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.