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: www.xlingo.com/ and here: www.language-exchanges.org/
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, youtube.com 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.