Monday, December 07, 2009

Heisig for Chinese part 3 A Comforting Approach?

Not for me but maybe for you

Continuing my thoughts on the Heisig method for learning Chinese Characters, Ultimately it is not for me but maybe for you. Have a look at various posts on Mandarin Segments for reports from someone who is getting on well with it. As always make up your own mind.....

Comfortable Progress

It seems that people have an irrational expectation that processes are linear, that progress (or change) is directly proportional to input, this unreasonable expectation has adverse affects on many areas from financial analysis to education. It seems that when people study or teach they tend towards methods that appear linear, methods that appear to reward X amount of effort with a directly proportional Y result.

In reality many things are not linear, many language learners are familiar with the situation where they suddenly feel they made a huge gain in a very short period of time, then again they may also experience plateaus where progress seems slow or non-existent no matter what they do for a long period of time.

The Heisig approach to learning hanzi appeals to this desire for linearity. I put X effort in each day and I know Y more characters, it is therefore highly motivational (not always a bad thing). If you scratch beneath the surface however it is not so linear as it appears. if you have studied 1000 characters and it turns out the retention rate is actually 95% you know 950. The real problem of linearity is that the range of what it means to know a character extends far beyond a simple boolean known/unknown. Some characters you will know the sounds of some you will read without thinking and without even resorting to stories, some you may know the function of in a number of compound words or in a grammatical context. Therefore if two different people tell you they know 1500 from Heisig study you actually "know" very little about their comparative Chinese level.

Motivation is important, but I suspect that those who have been motivated by Heisig may have a tendency to oversell it, those that are already highly motivated may not actually need it.

Heisig has to market at beginners

One aspect that initially annoyed me when I read about Heisig in the introductory download, was the very weak argument for why a beginner should use it at the start of their learning, this argument is primarily based on the following sentence The truth is, written characters bring a high degree of clarity to the multiplicity of meanings carried by homophones in the spoken language. The argument that follows is fairly weak after all people don't speak with subtitles so you are going to have to deal with homophones. Besides modern technology offers a number of ways to working with hanzi without having to actually learn them.

The issue of course is that most language learners (in any language) give up fairly early, so if you are in the business of selling books then there is a very real pressure to make your sale at the earliest stage possible.

Dislocated from the language

What you get from Heisig is related to the language you are learning but also somewhat disconnected from it. There was an excellent post on the Global Maverick blog (I highly recommend reading this blog), that mostly agrees with the impression that I am forming about Heisig for Chinese.

Suppose for example that you were spending some time investigating whether to learn Chinese or Japanese (perhaps even both). Then during your investigations it may be beneficial to study the traditional Chinese characters with Heisig (will give you a huge boost on your kanji learning if you pick Japanese)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Unusual Chinese Learning Resource 1

I am starting to find that good Chinese learning resources are less and less conventional, sometimes I have mentioned them in forums or added them to lists of resources but from now on I think I will occasionally post a resource on this blog.

Today's resource is This website has some resources for Chinese people learning English with a number of regular postings everyday English 每日英语 for example. The dialogues are written only and sometimes the English they teach feels a little unnatural but the Chinese translations and explanations can be very interesting. If you have time check out some of the dialogues and see if you find any of them interesting.

This is not the first time I have found that resources for Chinese people learning English are of interest, the Internet is a huge boost over anything language learners had previously....

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chinese Conversation Practice part 1


A brief respite from my Heisig related posts (although more to follow). For many language learners there comes a time when they want to practice conversation. If you don't have the benefit of Chinese speaking relatives etc. then this is not always easy to arrange even (apparently) if you are living in a Chinese speaking country. Even supposing you have a Chinese relative or friend or two then there is much benefit to be gained from practicing casual conversation with strangers, you can repeat subject matter and practice different ways of saying something or the different ways that someone may reply in the twists and turns of real conversation.

I am a computer programmer, casual conversation doesn't always come easily in any language ;) however I am happy to have discovered that in the UK there are plenty of Chinese speakers around and plenty of ways to get conversation practice if you need to. This post is just a quick introduction with on very specific example, I hope to follow up with a few more specifics and examples in further posts.

When to have conversations

There is some debate about when to try to start having conversations in your target language, I never attended classes so I try when I feel I want to, I think that is important. Some say that attempting to talk too early causes damage, I don't think so, so long as you are aware of what you are doing and treat what you say as unfixed experimentation (assume that the story is not over and at some stage you will have different/better ways to express the same thing).

Watching an expert in action

A long time ago when the first Asus netbooks came out I was in an electrical shop looking and playing with the display model. A guy in his 30's with an Eastern European accent came up beside me and started talking to me about it, we had an approximately five minute computer related conversation and then went our separate ways. I had a number of things to do in the same area of town and returned to the shop a little later, the same guy had engaged someone else in a conversation about the netbook, I was curious and returned a little later to see the same again, in fact my curiosity was roused even more and I returned a couple of more times in the next hour to see him engaged in conversation with three more people, I overheard a little of some and it seemed he was going over similar territory each time.

I am pretty sure this guy was practicing his computer related conversation, that little Linux netbook was a perfect focus as it was likely to attract people having a least some interest in computing. Even if he wasn't practicing English it is the type of thing I may have done.

One example of many

I think many aspects of getting a conversation in your target language have a lot in common with the advice for how to get into fruitful conversations with members of the opposite sex, in some circumstances the paths may converge, I am happily married however.

One particular technique I like at the moment is a variation on the classic "asking something you already know" method. There is an ancient Chinese character jiong 囧 that has gained new life in comments etc. on social networks because of its resemblance to a human face that can express embarrassment, surprised resignation etc. there is a nice article at the site (nice site with audio although it would be better if a faster version was included). When an opportunity arises (cafe, laundrette, tube train, whatever). I simply sketch the character and ask nicely if the person could explain the characters meaning for me (maybe adding that I guess it represents a face maybe not). I have used this five times so far and always got a great little conversation out of it, this particular approach ticks a lot of boxes.

  • If you approach it correctly it is hard for the Chinese person to be dismissive, it should result in at least a brief conversation.
  • Many Chinese find your choice of character amusing or interesting.
  • There is enough ambiguity about its use that if you ask a group of two or more the conversation can get interesting.
  • This question is level neutral, it gives nothing away about your Chinese level and could easily be asked by a very advanced learner (even some youngish Chinese don't know about it. In fact I am usually told it is a new character rather than an old one that has been reused (although as one Chinese guy pointed out to his friend after a little thought "then how do we type it?")

That is one of many ways I have, do you have any? More to follow on this subject in later posts. Of course the most important thing is to be open open and friendly, a smile works wonders, and as I am sure many have discovered Chinese health shops are usually better than restaurants for practice.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Heisig for Chinese part2 Knowing a character


Been busy and as always sparetime priority is learning Chinese rather than blogging, but got some time now. I think the series of Heisig related posts will continue for a fair while longer, the debate touches on some fundamental learning issues and besides the background reading (both directly related and less directly) is interesting. My schedule for these posts will be a little random and I will start mixing some more interesting posts back in, like how to get into Chinese conversations with real people for example.

So what does it mean to know or read a Chinese character.

Seemingly not very much, many of the posts I have read about using the Heisig approach talk about knowing X amount of characters or the advantage of being able to read Chinese now before you start the rest of the language.

My position would be that someone who starts with Heisig, even after they have completed the course actually knows diddlysquat (a relatively small amount ;)) about each individual character, or perhaps to put it another way they know the character in the same way that many of those friends in their Facebook or similar friends list are actually their friends.

Add to this the fact that in my experience the main thing that you do know about the character (how to handwrite it) I haven't found particularly useful yet...

Ultimatately you could say that discussing the meaning of "know" and "read" is pointless, those using these words know what they mean particularly if they have been studying Chinese for some time already. Unfortunately I remember what it was like to start from scratch and I would have been misled at that point, and based on some the Heisig related posts my expectations would have been much too high.


I don't want to go into too much depth here, but just consider the stages that you and others went through to learn to read English (I assume your mother tongue), painfully assembling each letter, reading out slowly aloud, sub-vocalizing ("hey that kid's lips are moving when he reads"), internal voice (many adults still stuck here), straight to meaning (you can read far faster than you could speak and receive pictures and ideas etc.).

The process with Chinese will have differences however I am saying that with Heisig alone you have barely (made the first step). Of course someone may post a comment below that shows I am wrong (I will be interested to read it).

Many Heisig related posts still refer to reading characters however, combined with other acquired Chinese knowledge this may be the case but in isolation ....


I could leap into a lengthy discussion of various aspects of Chinese but I will just ask you imagine a hypothetical conversation with a new Chinese friend. She writes out a character on a piece of paper to try to illustrate something, you look at the character and although there are vaguely familiar aspects you come up blank, it looks kind of squiggly and squashed becasue she has handwritten it in a cursive style. Realizing your predicament she writes it out again slowly and kindergarten style (like a Child would learn it). Ahhh bingo "I know this character" you say with relief (you told her you have been learning Chinese for 4 months but so far you feel like a loon). "Ohhh you know how to pronounce it?" she asks, ohh dear, "well actually no, but I know it means XXXX in English". Your new found friend frowns a little and consults her electronic dictionary, "well kind of she replies, do you know it's other meanings and did you know we don't use it on it's own". No you didn't, "do you know any words it is used in" she asks helpfully, no you don't. You begin to wonder that if you had spent the Heisig time on learning more Chinese and listening etc. you may have been able to have some sort of conversation in Chinese by now.

Contrived I know, but I hope it illustrates my point, she could have asked you about a grammatical useage or many other things you wouldn't be able to answer, yet somewhere you have ticked a box that indicates that along with 1499 other characters you know this one.

Wrap up

I think that the clue-stick here is in one of the rationales that the Heisig system itself uses to justify learning the characters the Heisig way, the strong dislocation between the characters and the spoken language. If you learn the traditional characters for example much of what you have learned in isolation from the language would be equally applicable to Japanese and Chinese (two very different languages) and in the case of Chinese could be used to write in two mutually unintelligible dialects.

If you read carefully the introductions to the Heisig books this is made quite clear but many blog posts written about Heisig by people who already have a strong grasp of Chinese or Japanese do not address this at all (they are assuming that the reader has a similar domain knowledge, if that is they even take the time to think about it). The average westerner has no grasp of the Asian writing systems (why should they) and nothing really to base informed decisions about study method on. If you are a beginner then use Google by all means read the enthusiastic posts, but as I would always do make sure you read some opposing views before you make a decision about where and when to spend all those hours studying.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Heisig for Chinese Deconstructed Part 1


The Heisig method for learning of Chinese Hanzi seems to be causing some controversy at the moment, the title of the first book for simplified Hanzi is "How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters". The intention of this post is not to discuss the detailed mechanics of the method but to simply state some facts about what the method claims to (and actually does achieve). Some information on the original method via. wikipedia describes learning the Kanji, it should be noted that the method was originally designed for learning the Japanese Kanji (which map approximately in meaning and form to a subset of traditional Chinese characters) this was back in the 1970's. I will focus heavily on what Heisig method gives to a beginner in Chinese (it appears to be recommended to a lot of beginners these days).

Heisig uses memorization techniques to allow you assign an English meaning and to learn to handwrite Chinese characters, you do not learn the pronunciation.

A good post to read alongside this one would be Keith's what the Heisig method is NOT post.

My next post will describe the method in more detail and provide more of a critique, in that post I will also describe at what stage I think Heisig method should be used (if at all) and start to introduce an alternative approach for consideration.

How dare I Deconstruct? .....

Someone is bound to question my right to deconstruct a method I haven't followed through, particularly as I am not an academic linguist etc. etc. My response is simply how could I not deconstruct any method that I may intend to use to help me learn language. Personal deconstruction to draw my own conclusion is faster than the effort needed to put together a blog post of course but in the final analysis a blog post is a blog post, not an academic paper. If you believe any of the facts are wrong then please comment. My next post will have more subjective elements than this one.

In case you feel I am over-analysing and "navel gazing" I should point out I am listening to Chinese content whilst writing this and one reason I don't post more frequently is simply that spare time is usually put towards learning Chinese. I am a strong believer in doing and getting stuck in but also believe that a self-learner of anything should constantly examine the learning method.


Upon completion of Heisig you will be able to assign an English meaning to the majority of Chinese characters you come across. The English meaning will be an approximation of one of the (sometimes many) meanings represented by an Chinese character. You will usually not be able to read even an approximate meaning of the mostly multi-character Chinese words and phrases and in many cases may completely misunderstand multi-character words. The inability to understand multi-character words is compounded by the fact that there is no word separation.

You will have no chance of understanding the many transliterations used in Chinese for names (countries, politicians, brand names, famous people etc.) because these are based on the phonetic (sound) represented by the character.

Your readings of the characters to approximate English meanings will still be based to some extent on analysis, not the fluid instant recognition required for real-time reading.

In summary you will be able to read meaning into simple short phrase and perhaps the odd very simple sentence, apart from that mentioned above the lack of knowledge of measure words and various characters that serve grammatical functions in the sentence will mess with your head.

A person using a combination of Google translate and a mouse-over pop-up dictionary will completely own you in generating an English summary of a Chinese web-page they will require a mere half-an hour of training to kick your butt. If you combine your Heisig derived skills with their tools you won't really perform any better than they can. Of course someone who can speak and write both languages will kick both your butts to the moon and back.


You will be able to hand-write a vast number of Chinese characters, if given the English keyword (often an English meaning if we are feeling generous). This is not to be under-estimated you have learned one of the significant elements of the character, at some point if you wish to be able to hand write Chinese you will have to cross this significant hurdle. You also have a great party trick...

Somewhat bizarrely you have absolutely no ability to write Chinese on a computer (assuming we discount a writing tablet and handwriting recognition for Chinese). You have gained no advantage in interacting with Chinese writing on a computer (none that I can see anyway).

Wrap up

I appreciate Heisig is not intended to be studied in isolation, however most seem to approach it pretty intensively and taking into account the time requirement for Heisig study and review a learner that starts with Heisig isn't realistically going to have progressed very far at this point (Heisig study time eating into other en-devours as well) unless they do Heisig really slowly (which doesn't appear to be the point).

Monday, August 31, 2009

When to learn Chinese Characters?

I believe that it is best to delay formal learning of Chinese characters until you know enough Chinese to be able to start learning to read words that you have already mastered (through listening and speaking), at some point in the future your reading ability will enable you to start learning new words and phrases from reading alone (just like it did in your mother tongue), but initially you should use the phonetic pinyin system to help you with your learning. If this post has a motto it is simply I don't want to learn to read Chinese characters, I want to learn to read Chinese. I think that informal learning about characters from the start won't do any harm and will probably help, including learning about stroke order, and some background about how they are used etc. Formal structured learning at any early stage is at best a distraction of time and energy with little payback in a language that in its written form can be read by mutually unintelligable dialects, at worst it presents an obstacle to actually learning Mandarin. This is my opinion, based on my experiances and research.

I have been too busy recently and am accumulating a whole bunch of things I want to post about, clearly my intention a while ago to attempt to summarize my Chinese learning experience to-date failed, the more I looked back on it the more I felt there was to say. At the moment I am going to develop small series of posts on themes like the previous on language learning not being a new thing, I am spending a little more time now doing background reading and research, eventually I will revisit the posts and go through another stage of refining and drawing conclusions. I want to write a few posts on learning Chinese characters this first one being an introduction. A while ago I posted that the worst thing I did when starting to learn Mandarin was to make any attempt to learn the characters. Many formal courses make their students learn characters (hanzi) right from the start, a traditional approach will involve countless repetition and writing to learn characters by rote. The new student is not in a position to challenge this and often has no choice as their progress is partially monitored by their ability to handwrite the characters they have been given.

To state my situation, I am a self-learner and am learning in a non-Mandarin speaking country with no Chinese relatives, a position similar to that of many English learners throughout the world and a situation that needs to be addressed as a baseline when considering the learning of any language imho. There has been a dominance of input and focus on people living in China, in full-time education and on second generation Chinese living in other countries who have had exposure to Chinese at home (material produced by the Chinese government appears to be particularly focused on this group). Insights from these groups are valuable but need to include the experiances of those learning Mandarin succesfully as a realistic hobby.

The first problem that can mislead the new learner is a statement that will go something like this "you need to know around three thousand characters to read a Chinese newspaper" unfortunately the opposite is not true, if you know three thousand characters that is no indication that you will be able to read anything significant. You will need to know many compound words and different readings first, you will need a reasonable level of Chinese. In fact if all you needed to do was learn a few thousand characters, Chinese would be a ridiculously simple language :) I don't think the realities of the Chinese writing system are usually made clear to the beginner. knowing the characters alone will not allow you read anything significant. Knowing lots of words is better, but will only get you so far. You'll need to learn the language like any other language.

Written Chinese is not phonetic, whilst European languages (and others) represent the sound elements of the spoken language in the written system, Chinese generally represents elements of meaning. This is a crucial difference, an adult learner of English coming to German has already mastered a written system and reading skills that with a little adaptation for language variation can be used straight away to hear German inside their head whilst reading it, even if they don't understand. Encountering a German word they know, they can either go straight to meaning or hop via internal translation (less ideal) either way they can "hear" the word internally. 出口 can be found on both Chinese and Japanese roads to represent an exit, the pronounciation is not similar but when I see 出口 on a sign in Japanese anime I know what it means even though I don't speak Japanese "did I read Japanese or did I read Kanji", in my head I heard chu1kou3 (Chinese), what if didn't know the Chinese but instead knew English meanings for the characters, so read "go out mouth" and guessed exit, then I read neither Japanese or Chinese, I simply read a sign. This non-phonetic system is a crucial aspect of Chinese for a Westerner, take the time to think about the implications, whatever you decide.

Are you a fan of natural approaches to language learning? Chinese children don't start formal character learning until the age of 7/8 (information may be slightly out of date) as is the case everywhere they learn to read their mother tongue with language they already know, it is quite unatural to learn a language from the written form. Arguements could be made that this is not a problem in second language aquisition for languages with a phonetic writing system, especially if the the reading skills you have picked via your mother tongue are directly applicable, but does this approach make sense for a language with a written system that is outside of your experiance? It is a recognised problem amongst Asian students coming to study in the UK that many have good to excellent reading and writing ability in English but poor speaking and understanding because they have spent a lot of their learning time on reading and writing. Why should we be any better if we place too much early emphasis on their written system?

Recently there has been quite a lot of buzz surrounding the Heisig method to master writing and remembering the meanings of Hanzi, this method doesn't teach pronouciation and provides keywords to associate with a character that may only represent a single and/or approximate meaning. I dont doubt that is relatively fast and agree that rote learning is a crazy way to solve the hanzi problem so Heisig method wins on that front. Unfortuanatly the method seems to be being picked up as a good thing to do for beginners. Is it sensible to learn via a written system in a language that is so decoupled from the spoken form? How exactly will be being able to sort of read simple Chinese sentances in English help the learner? The real deal breaker for me is that Heisig will teach you to handwrite the characters but without the pronounciations you cannot enter a single hanzi into a computer, almost all my written Chinese interaction is via a computer, I have met Chinese people who have lived in the UK for a few years who freely admit that their handwriting ability has badly degraded because all their Chinese interaction is via a computer, I have met a Japanese person who laments that the younger generation are losing Kanji handwriting ability because their interaction is increasingly via computer, where is the pressing need to handwrite from the early stages?

If you are on a fossilised course that rates handwritten Kanji or Hanzi in the early stages then Heisig may well be a godsend, if not ......? Obviously I don't 'get' Heisig, it is quite possible I have missed something I have no objection to and in-fact welcome having my stupidity pointed out in comments (so long as you remain reasonably polite ;)). My next post will probably be an attempt to deconstruct the Heisig method (bound to be contraversial) followed by a post describing how I am learning to read Chinese. Excuse spelling/grammatical errors, IT fail has left me without spellchecking and time constraints led me to just dump the post I composed in my head whilst decorating (although some prior web research did occur and I did get a chance to discuss some issues with a Chinese friend).

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Learning Languages is Not A New Thing 3

Keith kindly left a comment on my last post that allows me to tie up this theme for now.
I hope that some day I will have a chance to learn a language like this. I would find 2 really talkative people to live with and hang around for a year while I listen to and watch everything going on. They would even talk to me but I would not be expected to talk back.

I couldn't have put it better myself, not only would I also be interested in such an experiment, if you think about it this is exactly how a child starts to learn their own language. As time goes by the child is expected to participate but expectations are low and the amount of input is high,

So learning language is not a new thing, not just because people have been doing it for many thousands of years but also because we have all done it before.

Keith takes my thoughts one step further than I was intending with his latest post. Experience tells me that Keith is correct, but that doesn't mean I am right of course. I want to spend some time investigating the research behind the erroneous (I think) proposal that adults are at such a big disadvantage learning new languages.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Learning Languages is Not A New Thing 2

In my last related post I started exploring what language learning may have been in the past. Some time ago I watched a film called The 13th Warrior, not a particularly memorable film except for a scene related to language learning that sent a shiver of recognition down my spine. You can watch a clip, unfortunately embedding is disabled otherwise I would have placed it in the post, the language learning scene starts about one minute into the clip, although my journey is far from complete, I have experienced enough that this rings true for me.

Is it realistic that the Arab could learn Viking just by listening? Many people actually think this part of the film is far fetched or even ridiculous, as this guy says Still, the script leaves a lot to discuss as the story is hardly believable at some times (Banderas learning viking language just by listening to them ?).

First you have to realise that this was a long journey and the camp-fire scene represented many evenings (the fades and changing weather are a clue). Although the Arab speaks a little too well on the first attempt (I think we can allow a little poetic licence) we have to remember that he is not just listening to camp-fire conversation, he would be experiencing the stops at settlements, the daily routine etc.etc. in fact he would be in a full-time, completely immersive version of Keith's TV method.

If you have the time I would appreciate your opinions.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Learning Languages Is Not A New Thing 1

A recent post from Steve Kaufmann reminds us that people have been learning new languages for a long, long time. It bothers me, it has bothered me for some time that after thousands of years of people learning languages where they needed to, somehow, recently we seem to have come up with so many ingenious ways to mess it up. When I say bothered I don't mean a foaming at the mouth kind of bothered, the kind that some types of grammar pedants get into every time they spy a misplaced apostrophe or similar. The botheration has reached a point where I feel like writing about it though.

As Steve points out:

The invention of printing was even more recent, and it helped spread the written word. But for most people around the world, things did not change. Most people could not read until the previous century.

Now it seems a common concept that Chinese is especially difficult but if you go back a little in history it was not so clear cut, in fact learning fluency in spoken Chinese did not seem to be such a big deal assuming that you had access to native speakers of course, Take Giles, Herbert Allen, 1845-1935 for example you can read a transcription of an introductory lecture to Chinese he gave.

Giles does not seem think that colloquial (spoken) Chinese is particularly hard:

Colloquial Chinese is a comparatively easy matter. It is, in fact, more easily acquired in the early stages than colloquial French or German. A student will begin to speak from the very first, for the simple reason that there is no other way. There are no Declensions or Conjugations to be learned, and consequently no Paradigms or Irregular Verbs.

In a day or two the student should be able to say a few simple things. After three months he should be able to deal with his ordinary requirements; and after six months he should be able to chatter away more or less accurately on a variety of interesting subjects. A great deal depends upon the method by which he is taught.

Giles does think that the written language is very hard but bear in mind that at that time written Chinese would be much further removed from the spoken form than today. If Giles is correct then why would I find so many people on forums who are still of the opinion you must learn the written alongside the spoken form right from the start.

Writing has become connected with the concept of education, to the extent that to some it would seem un-educated not to learn to read the target language, one put down I received was "I don't want to be illiterate like you seem to". But if we assume that the thing that makes Chinese particularly hard is the written form then why not delay that until you have gained some spoken ability (I learn reading now).

Steve introduces the education element:

Somewhere along the line governments decided that everyone should go to school and read text books. Soon people thought that learning only took place in classrooms.

Gradually our view of language learning changed. School teachers, text book publishers, and linguistics theorists took over.

Ironically Giles actually wrote a book entitled Chinese without a teacher, being a collection of easy and useful sentences in the Mandarin dialect, with a vocabulary, you can read it online. This book is mostly a collection of phrases, not much help in isolation I guess Giles seems to have written it for those in China who needed an intro to get started, I am pretty sure that Giles himself would freely admit that it was poor a substitute for being in China and getting stuck in. The point is that at that time there was no alternative for those not in China so for a little while (relatively speaking) textbooks would have evolved and improved somewhat, would have been presented by teachers in classrooms etc. Now we are at the point however where recent (and not so recent) advances in technology provide a much, much better solution, lots of people don't appear to have noticed (maybe they have a vested interest in not noticing?).

People have been learning languages by listening for thousands of years, when that is an option (which it wouldn't have been for most that read Giles's book) I would suggest that it should be the main option.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Steve Kaufmann and Some Common Sense

Reflecting on my early Chinese learning experiences, I initially felt a little frustrated that so much effort seemed to be expended on activities that were obviously of little use (to me they they were of little use anyway). Assuming (as I did) that the best place for a motivated language learner would be in a country that spoke it, mixing it with the natives. Accepting that this was often not possible (as I had to) why did it seem that so many people we advocating or extending traditional classroom methods that were proven to be ineffective (just look around you for the proof).

Being the language learning newbie that I was (and still am to some extent), I didn't know that there were plenty of people advocating more natural approaches, I had already discovered Chinesepod early on, which presented a refreshing alternative to conventional classroom methods. Then I came across Steve Kaufmann (the Linguist). I think anybody learning languages can get some benefit from Steve's opinions Steve has picked up a fair number and variety of languages and is behind the Lingq language learning site, In my opinion he also talks a lot of sense about language learning. There are plenty of examples of Steve talking various languages and his experiences and advice have the ring of somebody who has put the effort and thought into his language learning. This is a refreshing change from savants or people with extraordinary talents. The stories of savants and people with abnormally wired brains although interesting don't help me (I don't ever expect to be able to "taste sounds" etc.).

The LingQ site seems a good place to practice, I only started using it recently as there is now a reasonable amount of Chinese content with spaces between the words (Chinese is still in Beta and the word parser at LingQ can't separate the word from normal Chinese losing a lot of the useful functionality). The are some interesting Chinese dialogues and you can't do much better than text + audio and some tools to help you work with the words. LingQ appears to be an excellent addition to any language learning program, the only problem being that rather realistically it requires time and motivation so unfortunately it is not likely to cash in like the large quantities of less useful merchandise that promises language learning with little effort (ending in the back of a cupboard with the learner little further enlightened)

You could say (I would at least), that a lot of what Steve says is just common sense (more on this in later posts) but look around you and you will see that common sense is not so common after all.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Using Chinese Radio to help learn Mandarin

More reflection back to early days (and present) of my learning Mandarin experience. I very quickly discovered that the Internet is packed full of opportunities to listen to Chinese media, if anything the modern learner is spoilt compared to language learners of the past. In the early stages listening to Chinese radio can help to acclimatise your ears to the sounds of mandarin, later on you can use it to practice your listening understanding and learn new language.

One huge resource is Chinese radio, like radio stations in other countries many are available to listen to online, with the right software you can even record for later reference, there are some difficulties though. Many Chinese websites still insist on writing pages that only work in Internet Explorer, utilise Windows media player for streaming, have intricate security scripts that break systems that would otherwise work or just load their pages with so much guff that downloads from some countries are almost impossible due to poor bandwidth. Then there is the problem of reading the Chinese to find a station that may be of interest or to find the page that actually has the audio stream (sometimes deviously hidden).

There is some effort involved, step one for all Chinese media online is to master the use of the excellent Videolan (vlc) media player, which will cope with a wide range of audio and video formats and can be used to save streams also (any other suggestions for media players this versatile gratefully received). You are probably going to have to look quite hard to find stations that you like but a good starting point is this Chinese page that has links to a large number of stations (both radio and television), if you are lucky and have the right plugins etc. many will play in your web-page.

I prefer stations that have chat shows or health programmes/phone ins, there is a lot more accessible language than news stations and music stations, I quickly learnt to try stations that have 生活 life) in the title first and usually avoid stations with 新闻 (news) in their title. If a page doesn't play the station (or even if it does) then you can try to view source in your browser to get to the media link. For example one station I like at the moment is a Shanghai story station, the media link is mms:// you should be able to paste this into Windows media player or use it to open a network link in Videolan and listen away.

It can be a lottery, sometimes poor network connectivity can mess up all your attempts, but audio is far more resilient to poor bandwidth than video. How you use these resources is up to you. I invested in some wireless headphones a while ago, so right now I can go outside and do some gardening whilst listening to Chinese radio.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Worst Thing I Did When Starting To Learn Mandarin

Another reflective post that will be referenced when I attempt to summarize the second six months of my Mandarin Chinese learning experience. After looking back on the post I made about the best thing I did in starting to learn Mandarin Chinese, I tried to think of the worst thing I did.

Actually the worst thing I did could have been a lot, lot more damaging but I already had suspicions that it was a bad idea (and a number of raging battles on forums). The worst thing I did was simply trying to expend any effort in learning Chinese characters in the early stages. This is a partly personal thing in that I can see that someone who is living in China and has to read basic signs etc. is probably best of starting right away (but perhaps keeping it pragmatic), however learning on my own from England I gained nothing from my initial attempts to learn characters with flash cards etc. I was still at the very start of learning the language at all and a non-phonetic writing system was not going to help whatsoever.

Here is the start of the problem, I was learning characters for words I didn't really know in the spoken form (certainly didn't know in that natural way that doesn't require internal translation effort), when I was reading the handful of characters I had learned what was I actually reading? (not Chinese for sure even if I fooled myself by sounding them out in my head). Even more bizarre in hindsight, why were so many sources and learners advocating learning to handwrite them, a monumental effort for very little gain for most of us. I can vouch that for some people at least (me being my primary example) you don't have to be able to write a character with a pen to be able to sight read it.

Experience has made me a firm believer in listen, speak/read, write. Generally (there is always room for a little flexibility) learn to read what you can already understand well. Chinese is non-phonetic it would seem sensible to delay reading beyond where you would start with a language that had familiar phonetic system.

I am picking up reading in more natural ways (more on this later although basically described here) and although the journey is far from complete I find that most of what I can read just comes straight in without the need for internal translation. As for handwriting I can only write really basic stuff with a pen but that is not a problem I am sure when I am ready it will come much faster than if I pushed at it now.

Not being the finished article (and even if I was there would be danger that I was some sort of savant that had skills not possessed by most) I can only suggest you give it a try, imagine how the rest of your Chinese might progress if you delayed those pesky character until you were ready. Sadly many on courses don't have an option, I guess if you are learning full-time you can get over the damage but I have to wonder how many self-learners have turned away from Chinese because they attempted to read too quickly.

I suspect that as with English there will come a time when new words and phrases come to me first by reading, but my Chinese will already be generally very good at that time.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Tell Everyone You Are Learning Mandarin

At some point I am going to have to seriously consider the similarities between learning human languages and learning computer languages/frameworks. Having started a new job and having spent some time on the latter, I am now sure that spending a lot of time with computer related learning reduces my capacity to spend time learning languages in a way that learning anything else doesn't. Currently I am just ticking over watching the odd film or video and trying a little reading hear or there.

I feel one or two more reflective posts on the first three months learning Mandarin post and then I will get around to the next three months (after that probably leap in six month blocks). When I finally catch up to the first three years I will attempt to draw everything together into a coherent whole.

Back to the topic, one very significant thing I have noticed is that from my background learning Mandarin is special (as opposed to learning most European languages for example) special to the extent that it has been well worth while telling everybody I am learning it. Overtime I have received numerous books and materials (including Pimsleur mandarin and a very good Chinese character dictionary from China). I have received Chinese language films on DVD that have been picked up from charity shops and church fetes, including "genuine" Chinese pirated versions of the first two Harry Potter movies. I have been introduced to the occasional Chinese friend of a friend for language exchange.

The work situation is even more interesting, telling people resulted in encounters like this one, and eventually meant I got to spend an evening meal with a Director and a bunch of Chinese visitors. If I had not left my last job there was the very real chance I could have secured some Business Chinese lessons. As I was told at the time "you wouldn't get approval for this for French, we already have loads of people who can speak French etc."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mandarin Chinese Learning Resources

Starting to think about what I need to put together to write up the next next three months of my learning Chinese experiance, I eventually have to get all the way up to three years so it is going to take me some time to complete then I hope I can take my shambolic summaries and arrange them into a more organised whole. Meanwhile I have been organising some of the places where I store Mandarin learning resources. I have added three links to right column of this blog.

My Delicous Mandarin links are simply links I have tagged with mandarin on, I have been doing this for a while but am now in the middle of reviewing and checking them.

My Netvibes Mandarin page is a experiment with a different way to collect resources.

My Learning Mandarin Twine is a twine of learning resources, I am hoping that more people will get involved and start participating.

I am going to start using a #mandarin_resource tag on, maybe it will get picked up and used by other people, hopefully not too many of them spammers. Edit daft idea, the tag is too long, going to use the already used #mandarin #learning, I would like to try to use Chinese character tags also but doesn't appear to work with them.

There is also the "Learn Chinese" igoogle page at

Saturday, February 28, 2009

First Three Months Learning Chinese

This guy wants to learn Mandarin for his gap year and asks for tips on Twitter. My advice would be to start listening to Mandarin (any Mandarin at first) to get an ear for it and then to hit the podcasts, that gets him off to a good start

For context I started learning Chinese as a rapidly approaching middle age English man with limited free time, no Chinese connections and only speaking English.

In the beginning there was a void, Ken and Jenny moved within the void and said let there be Chinese.... Okay maybe that is hamming it up a little bit but, looking back at what I wrote podcasts certainly impressed me as a language learning tool and hearing Chinesepod podcasts was a final push that made me pick Mandarin as my language of choice. As far as learning Chinese goes then podcasts are a terrific aid and there are a variety of styles that you can choose from, most are free to listen to (at some level) and many have free transcripts. Sound production quality and website quality varies wildly, but I would suggest take what you can). I listened to a lot, it is fairly easy (especially in the age of cheap easily available mp3 playing devices) to find time in even a busy day to listen to podcasts.

Some observations:

  • I quickly realized that I wanted as little English in the podcasts as possible and language that was natural speed, The Audacity software was a great aid, it allowed me to remix sound and create my own review files.
  • You can listen to podcasts in lots of places and at lots of times where conventional study would be impossible
  • Instructional podcasts require some measure of attention, and even with those that contain natural dialog you are probably better listening to authentic material if you just want to get a feel for the sounds and cadence of the language initially.

There are many Mandarin learning podcasts, I will start adding more and resume maintaining my learning Mandarin Twine. You can find any podcasts added to my Mandarin delicious feeds also (I am going through my Mandarin links, cleaning up and updating) also. I would welcome any further suggestions of Mandarin learning materials also.

In my opinion the biggest obstacle facing most Westerners who come to learn Mandarin is simply that they have not heard the language before. I spent a lot of time listening to Mandarin radio and TV online, listening to films etc, even when I had no hope of understanding what was going on. I think this helped me tremendously. In the early stages it was teaching me the sound of Chinese and I don't think the actual content mattered too much, variety was good though. The really surprising thing is that I see that I did not mention it at all on my blog until much later (I engaged in heated discussions on online forums at the time however). I think the problem was simply that at the time I was not confident that this approach had any merit. I believed it was the logical thing to do but it seemed to fly against common opinion, I was happy to engage in battle on forums but not blogs, although now I see blogging as a way to engage in discussion, there is nothing wrong with putting forward opinions to test them out, it is not a research paper after all.

Of course I have since discovered that other people have a similar opinion. Keith is very interesting as he has learned Japanese in more conventional ways and is now attempting to learn Chinese using an extreme form of listening to authentic content. I will be discussing this subject more in later posts.

Other relevant points:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Blogging for language learning

This post is part of my Chinese learning experiences series but is not tagged as such, it is something I can pull out and link to so that my next post on the first three months is not too long.

Almost immediately after starting to learn Chinese I started blogging about it, that was deliberate, there are many reasons for and styles of blogging, this one was part of my objective to learn a language primarily from the Internet, also a loose record of my thoughts and discoveries, on the whole it has been a success. I think that blogging about language learning can be very helpful and an aid to the process, reading and commenting on blogs of other language learners is also very useful particularly if you don't have time to blog yourself.

This blog doesn't attract enough comments to be a really useful place to test new ideas and engage in heated discussion or to refine/test beliefs (some are though, but I only average around 30 visits a day which isn't quite enough) but there have been some surprising side benefits, many people have approached me with resources and ideas via email and two Chinese speakers local enough for local language exchange have approached me resulting in some very helpful exchanges :). Besides that some of the comments I have had have been very useful. I had to engage moderation recently though as there were a number of thinly disguised adverts.

Looking back, I can see how much I have missed out, see how rushed many posts were, but I don't regret that, I am time poor, I need to leave some time for learning Chinese (although there is nothing stopping me from listening to Chinese whilst I blog :))

Blogging has made connections attracted help and helped me organize my thoughts. On occasion blogging has represented a statement of commitment that may have helped me through sticky patches.

A blog is a commitment of time, but the connections, feedback and reflection received have more than payed me back, I am convinced that I would have not have progressed as far with my learning without it and like an iceberg much of what I have gained has not been visible on the surface. A long time ago I was even interviewed by the Financial Times(I was that 39 year old programmer) although I was slightly misquoted and they missed out some key points (I am told that is par for the course though)

Reflection is useful, I have tidied up a few old posts that had duplicated first paragraphs and realized I need to make a blog roll of other learners blogs.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

My Chinese Learning Experiences

As of last Friday I have been studying Chinese for three years. I am going to take some time to reflect on my progress so far, what went well and the the things that didn't go so well. This is going to require a fair number of blog posts ;) and at least a few weeks, I am starting a new job soon and also have lots to write about internet technologies. Each post will be tagged with chinese_learning_experience. There are also likely to be a number of related post that are referenced (one reason I blog is for my own benefit, so I can come back much later and see how my thoughts are organized).

I have a tendency, to write things out of time context, but for this exercise will be posting events roughly as they happened. firstly though I went looking for something to compare my experiences against. I was very lucky to come across an excellent free available book that documents and analyzes the experiences of a number of successful language learners. I have not read the entire book yet but have gained some powerful insights from what I have read so far. The page at the Language Geek site where I found out about the book, the pdf can be downloaded from here. Naturally like language learning some people won't agree about he book, but I think it is a great resource.

Along with the book, I don't think there is one best way to learn a language, but I believe that when learning anything it is a great advantage to be reflective about your learning and to work out which of your own strengths are applicable.

In the beginning there was a void (my brain is usually empty enough to be described as a void) and not a single word of Chinese moved within the void ...............

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More on Google for learning Language

Following on from my last post Using Google for Lexis, I have a habit of posting thoughts and then searching for what other people are doing, actually I think this is a better way to learn :).

I found using google to learn English.

For example:
"on another hand" 107,000 results
"on other hand" 415,000 results
"on the other hand" 78,700,000 results
The majority rules..

I also found Jim Stroud at explaining How to make Google your English Teacher

Unlike Jim Stroud suggests with learning English I have not found any useful functionality with the ~ character when learning Chinese at, however the * is very useful. Just remember to make sure you are in English mode with your input method, the Chinese * is not the same as * and google will not see it as a character wild card. Basically if you put an asterix in your query then google will substitute any character for the asterix, seeing what comes out the other end can be very instructive.

Google also be used to search specific sites, which can be instructive, for micro-blogging for example you can restrict the search results to by adding to the front of the query.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Using Google for Lexis

I have been very busy recently, learning and developing new programming skills and knowledge, also landing a new job that I will be starting in March. I am still learning Chinese but have not had much time to blog or think too much about the process.

My third anniversary of learning Chinese is imminent (fellow language learner Keith gave me a timely reminder in a recent comment), I have lots to write about and want to do a full analysis of my progress and findings, under the current circumstances it may be a little late though. I also blog in other areas, for example web-based stuff at

One thing I wanted to clear was the importance to me of using for examining lexical chunks. Although primarily written language the Chinese version of Google provides a wonderful resource for examining and testing language. I use it so much that it is hard to provide examples (if that makes sense). On one Chinese social website a long time ago I had written that learning Chinese was my favorite hobby like so: 学中文是我的最喜欢的爱好。 Iused 喜欢 that has a similar meaning to like. A Chinese friend told me I should have used 最大的爱好 the 大 here means makes it more like saying "biggest hobby" in English. I didn't know I could say it this way but it is easy to confirm a search for my original "最喜欢的爱好" on yields 21,700 hits which a least tells me the my attempt was valid. A search for "最大的爱好" yields 628,000 hits which tells me that for this useage at least this is likely to be the more natural version. Even better when looking up phrases you get more valuable knowledge from the search result summaries, little snippets you can read "东北男人最大的爱好是什么?什么样的性格?_百度知道" in English "Northeastern men's favorite hobby is what, has what type of nature, Baidu knows".

Sometimes when I am in a more attentive listening mode of watching or listening to Chinese I have open in a browser window. Did that person say 我怕高 did they mean "I am afraid of heights" I guess so, confirms it with 719 hits, that may not seem a lot but the nature of the hits indicates this is a good phrase in spoken Chinese.

If you create a new phrase from the words you know, but aren't confident or think you may be translating too literally from your mother tongue you can always look for similar on Google.