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).