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."