Saturday, September 20, 2008

Using Microblogging to help learn Chinese

As I posted previously social networks can be useful for language learning. I think that micro-blogs are a terrifically useful resource. Micro blogging platforms usually allow users to make short (140 character) posts, these posts are generally public, like blog posts anybody can read them. The short nature of the posts means that there is lot of fairly general conversation style writing. Reading micro-blog posts in Chinese has been a terrific way to practice learning reading and character recognition in addition to picking up some new vocabulary. Making regular short posts in Chinese is also a low stress way to experiment with writing.

You can find a number of foreign language posts in the the popular Twitter platform and in the the increasingly popular Identica, however the best solution is probably to find a micro-blogging platform that is popular in the language you are learning. For Chinese Fanfou appears to be the most popular.

You can follow people in all sorts of ways, RSS feeds can be good way, reading sentances that normally wouldn't be interesting from strangers can take on a different spin when in a language you are learning, you can read them OK. For example 世界上最安全的食品是土豆 以后我尽量多吃土豆 (the worlds safest foodstuff is the potato, as far as possible I will eat more potatoes). Sentences that are hard to read or require a dictionary can be saved for later consumption (I like to use Google Notebook for this kind of thing).

Of course with all this Web2.0 stuff and web api's there are many ways to mix this up, here you can see posts to fanfou appearing in "almost" realtime with their geographical location on a Google map.

This post will be a small part of the background to my Bathcamp presentation Bathcamp presentation Twine(in progress).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Few Chinese Basics

A photo of a Chinese typewriter, most of the disadvantages of Chinese script have been offset by technology these days, and there are a number of unexpected advantages (photo thanks to george morgan).

Being about to make a presentation to a number of people that includes my experiences of learning Chinese online, I thought I aught to address a couple of questions that are always asked to me.

Yes Chinese reading and writing does really involve learning thousands of distinct characters, unlike languages that have a phonetic alphabet. Assuming you are learning to read and write language that you already know this is not as bad as it sounds.

No Chinese in not hard to read and write on a computer, in fact is about as easy to write Chinese as English for many users via phonetic input systems (usually via pinyin). There are other input systems that are harder to learn (for example wubi). An expert in wubi probably inputs considerably faster then an English typer.

Displaying Chinese characters on your computer used to involve installing something but most systems these days have at least one Unicode font which means you can usually read Chinese and other non-Latin languages (that of course doesn't guarantee that you will understand it). If you are seeing little boxes then is means that you don't have a suitable font, if lots of question marks or garbage that probably means that the program you are using doesn't realize the character you are reading are in unicode or utf8 etc.

As far as webpages go then utf8 is almost certainly the best way to output your content.

Chinese dictionaries are hard to use, if you are looking for an unfamiliar character in a paper dictionary then ideally you need some knowledge of how Chinese characters are written. Characters have a series of common elements called radicals, if you can determine the radical and the number of additional strokes then you can look up the character, the more you understand how Chinese characters are constructed the easier it is to look them up (a bit of a catch 22 for the learner of Chinese). Computer dictionaries are somewhat easier you can cut and paste, look up characters by pinyin sound, and in some cases even draw an approximation. Many paper dictionaries will also allow you to look up a word by pinyin sound, but this only helps if you know what the word sounds like... The bottom-line for a Chinese learner (I many other languages I would guess) is that working with text on a computer for learning purposes is much faster, apart from browser plugins and on-line dictionaries, excellent software such as Stardict can smooth the way.

If you want to learn Chinese I would suggest starting learning to get used to the sounds first. I have also started to put together a collection of learning resources on in a twine, hopefully I will have some more specific advice soon but it will of course be from my own personal viewpoint.

This post will be a small part of the background to my Bathcamp presentation Bathcamp presentation Twine(in progress).

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Social Networks for Language Learning

Social networking services can be very useful for language learners, even the trivial aspects that are sometimes annoying in your mother tongue.

Many of aspects of the social networking services seem trivial and superficial, before people leap on this and attack me in the comments I know that they have their benefits also. I am going to be posting more on this on my web related blog and will add a link here when I do, but for now my main gripe is the amount of trivial communication that goes on. Maybe in some sense a lot of this communication is phatic or smalltalk, but this doesn't seem to serve such a useful purpose on the internet (at least in my opinion). Some social networks seem to have developed their own smalltalk that is entirely internet related (some of the more useless Facebook apps. for example).

Once I had to explain to a work colleague what Twitter is all about, when mobile phones became popular many people could see both the good and the bad, part of the bad being the smalltalk and sometimes trivial nature of the conversation, especially if someone was wasting time doing this very loudly in your earshot. The following youtube of clips of Don Joly shows this very well: As I explained to my colleague "unlike with a mobile phone where you can tell somebody that you are on the bus, with twitter you can tell the whole world that you are on the bus!".

Here is the twist though, when learning a new language reading simple content of this nature and sometimes writing it can be a terrific way to practice. Reading a stream of tweets (or equivalent) that are tedious in your mother tongue can have a whole different perspective in a language you are learning.

You can find many different languages on Twitter or better still find a similar service that appeals more to native speakers of the language you are learning. is a twitter clone use by lots of Chinese users. Microblogging services are only the start other social services also have a different spin when working in language you are learning. Even the Don Joly mobile phone jokes point to a useful practice technique, ever feel silly walking down the street practicing out loud, cover it up by pulling out your mobile phone and pretending to have a conversation in a foreign language (don't go over the top though). Do this in a subtle way near someone you suspect to be a native speaker and they may even try to engage you in a real conversation (at least they now know you can speak their language).

This post will be a small part of the background to my upcoming Bathcamp presentation.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Mandarin Learning Resources

I have been experimenting with the service at Twine. Twine allows you to store and share knowledge and still has a lot of rough edges (it is in private beta), however I think it has a lot of potential. I have started a Learning-Mandarin twine which I intend to keep populating with learning resources, also as commenting is allowed resources can be reviewed and discussed.

If anybody wishes to join Twine I have some invites.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Videos and marketing

Despite appearances I am still around and learning Chinese. I will have more to say soon. Recently I seem to have attracted a few comments that are just thinly disguised adverts for new Chinese webservices. At least Phillip was kind enough to send me an email about his new website. is a site that identifies and categorizes videos on Youtube that are useful to Chinese learners. The ones I looked at also had short but useful comments on the content. I do use Youtube to find learning material but it was easier to use this site to stumble upon a couple of interesting advanced videos.

Ultimately though I feel that to have real sticking power a site like this will need user comments, tagging and incorporate videos from other sources. Still when someone gives you a little video discovery help for free that can't be a bad thing.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Painless way to learn to read Chinese?

Via an article at Sinosplice I read a very interesting article by Victor Mair entitled How to learn to read Chinese The basic premise seeming to be that learning to read Chinese can be relatively painless and become an acquired skill, the specific example quoted being the experience the author had whilst learning to read from and Taiwanese newspaper that had phonetic markup for each character (bobomofo). This is exciting (how sad am I?).

From experience I have to agree, although after less than two and a half years of self-study Chinese I wouldn't expect anybody to take my experiences as gospel. Where I would differ is that generally speaking I don't use annotated text as such but a whole plethora of other techniques to make reading a relatively painless experience. My reading is improving very fast but still has some way to go (primarily because my Chinese listening and speaking still has a long way to go). Reading has come on so fast that this morning I realized I was cheating too much by reading the subtitles ahead of the speech whilst reading watching a CCTV documentary (I don't understand all of a CCTV documentary yet but usually the gist with largish lumps of complete word for word understanding). I am pleasantly surprised that what I can read is often as fast as reading English text.

Much reading acquisition comes from reading electronic texts with some sort of mouse over annotation, I prefer this simply because there is effort and pause associated with the mouse over action and therefore a subconscious desire for my brain to reduce the incidence of this (without me being aware those little neurons are realigning to make life smoother). In a web browser all the Firefox extensions tend to give English definitions as well as pinyin but a quick modification of a style file means that the English in the chinesepera-kun pop-up is so pale and small I have to squint and press my nose against the screen (my neurons dislike this and re-arrange to reduce the chances of this happening).

The next biggest input to reading comes from many different ways of working with subtitles of which the strangest and most productive is watching English content with Chinese subtitles, every time I mention this, I get derided or ignored but I found it a huge boost to fluent reading (in reflection probably much bigger than the above example). Watching both series of Heroes in English with Chinese subtitles for example was something I did whilst relaxing with my wife (she has no interest in learning Chinese), my mind couldn't help but spend time working out what the subtitles said (not 100% but it gets better all the time).

One of the biggest objections to using technology in this way is often along the lines of "ohhh but it is too easy to cheat, my mind is too lazy", my counter to that is that using more traditional approaches it is too easy to spend time learning Chinese in a none useful way. You may feel you have been busy but the more you remove yourself from the real world actions of speaking listening and reading Chinese the more chance the skills you are picking up are not directly relevant. Besides you can always make small alterations to keep your mind on the game, it is your mind after all. When I sometimes now read printed text (the kind you can hold in your hand) I use a real Chinese zidian (character dictionary, no English) to look up unfamiliar characters, I played with the zidian a little now and again and now am getting increasingly better at identifying radicals etc.and I don't know or care what they are called (how sick is that ;)). If I still don't get it from the pinyin in the zidian or the Chinese definition (unlikely from the definition I know but miracles increasingly happen), then I punch the pinyin into a cheap electronic dictionary designed for Chinese users. Guess what my brain wants to select the character by looking back to the zidian and comparing (lazy brain) but I try to remember what it looks like and actually close the zidian and ignore the original text (those neurons really hate it when they have to look it up again).

Ok the freak show is over. I am sure there are hundreds of reasons why this is really dumb, but if a forty-ish guy, living in the UK, with no Chinese relatives etc, can learn solid speaking, listening and reading skills in approx three years as a hobby (my aiming point at the moment) then maybe some of the things that see obvious to me now will be obvious to other people in a few years time. Technology changes everything when it comes to learning we have to clear the playing board and reset the pieces.

Saturday, May 31, 2008


I haven't posted this before as I didn't really know what to say for the best. For similar reasons I have been somewhat quiet on Chinese social networks that I have started using for practice, apart from one or two condolence messages. Fortunately family and/or friends of the few Chinese people I know are unscathed

Talk is cheap, I can only hope the best outcome for the survivors

Ultimately it seems that there may be significant change in media attitudes and China-West relationships (apart from the occasional Hollywood idiot), a change for better. This of course is not worth the lives of those that have died, a slower change without the tradgedy would have been better by far.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The best thing I did in starting to learn Mandarin

I was looking back and trying to work out what were the significant steps in my Mandarin learning over the past two years or so. Maybe the most significant step was simply spending a lot of time listening to real Mandarin even though at the time I didn't understand it.

It is not easy to remember the exact details, but for the first three months or so of studying a large part was simply listening to real world Chinese at full speed. I was studying on my own so it was up to me to decide what I did, and against all advice this seemed the obvious thing to do. I don't speak French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian etc. etc. but at that time I coould confidently identify all of these language, simply because of exposure over my lifetime. If I decided to study any of these languages I would know roughly what I was getting into, Asian languages all sounded similar though (might as well be Martian). Certainly I also listened to a few podcasts, and certainly I did some background reading about the language and picked up a few simple words. Somehow these preparation meant that I ended up listening to about 15 of the Chinesepod Newbie podcasts and a similar amount of the elementary before I started tackling the Intermediate. Even though my vocabulary was limited I seemed to have a huge headstart on speed, coping with different accents etc.

So what happened? via attentive listening the mush of sounds became a stream of syllables, and I was increaingly able to determine differences in sounds that originally sounded the same to my Western ears. I started hearing a few simple words that I had learned (中国 zhong1guo2 china) being an obvious one. All the time I was attempting to be attentive, When do I think sentances are starting and finishing, are there sounds that are common before a pause? can I learn any words from context? what common sounds can I learn so that when I finally learn the meaing it will be obvious. Even at that time I could hear the significance of 个 and was anticipating finding out the meaning of 这个 and 那个.

Finally I enlisted the help of my sons, they dug up some videos from Youtube and played the sounds to me, firstly (because I wasn't actually sure) I proved to myself that yes it was fairly easy for me to identify European languages even vaguely similar ones such as Dutch and German, Spanish and Portuguese. Then I discovered that now I could distinguish Mandarin from Cantonese, and Thai and Vietnamese and Korean and Japanese with ease. Even more interesting the Cantonese apart from having sounds different to Mandarin had at least one tone that was obviously very different (the low level one) so somewhere my brain had already started on the long arduous journey to get a feel for tonal meaning.

What followed was a mastery of Pinyin and relating the sounds to words I heard, the aim was to get to point where I could reliably hear a word in a sentance of real Chinese and look it up in dictionary to find the meaning.

Sound is where it all starts and what you gain from first getting an ear for a language is hard to measure and test (so is unlikely to be emphasized in a formal course). Gaining an ear for language is what you do naturally as a baby with your mother tongue, it seems obvious to me that you should start this way when you study a new languge (and actually because of the prevalance of English media and culture, many foreigners have had this exposure already before they come to formally study English).

I know this view is not popular but it seems to have helped me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rolling my own Kevin Rudd Chinese lesson

The biggest problem I have at the moment is getting conversation practice, although I am quite forward in attempting to speak Chinese with people I encounter this kind of conversation gets stuck in a rut now because either I meet the people one time only (and cover the same/similar ground each time) or I meet them occasionally in a shop or something and conversations can only really go so far. A particular problem for me is that when younger I had a virtual phobia of phones, I get on fine with them now but to some extent this feeling comes back when I use Skype or similar to chat in Chinese. I think Skype is a wonderful tool and I have used it and received a lot of help but I find it so so much easier and natural to talk face to face.

Recently through a work colleague I came in touch with someone who could help me, we communicated by email and met one evening and now I have a new friend/teacher. I say friend/teacher as I intend to pay for a lesson now and again (the first time I have done this). Other times we may well be helping each other learn our respective languages (I have by far the most to learn ;)). I think that paying for the occasional lesson is an important point though, it delimits a period of time where the focus is on me using and developing Chinese skills and means I can't fool myself and sidestep into being lazy under the guise of teaching or explaining some English.

Now the problem, what is a lesson going to consist of, I managed to demonstrate that I don't need teaching as such and am making fine progress on my own, also both of us being busy one lesson a month or less is the likely frequency. What I need is a focus and conversation practice. I don't even really need my new found teacher to prepare anything before hand (apart from being aware of the kind of subject I would like to discuss and some of the materials I may have sourced).

It occurred to me that my last post regarding Kevin Rudd was an excellent starting point. There are two videos here that could be discussed in Chinese and some of my thoughts on "sounding native". I wanted some harder video dialogs to chew through so I found the following snippet on tudou (and put on youtube for easier access):

As Edwin pointed out I also have access to the the recent Media lesson on Kevin Rudd speaking Chinese at Chinesepod. This boosts the study potential somewhat, I have the three videos, the written comments on Chinesepod, the audio discussion in the Chinesepod mp3 and my own thoughts in English. My preparation will simply be to get comfortable with any new vocab. etc. in this lot and prepare to discuss around the subject. 好极了!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Kevin Rudd speaking Mandarin

Been a while since I posted here, I have however still been progressing my Mandarin studies. Actually whilst I intend to continue posting here I am also starting to put together a more structured collection of my learning Mandarin experiences and observations to date.

Kevin Rudd, that newly elected Austrailian Prime Minister interests me immensely and has certainly sparked off a lot of online conversations regarding the quality of his spoken Mandarin. A short excerpt from one of his recent speeches:

It is fairly easy to find the usual criticisms, he still sounds like a foreigner, his sentences often carry over Western intonations etc.etc. yawn! All the usual fare from the pedants who don't think you are speaking Chinese properly unless native Chinese people peer very closely at you wondering why somebody who is evidently Chinese (because you speak so well) looks somewhat like a Westerner. Most of the manifestation of this belief that I encounter comes from Westerners who are learning Chinese (hmmmm). Now take into account that many European politicians who speak English do so with a "foreign accent" no matter how excellent their level of English (and vice-versa I guess), that in fact despite the millions of foreigners who learn English only a very tiny minority actually could pass for a native born English speaker (or though I have met some very impressive Chinese speakers of English recently). Why is it even an issue that someone cannot pass for a native Chinese over the telephone?

I feel the good news is that eventually it won't matter, the more politicians, sports people, entertainers that can speak and communicate in Mandarin then the more acceptable it will be to have a laowai accent. Stop focusing on the edge cases that have lived, worked, maybe grown-up in China and get down to the business of how does a Westerner become fluent in Mandarin. Here is some more Kevin Rudd being interviewed:

加油,加油 Kevin Rudd.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Market trader Chinese

I pass a market stall selling fruit and vegetables and note that two Chinese girls are approaching the stall from another angle. I don't need anything there so move on, but as I do so I hear the stall holder shouting out 新年快乐,你好,好朋友! enthusiastically.

Nothing too strange except that this is Bath in England and the stall holder is a young English lad of typical market stall down to earth joviality. I have talked to him before as the stall is a good place to buy fruit and veg. but never heard him speaking Chinese before. Granted it sounds a little rough but is fully confident and not lacking any enthusiasm. When I have more time I would will try to find out how much he knows.

Bath has quite a sizeable young Chinese population and the stall holder has at least one impetus to learn Chinese, that is to boost his selling. There may be many other reasons including an interest in Chinese girls (but lets not jump to hasty conclusions).

This made my day, I think it is going to happen more often as cultures meet. For every street seller in a foreign country who has self-learned enough English to sell to tourists; I would wish to see another Englishman who is reversing the trend and returning the favor. One in the eye for those who over intellectualize the study of Asian languages.

No matter how functional his Chinese is there is bound to be one who would stand and say "his pronunciation is off and he has little concept of the finer grammar points". If I was there I would happily punch that "one" in the face......

Strange the things that can lift your spirits when the days are dark.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Reasons for not understanding Chinese

When you think you are making progress in a language it can be a little depressing when you come across some that you don't understand and feel that you should have. Actually I have observed and worked out a number of valid reasons not to feel so bad. So next time don't beat yourself up.

You can't hear it properly

This one is two fold: firstly when eavesdropping on passersbys it is very difficult to catch what they are saying, even in your mother tongue (try it), particularly if the ambient noise level is high. The second reason can be when you are watching TV or a film that is intended for English speakers. The director may have included some Chinese talking but expects you to get the meaning from context or convenient subs. therefore the sound man doesn't actually go to the trouble of making sure the voices are clear. You may feel disappointed you missed some basic stuff but replay it and you discover the sound quality of the conversation is so poor you didn't have much of a chance anyway.

You are hearing something out of context

Even if you are good, you are going to struggle with out of context snippets, as above this can even cause confusion in your mother tongue.

They are speaking another dialect

Perhaps even another language. Particularly with Chinese, remember that what you may be hearing is a dialect they are more at home speaking in. Dialects close to Mandarin can be a particular problem, they sound familiar somehow but you don't quite get it. You would need some heavy exposure to get used to it. Having said that I think is is good to listen to target language enough to at least determine whether what you are listening to is in the right ballpark.

They don't want you to understand

Yup it happens don't take it personally, for whatever reason (maybe testing you, maybe suspicion etc.), they are actively trying to mess you up with funky language and or speaking very fast.

They don't speak very well themselves

This happens too, they told you they spoke Mandarin (perhaps didn't expect you to know much) and actually their Mandarin isn't so good, making it harder for you to understand

You weren't actually ready for it

Your are a learner, your window of opportunity suddenly appeared and you missed it, sometimes you may catch it, there are times you will be tired, focused on something else and your second language skills will be comparitively poor.

The language is highly specialised

This will happen a lot, you just haven't any experiance of the vocabulary and context being used, or the film is a specialised genre etc. etc. Think of your own language, which is easier for a foreigner do you think, a standard chat-show or a "gangsta" movie.

Of course you may just need to practice more ;) but even you are feeling bad about an experiance then don't, there is always another opportunity. Don't get me wrong this is not setting myself up for failure just providing reasons to remain confident. I am sure there are many more, do you have some you can share?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A little philosophy, and a good source of Chinese texts

I posted before about effortless learning and it created a little controversy. I can understand why as effortless can mean different things to different people. I came across a nice explanation of exactly what it means to me on Steve Kaufmann's website. At the beginning of his book (which you can read online if you follow the link) in the introduction Steve has this from from a Chinese philosopher. Zhuangzi, the Taoist philosopher, is supposed to have lived in China over 2,300 years ago. He encouraged people to achieve their potential through effortlessness, by not resisting their own natures. That is exactly what I meant by effortlessness.

I have an interest in philosophy, but know much more about ancient Greek and both ancient and modern European philosophy. I found this excellent website, the Chinese Text Project has number of texts with English translations. Some of the text also have modern Chinese versions alongside the older Chinese (an excellent way to learn to read older styles of Chinese).