Tag: Chinese study


Aug 2008

Talking to Oneself Productively

As an English teacher in Hangzhou, China, one of the questions Chinese college students most often asked me was, “how can I improve my spoken English?” As a member of the ChinesePod team and student of applied linguistics, learners frequently ask me, “how can I improve my spoken Chinese?” Unfortunately, the are no easy answers or “secrets.” If you’re working hard learning Mandarin on ChinesePod and you’ve found a way to practice speaking, then you’re doing the right thing. But surely there might be an extra trick or two out there?

Actually, there are a few tricks out there, but their effectiveness tends to vary widely from person to person. The one I hear most often is “find a Chinese girlfriend,” but this one clearly has limited application, and it sometimes doesn’t even work for those with Chinese girlfriends/wives. This “trick” is a subset of a larger idea, which is just spend as much time with Chinese speakers as you can. But that one is obvious, and probably not useful for most learners.

One method I have found useful is to talk to myself in Chinese. Now before you stop reading, let me explain. I’m not talking about “How are you? Fine, thank you” type conversation. I mean all day long, as I think about different things, I ask myself, how would I say that in Chinese? If I said that in Chinese, how would the Chinese person respond? If the Chinese person responded X, what would I say then?

Let me provide an example of such a train of thought.

OK, I need to buy a lightbulb. How do I say lightbulb?

It’s “dēngpào.” So I want to say, “Wŏ xiăng măi dēngpào.” How will they react to that?

Well, they might say, “méi yŏu.” If they say that, I’ll just say, “hăo de, xièxie.”

But they should have them, so they’ll probably just say something like, “zài zhèli” or “yŏu de, zài nàbiān” and then I can just say “xièxie” and buy them.

Obviously, this is a rather simple example, but the method can be applied to much more complicated situations. The better your imagination, the more extensive and “branched” the “conversation.”

You might be thinking that this method has a major flaw… if you don’t know how to say these things in Chinese, then your every internalized “conversation” deadends rather abruptly. It’s true that the method works better once you get to the advanced beginner or intermediate stage, but the true value in the mental exercise is in identifying what you don’t know. It’s in identifying what you’re unsure of, before you actually have to use it. Then you can take these questions you come up with and either look them up somewhere (if possible) or ask your teacher.

Soon after I came to China and my Chinese was at the elementary level I would run through this exercise every time I needed to go do something that involved communicating in Chinese. I’d think of what I needed to say, how the other person might respond, and how I’d respond to that. I’d look up every word I didn’t know and write it down (making sure to get the tones right), then go and use it.

Talking to myself: it worked for me.

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese


Jun 2008

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

I’ve been asked many times: Which is harder to learn, Chinese or Japanese? Well, the latest time finally inspired me to make this graphic. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, but some notes will follow anyway.

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

In case you couldn’t figure out from the graph, both are difficult, but in different ways. Both have insane writing systems and lots of cultural background to learn, so those basically cancel each other out. Any language requires lots of vocabulary memorization. Japanese has loads of loanwords from English, but really learning to use the loanwords like a native speaker instead of a crutch is not so easy to do, so I left that factor out as well. For me, the major points of comparison come down to just pronunciation and grammar.

Japanese pronunciation is quite easy at first. Some people have problems with the “tsu” sound, or difficulty pronouncing vowels in succession, as in “mae.” Honestly, though, Japanese pronunciation poses little challenge to the English speaker. The absolute beginner can memorize a few sentences, try to use them 20 minutes later, and be understood. The real difficulty with Japanese is in trying to sound like a native speaker. Getting pitch accent and sentence intonation to a native-like level is no easy task (and I have not done it yet!).

Chinese pronunciation, is, of course, maddeningly difficult from the get-go. It can be so hard to make yourself understood when your sentence is only three syllables long. Yes, I know. I’ve been there. If you keep at it, though, things get waaayyy easier. And in the later stages, accent isn’t as big a deal in Chinese. There are so many wildly different accents in China alone that once you get your tones under control and can string a coherent sentence together, Chinese people will often assume you’re a native speaker in telephone conversations.

Chinese grammar starts out fairly simple for English speakers. Some find it so simplistic that they say things like, “Chinese has no grammar.” This is not true, of course, and there are a few difficult points to master (like , which probably occupies a good chunk of the red area in the middle of the grammar graph), but overall, the grammar is not too rough. If you want true mastery of the language, however, you will also eventually have to study 古文 (ancient Chinese), and that’s quite a bit more work.

Japanese grammar starts out seeming like some bizarre alien code. However, through hard work and determination, the persistent can eventually crack it. Once you get over the grammar hump, and verb conjugations, causative-passive,  and , and keigo are no longer a big deal, you’re in a pretty comfortable place. But it sure is rough at first.

Just to be clear, this is all based on my personal experiences as a very acquisition-conscious language learner, not on scientific research. Please feel free to add your own experiences with these two languages in the comments.


May 2008

Hanging Up in Chinese

I recall quite clearly the satisfaction I felt when I first became capable of conducting actual telephone conversations in Chinese. It made me feel I had really arrived, and I relished the achievement. It wasn’t long before some communication issues spoiled my victory, though. Chinese people were saying things to me on the phone that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing, and it didn’t seem very nice. In the end, it was all just cultural misunderstanding, but it would have been nice to be warned. That’s the point of this post.

The “not very nice” things all seemed to come at the end of phone conversations, and often from friends. It made me feel uncomfortable that my phone calls kept ending abruptly, on such unfriendly notes. It turns out that these expressions for ending phone calls are perfectly natural, though… in Chinese, of course.

So here they are, in no particular order, the “hang up lines” you might want to mentally prepare yourself for:

1. 就这样 (“That’s it.”) This one is probably the most common and the most widespread. It’s not meant to be rude, it’s just stating, in no uncertain terms: this conversation is over.

2. 我挂了 (“I’m hanging up.”) Just in case “this is it” is too subtle for your friend, this phrase should get the message across. This one is more likely to be used in informal situations.

3. 我不跟你说了 (“I’m not talking to you anymore [for now]”) Again, an informal one. To be fair, it’s a translation issue into English which kind of makes this one seem like some kind of declaration of anger. It just means “I’m done talking to you for now,” but the unfamiliar phrase in an unfamiliar language can seem a little shocking, even coming from a friend. When I first started hearing this one, I would always question whether I had said something to piss off my friend.

Once you get used to them, these blunt conversation enders do have their advantages; they empower you to swiftly end a telephone conversation that has run its course. They sure make, “well, I better get going now” seem weak in comparison.


Apr 2008

Kevin Rudd's Chinese, Analyzed

Kevin Rudd, Wu Bangguo

Kevin Rudd with Wu Bangguo

You may have heard of Kevin Rudd, the latest laowai to become famous for speaking fluent Chinese. This guy is kind of different, though, because he happens to be the new Prime Minister of Australia.

Yesterday’s ChinesePod lesson is about Kevin Rudd’s Chinese. Overall a very positive review, of course, but it’s an interesting exercise for advanced students to hear what 小语病 (little language problems) he still has in his speech.

My co-worker Clay commented that if you compare the Chinese Rudd uses in his public appearances from a few months ago with the Chinese he uses now, it has gotten a lot better. It does make me wonder what kind of coaching Rudd gets on his Chinese, and as the Prime Minister of Australia, what kind of priority does he put on improving his Chinese (a truly powerful diplomatic tool)? Is it worth 10 hours of intense language training a week? More?

Anyway, check out the lesson: ChinesePod Media – 澳洲总理秀中文


Apr 2008

Learning by not looking everything up

A recent conversation on ChinesePod brought up the question of how much input learners need, and how much “study work” needs to be done on that input. Here are some of my ideas:

> …You DO need more input. Don’t treat all input equally, though. Massive input is great, but you definitely don’t need to be looking up every word you don’t know. This is a trap I myself have fallen for many times in the past. It can turn a great source of input into a frustrating chore.

> So I think the best thing for you would be to expose yourself to as much Chinese as possible (that’s always great), but don’t actively STUDY it all… Just listen/watch/read and absorb what you can, and don’t worry about the rest. Concentrate your studies on using what you have already learned, with incremental advances. Meanwhile, all the extra input you are getting in between “official study times” will be quietly improving your Chinese in the background of your mind.

Then later in the thread:

>> Do you really think it is a trap? Didn’t the “looking up every word” phase leave any noticeable advances in your passive vocab base?

> Actually, I think this is partly a function of your current level, your personality, and your motivation.

> When I first started studying Chinese, I DID look up every word in the material I was studying. After three semesters of Chinese, I came to China with my Oxford English C-E / E-C dictionary, and I literally took it with me EVERYWHERE. I really did look everything up.

> There comes a point, though, when this becomes quite inefficient, and it’s much more practical to figure out words by context or to ask people, or to just make simple notes and look words up later at home.

> If you are still looking up every word and you don’t mind, then I say do it. But you will probably reach a point when this begins to become very laborious and it begins to hurt your motivation. It’s crucial that when you get to this point you realize that you don’t HAVE to look up every word, that it’s a rule you set for yourself and a habit you got into; it’s not the way you HAVE to learn the language. (It’s also not likely to be the way you learned your first language as a child… I have two librarian parents who used to always tell me “look it up,” but you better believe I only did that as a last resort.)

> Now, when I read a Chinese novel, most words I don’t know can be easily inferred by context. I don’t worry about them. I don’t add them to a vocabulary list or anything; that would hurt my enjoyment of the novel and thus my motivation. Of the words I don’t know on first glance, there are a small class of words I run into which I think are either (1) really worth learning, or (2) crucial to my understanding of the story. These words are usually not hard to recognize. I like to highlight them, but I don’t stop to go look them up right then. I keep going. Only when it becomes cognitively unbearable do I actually look up those words (or, more often, ask my wife). It turns out that the majority of the words I highlight I never go back and look up, because I actually understood the story just fine without looking them up.

> Sure, I CAN go back and look them up, but I just read a story in Chinese and enjoyed it. Do I really need to look them up?

> The answer to that question comes down to personality.

I also liked Clay’s method of reading:

> I also fell into the habit John warns about. It really limits your amount of input. You can get so meticulous in breaking down every single word, that you actually lose the meaning of the passage. I would sometimes get through an article, breaking down every word (and tones!), and two hours later, i don’t even really fully comprehend it.

> I finally had a teacher break me of this, with a pretty simple yet effective method of reading (newspaper articles and short stories in particular). She had me read the passage 3 times.

> 1st time: try and read the passage at a speed you would read in a similar speed in your native language. Therefore, FAST!

> 2nd time: read it at a slower pace, and circle the words you don’t know with a pencil.

> 3rd time: read it at the same pace, this time flip your pencil around and get ready to erase the ones you figured out on the last go round. There will almost always at least be one of those circled that you will erase.

> You can take a normal sized article and get through it three times using this method in 10-15 minutes. In that class, we were timed, and asked ten or so comprehension questions. It’s amazing how much more of the MEANING of the full passage you can decipher. I know it’s hard not looking up all those words, as you want to know EVERYTHING. I still have the urge to do it, but it really will limit your input.

Thanks to Mark on ChinesePod for starting the thread [free ChinesePod account required to access the original post].


Jan 2008

Arashi no Yoru ni: DVD Audio as Listening Material

A while back John B introduced me to a blog called All Japanese All the Time, in which the author describes how he became fluent in Japanese while living in the States, in a relatively short amount of time. The key, as the name implies, is to immerse oneself in Japanese as much as possible. In our world of digital media, it’s not too hard to find listening material for a language like Japanese. Load this stuff onto your iPod or whatever, and soak it in. Obviously, you’ll need to be doing lots of studying as well.

Khatzumoto, the author of All Japanese All the Time, advocates finding a DVD you know well that has audio in the language you’re studying, getting familiar with the movie in that language, and then ripping the DVD audio. The idea is that you start out familiar, and with enough repetition, all those lines in the movie become yours.

I liked this idea, but I wanted to try it a slightly different way. Not long ago, my wife bought a cute animated Japanese movie called Arashi no Yoru ni. She was listening to the original Japanese dub, and watching with Chinese subtitles. I noticed in passing that the original Japanese was not difficult at all, and the plot was quite simple.

Here’s the plot (from the Wikipedia page):

Arashi no Yoru ni

> A goat named Mei wanders into a barn during the night for shelter from a storm. In the barn, the goat finds another refugee. The two can neither see nor smell each other, yet huddled together fending off the cold, they begin to talk and eventually develop a friendship. They decide to meet at a later time using the password “one stormy night”. The next day, when the two meet, Mei learns that his companion from the night before was a wolf named Gabu. Despite the fact that the two are naturally supposed to be enemies, they share a bond and begin meeting regularly. However, Mei’s flock and Gabu’s pack eventually find out about this and forbid their friendship. Mei and Gabu, hoping to preserve their friendship, cross a river during a storm, hoping to find an “emerald forest” free from persecution for their friendship.

> However, Giro, the leader of Gabu’s old pack, holds a grudge against all goats, and views Gabu as a traitor to his kind. Gilo and his pack go on the hunt to track down the two companions. Gabu and Mei, having reached the summit of a mountain and exhausted from fighting their way through a snow storm, stop and rest. Gabu hears his pack approaching and hides Mei in a nearby cave, ready to defend his goat friend to the death. As he is about to go face the wolf pack, there is an avalanche. The next morning, Mei digs through the snow blocking the cave and sees the “emerald forest” they had been searching for in the distance. However, Gabu has gone missing…

(If that’s not enough for you, there’s also an online trailer.)

OK, so now the basic question is: how well could I understand this movie in Japanese only by listening to it? That’s the point of the experiment.

The good news is that this same movie also has a high-quality Mandarin track (those Taiwanese do good work!), as well as a Cantonese track. There is no English track. I’m putting all these MP3s online for other people to give it a try as well.

Arashi no Yoru ni (Mandarin) – 16 Chapters, 128kbps, 97.3 MB
Arashi no Yoru ni (Cantonese) – 16 Chapters, 128kbps, 97.3 MB
Arashi no Yoru ni (Japanese) – 16 Chapters, 128kbps, 97.3 MB

If you give this a try, I’d really love to hear about the results. For example:

– Do you find there’s too much music to concentrate on language-learning, or does the music help?
– Can you follow the story?
– Is it enjoyable in audio-only format?

(And if you’re an angry lawyer representing Arashi no Yoru ni, just e-mail me.)


Nov 2007

How to Learn to Order Food in Chinese

Back in the good old days, when I lived in Hangzhou, I often hung out with a motley crew of foreign teachers. In that group, when we went out to restaurants to eat, I was usually “the food orderer.” This was partly because I had been in China the longest and was most comfortable speaking Chinese, but it was mostly because I could actually read the menu.

Even if you have an education in Chinese, you can’t really prepare yourself for being handed an all-Chinese menu. I mean, for one thing, it’s all in Chinese, and for another thing, your ability to decipher the characters on that menu directly impacts what goes in your stomach. Now that’s a kind of pressure that mere tests and quizzes can never exactly compare to.

I know what they teach you in Chinese class. You get the words for (rice), (noodles), and (meat) down pretty well, but come on, was anyone really paying attention during that chapter on vegetables? No way! And yet now it’s time to pay that price, because very likely, you’re only going to be able to read one or two characters, tops, in each dish name, and most dish names are four characters long. Yikes. (Insider’s tip: it really may not be too wise to order that “something-something-meat” dish!)

My co-worker JP was recently raving about the site Like a Local, because it was helping him figure out what to order. I also pointed him to How to Order Chinese Food. Both of these will help. But if you really want to learn what’s on those menus, I can tell you a better way. It’s what I did, and it really works.

So here it is:

How to Learn to Order Food in Chinese



Sep 2007

ChinesePod Does Integrated Chinese

Since I’m spending a fair amount of time on it these days, I figured it’s about time I plugged a blog I’m doing for ChinesePod: The ChinesePod Integrated Chinese Blog.

The idea is to take a textbook that a ton of universities are already using and connect it to other online resources and free materials in digital form. Through this blog, college students motivated to really learn Chinese can easily complement and beef up their IC studies.

Obviously, ChinesePod has something to gain by doing this, but I think the general idea is a good one. The exchange works both ways: the blog could lead to web surfers buying the book, and also to textbook users getting into online resources. More of this kind of online-offline educational exchange (whether it involves either IC or ChinesePod) would be beneficial for everyone.

Anyway, check it out. Especially if you’re using Integrated Chinese.

Related: Sinosplice Chinese Study Book Reviews


Sep 2007

Who can memorize the Chinese family tree?

A recent ChinesePod podcast got me wondering: how many foreigners really learn all the forms of address for family members? I’m not ashamed to admit that I never did. Not only do you have separate words for whether they’re on your mom’s side or your dad’s side, related by blood or by marriage, older or younger than your parent, but there are also issues of formal vs. informal and regional variation. I think most of us give up on learning any of this vocabulary unless it’s immediately applicable (i.e. you’re going to be calling someone by their title while you’re staying with them). It’s the kind of thing that you forget right away even if you go to the trouble of memorizing it.

Does anyone actually learn this stuff?


Aug 2007

The Bookshelf Problem

You really want to improve your Chinese, but for a while now have been feeling like you’re lacking something. You take a trip to the book store to browse its offerings in the “Chinese” section.

One particular title catches your eye. You’ve never seen it before. Leafing through it, you decide you like the layout, and some of the examples given. It has a lot of interesting content you could benefit from. A warm feeling comes over you; this is the book that you need to give your Chinese studies a boost! You quickly purchase the book and head home, your fresh new inspiration under your arm.

A week later, the book is sitting on your shelf. It’s been days since you picked it up. You’ve been busy. It’s really a good book, and you’ll definitely use it later.

As time goes by, you wonder why your progress in Chinese is so slow. You want it bad, and you’re dedicated. You can tell that much just by taking a look at your bookshelf. It’s chock-full of books on learning Chinese.


And therein lies the problem.

You’ve been putting time and effort into finding just the right books to learn Chinese rather than buckling down and just doing it. Rather than getting you significant progress, all the time and energy you’ve put into Chinese has gotten you a bookshelf full of books for learning Chinese… and not much else.

This is the bookshelf problem.

I’m intimately acquainted with the problem, and I have the bookshelf to prove it. I’m not ashamed I fell into it (there are far worse vices to be ensnared by), but I’ve had to put a brake on the “book-buying instead of studying” mentality. I really do have all the books I need.

I think the bookshelf problem isn’t exclusive to books, either. Have you ever found yourself on a wild goose chase to find “the perfect Chinese blog,” or “the best flashcard program” or “the “best Chinese TV show?” Worthwhile quests, to be sure, but it’s really easy to get caught up in the pursuit and forget what you were really after.

This doesn’t mean that there is some magic formula like:

Buy 1 textbook + 1 good dictionary + 1 grammar book

…and then never buy another book again!

Of course not. The occasional new acquisition can keep your studies fresh and boost your motivation.

I’m just saying that if the situation above sounds at all familiar, you might want to consider the bookshelf problem before buying that new bookshelf.


May 2007

How I Learned Chinese (part 2)

So I’ve already explained how I arrived in China with a decent foundation in grammar and characters, but some problems with my pronunciation. So what happened next?

Well, first I should explain my initial attitude. Two years previously I had had a great experience studying Japanese in Osaka. I enjoyed the process of learning a new language in a foreign society so much that doing it all over again had become central to my post-graduation plan. So when I arrived in Hangzhou I was very eager to get out there and try out my Chinese.

I immediately ran into two major problems. Overcoming those two problems were key to my early progress in China.

Problem 1: Pronunciation

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. Whenever I was not understood, I made a mental note of which words it was I seemed to be having trouble with. When people repeated what I said, I paid especially close attention, because they would often be correcting my pronunciation rather than merely confirming. I was totally focused on every word* that came out of native speakers’ mouths.

[*I have to make a note here: I initially lived in Hangzhou, a city in the southern province of Zhejiang. Southerners are notorious for their substandard pronunciation of the “sh,” “ch,” and “zh” consonants, but I knew this going in. It made listening comprehension very frustrating at first, but once I developed an ear for it, it became a huge strength. Having all that confusing input also made it absolutely imperative for me to look up in a dictionary every new word I picked up to confirm its correct pronunciation.]

With the help of a Chinese friend and a lot of concerted effort, I was able to finally figure out how to pronounce “x,” “q,” and “j” consonants after about a month of living in China. I also hired a qualified tutor (she had a masters in teaching Chinese) to help me, and under her tutelage I finally got the “yu” sound down. The “r” sound eluded me for longer, but with focused observation and a self-critical attitude, I conquered it as well.

Tones continued to be a major problem for a long time, but they got better with time. The important thing was that I was convinced from my early experiences in China that they were very important and couldn’t be ignored. I was constantly looking up words in my dictionary, frequently just to check the tones. Once you’ve looked up a word about twenty times to check the tones, it usually finally sticks. Certain tone pairs gave me problems for a while, but when I began really focusing on tone pairs, I was able to overcome them as well.

Problem 2: Practice

One great thing about modern China is that foreigners are still rare enough in most places that it’s not hard to find someone curious to talk to you. I soon learned, however, that this does not necessarily mean that they want to talk to me in Chinese. I was meeting people at every turn that just wanted to talk to me in English. This was very frustrating. On top of that, even if their spoken English was pretty bad, my Mandarin was worse. So if our goal was actual communication, speaking in English was much more effective.

This did not deter me. I saw it as a challenge. What I had observed was that the people that wanted to practice English the most were young people, typically university students. Since they were about my own age and had a lot of free time, they seemed like the ideal conversation partners. However, I eventually had to make a decision to reject them categorically because they were nearly all obsessed with improving their English and I was in a hurry to improve my Chinese. It may sound cold, but I didn’t leave my friends and family on the other side of the world to improve strangers’ English. Teaching English was my job and I was dedicated to it, but in my free time I absolutely had to be practicing Chinese. I decided that language exchanges made no sense; I was surrounded by millions of Chinese. I was sure I could find Chinese people that would be willing to do an old-fashioned “exchange” of ideas and information–entirely in Chinese. And if unwillingness to communicate with me in Chinese was the thorn in my side, then inability to communicate with me in English could be my salvation.

So who did I turn to? Well, I reasoned that with my Chinese as bad as it was, if the conversation was going to be all in Chinese I would have to find someone very patient. That’s not an easy trait to spot. But what I realized is that people can be motivated to be patient if they’re extremely bored. So I set my sights on people who (1) were not in an age range or social status that were likely to know (or want to know) English, and (2) had a job which left them stuck in one place with no one to talk to… bored people.

So my first Chinese friends were the guards at the apartment complex where I worked. Those guys were aged probably 30-45, and sat in a guardhouse next to the gate all day long. Their only daytime duties seemed to be opening the gate for the occasional car and handing out residents’ newspapers. There was always one of them in there, just reading a newspaper or sipping his tea and staring off into space. I noticed that they seemed very interested in me. So I took the plunge.

It was weird and awkward to go into the guardhouse that first time and just start talking in my broken Chinese. I could barely form a coherent sentence. But when I made it clear that I was just being friendly, the guard, in typical Chinese fashion, insisted that I sit down while he poured me some tea. That’s how it began.

I started spending about an hour in the guardhouse every evening. I would bring my notebook and my dictionary with me. It wasn’t because I was so studious that I wanted to write down everything I learned; those were essential tools for our communication! Sometimes I would be looking up three words in the guard’s simple five word sentence. Other times I would need them to write down a word so that I could guess at the meaning and look it up later. To be honest, it was kind of painful. I kept the chats to about an hour, because it was all that my poor brain could take. I left every session absolutely exhausted.

Chatting with the guards was a very humbling experience, but it was the kickstart my Chinese needed. I felt awkward every time I went in to initiate communication, but I was making progress, and those guys really wanted to talk to me. They loved my visits. Their faces would light up at the opportunity to communicate (however excruciating the process) with a real live foreigner.

I later moved from that apartment complex and didn’t get to see my guard friends as often, but I had gained important confirmation: I didn’t have to “buy” Chinese practice time with English. There were people that wanted to talk to me in Chinese–regardless of my level–if I would just seek them out.

From there my practice went in a lot of directions. I started frequently chatting with a young couple that ran a tiny burger joint down the street. They were only busy at mealtimes and had almost nothing to do the rest of the time. The more people I talked to, the more I improved, and the more I improved, the more different groups of people I felt comfortable talking to. I didn’t avoid the college kids forever; I found a way around the insistence on English. I found that by chatting online in Chinese I could focus on grammar and vocabulary without the pronunciation pressure. My goal was simple: see how long I could chat with someone without them catching on that I wasn’t Chinese.

My first year and a half I worked really hard at Chinese. I had no foreign friends, and my dictionary was my constant companion. At the end of that time, my Chinese was functional for the basics. I had made it to the “I’m speaking Chinese!” Stage.

Time travel 5 years to the future for How I Learned Chinese (part 3)!


May 2007

How I Learned Chinese (part 1)

Over the years I’ve gotten quite a few questions about this, so I thought I’d write a series of entries that explain everything. I’d like to stress from the beginning that the method I used is not going to work for everybody. It’s not “the right method.” It’s simply the method I used. This post will focus on my formal education in the States.

I decided to start learning Chinese while I was an exchange student in Japan. When I went to Japan I was still a microbiology major. I had to write an essay about why I wanted to go to Japan in order to get into the program, and among my reasons I listed all the advances the Japanese were making in biotechnology, which led to my belief that knowing Japanese would help me as a scientist. It was while I was in Japan that I decided I would abandon microbiology altogether to go the linguistics route. At that point I made a lot of practical decisions which would set the course that I’m still on now.

I don’t remember what all the stimuli were for the decisions I made that night, but I recall vividly the intense excitement for my new course of action. That high made me surer than I’d ever been about what career path I wanted to take. Some of the things I decided that night were:

1. I would change my major from microbiology to Japanese.
2. I would minor in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
4. I would also minor in Latin American Studies.
3. I would take Chinese classes on the side.
5. I would go to China after I graduated to learn Chinese and teach English.

My choices were all very pragmatic. I didn’t major in linguistics because after I got back from Japan I wouldn’t have time to earn all the credits I needed to graduate in four years. I wanted to graduate in four years because my scholarships paid for everything but they only lasted four years. I was also eager to get to China after graduation.

I minored in TESOL so that I would know what I was doing as a teacher in China. I started working as an “interaction leader” at the English Language Institute at the University of Florida, and I loved it. I loved all the intercultural exchange, I loved being a part of other people’s learning processes, and I loved the linguistics of it all.

I minored in Latin American Studies because (1) I didn’t want to lose the four years of Spanish I had in high school, (2) I wanted to continue taking Spanish courses, and this made them count towards something, and (3) I wanted to study in Mexico, and this minor justified that expense.

Anyway, my third year at UF I started studying Chinese formally from scratch. I was 20 years old. I started with traditional characters, but after the first semester decided they were a pain in the ass and a totally unnecessary one since I was planning on going to the PRC after graduation.

I remember clearly how hard I struggled with tones my first semester. We were supposed to go to the language lab and work on the tones, but I never did. I was struggling, but it was clear that I wasn’t the worst off in the class, so I didn’t put in the extra effort. I was of the opinion that it would get easier with time, so I didn’t sweat it too much. I could still make A’s in the class with mediocre tones.

The first semester our instructor gave us a series of “tone quizzes” to force us to work on the tones. She did this by reciting a number of Chinese poems and making us put the tone marks on the syllables. We had no idea what the poems meant; they were just sounds to us at that point. I tried really hard at learning to identify the tones but ultimately sucked at it. I passed the quizzes with flying colors by identifying tonal patterns in the poetry and memorizing a few “marker” syllables to identify which patterns went with which poems.

My first year of Chinese study at UF was pretty unremarkable. We had the typical character-writing homework and classroom exercises. Now that I think about it, my teacher tried hard to get us doing communicative exercises in class. We often did pair work, or exercises where each student only had one piece of information and had to find the other student with the other piece of information by using Chinese. These kinds of exercises became increasingly difficult to pull off in the classroom with each semester, however, as the Chinese class attrition rate is about 50% from semester to semester.

The second year of Chinese class we started using Integrated Chinese. I rather liked it as a textbook. I found the vocabulary useful and the grammar explanations effective. This is the book I really focused on before going to China. I didn’t have time to take Chinese class my last semester, but I was able to keep studying Integrated Chinese. [Note: I think there are now better materials for studying Chinese available, but I didn’t have those at the time.]

I think I got a pretty good theoretical foundation in three semesters of Chinese at UF. My grammar and character knowledge (both simplified and traditional) were pretty solid. What was not solid was my pronunciation. I knew I didn’t have control over my tones, and that my pronunciation of pinyin q, x, j and r were not correct (more on this). I learned enough to pass my classes with A’s, but that didn’t include accurate pronunciation.

The important thing was that I knew before I went to China what my weaknesses were. I didn’t realize how profoundly those weaknesses would impact my attempts at communication. But more on that in the next post in this series.


Feb 2007

Best Chinese New Year Podcast for Learning Chinese

I may “hate” Chinese New Year, but it’s inescapable. We also do coverage of it at ChinesePod, of course. This year we did an Elementary lesson on Chinese New Year Firecrackers, but the one I especially liked was at the Advanced level, called 春节采访 (“Chinese New Year Interview”).

I’ve talked about the Advanced lessons on ChinesePod before, and one of the criticisms I got was that the dialogues (which are scripted) seem too fake. I think that’s a valid criticism, and I totally agree with it. The 春节采访 podcast was partly an experiment to see what we could do when we went “totally natural.” Here’s how we did it:

1. The academic team brainstormed questions about the topic (in this case, Chinese New Year), then chose the six most interesting ones
2. We made a list of all the Chinese employees in the office and where they’re from so that we could have a variety of accents in the podcast, then chose 6-8 to interview (being sure to include both male and female)
3. After Xiao Xia interviewed everyone, we narrowed the results down to (1) the most interesting interviewees, and then (2) the most interesting answers, making sure that we kept a balance in both accents and genders
4. The audio production team cut out everything we didn’t need/want
5. The academic team transcribed the final interview audio
6. Jenny and Xiao Xia listened to the audio and used the transcript to go over the interview material for the full podcast

I think the result was a very interesting Chinese New Year podcast. Most of the language wasn’t difficult at all, but there are a few challenging parts that go into lesser known local customs. The “dialogue” part of the podcast was a lot longer than usual, but I’m sure this won’t bother the listeners. As a result of that, though, the transcript was significantly longer than usual.

I think this dialogue was definitely a step in the right direction for a better advanced podcast. The problem is that it takes much longer to create natural content like this; it would be impossible to do it for every podcast. You have to expect to get boring and/or unusable content, so you have to record a lot more and cut out what you don’t want. So that’s a lot of extra time editing, and then transcribing as well. Still, I think there are elements of this process that we can keep using going forward to produce more engaging content.

If any learners have any thoughts on this, I’d be happy to hear them. You probably want to listen to the podcast first (remember that it’s all in Chinese). If you haven’t listened to ChinesePod’s Advanced content lately, you definitely need to check it out.


Feb 2007

Times Online Fumbles Pinyin

Reader Ash (of China Car Times) points out that Times Online is doing a “learn Mandarin Chinese” feature, complete with audio.

This is cool and all, but I found their online transcript a bit disturbing. A sample from Lesson 6:

> Part 1: Taking a train

> Clerk Qù nâr?
Leigh Qù Xî’ân.
Clerk Jî zhâng?
Leigh Liâng zhâng.

So, first and third tones don’t need to be distinguished, and pinyin conventions for how to write tone marks can be discarded at will?

I have a feeling someone made this call because there were pinyin encoding issues when proper tones were used. Still, this is pretty bad.


Jan 2007

The Chinese Voices Project

Clavis Sinica is a piece of software similar to Wenlin. It helps you read Chinese by giving you definitions of words when you hover over them. I don’t use Clavis Sinica; in my research I’ve found that it’s pretty widely regarded as an “OK” tool but inferior to Wenlin in the quality of its dictionary.

But now Clavis Sinica is offering some very useful resources on its website: the Chinese Voices Project. In the page’s own words:

> Welcome to Chinese Voices, a collection of short, original Chinese mini-essays with accompanying audio for intermediate and advanced students of Chinese language and culture. All of the selections are written by savvy young Beijingers and are read in their own voices. The topics have been selected to help provide insights and perspectives you can’t get from language textbooks, the New York Times, or the China Daily.

I have to say, I don’t think any of the current offerings go beyond the intermediate level, but it’s still pretty cool. They’re all a very manageable length. I wasn’t able to listen to all the audio (the internet is still really slow here until they fix those stupid cables), but I like that there’s a variety of speakers (well, supposed to be — right now it’s mainly one guy and one girl doing the recordings). There are currently 10 offerings:

– Tutoring for the College Entrance Exam
– If You Love Me
– Addressing Beijing’s Traffic Snarl
– Yuanmingyuan: The Film
– Reclaiming the Mother Tongue
– Going Home for the Holiday?
– Beijing Opera Artists
– Christmas Eve Birthday
– No Answer is Also an Answer
– Walking in the Snow

Check it out.

Via the ChinesePod Forums.


Dec 2006

Mandarin Tone Tricks

I recently got an e-mail from Albert Wolfe, the guy behind Laowai Chinese. In the blog Albert shares his experiences learning the Chinese language. He has lots of great observations that I recommend any beginner take a look at.

What especially caught my attention was a recent post on tones. This is because Albert has employed some of the same tone mnemonics that I myself devised and relied on once upon a time.

Albert writes:

> Once you learn how to say each tone, then associate some emotion with each one. For example, here’s my own personification and characteristics for each tone:

> 1. 1st tone = transcendent, helpful, simplicity.
I love words that have the first tone because of their simplicity and how easy they are to sing out and pronounce correctly.

> 2. 2nd tone = insecure, unsure, questioning.
I sympathize with words that have the second tone because I’ve been unsure and insecure myself. I don’t blame them for sounding like questions.

> 3. 3rd tone = mischievous, mean-spirited, illusive, like a bird you’re trying to watch but he dives into the water and pops up where you aren’t looking.
I hate words with the third tone. They take more work and more time to pronounce. They change depending on the words near them. They seem to exist only to make my life more difficult.

> 4. 4th tone = angry, demanding, impatient.
I also like words that have the fourth tone because I can shout them out. These words give me a chance to vent. Usually, as a default, if I don’t know the tone of a word, I’ve found I’ll say it as a fourth tone involuntarily.



Oct 2006

New Feature: Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills

Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills (box cover)

It’s been a while since I’ve added significant non-blog content to Sinosplice, but I’ve just completed something that could be really useful to learners of Mandarin Chinese. That something is Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills.

I actually began this project all the way back in 2003. I put my ideas together into a rough form and some friends (including John B, Brendan, Greg, and Alf) helped me test them out. They gave me good positive feedback, but I felt the whole thing still needed a fair amount of work. I didn’t find the time and inspiration to finally put in that necessary work until this month, almost three years later. I spent a good chunk of my October holiday working on it, and quite a few nights over the past few weeks.

The main idea behind these drills is that learning tones of individual characters is not enough. Learning tone combinations is the key. Mastering those combinations necessarily involves extensive practice with tone pairs. A mastery of tone pairs will lead to significant progress with any number and combination of tones in succession. Although I was not fully cognizant of the exact process at the time, I believe it was this method which lead to my own successes in correctly producing tones of Mandarin Chinese in succession.

This concept is not exactly unique. In the past few years I have even noticed several other websites take the “tone pair” angle. I think where the other websites fall short is:

1. The words chosen are random words, both in terms of part of speech as well as level of difficulty.
2. There is no clear method for how to use the tone pairs to improve one’s tones.
3. There is no clear connection between the tone pairs and actual speech.
4. They often rely too heavily on visuals (tone marks) to teach the tone combinations.

I tackled these problems in several ways.

1. I focused on adjectives, which are both highly likely to be useful in elementary conversation, as well as plentiful in almost all tone combinations at the elementary level.
2. I developed a clear method which progressively increases in difficulty, and, in the later stages of the method, can also be used by intermediate learners looking to improve their tones. (That method is provided in pinyin, simplified characters, and traditional characters.)
3. Following the method progressively will eventually result in practicing useful, grammatical sentences.
4. I included audio files for all the words in the drill, both in simple clickable online versions, as well as in downloadable MP3 versions with playlists for drilling and quizzing.

I also licensed the method using a Creative Commons license, encouraging others to build on it.

The method I developed is labeled as a “drill.” As such, there is definitely plenty of room for it to be built on using a Chinese teacher’s experience and a little creativity. I should also stress that the drill was designed to be practiced with a native speaker Chinese tutor, but I still believe it can be useful even without the guidance of a tutor.

I welcome your feedback. I do expect to update and improve this feature over time.


Sep 2006



Chineseblast screenshot

While surfing Chinese-forums.com, I discovered a promising new website for learners of Mandarin Chinese: Chineseblast (“collaborative learning engine for Chinese”). The site revolves around users’ “projects” (which usually means translation projects). The community contributes to projects both in adding and editing the translations themselves, as well as in adding comments and questions.

It very much reminds me of manga/anime fans’ community efforts at translating Japanese, but in the case of Chineseblast, the content translated isn’t so concentrated on one theme. Furthermore, different forms of media are covered by the projects:

1. Text Lessons – often similar to textbook offerings, but with audio (example: Joining the Revolution)
2. Video – often hosted on YouTube (example: Taiwanese soap opera)
3. Podcast – native Chinese shows (example: Princess Remy)

I like the variety — variety of content, of media, of language. You get audio and video, you get Mandarin and Cantonese, you get Taiwanese Mandarin and mainland Mandarin, you get traditional and simplified characters. I also like the way the video pages are designed, allowing you to scroll through the script as you watch a video. The small, gray literal translations above the more natural translations are also a nice touch.

It seems that most of the content is aimed at intermediate-level users. If that’s you, check it out.


Sep 2006

Church Boy Badtones

On ChinesePod we recently did a podcast lesson about being misunderstood because of incorrect tones, and then getting corrected (in Chinese). It prompted quite a few comments, including this amusing little anecdote in a comment from lostinasia:

> The only time I can recall when I had a substitution problem like this was asking for sauce (jiang4 [酱]) and instead saying ginger (jiang1 [姜]). (Ginger wasn’t totally out of place with the hot pot, but I still wished I’d received the sauce). Oh, and for the longest time at tea stands I asked for “jiao4 tang2″ [教堂] (=church) tea instead of “jiao1 tang2″ [焦糖] (=caramel) tea. They understood me, given the context, but when I finally got it right they commented that for weeks they’d been enjoying my mistake, and I’d become known as “Church Boy”, or something like that. But there are countless other times when people simply haven’t understood me, and my tones are surely a big part of that.

Oh yes, I’ve certainly been there.


Jun 2006

Lazy Friday Links

I’ve written a few articles elsewhere lately (mostly for ChinesePod), so rather than write real new content this Friday, I will take the lazy way out and link to some things I’ve already written.

When to Learn Hanzi?
(on CPod)
Could it possibly be that studying Chinese characters full-on from the very beginning is not the best way to go?

2. Talking to Oneself Productively (on CPod Praxis)
It’s not exactly a revolutionary new method, but talking to myself has helped me to learn Chinese.

3. On Google’s Evilness (on iDrone)
Light-hearted speculation on Google’s current and hypothetical migration toward evil (with regards to China).

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