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.