Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Chinese chugger


A couple of days ago I spotted a Chinese chugger as I was walking back to work, a golden opportunity for conversation that cannot be missed. For more information on what a chugger is (or may be) either follow the link I gave or watch this video. I will use the word chugger for the rest of this post, I am aware that this vocation is not all good or all bad, even though my choice of the term chugger may seem somewhat derogatory.

Generally I don't have a lot of time for chuggers, if I want to donate to a charity I will do so on more than just a brief invitation and introduction (with sales pressure techniques etc.) I have both observed chuggers and sometimes engaged then in conversation (to get a feel for their techniques) I would be fascinated to see some of their training, as they have to break down barriers fast, introduce a concept to a stranger and get them to sign over regular payments all in a short period of time, their techniques and approach have a lot to do with language use and learning.

This particular chugger was pretty obviously Chinese, so I started off right-away by confirming that (in Chinese) and then took the opportunity for a little conversation practice.

The practice

My chugger seemed a little surprised but then discussed my Chinese learning background for a bit, she assumed I was a teacher or lecturer (of what I do not know) based on the fact that the only person who had talked Chinese with her to-date was a lecturer (of what I didn't ask) and to be fair we were quite close to Bristol university. She also asked if I was English (I hadn't spoken any), this happens quite often now, sadly I suspect because other Europeans are considered to be better at languages than us Brits. I was pleased that she seemed quite happy to continue in Chinese, so I was treated to an introduction to Amnesty International in Chinese. I could follow along quite well and could break it up a little by adding comments that led to discussion about myself. Chuggers are supposed to engage you in conversation and explore you opinions etc. the idea being to make you receptive to the sale. During the whole process there were only a few places where she switched to English briefly. On one occasion she was explaining how Amnesty International influences various world organizations (she either didn't trust my Chinese or had learned the script in English and wasn't entirely confident of translating it to Chinese on the fly) on two other occasions she used phrases that had obviously been taught to her as important parts of the sales script and were designed to engage my emotions (the "magic" is much less likely to work on me if not in my mother tongue).

The time was rapidly approaching the sale, I needed a get-out, fairly easy on the one or two occasions I have talked with English chuggers but my Chinese is not good enough for anything complex (and I didn't want to be rude). I explained that I am a computer programmer and although good with computers I was rubbish at managing everyday life so my wife manages everything in that department (although not entirely true this is plausible ;)). I got a comeback that the direct debit wouldn't start straight away etc. so I could check with my wife but I stuck to my guns and that was that.


Chuggers are trained to communicate, the guys (for example) will act more like one of your mates if you are a guy, they may flirt subtly with you if you are a girl and if an older women they will either flirt or present themselves as a nice young man (whichever looks like it will work the best). Some of their techniques for breaking down communication barriers can be reused to break down communication barriers when practicing a language. This Chinese girl is unlikely to be hampered by her English (I don't know how good her English is), she is short and pretty so is looking up at most Western guys in a cute way, also well versed (or a natural) in the simple subtle flirtation that will break down barriers with a lot of guys; leaning in slightly and a quick touch on the forearm with her hand when explaining something or sharing some snippet of knowledge all done so quick you barely notice (but your subconscious will). Studying sales and dating techniques etc. in your own language will certainly give you pointers for communication.

Follow up

I will follow this up by acquiring some extra vocab. and better strategies for exploiting my next language chugger. If in a foreign country studying language then I would definitely find many more of these opportunities. Some people have to communicate with you it is their job, why not exploit that opportunity, of course you would have to be prepared to avoid the date or sale or con. or whatever if that wasn't your goal. I will also track down some Amnesty International information in Chinese online, it will reinforce or remind me of some of the things she said (may put something into active language that was only passive before or move something up from unknown to passive).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Chinese voices

Some fun with recording.

Two different ways I have been playing with sound.

Searching for a voice

Computer crash this weekend has made this post somewhat harder than it should be, I am going to be doing much more output in the future, even in the area that I hate (recording), I have had hangups with telephones even with English, I have used Skype for Chinese (but each time a bag of nerves beforehand) and a microphone always reduces me to a self-conscious wreck. I have very little nerves talking face to face though.
I need get over this, perhaps I will have to take a test where I record my voice or participate in a telephone interview. So increasingly I will record voice files both off the cuff and as part of other exercises. I am not happy with my recorded voice at all, this latest example is particularly slushy and inaccurate but I gave myself one shot to say what I wanted to say (that will force me to get better in real-time). I have fixed on using Audioboo for now as they offer a quick convenient way to record and upload short sound files from an Ipod Touch.
This example is simply about my Chinese voice (I haven't found one yet), obviously I don't want to talk like a girl or a tough guy from and old movie. I summarised it down (a little hurriedly to fit a Twitter post as follows. One reply already points out that rather than referencing movie voices from old films I would be better off looking to TV and new films (true but I still don't know who would be appropriate to copy).

Zombie School

I am always running crazy scenarios in my head, I had one provoked by a Chinese lesson at Popup Chinese, they have some crazy lesson content, but solid Chinese that helps to remember things and some good examples of Northern dialect and pronunciation. The lesson provoked an imaginary movie advert in my head, when I wanted to play with some new Ipod Touch software I decided to pull the advert out into the real world. Over 20 years ago it took a hardware sampler and couple of computers to do this kind of thing now you can do it with an Ipod touch and £8.99 0f software. This is just a bit of fun, the strange beat is to match the syncopated but fast movement of the zombies, and it only really works with headphones or good speakers (the heartbeat I made by modifying a drum sample is too low and quiet for example).
All the voices are me, sampled through a standard IPod mic, just messed around a little with reverb etc. They are pretty much what I hear in my head, I am least satisfied with the news reporter. The guy that says "They are my sons friends, his fellow students" gets played twice because although I don't know how authentic that voice is I heard someone talk just like that when he was being interviewed on a Chinese news program. Yes I know it doesn't make a lot of sense without the video cut scenes that only exist in my head but I had fun.


I sound forced and self-concious, also I seem to make mistakes that I am less likely to make when talking for real (a friend confirmed this for me). I actually feel more comfortable with a microphone when trying to act a part. I will definitely continue experimenting with sound though. And pursue more recorded project similar to the fake film advert.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Change of style

Official notice that this blog is going to change quite considerably in style as my Mandarin Journey alters. There will be some strange (but hopefully thought provoking posts) and details of a journey towards becoming a highly literate Chinese speaker (I have plans and will have fun).

For a blog that is more focused on the early stages of learning a language (after applying what I have learned whilst learning Chinese) than please visit my Thai learning blog.

My next post this weekend will include an audio file that I made with music and some Chinese speaking (I said it will get strange ;)). I think it was an exercise that started me on a journey towards a much higher level of Mandarin.

Mandarin has five tones

Just a quick thought in passing, I have always considered Mandarin to have five basic tones, not the often quoted four. I guess it comes down to how linguists define tones but four tones + the neutral tone in my mind adds up to five. Not using the neutral tone correctly can make works sound wrong or even change the implied meaning. I appreciate that the neutral tone has more of a role to play in multi-syllable words etc. but come on, surely it is a tone? It adds a similar mental load.

I will admit that Thai "feels" a little more like a five tone language, as the middle flat tone in Thai gets a bit more emphasis and can apply to single syllables in their own right rather than just their position in a certain word or phrase, For me though Mandarin has five tones.

Disclaimer: I am ignoring all the bits and pieces that may happen in speech like third tones that may become second (but not quite second) etc. and any extra tones that may sneak into "near Mandarin" dialects.

Anybody else back five tones???

Monday, July 26, 2010

There are lots of Chinese people

Okay, the title of this post is somewhat obvious, there are a lot of Chinese people and in at least three cities and a bunch I towns I frequent it is quite easy to get casual language practice, quite easy to find Chinese people to listen to and with a bit more effort quite easy to find longer conversations. Not so easy as living in a country that speaks your target language of course but much much easier than some languages I guess.

I have been a little quiet here recently but have posted a lot posts on my learning Thai blog, Thai being the second language I have seriously attempted I can focus much better on telling the story of how I learn a language and refine those things that seemed to have worked with learning Chinese. This blog is going to focus more on what happens next after I can cope with everyday conversation (a bit more and a bit less in some cases). I will also deal with what happens as I try "normalising" what I have learned in Chinese with more mainstream leaning, I have decided to take the HSK4 (probably early next year but I haven't checked out the times when I can take it for sure). for now though this post is about yesterday. I emphasize input a lot because I think input is what you spend most of your time doing doing when learning a language....

A fairly lucky day for Chinese practice but you make your own luck to some extent, another rambling brain dump I am afraid but it shows what I do.

Yesterday I went shopping in Bath with my wife, no set plans for language learning, and I have mostly been in Bristol recently. Eventually we wanted a coffee (or similar) so went to a chocolate/coffee shop. This place serves an excellent hot chocolate (forget anything you mostly think you know about hot chocolate, they also do a good mocha coffee), it is also somewhere where about a year ago I had a most excellent and alas too short language learning discussion with a Belgian, a Frenchman, a Malaysian Chinese and another Chinese girl from Shanghai. Today the shop had four (yes 4) Chinese staff. One of which was the girl from Shanghai (after a while Asian people don't all look the same and vice-versa I suspect) she seems to have become a manager there. This gave me the opportunity for a little Chinese chat, nothing spectacular (I was with someone who doesn't speak any Chinese) but everything helps, different accents, different ways of saying the same thing etc.

A little later and my wife wants to look for something I am not interested in so we split up for about 20mins, left to my own devices I go to a Chinese medicine shop I know but the shop is closed there is a sign saying they have moved. I hear Chinese (Bath is a city that has a lot of tourists you often hear Chinese). There is a party of Chinese tourists, some guy is talking to them loudly so I go up and listen. Nothing very interesting, they are talking about lunch apperently the guy (tour leader?) is going to take them to Hai bao for food. Not sure what he means, Ocean something probably, I think of Hai main bao bao (Sponge Bob Square pants). I assume Hai bao is a translation of something English, but don't know. As they march off I walk with them (why not?). I try not to look too obtrusive, perhaps some one will talk to me. They don't walk far, going into a shopping mall and up an escalator and the puzzle is solved, hai bao is there in big Chinese characters, "Ocean Treasure" a Chinese all you can eat buffet restuarant (not very authentic food for the tourists doh!!).

I am in the right place for the medicine shop, these places are everywhere (although fewer since the recession) the staff always speak Mandarin because they get their Chinese Doctors from mainland China and the staff often have to translate for the Doctors (all of their recruitment pages on-line for the various different medicine shops stipulate that the staff must speak good Mandarin (do your homework ;)). Anywhere I have gone in the UK I can usually get at least a little practice in a medicine shop, they are often expensive but you don't have to buy anything, and if you speak Mandarin they often forget the "hard sell". I find out if they have Tiger Balm, how much it is etc. No I don't need it now I have enough but I used to buy it from them where they were previously (the guy behind the counter is new to me though). They have other customers and I have run out of time....

Later on we are in clothes shop, my wife goes to try something on, I let her know I will be back shortly, opposite this shop, there is a mobile phone accessory shop, via a complicated set of coincidences (can't explain all it would take too long) I suspect a Chinese student I knew (I met her and her Chinese finance when they were working in a cafe and we met up a few times last year to practice English and Chinese) has been working there. There are a Chinese couple in the shop, I haven't prepared but say something along the lines of I am looking for an old friend and I think she works there. No problem but apparently she left a while ago and is now studying in Cardiff.

More shopping, and we have lunch (Spanish), a little later and time to go but we have one more coffee in a Starbucks. I draw the shortstraw and whilst my wife finds a table I join the queue, two Chinese people are ahead of me youngish guy and girl, haven't been in England long judging by their clothes, and manner. I spend a little time listening to their conversation, the bits I can hear are fairly simple, they are mostly talking about things in the coffee shop. They don't buy their drinks together, as she leaves to take her drink to the table I start talking with the guy, how long has he been in England (three months) I compliment him on his pronunciation (more English than American which is unusual) he asks me about my Chinese etc. We move into English, some people would say you should never do this but I tend to see communication as a two way thing, he has been in England for a few months and is going to be starting an Engineering masters degree soon, he wants to practice speaking some English.

I am going to try following a few tours of Chinese tourists when I have a chance, should be interesting. I was genuinely looking for someone in the mobile phone shop but if not I could have made up a name and pretended I was (they will just tell me that X has never worked there). I could have asked the Chinese couple in the coffee shop the time (the time in China that is) I have done that about twenty times before and so far no one has asked me why I need to know the time in China even though some have stopped to chat. None of these are long conversations, that can take a little more luck or planning.

When I get home I pull out my Ipod touch and look up a few things that I wasn't sure about, for example I heard the Chinese girl pointing at something and asking in Chinese if it meant xiao fei. the guy confirmed in Chinese that it did. I was puzzled, I assumed she meant tip, Chinese visitors are often worried about tipping but when I got to where there were, none of the signs had anything about tips (service charges or gratuities). When I looked up the word I realized it wasn't xiao3fei4 but xiao1fei4 (to be fair it is harder to eavesdrop when there is a lot of background noise) I should have worked it out though (we become blinded by what we expect), the word "consume" is bound to have been on one of those signs.

Sometimes when moving through a city I don't go five minutes between each occasion I hear Mandarin being spoken by someone. NOW THERE IS A THOUGHT.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The slow language

My Thai language learning may well be too analytical already to ever be able to really master the language (I don't know for sure). I have plans for Chinese that I think will allow me to progress a lot further but I am keeping one language to myself. I am learning it quite slowly but one language is going to be entirely input based for early and middle stages, I won't even blog about it or say what it it is.

As for the more analytical nature of some of my other language learning, I want to see what is going on, I want to be able to come back to it in years to come and understand what happened.

I am aiming to be able to speak a number of languages and start traveling in the not tooo distant future. For this blog however the focus will mainly become what to do to take my Chinese on to the next stage.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Thai blog

My Thai learning blog is now public, starting to learn a new language has really helped me to understand my language learning better, that link is for the first post. I will soon be reviewing the state of my Chinese and planning the next steps in both Chinese and Thai.

For my own purposes (because I know when I look back on it I won't remember it like it was) I have been analyzing thinss too much, I think what I will get back when I seriously start my third language will be a big enough payoff though.

There is a lot there and of it is quite repetitive I guess, also mainly written in haste, so don't be afraid to ask questions if you read a post, I will be happy to answer them even if they are addressed elsewhere.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thai Experiment

I may be quiet here for a little while. I didn't start language learning until quite late in life, Mandarin was my first serious attempt but now I want to apply what I have learned to other languages (whilst continuing with Mandarin of course). For the last eight weeks I have been learning Thai. I have been keeping a private blog (over 20 posts so far) that will be made public soon (within two weeks at the most). I have discovered some surprising things about my language learning.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Pinyin revisited


I haven't posted about Pinyin (the romanisation of Chinese characters) for some time. Thought I would raise a few observations for comment.

Remember the tones with 5 new letters

Here is the weird bit, tones in pinyin are represented with those fiddly little marks over letters that we don't use in English, we find them hard to remember. There are plenty of learners who learn a lot of vocabulary but don't know the tones, they can remember "hen" remember the sound but not the little tick mark that goes over the 'e'. Of course you get those that can but there are plenty of people that don't. Actually a lot of Chinese people that use use pinyin on a daily basis for texting or as in a hanzi computer input method never bother with the tone marks and don't know the rules for where to put them and probably don't know how to input the tone marks on a computer, they don't need them.

Now for the weird bit, all you need to do is add five more letters to your alphabet and you can remember the tone if you remember the pinyin spelling. ying1guo3 tells me how to say England and the tones to use. After all we use letters for numbers in number bases above 10 so FF in base 16 is 255 in base 10, so why not use numbers to help writing and memory? I never bothered setting up a computer so I could type those little tone marks. If I write pinyin with a pen or computer I use numbers and that really really really helps you remember the tones.

It is not a Crutch

It seems a popular misconception amongst some people who haven't learned Chinese or only been learning for some time, that pinyin is a crutch for learners. In reality it is a tool and a tool that Chinese people use themselves, it is used to enter Chinese characters into mobile devices, used as an input method for typing Chinese on computers by most Chinese people, used in Chinese character dictionaries etc. etc.

Older Chinese who don't know pinyin are at a disadvantage, they may have to use a writing tablet to write Chinese etc. etc. so investing time in learning pinyin and learning it well is not going to be a waste.

If someone doesn't progress to learning characters don't blame pinyin.

The Chinese advantage

In Chinese every syllable counts, has a meaning, is a building block. If you master pinyin quickly you can hear words and have a very efficient way to look up the words you have heard in a dictionary

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Pop-up Chinese Resource

Trying to remember to keep posting resources, this time we have Popup Chinese a whole bunch of stuff going on here including help with HSK testing and a variety of podcast lessons. I don't know much about the subscriber facilities for now but you can listen to the lessons for free.

Usually I would look to be practicing with Chinese radio or video now, but recent work pressures and another language project have loaded my brain somewhat, I have quite enjoyed listening to popup Chinese in the background on a few occaisions now. Even on the simpler elementary lessons it is still worthwhile because they tend to introduce a few less well know, more authentic words and phrases and because the speech can often be fast or involve people with accents (as in real life). The scenarios are often outlandish, which I like, it is the speech patterns and words that you need to learn if the scenario is a bit wierd I think that can help you remember.

Definitely worth checking out if you are learning Chinese.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Passion in language learning


I was going to write a comment on this post by Benny but decided to write a post here instead (lest I be accused of negativity). I see more and more of these kind of messages, I don't think they are particularly helpful, I think they are so off the mark in regard to human nature that they are actually harmful.

If you find winging helps you then go for it (I might not want to listen though), if you find you have have a slightly miserable outlook on life yet still achieve then read on. If you hate sugar saccharin sweetness then read on. If on the other hand you have an over active gland somewhere in your brain that truly means you are always upbeat never doubt etc. then leave now and and have a nice day.

Besides is the post entirely positive, aren't people just getting a buzz out off feeling they aren't on of the slackers, getting a buzz out of complaining about the cry babies?

The Commentary

This is going to hurt but here goes, as Benny says this applies to many things in life, you can apply the same positivity logic to many often more important things, people who ruin their health with smoking or over eating or drug addiction. You can move into socially sensitive areas ("stop winging about not having children, you made the life choice that left it too late") but most people don't feel comfortable when you do that etc. etc. Actually for most instances language learning isn't important enough to warrant the worry in comparison to much more important ones (although learning a language can be vital for some to be sure).

The truth is many of the wingers didn't want it enough and some of them may be stable geniuses and satisfied over achievers in other areas, it is human nature to blame something else, whether failing to lose that two stone of weight or pass the MBA exams. People that achieve things often successfully apply this attitude in one area or another and yes it is important, but we are humans which means that very few people can take this approach in every area of their life or we would all be enlightened beings by now ;)

It is easy to find negativity in any endeavour but also easy to find positivity, yes people whine about tones in Asian languages but I picked up a book from a charity shop today about Thai that was very positive and upbeat about tones and that was written 20 years ago, go back over one hundred years and the famous Mr Giles tells us that spoken Chinese is quite easy to learn and six months or so should have you chatting away about all sort of matters (and they didn't even have mp3). When I started Mandarin I found lots of negativity but lots of positivity also and advice, and bloggers telling a more compelling message than the textbook, a message that supported my own positivity in knowing that I could learn to talk with Chinese people on my own in England (not being negative here I didn't actually want to travel at that time :O ) The Internet opened up my language learning world and there is plenty of positivity there when you need it.

For anyone who is inspired by the positivity post, then congratulations you have learned a life lesson but not about language learning, rather about learning or achieving almost anything. Now the good news is you can skip any similar post on any other area you become interested in and save time (a positive message).

For anyone who reads the post and feels guilty because they are one of the wingers then either get stuck in or decide that actually you don't really care enough about languages and be what you can be somewhere else, be positive about the things you have achieved :) You probably have a bigger car or a bigger $%^! than these successful language learners anyway and hey remember you play the saxophone like a god... (a positive message).

The danger is that life is a balance, be too positive and you can be positive that that evening course really is going to teach me to speak Mandarin this side of age 100 (and where would that have left me). But it runs deeper some of the greatest achievers are those that are never satisfied no matter what, they always award themselves 1 out of 10 no matter what, or they are often tortured by self doubt or other negative emotions. Not sure I want to be like that but I reap the rewards offered by those that are, the artists (I don't think Van Gough was on the whole very positive), the writers (Hemingway, Poe .... ) the scientists ..... and quite frankly if people like that want to winge or wake up some nights in a cold sweat of self doubt I say let them.

Take away the negative and you take away Punk music, you take away Joy Division Love Will Tear us Apart, you take away so much that is me, my tongue can taste both bitter and sweet and every aspect of my life is the same including my own attitude to life.

If you like this comment then be aware that it was mostly driven by negativity (with a twist of passion) but I guess most people can find positive messages in it if they are positive enough in their outlook (a kind of negative-positive mobius strip). I really, really do believe however that too much positivity is bad, like too much sugar, there are some things that taste better with lemon, sometimes a touch of wistfulness and melancholy with a glass of good wine is better than happiness at that moment. No I didn't skip the post but being human I often forget to apply my own life hacks (doh).

If someone is always positive then why change anything?

The next level doesn't even require you to be positive or negative, be the language, the language just is... learning Chinese? then be Chinese, at that time, (maybe a Chinese amnesiac who has to learn his own language again ;)). Don't judge the language, accept it. If you drive your language learning on positivity alone there is a danger that the energy can run out. IF you can find a way to drive the learning from both positive, negative and neutral feelings you will drive forward and learn something every single day, it will be impossible to go a single day without engaging with the language you will be in love with the language (and love of course is both bitter and sweet).

Maybe some will feel this is an inappropriate comment on Benny's positivity post but look again, can you feel the passion, I am passionate about some issues, and in a fight of emotions I would take passion over positivity any day. Think of passionate people (are they always positive?) even with negativity they can achieve their dreams.

Monday, April 05, 2010

How much do you want to learn like a child?

I am working on a mini-project at the moment that is helping to focus my views and opinions on language learning. One big battle that is raging is between natural methods and academic methods, although I guess very few people sit right at either extreme. Part of the battle rages over learning like a child (natural) and the view that once we have passed puberty we can't use certain abilities (that help us absorb language rather than study language for example). My approach is developing into a mostly natural one but with some big exceptions, I justify my exceptions on the basis that in many ways children suck at learning languages.

Children and nature do some really dumb things when it comes to learning language, some are their own fault and some are just down to plain circumstance, here are a few examples.

Firstly they start learning languages before they have the cognitive ability to do it properly (or maybe they need the language to develop the cognitive ability it doesn't matter either way). So even at the stage when they have a growing vocabulary a good ear for their mother tongue they are still missing some abstract thinking capabilities, the ability to see things from someone else's point of view etc. this really restricts their progress and understanding of the language.

Secondly they spend a lot of their formative years hanging around with and conversing with other learners of the same language (other Children in fact). Don't they know that they should live in the target language not hang around with a bunch of 'expats' that don't speak it properly yet.

Thirdly they are lazy, very lazy most of them don't try, they can learn their target language far faster if they apply themselves rather than let nature take its course, the occasional precocious child or bookworm show quite clearly how much faster they could learn.

Fourthly they consistently try to talk even before they are ready (whoa there you are going to get fossilized little fella stop that meaningless babble and wait until you are ready to say it properly).

Fifthly as they get older many of them not only hang around mostly with fellow learners they even actively resist the target language, often going so far as to make up their own words, change the meanings of words or adopt language from another culture/dialect just because it seems cooler. They can carry this to the extent that they will alienate any of their fellow learners who appear to be too good at the target language ("grown up").

Sixthly there is no consistency each child depending on circumstance and interest bumbles around picking up what they can, so a bunch of little classmates may have some who know how to say their primary colors, a precocious child who loves learning colours and knows the difference between tope and aqua-marine, some annoying child who loves cars, won't say any colors and points at red saying "brake light" and little billy who seems happily oblivious to any color language and if you don't pull up your socks young man I am going to have to fill in a bunch of forms, talk to your parents and get a specialist in to test your vision (sigh!).

Do I need to continue? There are many more stupid things that Children and nature do when it comes to language, perhaps because it is compromise, perhaps because talking apes aren't natural at all, perhaps because the selfish meme idea is correct (do we speak languages because we evolved that way or did we evolve this way because some ape like creature got infected with proto language and from that point there was no going back).

Because of all this and because of the fact that I was already almost 40 before I started learning foreign languages (and I want to learn about five of the damn things mostly becasue it is best hobby I found for a long time) I will cherrypick. I am happy to listen to language I don't understand (when I think it is helpful). I am also happy to watch video WITH subtitles, and without, unlike the Child I have already been infected with one language I can use it to speed things up (if I am careful). I am not afraid of fossilisation (I don't see how some naturalists can argue that yes I can absorb like a child but no I can't avoid fossilisation of my mistakes like a child).

I am a naturalist, I disdain grammar study, ignore textbooks, I will use the most natural effective approaches I can and armed with my Ipod touch ERRRK (not exactly natural), armed with my Video ERRRK (also not very natural), my mp3's ohhh damn this isn't looking anything like when I learned my mother tongue!

Sighh nothing is ever simple is it? Perhaps I should just grab the language when and how feels good at the time, apply meaning to it when and how I feel like it, check back with reality every now and again to ensure I am making progress avoid stress and have fun. I do want to make reasonably rapid progress though so when that stops happening I will think again.

SocialMandarin and Chinese swear words

I will keep trying to interleave my posts with links to resources, today we have this site is very young at the moment and needs users to join and contribute so why not give it a go. It is a place for Mandarin learners to share and comment on Mandarin resources.

I am confident that you will already find something of interest there, I found the following on Chinese swear words and slang now I know why someone I follow on twitter occasionally drops 靠 into his tweets..

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Chinese Reading Experiance


My last post described my experience learning to read English this one extends this to my experience of learning to read Chinese so far. Let me say that I haven't completed this process yet and that this post may summarize some details and opinions that will be elaborated on in later posts. My approach has been more about acquiring characters than learning them and it has progressed far enough for me to think that it is successful.

First appraisal

Here is what I quickly found out when I started, Chinese is not phonetic, did you hear that Chinese is not phonetic. This means that Chinese as it sits on the page and unlike my mother tongue has no sound ... it is silent it has no sound except the sound that I give it and that sound may be completely different depending on the language/dialect that is applied. That is huge, that makes me instantly stop listening to anybody who is European and tries to justify approaches to reading based on European languages or how they used subtitles to learn Spanish etc. To be scientific it about it their conclusions may or may not be correct but they are completely unconnected to their reasoning. Everything changes, a Mandarin speaker may be able to read and understand the writing of a Cantonese speaker despite not being able to speak each others language he will have no idea what it is supposed to sound like, whereas an English speaker can quickly learn to "hear" the writing of a German speaker even if he has no idea what it means. At first glance the Chinese have the upper hand but consider that the Mandarin speaker cannot learn Cantonese from the writing but an English speaker could conceivable get most of the way to mastery of German entirely through the written form, and that the advantage of meaning over sound comes at the price of having to master a harder writing system.

Process (or lack of it)

I have long ago decided that dictionaries are unreliable, they are not even particularly good at defining a word in a language, in its own language, if I know the definition of a foreign word in my own language I have often barely started to learn it. If I started intensively learning to read Chinese when I started learning Chinese, I would be learning to read words I didn't know, learning to read English meanings for characters that have no sound. If I wait however I will be learning to read words I know, I will be hearing Chinese. I decided I AM NOT READING CHINESE UNLESS I AM HEARING IT.

Acquiring characters means that I have learned to write some but never really stressed about it, I have learned the stroke order rules by occasionally trying to write a character and then watching an animation, have learned reading a lot of characters by watching subtitles for Chinese when I can understand the audio (I understand a lot of learners work this the other way around), extended my learning by using Chinese subtitles on English audio and recently using Chinese subtitles to understand material were the audio is in a language I do not understand, have used a genuine zidian (Chinese character dictionary) to look up characters by radical and stroke count (only a little), have acquired familiarity with a number of radicals and character components and phonetic elements without really studying them etc etc. I have noticed characters by looking at them when looking up words but not learning them. I have run pop-up translators over text to read (but always strived to use them less because it slows me down), have modified pop-up translators to only give pinyin for characters (no definition). I hope that big mush of text above gives the impression that I have been attentive to characters but mostly concentrating on learning Chinese not Hanzi. I can almost exclusively only read or understand written Chinese I can already speak and when I read Chinese I hear Mandarin in my head (sometimes now the really familiar stuff goes straight to pictures and meaning).

This means that my handwritten Chinese is poor, I can use my finger to write things like 我是一个英国人正在学中文,下一步是什么? on misty a bus window but not enough characters in my handwritten repertoire to make many sentences. I hardly ever need to handwrite Chinese though. When I read, I read the stuff I know well fast, and can quickly work out a whole bunch more, sometimes I can read a few paragraphs from a personal email with hardly a pause. I still have many problem areas and am particularly weak with news articles, I did worry about the news thing but discovered some Chinese people I met who had lived in England for years, worked in England and who I considered to have good English, still struggled with our news, so news is awaiting an assault later this year.

I read a lot, starting to read novels, but cutting my reading teeth on snippets from Twitter and bits I find in Google when searching for words and phrases. So I can read 上个月家里用了 1,000 kW•h 的电,怎么搞的,我还在想是不是什么漏电了。 and just need to look up 漏电. Or I can read 孩子不肯睡觉有许多原因:怕黑、担心自己不能醒来、害怕一个人睡觉等等。同睡觉相比,他们无疑更喜欢玩或看电视,而且他们愿意你总在他们身边关照他们。 Pushing it somewhat I can read 建工作正在进行中的奉节县城,迎来一男一女两个山西人。   男人韩三明(韩三明饰)来自汾阳,是名忠厚老实的煤矿工人,来奉节为寻十六年未见的前妻。前妻是他当年用钱买来的,生完孩子后跑回了奉节。寻找前妻的过程中波折不断,韩三明决定留下来做苦力一直等到前妻出现。女人赵红(赵涛饰)来自太原,是名沉默寡言的护士,为寻多日不曾与自己联系的丈夫而来奉节。丈夫与她的夫妻关系早已是有名无实,这点她虽然深知,仍想让丈夫当面给她个说法。赵红的找寻过程也不是一帆风顺,丈夫在有意无意地躲着她。韩三明和赵红虽不认识,却因为要做相对意义上的“拿起”与“舍弃”抉择,在冥冥之中有了某种神秘的联系。   本片荣获2006年第63届威尼斯国际电影节金狮奖。 © 豆瓣 with the aid of looking up a few words and having watched the film in question.

I still have far too many gaps and gaping caverns, my method of learning to read Chinese would be useless for passing tests in college (good job I don't need to pass tests) but now I am in a virtuous cycle, the more I read the better I get.

This post is a summary, it is hard to describe what is going on in the sub-concious, apologies it won't be of interest to most people, but I decided I didn't need to stress about learning Hanzi and it appears that in my case I was right, and when I read I hear Chinese, when I learn a new phrase from reading, I can say it if I wish, job done.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Sound of Reading

What sound does reading make? At first glance this may appear to be strange question but I believe the answer to the question is key to how you should approach learning a language. First let me map a typical path to reading mastery of English (should also apply to many European languages and languages with a simple phonetic script) as a mother tongue.

I was lucky because when I went to school in England they hadn't started the stupid approach that means they try to cram "measurable" and "iterative" learning of reading English (based on letters and writing and testing etc.) as early as possible into a child's life, this means that I was already over five years of age before I starting doing any formal learning of the English alphabet and that I can remember learning to read (my mother and her contempories were wisely told NOT to try to teach us to read prior to attending school). The sound of reading was my mother or father reading a story to me, I knew somehow the story was encoded in the page (becasue every time they told the same story it was the same words and they turned the pages at the same point) but I was more interested in the picutures and hearing the story they were telling me. So the sound of reading was my parents voices and besides I had no real time to worry about the writing becasue there was the story, there were the pictures and there were the many new words that I was hearing and learning in the stories. By the time I started schooling I guess I could probably recognise a few words that were of special interest in my life "toy" "sweets" etc. and that were important to recognise on signs especially when out shopping but I certainly could not break them down into their component letters and sounds.

At school the sound of reading suddenly took a turn for the worse, the sound of reading was a teachers voice whilst pointing at letters and expecting us to learn that "a is for apple", "b is for ball", ......, "i is for indian" etc. etc. I can still remember vividly the chart that we had on the wall. At home I was not longer interested in the book when my parents read a story to me, I liked stories especially adventure stories, if I was lucky enough to get a story I just want to listen and enjoy now. Sometimes they read to me and I was supposed to pay attention to the words, I hated it, those times the stories weren't the least bit interesting, they weren't even stories "Dick is sad." actually "Chris is SAD", "Jane helps Dick", bring back the dragons and griffons and pirates.

Next the sound of reading was my own voice, me reading the awful Dick and Jane stories and adults expecting me to read out aloud what was on the page. This code of letters to sounds was complicated (especially as English often cheats and throws a curve ball). I had to read the things out loud and then I simultaneously understood, it was boring and tedious and it was my voice uttering the boring words but I guess it was kind of fun and motivating when I got it right and the adults were happy.

The voice in my head retreated internally, reading was my voice still, but I didn't have to say the sounds to understand the reading, I heard them in my head. Some kids took longer it seemed and were embarrassed or cheated by saying the sounds in a not saying them kind of way "His lips are moving when he reads". As time progress I may hear other voices in the my head as I read that were the characters I was reading about but I guess that was just my internal voice imitating. Steadily I was getting to the point where I could read anything I could say and sound out words that I couldn't understand, which meant I could ask an adult the meaning of word I didn't know. Via reading I could actually hear words I didn't know the meaning of and say them out aloud or even listen out for them being used in speech. I didn't connect all the dots just then but amazing don't you agree?

Wham, I can read the stories, the real stories the interesting ones, the adventures, if I get past this silly color graded reading scheme I am on the teachers would let me take the real books on the shelf, the ones meant for the older kids, "The Hobbit".

Quickly I came to love reading, the more I read the faster I got and the more I learned. At some point the internal dialogue was too slow and somehow my mind started to connect words and groups of words in such a way that once I got into a book then the words vanished and a movie played in my head, fastest during descriptive seactions and perhaps slowing for dialogues. I don't know if this is way that everybody learns to read faster than speaking (an I think many people don't get to this point) but I have talked to enough people to know that many do it the same way. For example a friend of a friend at school read many books, very fast (if you check a book out from your local library in the morning and check it back it at lunch time, annoying them because before computers they hadn't had time to move the cards around to the right place, you are reading fast). One day he had to submit a book report on his favorite book, he picked a new one that was very popular with all of us "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy". A major character in the book is called Ford Prefect, in his report he mistakenly called the character Ford Perfect. Many people wouldn't believe that he had misread the name throughout the book so many times, but actually he only misread it once, the first time after that he never read the name at all just saw his image of the character or heard "Ford Perfect" whenever he saw the word, a weakness of this approach for sure but more than compensated by the fact that you can read more and fully remember the story even if you get the odd name wrong. I was lucky I knew that the Ford Prefect (the character mistakenly chose it for his name because he thought it was human name) becauswas a car my Mum had one once.

I learned my mother tongue through sound at first, then I extended my knowledge of the language through reading which as you can see was intimately connected with the sound. Only when completely acquainted did reading begin to go straight to meaning.

Now most European languages use a written system that is similar enough to mine that I can very quickly learn how to "hear" the language by reading the text, stage one think about how people from that country accent English when they speak it, stage two practice with some text and audio and very quickly I should be able to get to the point where I can read the language and "hear" it in my head, even though I do not understand it, or I could read it out aloud without understanding, yet a native speaker could understand what I read. Combine this with a little passive acquisition over my lifetime, a few cognates splattered around and then the following occurs: my wife gives me a toy that has no English instructions, we know that it is a Dinosaur Egg but don't know what to do with it, on the back I have the instructions in German, French, Italian and Spanish. I can fairly quickly decipher an English translation from the combination, starting with my strongest suit (German, more on that in a later post) and then cherry picking sentences from the other languages to fill in the gaps with all the languages in their phonetic glory and a strong dose of context this could probably work quite well in a number of circumstances. Nobody in their right mind would say that I can speak any of these languages but of course being a European I have at least acquired some passive knowledge and also share a language that has connections to them.

Die Suche nach den letzen dinosauriern hat begonnen, Place ton OEUF DE DINOSAURE in warmes Wasser et regarde, es magisch beggint. etc. etc. The magic truly does begin.

Starting any of these European languages I would of course engage with reading straight away.

Chinese however, now that is a completely different story, I have a busy week, next week but in a week or so my next post will describe how I have been learning to read in Chinese and where I have got to.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Old Chinese Movies

I am going to make sure I regularly post Chinese learning resources on this blog, particularly resources that are less obvious or well known. When it comes to media resources, us internet users are truly spoilt for choice. I had a brief bout of enjoying old Chinese movies a while back and am going to revisit the genre again, now that my Chinese is a little better.

A good place to start is, I will give you a link to a search for mandarin in their movies category, a few strange ones in there but a whole bunch of older Chinese films you can download right now for free. My personal favourite so far is Street Angel there are plenty of reviews and information on the page I have linked to.

The dialogue in these movies can be quite accessible to learners, and not too dated (although the first time I heard a Chinese person say the infamous 马马虎虎 was in Street Angel) in fact a Chinese person told me that the dialogue in most of these movies that are contemporary to their time should be better for learners than watching a modern Chinese historical drama (that is set a few hundred years ago and often use slightly funky language to sound "authentic"). Obviously you will encounter some propaganda also. usually provides a number of downloads of differing quality, what are you waiting for?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Chinese vocabulary lists

Sometimes apparently a picture tells a thousand words, in this case I think a video does a much better job, first let me make it clear, I do not like vocabulary lists and I do not like language learning approaches that rely heavily on them. Recently I had a go at some Cantonese learning material I was given, it started with a lesson on a dialogue with a fruit seller, part of the lesson material is a long list of fruit to learn in Cantonese, part of the review and audio exercise is to test you on your knowledge of fruit in Cantonese when you barely have any other vocabulary. A lot of language learning material seems to take a similar approach, take a fictional situation and give you a whole bunch of supporting vocabulary around that situation, surely better by far would be to introduce two common items of fruit and extend the vocabulary around areas in the situation that can be applied elsewhere, more fundamental language learning areas.

If I need to learn a lot of fruit, then a good dictionary and/or Internet allow me to compile my own vocab list easily, a list relevant to me. I can cope with this kind of material, usually I would just learn one 'fruit' and substitute that but some learning material would make that approach hard. To extend this further I deliberately decide not to learn many words (whereever I find them), leave them until later. For the longest time I only knew 3 or 4 colors, could only count to 100 etc, I was aware of others but didn't feel the need to learn a long list of colors before I had enough vocab. to have meaningful conversations about colored objects. You can only learn so much a once so learn what seems most naturally relevant.

Once I attended an evening class for intermediate learners, the teacher approach seemed very similar to the trainer in this video (although obviously not for self-defence). It quickly became clear that although the teacher was very keen to try to put her students in a very good light in comparison to me (a self-learner) they had no real ability to range outside of the situations they had been taught (the 'pointed stick' situations). This didn't make the teacher change her mind about her approach however, the final conclusion was simply that I am the exception that proves the rule. I never bothered returning to the evening class after the experiment.

Increasingly I am studying linguistics related material that I can find, I think this article Vocabulary Size, Text Coverage And Word Lists - 1997 has some relevance to the topic and is an interesting read besides. The following section in particular.
We are now ready to answer the question "How much vocabulary does a second language learner need?" Clearly the learner needs to know the 3,000 or so high frequency words of the language. These are an immediate high priority and there is little sense in focusing on other vocabulary until these are well learned. Nation (1990) argues that after these high frequency words are learned, the next focus for the teacher is on helping the learners develop strategies to comprehend and learn the low frequency words of the language. Because of the very poor coverage that low frequency words give, it is not worth spending class time on actually teaching these words. It is more efficient to spend class time on the strategies of (1) guessing from context, (2) using word parts and mnemonic techniques to remember words, and (3) using vocabulary cards to remember foreign language - first language word pairs. Detailed description of these strategies can be found in Nation (1990). Notice that although the teacher's focus is on helping learners gain control of important strategies, a major function of these strategies is to help the learners to continue to learn new words and increase their vocabulary size.
Not everything in this paper agrees with my views, but then I will hardly learn and develop by only reading things I agree with will I?

I hope you enjoy the video and I hope you understand the message I am trying to convey, I can see the relevance of specialized vocabulary list of words to help you in a particular situation but would assume you already have a decent understanding of Chinese, vocabulary lists if used are a very personal thing in my opinion. However you may be learning Chinese, are you safe from the pointed sticks?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Slow Chinese Resource

Slow Chinese is a great learning resource. A blog provided by a native Chinese (Xinyu Weng). Currently there are 36 articles all with audio.

The Chinese is spoken slowly and clearly (some people have said too slowly but hey read the title, it does what it says on the tin) and the language used is accessible (it has been pointed out maybe slightly too accessible in places, but I think that is appropiate to the aim of the site).

I am using the site mainly at the moment to improve my reading, it is great to have the option to listen to audio, particularly as my approach to learning Chinese means that at the moment I can understand considerably more than I can sight read (being addressed right now though), still learning a bunch of new words from it also.

You can find the podcast in Itunes and text is included in the description (so you can read whilst listening). If you prefer the audio a little faster then my Ipod touch does a reasonable job playing at 2x speed (the pitch is held constant it is just the speed that is increased). If need you could probably do a reasonable job of increasing the speed using a tool like audacity.

Ok not entirely natural but that is the point, there are plenty of natural sources of native Chinese, Slow Chinese however can be a great help for learners looking for either listening or reading (with audio) practice or both.

If anybody knows of any similar resources with the same aim then let me know.

If you use this resoure, and like it then consider leaving a donation to the author, it will encourage more of the same I hope and perhaps some variations.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Motivation In Learning Chinese


Haven't blogged for a long time, been far too busy recently and frankly working too hard (more than is good for my health). Still learning Chinese though and moving into new areas, but then I am a well motivated learner, a highly motivated self-learner. Actually the previous sentence is rubbish who am I kidding? I am just having fun and relaxing, enjoying myself, challenging myself a little, nobody ever had to motivate me to do that.

Whilst motivation in teaching Children to learn in general is important, I don't understand the relevance of much of the motivation discussions for adult learners. What kind of crazy mess are we in that there is a problem with motivation of adult students. If they aren't motivated why are they there (simply get a job or study something else, it not complicated), how did they end up on the course in the first place? If your course isn't helping motivated learners why is your course there?

Motivation, is surely something that comes from the inside, not something that can be poured in from the outside (outside events can motivate you but you still have to spark it up yourself). It is simple, you want to do something or be something, you work out what you need to do, get some help if needed and do the things to make it happen. You measure your success by getting nearer to the thing you want to be or achieve. If you can't do the things that are needed either you are incapable (get realistic) or you don't want it enough (find something that else that is worthwhile to you). If you can't find anything worthwhile then by all means blame the world, order more fast food and spend as much free time as you have blobbing out munching grease (or even eating healthy organic food I suppose), in front of mind-numbing TV (even choosing to do nothing is a choice).

What motivates me

Many many many years ago, I worked out a system for being motivated and it has helped me to accomplish a few life changing events, I am human though and suffer from my fair share of human frailties and weaknesses so my system has not converted me in some kind of supreme, being that has perfected every aspect of his life prior to moving onto the next plane of existence. When I feel I need to apply it though it works. In summary it was provoked by light cones and the many worlds theory, but you don't need to understand these to understand how I apply it. for example assuming the sun is fine now then what ever catastrophe hits it I will remain unaffected for around 8 minutes (light or radiation, or the stoppage of light can't get to me for that long because of the distance). In the same way assuming I imagine (and I do take the time to imagine so I know what I am aiming at) a me that can speak Chinese fluently, then the first time I decide I want to be that me I cannot possibly achieve it by tomorrow, I don't know how long it will take but I can start to guess (unlike the speed of light in vacuum the speed of learning Chinese is not a constant, but at the moment until someone invents a brain knowledge download device I can make some guesses).

I have to do things to bring the imagined goal closer and I have make realistic guesses how much closer it is (rather than focusing on the effort I put into it or using non-related indicators to measure progress). Every action that I take may or may not effect the probability that I achieve the goal (the probability that I eventually occupy the world where I speak Chinese), you could be honest and step outside of yourself and ask if I was someone else would they be prepared to bet on my achieving that goal, what odds would they give/accept at this point in time.

I am motivated by wanting to do/be something enough that it overcomes the inertia of being lazy or wanting to work on something else. Other people have motivated me, but I never expect someone to or offload that responsibility.

I really dislike the current trend where you hear approaches like we are all "good looking (Americans seem obsessed with this) , smart, intelligent, young (old doods are fossils of course and can't do anything) etc.etc.) If you need your ego massaged to do something then ..... go somewhere where charisma counts more than results and where everybody smells of rainbows. Basically the me that I imagine that can speak fluent Chinese doesn't miraculously become good looking with flashy white teeth and doesn't actually need to be that smart. I am ugly, middle aged and maybe sometimes a bit smelly, that has nothing to do with learning Chinese (so long as I don't let it get to point where Chinese people can't bear talk with me of course ;)). I don't need to be pampered, pumped up, feeling happy etc. to learn, maybe I will be tired, sad, even a little depressed at some times doing the process, fair enough that is life. In fact if I can make it fun, then that would be a trick, if I can make it self-driven then that would be a trick.... I have posted about effortless learning in the past.

I don't need someone to sugar coat the problem or prod me by pretending it will be easy or quick or give me gold stars every time I cough up a Chinese word (maybe when I was five year old but not now). I am driven by a more English drive, I like to hear how hard it is, that makes the goal more sweet, or even provides two goals, I can both try to achieve the end result and try to find an easier way.

What motivates other people

I am in awe of the motivation and dedication I see in other people, people who play golf for example, will happily sacrifice huge chunks of their free time in the pursuit of improving their game. The strength of character required to put all that time into improving their golf game is phenomenal, I am sure that their none golfing partners are grateful and supportive to the hardworking self-motivated golfers. People who like beer for example I have known many who will selflessly sacrifice most of their evenings to the selfless pursuit of excellence in beer drinking, even to the extent of risking their health due to intoxicating effects. Those dedicated selfless souls who religiously quality control the modern music industry, listening with due diligence to hours and hours on their Ipods, on buses in cafes etc. whilst I selfishly use the same device to listen to Chinese (shame on me). Those dedicated fishermen who will set forth in the middle of the night to go somewhere in the cold and spend a freezing wet day on a riverbank fishing (I have to assume that they are keeping the skills alive for times when other foods may run out). The elevated souls that sit honing their brains on crossword puzzles, sudoko puzzles and Nintendo brain trainers, the best I can feebly manage in my lazyness it to hone mine on language learning. Last but not least, my own teenage sons, I never would have thought that young people could work so hard, risk so much damage to their thumbs, sacrifice so much of the free time in the pursuit of playstation game excellence. To all these amazing people I salute you, this humble soul has no concept of how you do it.

I know that are more deep issues at play for some people, what if you have to learn a language as the side effect of another goal for example. I will revisit this and other topics another time when I feel motivated enough.