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.