Sunday, December 31, 2006

Xin nian kuaile

Happy new year to all those out there studying the facinating and challenging Chinese language. And even more so to anyone out there who is thinking of starting in 2007.

Friday, December 22, 2006

ChineseBlast: Strangely Attractive

Chris pointed out the ChineseBlast site a few days ago, and I find it strangely attractive. That is to say I like it, but I can't figure out why. On the face of it, it seems like like a subset of ChinesePod: A dialog with transcripts in Pinyin, Hanzi and English.

It has something that Chinesepod doesn't have - it allows users to cooperate on the transcripts of audio clips and so arrive at the understandings by themselves - like a specialized wiki.

But even without getting into that functionality, what I like about it is the immediacy of it all and the ease with which I can go back and listen again and again to the dialog in order to see if I have finally got it. My old French teacher (I'm talking about 25 years ago) used to talk about the boomerang method: constantly going back on what you learned yesterday, and the day before, and last week, but in increasingly less detail. I've found this to be effective.

With ChinesePod, much as I appreciate and enjoy the banter between Ken, Jenny and John, I would like to be able to go back and just listen to the dialog. I wonder would it represent a lot of work (and little gain) for the guys over at ChinesePod to publish a dialog-only version of each lesson, to facilitate those of us who can only devote small pockets of time and would like to use that time to maximum benefit?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A goal to aim for.

It's finally going to happen. I'm going to China.

Well actually, it's 12 months away, but I'm going to need every moment of it to get my Chinese into any shape. My wife and I have decided to up stakes for 8 months and take our daughters around the world from December 2007 until August 2008 (I'm blogging about this separately).

Our first stop will be China, and although we'll only stay for 2 weeks, we'll hopefully fit in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an. We have an old friend who we met in Germany when we lived there, but who has since returned to Beijing. Hopefully I'll call in to the folks in Chinesepod to say ni hao (or zuijin zenme yang, or whatever ;-).

If anyone out there has any recommendations about what to see, how to see it, how to prepare from a language perspective, all advice is welcome. I'll already had some very useful advice from my teacher here in Cork.

The trip is obviously a very exciting enterprise with lots of preparation required, but it's also a great spur to turning up the effort in peeling Mandarin a bit further and faster.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

What? Not even hello?

My new Chinese colleague here in Cork tells me that nobody really uses ni3hao3 when they greet each other. Even less ni3hao3ma?
I'm devastated! The very first thing I learned in Chinese and it isn't really Chinese. I can understand that I have to discard much of what I acquire in the process of learning, according to the useful Aikido metaphor of Shu-Ha-Ri.
But now what the hell do I say when I meet a Chinese person and want to just say 'hi'? My new colleague says that I should just jump into conversational Chinese. Ask what the other person is up to. Say something topical. This is more intimidating than the language itself! Now I have to have a whole list of questions, topics and stories prepared, ready to be deployed at the drop of a hat, honed carefully and adjusted according to the person that I meet. This is the kind of social skill that is normally only demanded of diplomats and those running for public office.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Breakthrough! Oh - hang on.

Last night, driving home in the dark and rain after my last Chinese lesson of the year (where my tongxuemen and I gave a very lacklustre performance of rang shijie chong man ai - thanks to liulianxiaoyu from the Chinesepod forum for the help in finding this song) I switched on the radio to hear the presenter say "And now we'll listen to some famous lines from that most famous of Irish plays". The next thing I heard startled me. I could have sworn that the actors were speaking mandarin Chinese. I didn't understand what they were saying, but it was clear that I was hearing chinese. But this is an Irish play, dating back to the start of the last century!

"Breakthrough!" I thought to myself. I'm starting to hear the Chinese language even where it doesn't exist. Finally this language is getting under my skin. Fantastic! I was soon to be disappointed. The presenter returned to explain that this was the mandarin version of Playboy of the Western World, by J.M. Synge, as produced by an Irish theatre company . The show has already played successfully in Beijing and is about to open in Dublin. According to the director, who was interviewed during the broadcast, the cast will return to China and play in Shanghai (so check it out there Chinesepod people!)

Monday, November 13, 2006

One year in, and just getting started!

It's been a year since I first heard ni hao and began the process of being exposed to a language as different from my own or any other that I know. I think however, that it is only now that a real learning process - as I have experienced it on other fronts - is beginning.

OK - I've learned the tones, how to say this and that, how to recognize a fair number of hanzi and compose a few sentence types. But really what I've been doing over these 12 months is getting a Chinese exposure. Enough so that it doesn't seem so strange anymore. Enough perhaps, to start really learning now. I hope!

My lessons continue - the class size is drastically reduced and we are trying to speak more and more. My hope is that though this process, the deeper understandings will sink in and I can start to build out a useful vocabulary.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


A long break in blogs reflects a long break in my Chinese studies. But I'm back on the ma3.

I've taken to watching CCTV9 (available free-to-air on Hotbird for Europeans) these days. Even if the speed at which presenters speak is well beyond my abilities, the fact that very often there are hanzi subtitles provides a huge opportunity to reinforce what I've learned. Tuning in for 10 minute spells at a time, but regularly, gives me a chance to see some characters that I might have recently learned, and revisit the old familiar ones too. It's made all the more useful when you try to hear the sound that corresponds to the character. And finally, it is simply a good thing to hear the cadences of the Chinese language, even you don't understand them (something that I've heard Ken on Chinesepod say a number of times).

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Are you sure?

One common way to ask "Are you sure?" is "ni3 ken3 ding4 ma?" (I'm going to avoid using chinese characters in this blog so as to make it as readable as possible). I must have read this a dozen times and I still couldn't recall it. My grey matter isn't what it used to be. Actually it never was what it used to be, but enough about that.

Since yesterday, I can confidently say that, barring a sudden deterioration in the aforementioned grey matter (I thought I said 'enough'!), I will have no trouble remembering it. Why? Because I used it.

There wasn't anybody Chinese nearby. I was speaking English, to my wife as it happens, when the conversation required me to ask "are you sure?" If you had been a fly on the wall, you wouldn't have heard any Chinese. Actually, if you had been a fly on the wall, you wouldn't have heard the conversation at all, as it took place in the center of the arrivals hall of Cork airport, far from any convenient wall. In any case I replied in English (rude not to, really) but not before mentally replying with "Ni3 ken3 ding4 ma?". At that very moment, the phrase ceased to be an academic artifact, but became forever associated in my mind with asking someone if they are certain of something or other.

My point, insomuch as I have one, is that repetition is good, but applied repetition is better.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A question of character?

There's an interesting discussion going on over on the chinesepod blog about when to start learning the Chinese character set (han4zi4). As ususal I can only speak from my very limited experience, but here's how things have been explained to me:

If you plan on going to China, you had better start learning the writing. Although road signs are apparently also in pinyin, everything else is written in hanzi. But writing and language are two different things. The primary resource is the spoken language - the writing is supported by that.

What my teacher has done is to expose us to characters, allow us to learn them as we go along, but not expect us to read without the help of pinyin. Not yet anyway.

I've heard pinyin described as a crutch. I'd describe it more like a way into the heart of the spoken language for those who are used to a phoenetic alphabet. Once you're in there and comfortable in your surroundings, then you can connect the hanzi to the words that you've already learned, and start to learn new words directly in hanzi.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Sidebar: Alcohol and the Art of Language Aquisition

"After one beer I feel more fortunate, after two I couldn't care less. "

Apparently Lady Bracknell said this in The Importance of Being Earnest, though I am paraphrasing slightly. Wilde, being an Irishman, clearly understood the role of the pint in Irish life. And Brendan Behan's muse was practically fuelled by the stuff.

I'm not advocating getting smashed before your lessons. Definitely a no-no. But if like 90% of Irish people you are to some extend repressed, then a little bit of social lubricant can go a long way to loosening your foreign tongue.

But don't go too far! For starters, this would only make sense in a social setting where alcohol fits in - hence my suggesting that you don't get tanked before turning up for your next lesson. Another problem is that while the first drink will help you forget your inhibitions, the next few will help you forget your Chinese.

I have never tried this technique with Chinese, but I can attest to its value in a number of other European languages. German in particular (though this may have a lot to do with their beer).

Monday, May 22, 2006

Where's the grammar?

It was only at the end of the my second course that our teacher gave handouts on Chinese Grammar. There are a number of reasons for this.

  1. Before even getting to the grammer there are the famous tones. These are the ones that allow a sentence like "ma ma ma ma" means "does mother swear at the horse?". To quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up. More on these in a later blog entry.
  2. There are the characters to learn as well, and even though you are best learning these at a slower pace to begin with, they still distract from the typical activities of learning a new language (I imagine a similar effect happens when switching to arabic or even Russion from a language that uses a roman alphabet).
  3. There doesn't seem to be that much grammar there! At least not as we know it!

Ok - sentence structure is predictable enough and comfortingly similar: Generally speaking it seems to be Subject-Verb-Object. But there are no tenses, as we know them in English. There are no noun genders as you may have learned them in other European languages. There is no declining of verb as existing (a little) in English (I go, you go, he goes etc.) and (a lot) in, for example, Italian (io vado, tu vai, lui va, etc.). In Mandarin Chinese it's the same word for go, rendered in pinyin as qu4, no matter who's going.

I have the sneaking suspicion that while this absence of overt grammar makes the language look easier to begin with, it means difficulty later on. I imagine that a lot of suble context is required to correctly translate a real Chinese sentence and there won't be much by way of formal rules to lean on. We shall see!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sidebar: Making a fool of yourself

The activity of learning a new language is incompatible with maintaining your dignity. Make your peace with it now, because sooner or later you'll say something that will make somebody laugh. If you're lucky, they'll be laughing with you. On a regular basis you'll get the sideways look that tells you you've uttered something that is simply unintelligible.

Add to all this the fact that your teacher will ask you to speak, or worse take part in a dialogue. This can be excruciatingly embarassing, especially if you are from these islands (UK and Ireland) where most people are, let's face it, repressed.

That reminds me - I must blog sometime soon on the effect that alcohol has on learning a new language...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

First Step: Enroll

Assuming you are starting from scratch, as I was 6 months ago, here is some general advice on how to approach this language.

Enroll yourself first into a convenient class, or if you can afford it, get a private tutor. No matter how many European languages you may have learned, none of them will help you get enough of a foothold into Chinese. Just enjoy the status of complete beginner and don't demand anything more of yourself than baby steps.

As often happens when you start to learn something new, the first few classes throw up many more questions than answers, but don't drive yourself crazy by trying to get all the answers all at once. Learning a language (if you are over the age of 12 or so) is mostly an intellectual exercise but in my opinion there is still an amount of 'feeling' involved. Give it some space and don't overwhelm it with logic. There'll be plenty of time to tie up loose ends later.

Monday, May 15, 2006

How does an English speaker learn Chinese?

I can only tell you what I'm trying:

First and foremost, a local teacher. To my mind there's absolutely no point in trying to learn a language as different as this without hands-on help. I've been lucky enough to find a very well organized, and reasonably priced teacher here in Cork, Ireland.

Secondly, there are a huge number of resources on the internet for Chinese language students. The three principal ones I use are:
- Daily free podcasts at various levels. Hosted by an Irishman in Shanghai! For a very small fee you get access to pdf transcripts. Site includes wiki, blog etc. - Not just a dictionary, but also contains explanations for Chinese characters. An excellent resource but a bit too weighted towards traditional characters (e.g. Hong Kong), rather than simplified (official PRC version). - This overcomes any shortcomings of the previous resource by allowing you to copy-paste simplified characters and search on them. Content tends to be more relevent for day to day vocabulary, though it's probably not as authoritative as

That should get you going!