Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Do I need to go to China?

I really, really, really want to go to China. That is a fact, indisputable and undeniable. Another unfortunate fact is that it is not likely to quite some time (zhen zao gao!). Okay so assuming I can be all grown up about it, rather than crying like a baby (Whaaaaaaaaa!) there is another problem. A number of people seem to be firmly of the opinion that I will not be able to learn Chinese unless I go to China or a Chinese speaking country. What if they are right? Personally I think/hope they are wrong and here is why I think/hope this.

I have encountered a number of non-native English speakers who have learned pretty good or even excellent English whilst only living in a non-English speaking country. If they can do this, why can I not do the same with Chinese. Granted that they may have a considerably larger exposure to English in their home country than I have had to Chinese, however there is plenty of material out there on the Internet now, so I can make my own exposure.

Whilst there are plenty of examples of Westerners who have learned very good Chinese whilst living in a Chinese speaking country, there are also many that learn nothing or next to nothing, so being in China does not mean learning Chinese.

The Internet also provides many opportunities to connect with and talk with Chinese people that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. In addition the few Mandarin speakers I have met in the UK regard it as a novelty if a Westerner attempts to speak Mandarin so they are very helpful (this may change if learning the language becomes more popular and they get fed up with the attention).

I concede that I will miss out on some cultural issues and standard day-to-day interactions until I go there, but there again even a trip to an American city where they speak English would result in some measure of culture shock until I adapted. So is there really any reason nowadays why a Westerner cannot learn Mandarin from their own country?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Mandarin progress report 4

Well this my fourth progress report after just over one year of study. I can honestly say it is working, but still a long long way to go. I still don't have any time for books or grammar. Obviously some of the questions I may ask are grammar related but I do not spend any time studying grammar for grammar's sake.

I finally learnt enough spoken Chinese to warrant a more intensive (although anything is more intensive than none at all) study of the characters. I did learn to write about 150 of them as part of this excercise but now have decided for me at least that writing doesn't help me learn to read and this year I want to learn to read Chinese. I have no idea how many characters I can read confidently it could be anywhere from 250 - 400. When I am confident it is at least 500 I will probably take one of those online tests to make sure I am not fooling myself.

My speaking is improving rapidly but still has a long. long way to go. Listening skills are way ahead of everything else at the moment. I listen to Chinesepod intermediate and upper intermediate amongst other things, I generally don't bother with the texts and can understand most of the chat and dialogue after a few runs through. Each lesson at that level is still chock full of things to learn though so I think I will be browsing and revisting these for sometime to come. I have also used some of the transcripts prepared by Goulnik and two prepared my Lantian as a boost up and reading practice. I also listen to the podcasts at Chineselearn online these are different to Chinesepod as they are structured. The first course of 60 lessons has been pretty easy for me as it starts at beginner level, but I learnt a couple of things and it was a nice review. I feel the course is well thought out. Occaisionally I listen to Serge's podcasts as he gives pretty comprehensive lessons on many helpful subject areas.

I use Skype frequently and have recently made a very special friend. Genuine connection with people is a huge boost to learning Chinese as then you are driven to learn more so that you can share more communication with them.

I am reading much more Chinese recently, I use text to speech, followed by annotation followed by dictionary lookup (in that order) to get over my limited character recognition skills. I can often read a lot of some student texts or simple chatty blogposts or simple dialog subtitles but obviously main stream Chinese is still a huge, huge challenge. I don't tend to read stuff that takes a lot of dictionary work too often. I am cruel to myself and am only really satisfied with fast scan recognition anything I have to stare at for a while I count as partial failure. I strong believe a sense of immediacy is important. Sometimes I chat in text in Chinese, or a mix of Chinese and English, this is good practice but I don't like the MS IME very much so I do not feel that I am fast enough (frustating those few times when I instantly know exactly what I want to say. As I hoped my reading ability is racing ahead to catch up with my listening ability. So for me at least I was right, and for those that thought this idea was bonkers :P (sorry I am dealing with being almost 40 by being a little childish at times :) ). At this point I truly believe I have lost nothing by delaying study of Hanzi and probably gained a lot.

Writing is very very new to me, I have started with e-mails and blog comments and am quickly moving on to a Chinese only blog. My next theory is that my writing will race ahead to meet my reading ability. I try to write fast and limit myself to few dictionary lookups. As a result I think my writing is relatively childish and contains many grammatical errors. I am happy with this I think if I can get enough correctional feedback my writing will improve. Most of the feedback from Chinese people would seem to show that my writing is easy to understand (if often incorrect) so I guess my expectations of childlike writing are met :))

When I can I watch and listen to Chinese radio and TV and films etc. Now I understand a lot, lot more so I actively seek out content I can understand more of and leave content that is impenetrable (therefore more chat shows and less news reports). My extensive listening seems to mean that now I am un-worried by fast speaking or a number of accents. What usually stops me understanding now is just not knowing the words (sounds daft I know, but I know what I mean :)). Often in various circumstances I have found myself understanding a stretch of Chinese without thinking about it and I think "oh how nice they put some English commentary in there (John Pasden stylee)", then I do a double take and realise it was all Chinese. Of course then for a little while I think a miracle has happened and now I can speak Chinese, until a stretch comes along that I have no hope of understanding and brings me down to Earth with a bump.

I think this is pretty honest appraisal of my progress so far, obviously pride will have made me over-estimate some things and modesty underestimate others (they rarely maintain a true balance). I now really believe that in 2008 I will be able to say wo3 hui4 shou1 zhong1wen2 without a single yi dian3dian3 and only a tiny prick of conscience. Hey that means I will be able to watch the next Olympics in Chinese :).