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.

2014年9月6日 星期六

Starting on the Road: the start of my Journey

I became interested in China as a place and Chinese as a language through a Stephen Chow movie. I remember it clearly: Looney Tunes style fight scenes, word-plays I had no hope of ever understanding, and some novel philosophical basis to the bizarre comedy. The movie was Kung Fu Hustle功夫)and I was 17-years-old. The experience sparked within me a passion to download (sorry Steve) the entirety of Stephen Chow's illustrious (at times) filmography and watch the whole catalog in an obsessive, Pokemonish way. After working through those movies and viewing Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers十面埋伏, a strong passion reverberated through my chest, and I had a real desire to become Chinese and fly around on bamboo all day. But I cast these emotions aside.

Fast forward to the end of my senior year of high school. I chose to join the Navy on what was basically a favor for a friend to get free stuff – I walked up to a recruiter's table for a free US Navy water bottle and walked away with a contract. Upon completing the lengthy enlistment process my fate was revealed to me: I was to go to the Defense Language Institute to study Chinese.

Upon suffering through boot camp, where I learned such impressive skills as how to sew a button (I am not crafty) and how to fold and hang clothing ( by any means ), I arrived at DLI to fulfill my true purpose. I was ebullient. I approached learning the Chinese language with a fervor I had previously only saved for chasing women and playing Shenmue II (way ahead of its time, really). I approached Chinese language acquisition in a way that was, I felt, extremely simple. Based on an analysis of how I had learned English as a child, I realized that I needed to watch a ton off TV, read as many books and comic books as possible, and surround myself with Chinese people to correct my mistakes.

It sounds easy because it's so simple, but it can be difficult to implement. Diving completely into a foreign language with media as your main tool might seem an uncertain process, and many, many teachers have told me that the methods I use just don't work. A friend of mine who was just as serious about Chinese as I am and a little more abrasive (with negative, penetrating teachers) f aced expulsion for trying to “buck the system.” Fighting The Man alone is difficult. Add to that the unique challenge of trying to abandon your learning paradigm for a completely new one and the task seems impossible.

But it's not. I firmly believe that anyone can learn a foreign language, and linguistic research consistently supports this. The extent to which you learn a language and the rate at which you learn are determined only by the amount of time and focus you devote to the task. That time and focus will in turn determine how much you gain from learning the language and how much you enjoy what you are doing.

This blog will do three things. It will:

Identify basic mental model shifts important in becoming more productive in your language learning.

Describe techniques used to optimize the time you have and provide examples of ways in which they can be executed.

Render support. Depending on your location, many aspects of language learning can be daunting and the process can seem lonely. But there are many like-minded people no different than you who have begun this journey and are walking up the long mountain of language mastery with you.

The road is long and winding, but the soul still burns...

2014年9月3日 星期三

Primer to Chinese learning from scratch

How to start learning Chinese?  The beginning is always the hardest...

I'm going to take a break from my usual topics and write a few installments on how to start learning Chinese from ground zero.

I know what you're thinking, 'in previous posts, didn't he just say that there is a reason that the actual method is not as important as the mentality behind it'?  And you would be true, but I have noticed through discussing Chinese learning with many people who have no base in the language that people feel hung up on 'how to start' from a tactical level rather than a principle/self-motivation level.

So this posting series will establish a primer for beginning to learn the Chinese language.  It will cover pronunciation, basic character recognition (and the fastest way to do it), listening, reading, and how to learn grammar (which is much easier than it sounds).  In the basic character recognition section I also want to elaborate in further detail the importance of learning both character sets, simplified and traditional, and how beginning Chinese learning with this mindset will vastly improve your experience with the language.

So how should you take my advice?  I would say that in addition to what I am saying it is a good idea to cross reference other foreign language learning blogs.  AntimoonAJATT, and Japanese Level Up are three great places to start thinking about your language learning journey.  They are not Chinese specific blogs, but they have extensive materials posted on learning foreign pronunciations, learning characters, and integrating into a foreign culture.

All in all, your foreign language journey is your own.  It is up for you to walk out, and only you know how long, how far, and in what direction you want to go.  All we are here to do is facilitate and attempt to help to guide you.

But it's your road to walk.

I'll see you next time.