2014年12月26日 星期五

Chinese Integration

The main trick to studying a foreign language is to immerse yourself in that language.  This doesn't mean taking tons of college classes, keeping up with your homework, and worrying about how many characters you have memorized or learned in a day.  Those concepts of learning are old fashioned, having been used in times before when information and books were mainly kept in universities and libraries. Due to the mass propagation of information, in the modern age of language learning, you as a student are solely responsible for your own individual growth and 'power level' --hopefully it is steadily growing to become over 9000

This concept actually applies to any individual pursuit you are involved with.  I recently began playing Starcraft 2 much more seriously in hopes of increasing my knowledge and level to such an extent that I feel comfortable casting in Chinese (I play the game in Chinese and do my best to watch Chinese casts and read Chinese language tutorials).  I consciously immerse myself in Starcraft professional videos, learn how others in the industry began casting, and set a base number of how many games I want to play a day.

I firmly believe this conscious immersion and setting of baseline numbers will allow me to maintain my focus and continue to grow into the direction of 'the sun.' Having the ability to consciously change our environment places humans in an interesting position.  Unlike plants, which passively grow towards whichever direction the sun shines onto them in a process called the Phototropic process, humans can position the sun themselves and determine the direction in which we grow.
So in order to become a super saiyan Chinese speaker, better than all the rest, you MUST position your sun to rise in the east and control the media you expose yourself to on a daily basis.  This means going to youku instead of YouTube to surf around, watching Chinese versions of youtube videos or songs, and even looking for obscure Chinese pop-punk bands--basically, anything you are into.

This type of language learning has many detractors -- people who will criticize your desire to watch anime, tell you that you can't learn from sports broadcasts, and think it's funny when you tell them you learn from television shows.  The reason these people feel this way is because they have been taught to think that language learning only occurs in the classroom.  Can you imagine how your ENGLISH experience would have gone if you were only allowed to learn while sitting in class?  You would be able to diagram sentences, write short essays, read from textbooks, and be positively bored.

Don't let your Chinese self be boring.

Let your Chinese self be awesome.

2014年11月17日 星期一

Seek and you will Find, Act and you will Learn

"The soul attracts that which it secretly harbors, that which it loves, and also that which it fears. It reaches the height of its cherished aspirations. It falls to the level of its unchastened desires – and circumstances are the means by which the soul receives its own." -James Allen

I started off today afraid to write this post.  In fact, for the past three days I have been afraid to write anything at all.  Ever since I started this journey to improve my Chinese, learn to write in Chinese professionally, and move to Taiwan, I have often been afraid to press forward and accomplish my goals.

I sometimes invest in these fears and find myself  considering other people's ideals, dreams, or standards on the subject to be “reality,” and I temporarily forget what my ideals, dreams, or standards are.  Everyone has done this at some point in his or her life, and ultimately this will lead to living someone else's life.  

I recently read an essay by James Allen entitled "As a Man Thinketh" (ironically, this is where the opening quote originated from) that speaks of the ultimate creative power of a man's soul.  Fear and doubt, if left untreated or buried, will ultimately surface in your "circumstance," which is merely the situation you have created for yourself through your conscious and subconscious actions.

I know that I tend to be afraid of not having enough money to support myself in the future because I "don't have a real job" and I "don't know what I'm doing."  Many people have these fears, but choosing to be paralyzed by them will only serve to stop you from living the life you want to live and becoming the person you want to be.

If you are reading this you want to learn something, you want to better your life, or you want to realize the dream you have always had.  Fear has the potential to paralyze you and stop you from progressing.  The only way to push forward is to acknowledge the fear, cast off its fetters, and forge ahead on your own.  If you feel like you are failing or "not being perfect,” good.  You are at least taking action to realize your dreams.

2014年10月7日 星期二

The Grammar Myth

Today I want to talk about Grammar.

Grammar is a construct that doesn't love you.  She'll let you take her out, listen to what she has to say, lull you into a false sense of security, and make you feel like everything is good to go.  Then, when it's time to seal the deal and tell your friends about your new relationship, she'll say you're “just friends” and leave you for the next poor schmuck looking to get a quick foreign language fix.  Grammar won't call you back after the first date and she'll get your hopes up only to drop you, hurt and broken on the floor.

But it's not entirely Grammar's fault.  When trying to start a relationship with a partner who isn't completely whole or real themselves is setting yourself up for failure (and yes, I'm still talking about grammar and foreign language learning).  While I not advocate against the explicit teaching of grammar entirely, I will say that it's not all it's cracked up to be.

Well if that's the case, what is it about grammar exercises that isn’t effective?

Three things:

1. Proficiency in grammar has a direct, positive correlation to how much input you put in.  
nput is anything that is read or heard in the target language, and can be found all over the internet or television (depending on where you live). Many cloze deletion exercises are used to “learn” grammar and test proficiency.  While this is a good idea, the “language sense” that enables us to complete these exercises is built on a large amount of input and consumption of media.  It is the equivalent to trying to do a dynamic push (the jumping kinds) without first working on doing regular ones, you just end up flopping around and falling onto the floor due to a lack of strength and coordination – a lack of experience.  You have to be at a higher comprehension level than the exercise is testing you on.  If you can't even understand language or articles to the exercise level, how will you be able to reproduce the correct answers on tests?

2. Grammatical proficiency can not be taught.  Sure, we can all complete exercises and read grammar charts out loud in the traditional, rote memorization fashion, but once we take off those Floaties and are thrust into the deep blue sea that is immersion and interaction with native speakers we gasp and struggle for air.  If you are not challenging yourself to think, speak, act, and interact like a native in practice, then when you are actually in a native situation you will not be able to perform. Native speakers of Chinese or any language don't sit around all day spouting grammar patterns in each others' direction while smiling and taking notes.  If they did, I know I wouldn't want to hang out with them.

3. Finally, don't jump on the "learning any grammar is bad" bandwagon.  I've been there, done that, and didn’t even get a T-shirt.  Bruce Lee once said, "Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own."  In context, this means you need to absorb as much target language media and information as possible.  If you are attending a language class, focus more on the sentences than the “rules.”  Don't panic, just find some Chinese video games, watch Chinese television, read crazy articles and Chinese manga, and do as many things as Chinese people do in Chinese.  The grammar will come, and it will become a part of you in such an organic and natural way that you probably won't even realize it.

So fret not.  There is a Chinese paper lantern at the end of the tunnel.  Just keep on keeping on (in Chinese, of course).

2014年9月30日 星期二

Learning to Read

I have separated learning to read and learning Chinese characters into two different posts purposefully.  This should make sense by the time I'm done.

Reading is an ability to perceive transmitted ideas in a written format that other people have written.  Through these ideas, people who can read can understand and build off of the writings and thoughts of people for generations to come.  Reading is not an innate ability inside human beings from birth, but it can be learned and improved upon.

Learning to read in a Asian language that utilizes characters presents a unique challenge in the fact that we as Westerners are also required to memorize the meanings of the symbols in those languages.  In English and other Western languages, once you learn the basic building blocks that correspond to sounds you can start to sound things out and run with it.  In Chinese and Japanese specifically, this is NOT how things work.  Each individual 'building block' corresponds to its own specific meaning.

It's similar to the difference between playing Pictionary and Charades.  The goal of both games is to get the message across but the medium is absolutely different.

Shockingly, the secret to learning to read is by reading.  Reading is daunting at first, as it seems there are infinitely more words you do not recognize on the page than what you do recognize.  Luckily, much of the guess work on what to read or how to combat this daunting theory is illustrated in the i + 1 theory as explained by Professor Stephen Krashen.

I'm sure if you think back to how you learned to read it amounted to about the same thing.  Barring learning difficulties and private tutoring (which we have all had in some fashion), learning to read basically required us to read simple books until they were too simple and then move onto more difficult ones.

Studying Chinese has a unique difficulty in the vast amount of rote memorization that is necessary.  I
In fact, the memorization never really ends; it just becomes quicker and more natural over time as one's brain sees the components of the character in bigger chunks  For this gargantuan task (part of which has been covered in a previous post), I recommend the utilization of Anki or any other spaced repetition software.  Following the previously linked guide will greatly improve your comprehensive and memorization.

Now the hard part comes: doing it.  Reading motivational material online building self esteem and making you feel good about yourself will not accomplish the goals you set up for yourself.  It is most important that you take a step out of your proverbial house (aka, your comfort zone) and set off on the long journey to proficiency, fluency, and ultimately mastery.

Kill it.  You have a rage to master inside of you.  And if this language thing is your gig (and it IS a totally sweet gig), take that first step and start to really do it.  Don't wait until later.  Don't put it off until tomorrow while you surf around looking for things to fill your time while you wait to go to 7-11 and buy a slurpee with your best buds.  Do it now.

2014年9月21日 星期日

Remembering the Hanzi (for real though).

When I started learning Chinese characters, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

I remember that I passed through multiple stages in my learning.  I began by simply trying to learn to write all of the characters given to me in class.  I spent time everyday reviewing vocabulary and writing everything I could at all times of the day.

Now, this method of Chinese character acquisition takes a long time.  Too long, in fact, for many purposes.  Due to the sheer volume of characters you need to learn on top of the language requirements you will spend tons of time just writing characters you already know how to write (this was before I learned about Spaced Repetition and Anki, so my time was already not being spent in the most efficient way...we'll cover this in a later article), so after about a month of this I chilled out on the writing.

Because the most important aspect in learning Chinese characters in modern society is most often reading and recognition.  So, after 3 or 4 months of straight characters on top of reading them, I stopped writing.  I started reading much, MUCH more and watching tons of television with subtitled characters (most shows have this).

What was the result?  The speed of my Chinese acquisition increased immensely.  I still studied vocabulary but it took much less time.  I used this method in conjunction with Anki for four years and didn't have many problems.  Even now, after I have started writing characters again so I can write a blog and stories/literature in Chinese, I find it easy to write characters I have never written before because I have “learned” to recognize a vast amount of characters.

If you have a foundation for writing Chinese characters you don't have to consistently practice them in order to recognize or 'make sense' of them.

Heisig's Method

Whenever anyone mentions learning Japanese or Chinese among people who have at least studied or read up on how to learn languages, Heisig's Remembering the Kanji always comes up.  Now, I understand that Remembering the Kanji is a book on learning Japanese – not Chinese – characters, but the author has also published a book entitled Remembering the Hanzi that encompasses how to learn Chinese characters as well.  In short, his method approves of breaking down characters into their individual components and learning them as a mnemonic attached to a keyword you arbitrarily assign.

A quick internet search unearths flame wars galore on the efficiency of Heisig's method compared to “brute-forcing it” (which basically equates to learning as many characters as you can through rote memorization).  I interviewed a friend of mine for this post who learned ALL of his first 1500 to 2500 characters with Heisig's method before he started learning Chinese.  He had this to say about the efficiency of Heisig's:

"It's a logical process. You break the characters down into parts (not always radicals), memorize many of those original parts (which many times are characters themselves), and build upon them slowly in your memory bank. Ultimately, it's about following an organized process to learn the characters and reviewing them efficiently (his method of choice for reviewing is also Anki). That's what is required, persistence."


Ultimately the goal of any of these methods is to produce efficient character acquisition, so almost everything works to varying degrees of efficiency.  Stay positive, stay productive, and never give up hope.

I encourage you all to post below with questions or comments about this week's post.

See You, Space Cowboy...

2014年9月15日 星期一

The Power of Listening

So right now I am going to teach you guys the cornerstone to foreign language learning and your Chinese success in the future.  It is a technique that is so imba I am not even sure if I should share it with you.  It's THAT good.  And deceptively simple.

I'll sum it up in one words:  listening.  In fact, I'll sum it up better in another two words: listen tons.

Most language learners acquire nowhere near the appropriate amount of listening time in their practice.  And, unfortunately , schools also don't teach this as a skill to be pursued in their programs.  Listening is a lot like drinking enough water, the benefits are real, incredibly when accumulated, but such a small adjustment that many people forget to do it enough everyday.

There are many studies and opinions online that refute the validity of the passive aspect of listening: Benny from fluent in 3 months wrote an article diagraming the benefits and detriments to simply undergoing passive listening.  And a lot of the points he makes in his article are legitimate.  You will not learn a language from only passive listening.  You especially will not learn how to speak from only passive listening.  However, passive listening will teach you to listen comfortably.

All foreign language learners start out at a first stage of only hearing noise.  I can recall my first day of Chinese class when I heard the pronunciation of the syllables for the first tone of the sound lü (like in 旅 or 吕) I thought it sounded strangely similar to those cylindrical toys that had the rubber noisemakers inside of them.  I thought it was hilarious and did my best to mimic that particular sound for a long time after that.

The lv sound and many others in Chinese do not occur in English, so in order to hear and understand these sounds (let alone tones), you must explicitly practice focused for a long time.  When learning basic pronunciation, practicing the basic sounds and tones diligently until you can repeat the phonetics and tones is feasible and a smart way to begin.  I'll repeat, ACTIVELY practicing basic pronunciation and tones is a great way to hammer down the basics to Chinese language pronunciation.  However, after you have learned and nailed down the basics, a deeper level of language acquisition must come into play, and basic pronunciation as a guideline can not deal with all of the 'situations' that arise in language spoken to native speakers.

This all sounds complicated, but the solution is simple.  It's all about exposure.

He who exposes himself to spoken Chinese the most, whether it be through passive or active listening, will ultimately become better.

For real.

2014年9月11日 星期四

A Simple (sort of) Guide to Chinese Pronunciation

Why start with pronunciation?

I’ll tell you a story.  When I first began studying Chinese, I knew I wanted to ‘be the best around’, to make sure that ‘nothing’ was going to ‘ever bring me down’.  Because of this, I started to think about the language learning process, because I knew I didn’t just want to halfway learn the language, I wanted to be great at it.  So I sat down one day and thought about how I had learned my native language, English.

As a child I loved stories.  So any medium I could consume that delivered quality stories I was all about.  I liked to watch television, play video games, listen to people tell stories, and read books.  So I realized that the majority of my ‘studying’ the English language came from reading books and reading subtitles on the television (closed captioning).  My listening was mostly listening to people tell stories and watching television, so that part was easy.

After I realized how I had ‘acquired’ the language, I started to think about how I learned to speak and produce in English.  As a child, I would attempt to use the words I had learned throughout the day, ask a lot of questions, and try to mimic to an adult what I had heard.  I would practice, practice, and practice my production as if it was a game, never caring if I pronounced something right or wrong and just mimicking what I was hearing.  At the end of all of this my English was ‘perfect’, and although I never liked to write (which is why I never became proficient), my speaking and communication skills were top notch.

When I began Chinese I utilized this same approach.  And you can replicate my results.  The following are principles for continuing to master Chinese pronunciation:

  • Find a youtube video correctly illustrating Chinese pronunciation made by a native speaker.  Follow this every day without fail.  Go through all of the sounds and try to mimic their mouth movements.
  • Look for recordings of individual words that pronounce them with the correct pronunciation (native).  Once you have worked on basic pronunciation enough keep your pronunciation standard as you learn associated vocabulary.
  • Start to expand your pronunciation exercises to multiple character words.


From every foreign learner of Chinese who I have interviewed (myself included), tones seems to be a huge issue for most people.  However, there is hope.  Right now I am going to impart some wisdom on everyone that is not intuitive or easily digestible by most beginners of the Chinese language.  Tones are not hard.  I’ll say it again with more clarity: Learning tones is not as challenging as everyone makes it out to be.
But the approach by many people to learn tones is not focused or appropriate.  In order to learn to hear the tones, it is important to listen to natives read the tones and know which ones they are supposed to be.  What does that look like?  Learn the pinyin table (just the main one, find one with sounds to learn the sounds) and watch a youtube video describing how the tones sound when used with different syllables from the pinyin table (refer aforementioned table).  Listen, watch, listen, watch, listen watch, then try to reproduce.  At the beginning, only try to reproduce when you are ‘interacting’ with the video.  And if need be, record yourself and only stop once the recording matches the sounds you hear from the videos.  Now this might seem frustrating at times.  But consistently practicing this skill will lead to excellent pronunciation which will serve as a solid foundation for you to begin your Chinese journey.

You’re welcome.