Wednesday, December 05, 2007

88 - Over and Out

Oh dear. Time has got the better of me. I've been overloaded with preparing for my upcoming trip, delivering a project and trying to finish a masters - not to mention continuing my Chinese studies. Something had to give, and it turns out it was Peeling Mandarin.

I'm going to sign off indefinitely now. In 24 days I'll be getting on a plane for Beijing with my wife and two young daughters. We'll be taking 8 months off on our round-the-world trip, the first three weeks of which will be in China (Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu and Shanghai). I'll be in the biggest Chinese classroom I could wish for.

If anyone would like to follow us in China and beyond, you'll find us here. In the meantime, best wishes to all in your chinese studies.

- Brendan.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chinese Music: A Request

A bleg, of sorts. I'm very interested in listening to some good Chinese traditional music, not necessarily court music but whatever constitutes virtuoso singing or playing, in whatever style. I'd like to get the chance to become familiar with it before arriving in China, and it would be great to have some basic understanding of its forms and variations.

Can anyone help by recommending recorded artists, pointing me at educational articles, or recommending places in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an or Chengdu where I can listen to good music?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Chinese Learning Process, Level Two: Processes

I ran out of words when it came to naming this level. By Processes, I mean the habits and routines that we form on top of our infrastructure or workbench. They can be pretty mindless, in the sense they are things to do, rather than things to think about.

In my software world, this layer represents the things that can be scripted, though we might not have done this yet. Perhaps we're waiting for the processes to settle down and become more predictable before we automate them. In any case, there's nothing much that is directly productive going on, but we are doing the necessary housekeeping that supports what comes next.

Following the language learning analogue, I synchronize my iPod with iTunes once a week for use in the car (car time, as Chris has recently pointed out, can be very valuable). I also agree with my study parner (more on that in a later blog entry) what scenarios we will try to replicate, what roles we will play.

What do you do? Do you collate your weeks new vocabulary? Do you set your VCR or equivalent to record certain shows? My processes are quite sparse I think. As I said in the last blog entry, I outsource a lot of gruntwork to Chinesepod: The range of materials I use regularly is relatively narrow, and so I can leave it to that service to manage things for me. If I were better organized I might try to arrange to speak with my Chinese colleague in a regular way rather than the haphazard manner it happens now, or tag my vocabulary in a way that made consulation more easy.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Chinese Learning Process, Level One: Infrastructure

Following on from a previous blog entry, I'm going to continue to kick my analogy with software engineering process while it's down. Let's start with the layer that I call Infrastructure. In software, the tools and libraries that populate this layer are such things as source code repositories, build scripts, dependency management tools and continuous integration engines, as well as less concrete things like internal standards on project directory structure and granularity.

WAIT! Don't go away. I'm done with the techobabble.

What these tools do is give a basic workbench on which something may be built. My Chinese language workbench is these days composed almost entirely of Chinesepod, augmented by reading other learners' blogs, and occasionally indulging in a little grammar on the side.

This lowest layer of the pyramid is the necessary-but-not-sufficient condition for being productive and creating something of quality. Pretty much all students will have constructed this layer for themselves. But if this is all you have as far as process is concerned, then you have a reduced chance of learning well and quickly. It's just the starting point and there are more wrong turns from here than right ones (even allowing for multiple 'right' directions). It's like having a car and a track, but no idea of the race line, no pit-stop strategy, no tyre choice, no team instructions (tip of the hat to this weekend's Shanghai F1 race). But I'll write more on the other layers in later blog entries.

What constitutes a good choice in Infrastructure? Something that you don't have to think too much about. Something that serves you, rather than something that you have to continually service. It should be an almost invisible workbench, that makes the tools visible to you when you need them, then fades into the background again. It should remove as much drudgery as possible, automate what can be automated, and above all, it must be stable and broad enough to support the layers that come next (hopefully this will become clearer from later blog entries).

I've outsourced my Infrastructural needs almost entirely to Chinesepod. In this build-or-buy decision, the alternative would have been to get my hands on a whole bunch of learning material, integrate it with a selection of teachers (assuming they were both available and compatible), store new vocabulary by hand (and generate flashcards and memory games from them), cross-reference the lessons with other lessons based on topic, vocabulary and level, and then constantly keep developing the workbench to make it more complete and more invisible.

My guess is that I wouldn't have any time left to actually learn much Chinese.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Study Process

As perhaps previously mentioned, I'm a software engineer. In fact my main responsibility is as the architect of my company's software development processes. There are some parallels between constructing a successful software development process, and constructing a workable study process which I'd like to outline.

I've heard it said that the most important thing about processes is making sure that you at least have one. I don't agree. If you study, you have a process. It might not work very well, but it's there. So the first step is evaluating the one you have and deciding whether it meets your needs.

In our software process, I've divided the areas of interest into 4 layers of decreasing size, each building on the other, forming a kind of pyramid. On the bottom layer, there are the concrete tools and libraries that make up the physical aspect of process. Next there is a layer of processes - repeatable, almost mindless, activities that are done regularly. The next layer again is called practices. In software engineering, this is the layer that takes into account the skill, experience, and attitude of the individual practicioner. And lastly there is the Organization and Communication layer - the part that allows individuals to collaborate and share tools and techniques.

The parallels are as follows:
Infrastructure: What books do you use? What websites? Do you attend a class?
Process: Do you repeatedly listen to dialogs. Do you do tests in workbooks? Do you prepare for your classes?
Practices: How do you listen?
Communication: Do you work alone? If you have a study partner, how do you plan and work together?

The parallel with my professional life is far from perfect: Building software is primarily a collaborative activity that nonetheless requires a large amount of solo concentration. Acquiring a new language on the other hand, is primarily is solo effort though potentially with a lot of interaction. There is no finish line in language learning - no delivery date.

But they are both efforts that require dedication, even a certain amount of obsession, to get good results.

For the next few blog entries I'll work my way up this pyramid and explain not just what I'm using now, but what I've used in the past. Because the most important part of any process is its ability to adapt.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Casual Grammar

I know there are a lot of different views out there on the topic of learning grammar - it's a personal choice in the end and my approach is what I would describe as casual. I don't mean casual as in casual dress - I don't dress down before studying (actually it would be difficult to dress any further down than I normally do). I mean casual more in the sense of, em, casual sex. If I happen to find myself with an opportunity to indulge in some grammar, no strings attached, then I'm likely to proceed.

Sometimes these opportunities will arise accidentally, and in fact temptations are on the increase. Over at chinesepod, there's a new grammar link on each lesson that shows bite-sized (guilt-free) theory behind some of the practice. Nice.

And sitting on the stack of books I keep beside my bed, there's a Chinese grammar book with small chapters that investigate various structures of the language. When I'm feeling, well, curious, then it's within easy reach for carefree, commitment-free perusal.

I guess I'm saying that if you're not looking for a learning relationship that will last for ever, the occasional fling with a dative construct or brief liason with the 'le' particle, will leave you unblemished - and perhaps even satisfied.

(PS: As you can see, if you have any weak analogies lying around that need killing stone dead, I'm yer man.)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Plans for the Last Lap

It less than 4 months now till touchdown in Beijing and as well as all of the other things that will need organizing, I have to decide how best to spend this remaining time most effectively so that I can hit the ground running. I only have 3 weeks in China and at the end of that time I'll be able to say either 'Yesssss, I did it. It was all worth while' or 'What the hell was the last 2 years study all about?'

My plan is Revision Revision and Revision (the three 'R's).

  1. I will circle back relentlessly over the lessons I have covered in Practice with Vera on Chinesepod, and over any others that I have covered in the past. Exclusively Intermediate.
  2. I will expose myself (nooooo, not thaaaaat way silly) to as many different source of spoken Chinese as possible (I loved this stuff from Chris) including making more of an effort to speak to my Chinese colleagues here at work. And perhaps even do some skype conferences with some fellow CPoders.
  3. Meet up once a week with my teacher and remaining fellow student (if they'll have me) and talk talk talk talk.
Any and all advice on how I should best spend this time would be very welcome.

My Aunt's Constipation

There's a scene from Madagascar when Alex the Lion, after listening to a garbled New York subway announcement asks of his companions Did it just say "Grand Central Station", or "my aunt's constipation"?!

This is the standing joke at home now. When we soon find ourselves on a Beijing street corner asking directions, I expect to turn Alex-like to my diffident family and offer them a multiple choice of translations:

The nice man either said:
  1. The bus going to the Summer Palace or
  2. The fuss is owing to my mother Alice or
  3. My hovercraft is full of eels (this will always be the third choice)
The holiday will turn into one of those "Invent your own Adventure" books.

You have chosen number 2. Turn to page 33 to see which beast you are about to be eaten by...