Saturday, March 31, 2007


The tones in Mandarin are considered one of the main problems for Westerners, who come to learn the language, and they have certainly caused me some problems. I think it is hard for someone who has grown up with a tonal language to understand the difficulties of those who have not.

I can say that I have made considerable progress. I try to do little things all the time to improve my feeling for the tones. Initially I was in the same boat as most beginners seem to be, I could hear the tonal difference of syllables but instantly forgot them (I am too used to this sort of audio information being used to carry emotional content in sentences, not changing the meaning of sounds). I also know for a fact that I am still a long way away from the natural ability of a native speaker.

Now I can usually discern tones in clearly spoken Chinese and can often reproduce tones myself. There are difficulties in sentences with some sounds and I have to spend a little time getting used to a new word (in isolation the word it usually easy but in a sentence it is often not so easy). I also have a few blind spots with common words, for example I can say ying1wen2 in isolation but often pronounce it ying2wen2 in the middle of a sentence.

Rather than going crazy over tones I tend to work on them a little all the time. I am constantly attentive to them, and try to do little things to improve. For example if using an online dictionary to check a word I think I have heard, I commit to adding the tone marks when I add enter pinyin (getting these wrong and wasting more time, tends to focus the mind). I sometime concentrate really hard on identifying the tones in Chinese I listen to, even if the words are obvious.

One day, I think I will achieve something close to the natural ability with tones that a native speaker has, I just don't know when. I don't think there is a magic bullet for most of us, just a gradual development. Initially you don't know enough words to get them mixed up anyway (it was quite a revelation when I first mistook lian4xi2 for lian2xi4 when the context was confusing, of course I was also focused on trying to understand the other words).

Some people equate musical ability with tonal language ability, I am not so sure, I can easily tune a guitar by ear, but only to itself, I don't have perfect pitch. I think a general continual attentiveness and time is all that is required. I think even a skilled musician will have problems the first time they encounter a tonal language. We are all different though, I would be interested to hear of other peoples experiences.

I was trying to think of something that may cause Chinese speakers a similar problem when they learn English. Maybe some of the more subtle sentence inflections, for example the hidden 'but'. When a statement is made in English with a slight inflection that tells a native speaker that the word 'but' should be added. "I like what you have done (but)." maybe the sentence that follows takes a non-native speaker by surprise in some cases if they take the first statement at face value?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

iMandarin podcast

I discovered a new podcast recently. The people behind the iMandarin podcast seem to be releasing two a week. I think the podcast is intended to promote their residential training and possibly online training, however the podcast and part transcript with examples is free to download and use.

Many of the podcasts discuss an aspect of Chinese life or culture and there is much discussion after the dialogue about aspects of the language used. Almost all the podcast content is in Chinese.

I like them very much, I can understand most of the content first time through (with some concentration), and most of what I do not understand I can get on repeated listenings. I am just going to use these for a bit as a "busman's holiday" (a slight variation on what you normally do as an alternative to a rest) before I start a serious assault on the Chinesepod advanced lessons.

There are a few improvements that could be made to the podcasts, there is only only presenter, I think the background music could be dropped and they could probably drop most of the little English (sometimes the choice of words to repeat in English is somewhat strange). However this is just looking a "gift horse in the mouth" (being overly critical about something that is free). I think many people who were comfortable with the Intermediate cpod podcasts could gain a lot from listening to these also. And if below that level or wanting some reading practice you can always work with the transcripts.

Friday, March 09, 2007

All Change

Ok so now I have two other blogs connected to this one I thought is was time to move to one of the newer templates etc. Still a few things missing (like the other learner blogs), but I will restore these and appropriate feeds etc. I am even toying with the idea of adding a photo 真吓人!

Actually I am undergoing a little bit of a strategy change, my previous English blog post have been little more than disordered brain dumps (not so much written as regurtitated). I have to see how I can get it to work with the Chinese blog as that develops, but I am kind of hoping that eventually there maybe material that could be useful to a Chinese person studying English (including audio). I think with this internet game it really can be the case that the more you give out, the more you get back :). Special thanks to all the people (both Chinese and English and many behind the scenes) who have helped me on my journey so far......