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?