Friday, December 29, 2006

Mandarin girly talk

Sorry not sure what else to call it, "girly talk" seems to fit the bill (don't want to cause any offence). In a previous post I mentioned about having listened to quite a lot of Mandarin spoken by young Taiwanese women at one point. I put considerable effort into listening to this kind of thing a little while ago but I think once I get to the point where I can understand most of it I will have to stop (or go insane ;)).

If you investigate other videos posted by this YouTube user you will find more than enough "girly talk" to keep you going. Other types of talk that merit some ear training are: little children talk, old people talk, north versus south, Beijing talk and news presenter talk. I am sure that there are many more to discover.

BTW what is with the cutsy expressions? Every Taiwan girl on TV seems to need a trademark "custsy" facial pose :). The face posing and that aaaahhhhhhh sound are slowly eroding my soul, be aware. To strike a balance I am of course aware that we have more than enough similar material in America and the UK.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Christmas thoughts

Have had a pretty relaxed time this week, and probably done less Chinese than at any time over the preceding Year. Spent most of the time with my family and doing odd jobs around the house. Hope everybody else had a good time too. I haven't completly abandoned thinking about Chinese though and am refreshed and looking forward to picking up the reins again. I also received an interesting present.

My youngest son, who is nine years old had got hold of some chile seeds for me to plant next year and had gone to trouble of writing Chinese characters on the envelope for me. This made me think about the initial hurdles for a westerner approaching Chinese in a fresh light. Over the preceding couple of months my son had been asking me questions about the Chinese study I was doing. With a bit of help from his mum he used the internet to find how to say "happy christmas" and knowing more than she did insisted that there was a site where he could see animations of the characters. He also insisted that he was going to use the correct stroke order (as far as mum was concerned he could just copy them anyhow). Having spoken to me about it he knew to draw the characters proportionatly, assigning the same amount of space to each one. The result was four characters that looked very authentic.

When I was presented with the envelope I was very pleased but explained that I was not sure how to read it (I had a sneaking suspicion though as I recoginsed the character for kuai4). With a big smile he turns over the envelope and I can see he has taken the trouble to write the pinyin on the other side (he knows that I know comparitively few characters and that the pinyin is a way to write the corresponding sounds. So now I could read the phrase "sheng4dan4 kuai4le4" or "happy christmas". He also told me the characters on the front were traditional (he realised he was presented with a choice on some characters and pick the ones that looked prettier).

All my family have had exposure to Chinese simply because I have been learning it, they have picked up little bits of information over time. They would understand a few simple phrases (overexposure to my practicing), they know roughly what Chinese sounds like (a few bits of media like cartoons I have found they have watched with english subs), they know about tones (one of them can actually mimic them pretty well when pretending to speak Chinese), they know roughly how the writing system works and they know that there is a bunch of tools on my computer and the Internet to help with Chinese learning.

Basically if any of them decide to learn Chinese in the future, they will have quite a significant boost having picked up a lot of background information. The lack of this backround knowledge is the first major hurdle that and adult in the west has to overcome. I guess (prettly wildly ;)) that maybe this cost me two to three months of progress compared to attempting a European language.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Chinablast and more Remy

Some interesting thoughts over the last day. Brendan's comment to the last post made me think a bit more about implications of understanding quite a lot of what Princess Remy says (by no means anywhere near all). I did some searching and found a brilliant site in the process (actually re-found but it had only just started the last time I saw it).

The site is Chinablast and it is a place where people can collaborate on the translation and transcription of various Chinese medium. I think this is excellent.

If you search Chinablast you will find that two of the Princess Remy podcasts have been transcribed and translated, that is a excellent resource for any Mandarin learner and makes those two podcasts accessible for a wider range of levels.

Two things are made clear in the comments. First as noted elsewhere on the web, Princess Remy does not speak very clearly. Secondly the speech is conversational therefore when written the sentences are often ungrammatical. I think that Princess Remy sounds fairly clear to me because I have spent many many hours listening to Chinese media (in particular in this case Taiwanese girls chatting about makeup, hair fashion and pet dogs etc.). I have listened to all sorts of stuff right from the start even when I could understand only one word in a hundred.

I feel very confident for next year. I have occasionally taken some stick for my seemingly strange approach but now I am really sure that even if it is not "THE WAY" it is a "VALID WAY" at least for me. More importantly I seem to be making the most progress in my main priority which is engaging with speech before writing. Lots to do but happy to know I haven't taken any completely wrong turns.

So those times in the evening when I didn't feel like doing anything constructive and instead of sitting down to watch some trashy English TV, watched some trashy Taiwanese TV on my computer, have paid dividends.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

More content podcasts

Since my last post I thought about other podcasts I listen to that are not strictly instructional but can be used to educate. I am going to actively hunt out more so any suggestions would be greatly accepted. Today I will very briefly introduce Princess Remy and podcast BEIJING

If it helps I will try to be more diligent in keeping my delicious links up to date so you can always scan my Mandarin podcast links for an update.

Princess Remy is a Taiwanese girl living in Germany (mostly). She has been releasing one podcast a day for quite some time and there are approaching 500 podcasts now. Each podcast is a little like a discussion / diary entry and most of the early ones are quite short. Recently she has started releasing less often and longer podcasts for bandwidth difficulties I think (I still haven't properly caught up yet). The podcasts are entirely in Mandarin (well one or two German or English words occasionally in fact she just said "school bus" as I was typing this). You soon get used to her way of speaking, there is an awful lot I don't understand but on a really good day I can just about follow the meaning of an entire podcast. Basically just a nice consistent place where you can keep returning to get listening practice. One day in the distant future I will understand everything she says, which will be nice.

podcast BEIJING is released by an American guy. There doesn't seem to have been one since April but maybe there is an explanation I haven't heard them all yet. Mostly chatting in English but you get to find out a bit about Beijing and there is plenty of Chinese interview material thrown in for a little listening practice.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Learning Mandarin Podcast

I want to keep my learning experiance as much based on sound as possible, especially in the early stages. Podcasts of various types are a crucial aid and especially relevent to me as I get a lot of time where I can listen but not read or interact with a keyboard. Some Podcasts are learning podcasts and some are just material that can be used in a learning context.

I think that the Learning Learning Mandarin Podcast is a good example of a useful source of material.

The Learning Mandarin podcasts are not instructional as such. The usual format is that the host April discusses an issue, either something that has happened in her life of something newsworthy etc. Some of the earlier podcast feature interviews with Mandarin learners. Examples of topics discussed are two podcasts about traditional versus simplified characters and a podcast about the game (if it is a game) Second Life.

April speaks clearly and at resonable pace. Also the vocabularly seems to steer away from anything overly difficult or obscure. I can't understand much of it but some of the podcasts I could understand big chuncks of and I can often pick up the gist of the topic. If not there are plenty of easily recognisable words and phrases to work with.

The nicest touch is that you can purchase transcripts of the podcasts, the one I bought was just $1 (I could purchase via Paypal). This enabled me to download a PDF that contained both characters and Pinyin for the entire dialogue. I am not at my happiest when studying from text alone but alongside audio is great.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

On Characters 1

There has been a huge number of comments regarding a post Ken Carol made on the Chinesepod blog. Some very passionate views expressed. Many people will know that I am strongly against the idea of learning Chinese characters in the early stages. Sadly (or perhaps otherwise) the comments were petering out and then Henning made a comment that I thought I ought to reply to. I have replied but am not sure that many people will read it. So that some of my views are fairly clearly stated I have decided to copy my comment here (in itallics). Prabably very bad to do this out of context but I am tired and don't want to loose the thoughts I had.

No it is not too late even for me :)

Somewhere in many places amongst the litter of comments, blog posts , forum posts etc. I have stated many times that I am not ignoring characters. I have also posted about translating, my reading strategies etc.

Of course at some point early next year when I release character based material some people who understandably haven’t read that huge volume of potential places where I might have posted will scream “hypocrite” meibanfa, the problem with this medium is that you cannot post an entire methodology in every comment.

I started learning 11 months ago, for almost three months I just listened (didn’t even feel the urge to open my mounth and try the sounds) then I started attempting sounds and scratchy character stuff. The character learning at that time did terrible damage to my progress so I stopped. At about six months I started gently working with characters again (I was ready) I had also got stuck into to talking over Skype (obviously badly ;) ). My beef is with the idea that you should start with the text or even run them simultaneously (many people believe this). It may surprise you to know that I have spent a little time learning the basics of looking up characters in a Chinese only zidian, that I can comfortably write about 120 characters and read around 300 or so, that the characters I can can read I can read at full speed (well subtitle speed anyway). Not a lot of characters I realise but I am the path to real reading. I haven’t really used anything apporaching traditional methods methods so far and have spent comparitivly little time learning the the characters, as long as I stick to soee basic rules. I generally do not attempt anthing I cannot hear well, I generally try not to learn to read anything I cannot listen and speak, and I never try to learn to write anything I cannot read without thinking. This feels so natural.

I have horror stories from my first attempts, the character 尖 (point, pointed) I picked up because of something I was studying. I could write it, I knew it was xiao3 over da4 etc. I came to use the word with my Skype partner and all that popped in my head was the character (usually I just have sounds and meanings in there) even worse there was no sound associated in my head. This was like a slap with a wet fish. In the example used by Eugenio way above I know tian2 田 already. Why do I know tian, well because I had learned nan2 男 which is of course field over power (the power of the man hoeing the field or whatever) aside from the fact that this is both sexist and out of date this should be the character for tractor ;) . I hadn’t actually wanted to know the character or word for field that was unwanted collateral damage there were other words that would have served me better at that time.

Chinese is my main hobby now, I have a full time job and a large family, I study it very hard considering so maybe an identical me studying in evening class would have been ready for characters at one year or even one and a half. Who knows maybe a younger fulltime studier would be ready at three months. The fact still remains that starting with that baggage at the beggining seems very strange.

I have spent a lot of thought and undergone a lot of self analysis regarding my studying and the progress I make. I am in very unfertile ground, living where I am and having limited study time. If I had a Chinese speaking partner for example I know that even now I wouldn’t have touched a character. Heaven forbid that I ever start thinking in characters :O.

One shocking thought I had early on is if Japanease can use essentially the same set of characters to write a completly different language, then surely that is a strong level of abstraction between the spoken form of Mandarin and the written form no matter what cunning cultural arguements there are to attempt to knit them together. We had men hoeing fields in ancient England too and also kept women firmly in place under our roofs for a peaceful environment although we might have even called it a home without a pig (maybe a yang2 羊 sheep under the roof in Wales ;) ). Taking the above into account isn’t there a strong case for stating that actually you don’t get the full culture hit unless you learn the meta language actually in Mandarin (zhe4ge4 zi4 you3 tian2 de yi4si (aaiii zian4zai4 wo3 ming2bai2le), did that make anybody sweat a little??. Should we really be learning the true language of characters in English? what do we loose by attempting to be oh so smart and educated and un-childlike.

Yes I may be ‘psuedo-intellectual’, I may be misguided etc. but a valid arguement is valid no matter what the source and I think I have at least one here worthy of further thought. I hope I have a least demonstrated that I don’t take any of this lightly.

Henning you started with sound too, ok you hit a wall but would you have changed things?

It did also occur to me some learning to read too early may actually be reading in Chinese but thinking in English (which seems a terrible idea to me). Ohh well.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Other learner blogs and RSS

There are a number of other Chinese learner blogs out there that I keep track of. It is always nice to know that you are not alone. The problem is that with these and forums and podcasts it is hard to keep up to date. Also for me a significant factor of my learning Mandarin is that I am learning online. This post is about how I handle all this information, how I intend to handle it in the future and my intentions for becoming a webstudent 2.0 :).

RSS is one of the key mechanisms that allows you to keep track of many sources of changing information on the Internet. If you are not familiar with it you can find out more. If you use RSS efficiently you can keep track of much more information than you could if you were just revisiting sites of interest in your webbrowser. Apart from Chinese learning I also monitor a lot of feeds to do with Web Development, Java, Science, etc.

Now there is too much information even for the RSS methods I was using. I have started using both netvibes (for a more graphical layout and presentation of my feeds) and google reader (more down to earth view). Both of these free services seem to deal well with Chinese characters (some other online services don't). Having these feeds managed online means I can use any computer. In particular the google reader allows me to arrange feeds in folders and then publicise them. Using a public folder I can go to a page generated by google that shows me that information from all the combined feeds. Even better the combined feed has its own RSS feed which I can pull into netvibes.

For an example I have combined the feeds from the chinesepod blog, the comments from the chinesepod blog and the chinesepod forum. You can view the output here and even grab the rss feed for this page yourself if it will help. Warning this is a very busy feed and the presence of comments means that some of the entries will be confusing and out of context. If you are trying to keep up to date with these areas though a feed like this can be a huge aid.

I have also been keeping tack of a number of Mandarin learners blogs in the bottom right handside of the my menu. The combined page for the more active of these can be viewed here. The biggest problem with the google reader I can see so far is that if I add another feed to a combined feed a bunch of the newstuff starts at the top, eventually it shakes out. Google reader in still in beta so perhaps has a few minor teething problems.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Automated translation (google it)

There have been translation tools that attempt to translate from one written language to another available for sometime. I remember even about eight years ago getting hold of a free version of some software that attempted to translate between Spanish and English. It was fairly useless but the output did provide some laughs for a Spanish speaker I was working with at the time.

Recent developments in the Google translation tools have impressed me somewhat more though.

Despite leaving it until almost the age of 40 before attempting to learn a second language, there are a number of moments in my life that I can identify as specially relevant to language learning.

I remember my father telling me a 'supposed true story' about a computer translation program in the 60's. The story goes that they developed a Computer program to translate from English to Russian. They fed the program the phrase "out of sight ,out of mind" and after some time it spat a result in Russian that was equivilent to "invisible, imbecile". My father knew even in the 70's when he told me that this was a joke in the armed forces (I don't know if they had a phrase for urban legends back then) and I even found a reference to it and similar versions on the web.

I believed him at the time (I was just a kid ;)) and even then it struck me how hard it would be to translate languages. "out of mind" is similar to "out of your mind" and can often be seen as "out of your mind with (worry, fear, anger etc)". The meaning of even that part of the phrase is hard to fathom unless you just know it.

Translation tools can be handy for short phrases, but tranlating either way is not reliable for learning purposes as the results are often really bad.

I still run the odd phrase through a translation tool every now and again (usually one I already have an expected answer for). I have notice recently that although still far from perfect the Google translation tools can be surprisingly accurate. Apparently Google is using their knowledge of the Web to 'brute force' the problem and is deriving translation information from the huge numbers of translated documents they have indexed.

A simple but illustrative example is given with the short phrase (wo3 hui4de) which I usually see in subtitles and Chinese media to mean something like "I will" or in some circumstances "I can", often provoked by someone else asking for something to be done. Google translates to "I will" :), babel fish translates to "my meeting" :(.

I am going to keep watching, but anything that is getting better is a good thing in my opinion.

It is worth looking at the translation page on the excellent MDBG dictionary though because although it uses babel fish it also break the Chinese you enter down in to word sized chunks, allowing you to make your own mess of the meaning.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Peer to peer downloads

Most people know about downloading media from peer to peer networks so I won't go into too much detail. There are the usual issues of "should I be downloading copyrighted material?". "am I sure that I am taking the right steps to ensure that I don't catch any nasty viruses?". As this is a blog about me learning Mandarin Chinese I will let you deal with those issues.

Firstly you will soon realise that there are a lot of Chinese users online that have no qualms about copyright issues. As there are a lot of Chinese users online you can bet that there is a lot of Chinese media online too. You can download and watch Chinese media without sub_titles, with sub_titles, with English sub_titles or even English media with Chinese sub_titles (sounds crazy but great reading practice).

I used to use bittorent initially but have found it a lot easier to find things on the Emule network (acutally the client is built on the old edonkey).

The easiest way to find things the Emule network that I have found is at the verycd site. For example a link to the Water Margin series (Chinese). It is probably best to understand the software first if you have never used it before. Also remember the links you may find are not direct downloads they just connect you to the users currently sharing a particular file. I can take a long time to complete a download.

Hope you can find something useful...

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Even more media! (phew)

Thanks to an orginal tip off from Mashood I have also been playing with streaming peer to peer TV channels. And to get hold of some targeted media I have also resorted to bittorrent and the Emule network. There is too much for this post already so another will follow with more information on Emule and bittorrent.

Again apologies for not posting full tutorials, my free time and Chinese language learning just don't allow that much attention to detail. I will provide a few links where possible though and that give you a better start than I had.

Peer to peer TV sounds crazy, but very simply if you connect normally to a TV stream you have maintain enough bandwith to that single nework location for your media player to output the picture and sound. On a peer to peer networks bits of the stream are being distributed amongst many people. The peer to peer software will be grabbing bits of the stream from lots of different places and also sharing the data you have with other people likewise. The more people sharing the stream the better! you may not all be watching quite in sync. but that is just like time-shifted TV on TIVO etc. but on a smaller scale.

This peer to peer TV seems to have caught on mostly in China so the software is Chinese and most of the media is Chinese also (perfect if you are learning Mandarin). There is some heavy European interest, not surprisingly many Europeans are using the p2p TV networks to watch football.

I have tried PPStream and PPLive the two links I have given you are information pages on football fansites. It is best if you do some google searches to get all the information you can. Thanks to a tip from Pepper I have also tried the TVU player. Assuming you have a reasonable network connect you should be able to get a wide variety of Chinese television from one or all of these.

My quick impressions are as follows: PPStream does the trick, you can find a version to download that has English menus and there is a lot of viewing choice. The downside is that most of channels work best when a lot of Chinese people are online, it often slowed down or interrupted other online stuff I was doing and a few of channels never seem to be available.

PPLive was harder because at the time I tried it I could not get hold of English menus. However often I found I could get channels on PPLIVE even when there wasn't enough data coming down through PPStream (maybe more Chinese people use it?). Also PPLIVE didn't seem to intefere with other network performance.

TVU player is clunky looking however I think this is the most accesible of the players to start off with. It is easy to use and although it has considerably less TV stations there is plenty of choice and it does what it says on the tin. I am currently watching an early episode of 24 dubbed in Mandarin with subtitles as I type this :) (Keifer Sutherland sounds very weird as a Chinese guy). Hot tip time: I never waste an opportunatiy if I am at home posting/reading forums etc. I am almost always listening to Chinese audio or even watching chinese TV. This is one reason why my English grammar and spelling appear so bad.

Now for the best bit, in a previous post I pointed out that you can use Videolan player to record streaming media. Well each of the players described above works by turning your PC into a local media server, so if you connect Videolan to the correct port on your PC you can record it. The address you need for the TVU player is likely to be

If like me you are attempting to learn Chinese from a non-Chinese speaking country then I think the biggest initial hurdle is that you have no idea of, or ear for the language. Unlike some learning experiances you have nothing to lose by diving in. You won't fall off and hurt yourself, your brain will not explode. If you don't understand any of it then put that aside and concentrate on getting a feel for what it sounds like. I bet that if you are English like me you can easily tell the difference between German, Spanish and French language, even if you don't understand them. This is your first and essential goal for Chinese. Step 1 find a way to test if you can learn to easy tell between Chinese and Japanease, then do the same with Cantonese.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Chinese (not just for linguists!)

I will be returning to the Chinese media again shortly, but first a rather warming interview that Ken Carrol at Chinesepod conducted with Professor Cyndy Ning.

I agree wholeheartedly with many of sentiments expressed. Since I started learning Mandarin I have been surprised by the general impression (often not explicitly stated) that it is somewhat different to other languages. Not a language that is for Westerners that are mere mortals, but rather for those who can elevate themselves to a higher plane of existence.

I happen to think that Chinese is just another language that can be learned just like many other languages. My main obstacle as a European simply being that I have not built up any background exposure already at the time I start to learn.

I happen to believe that a late thirty something Western guy with a full-time job and family can (if committed) adopt learning Chinese as his main hobby for a while and learn to understand, speak, read and write reasonable everyday Mandarin in far less time that a University student will finish his/her course in Chinese language. Without the Internet it would be a different story, but with it you don't even need to attend Chinese classes.

I happen to think that I don't really need to study any complicated linguistics or learn any complicated grammar terms to do so.

I keep happening upon many people who happen to think that I am sadly mistaken.

If you happen to agree with me then listen to the interview it will make you feel better. If you don't agree with me then listen anyway it could be one of those things that help you wake up and smell the coffee (it might happen).

Disclaimer: if you are a linguist or a grammar fanatic then I wish you well, but please don't add to the impression that an average guy can't learn Chinese just because they want to.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


Feeling somewhat like Bilbo Baggins when he screams "time" in The Hobbit. My requirements for studying of Chinese are changing drastically. The importance of time is becoming more and more evident.

Job, family and all that comes with approaching middle-age mean a lack of time in real-terms. If I had been wildly successfully in the earning stakes I might have been able to carve out some free time for my-self but sadly not.

None of this seemed to be a problem during the early stages of learning Chinese as there was a lot of dead-time in which I could learn just by listening. This is still the case to some extent but I find more and more that I need or want to sit down and actually study a little bit too. My favorite situation being some juicy text and accompanying audio.

I also need to talk more and although I am getting some wonderful help from Skype, to fit it in I need to do silly things like get up at 5:30 in the morning. Some of the younger people I encounter seem to be available to chat on Skype for hours each day (a completly alien concept :)).

I need to re-think my strategies somewhat. I have posted and interacted in forums a lot, usually whilst listening to Chinese. Now that time would seem better suited directed to studying.

Not a whinge as such (although I would like more free time :)). I think I see a light at the end of the tunnel. The lower intermediate lessons at Chinespod are more accesible to me now so I can learn from them just by repeated listening. Also at some point I will get more out of just listening to Chinese radio etc.

It does kind of highlight that all of us have to customise our own lesson plans (assuming we are self-learners) to fit our own life-styles. And there is not a day goes by without some sort of Chinese learning going on, even if just within my own head (a vastly under-rated classroom).

This blog is negleted but normal service will be resumed shortly and I feel a podcast coming on (after all it is all in the sound).

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

More media

An overdue follow-up to the previous post about streaming Chinese media. And I think I will need another follow up to this one (hopefully not so delayed).

Chinese media is really, really important to my learning strategy, as I am not in a Chinese speaking country and have to work hard to find Mandarin speakers to practice conversation with.

First things first, if you are anything like me then listening to as much real Chinese radio etc. and watching as much Chinese TV, films etc. is going to be a huge part of your learning. I learn and have learned so much from exposure to the language. Sometimes I get something right, just from a gut feeling, not because of any rule I learnt from a book.

Assuming you want to watch/listen then where to start. Well you can read the previous post to this one first but in my opinion a super tool is the Videolan player. This will play most any sound or video file you chuck at it, as well as Windows media streams and Realmedia streams. Videolan will also work on many operating systems and best of all (something I didn't realise for too long) you can record media streams with it.

Videolan player is a bit tricky to get the hang of but worth the effort you have to remember that it does a lot of stuff (like distributing streams over your own network if you wish) that you probably don't need so the real art is learning which bits to ignore. Learning to use videolan (google for help) is time well spent though. Explaining the intricacies of recording is a little beyond my time allowance but here is a link. This link is for mac osx however you can extrapolate. I found it best to save as an asf file with an asf extension, I can play the resultant file in media player or Videolan (and why bother with media player). The Videolan software is written for techies and tells you how to do stuff from the command line, everything you need is available from the menus though. So now you can record media streams or media files that are delivered as a stream. Both the previous links were mentioned in my last post in more detail. I think you are going to have to do some digging though to dig up the resources that you can connect to and that you like.

In my opinion Videolan is a better option than the SDP recorder mentioned in the last post. Although SPD's recorder may have some useful timeing features. Techies can use scripts and cron to manage timed recordings on Linux or similar though :)

Now the Tv and the media streams you will find will be variable in quality. Many will also be hidden in webpages that that use media-plugins to play them (often inaccessable to non-windows users). This is why I highly recommend that you ditch your current web-browser and use Firefox (if you are not useing it already). Firefox is a valuable aid to learning Chinese, the first reason being the whole host of excellent extensions you can get for it. The one you want now is called Unplug, learn how to use this one, it will help you track down media links. Also even if the links you want are not concealed but on a page of Chinese that you cannot read this is an excellent tool to track them down.

Listen to Chinese, watch Chinese, at all levels of undertanding. More than most languages Mandarin is a stream of syallables. Each syallable has meaning even if coloured by those around them. However much you can understand, aquiring the ability to hear those syallables in normal Chinese seems to be a no-brainer to me. Without this you will never understand even if you have enough vocabulary.

The next post will be very soon and focus on the Streaming peer to peer TV channels (thanks to Mashood) and more media via bittorent and e-mule (straight to the desktop this time). Enjoy!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Chinese TV streaming/recording

A post by Pandagator introduced me to a nice new tool for saving streaming video media. I have experimented with a number of ways to record Chinese TV, and have a number of streams to watch. This one however has the benefit of being both free and not too technical.

There are a number of places where you can obtain streaming Chinese TV. My best sources came from this page of links. Note that most Chinese sites seem to prefer Windows technology so the media is targeted for Windows media player. Also the connection is not always reliable. Sometimes you can get a good connection, sometimes the server at the other vanishes from sight for a while or returns a busy signal. Your quality of connection may depend on the time of day or on your geographical location. On a good day however you can watch Chinese TV programs and listen to real Chinese (well real TV Chinese anyway).

The bad news is that non-windows users have a technical headache to get the TV ( problem I still haven't solved, but I mostly use Windows now), the connection is usually unrealiable, and you can only watch what is being streamed to you, so if you see something good it is a one shot only, you cannot replay.

I have managed in the past to record using methods that are either technically awkward or errr... distinctly dodgy. Sometimes I have recorded 7 hours or so and then picked through it for goodies afterwards. It is a great way to listen to Chinese. Another huge advantage of recording is that you can often record streams when the connection is too poor to watch in realtime (the player just keeps trying to buffer).

The opensource program (SDP) detailed by Pandagator really works though, it is a bit rough around the edges but well worth learning how to use.

You will need some media urls to use with the application. You can start with the one Pandagator detailed NTDTV although bear in mind that this one is funded from outside China and may have a political agenda, it does usually have a strong connection though. Some sources will play in media plugins on the webpage but you can usually find the urls you need by viewing the text source of the page. You can also track down urls from this excellent page. These are not realtime streams but saved CCTV programs designed to be played via a stream. CCTV also provide pages with text for the dialogues :):).

A nice multi-platform media player you can play your recordings on is VLC. VLC is well worth having anyway especially for those moments when you download some interesting media file from somewhere and media player coughs up a codec not recognised error.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Rooted in sound!

I will be posting more in the future about my experiences with Chinese characters but before I do this, I should make it clear that my own personal strategy for learning Chinese will always be firmly rooted in sound and not writing.

I know this is an area that causes much argument, and many people may prefer to base their learning on the writing system. Many others will have no choice because they are following formal courses of study. I do have my reasons for preferring sound, which I will now try to explain.

For starters I think many people are forced into a 'literature' centric mode of learning Chinese. As the saying goes "if you only have a hammer every problem looks like a nail". The most horrific example is a type of comment I have heard a few times now on different forums from people in the early stages of learning Chinese. The comment goes something like this "how do you visualize the characters, when listening to full speed Chinese, I find it hard to visualize the correct character especially with homonyms?".

I can't imagine the learning system that would allow someone to even phrase a question along those lines. Visualizing characters will not help you sort out homonyms and visualizing conversation as text strikes me as a particularly inefficient way to translate in real time. For starters most Chinese sounds are represented by many characters (to visualize the correct one you already need to have extracted some meaning from context so why bother with the character bit). Also many characters have two or more sounds associated with them, sometimes different tones, sometimes completely different. Both characters and sounds have their own confusions, I am aware that you are more likely to extract meaning from a character than a discrete sound however you should bear in mind that the same character may well have a similar or identical meaning in Japanese kanji and obviously Japanese and Chinese are two completely different languages.

I have a suspicion that learning to understand the meaning of Mandarin from the writing system is not exercising the correct pathways of the brain to aid eventual fluency in conversation. For me it seems pretty clear that learning to write what you can already hear and say is a more logical approach (and the approach taken by all those that speak Mandarin as a first language).

I can see that many people will have no choice but to learn the reading as soon as possible and it obviously has a lot more relevancy for anyone actually living in China etc. Also many years ago there simply wouldn't be enough sources of sound input available for somebody living in England (or elsewhere) and learning Mandarin in their spare time. For these reasons many techniques for learning Chinese had to be developed from a predominantly literature-centric view.

Today the Internet provides us with a huge sound resource. We have podcasts, streaming TV and radio and of course DVDs and music. Sound input can even occur in otherwise dead time for learning (times where it simply isn't practical to get out a book and start reading)

I believe that the writing system and Chinese literature can offer huge opportunities for study but as with English I expect to acquire the basic language through the medium of sound and move on from there.

Maybe the real question should be "Are you studying Mandarin mostly from books or mostly from the spoken language?"? Followed by "Which do you want first, to be able to read it or speak it?".

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Comments Enabled at last (how embarassing)

How embarassing, thanks to an e-mail from John I just discovered that I have had the comments set to moderated on this blog all the time (I never checked). Thank you for all the comments, which have now been released, I must spend some time now to read them :). Also anybody can comment now.

Now I have comments I am spurred on even more! Dang I have been talking to myself all this time and not listening to what everyone else has to say (a bit like my early Mandarin Conversations). Having had a look it may take a little time to respond to some of the excellent points, it is terrific to have so much response it is all very valuable.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Mandarin progress report 3

Should really have posted this a while ago, but here I am at seven and a half months. Generally all is well but I have an awful lot to do. And the blog is losing relevance (maybe).

You can go straight to the previous report.

The good news, the last time I posted a progress report I was hoping to be well into listening to the intermediate level Chinesepod lessons by around six months. That happened and I am still there. I think it is going to take a while to crack the Intermediate level. I can understand much of the Chinese chat about Chinese language but much of the rest of the chat requires a lot of hard work and analysis. My target on this score is to be studying the advanced level podcasts by Christmas.

Natural conversation is hard, but is seems normal that the ability to construct and utter Chinese is going to lag behind my ability to hear and understand. I am working increasingly on conversation with Skype. Unfotunately my Chinese friend, that I meet once a week is returning to Japan to work very soon. I think we will keep in touch over the internet though. My pronounciation is improving through recitation of toungue twisters and jokes, I do have a few sounds though that need serious work (rather than just improvement). The problem at the moment is between sounds like chi and che, which are okay in isolation but definitely not in conversation.

I still watch some Chinese TV over the Internet and watch Chinese films etc. The progress is steady but sure, it is very exciting when I am lucky enough to fully understand a few sentances rather than the odd word or phrase.

The time seems to be right to start learning Chinese characters again. I need to experiment a little more before I am confident about the best way to approach this. The initial goal is to be able to read Chinese subtitles in realtime. I think this will be a good first reading target and certainly easier than reading a newspaper. I want to keep the speed pressure because I don't want to teach myself to 'analyse' Chinese text, I want to be able to 'read' it.

Sounds are still very, very important to me. Despite an increasing interest in Chinese writing and literature I am still very committed to the idea that the spoken language is where most of the initial focus should be directed. On this note I am going to try to make some real effort to get some audio on this blog and demonstrate some of my ideas.

I am feeling a bit indifferent about the blog at the moment, I don't want to give it up but on the otherhand it doesn't seem to provoke much interchange of information (I have never had a single comment ;)). Having said that I have had a fair amount of e-mail and comments on other blogs. Also my Chinese friend found me through this blog and initially approached me about face to face language exchange so that was a big plus.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The art of conversation?

The art of conversation? Less an art, more like a confounded mathematical puzzle at the moment.

Wedged firmly in the UK and initially knowing no Chinese speakers, I am at the opposite end of the spectrum from the immersion technique. Now I have both a Skype partner and a 'real world' partner that I can meet once a week or so, I am finding conversation (constructing sentances to say in real time, whilst still retaining enough brain cells to understand what they say) quite a different animal from listening.

Thankfully I am making a little progress and need to experiment a little more to find some way in which to speed up the progress. I have decided to finish the Pimsleur courses (I originally got bored at number 10). I think that the way Pimsleur keeps making you say things in a slightly different pattern and gives you only small pauses to speak helps excercise the conversation 'muscles' a little.

Chinesepod is helping a bit, sometimes I can just blurt out a whole chunk of stuff because I have become so familiar with listening to it

In the end though I don't see how any form of self-study is going to really provide you with all the skills required for conversation. I guess you just have to go out there and do it.

For the first time, I now understand how people can sometimes be very good at understanding a language but are incapable of speaking it. I really want to make sure that doesn't happen in my case.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Remembering tones from Pinyin

Six months - yes I have been tying to learn Chinese for six months, which means that I ought to write a progress report soon. That has provoked me into thinking more about my learning process.

Thinking about how some things are easier to remember than others I had a sudden realisation about tones and writing pinyin.

Thinking about [měitiān wǒ hěn lèi ] written with the tone marks it looks more professional. Written as [mei3tian1 wo3 hen3 lei4 ] it is easier to remember the tones (for me, maybe not for you).

After some thought about it I have realised that if I don't know the tones for something I am saying and I try to remember them from a memory of what I read then I have much much more chance of remembering if the pinyin was written with tone numbers. The number almost becomes a another letter.

Maybe it works this way for me because my first language doesn't have accented letters? The difference in the ability to recall the tones by 'remembering' the writing is significant.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Literal translation paying huge dividends

A while ago I posted about literal translation and how I thought it was a great aid to learning Chinese. Well as it happens I am discovering just how powerful it can be. In fact I can't understand why it is not emphasised right from the begining by everybody, as eventually it becomes a wonderful tool to aquire some of your Chinese vocabulary for free.

I have noticed that many Chinese words are composites of others, so you get many words like dian4nao3. Dian4nao3 is computer, but don't stop there, it is literally electric brain. Now what if you learn dian4nao3 = computer but don't fully absorb the electric brain meaning what do you lose?

You lost that aha! moment when you learn dian4hua4 = telephone (electric talk). But hang on hua4 is in shou1hua4 and even xiao4hua4 = joke (smile talk) and .... and ... ... and. I think you get the picture.

A couple of the many concrete examples that I have benefited from:

In one Chinespod podcast they introduced the word ke3ai4, I guessed it meant loveable (or cute etc.) straight away from the context and because the ke3 from ke3yi3 and ai4 (love) literally fitted together and made "can love" or "can be loved". I think that often these helpers are missed. A later podcast hits this word again and goes as far as loveable but not down to this sort of literal translation. To be fair though Cpod is more likely than most resources to give you a literal translation or other mnemonic to rember by (cheers Ken).

Next we have an example of a free word and they are increasing. I was looking up words for husband and wife and came across ai4ren2 (spouse, partner, even sweetheart). I decided to mostly ignore it, spouse is an old-fashioned word in English and I guess this wouldn't be high frequency. However I had already noticed straight away that a literal translation could be (love person), which effectivly memorised the word with no effort. About two weeks later and I am half listening to some Chinese radio and I hear a strange line in a song. The line was literally "ni3 you3 bu4 ai4ren2". That sentance was just wrong, surely it should be "ni mei2you3 ai4ren2" or similar??. Also maybe ai4ren2 is more common than I suppossed (store for later and ask someone). As luck would have it the two hosts on the radio station spotted it too and had a good laugh about it (I actually understood some of what they were saying as I had a context, they thought it was really funny). Now I am pretty sure this word and the grammar was wrong.

I did actually discuss this later with a Chinese friend, he thought it funny too. Apparently a lot of Mandarin songs are written by non-native speaker who sometimes get a little dictionary happy and do horrible things with the language.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Matt's subconcious monkey brain.

Alongside pandagator's strangely resonant common Chinese words list (see previous post), another blogger Matt, stuck a harmonic with his comment on subconcious development(specifically the need to give the brain a little simmering time).

Matt was reffering to his martial arts in the second part of this post, however I find a similar effect with my Chinese learning.

I manage to do something at least everyday, towards learning Mandarin. Sometimes if I have been pushing it though I can't take anymore of a certain aspect. Often I switch, maybe just spend a few days concentrating on one aspect that doesn't seem too hard or reading around the subject in a general way.

These periods usually coincide with a night or two of very heavy dreams, then when I return to what I was doing before, I find I have made significant progress by 'doing nothing'.

Common Chinese word list (Pandagator)

A nice list of common Chinese words here: list of common Chinese words at Pandagator

This list strikes a particular resonance as I know almost all the words on it. Many have been important words I have picked up in the past couple of months.

This tells me that most of these words must be truly high frequency (otherwise I wouldn't know them ;)). It also suggests that the few I don't recognise or have forgotten the tones for are worth assimilating. Nice one Pandagator :)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Chinese Character re-think

A little while ago I explained that I was spending sometime learning Chinese simplified chracters and even sprinkled a few in these posts. A short time ago I had a radical change of heart. I now firmly believe for me at least and probably for many others Chinese characters are best left for a later stage of learning. I am giving priority at the moment to developing my listening ability, my vocabulary and my pronounciation.

Generally speaking it seems to be accepted as a given that an adult beggining to learn Chinese will very shortly after take up study of the characters. There are exceptions to this but for me at least, when I was researching how to study Chinese the impression was that it was best to learn the writing system early on.

Nobody can dispute the fact that studying Chinese characters is going to involve some measure of hard work and they certainly started to absorb much of my valuable free time, until I took a step back and thought "What am I getting out of this?"

First problem is that this is not the natural way to learn a language. Nobody learns their native tongue this way. A resonable level of mastery of the spoken language precedes written language. I admit that as adults we may have lost some of the skill to aquire an inner ear for a language, but we still need to develop one. If we have to then we must work hard to achieve it. At least we can make a more concious effort to spend time doing this than a small child and we have other highly developed mental faculties to help us.

Second problem is that we already have a romanised form of Chinese to use as a tool for annotation, recording sounds and words. Pinyin is highly phonetic and learning the ins and outs of pinyin will serve for all those classic uses of text that I would employ if I was to learn another European language. I know that pinyin isn't going to be good for reading or recording long pieces of text, but we are talking about the early stage of language development here.

Third problem is that unlike other languages Chinese characters are not going to quickly provide you with another form of input via reading the language. There is an awful lot of knowledge required before anything useful can be read. Added to this it seems logical that your reading ability will be highly affected by your speaking ability and understanding of the language as a whole, so we seem to have a catch 22 situation.

Fourth problem there seems to be a lot of people who have spent a lot of time studying Chinese and still can't do anything 'real world' with it. Everybody is quite happy to explain how hard the language is allied with the fiendish writing system. Then they happily accept the whole kit and kaboodle and make an assent on the summit, loaded down with all that fiendish stuff in one go. This is language, a form of communication. Wouldn't you want to communicate in at least one fashion as fast as possible?

Fifth problem there are many 'dialects' in China that are effectively different languages. They all use the same writing system. This to me screams danger when trying to make a direct connection of the character writing system to the early stages of learning Mandarin. Ok my limited understanding is that most other dialects take second place to Mandarin here in regard to such niceties as sentance structure etc. but still......

Sixth problem, following on from five there is no direct connection between the Characters and the sounds in Mandarin. Yes many people bang on about phonetic elements etc. but bottom line is you are never going be sure and you need to have well developed language skills before you have a hope of using this. With a writing system such as this doesn't it seem more sensible to attempt to apply the sounds of language you already know to the characters, rather than the other way around?

Seventh problem, modern technology allows people to play around with annotaters, electronic dictionaries, text translators etc. in such a way as to suggest that you actually have a better mastery of the characters and language than you really do. I feel this encourages a lot of non-learning, or weak-learning activity.

Eighth problem, early learning by nessecity involves treating the characters as discrete separate entities. In reality many are used in multi-syallble words, and sentance structures. Spending any large amount of time in the early stages mucking around with discrete syallbles (even though most all of them are words also) seems similar to trying to build something in Lego using JUST THE SMALL BRICKS.

Ninth problem, once you reach a certain point (still well within the begining stage) your mind starts making all sorts of connections between sounds of Mandarin and related words or syallables. Hua4 , in putonghua in dianhua in jianghua etc. this is very exciting, surely now is the time to learn the character for hua4 and spend some happy time checking all those connections that are already there based on sound and word meaning. The character lives now.

Tenth problem, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that learning characters will be much easier when I know at least a useful amount of spoken Chinese. I haven't seen any convincing arguement to suggest otherwise.

Eleventh problem, though really not a problem, whilst I am blasting away in characterless freedom I seem to be absorbing quite a few anyway (at least on a reading level). I don't actually advocate treating them like lepers or ignoring them in any way and still have a fair amount of exposure. It is just that I am not actively learning them.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Language partners (Skype and real)

My blog is running a little out of sync. with real world events at the moment. Apologies, I tend to use it in a more holistic way than than as a diary, so may dredge things up a little out of sequence.

A significant extension to my Mandarin education has been to finally have the opportunity to talk with native Chinese speakers.

The obvious candidate for talking online to native Chinese speakers was Skype. I aquired a headset and the software a few weeks ago. The theory being there are loads of people living in China who wish to learn English, I want to learn Mandarin Chinese ...... a no brainer really. Rather than describe the entire experiance, here is the advice I would give to someone else in my position attempting this.

Sign up here: and here:
These are both sites that act as find a partner services for language learning over Skype. All the other sites I tried were rubbish, these were active.

Make it clear that you are serious there are a lot of Chinese that are very serious about learning English and they keep running in to English speaking 'air heads' who just want to chat to someone in China, learn a couple of funky phrases and brag to their friends.

Take into account the time difference you may have to get up early or find a slot at lunchtime etc.

If you are a beginner like me, you really need a partner with good English, you can still teach them alot (idioms etc.) but two people learning from begginer level is painful.

Get a good headset, conversly if your language partner sounds a bit like "Stephan Hawkins" and keeps cutting out they are probably using a cheap desk mike. Leave well alone it will drive you mad.

Don't be afraid to pull out and find someone more suitable if the sessions aren't working for you.

Always remember to think about their needs too. If you have a strong regional accent and can't switch to more standard English then go and learn to. I love regional accents (have had two myself) but although it might be amusing for us to meet a Chinese person with a strong Scouse accent it isn't going to do their career prospects any good.

The end result I now have a very nice lady in Beijing who puts together interesting lessons for me. Great luck was smiling on me as she wants to perfect her English and teaching technique with teaching Mandarin to English speakers in mind.

Luck smiled on me again it seems. A mature Chinese student studying near me searched on the Internet and found this site. He sent me an e-mail and now we meet once a week over coffee to exchange language practice.

Most advice seems to be to get a conversation partner when you are already at a reasonable conversational stage (me not there yet). I think this doesn't apply so much to us self-learners. We can get a lot of our input from the Internet but once the 'Ear' for Chinese starts to develop we need to develop our voice and speaking with native Chinese speakers is helping me hugely, I rely strongly on the fact that they speak English much better than I speak Chinese, however in the distant future I will probably get a lot from helping out a Chinese learner whose English is much worse than my Chinese.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Waving goodbye to the Newbie podcasts

I have decided to stop listening to any more of the Chinesepod Newbie podcasts, I wish to expend a little more effort on the Elementary podcasts but focus most effort in nailing the Intermediate level.

The newbie podcasts have been a good friend and springboard but despite the fact that I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I can understand a new one straight off or at least get it very quickly, I think this time can always be better spent straining against something harder.

Whilst at work I made a concerted effort to listen or half listen to around 20 or so from the middle (I had missed a few of these) and although there are still some gems of information in there, at some point you have to move out of a comfort zone to make progress. The Elementary level is going the same way.

It is a huge testement to Chinesepod that I can identify this progress and have new levels to move on to. I think when I can eventually feel the same level of ease at the Intermediate level I will have achieved a very significant milestone.

I have never been too obsessive about analysing these things to death anyway, I think the famous 80/20 rule might apply here too (80% of the gain for 20% of the effort in this case) As I posted somewhere else I feel I gain much more from absorbing 70% of 50 podcasts than 100% of 10 podcasts.

A concrete and very illustrative example of how the podcasts have helped came when I met my real-life language exchange buddy for the first time. He gave me a namecard and I quickly said "sorry I don't have a namecard" in Chinese. He understood straight away.

I was surprised so I thought about where that sentance came from. Well the name/business card came from an early basic podcast that I listened to a couple of times (ming pian). At the time I remembered the ming bit becasue of name, I may have forgotten the pian, however Jenny mentioned that pian was often applied to small flat things. Much much later I picked up the word (zhao pian) for photograph and another connection was made (aha another flat card like thing that has pian). This connection ensures that the pian in both mingpian and zhaopian is unforgettable.

The last part of the process is the true icing on the cake though. I had never studied that podcast in detail as it came fairly easy to me. When I said ming pian I said it as I thought it should be said, keying off the audio memory of Jenny saying it. I said it again in my head and guessed the tones were ming2pian4, when I checked that was correct. I said zhao pian in my head and guessed at zhao4pian4, again correct. Although most of words I know come from expicitly remembered tones there are a few now that are just absorbed. The most encouraging thing is that when I ask my Chinese friend the tone of something he just said, his eyes roll up slightly for a second as he says it in his head and then he tells me.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Listening practice

I have been listening to lots of Mandarin from various different sources. As far as 'real' Chinese goes I can't understand full conversations (and in some cases hardly anything at all), but still feel that I am getting a lot of benefit from this listening practice.

After one month of learning Chinese I got hold of a copy of the film 'Hero' and sat down to listen to the Mandarin sound track. I did not have any great expectations but hoped to at least pick out a few words.

I was in for a shock, I couldn't pick out a thing, it was so bad I even double and triple checked the DVD box and looked on the Internet to make sure the damn thing wasn't in Cantonese.

Being a stubborn sort I listened again, and again suddenly simple words came through (we, you, have, they, I, speak, etc. etc.) Ok there were a few misunderstandings, I thought the main character knew Mr Lao the musician only later did I realise that Lao Xian Sheng was being used as term of respect to an older person.

Ok so a lot of effort for little gain, however on returning to the basic podcasts at Chinesepod I found they sounded slooow, the Chinese was much easier to hear and I progessed somewhat faster.

Since this time I have made listening to 'real' Chinese a regular part of my schedule. I always strive to find something I can at least pull a few words out of and am increasingly finding whole sentances and phrases pop out.I would identify the gains as follows:

  • Normal Tv and radio Chinese sounds like average speed to me now, I often speed up the dialogues on the elementary podcasts for this reason.
  • Even when I don't know the words, I can now distinguish the syallables much more easily, I have a growing list of words I have been able to look up.
  • I am now much more likely to recognise words that I know (they are harder to recognise when they come out of the blue and not spoken by Jenny).

As for sources, has a few. There are also many Chinese radio streams and few TV streams available. The streams a bit variable though, usually when the Americans come online they get a bit choppy as the amount of network load goes up. You can try this wiki page for some streams, and this forum is worth trawling as good sources often pop up for example.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Pimsleur (my view)

I managed to aquire the Pimsleur Mandarin courses to play with for a while, this is what I think of them.

I have been searching for other Mandarin learners locally (posting on company noticeboard etc.) and found none but turned up a number of interesting responses. Chats to people who have been to China, someone with a Taiwanease wife (he is not interested in learning though), references for a couple of local tutors (which I haven't followed up yet), a bunch of useless books and the Pimsleur Mandarin course (eventually they will want to sell it but I have plenty of time to play). What was surprising was the number of people who had started Mandarin but given up. I took the opportunity to plug Chinesepod and maybe a couple will restart?

First things first Pimsleur is expensive, there are various deals around but it looks like hundreds of pounds for the full whack. They also promise to have you speaking Mandarin in 10 days or your money back. I can have you speaking Mandarin in 10mins! repeat after me "ni3hao3". I think I see a catch 22 here
client: "can I have a refund my Mandarin sucks, I can't speak it"
pimsluer: "bu4 hui4"
client: "but you said I could have a refund"
pimsluer: "ahh you understood me then? click........"

Despite these reservations I have to say though that I am finding the Pimsleur quite useful, I have completed the first five lessons and the vocabuary is very basic so far but is starting to build up surprisingly fast, I am also getting benefit from their use of alternative words and Beijing pronounciation. Lucky for me one lesson just fits into one of my car journeys, I can shout out the Mandarin without feeling silly.

I think the Pimsleur will help with my speaking, you are encouraged to create new sentances so it is not all repetative. I really do need to excercise my Mandarin voice to let out all the vocabuary I am absorbing from Chinesepod. At the moment Pimsleur is fulfilling an important role but a I am still listening to plenty of podcasts too.

In the long run is Pimsluer worth the money? Hmmmm... probably depends on what type of learner you are and how much money you have. It can get a little boring and I would definitely recommend supplementing learning from other places. Bear in mind that there is already a lot of audio material at Chinesepod and it is growing all the time so I am sure that the lion's share of my words will come from there. Also consider that Pimsleur is speak and listen only and you get that bit free at Chinesepod. I do question the Pimsleur strategy here. Even if you don't want to learn Chinese characters, for me the pinyin input is vital. I wonder whether Chinesepod could release some podcasts in a slightly different style for speech drilling? there have already been some moves in this direction in my own remixes and the remixes of others.

If you do follow Pimsleur then I recommend you get a transcript, for example this one. I am also starting to build up sets of flashcards at flashcardexchange to go with the Pimsleur lessons.

Friday, May 05, 2006

More flashcard info.

Just a quick update on my strategy for social Flashcards. If you are doing or will be doing the elementary podcasts on Chinesepod these may help eventually.

A very quick update on the flash card situation. I am working through the Chinesepod elementary lessons at the moment and after a little experimentation have decided to make a flashcard set for each lesson on Flashcardexchange.

There are only three there at the moment and progress may be a little slow but progress will be made. Also apologies for the random order but I tend to do the shows in my own order now.

The link to my flash cards is also in the links box on the righthand side of this page. Any comments, corrections or suggestions for improvements will be gratefully received. I have also posted on the chinesepod forum as I am interested to see whether others are as enthusiastic about social flashcards.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Let me flash you (flashcardexchange and ZDT)

I have been messing around with flash cards trying to work out how best to use them and what I might gain from them. There seems to be a few solutions out there, both electronic and paper. I have decided to stick to opensource software and the web community approach for my flash card use.

Okay I knew what flash cards were, but had never used them for any kind of revision that I had done in the past. They do seem to be used a lot by language students, particularly oriental languages. I have been increasingly trying to find something with which to aquire an initial, casual reading knowledge of some of the characters and flash cards seem to be the obvious solution.

I briefly toyed with paper versions and printed some out, I am sure that these whether bought or homemade would be useful to many people but I tend to do most of my learning in front of a computer and quickly lost interest. I binned the paper flash cards after handing what was left of my attention span to a passing gnat. If only I had printed them on absorbant material, I would have had some extra toilet paper.

Now I went searching for an electronic version and I am afraid that if you are looking for a impartial review I failed you miserably. Like a small child I went straight for the bright shiny thing. After fiddling around with a couple of interesting but monolithic one-man band pieces of software that had gone out of their way not to look like a standard application, I thought what would I do if I wanted to write a flashcard program? I would base it on Eclipse an existing integrated development environment for programming languages. Eclipse is highly extendable and supports plugins in such a way that you can basically build your own Java applications out of it.

I am increasingly using Java at work and technically could do this, but I want to spend time on the Mandarin learning curve at the moment not the programming learning curve. A quick visit to sourceforge and I discovered that someone else had already done it. Let me introduce you to ZDT or (Zhongwen Development Tool). This software contains a flash card system, dictionary and annotator. I won't try to describe it fully here (a waste of time, just visit the link) but I have found it effective enough for my early flash card dabblings.

The key that makes Eclipse a bright and shiny thing in my eyes is its opensource nature and the fact that I know it is about as easy as anything could ever be for me to add my own features if I ever want to. If enough programmers who are learning Mandarin get interested in this project it will be huge one day.

That would have been the end of the story but a guy called Matt(a certain kind of monkey) posted about here. One visit and fifteen minutes later I was hooked. If this idea of sets of community flash cards doesn't make sense to you then please visit the site and spend a few minutes thinking about it. As a hint here are my humble beginnings based on a couple of the Chinesepod elementary lessons. I can use them on any computer I wish and so can you. I will be slowly increasing the collection of Chinespod lesson based sets (although in my order so seemingly random addition to you).

I am still using ZDT as well as it is more Chinese specific and I would like to extend it sometime. I may even write a tool to take my ZDT flash sets and post them on flashcardexchange (if I can overcome the inertia and find that damn gnat to give me back my attention span).

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Mandarin Chinese progress report 2

Three months under my belt and I think this online language learning thing is actually going to work. I do seem to be making progress and wonder at the level of progress that might be made if I had more time to spare.

On one level keeping this blog detracts from the process as it eats into my scarce time. The other side of the coin though is that the blog acts a focal point and I have started to make some interesting contacts through it.

You can go straight to the previous report., You can also read my next progress report and find out how I am doing further down the line.

Well I have been learning Mandarin online for 3 months now. And generally speaking I am very happy with it. I still can't claim to speak Mandarin in any meaninful way, but I can probably hack a few sentances together that wouldn't do too much damage to the sensitive ears of a native Chinese speaker (they would probably do a lot more damage to the oversensitive ears of a non-native Chinese language pedant, but I will leave that for a full post).

The main part of my strategy is still based on Podcasts, I listen mostly to the Chinesepod podcasts but also those of Serge Melnyk Serge's podcasts are well worth listening to, I did subscribe to the transcripts but probably won't in future as they use traditional characters alongside the pinyin and I am only interested in simplifed characters at the moment. I will make the occaisional small donation to Serge for his efforts though as it would be a shame if these disappeared.

I have subscribed to the Chinesepod podcasts, and do some of the activities on the site as part of my more 'bookish' learning. I also use the ZDT software for flashcard work, I am not a big flashcard junkie yet but as my vocabary increases I think they will play a much more significant role.

I am trying to learn the simplified characters and do spend some time writing them, partly as a memory aid, however I am not going to get too stressy about calligraphy. My main drive with the characters is to be able to read them and input them via pinyin input methods. I expect that just as with English most of my real writing in Chinese will be on a computer.

I am trying to focus on pronounciation for a little while now. I want to nail(or rather a good enough approximation) most of the pinyin sounds, there is no point in having a phonetic representation of Chinese if I don't fully understand the phonetics. I intend to output more sound files to the Internet for as long as I can get helpful feedback (I may also attract some hate mail but so be it ;)).

A slightly unexpected side-effect of my learning is that despite the fact that I don't have much time each day to do this, and despite the fact that on one level it is tiring, it does seem to be increasing my mental alertness. My spoken English seem a little sharper, I can learn other things a little faster and my hair is growing back! (ok scratch the last one).

The next three months will be significant. By then I hope to be getting plenty of speaking practice and be comfortably in the intermediate level at Chinesepod.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Shout outs and brief update

A few shout outs to other Mandarin learners with blogs, who I have encountered in some way. Also a quick update.

Here are three other Mandarin Chinese learners and their blog addresses, all of whom I have communicated with on some level or another. Hopefully there will be many more, particularly if learning Mandarin picks up outside of Academic institutions.

John in Australia has this blog about learning Mandarin and Chinese/Taiwanease culture.

Charles in Australia has this blog he has just started (looks like it is going to be interesting.

Last but not least we have Matt who has this blog some interesting things going on in that monkey brain there.

I have been too busy to post the last few days but have tons more backup in my tiny brain. There maybe a delay though whilst I make a few more tweaks to the template. Then I can apply a 'blog laxative' and get it all out.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Pronounciation (1-10 with audio)

My first(but not last) post with audio. After three months it is high time to start working on pronounciation, with no training partner at the moment I am hoping that the Internet can be my sounding board. Read the full post to hear me counting from 1-10 in Mandarin (ooooOOOHHH).

Many years in manufacturing, Quality systems and programming have taught me never to test the fruits of my own labours. So I am going to try slinging my Mandarin pronounciation blindly at the Internet in the hope of getting some constructive critique, that I can use for improvement.

You can hear me counting from one to ten. I know this is basic but I have just started and haven't done too much much pronouncaition work. The end result was the second of two takes and doesn't sound too bad to my ears, I am pretty sure it will be to yours though. I could of course had continued but ran out of fingers and toes (where did I put that abacus).

Any comments on how to improve would be most welcome. I am most worried about the I tried using the middle of my toungue as per the very helpful advice at Sinosplice but what came out in take one sounded more like a 'death rattle' than a 1st tone.

Please don't try to emulate this if you really want to learn the numbers, you would be much better off listening to this Chinesepod podcast.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Chinese characters (and ZDT)

I wanted to learn Chinese characters so I could read Mandarin and just because they look cool. Trouble is they are hard work and I have little enough time as it is to learn Chinese. 怎么办? 没办法![Zěn me bàn? Méi bànfǎ!] When all is said and done they do look cool, now what about that tatoo?

I haven't mentioned Chinese characters before although they have begun appearing in a small way on my blog. I am not convinced that learning Chinese characters is essential to learning to speak Mandarin but I can see that they do open up new avenues and I do want to be able to read Chinese. I am still trying to investigate the best links for information on Chinese characters, the Wiki entry is probably as good as any to start from.

Chinese characters have the advantage of looking cool, in fact they can look so cool that people are prepared to use them even when they don't have a clue what they mean. See the site Hanzismatter to see what I am talking about. In fact talking about this site to anyone who has Chinese (or Japanease character tatoos) makes then uneasy, which can be fun if your bored. The chief disadvantage of characters is that they are going to take a long time to master, time that could be spent actually learning to understand spoken Mandarin 怎么办? 没办法![Zěn me bàn? Méi bànfǎ!] If you want to learn them you are going to have to step up to the mark and put the effort in.

Next problem there are two sets of Chinese Characters, simplified and traditional. The sets have many common characters but some characters have been simplifed to make them easier to learn. Mainland China uses the simplifed set along with Singapore. Taiwan and Hong kong (although this has probably changed now) use the traditional. I opted for simplified, because I am lazy and there seem to be plenty enough material out there.

My prime motivation with the characters is to learn how to read them I am not too bothered about calligraphy but have found that writing the characters is good way to start learning them. I take my cues from this online Chinese dictionary. When you get further information on a character you can click on a little brush and you are rewarded with an animated gif that shows you the stroke order and how to draw it. I have to admit that although I follow the correct stroke direction in almost all cases I do reverse a few because I am left-handed and some things are just not natural. Anybody who wants to hassle me over the odd stroke direction can join the queue with the old-fashioned English teacher who used to rap my knuckles to force me to write with my right hand. My parents sorted her out, but I am big enough to stand up for myself now so GRRRRRRRRRrrrr....Grrrr GrrrrrrRRRRr etc.

My key tool for sight-drilling characters (and pinyin) is the flash card system provided in the tool ZDT. This tool rocks. It includes an annotator and dictionary but the real reason I love it is that it is open-source and based on one of my favorite programming IDEs Eclipse. I could actully develop plugins for this (with a little learning) and it could in theory be extended in any direction.

Thats it for now more details on characters (writing, radicals, stroke order etc.) when I know more about them.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

My first Chinese thoughts

今天我很累 [jīntiān wǒ hěn lèi ]. Nothing new there, infact I could probably say 每天我很累 [měitiān wǒ hěn lèi ]. There was something special about this particular day though. And why do I keep nervously checking my wallet?

I have had my first Chinese thoughts recently! not momentous thoughts to be sure, but even the great wall had to start somewhere.

What do I mean by a Chinese thought? Well obviously Chinese things (words and phrases) have been drifting through my head ever since I started learing Mandarin but they were simply visitors, selected and invited in to share space with all the English stuff already in permanent residence. A Chinese thought would be a Chinese word or phrase that started life in my head and wasn't prompted (even fleetingly) by an English thought.

Well last week I woke up and thought 今天我很累 [jīntiān wǒ hěn lèi ]. Only then did I think "what does that mean"? (today I am very tired).

I think this is some kind of milestone, the next thought that happened at the weekend was even more funky. I am just getting over a bad cold and sinusitis and at the weekend was a little out of it (not completly feverish but not making a lot of sense either). My family took the opportunity to do a little shopping and I couldn't even raise my usual miserly interest in what they were buying. Something was triggered in my sub-concious though. Throughout the rest of day I kept absent mindedly mumbling 多少钱 [duōshǎo qiàn] It wasn't until the evening I realised what I was saying and what it meant. It means HOW MUCH MONEY :0

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Reverie (wo3 yao4 cheeseburger)

Ok so you can use some of your dead time in the car etc. to listen to language podcasts but what about when you don't have an mp3 player handy. I think it would be great to spend some time daydreaming in Chinese. 我要大 cheeseburger [wǒ yào dà cheeseburger]

My favorite definition of reverie is an abstracted state of absorption. For some reverie is that "Walter Mitty" state where you can daydream that you are the hero, super-stud, rock musician etc. etc. Others use reverie as for more constructive purposes , creative people create things whilst sitting on the bus, programmers and mathmaticians solve problems. This constant reworking and reworking of a problem is to my mind the basis of the sterotypical absent minded scientist, who has taken it so far that they often seem phased out of the real world.

How does any of this help with learning Mandarin? Well assuming that you are disciplined enough to use reverie for a useful purpose (hey you can still put aside a little time to imagine that you are a super-stud ;)) then you can constantly practice your Mandarin whilst standing in queues etc.

My working example came from a blog comment on from a Chinespod user called "Mike in Jubei". Mike's comment about wǒ yào cheeseburger made me realise what I had already started doing. Imagine you are standing in a long queue waiting to order a cheeseburger. Think .... 我想 cheeseburger [wǒ xiǎng cheesburger] the queue is long you get more urgent think .... 我要 cheeseburger [wǒ yào cheeseburger] actually you don't want a small 我不要小 cheeseburger [wǒ bū yào xiǎo cheeseburger] but a big 我要大 cheeseburger [wǒ yào dà cheeseburger] etc. etc. I think you get the point. What is more you will probably be prompted to go home and find out what the heck cheeseburger is in Mandarin.

My last thought on the matter, once you get good enough at Chinese you can do all your daydreaming in Mandarin. How about being a super-stud in China? everyone is a winner :).
P.s to anyone who knows me and is saying "yeah in your dreams mate!" thats the whole point :p

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Translate literally.

If you want to learn Chinese grammar without learning Chinese grammar (and who in their right minds wouldn't) then 你和谁聊天 [ nǐ hé shéi liáotiān ] equals you with who chat?

A bit obvious this one but may not be immediately apparent if you have never studied a language before. I fall into that category, my French teacher at school used to throw things at my head to make me pay attention but in the end gave up and let me and my friend sit on an isolated desk and play hangman etc. It wasn't that I didn't want to learn French just that I quickly realised that learning lists of words and grammar by rote wasn't going to enable me to speak French. Oh well ...

I have quickly learnt that it is important to translate everything I can understand literally. Chinese grammar and sentance structure is different from English. As a beginner it may be easy to fall into the habit of learning to translate the meaning of whole phrases or sentances and feeling satisfied that you can recognise them. It is important though to pay attention to the individual words and their position in the sentance, otherwise you will pay the price later.

If you translate literally every time you hear something you understand you will learn how the sentances are constructed in Chinese, you will learn Chinese grammar without learning grammar (HOORAY.. a noble aim)and you will get some idea of how to deconstruct the sentances and build new ones all of your own.

So next time you hear 你和谁聊天 [ nǐ hé shéi liáotiān ] then hear You with who chat? before Who do you chat with?

Friday, March 31, 2006

Pinyin (and Yaay I have been noticed ;))

Apart from the podcasts, pinyin (the romanised form of written chinese) is a key part of my learning strategy. I think you should consider it too, most westerners will learn the meaning of wǒ hěn kāixīn before and more naturally than 我很开心. I also got a mention on Chinesepod which is why 我很开心.

I have finished the phase "learning how to learn Mandarin" and think I have discovered enough to proceed with some confidence. As you have probably gathered ;) consuming podcasts will be high on the agenda. Incidentally I had a big Yaay!! wo3 hen3 kai1xin1 moment yesterday when I saw a post about my blog on the Chinesepod weblog. Watch this space guys I hope soon to be contributing back to the Mandarin learning community!. Some of the helpful comments from the guys who commented reminded me of how crucial pinyin is to my strategy.

Pinyin is a romanisation of written Chinese, I won't go into all the background and technicalities as they do it much better here. In summary as you probably know there isn't a chinese alphabet as such but there are thousands of characters that represent syllables/words. Pinyin uses an alphabet that westerners would recognise to spell out chinese phonetically. Bear in mind that the phonetics are consistent to pinyin but may or may not match those that you would expect for your particular western language. Pinyin is I believe the standard accepted romanisation for Chinese so unless you want to study older dusty acedemic texts (best left to older dusty acedemics imho.) I wouldn't recommend other schemes.

What if you only want to learn spoken Chinese? Then learn pinyin alongside, for most people it will be a vital aid.
What if you want to learn the Chinese characters? Then learn pinyin alongside, for most people it will be a vital glue between spoken and written.

Here are the reasons why I think pinyin is the best thing since eeerrrrr.... language podcasts....

  • Pinyin gives you something to visualise when you hear a Chinese word, and what you visualize ties in with how it is pronounced (a nice little feedback loop). when you are first learning a sound you translate it each time you hear it, eventually you will just get the meaning without having to explicitly translate, but unless you are very familar I find that you picture something however fleetingly.
  • Pinyin captures the chinese tones, when you start you have enough difficulty just hearing the tones and I find that my untrained brain tends to remember sounds ok. but looses the tone information. Remember the pinyin alongside and you have a fighting chance.
  • When it comes to learning characters the pinyin is another mental tag that you can add and may in some cases act as a bridge between the sound and the character.
  • On a computer many chinese character input methods are achieved via pinyin.
  • If you don't know pinyin how are you going to look up a word that you just heard

If I write 我很开心 for example it has no meaning even if you can speak and understand spoken Mandarin you need to actually know the characters (black and white or a least dark grey and dirty white). If I write [wo3 hen3 kai1xin1] or [wǒ hěn kāixīn ] with a little knowledge of pinyin phonetics and the tone marks, you can tell that I am very happy!