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.