindless vocabulary acquisition and not really “learning Chinese.”

HSK WTF

Q: What? Why?

A: I’m glad you asked…

1. Unless you’re studying for the test, the HSK vocabulary list is not the vocabulary you need. It’s an arbitrary list full of vocabulary you don’t need. Sure, there’s some useful vocabulary in there, but how much useless vocabulary do you not mind memorizing?
2. Downloading a free, ready-made list of vocabulary is the worst way to study new words. It’s because it’s instant and effortless. To your brain, that makes it devoid of value. Your brain doesn’t like to retain information it deems devoid of value. The nice thing about studying something devoid of value, though, is that it’s so very easy and painless to give up on.
3. Curating your own list of useful vocabulary, taken from real-life situations or texts you actually want to read is a much better way to learn new words. You made the effort to go out and find that vocabulary, and the vocabulary itself is a means to an end: having a real conversation or reading a passage you’re interested in.
4. You know what’s better than curating your own list of vocabulary in your flashcard program? Actually getting some cards, and writing the words you want to learn on those flat dead-tree rectangles, all caveman-style. Put pen to paper and actually physically create your implements of vocabulary review. That’s effort, and your brain respects that.

Requiring personal effort makes the learning process memorable, and as a result, what you learn sticks better.

HSK hundreds

But hey, go ahead and download the free HSK vocab list. It won’t hurt anything; it’s easy to delete a week later. Your brain won’t mind at all.


30

Jun 2015

Mike’s Immersion Experience in the Chinese Countryside

I’ve had many conversations with learners looking for an immersion experience in China. Well, Michael Hurwitz, my friend (and former AllSet Learning client) decided to round out his China experience with a month in the Sichuan countryside (outside Chengdu) doing farm work. He went through an organization called WWOOF that sets up labor-hungry foreigners with organic farms and the like.

But is a month enough? Was it a good experience? I interviewed Mike to get his take on it.


mike-nongcun-hat

农村 Mike

Could you explain why you felt the need to run off to the Chinese countryside for an immersion experience?

Mike: It was something I’d wanted to do for awhile, but the language element was only part of it. I was also interested in checking out a more “authentic” Chinese place than Shanghai, if that makes any sense. The lack of westerners and English speakers around was a big part of my reasoning, but I was also hoping that the stronger “Chineseness” of the 农村 [countryside] (and 农民 [rural workers], for that matter) would rub off on me a bit and that I’d understand a bit more about China, having seen a lifestyle very different than the urban one I’d been participating in.

What was the farm work like?

Mike: The work itself was nothing crazy, primarily because the farm was as much about environmental education as it was about growing stuff. I mostly planted trees and pulled weeds, with lots of other work thrown in. The farm’s owner was really flexible; for instance I sometimes have knee problems (because I’m secretly a 45-year old man) and he had no problem with me forgoing work that involved lots of crouching. Towards the end of my time there, the owner even had me translate some instruction manuals for products he’d ordered from the US into Chinese! Productive work, but not quite what I’d imagined beforehand.

mike-nongcun-manure

How was the food?

Mike: Food was very hit or miss. I don’t eat pork, which complicated things, as one of the 阿姨s [ayis] simply couldn’t understand that, and often left me no meat alternatives, which is tough when you’re doing physical labor all day. However, the other 阿姨 [ayi] was a wizard in the kitchen and made some absolutely magnificent dishes that I still crave.

mike-nongcun-food

Were you able to practice a lot of Chinese? What kinds of conversations did you have? Was the location a good choice?

Mike: Definitely got a huge amount of practice. No one else on the farm spoke English, so all communication was done in Chinese. It was very productive in that it was easy to get past the normal sorts of introductory conversations and actually start talking with people about normal things grown-ups talk about.

This was very cool because so often as a foreigner you’re seen as more of a curiosity than an actual person, so you can’t really have genuine conversations, but living on the farm with the same people for an extended period helped me get past that.

The location was something of a mixed bag. While being out west meant there weren’t any English speakers, it also meant there were some very non-standard accents and a lot of older folks who just couldn’t speak Mandarin. It led to situations where I had to have younger people translate from the local dialect into Mandarin for me, which was colorful but inconvenient.

Another element was that many of the things I was doing and experiencing – farm work, new foods, new activities, etc – were things I had never had cause to talk about or learn the vocabulary for in Chinese, so there was a lot of learning on the fly there as well. It was a bit overwhelming at first but after a week or so it got a lot easier. It helped as well that the farm’s owner and his wife were Beijingers, so I could always lean on them when I needed something more 标准 [standard].

Would you recommend what you did to other learners looking for an immersion experience?

Mike: I would definitely recommend an immersion experience, but location-wise, I’d say I had mixed results. Being in a place with so many non-standard accents and weird dialects made it a less smooth experience than I’d hoped. I think volunteering somewhere with more standard Mandarin would ameliorate that though.

Would you recommend what you did as a purely cultural experience?

Mike: Most definitely. I didn’t know what to expect going into this experience but I learned a tremendous amount about farming and rural Chinese life. Most of the people I met were great and it was wonderful to see a totally different side of the Chinese experience!

mike-nongcun-field


14

May 2015

Far and Near, Black Eyes, and Gu Cheng

Fishermen 漁夫

Photo by Melinda ^..^

Former AllSet Learning intern Parry recently shared this Chinese poem with me. It amazed me with its simplicity. This is a poem that even an elementary learner can get.

The poem [via Baidu Baike]:

> 远和近

你,
一会看我,
一会看云。
我觉得,
你看我时很远,
你看云时很近。

——顾城

Here it is in pinyin:

> Yuǎn hé Jìn

> Nǐ,
> yīhuī kàn wǒ,
> yīhuī kàn yún.
> Wǒ juéde,
> nǐ kàn wǒ shí hěn yuǎn,
> nǐ kàn yún shí hěn jìn.

——Gù Chéng

And in English translation [also via Baidu Baike]:

> Far and Near

> You,
> 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:

> 黑夜给了我黑色的眼睛
> 我却用它寻找光明

Pinyin:

> Hēiyè gěi le wǒ hēisè de yǎnjing
> Wǒ què yòng tā xúnzhǎo guāngmíng

English translation:

> 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.


04

Feb 2015

My Chinese Classroom vs. Our Chinese Classroom

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》).

My Chinese Classroom vs. Our Chinese Classroom

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!)


27

Jan 2015

Kaiser’s “Dude System” of Tones

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):

Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

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.)

[Originally posted on Quora.]

25

Nov 2014

Better Non-comprehension: Getting Beyond “ting bu dong”

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:

"ting bu dong" Keanu
  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  4. 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:


11

Nov 2014

The Chinese Grammar Wiki: now with tons of Pinyin

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 12.07.30 PM

OK, so maybe not all sentences are cheerful…

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! All A1 (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.

Chinese Grammar Wiki 2014-11-11

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!


04

Nov 2014

Cooking Your Way to Vocabulary

Shrimp fried rice...

by pieceoflace photography, on Flickr

Brendan O’Kane writes on Quora in answer to the question, “What should I do in order to improve my Chinese vocabulary?“:

[…] 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?


    15

    Oct 2014

    Chinese Teachers: Use Your Chinese Names!

    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.

    Chinese Teachers: Please Use Chinese Names!

    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” () 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.

    中文翻译:中文老师:请用你的中文名!


    See also:

    Sinosplice Guide to Chinese Pronunciation
    AllSet Learning Pronunciation Packs


    09

    Oct 2014

    Analysis Paralysis in Chinese Studies

    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).

    Vocab Reduction

    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.


    03

    Sep 2014

    Confidence and Tones

    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 Knowledge Quadrants

    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…

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

    4. 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.


    26

    Aug 2014

    Pronunciation Practice: the next Evolution

    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.

    AllSet Learning Online Store

    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):

    > IREADSINOSPLICE

    Thanks for visiting the AllSet Learning Store and checking it out!


    19

    Aug 2014

    Boring Small Talk is an Opportunity

    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.

    (Side note: not too long ago, these same learners were likely struggling to get Chinese people to talk to them in Chinese, so from that perspective, this problem is a good one to have!)

    Cab Driver Snap in Shanghai
    photo by Toshihiro Oshima

    There are two things I say to these learners:

    1. 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?
    2. 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.

    Good luck!


    27

    Jun 2014

    Thoughts on Scott Young’s Immersion Experiment

    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

    Me, Scott, Vat

    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.


    19

    Jun 2014

    Scott Young on Short-term Chinese Immersion

    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 most direct step I took was simply not speaking in English.

    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:

    1. Forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese.
    2. Beginning friendships with Chinese people who want to use you to practice their English.
    3. 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.

    Conclusions

    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.


    03

    Jun 2014

    Never Trust a Native Speaker

    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:

    #1: Ignorance

    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.

    [See also: Olle’s take on this at Hacking Chinese.]

    #2: Cockiness

    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.)

    fac-24

    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.

    #3: Impossibility

    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.


    24

    Apr 2014

    Can Project Naptha Read Chinese Text in Images?

    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.

    Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

    In this next case, the text is pretty clear, but the contrast is poor.

    Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

    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.

    Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

    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.)

    Some examples:

    Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

    Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

    Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

    Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

    Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

    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.

    Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

    But… it might not be exactly what you were hoping for.

    This selected Chinese text yielded the following copy-paste results:

    Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

    > 总统亲 ã热fl地接

    > \早、待了葫芦兄妹

    If it had correctly captured all the text, it would have been:

    > 10、总统亲自热情地接

    > 待了葫芦兄妹

    This one is better:

    Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

    > 雹电二怪对兄妹俩尽效使用现代

    > 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:

    > 355、雷电二怪对兄妹俩尽使用现代

    > 化武器况妹俩也不示弱,葫芦神功连

    > 连使出,把雷电二怪打入深深的山沟

    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.

    Conclusion

    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.



    Page 2 of 1012345...10...Last »