I recently posted a bit about my daughter’s Chinese first grade Chinese language (语文) textbook. I haven’t found the time to dig deeper yet, but I couldn’t help but notice this story from her second grade textbook (and sorry, these photos are not pretty…):
The story of 曹冲 (Cao Chong) devising a way to weigh an elephant is a classic story in China. I wasn’t aware until now that (apparently) second grade is the time for a Chinese child to learn it, if she hasn’t already.
What struck me as interesting about this story is that the very same story is the subject of an Upper Intermediate ChinesePod lesson from 2011: How to Weigh an Elephant (hosted by Jenny Zhu and me). Much of the vocabulary is the same, and the difficulty level is roughly equal.
So… in this particular case, a second grade reading for Chinese kids matches up with an upper intermediate lesson for foreign learners. I’m still exploring the ways that first and second language acquisition differ, in terms of relevant topics, vocabulary, grammar, etc., but this one really jumped out at me.
I recently wrote about being amazed by how many characters my daughter learned in a year of Chinese elementary school. I’ve got a lot of thoughts on that, and it’s a great way to highlight the difference between “first language acquisition” and “second language acquisition,” as well as the difference in respective study materials. But first, I just want to share just the lists of characters and words covered in the textbooks of the two semesters of first grade in China. (Otherwise, I’ll never get this stuff done!)
The following word lists come from this 语文 (Chinese language) textbook series, the standard set approved for all Chinese children by the Chinese government in 2018 (and published by 人民教育出版社):
The book on the left is for semester 1 (上册), and the book on the right is for semester 2 (下册).
In the images to follow, the characters in the 写字表 (“Character Writing List”) are all words the kids need to learn to write, even if some of them initially appear in a 识字 (“Character Recognition”) section of the textbook, and some of them first appear in other sections.
Grade 1: Semester 1 (Character List)
Grade 1: Semester 2 (Character List)
Grade 1: Semester 2 (Word List)
This isn’t a comprehensive list of all the words that could be made (or even were covered) by the characters learned in the second semester of first grade. It’s more a list of words that can be formed with the new characters learned and were covered in class. Single-character words are not included in this list. (Note: just perusing this list, you will notice that even in first grade, certain words appear that you would never teach a non-native beginner learner.)
Apologies for the iffy quality… the scanner was acting up. All the characters should be clearly legible, though.
I’ll follow up in a future post with some of my thoughts on all this. I also plan to convert these lists to nice electronic text formats (or maybe just find a place to download them), but if someone else does it first, please share!
In the meantime, beginners, do not despair! You’re not a child, and you won’t learn like one, but you can still learn Chinese. Just differently.
I’d sum up the three main pieces of advice for getting Chinese to “great” as follows:
The first is changing where you talk from, physically. (Don’t sound all high-pitched.)
The second is changing how you breathe. (Focus on tones.)
The third is changing the rhythm. (Mimic native speakers.)
Although the titles sound like incredibly difficult tasks to accomplish, the practical advice which follows (and I’ve summed up in parentheses above) is not at all bad.
Learn Implicitly When You Can
The daunting tasks above touch on one of the tricky things about the field of second language acquisition: separating what should be explicitly taught from what should be learned implicitly through exposure and practice. For the vast majority of learners, all three of the main points (voice, breathing, rhythm) should be acquired implicitly over time, and don’t need much active focus. (Almost all learners benefit much more from focusing on the main pronunciation issues they’re probably already aware of, and getting a good handle on those.)
Everyone is different, though, so it’s possible that some people in certain circumstances (such as actors, professional singers, etc.) will benefit from active focus on breathing techniques, for example.
I can give one example of my own personal experience with the one about “changing where you talk from, physically.” When I was working on my masters at East China Normal University (华东师范大学), one of my professors, Mao Shizhen, was an expert in phonology, as well as a voice coach for news broadcasters and the like. This was back in 2006 or 2007, and he once told me that my Chinese was quite good, but that my voice quality (I think he used the word “音色”) didn’t feel like a native Chinese person’s, and that to sound truly native, I should work on that. I later learned that I had a host of other issues I still needed to focus on to sound more native (most of which I’ve written about on Sinosplice at one point or another), so I didn’t worry about the “voice quality” issue or focus on it at all. Over time, though, my “voice quality” started sounding more and more natural due to increased fluency and practice. My Chinese may not be perfect or sound exactly like a native speaker’s, but I regularly fool people into thinking I’m a native speaker on the phone, and that’s good enough for me.
Explicit Tone Learning
An even better example to highlight the “explicit/implicit” difference is the tones of Mandarin Chinese. Most of us start out pathetically oblivious, and we really appreciate explicit instruction explaining what tones are, why they’re important, how to make them, how to practice them, etc. We want to know, and we feel that the explanation helps us, even if deep down we know that you could master tones simply by mimicking native speakers, just like a baby does. Unlike babies, adult learners can actually benefit a lot from explicit instruction. (They still need plenty of practice, though.)
Here’s the thing with tones, though: you need to learn the 4 tones (plus a neutral tone) well. You need to learn the tone change rules well. Everyone benefits greatly from tone pair practice, so you should do that as well (and that one will take a bit longer to really master).
But after you’ve hit the big three, you can stop digging deeper into the tiny intricacies of tones. Are there other, more subtle tone changes going on? Yes. Are all fourth tones created exactly equal? Actually, no. But these are questions that you can delegate to your (under-appreciated, underestimated) unconscious brain.
If you continue to strive to sound like native speakers, imitating their speech patterns as well as you can, you will get closer and closer to native as time goes on, and that includes implicitly learning aspects of the language that you didn’t even know you were learning. Have you ever asked a native speaker a question about their language, only to realize that you know more than they do about this particular aspect of their language (grammar, etymology, tone changes, etc.)? That’s because they’ve implicitly mastered the language and don’t need to be conscious of those concepts to use it fluently.
In fact, some of my proudest language learning moments have been discovering that I had mastered something without even studying it. This has included usage of certain words or grammar points, as well as tiny nitpicky details of pronunciation. Everything is fair game. Because you probably started out learning everything explicitly, it becomes a habit, and you may think that you’ll always have to do it that way. I’m happy to say that this is not the case. The better your Chinese becomes, the more you can (and should) learn implicitly, through exposure and regular practice.
So remember: you need practice, you need input. Focus on comprehension and imitating native speakers. You’ll learn a whole lot more implicitly than you think.
According to Wikipedia, subvocalization refers to “the internal speech typically made when reading.” It’s that “voice in your head” (you) pronouncing every word mentally. Subvocalization is normal, and is not generally considered a problem, unless you’re trying to learn to speed read. In that case. subvocalization is generally regarded as something that slows a reader down.
I found this section of Wikipedia quite interesting:
Advocates of speed reading generally claim that subvocalization places extra burden on the cognitive resources, thus, slowing the reading down. Speed reading courses often prescribe lengthy practices to eliminate subvocalizing when reading… [but] for competent readers, subvocalizing to some extent even at scanning rates is normal.
Typically, subvocalizing is an inherent part of reading and understanding a word. Micro-muscle tests suggest that full and permanent elimination of subvocalizing is impossible. This may originate in the way people learn to read by associating the sight of words with their spoken sounds…. At the slower reading rates (100-300 words per minute), subvocalizing may improve comprehension.
The Case of Chinese
OK, but now what about for Chinese? Chinese characters are not as directly tied to a phonetic system (like an alphabet), right? Plus Chinese kids learn characters by writing them over and over rather than by reading them aloud, right?
Well, not really. Here’s what research has to say (I added bold to certain parts):
…Reading English and reading Chinese have more in common than has been appreciated when it comes to phonological processes. The text experiments suggest that readers in both systems rely on phonological processes during the comprehension of written text. The lexical experiments show differences just where it is expected: Evidence for early (“prelexical”) phonology in English but not in Chinese, but evidence for still-early (“lexical”) phonology in Chinese. The time course of activation appears to be slightly different in the two cases. Thus, the similarity between Chinese and English readers is shown not in their dependence on a visual route, but in their use of phonology as quickly as allowed by the writing system.
So it’s not that Chinese readers don’t subvocalize; it just kicks in later, because it takes for time for readers to amass the knowledge of written Chinese needed. Interesting!
Obviously, you can dive a lot deeper into the research on subvocalization, reading comprehension, and cognitive differences between writing systems. (Please feel free to share links to relevant studies in the comments.) For my purposes, though, one important point is clear: there’s no need to exoticize reading Chinese any more than necessary. Yes, learning a bunch of characters is a hurdle, but you don’t really need to worry too much beyond that.
Subvocalizing in Chinese
First of all, we should remember that subvocalization is not “bad,” and it’s not something that native Chinese readers don’t do (some kind of “laowai problem”). But that doesn’t mean that there’s no danger of over-reliance on subvocalization when learning to read Chinese.
I personally have experienced what I consider a serious impediment to my reading fluency. I found that when I would read Chinese a text, I was reading it aloud very deliberately in my head (subvocalizing). The problem was that I had obsessed over correct tones for so long that I just couldn’t stop. This slowed me down even more than normal subvocalization would be expected to do. So even when I was just reading for purely informational purposes, my brain was insisting that I had to pronounce every tone of every word (in my head) exactly right. I knew this was slowing me down a lot, but I couldn’t stop! The “tone police” in my head were out of control.
I did eventually get over this bad habit, and the result was much more rapid reading speed, as well as the ability to truly scan a text for meaning quickly. How did I do it?
Two Cures for Subvocalization
My solution was “the firehose.” I forced myself to read a lot. I read long Chinese texts for which I knew the words, but wasn’t sure of the tones for all the words. In some cases, I may not have even been sure of all the exact readings of all the characters in those words. But I could still comprehend the general meaning of the texts, which was all I needed.
So the steps were:
Find a relatively long text which had information I needed (make the reading meaningful)
Force myself to read at a high speed, disallowing my brain from obsessing over uncertain readings
This worked, but I had to do it a lot, and to be honest, it was a little painful. Unlearning a habit is not easy, and if I’m not careful, I still find my brain dutifully reading aloud every single tone in my mind. But with just a little willpower, I can keep subvocalization in check when I need to, and greatly increase my reading speed.
The second solution is extensive reading. It’s a gentler version of the method described above. The idea is that if you know that you already know all the words (with correct tones) in a text, then forcing yourself to read it without focusing on the correct tones should be easier. No anxiety. You can let go and just read.
But here’s the key: you can’t just read a text first to identify all the words you don’t know, add the pinyin, and consider them “learned.” That’s not going to allow you to let go of subvocalization for unfamiliar texts. So you need to find reading material which is unfamiliar, and yet entirely composed of familiar words. This is what graded readers can help with.
Share Your Subvocalization Battle Tales
I’d be very interested to hear about any readers’ struggles with subvocalization when learning to read Chinese. Actually, any foreign language… it’s all relevant.
It was in the summer of 2012 during a talk with all-star intern Parry that I first discovered that confidence-based learning was a thing. The concept had occurred to me before, but it really gelled when I saw this graph:
Confidence-based learning applies to any kind of learning, but I think it applies especially well to mastering the tones of Chinese. Let’s take a quick walk through the four quadrants of the graph above…
Uninformed. So this is your typical beginner. You don’t know much, and you know that you don’t know much. It’s hard to say much of anything, and tones are only a part of the problem. Obviously, study and practice are needed.
Misinformed. In this case, the learner has learned a lot of Chinese, but has either not had sufficient practice, or has gotten bad feedback, leading him to believe that his tones are much better than they actually are. Part of the problem may be Chinese speakers’ tendency to overpraise any ability to speak at all. If no corrective feedback is ever given, how will the learner know his tones are still in need of work? This is the “unjustified confidence” I’ve talked about before in my post Laowai Delusions of Fluency. It helps to stay humble, and honest feedback is essential.
Doubt. If you’ve learned to be humble, and worked hard at improving your tones, they may be pretty good. But you may still lack confidence. You may speak quietly, or try to rush through words you’re not 100% sure of the tones for. This is actually a pretty good place to be, because you have the knowledge, and you just need some extra practice and corrective feedback. You’re probably used to not getting any feedback, which results in the doubt.
Mastery. You may not be perfect, but you know you’re pretty good, and you can speak with confidence. You know your tones, and you can pronounce them correctly. This doesn’t happen in a short amount of time; it comes as a result of extended practice with good feedback.
You need to KNOW the Tones
A friend once asked me what the correct tones were for a certain word. I told her: “3-2” (or something like that).
She then looked at me and asked, “how can you just do that? How do you know the tones for so many words?”
“I memorized them,” I said.
This is not the answer she wanted; she hoped there was some trick or pattern she could learn. There is another option of course: to learn like a child. Children, immersed in the language environment don’t “memorize” tones per se; they hear them so many times that there’s only one “natural” answer. This isn’t realistic for most adult learners, though, who frequently have to go from dictionary lookup to written or spoken communication. You have to know the tones of the vocabulary you know, and then you have to be able to correctly pronounce those tones.
This knowledge of tones corresponds to the “knowledge” axis of the graph above.
You need to be able to PRODUCE the Tones
Confidence in tonal production comes from the knowledge that you can consistently and correctly pronounce the tones correctly. This starts with being able to produce the tones of single syllables correctly, and then later progress to being able to produce tone pairs correctly, and eventually extends to longer phrases and whole sentences. But you need to practice, and you need good feedback. You need to know when you’re right and when you’re wrong in order to progress and gain that confidence. (See also The Process of Learning Tones here on Sinosplice.)
The way that we build confidence in tonal production at AllSet Learning is through regular pronunciation practice with a teacher (almost every lesson, for about 10 minutes). This is important well into the intermediate level. We have developed our own exercises for this, which are available online as Pronunciation Packs.
At this point in history, I don’t recommend computer feedback to work an tonal production. Perhaps some tonal feedback is better than none, but human perception is a weird thing, and computers do “logical” things which seem extremely strange to humans sometimes. Right now, only humans can reliably tell us how good tones sound to humans. Maybe someday that will change.
So build up your knowledge of tones, and get some good practice with corrective feedback to build your confidence. Mastery awaits.
It’s not that you can’t learn like a child, it’s that you won’t. You’re not willing to. Not because you aren’t committed, or aren’t smart enough, but because you’re an adult with a little bit of self-respect. And you get frustrated.
Have you ever hung out with a crazy friend who will go up to any stranger and say anything, seemingly without inhibitions? It’s awkward but also awe-inspiring, because it opens your eyes to how much your own inhibitions prevent you from doing and experiencing. This is sort of how I feel about my daughter as I watch her simultaneously acquire English and Chinese. Like all toddlers, she is awesome in so many ways that I feel that 99% of adult learners will not let themselves be.
You want to acquire language like a child? Here’s a list of things to do.
Be told something is useful. Shrug it off and discard it because it’s boring and tackle something fun. [I see learners of Chinese tackle the HSK word list every day because they see it as “useful.” A child would not do this.]
Say something wrong. Be corrected. Say the same thing wrong again. Be corrected. Say the same thing wrong again. Be corrected. Etc…. and yet never lose the desire to keep communicating. [This is perhaps one of the most amazing things that kids can pull off. They know no shame, feel very little frustration, and when it comes to language-learning, that makes them invincible. They’ve never learned a language before, so have no idea “how they’re doing at it,” and don’t care.]
Ask how to say something, forget two minutes later. Ask again. Forget 3 minutes later. Ask again. Forget one minute later. Ask again. Etc…. [Adults, quite simply, get quite embarrassed when they keep forgetting something that they feel they should be able to remember. Everyone has a limit, and eventually adults will get too embarrassed to keep asking.]
Say something simple. Repeat it. Again and again, until your conversation partner is visibly agitated. Do the same thing the next day. You’re locking that in.
(Yeah, I’m in the middle of a non-sensical conversation with my mom, but she’ll wait. photo: mliu92)
Repeat something that you’ve just been told in order to confirm it. Then do it again. And again. Because why not do a triple or quadruple confirmation? You’re locking that in too.
Say a word wrong, and get corrected on your pronunciation. Try to say it correctly, but fail. Shrug it off and doggedly continue with your incorrect pronunciation for now, because you know they understand what you mean (and hey, you’ll get it eventually!).
(Stop. I call it “pasgetti.” Now you just deal with that, and let’s move on. photo: sesameellis)
Ask how to say something. Discover the word is hard, and just dismiss it, as if you never really wanted to learn it anyway. Give your dad a withering “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that” look. [Adults will sometimes postpone difficult vocab, but very often, they’ll bite off more than they can chew rather than “retreat” and live to fight another day. My daughter repeatedly dismisses the English word “electricity.” In Chinese, “电” is easy.]
Tell your teacher super basic information all the time that your teacher obviously already knows. It’s like telling your Spanish teacher how to conjugate “estar,” or telling your math teacher about the Pythagorean Theorem. [They don’t need you to tell them this, but telling them helps you.]
Talk and talk, even though you know you’re not making any sense. Use body language, tone of voice, and context to communicate something, anything. Then wait for the listener to try to make sense of that train wreck of a message, and just take it from there. Feel no shame.
Make so little sense when you talk that you confuse your listeners. When they express their confusion, laugh at them. Then continue to not make sense if you feel like it.
(Whoa, whoa… who said anything about making sense? I’m just talking here. Come on, keep up, buddy. photo: nautile)
If you can do all these things as a language learner, then congratulations! You are a rare learner indeed (or maybe roughly three years old?). You will learn quickly (if you don’t get shunned by too many native speakers for not acting “normal”).
But even if you can’t do these things, adults have lots of advantages over children, and no one expects you to learn like a child. Different ages call for different learning strategies. (But it doesn’t hurt to be just a little reckless in your learning, either.)
I recently published a guest post by Scott Young, who just spent about three months in China, attempting to stay immersed in Chinese the whole time (even while traveling with his non-Chinese friend, Vat). I didn’t comment on my own interactions with Scott, though, or my thoughts on his experiment. So I’ll do that now.
Here’s a video we took in the (then) empty office next to the AllSet Learning office. We were plagued by technical problems, but Vat’s persistence got us through.
On “No English”
I was expecting that Scott would be taking a break from his “immersion” while talking to me and talk to me in English. We had exchanged emails before we met in person, and it was all in English. But no, from the get-go, Scott spoke nothing but Chinese to me. (And Vat too.) So we talked for quite a while (before and after the video), and it was all entirely in Chinese.
I part of me finds this weird. I suppose it’s because it violates the “efficiency” principle I talk about in my language power struggle post. We both knew that we could communicate absolutely effortlessly in English.
But he was a man on a mission, with a “no English” rule, and I totally respected that. In fact, It’s becoming less and less weird for me to think of Chinese as an international language. Chinese is the language of our office, and I speak to our (non-Chinese) interns mostly in Chinese as well (as long as they’re not absolute beginners).
On Studying before You Arrive
Scott mentions that he had studied Chinese for 105 hours before coming to China. Vat didn’t. I’m sure there are other factors at play, but there was a noticeable difference between Scott’s and Vat’s Chinese levels. I think Scott was also putting more time into Chinese in China (Vat also had video and architecture-related interests to pursue). But the head start undoubtedly helped Scott a lot.
This is a common thread I’ve seen in a lot of success stories, though: for China, in particular, prior study seems to help immensely. I’ve heard and discussed with friends theories about having to deal with the “triple threat” of (1) unfamiliar language, (2) tones, and (3) Chinese characters leading to higher levels of frustration when tackling Chinese. In fact, it’s a good reason to delay studying characters a bit, if it means less frustration and a stronger foundation in pinyin and pronunciation.
I had three semesters of Chinese before setting foot in China. I sure struggled when I got here, but I was essentially focusing entirely on listening and pronunciation for the first couple of months. I knew pinyin, had the grammar basics down, and knew all the characters I needed for a while. I know that focus helped me tremendously.
On Preventing Friendships
In the guest post, Scott states:
> What matters is that you are not speaking English to prevent: (1) Forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese….
This is key, but it seems quite harsh. Can you imagine bumping into Scott while traveling around China, trying to strike up a friendly conversation with him about areas in Yunnan he’d recommend visiting, and being totally blown off by him in Chinese? Would you be heartless enough to similarly rebuff a friendly fellow traveller? This is exactly what Scott is advocating, though: “prevent[ing] forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese.”
I know that Scott is right, though. I also know people that have followed less extreme versions of this policy in order to make the most of their time in China, although those people tended to have more than just three months, so a few conversations here and there weren’t a huge deal. And then there’s the “expat bubble” crowd, of course. Most of those people didn’t intentionally form the bubble; it just “kind of happened.”
When I first started teaching at my first job in China at Zhejiang University City College (ZUCC), my only co-workers were four Australians. I fully expected those guys would be my new friends, and I was excited to finally get to know some Aussies. But they cruelly brushed me off; they were a tight-knit group, and not at all interested in letting me in. So I was on my own, lonely, and motivated to learn Chinese. I hung out with my Chinese roommate a lot. I studied. I went out and practiced with random people. I made more Chinese friends. I learned Chinese. I was kind of lucky, really.
This is one of those personality things, though. I’d be curious to hear from readers who have tried this, whether successful or not, and what the results were.
I have only vague memories of learning geometry in high school. I liked it because you got to draw stuff, and while some of my classmates hated doing proofs, I didn’t mind them so much. I saw them as sort of a puzzle, and the logic of the whole process appealed to me. I can’t say I ever really loved geometry or found it fun, however.
Fast forward to last weekend. I discovered “Euclid the Game” on Hacker News. It presents geometric challenges as a sort of game. It’s essentially the same as proofs, but rather than “prove this boring thing” it challenges you, and gives you a little toolbar with geometric “weapons” you can apply. One of the things that impressed me most is that after you demonstrate that you know how to construct a parallel or perpendicular line, or how to translate a line–with simpler tools–you gain new “shortcut buttons” for those tasks in your toolbar. Nice!
Anyway, the point of all this is that learning is a lot more fun when it’s presented as a fun challenge. How many of us had to learn geometry by memorizing axioms, and then theorems, and then drudging through joyless proofs? With this “Euclid the Game,” the challenge factor keeps you going, and the stuff you’re supposed to memorize you just kind of “pick up” because you need it to solve the challenges. And the cherry on top is that there’s more than one correct way to solve the challenges, because, hey, geometry is flexible like that.
Does any of this sound familiar? (Yes, I’m talking about language learning.)
If you treat a language as a big long list of words and grammar points, then yes, you can drudge through it just like any other horrible soul-sucking schoolwork. But in language, the real challenge should always be communication with another human being. If your language learning method doesn’t involve this crucial feature, it’s time to start questioning your methods.
Maybe geometry isn’t your thing at all, and unlike me, you could never get into “Euclid the Game.” But everyone enjoys communicating. Put down the flashcards and take up the challenge.
A better title for this post would be “never trust a native speaker completely.” We all know instinctively that the mind of a native speaker is an essential resource for learning a language. Put enough of these native speakers together, and you can create the immersion experience which all learners crave in order to truly level up their fluency. But as for an isolated, individual native speaker… there are a few issues to keep in mind.
Below I’ve summed up the three big reasons why you can’t trust native speakers (completely), and then rounded it off with some advice:
Put simply, most native speakers don’t know their language inside and out. Sure, they can speak their native language, and maybe even write it well. But when you start asking them more “meta” questions, many native speakers will struggle to give a straightforward or meaningful answer.
The kinds of things native speakers often struggle with when queried on their native tongues:
– Why is this wrong?
– What is the difference between these two words?
– How do you express this obscure idiomatic phrase from my language in your native tongue?
A lot of times, the native speaker honestly wants to help, but they’re just not equipped to do so. Being masters at their own native tongue does not make them qualified to answer your metalinguistic questions. They may even refuse to answer your crazy learner questions (and in some cases, they may be well justified, since we learners tend to over-analyze at times).
So while it sounds strange to call a native speaker ignorant of his own language, when it comes to the “meta,” most native speakers are.
So to address the types of questions mentioned above:
– Native speakers don’t normally have to identify why something in their language is wrong. If something they say ever comes out wrong, they can fix it, based on their intuition. But they don’t ever have to say why they had to fix it. “It sounded weird” is the furthest they ever need to go down that line of thinking. (You don’t actually need to know why either, just as babies don’t need to know why. But sometimes you really want to know, and it can save time.)
– Native speakers know how to use similar words differently, but it’s not likely to be conscious. Or the differences they are conscious of (like “they’re, their, and there” in English) seem painfully obvious to even half-way diligent non-native speakers. (Having these types of questions answered well can often save you a lot of time spent on trial and error learning.)
– If the phrase from your language is obscure but this person has learned it, it’s possible that they learned it specifically because it was hard to translate. There’s a big chance they’ll fall back on a stock explanation for this that eclipses the myriad of untranslatable nuance. (This kind of question is typically not something you really need answered anyway, though.)
When it comes to the problem of ignorance, this is where language teachers have a huge leg up on the average joe. Especially experienced language teachers will have addressed the “why is this wrong” and “what’s the difference between these two words” many times, and will have gotten good at them. They might even be so good that they can give simple answers that enable you to grasp the essence and move on, instead of needlessly delving into endless minutiae.
OK, some some native speakers do have some meaningful metalinguistic insight into their own language. They might be language teachers, or translators, or just people that like to reflect on the peculiarities of their native tongue. These people are super helpful, and likely even enjoy answering your questions, so they’re great to have around.
The problem can occur when these people get a little cocky and start trying to make sweeping claims about their native tongue. They’re like the over-eager cop outside his jurisdiction. Allow me to illustrate with a little story from my own English-teaching past. (Oh yes… I was the cocky bastard in this story.)
Learning English from a cocky teacher
When I first started teaching Chinese English majors, I noticed they were really bad at informal spoken English. One particularly glaring example was that the only greetings that they could handle were “hello” and “how are you?” I quickly banned those two, forced them to start using “hi” and “hey,” and taught them these greetings:
– The “how greetings”: How’s it going? How are you doing?
– The “what greetings”: What’s up? What’s new? What’s going on?
When a few of my students wanted to say “how are you going?” I made quite clear that this was wrong (bad English), and they were not to say it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that Australians regularly say “how are you going?” To make matters worse, some of the students I taught were preparing to study abroad in Australia!
I meant well (and those students seriously needed to learn some new informal greetings), but I presumed to speak as the authority on the entire English language (at the ripe old age of 24, no less), as an American, without even having substantial contact with non-American English. And that was just overstepping my bounds. I was cocky.
It’s surprisingly easy to do this as a teacher, though, even if you’re pretty sure you’re not cocky at all. There will always be weird exceptions and unfamiliar dialects, as well as new expressions coming into vogue. Teachers do their best, I know, but it can be difficult to play the role of “language authority” without buying into the vastness of one’s own “enlightened native speaker” knowledge at least a little.
This is what I was alluding to at the end of the last section: it just isn’t possible to know everything about a language, even if you’re an educated native speaker. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences between similar words. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences in dialects of your native tongue. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just what words are falling out of common usage (becoming outdated), and what new words and phrases the kids are using these days. But what you can’t do is all of those things, in one lifetime (and definitely not by the age of 24).
In Linguistics 101 in college I was intrigued by the the concept of the ideolect, the idea that no single person uses the entirety of a given language, and no person uses the language they do use in exactly the same way. The entirety of a language exists as the sum of all speakers’ ideolects. It is inherently distributed (across the minds of speakers), and can never be fully centralized (except maybe by SkyNet some day?). This pretty much blew my mind.
And so linguists and language teachers will make efforts to see beyond their own ideolects, and to see the fuller picture of the language they are trying to understand. But the human brain can only hold so much, and there’s only so much time. A language is a big thing.
So… what now?
I hope I’ve convinced you that native speakers are fallible, and they cannot help but be so, when it comes to perfectly representing The Ultimate Truth about their mother tongues. But each has the most insight of anyone into his own ideolect.
No, you can’t trust a native speaker. But you can trust native speakers, as a group.
If it’s an important or tricky question, always get a second opinion. Better yet, if you’re an advanced learner, present conflicting evidence collected from multiple native speakers to those native speakers. This can produce fascinating insight for learners, and often for the native speakers themselves.
Here’s one simple experiment for Chinese learners which can reveal the multiplicity of opinions native speakers can hold: ask help from Chinese native speakers in choosing a Chinese name. For best results, ask for suggestions from multiple native speakers as well, and add those to the list. Then ask lots of different Chinese people what they think of the different Chinese names. Here’s what typically happens:
1. Some names will sound bad to almost everyone
2. Some names will sound fine to almost everyone
3. A few names will produce wildly different reactions
When I went through this process myself, years ago, I expected to find the “perfect name” that everyone agreed was awesome and perfect for me. That didn’t happen. I still remember quite clearly the dissenting opinions on the name I eventually chose (which got mostly positive feedback):
1. It sounds like a peasant’s name
2. It sounds like a monkey’s name
(I chose it anyway, because enough people thought it was a decent name, and I liked it.)
Whether you’re a learner or a metalinguistic advisor on your own native tongue, though, my advice is the same: Stay humble. Stay curious. And talk to lots of native speakers.
This time, rather than insights, though, I just have questions. I’m curious how my readers out there might answer the following:
1. Do you consciously try to create and/or maintain a different personality for your foreign language (FL) speaking identity?
2. If you don’t consciously try to create and/or maintain a different personality for your FL identity, how do you determine if your FL personality is any different from your native language identity?
3. If certain languages tend to influence personality in a certain way (as the New Republic article suggests), what personality traits would speaking Mandarin Chinese impart onto its non-native speakers?
Here are my own answers:
1. Yes, I did that. I could only keep it up for so long, though, before my fluency made me self-conscious about maintaining my more outgoing, chatty Chinese self. I suspect that some people might be able to keep it up, though, depending on the specific “personality modifications” and the degree to which they’re applied.
2. Even after I “corrected” my Chinese self, making it more like my English-speaking self, my two personalities aren’t going to be 100% the same, if the New Republic article is to be believed (and I believe it). Most people I know don’t have the language skills or the opportunity to make such a comparison. Maybe Jenny from ChinesePod is in a decent position to judge, but she knows me mostly from how I am at work. That leaves basically just my wife, who’s not a native speaker of English, but is still in a good position to judge. No way to get an objective assessment, though (short of participating in an official experiment)!
3. This is really hard to say. One way to judge might be to look at how expats in China relate to each other in China, compared to how they relate back home. For example, they may be less shy about asking someone how much they make (kind of a taboo in most western countries). So… speaking Chinese makes you nosier about money?? Not exactly insightful. Obviously, there are problems with the method, too. I’m especially curious what other people think about this: what personality traits would speaking Mandarin Chinese impart onto its non-native speakers?
Leave a comment and answer all three questions, if you have the time! (Insight into acquisition of any language is fine; it doesn’t have to be Chinese.)
JP recently finished studying Chinese at the Monterey Institute, and he said something that caught my attention:
> Ok, how’s my Chinese now? It’s better than when I started. I’ve certainly seen a lot of vocab and patterns. A few of them are in my daily speech now. I’m not terribly worried that I haven’t internalized more of those yet… it’s not my first rodeo. I know that some of that stuff will start coming out of my mouth in the months to come.
> I actually discovered this phenomenon when I got back from France in 1993. My French had improved tremendously from the immersion experience, and I had plenty of new frenchy habits. But I was a little disappointed that my French wasn’t even better. I would go to French class in Seattle and make a lot of the same mistakes I had made before. Oh well, I thought, I didn’t get fluent, but at least it was fun.
> Fast forward to a year later, and I was totally able to speak French. So apparently the growth came after I had returned, after the immersion experience was long over.
Of course there’s a big catch. You have to keep talking, keep practicing, keep trying to improve. That’s certainly no problem for JP, but some learners may think that all the magic happens in one special context at one special time, and once extracted from that special environment, all the learning stops. Not so!
The jury is still out an exactly how closely related first and second language acquisition are, but clearly the two are related. One of the things that gives me great pleasure is watching my (not-yet-two-year-old) daughter soak up new words, earnestly taking them all in, but refusing to repeat them. And then, days or weeks later, she’ll suddenly bust out with those words in the appropriate context, much to the amazement of her audience.
No, it’s not a deliberate show. Her brain needs time to properly “digest” what she’s ingested in order to put it to use.
For me personally, some of the most interesting phenomena relate to Chinese grammar. There are certain higher-level grammar patterns that you can learn, and know, and understand in context, but then just never use yourself in normal conversation. Why bother with something like 之所以……是因为 when you can just use the regular cause-effect pattern? Or why bother extracting the object and with a 把 sentence and moving it around when you can get by with a regular SOV sentence?
The answer, of course, is that all this stuff adds nuance. But you filter out nuance when you’re not ready for it. Then you marinate in nuance for a while before you’re ready to fully embrace it yourself. Then one day the nuance just pops out of you, expressing just what you meant, and you didn’t even know you had it in you.
To get to that point, you just have to keep accepting that input while continually giving yourself opportunities to communicate.
I’ve spent a nice chunk of my career on Chinese grammar, whether it’s explaining grammar structures in ChinesePod podcasts, working on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, or helping individual AllSet Learning clients. And two things that have become clearer and clearer to me are:
1. There are certain things that all learners struggle with at different stages of acquisition of Mandarin Chinese (this is consistent with the SLA concept of “order of acquisition”)
2. Most learners have no idea what to expect when it comes to the grammatical challenges that they’ll be up against (which can often make learners feel stupid for “just not getting it” immediately, not realizing that they’re struggling with something that all learners of Chinese struggle with)
To make a comparison with Spanish, most learners know from the beginning that they’re going to have to learn a bunch of verb conjugations for different tenses, gradually increasing in complexity over time. And beyond that, the subjunctive awaits. [Cue scary Spanish music]
OK, but what about Chinese? Many learners start with the patently false notion that “Chinese doesn’t really have grammar” or that “Chinese grammar is basically the same as English.” So they’re in for a fun little surprise there. This misconception doesn’t stand up long.
But beyond that, what is a learner to expect? The good news is that although different from English grammar, Chinese grammar isn’t horribly difficult. There are a few difficult points that deserve special attention, though, and I’ve created a new page on Sinosplice to point them out: Chinese Grammar Hurdles. The page is a rather simple list, but each point links to pages on the Chinese Grammar Wiki which have in-depth explanation (or will soon).
A few additional notes for beginners:
* Chinese word order isn’t the same as English word order. Sure, you can think of examples in which the word order is exactly the same. “I love you” = 我爱你, etc. But don’t expect that to hold true quite so neatly as you start adding in times, places, adverbs, etc.
* Particles are something new. Some of them, like 吗 and 吧, aren’t too difficult to get the hang of. Others, like 了, will actually take a long time to get a handle on. But that’s OK… you learn the different uses of 了 over time, and eventually it starts to gel, even if the accumulated understanding is not easily verbalized.
* Measure words are also something new, but they don’t need much attention at first. This is because you can actually get by for quite a while using the general-purpose measure word 个. So if your Chinese teacher is totally drilling you on all kinds of measure words when you just started studying Chinese, something is wrong. Learn the mechanics with 个, but focus on language more central to basic communication before focusing on expanding your measure word vocabulary.
Good luck in your studies of Chinese grammar! Although some things feel weird and arbitrary (as with any foreign language), Chinese grammar also has a strong thread of logic running through it that you’ll start to appreciate the deeper you get. For many learners, it’s a source of great satisfaction. Hopefully knowing what to expect with Chinese grammar will help you stick with it for the long haul.
We’ve been doing some video clip dubbing experiments for fun on the AllSet Learning YouTube page. We started with Downton Abbey, and did Dracula for Halloween. That one was a bit on the discouraging side (although what can you really expect from Dracula?), so we decided to do a much more upbeat one. The result is this classic clip from Animal House dubbed to be about learning Chinese.
Our intern Jack has been doing a good job and having a good time with this little experiment. He’s the “student” in the Dracula clip, and he conceived the Animal House clip (although our AllSet Learning teachers recorded that one). Good job, Jack!
Are clips like this useful as study material? Probably not, but if they give you a smile and get you listening to a bit more Chinese, they’re worth it. For sure, the ones learning the most are Jack the intern and our teachers. It gets them thinking about the limitations of certain forms of media, tradeoffs in production resources, and creativity applied to pedagogy. It’s a worthwhile investment for us as a company. (BTW, we post all our new videos to our Facebook page as well.)
I’ve heard some good things about a program for school kids called Better Chinese. Like many modern Chinese learning programs, Better Chinese is also on the iPad learning bandwagon. This screenshot from the website features the app:
Yikes! How’d they get a kid from the late 70’s to pose with that iPad, and why didn’t they tell him not to use a pen with that touchscreen?
I’m sure we’ll all figure out how to learn Chinese using these touchscreen tablets sooner or later…
I started a series of posts all the way back in 2007 on how I learned Chinese. I began with how I studied before I came to China (part 1), and then continued with what I did after I got over here (part 2). That got me to a low level of fluency, sufficient for everyday conversation and routine tasks in daily life. But then what? What did I do to get past that level?
I didn’t continue the series past part 2 because it was obvious to me back in 2007 that I was still learning a lot of Chinese, and it’s never really clear what’s happening when you’re right in the middle of it (that whole forest and trees thing). Now, a good 5 years later, I’ve got a lot more perspective on the big picture of what was going on with my Chinese development back then. So it’s high time I continued the account…
After finally getting my Chinese to a point where I felt like I could honestly say “I speak Chinese” (sometime around 2003), I had to re-evaluate a bit. Wasn’t that my initial goal, after all? To get in, get fluent, and get out? And then move onto another cool and exciting country? Yes, that was my original plan: to be a bit of an “immersion whore.” It’s a dangerous game to play, though… because if you’re not careful, you might become emotionally attached. And that kind of affects the plan.
And I did get attached to my life in China. (I still find my existence here to be rife with an exhilarating kind of chaos.) And I still wanted to keep improving my Chinese. And I had met someone who might possibly be the coolest woman ever. Long story short, I had decided to stay.
Just as I had concluded that I needed real all-Chinese practice to improve my speaking in the beginning, I also realized next that I needed to increase the amount of Chinese in my life. Specifically, I needed a job where I could use Chinese, or possibly higher level studies in Chinese. I always enjoyed teaching English, but my duties as an English teacher conflicted with my personal goals of mastering Chinese. I had reached the dreaded intermediate plateau, that period where getting from point A to point B takes a long time and a hell of a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like you’re making significant progress at the time. I needed a plan to propel myself beyond it, and my sights starting moving toward Shanghai.
It was at this point that I also came to the reluctant conclusion that I should probably take the HSK. I’ve never been a fan of standardized testing, and the HSK struck me then as particularly estranged from reality (and hasn’t gotten a lot better since). But the more formal Mandarin evaluated by the HSK could be useful in a work setting, and I had also begun toying with this new idea of going to graduate school for applied linguistics in China. You need an HSK score to get into Chinese universities.
The one-semester HSK prep course I took at Zhejiang University of Technology in the second half of 2003 was the first formal course in Chinese I had taken since arriving in China almost three years earlier. It reminded me that I hated studying to the test, but also that I really did have quite a few grammar points I still needed to nail down.
I recall clearly, before studying for the HSK at all, that I had some delusions of fluency, thinking that maybe I could go straight for the advanced HSK. My Chinese wasn’t nearly that good, though, and even after completing the course, I didn’t quite ace the HSK as I had hoped, although I got the score I needed for grad school in China.
Result: serious wake-up call! I still had plenty to learn. I had gotten good at the casual conversations I immersed myself in daily, but more of those conversations weren’t really helping me get to the next level (at least not fast enough). And although I had the HSK score I needed, I would still need to pass an essay exam to get into the applied linguistics program I was interested in.
Goals do help
So having studied for the HSK for about half a year and then passing it, I was ready for the next challenge: applying for graduate school in China. I learned that I needed to pass a hand-written essay exam on 现代汉语 (modern Mandarin), to prove that I had both the theoretical linguistic knowledge about the language as well as the Chinese writing skills to express myself. I was assigned a textbook to “learn” in order to pass the exam. The school directed me to the tutoring services of the student center, and I was able to hire a tutor to help me get through it.
What followed was a year of reading the textbook, discussing it with my teacher, and doing regular essay assignments. I directed my own studies and set my own pace, and my tutor (a college student) helped me along the way. Honestly, I barely even remember that year of study. I just remember writing a whole bunch of essays and seeing an awful lot of red ink. I also remember being quite surprised by how quickly my handwriting speed ramped up when I was regularly putting pen to paper with purpose.
When I finally took the essay test, I was super nervous, but all that writing practice paid off. I could bust out a decent length essay in the hour allotted. It wasn’t perfect (I think I got an 80%?), but I was in.
Remember that plateau?
The frustrating thing about the plateau is that you don’t feel like you’re making progress when you really are. It didn’t feel like my Chinese was getting significantly better as I acquired the vocabulary and grammar to pass the HSK, or even as I got steadily better at writing essays in Chinese. It’s not until well after the fact that you can look back on that period of time and realize that your skills really have progressed a fair amount since then. For me, it wasn’t until I was in grad school in 2005, pretty well adjusted after the first few weeks of classes, and thinking, “this actually isn’t so hard” that it finally hit me: wow, my Chinese has actually come a long way since those good old Hangzhou days.
For me, the key to getting through that intermediate plateau period was having a sequence of reasonable, attainable goals. I’m not sure I would have ever made it if my goal was just to pass the advanced HSK. I certainly wouldn’t have done it in order to read a Chinese newspaper. My long-term goal was earning a masters in applied linguistics in Chinese, but my first goal was simply getting a passing score on the HSK, which largely involved learning all the basic grammar patterns I had neglected (because I didn’t need them) and picking up the rather boring (but important) vocabulary I had formerly ignored. The half-year of working toward the short-term goal helped train me mentally for the next goal of passing the writing exam, and being able to switch gears from standardized testing to writing really kept things interesting. After those two smaller goals were attained, all that was left was a 3-year “make it through grad school” goal, which was a special challenge all its own, and a story for another time…
Most Chinese learners have a goal of one day being able to read a Chinese newspaper, or a novel in Chinese. And thanks to better and better tools for learning Chinese, it’s getting easier to work towards that goal progressively. However, even learners who have studied for quite a while report that they still struggle with the “wall of characters” mental block. It’s that irrational, overwhelming feeling (perhaps even a slight sense of panic) we sometimes get when confronted with a whole page of Chinese text: the dreaded “Wall of Characters.”
No doubt, this fear is partly culturally rooted. From childhood, many of us have considered Chinese characters as roughly equivalent with the concept “inscrutable.” At times our brains seem to revert to that primitive, ignorant state where that wall of characters really seems impenetrable.
Nowadays, the “wall of characters” is often online, rather than printed on paper. We have all kinds of tools to help us chip away at the wall. Relative beginners, with the right training, can quickly start blowing holes in that wall, and with a little time and patience, the wall does come crumbling down at the feet of the motivated learner, leaving nothing but glorious meaning in its place. That’s a beautiful thing.
Today, however, I’d like to introduce a tool of a different sort. One that operates on the “primitive and ignorant” level of the “wall of characters.” It’s a “bomb” in a more literal (but digital) sense of the word, a toy called fontBomb.
I’ve found that applying fontBomb to the “wall of characters” is surprisingly satisfying, in the same way that smashing glass can be satisfying, and looks cool to boot. Here’s a video I made (sorry, YouTube only):
FontBomb is easy to use and apply to any page of text. Happy bombing!
To answer this question, I’ll start by quoting from a Quora page, where two heavyweights gave excellent answers:
Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan/大山:
> When I started learning Chinese, I was horrified to hear that it would take me 10 years to become fluent. 27 years later I’m still working at it. Due to my work on television, some Chinese language learners may consider me a role model of sorts, but every day I’m reminded of what I don’t know and how much more there is to learn.
> “Fluent” is a relative concept. I would summarize:
> 2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job (because 2 years is enough to bullshit your way through a situation in front of non-speakers).
> 5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.
> 10 years to feel comfortable in the language.
> The old saying I heard when I first started learning Chinese was, “Learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility”. At the time I assumed that the point of this aphorism was that after five years you will have mastered humility along with Chinese. After I put in my five years, however, I realized the sad truth: I had mastered humility, alright, but my Chinese still had a long way to go. And still does.
> As the the above answers indicate, the notion of “fluent” is very vague and goal-dependent. Needless to say, the Chinese writing system does more than any other aspect to hamper mastery, to the extent that adult speakers must address the daunting problems of the script in order to function in the language. As an instructive metric, however, we can turn to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey for some rough estimates of the relative difficulty. They divide languages into different difficulty groups. Group I includes the “usual” languages a student might study, such as French and Italian. They estimate “Hours of instruction required for a student with average language aptitude to reach level-2 proficiency” (never mind what level-2 means) to be 480 hours. A further level is characterized as “Speaking proficiency level expected of a student with superior language aptitude after 720 hours of instruction”, which is “Level 3”, which apparently is their highest level of non-native fluency. Chinese is grouped into Category IV, along with Japanese. The number of hours needed to reach level two is 1320 (about 3 times as much as required for French), and the highest expected level for a superior student after 720 hours is only 1+, i.e. an advanced beginner. These are old statistics, but the proportional differences are bound to be similar today.
> My own experience, in a nutshell: French language students after 4 years are hanging out in Paris bistros, reading everything from Voltaire to Le Monde with relative ease, and having arguments about existentialism and debt ceilings. Chinese language students after four years still can’t read novels or newspapers, can have only simple conversations about food, and cannot yet function in the culture as mature adults. And this even goes for many graduate students with 6-7 or 8 years of Chinese. Exceptions abound, of course, but in general the gap between mastery of Chinese vs. the European languages is enormous. To a great extent the stumbling block is simply the non-phonetic and perversely memory-intensive writing system, but other cultural factors are at work as well.
I’m not going to go into the complex issues already covered above (and I should also note that my Chinese is nowhere near as good as Mark Rowswell’s), but Mark’s numbers seem fairly realistic to me.
Because I began my study of Chinese in the States, then moved to China and started practicing on my own pretty hardcore, I’d say I hit Mark’s “basic fluency” milestone at around 4 years of study. “Feeling comfortable” probably came after about 8 years, but I think my standard for “comfortable” is also lower than Mark’s. (I seriously doubt I am as comfortable now as Mark was after 10 years!)
What’s the deal?
It always pisses some people off when you say that learning Chinese is hard, or that it takes a really long time. In fact, it tends to inspire certain learners to go out of their way to prove that the opposite is true: Chinese is not hard, and doesn’t take long to learn. That’s fine; somewhere between the extreme views the truth can be found. But I’ve always found it important to have a realistic view of what you’re getting into, and getting someone like Mark Rowswell’s take on the question is certainly interesting!
It seems that some people are afraid that many people will be “scared off” if Chinese is too often represented as “difficult,” and that those that attain some mastery and then tell others that it wasn’t easy are simply jealously guarding their own perceived “specialness.” Personally, I started learning Chinese precisely because I viewed it as a serious challenge, and didn’t fall in love with it until much later. I’ve heard many times that Malay is really easy to learn, but that’s never made me want to learn it.
The good news
The good news is that I truly believe that learning Chinese is getting easier, or that students are learning it faster than they used to. I’ve been observing this trend on my own anecdotally over the years as I meet ChinesePod visitors, as I meet new arrivals to China, as I take on new AllSet Learning clients, and as I work with new interns. The “Total Newb on Arrival” is getting rarer, tones are getting better, and some people are even showing up in China for the first time already able to hold a conversation. Nice!
I’ve compared notes with Chinese teachers abroad, and some teachers are making the same observations. One teacher told me that universities are having to restructure their Chinese courses because the original courses were not demanding enough, or didn’t go far enough. What’s going on here?
I think a combination of the following factors are playing a part:
– Kids are starting to learn Chinese sooner
– Chinese learning materials are getting better
– Technology is making learning characters (and pronunciation) less laborious
– Competition is naturally raising the bar
– Increased awareness about the Chinese language and culture make the whole prospect less intimidating overall
This is all very good news! And if this is a long-running trend that has been accelerating in recent years, it could also mean that while Mark Rowswell’s and David Moser’s accounts are totally truthful, it won’t be as time-consuming for you as it was for them because the difficulty (or time involved) to learn Chinese is depreciating, without us even having to do anything!
One more thing
Oh, and let me also quote Charles Laughlin from the Quora thread, who replied:
> Who cares how long it takes? Just do it! If you really want to learn Chinese, you will devote yourself to it however long it takes.
Friends of mine have asked me many times: can you really speak Chinese without translating it first in your head? And when I answer yes, the follow-up question is: but how can you get to that point? I have to translate everything!
There’s both an implied lie and a rather direct lie in that follow-up question.
“But how can you get to that point?”
The problem is that it’s not a “point.” There’s no instant when you can suddenly stop translating completely. Rather, you stop translating longer and longer stretches of language. Over time, what was once long stretches of language which needed to be translated, interspersed with only occasional words you understood, eventually becomes long stretches of language which don’t need to be translated, interrupted only by the occasional need for translation.
“I have to translate everything!”
Do you? Do you have to translate 你好 (“hi”)? Do you have to translate 谢谢 (“thank you”)? To tell someone you don’t want something, do you have to consciously translate “I don’t want it” into 不要? Or do you just blurt them out?
Sure, when you first start out, you have to learn these expressions, and then you do have to translate them when you first start using them. But especially if you’re in the target language environment, their usage starts to become automatic quite quickly. I observed 你好 and 谢谢 becoming automatic for my parents during their recent two-week visit. They don’t speak a lot of Chinese, but even they were “speaking without translating” relatively quickly.
With enough practice, more and more words and phrases become automatic. You don’t feel your brain shirking its translation duties; it just happens so naturally. When you finally realize it’s happening, that you’re starting to understand and process not just individual words and short phrases, but whole sentences without even translating them, it feels a little surreal. It’s kind of like one of those Escher works. You really can’t pinpoint at what point the bird became a fish.
But the truth is, if you’ve been not just “studying,” but using your language skills for any length of time, the ebbing of conscious translation has already begun. If you try, you can sort of feel it. It’s this weird sensation called “fluency” creeping up on you, ever so subtly.
I remember quite distinctly the way I learned the sentence-final particle 嘛. I had only been studying Chinese for a little over a year, and thus was quite familiar with the yes/no question particle 吗, but not this new 嘛, which seemed a bit more complex. I might have studied it before and just ignored it, but once I was on the streets of Hangzhou and hearing it all the time, I knew it was time to start figuring out what this 嘛 was all about.
So I broke out my trusty old Oxford dictionary (we still learned Chinese from actual books in those days), and looked up 嘛. Here’s what I found:
> 嘛: ma (助) 1 [used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious]: 这样做是不对～！ Of course it was acting improperly! 孩子总是孩子～！ Children are children! 2 [used within a sentence to mark a pause]: 你～，就不用亲自去了。 As for you, I don’t think you have to go in person.
I know some people hate learning from dictionaries, and grammatical concepts especially can be difficult to learn that way, but for me this explanation was a revelation: used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious.
I think a lot of us have personal experiences in which we acquire a new word, and the memory of those specific vocabulary acquisition experiences stay with us long after we internalize the words themselves (one of my own personal examples is my attempt to buy a bug zapper light). This is quite natural, and it’s also one of my key misgivings about SRS. The way we naturally acquire language stays with us and reinforces the entire process, tightly binding words, meaning, and real-world experience. SRS (or simple word lists in general) can’t really offer this deep of a connection.
But back to my dictionary example… How is this any different from an SRS learning method, divorced from a real-world connection? Logically, I feel like looking up a word in a dictionary isn’t much different from being presented a word electronically. Sure, there’s the tactile interaction with the book, and the effort involved in getting out the book in the first place, and the act of physically flipping to the appropriate page, then locating the appropriate headword with my finger. How much “momentum” do these behaviors actually amount to, in a learning context?
Although I can’t think of many compelling instances besides my 嘛 example, I definitely feel that there are words which I learned (and not just “learned,” but developed a strong connection to) largely due to a dictionary. This leads me to two important questions:
– How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through a dictionary? What was it that made it so memorable?
– How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through SRS? What was it that made it so memorable?
For me, I think the dictionary’s explanation struck me so poignantly because I had actually already expended a significant amount of mental energy on the use of 嘛 but I had not yet been able to express the ideas concisely, and the 嘛 entry did just that, right when I needed it.
Please share some of your own personal learning experiences in the comments. I’m very interested to hear what you have to say.
How do you ask “how are you?” in Chinese? Most textbooks or other study materials include the classic greeting 你好吗？ (“how are you?”) right in the first lesson. From a course creation perspective, this greeting is great. It builds on the universal greeting 你好 (“hello”) by just adding one word, plus it allows an opportunity to teach the very basic grammar pattern of using the question particle 吗 to create yes/no questions. It’s also very easy to answer, and the classic response 我很好 (“I’m fine”) reinforces (1) the basic “N + Adj” sentence pattern in Chinese, as well as (2) using only super basic, core vocabulary.
So what’s the problem?
Well, Chinese educators’ dirty little secret is that Chinese people themselves rarely use the greeting你好吗？with each other. Some people will tell you this expression actually evolved out of a perceived need for Chinese greetings to more closely resemble western ones, which might be easier for westerners to learn. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this theory, but based on years of observation, I can confirm what many others have also observed: that native speakers very rarely use 你好吗？ with each other.
When I first learned this “dirty little secret,” I was quite indignant. Why would you teach learners something that no one ever says? It’s irresponsible and lazy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that educators underestimated the intellect of the learners. And it does seem that many Chinese educators continue to feel that it’s a good idea to teach 你好吗？ to beginners (perhaps for the reasons listed above). So in my work at ChinesePod over the years, I’ve tended to avoid 你好吗？ as much as possible.
But over time, I’ve noticed another thing. Chinese people do say你好吗？to foreigners. They’re especially likely to use it with foreigners when they know the foreigner knows very little Chinese, or if they suspect as much and are just testing the waters. (It can also be used as a barb in a language power struggle, as in, “OK, if you insist, I’ll speak Chinese with you… 你好吗？“)
So what’s going on? Are these Chinese speakers being racist jerks? Are they thinking, “this learner can’t possibly handle more than this”?
For those embittered by too many language power struggles, it might be tempting to think this way. But for most cases, I don’t think this is the case. When I reflect on my own English interactions in China, I can find similar situations in English. Take this fabricated dialog for example, which I’m almost sure I have acted out in real life several times in the past:
> Me: Hi, how’s it going?
> Student: [confused] Going?
> Me: Hello, how are you?
> Student: [visibly brightening] Fine, thank you. And you?
> Me: I’m great.
Now, if this were my own student, I’d quickly teach him the way Americans actually greet each other nowadays, covering all the basic “how” and “what” informal greetings. But if it were just a very short conversation with someone who doesn’t really want to learn real English anyway, then “Hello, how are you” served its purpose.
This is why I now view the 你好吗？ phenomenon as a sort of linguistic training wheels. It’s something you learn early on, and then try to move away from as quickly as possible. Key to the equation (and the reason why I no longer consider the prevalence of 你好吗？ in Chinese textbooks to be a total blight on the entire industry) is the fact that Chinese native speakers will sometimes use it with learners. This is a fact that can’t be denied. But any serious learner won’t be using the training wheels for long (if he ever did at all), and will soon leave 你好吗？ far behind.