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.


Anonymous said...

I like your english conversation blog. It's a good blog for learn english conversation

Jeffrey said...

I definitely agree that language-acquisition begins with sound. With sound, you will be able to learn how to communicate effectively in whichever language you decide to learn. Once you are accustomed to the sound patterns of a language, I think it becomes really important to learn lots of words and phrases so that you can express your ideas/emotions as easily as you do in your native tongue.

Are you finding it at all difficult to learn all of the Chinese characters? Have you been to China yet to practice your language skills?

Good luck with your Chinese!

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jinsei said...

Actually that view is more popular than you think. There's a well known blogger that taught himself Japanese from scratch in 18 months to a fluent level--good enough to get an engineering job in Japan at a Japanese-only workplace. A core aspect of his method is to listen to native speakers all day, every day; not worrying at first if any of it makes sense.

I find it's helped in my own experiences with Mandarin--my girlfriend is Chinese, and for six months before I decided to learn Mandarin I spent a lot of time with her Taiwanese/Chinese expat friends, and most of the conversation was in Mandarin. In that time it went from an undecipherable stream of sounds to a distinct sequence of syllables with recognizable words and sentence patterns. My pitiful vocabulary still keeps me from understanding what they're saying, but it has brought me many steps forward towards complete fluency.

bigfeet said...

Your method must have some validity. Babies long before being able to read or even form spoken words grasp meaning from the sounds. Of course they also intuit in part from face and same actions. I too have found a similar growth towards familiarity from listening to Dutch TV, and then later discovering how closely I understood particular words and phrases.
After all language was first heard, spoken and later written...not the reverse.

John said...

Sites that present a lot of input are essential for gaining a foothold in any language - you've got to be immersed in the language in an auditory way. For learning Mandarin I have been going to

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