Sunday, October 07, 2007

study without effort?

A comment and response to a comment another blog made me think hard about what learning Chinese actually means now. I can't explain conventionally so here is a recent story, I have many more from further back in time but this one sums up what I am trying to express.

I took some time off work last week to visit my grandfather for his 90th Birthday. I left my wife and children at home and went to pick up my Mother (2 hours drive). During the drive I listened to some music and also listened to some Chinese. I listen to 4 Princess Remy podcasts and some radio podcasts from SBS radio including a 19 minute mini radio drama. The Princess Remy pods I can usually get the gist of quickly but the subtleties don't usually come through except on repeated listening. After a while I may start looking up some of the words, often I have a little trouble with the Taiwanese accent but that is all to the good. I listen to more music, arrive at my mother's house relaxed and stay overnight, most of the rest of the evening is normal family chat, but I pull out my media player for a few minutes and watch a xiaoxin(小新) cartoon (one of the ones I have nailed most of the dialog on, I like them they are funny).

Morning and an early start, still three hours drive to get to my grandparents house, we set off early and stop for breakfast. My mother is doing some shopping to take to her parents I have a little time, I read part of an English newspaper over coffee and listen to an imandarin podcast on the chengyu 自相矛盾. I know this 成语 pretty well so really I am just being attentive to tricky bits, repeating in my head and sorting out errant tones. I pretty much ignored chengyu until recently, seemed pointless until I had basic conversational skills, now I find them very interesting. I like imandarinpod, one of the easiest ways I found to transition into "all Chinese" learning material.

Car journey starts, first I listen to music and chat to my mother and her partner, later I listen to the Remy podcasts and SBS material, including a new show that I had saved. I do a lot of repeated listening to material that I like but usually cycle through many things. I may listen to it once, listen again a week later, listen two weeks later with a dictionary etc. The constant mixing and making connections between different bits of dialogue seems to work. Every time I listen to something it gets easier eventually if I have not got bored and abandoned it, it will seem just like English and I can reuse bits, this is where most of my vocabulary comes from. My mother is interested so I pause bits and summarize them in English, I can't do simultaneous translation (I am not that good especially whilst driving) but I can give her a good idea of what is going on.

We arrive, my grandparents are still look after themselves, however there is much to do and many little things to help them. Mostly busy the rest of the day but in the evening I walk down to the local Chinese takeaway with a family member. I warn the guy I with that I not looking for any spoken practice, I don't like the dynamic of having a non-chinese learner with me when I practice speaking, besides Cantonese is way behind Mandarin at the moment and most of these places speak Cantonese. As we wait for the food I contemplate the sign above the internal door 安平入出 should make sense but I don't get it, then it dawns 出入平安, it should be read from right to left I suppose, meaning something like "enter and leave in tranquility/safety". The food arrives, the guy I am with obviously wants to push me into some sort of demonstration, he takes the food and says "how do I say thank you in Chinese" to the girl. I groan internally but she responds xie4xie4 oh Mandarin! I ask her if she speaks Mandarin in Mandarin, she does, I feel the guy next to me take an interest but I won't be beaten into his agenda, I ask her if she speaks Cantonese in Cantonese, and am greeted with a blank expression so I ask her in Mandarin, she replies "a little" (at this point she seems a little phased out), they all say a little even when they don't I find ;) I thank her for the food and say goodbye in Mandarin. We leave, she presumably thinks I speak better Cantonese, the guy I am with says "that wasn't very long". I smile ruefully and tell him she only speaks Cantonese (there are some advantages, to learning an uncommon language ;)).

The rest of the evening is tied up but before going to sleep I listen to a few Chinesepods I am reviewing the love story ones, there are still bits of vocab and subtleties in the chat that can help me a lot, but these seem amazingly easy compared to six months ago. I don't know whether I am going to really get down to studying the advanced pods from Chinesepod, I dabbled a bit but maybe at this level there is a bigger payoff in just plugging away at sources of real Chinese. Perhaps the discussion in the Media lessons will be worthwhile though. Time will tell. Chinesepod was a big help in getting me to the point where I could pick and choose but now I am not sure about its application in the future.

Next morning is Birthday day for my Grandfather, we have convinced my Grandparents that we are taking them out for a meal which is quite a big deal for them, so we go into the city center for a couple of hours to leave them in peace. My mother keeps mentioning the Chinese, I want to resolve this so tell her that we can return to the Chinese takeaway in the evening. My plan is simply to start a discussion about the sign, I can always pretend I haven't guessed to read it from right to left (sometimes starting by asking something you already know is a good way to start a conversation). I am not happy with this plan but needs must. We visit a Chinese supermarket I come across and buy a few things, all the conversation is in Cantonese. Sometimes now I will try a little Cantonese and maybe they speak some Mandarin but they seem busy/flustered and not good prospects for conversation.

After the supermarket we come across one of those Chinese health shops, paydirt, they always speak Mandarin in these places. The shop is empty, I turn to my mother "okay now it my chance to prove I can speak Chinese". I wander into the shop and a Chinese lady appears. The plan is simple, buy some goji berries (goqizi), I use them anyway, they are usually a little expensive in these place but worth it for an excuse for conversation. Also in these places you can sometimes get a hard sell for expensive things you don't need but speaking Chinese usually circumvents this.

I greet the lady who appears in Chinese, she seems surprised I start by asking for goji berries and things get a little sticky. The conversation remains in Chinese but gets a little bogged down. Seems that buying the berries in this one is more complicated than usual, finally we get to 100g for £5 (quite expensive but I agree). The talk is a little stilted, as she weighs out the berries my mother says something (I forget what) and I say to the Chinese lady 她是我的妈妈,她不相信我会说中文。My mother asks me what I said and I tell her in English "I said this is my mother, she doesn't believe I can speak Chinese. The Chinese lady turns around and says in English "that is exactly what you said". At this point everything changes, maybe for a little while we were in one of those twilight zones where she hadn't quite registered we were speaking in Chinese (it happens).

Now things flow, mostly in Chinese, I recant my learning experiences etc. (she assumes that my wife must be Chinese initially), turns out that she has lived in England for six years, now it her home as she is married to an English man, her husband knows about 500 words but can't make sentences yet etc etc. all in Chinese and at this level without much effort. She asks for my business card but I don't have one, so we exchange email addresses. Apparently I may be able to help her husband learn Chinese (something it seems she would value). The only English is when she assures my mother that I can speak Chinese very well for an Englishman especially after a short period of learning.

I suspect I may have caused her husband some suffering ;), I will await to see if I receive and email for a while if not just send one thanking for speaking practice. I left the shop on a slight adrenalin high and there was no need to visit the Chinese takeaway that evening. Most of the rest of the day was devoted to my grandparents. I had a little time in the evening when they were dozing to read a PDF I had made of one of the Clavis voices of china dialogs (read it on my hand held media player/computer). I pretty much know this one off by heart but and using it to practice reading Chinese characters. Before sleep I watch a Chinese Doreamon cartoon, I find these a little harder than xiaoxin but this one has some interesting dialog.

Next day is a lot of driving. I listen to the SBS material, the Princess Remy podcast s and the Cpod lessons, then lots of music. Normally I wait longer before repeat listening, but I am limited to what I have on my small cheap mp3 player and haven't had computer access for a couple of days (fiddling with the larger media player is awkward whilst driving. I thing about what next.. I have a Harry Potter film in Chinese to watch at home and the film Ghosts (about the Chinese cockle pickers that died in the UK). I am sure Ghosts will be a very moving film but I want to wait until my Chinese is better to do it credit (Harry Potter is of course much easier). Next week I need to return to a place near I work to talk to someone who only works Tuesdays, I want to discuss some issues about chengyu in general, in Mandarin, should really think about any new words I may need at some point....

I have kept things general to protect the innocent and omitted all the many occasions when I talked Chinese in my head to myself, or translated stuff in my head just to see if I could etc. etc. I don't feel I worked hard at learning Chinese these few days I describe. But I did work! at one point I had to work very hard to get to here but I knew what I was doing. Now this is what I mean by effortless learning. I do a little of everything, but grammar, vocabulary lists, flashcards, exercises, tests, stressing over nitpicky details, all play very little part. At the age of 39 I started learning my second language (Mandarin). At the age of 40 I have come a long way and moved into a zone where it is easy to keep going. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to learn a language. The next ones should be easier.

This like most of my blog posts rambles and contains many mistakes. But whilst I am typing I am watching Chinese TV (time is precious) so that works for me


Mashhood said...



Edwin said...

I think you can still put in effort and yet feel the whole thing enjoyable. So whether the process is enjoyable or not does not give a good indication of the amount of effort you have put in.

But I believe in 'no pain, no gain'. Still, it can still be enjoyable. People go to fitness centres and sweat themselves out. They enjoy doing it very much.

If you have been spending a lot of time on language learning, chances are that you are putting in effort. But if you don't feel any 'pain', it could mean that you are not putting enough effort in it.

For example, you could be listening to some podcasts which are too trivial or making simple conversations from time to time. You enjoy them and don't feel any 'pain'. Then you might not be making a lot of progress.

But if you are listening to podcasts in which you only understand, say 80% of the content, and you are determined to work on understanding the other 20%, or if you are challenging yourself into using new vocabulary and sentences while you converse, then you are putting in some effort, and you should be expecting progress.

In summary, only you as the first person would know if you are really putting in effort.

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

Ahh maybe I am masochistic then.

At times I am happy to listen to things I don't understand at all (although that doesn't happen so much in Mandarin now). I'll post some more examples but the conversations I have get harder all the time. This one was mainly to get over talking to someone with another English speaker present but there was new stuff in there, I was please to pick up "but my husband can't make any sentences yet" in Mandarin for example. Not because it is hard but because no-one ever said that to me before.

In this case the "easy" stuff would be the Cpod intermediates, the hard stuff would be some of the SBS (a twenty minute radio play entirely in Mandarin is still fairly opaque first time through). Each listen though it gets clearer and clearer.

I agree that effortless is a multifaceted and difficult concept.
There is a big difference between saying "falling of a log is effortless" and saying the "swimmer powered through the water with effortless grace". Most people that take up a gym subscription don't get any fitter and most people that go on diets eventually end up fatter. Many people that start learning a language never get there. Humans are not designed to willingly undergo sustained pain. But language requires sustained effort.

Solution painless effort, power through the learning with effortless grace. I now see the main aim at beginning a language is to struggle through to this point.

I read Stuart's intro. to learning Vietnamese, it sounded like he was enjoying himself. Whether you call that effort is semantics I suppose, lets settle on painless.

Buddy said...


对了。“出入平安” 是正确的。呵呵. it means that "Safe trip wherever you go". not the single word's meaning plus togather. “出入”means out and in, in this sentence it really means while you're out or in, you can think it represent a thing like trip. this sentence is a good wish for yourself, your familly to be safe at their work, trip and others. :)
and usually it not to speek to people directly, it will be sticked on a door or a wall just like you've seen

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

I liked your post. As a Mandarin teacher myself I definitely don't think it's possible to learn languages without making any effort.

Most of my students are not lazy people, in fact many of them are high achievers it's just that as an adult, it can be quite boring learning a new language as you need a certain level of proficiently to cover interesting material. Imagine what it must be like as an executive to have to sit in a primary school English lesson – who cares about dogs and balls etc .

Anyway my point is it’s much easier to be self disciplined if you have a teacher to motivate you – but then I would say that wouldn't I!

Anyone interested in dipping their toes in the water is welcome to sign up for my free 7 day email mini-course at

Thanks Athena Min

Greg said...

As always, a great post. This ties is nicely with your response to my post on Learn to speak Mandarin fluently in 6 months.