March 2012 update – revitalizing Mandarin

2012-03-24

Hi all. I’ve been a bit absent from the land of language learning for a while. I’ve had several other projects on the go and have been generally busy.

Currently I’m working at a new job, where many of my coworkers are native Mandarin speakers. I’m hoping to revitalize my Mandarin skills over the next little while.

My first step is to do lots of listening, to revive the “natural” feeling. By this, I mean that I want the language to again feel really familiar, which is a vague feeling I get after having lots of exposure to it. I’m also hoping that lots of listening will reactivate some of the vocabulary that I’ve nearly forgotten.

Next is learning new vocabulary, or relearning words that are well on the way to being forgotten. For this, I’ll be using a parallel text of Harry Potter. I can read through the Chinese half with mouseover translation for some of the words, and use the corresponding English paragraph to confirm that I have the right overall meaning for the sentences and paragraphs.

Since there are some really basic words that I’ve forgotten, I’ll be delaying my speaking practice for another week or two, but then I hope to start saying more simple things. My coworkers are not used to speaking with non-native speakers, so when they hear that my accent and pronunciation are pretty decent then they just charge straight ahead with a highly technical conversation relating to work. I’m not really at the level where I can discuss embedded Linux devices and which MTD partition on the flash ROM contains the boot loader, in Chinese 😉

To that end, though, I bet there’s a small subset of vocabulary that I could specifically study in order to catch on to more work-related concepts. I’ve found previously that a lot of these sorts of technical conversations can be mostly understood with only 20-30 new vocab words that get used all the time. Do you want to understand Economics conversations? Go learn just 30 new Economics vocab words, and I suspect you’ll have most of what you need. These things follow the Pareto principle quite well, where 80% of the benefits can be had by doing only the first 20% of the work.

That’s it for now. I’ll try and update soon. Currently my work contract is only for 4 weeks, but I’m hoping it will be extended past that so I can continue being surrounded by Mandarin while getting paid to be there 🙂


Learning Chinese vocabulary

2011-04-26

So I’m back in my home town of Vancouver now, on the Pacific coast of Canada. Next week I plan to start on the 6 Week Challenge that I mentioned, in which a bunch of people will try their hardest to learn as much Spanish as we can in 6 weeks. Until then, however, I’ll be working on a variety of other projects, several of which will continue throughout the year. One of those projects is to revive and improve my Chinese.

For those who don’t know already, I should explain my history with Chinese. I decided a while ago that because it’s such an important language group in Vancouver, I should learn a Chinese language. Both Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken here in large numbers (with several areas of the city having more native speakers of Chinese languages than of English). I went back to university to participate in a full-time Mandarin immersion course. After doing that for 4 months, I decided to go to China and continue the program for another 7 months. During this time I learned a lot about how to learn languages (and how not to).

In the last 2 years, I’ve been working much more on European languages, and I’ve mostly neglected my Chinese studies, but I’d like to balance this out a bit. In addition to whatever my focus language may be, I’d like to keep up a steady amount of Chinese work so that I can continue to improve.

At this point, I’m just trying to find interesting ways to challenge myself, and to expose myself to the language. One thing I find really helpful for my motivation is to have several physical books to work from. I grab a bunch of my books, and I sit down at a big table and spread the books out. I pick up whichever book looks interesting, and start reading through. If I get tired of it, several other books are waiting for me, so I can just pick up another one.

Currently I’m working through a book that’s meant for studying vocabulary for an HSK (chinese proficiency) exam. It just has a list of words with examples for each, and then some exercises. In order to have some fun with it, I’m just reading whichever words are interesting. I’m not stressing out about memorizing every single word on the page, just getting some exposure.

One of my favourite vocabulary exercises is to jump from word to word, “surfing” the dictionary. I go to my favourite dictionary site for chinese, nciku.com, and I look up any word that I don’t know. It will then show me example sentences for it, and then inside those example sentences I’ll find further words that I don’t know, and I’ll repeat. In this activity, I can use the words in my HSK study book as starting points, and branch off from there.

This is just one of many low-stress activities that I do from time to time to get some exposure to new words. There’s no grades, no “must learn” items, no pressure. I’m just looking around for interesting new words and investigating them. If you stress yourself too much by trying to go one-by-one in order through the entire book, memorizing each one, then you run the risk of turning it into “work” that you start hating, and then your motivation gets killed. By making it into a task of curiousity and exploration, I make it more interesting and remove stress. It’s something I can keep coming back to, and it’s rewarding.

While I’m doing all of this, I have some news radio on in the background, and from time to time I hear a word in there that’s interesting. It keeps me familiar with the sounds of Chinese, and it offers another casual source of interesting items to investigate.

Once the 6WC starts next week, I plan to do something similar with Spanish to get reacquainted with it. I’m just going to browse around for a bit and look at whatever seems interesting, before I move on to reading real books. By keeping it light and fun, I can review a lot of the words I’ve forgotten without getting too tied up in the task of doing them all in order without skipping anything. It doesn’t matter if I do all of them or if I do them in order, only that I keep exposing myself to the language and keep myself interested in it.


Kanji without Heisig

2009-07-30

A bit of a tangent from the usual german content here. I was just reading a post over at Japanese From Zero where akanpanda asks “does anyone know a *non Heisig* way to learn Kanji? Heisig bores me even when I turn it into a game.” For those who are unfamiliar, the Heisig method of learning kanji is to build up from basic characters to complex ones, so that every complex one consists of pieces that are recognizable characters. You have to follow a certain order so that you always get those basic ones before the advanced ones. Here’s my response:

You probably want to find some way to go hardcore on an SRS because that’s the fastest way to fill your brain with reams of data, but it doesn’t have to be through Heisig. The problem i had with Heisig was learning a bunch of boring characters before the ones that i wanted. Instead of that, you could try adding chars as you encounter them in real life. You may not know the parts of them in an awesome way like in the Heisig method, but it’ll be ok. This way each character will mean something to you, and have value, instead of being force-fed.

What i did was go to the library and get an awesome book that i really wanted to read. A good one for me was a book of short sci-fi stories by famous authors like Ray Bradbury and George R.R. Martin, except translated into chinese (which is what i was learning). Then i’d go through one page, and just write down all the chars that i didn’t know. I’d look up each one, and make up an Anki card for it. Then i’d try to read the page, hopefully remembering some of the chars that i just looked up.

Every day i’d do my Anki reps, and add a new page full of the characters i didn’t know. As each day went on, I’d be able to read more and more of the stories, at least by guessing new words according to the Hanzi (aka Kanji) that i encountered. The benefit of this method was that all the characters i added were really valuable to me. They were helping me read more and more pages of the awesome book, instead of just being random boring characters from some predefined method. This way, i kept my motivation up because i wanted to get through more pages of the book, and each progressive page was getting easier and easier.

An important part of motivation is self-direction. The fastest way to hate something is to have someone else force you to do it, or to be spoon-fed. Pick your own direction, and you’ll be able to do it for longer. Also, mix things up a bunch. Never just use one method, or one book. Every time you sit down to work on your project, have a variety of materials in front of you and choose whichever one catches your eye first. When you start to get bored of it, just drop it and look around. Pick up the next one that catches your eye. If you have enough interesting materials in front of you, you can go all day. I did this by getting real books from the library. Sci-fi, or translated novels like “the godfather” (which was funny to try to read in chinese). It’s also good to get something that’s familiar, maybe like Harry Potter if you’re into that.

Good luck!


how to start learning a new language

2009-03-29

This was a post on my old blog from 2008, and i thought i’d repost it here because it’s more relevant here.

I had a question the other day from someone who wants to start learning mandarin chinese, and wants to continue studying french. It really got me thinking, because all of my learning strategies lately have been focused on moving myself from “advanced beginner” to “intermediate” stages, but it’s been a long time since i’ve thought about what to do from the absolute total beginner level. I learned a lot last year about classroom learning by doing the chinese immersion program both here in canada and in china, and this year i’ve learned a lot about self-directed learning, so in this post i’m gonna try to put those together and come up with something useful. This should help me too, since i hope to restart on spanish in january or so, alongside my chinese study.

I think the most general principle i can suggest is that you just need to keep yourself consistently moving forward bit by bit. 语言学习好比走路,是一步一步前进的 (“studying languages is like walking; you improve one step at a time”). The big challenge in language-learning is not the particulars of whatever concept you happen to be learning in any given moment, it’s the problem of keeping yourself on-track toward your future goals which may be many months away.

Language study is a motivation game. I think just about everybody will experience a moment when they think “fuck, this takes a long time, i’m never going to get fluent”, or “dammit, why can’t i just READ this book! i want to read a page in like 5 seconds like i do in english instead of 10 minutes in this language”. These moments are all opportunities to fail by giving up. You have to be prepared for them so you can bust through to the other side on your way to awesome. Remember that you CAN become fluent in other languages. If you’re dedicated and you keep having fun with it, you could be fluent in 10 languages some day. So if that’s what’s possible, then why let this one little language get you down? Don’t worry, you’ll get there.

If you write a todo list, just having “Learn Chinese” on the list is not helpful. That’s not really a task that you can just sit and do in an afternoon or something. What you need is a mental conception of what “becoming fluent” looks like on a day-to-day basis. You need to figure out what you’re going to do each and every day that is related to your language of interest. You may only spend 20 minutes on it if you’re really busy, and other days you may get all keen and spend several hours before you look up at the clock and see how late it is. But what you need to know is that “becoming fluent” looks like “i think i’m gonna sit down and read a bit of this book” or “i think i’ll flip through this dictionary and pick out some crazy new words that i don’t know” or “i’m gonna go have coffee with some people who speak chinese”. Those little short-term things are the stuff of magic. Added all together, they are what will make you fluent. That’s it. If every day you add something to your knowledge, you will get there.

To keep yourself on track, you need to find stuff that’s fun. As Khatsumoto says, There is no such thing as something being “boring but effective”. If it’s not fun, don’t do it because you’ll just kill your desire. Usually i try to find at least 4 or 5 different ways to work on the language. Then, when i have some time set aside to do something, i can lay out a bunch of books on the table, load up a few websites, and then just jump into whichever one strikes my fancy. Maybe i’ll switch after 20 minutes if i get bored, or maybe i’ll do it for hooouurrrs without noticing. It differs daily, but i can tell you with certainty that if you only have 1 book that you’re using, you’ll get bored of it at some point and then you won’t have anything to fall back on.

In a practical sense, there are a few things that i always want when studying a new language. number 1 is beginner audio lessons. Check out Pimsleur or Michel Thomas. Some people like them, some people think they have too much english instruction in them and not enough native speaking, but you should at least give them a try because they exist for many languages and they usually have some good content, especially for beginners or those who haven’t spent a lot of time learning any other languages before.

Another thing i like to have is a simple book. Maybe a kid’s book, maybe some sort of graded reader for beginners, anything you can find that’s on the easy side of things. If you’re an absolute beginner, even “easy” stuff will be hard to comprehend, but just about anything will do. What you want is a nice source of content in that language. It’ll also serve as a goal, since you know that at some point in your studies you’ll be able to read the whole thing easily, which will be quite satisfying.

Without expecting to understand everything, take a browse through it. Try to understand a few sentences, using dictionaries or websites or whatever. If you come upon something interesting, write it down. If you have one of those “aha” moments when you figure out something, write it down. I like just picking away at something and trying to pull out anything that i can. Pretend that you’re an archaeologist studying agent egyptian in a dusty pyramid somewhere and you’re decoding a language that no one else knows. It’s a puzzle, and it’s way more addictive than Sudoku. Piece by piece you’re going to pull tidbits out of it that you start to understand.

Next is getting an SRS – Spaced Repetition System (my favourite is Anki). This is a vital learning tool that has been mostly neglected by educators everywhere. I’ve already ranted about SRSes elsewhere, so i’ll spare you most of it this time. Simply put, an SRS is a piece of computer software that is made to program your brain to remember things. It makes you familiar with something over time by repeating it to you at the right time. In science fiction, people of the future program computers in their brains to remember stuff for them, but right now we already know the truth is the other way around: computers can program US to remember anything, and the way to do this is with an SRS.

It goes like this. I pick up a book, like the chinese translation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (which i got from the local library 2 weeks ago), and i struggle through a few sentences in it. I’m curious about how one of those sentences is phrased, so i write it down on my notepad. I pick some portion of that sentence and look it up online, maybe on dict.cn or nciku.com and find a bunch more example sentences that have similar words in them. If any of these are interesting, i write them down.

At the end of my little exploration session, i put down my book and flip open my laptop, loading up Anki. I create flashcards from the stuff that i wrote down. This is the crucial step, because if all i ever did was write shit down, i’d forget it all by the next day, or even 2 hours from then. This is what i mistakenly did when i was in China…i’d sit down for like 2 or 3 hours every afternoon and crawl through all sorts of interesting books and dictionaries, write a bunch of neat stuff down, and then forget like 90% of it by that evening. I was spinning my wheels because i wasn’t actually retaining much of what i was figuring out. If you’re not reviewing the old material, it’s like you’re that famous archaeologist in the dusty pyramid and every day you take your notes and chuck them in the trash. NO, you want to retain all that stuff (hopefully with the least amount of effort possible), so you need your SRS.

So, with an SRS like Anki i can spend a few minutes every morning and evening reviewing older stuff and keeping it fresh in my mind. By getting reminded after a few hours, then after a day, then after 3 days, after a week, etc, i can turn that short term stuff into long term familiarity. This is true advancement in a language. You can be confident that whatever interesting tidbits you write down on your notepad will not be thrown down the memory hole…you can just assume that you’ll be able to remember those, because Anki is going to program them into your long term memory for you. You’re going to be intimately familiar with them. In a few weeks, you’ll look at all the really complicated stuff you were writing down a month previous, and it’ll appear stupidly simple to you. It won’t even seem worth keeping because it’ll be so obvious. This is familiarity. When you’re fluent in a language, you’re just really really familiar with it.

Ok, i notice that this post is starting to ramble on forever, which i tend to do when i’m excited about something, so let me try to sum things up. Like any long-term project, learning a language involves doing something every day consistently for a long period of time. If you keep it up, you’ll be surprised at your progress. I believe that by working enthusiastically on it and having some good people to consult, you can make much more progress much faster than if you took a course and just passively did what the teacher said.

Don’t worry about leaving some other stuff behind if you have to move in a different direction to find the fun stuff. You can always come back to the other things you were working on. It’ll still be there later, just keep pursuing the fun things. Keep searching for ways to get comprehensible input. You want lots and lots of interesting input. Saturate your brain with input, and things will fall into place. This is what brains are good at.


the grammar debate…a red herring?

2009-03-25

I was just reading Language Geek‘s discussion of the “no-grammar” method compared to the “grammar” method, and how sometimes it’s nice to have a blend of the two. Lately I’ve been thinking about this debate and wondering whether it’s sort of irrelevant.

What i feel with chinese (and i think this applies to other languages too) is that there are two levels to it…there are sentences that are technically “grammatically correct” according to someone’s made up grammar rules that seem to fit all situations, and then there are sentences that actual people say and that actual native speakers consider to be correct. What i mean by this is that we can all surely think of examples we have heard where someone says something in our native language but it doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it’s technically correct, but nobody really says it that way.

Quite commonly, there are many “grammatically correct” ways to express ideas, but only a few of them are the ones that native speakers actually use. This is really what it means to speak a language…you say what other people say, because you’re used to how it works. In other words, the set of grammar rules overspecifies the language.

This comes up for me quite often with chinese. I can think of several ways to say something, but then when a native speaker tells me what they would say, i quite often think “wow, i never would have guessed that that was the correct way to say it”. Now that i think about it, this really points towards the necessity of hearing lots and lots of correct input. Along the way, you’ll notice common patterns that we call “grammar”, but going the other way by learning the grammar rules first will mean that you may end up producing things that seem correct according to these rules, but are actually not correct in the language overall.

That said, I agree with what Language Geek wrote, that grammar rules are sometimes quite handy when decoding what someone else has said. I think this can still be overcome just by exposure though, so that you (eventually) intuitively know what is being said. I have no experience that would let me say how long it takes to get to that point though, since my language learning has always seemed to start off with a big grammar component (usually through classes).

Since my next short-term project is revival of my meager german skills, i’ll have to wait a while before i can try a purely no-grammar method, but for now i’m trying to change all of my materials and methods over to mono-lingual and input-based. I’m already seeing a change in perception now that i’ve removed the english answers from my chinese anki cards. I can’t believe i’ve left them in for so long already. We’ll see how german goes when i restart that later this week, in preparation for my trip to Berlin in June.


number of characters for reading?

2009-03-25

I was just browsing the forum on kanji4.us and i saw this reference to another article.

Chinese learners are not used to studying Chinese characters. Now some linguists and language teachers have started to focus their studies on how to enable learners to learn Chinese characters faster. They have discovered that there are aspects that make Chinese characters easy to learn. Firstly, the number of commonly-used characters is limited. According to statistics, one can read non-technical publications without much difficulty, if s/he has a command of about 3,000 characters. Secondly, characters are made of components which, in their part, are composed of strokes. Out of the 400-600 components, only 100 are commonly used, and a considerable part of those are characters by themselves.

I think there’s a difference between “able to read” and “able to read without much difficulty”. In my experience, i learned about 1000 characters through a series of intensive classes, but it wasn’t enough to muddle through any books with any sort of satisfaction. Then last summer i discovered SRS and mnemonics, and i learned an extra thousand characters in july and august, and cemented my knowledge of the old ones that i thought i knew.

I found that around the 1500 character mark (i went through them mostly in frequency order, so this is mostly the most popular 1500 characters), i was able to read books finally. It was hard, since there were still many i didn’t know, but at least the story was finally understandable and i was making good progress on the other characters just by reading.

Now with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2000-2500 characters, i’m able to easily read stories by Lu Xun and other real content. I learn lots of new words and characters by doing so. I can really see how knowing 3000 characters would make things so much easier, but i’m just enjoying actually reading things right now so i don’t really have the motivation to study single characters too much.

Overall, i’d say the barrier to reading is much lower than people think. You may hear numbers like “3000” and “4000” and think it’ll take forever, but really i think the minimum you need to work hard to hit is 1500. Once you hit 1500, you’ll get a feeling of satisfaction from actually recognizing so many characters in real books. This will motivate you to do more, and your reading level will go up from there. As someone once said, you get good at reading by reading. Even if you know 3000 characters, you aren’t necessarily good at reading yet either. But don’t place the bar too high. It’s doable sooner than you think.


going monolingual?

2009-03-23

For a while i’ve heard people talking about using monolingual dictionaries in their target language, but I haven’t yet adopted that practice for some reason. I guess that since i started my chinese studies in a classroom setting, i’m really used to using lots of english all the time.

Lately some things have started to really change my mind. One is reading chinese without looking things up in the dictionary, and the other is reading Keith’s last few blog entries about learning chinese by watching chinese tv dramas. Keith makes many excellent points, especially about the way that drilling yourself with english translations will teach your brain to associate english with everything.

There are some situations in which i can speak and listen to chinese without translating…these are mostly limited to the situations i was forced into while i was in china. Most discussion that would occur in a class or in a chinese restaurant is totally fine, but for a lot of other situations i get lost easily.

It’s interesting for me now to seriously consider the effect of doing all of my chinese study in relation to english. All my anki flashcards have english in the answer, and most of the books i read have 1 page of chinese paired with 1 page of english. Have i been training myself into a corner?

From here on, i think i’m going to change things slightly. I’m still working on the 1 million words of reading, but i’d also like to introduce some tv dramas if i can find any. I’m also changing my Anki cards so that the answers are just in chinese. I still need to find a monolingual chinese dictionary, and perhaps avoid using my digital dictionaries since they are all chinese/english. I guess it’s time for me to really start my own version of “all chinese all the time”. Listening to radio shows has always felt too difficult for me, so maybe i’ll just switch to movies where i get some context more easily….and chinese subtitles so i know what they just said.