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!