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?