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...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Advice to Chinese Language Beginners

Even writing this title, I feel a little strange - even a bit of a cheat. Who am I to give advice to beginners when I'm barely out of the cradle myself. That said, this October I'll be two years into my study of the language, and there is at least one thing that I would do differently that I'd like to pass on.

In a nutshell: Get over it.

I think I spent as much as the first 12 months marveling at - but also being intimidated by - the twin strangenesses of tones and characters. They are surely the two biggest differentiators between a European language and Chinese. And while it does take a bit of time to get the sounds and ideas into your head, I think I spent far too much time pondering this - to the point of letting it get to me.

So my advice to anyone who is just encountering these novelties now for the first time. Do yourself a favour: Be amazed, have your mind boggled, lose your intellectual footing - for about 2 weeks. And then stop. Don't give this aspect of the language too much respect. Treat tones and hanzi like they were the most natural linguistic artifacts in the world. In that way, they will become exactly that faster than you might think.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Review of ChinesePod Practice Plan

I've finished a month of CP's Practice Plan, a step on the learning ladder that I've been anticipating for quite some time. In a way I'm quite relieved it's over, because it's quite intense and requires a daily commitment that feels almost work-like. On the other hand, that's exactly what I was hoping it would be like (a daily linguistic workout), and I think it'll take a few days for me to adjust to not starting each day with a 10-15 minute Chat with Vera.

What can you expect from Practice?
  • An appraisal of your current level and requirements.
  • A lesson plan spread out over a month (for monthly subscriptions) based on your level an requirements. The plan in my case had three new dialogs per week, and two days of review.
  • Daily calls from your counselor that assume you have studied the planned lessons, where your counselor engages you in conversation using the constructions and vocabulary of the lesson.
What I didn't expect from Practice!
  • A level of personalization that was all-encompassing: The questions that Vera asked me, the translations she asked me to make etc all took into account where I lived, my personal circumstances, and so on. This beats the pants off La Plume de ma Tante, is very much in keeping with ChinesePod's "On Your Terms" philosophy, and made the language come alive for me. It made clear not just Vera's level of expertise, but also her level of preparation.
  • An immediate effect: I'm not suggesting that my Chinese has suddenly jumped a level. I started as a low Intermediate, and I'm still a low Intermediate. But I feel more confident in my ability to use Chinese, and I certainly have acquired more vocabulary. I put this latter point down to the fact that when you actually use a word, it's on the fast-track to long-term memory. The extra learning facet that Practice provides has been great.
  • Listening comprehension: You would think that ChinesePod itself, centered as it is on daily dialog podcasts, is all the listening comprehension that one would ever need. But I learned at the end of my month's Practice that 听力 is what I need to work hardest on. Listening passively to recorded sentences works to a certain level - probably quite a high one. But the understanding needed to understand during the to-and-fro of conversation is, well, harder!
To summarize, I'm very very glad that I've used the excuse of my Summer isolation to keep my Chinese simmering. In fact it raised the temperature nicely - nothing to do with the Sardinian sun.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

I'm the flippin' veggie...

What a difference a day (and one horizontal stroke) can make. Here's what my 'radish' turned out to be:

As Chris very perceptibly figured out, it was meng4, not luo2 that I saw in the cosmetics ad. The word Masayume apparently means something like Dreams that Come True. Which might be a great name for a Japanese cosmetic, but frankly it's a bit odd for one made in Duesseldorf.

And will my dream of being able to speak this language ever come true? I think I'd need a lot more than cosmetics...

Monday, July 30, 2007

Do I smell of principled radish?

Over the last couple of weeks I've seen a perfume for sale in Italian shops. It seems to have a Japanese name (can't quite remember - four syllables with 'ake' at the end), but it also boasts some hanzi as a prominent part of its title:


I wish I could offer a photo here, but I haven't had the chance to go and take a picture yet. I recognized zheng1 but I had to memorize the second character and look it up on Either my memory is shot, or the perfume smells of upright/principled radish, or the Japanese use hanzi in a very different way to the Chinese!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

ChinesePod Practice Plan: Day One

In a word: excellent (or in three characters, 非常好).

Vera is my tutor and she came really well prepared or else she's great at thinking on her feet. In either case, the effect was good. What impressed me most was how she wove together the elements of the lesson, and my only somewhat convoluted personal circumstances (Irishman living for the Summer months in Sardinia), to ask me questions that I was often able to answer, and always interesting in trying to answer.

I definitely learned a few things, but most of all, as with the Velcro theory of learning that Ken from CP has mentioned recently, now I have another hook. Today, Chinese was not just something that I read and heard, it was something I spoke. I've been missing my local language class in Ireland for quite some time, and these 10 minutes this morning were a great boost.

My goal above all is to lose as much nervousness and self-consciousness as possible when speaking Chinese. It's inevitable to feel this to some extent (hell I feel it when speaking English under some circumstances!) but too much of it interferes with the flow. That aspect, and some progress in getting over the current 'hump' in learning that I've been in for a while, will be the criteria I use to judge if the overall experience has been worth the effort and expense.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The next big push

I've been a bit quiet here lately. I've moved to Italy for the Summer and there has been a bit of business travel too so I've neglected my studies (and blog) for the past few weeks.

I'm finally back on track, and this very morning I spoke with Aggie from Chinesepod about my Practice Plan. I've signed up and begin tomorrow. I'm really keen to make this push me to the next level. My local (Ireland) Chinese teacher told my classmates and I that we were at a point on the journey uphill towards Chinese whereby one more big push would make all the difference. I hope she's right. I know I'm probably progressing, but most of the time I do feel like I'm trying to fill a leaky bucket.

With Aggie, the Skype connection wasn't great so we switched to a phone line after a while. I'll try again with Skype tomorrow with my Practice counselor. The plan is to use the first hour of my day (9-10 CET) preparing the day's lesson, and having the phone call. At 10am it's 9am Irish time and I can just get to work. In the evenings I usually have an hour or more to recap if necessary, and begin the preparation for the following day's lesson.

According to Aggie I'm an Intermediate, which kind of surprised me. Perhaps I am from a listening comprehension point of view, but certainly not as far as my spoken Chinese is concerned, or my hanzi reading either. So the practice sessions will be based on three Intermediate lessons a week, and two calls to revise, recap and bring all the threads together. I'll be concentrating on travel Chinese to prepare for my big trip - I can't believe it's only 6 months away.

Friday, June 08, 2007

I apologize in advance: Another 'joke'

You will understand, that all this in done in the interests of furthering the total sum of Chinese knowledge. If humour has to suffer in the process, well, so be it.


Thanks to liping, and apologies to everyone else.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tones and Genes

A brief one: I just read this article from New Scientist that uncovers a potential link between one's genetic endowment and one's ability to speak tone-based languages. I don't think it changes much for any Occidental learning Chinese, but it does contain an echo of an idea I read about a long time ago: the notion that languages evolve towards increasing simplicity over time.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Who chooses the names?

There was a thread recently on Chinesepod about students' Chinese names - usually students get Chinese names from their teachers or friends, based on a phonetic transliteration of their own Western names. For example my own is bu lan deng (布兰登). On that thread I asked a question which didn't find an answer: For famous Westerners (actors, politicians etc.), who chooses their Chinese names so that they are consistently used across newspapers and TV for example?

Given the subtle play on words and symbols that Chinese appears to offer, there's sure room for fun or failure.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

It matters where you put your tongue.

Tongues. You can skewer them with metal barbs without feeling much pain (apparently), you can almost find words at the tip of them, you can set other people's wagging with relative ease, you can twist them for fun, or roll them if you've got the right genes. And if you know just the right place to put the tip of your own, you can make all the difference to somebody else. If that somebody else is Chinese. Because then you can make all the difference between pinyin pronunciation of zh and j, or sh and x or indeed ch and q.

The problem is, that even if we are capable of daily high-speed lingual gymnastics, even if English speakers can say this, that those and these with a facility that would make a German speaker zrow up (allowing for notable exceptions like Bertie Ahern - our Taoiseach again for a record turd time), if you stopped somebody in the street and asked them "exactly what are you touching with your tongue when you pronounce a word that begins with w?" chances are they won't have a clue. Why? Because the last time you had to consciously think about it, you were at an age where you also had to consciously think about controlling the muscles at the opposite end of your alimentary canal.

It's been a while now (like since the start) that I wasn't quite sure what the difference in pronunciation between chi and qi was. Or shang and xiang for example. But the answer is easy and difficult at the same time. The pronunciation guide from Chinesepod makes it easy: for your x, j and q, put the tip of your tongue behind your lower teeth (or where they would normally be if you hadn't taken up rugby as a lad). For sh, zh and ch, reach for the roof of your mouth, maybe even curling your tongue back a little if you can manage it. Easy really. Easy to write about and easy enough to read (even if you had to wade through 3 paragraphs of nonsense to get here). Easier done than said, though.

To put this advice into practice, you are going to need to get back in touch with your tongue, and start to reacquaint yourself with its general whereabouts. This may even require a little bit of direct manipulation, which isn't what folks on the street or even family members are used to seeing you do (are they?) But once you hear the real difference between shang and xiang from your own mouth... Well - you'll be speechless.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Oh go on then. A joke (in Chinese)

Class is out here, but my teacher is still in touch by email, and encouraging us to communicate in Chinese. Jokes - even old ones like this - make far more interesting homework than most things. So here was my first attempt (after being corrected by my teacher):

客户: 我有三个问题。 你是怎么收费的?
律师: $100 一个小时。你其它两个问题是什么?

Laugh? I nearly did.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Listening to Chinese: An observation

I hope this observation isn't so obvious as to be uninteresting:

There are two ways to listen to a Chinese sentence. Both have their value, but they are completely different experiences.

  1. Listening to a sentence without knowing what the sentence means.
    In this case, if the vocab and/or speed of delivery is challenging (and it usually is for me), the best I can hope for is to pick out a few words here and there, deducing if not the meaning, at least the gist. It's an intellectual, almost investigative activity.
  2. Listening to the sentence after finding out what sentence means.
    There is a completely different head on my shoulders now. I'm matching the sounds with the Chinese words that I know they correspond to, and really hearing the meaning in much the same way as I do in my mother tongue. The intellect has been short-circuited (actually that's not hard in my case).
One point about 2 is that it's extremely ephemeral. It's like trying to see 3D images by looking out of focus at those printed images (you know the ones, right?) - you can manage it for a fleeting instant, but then the moment is gone. Or like that point in meditation when you start to become aware that you're extremely aware - but inevitably blow the whole feeling away by analysing it.

Another point about 2 is that it's not at all the same as just letting the sentence wash over you. There is a kind of attention there (in fact if you switch off and just let the sounds wash over you, the moment is gone) but it is not an intellectual type of concentration.

One last thing to say, by way of describing this kind of not-quite-concentrating state, is that to me it feels like I am listening to each phrase of the sentence superimposed on its meaning (in English perhaps, though maybe it's mentalese). This has the effect of bringing the phrases to life and injecting them with real meaning.

I suppose the importance of doing 1 (i.e. not rushing off to read the meaning of a sentence before listening to it) is to learn how to bring these two ways of listening together - to transform one into the other on the fly.

Of course what's particularly stupid is that when I arrive at this realization, what do I do? Do I spend more time in the zone? No! I rush off to blog about it. What a git. I don't deserve to learn this language.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Carnegie Hall: Chinesepod subscription report

Very VERY old joke:

Lady (to man on street): Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?
Man: Practice lady, practice.

I'm about half way through my first month of premium Chinesepod subscription. I took this extra expense on for two reasons: 1) I wanted to check out what it had to offer before deciding whether the Practice level (higher cost again) might be worthwhile and 2) my face-to-face lessons here in Cork are over for the next few months and I really don't want to lose any gains I might have made so far this year.

In these two weeks I have noticed that I am actually studying a lot more. Because the information and activity is organized in one place (on the web site), and probably because I am paying for it anyway, I find myself gravitating towards the web site for the best part of an hour each evening, and learning new stuff each time. This works much better than just perusing through my notes. I'm getting obsessed - a necessary obsession. A result of this extra activity is that when I try to form sentences in my head, they tend to come a little more easily now. Some of them may even be correct! Thanks to the expansions I can see many more examples of well-constructed Chinese sentences (I am increasingly impressed by the flexibility and applicability of one of the first constructs I ever learned: the humble (是。。。的) is even more elegant and rich than I had ever imagined (想象还好 - see!!)

You can't beat a little hard work and invested time. What Chinesepod has done is given me a nice place to work.

What I would like to see on Chinesepod next would be more exercises (e.g. "write the following in Chinese") and more leverage from the vocab (e.g. a Google gadget to show me one of my own vocab items refreshed every hour for example) . The possibilities are endless.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Trying Chinesepod's Premium Subscription

After a little more than a year using chinesepod's basic subscription level, I decided to upgrade to the next level (premium) to coincide with Chinesepod's own upgrade to Version 3.

I am in the fortunate position of not knowing what CP was like in version 2 for premium subscribers - many are feeling aggrieved with the hitches that an upgrade inevitably brings (I'm a software engineer - I'm immune to bugs :-) ).

I had vagues notions of what was available - things called expansions, and exercises, and goodness knows what else. I had held off for so long because I felt that I had enough with the podcasts and pdfs, alongside my local teacher here. But our classes are on a break right now, and I know that I'll be away for the Summer and won't have the chance to attend lessons, so I decided to take a closer look at CP and upgrade for a month.

Five days in, and I'm really pleased with the decision. I have a lot of things to manage in my life, between work, family, masters and planning a big trip, so one thing that CP Premium definitely does for me is to help me manage my learning. I can schedule what lessons I want to do. As I study them, I can save off the vocabulary that I'd like to acquire (and later play with flashcards and memory games based on my vocabulary). I can set up a feed that sends me the lesson podcasts (and the dialog only versions - very important point that) for what I should be studying that day (I've cleared down all the other podcasts I had saved and now I'm building up a collection organically from scratch).

The big revelation for me was the expansion section. All there is to it is a bunch of other sentences that use the salient structures and vocabulary from the podcast. But the effect is terrific. I have a dreadful memory, but the extra step of going through the expansion sentences makes things sink in much deeper. Not just in terms of memory, but also meaning. And the exercises are great. Having a goal during the process is something I have blogged about recently, and I find that completing the exercises correctly is nice little short-term goal to spur me through to the end.

I can't learn Chinese in my car. I realise now that I need some quiet study time. Chinesepod premium has become my desktop, my library, and my classroom. I'm looking forward to trying out the next level - Practice (where I get some telephonic time with a native speaker and tutor) - during the summer. Jeremy Uriz is already blogging about this.

PS: I know there are bugs, and some of them are very irritating. I have confidence in these guys to sort it all out quickly.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Listening till it hurts

I've been given some thought to the advice that I've been given by Chris and Liulianxiaoyu - just keep listening. I'm convinced by the argument that listening comprehension is the most important route to getting to the heart of a language. The question, however, is how should I listen (Brian: Go Away! Crowd: How shall we go away Master?).

I've found a lot of value in listening to the same Chinesepod Intermediate podcasts over and over, but I'm sure I could be doing better. I think I need to make it more goal oriented. I don't expect to understand everything, but it's too easy for me to gloss over large parts of the dialog and stick to the easier bits. (Perhaps there are exercises like this already as part of premium Chinesepod subscription - time for me to upgrade perhaps. )

Or maybe I should set myself the goal of finding one new word or phrase that I recognize each time I listen. Or read the transcript earlier, and choose phrases to recognize. Decisions, decisions.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

What's so difficult about understanding Chinese?

I'll tell you what. It's not tones and it's not the hanzi (the two elements that I originally felt most differentiated Chinese from Western languages). It's the homophones. Here's a quote from a book called A Brief History of the Chinese Dynasties, by Bamber Gascoigne, where he writes about the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci's* investigations of the Mandarin dialect during the late 14th and early 15th century:

The Mandarin dialect of Beijing used only 412 different monosyllables, with the result - in one quoted example - that a small dictionary, giving a total of no more than 4000 everyday words, was found to contain sixty-nine pronounced yi. The confusion is slightly modified by the famous four tones of spoken Chinese...But these are not distributed with mathematical fairness, and of those sixty-nine words no less than thirty-eight used the falling tone. Spoken in the fourth tone, yi could mean bosom, different, contemplate, wing, city, translate, a hundred thousand, hang or any of thirty other equally varied possibilities. In practice the Chinese, when speaking, avoid ambiguity by a system of duplication, tacking on another word of the same meaning just as we might distinguish between hang-suspend and hang-execute, or as schoolchildren do between funny-ha-ha and funny-peculiar.
Here's the situation I often find myself in: When you're learning a language and trying to parse a spoken sentence, your ears latch on to the familiar. If the familiar part is one syllable/hanzi, but it turns out to be the 'wrong' one, your brain has gone so far down the wrong parsing tree that the rest of the sentence is a washout. You're trying to interpret what you subsequently hear based on an incorrect context.

For example, if you hear the familiar zai4 somewhere at the start, and think that it's 在, then you are going to be listening for a place, time or perhaps a verb coming next. If however it turned out that the zai4 you heard was actually part of zai4 xie2 - 载携 (to carry/to bear) - then you've already lost the thread of the conversation and it's going to be very hard to pick it up later. It would have been easier if the verb to carry had had a completely different sound. It almost seems that in order to learn a word, you have to learn all the other homophones in order to, as they say in all the best B&W detective movies, eliminate them from your inquiries.

I know that's not actually the case: nobody learns a language one lexical item at a time, and I'm not going to start a new trend! So what can we do to avoid this problem? My best guess would be to adopt the following rule of thumb: Never learn a singular syllable on its own. Always learn them in groups of two or more. The hope would be that these combinations would be what the ear will recognize as familiar.

* BTW: Ricci was the man who gave Kong Fuzi his Latin name of Confucius.

** Edit: Corrected homonym to homophone (28/03/2007)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Learning Chinese Using Google Doc Collaboration

Just a little technology aside, about something that we are doing in my class - perhaps if you are also having face-to-face lessons you might find the same dynamic useful.

In the classroom everyone takes their own notes. There are a number of problems with this:
  1. The inevitable mistakes we make are never corrected (and practice makes permanent, not perfect).
  2. The work of taking notes is divided, duplicated but never shared. We all pick up on the things that we find interesting, but while these are intersecting sets, there are always things that one person will have taken note of that will have gone over another's head.
Enter Google Docs. I've already pointed out that I'm a nerd, but Google Docs is very usable by anyone who can use a computer. You can create and edit documents in the same way that you might do so for a Word document, but of course it's saved on Google's servers, not your own machine. The magic begins when you start to share the document with others. You can either make your document readable by others, or indeed editable by others.

My class's use of Google Docs has evolved to the point that we take notes directly onto our laptops - and directly into a Google document if we have connectivity. Typically we take pinyin notes and add the hanzi afterwards, before adding our classmates and teacher as editors.

The result is what one might expect from the Wisdom of Crowds - the documents get checked by teacher (and corrected where necessary) and the contents are shared amongst classmates so each can pick up what the other has missed.

As a result, the Google Doc notes become another online resource for the class to use.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Face, Competition and Chinese Wives

A great night of Chinese learning last night. A few things happened and a few things occurred to me, all of which I'd like to share.

In a lot of ways, my techniques for learning Chinese seem designed to appeal to my less appealing qualities (I must have a very low subconscious opinion of myself):
  1. I don't like losing face. As explained previously, that's probably one reason that I blog. So if I keep telling the world that I'm learning Chinese, then I'd really better do it!
  2. I'm competitive - there's no getting away from it. I discovered it relatively late in life when I first got into a go-kart, and I've seen it many's the time since. But this can be a really good thing. One of my classmates is particularly good, and his constantly improving standards are really putting it up to me. In a moderate, healthily competitive context, he is really helping me bring my game up.
That same classmate has a terrific memory (even if he insists that he feels he onset of Parkinson's). He too finds the jMemorize tool useful, but he suggested what I consider a better way to construct jMemorize lessons than the one I've been using up until now. Instead of composing a jMemorize lesson of lots of different words related by topic, I'll try putting one together with one or two key words or patterns, reused in various sentences.

On a completely different note, our teacher's husband joined us for the last 30 minutes of the class. This was a real eye-opener for me. Firstly, it made it very clear to me just how well our teacher speaks English - she left her hubby in a cloud of linguistic dust. But at the same time, she spoke far less English than her husband did. She spoke clearer Chinese, and only spoke English as a last resort or to give more context. The other thing I noticed was just how much power (though perhaps that's the wrong word) the lady of the house wields. She made gentle but regular fun of things her husband said, and when he was getting under her feet, he was dispatched to make the tea!

Our classes are always entertaining and full of humour, but this time the experience was more lively than ever.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Does your deug bat?

Fantastic stuff: The latest Chinesepod Elementary lesson is based on a famous Peter Sellers sketch.

Learn Chinesepod on Your Terms at

Humour is everything. It's as fundamentally human as language itself. The Sellers sketch made me want to learn this lesson from start to finish. I don't just mean memorize it (heaven forfend ;-) ) - I mean understand every part of it so that when I tell this to my chinese colleague, and my teacher, I can do so to maximum effect.

More of this please, Chinesepod!

Or I'll sic my hen3 xiong1 de gou3 (很凶的狗) on you ;-)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Dealing with Intermediate Dialogs

My move to Chinesepod's Intermediate level coincides with the discussion between Steve Kaufmann and Ken Carroll about the best way to learn a new language. As is almost always the case, these apparent disagreements eventually resolve to "your mileage may vary". In other words, what works for me might not work for you. I don't doubt that this is true to some extent, and a reasonable way to calm potentially heated discussion. But for all our differences, I think we humans are very much the same when it comes to language.

I have read that Steve doesn't believe in Chomsky's universal grammar. I don't know if his skepticism extends to disbelief in a human biological language faculty - language centres in the human brain. (Personally, I am completely convinced by the argument that says that such a capacity must exist in order to explain our children's astounding language learning capabilities.) To those who do accept that our ability to learn and use language is part of a universally human genetic endowment, the obvious corollary is that there is probably a set of principles that apply universally to language learning, that should work for anyone, from any culture, at any time. (I don't know what those principles are, but I'd sure as hell like to find out!!!!) In any case, this would seem to suggest that Ken and Steve can't both be right.

So, from the general, to the specific:
Here's what I think, and what I plan to do, as far as the Intermediate lessons are concerned:
  1. Listen over and over again for the first few days. I do this in the car, in the supermarket, wherever I can bring the iPod.
  2. Only when I can't gnaw any more meat off the bone do I turn to the pdfs provided by chinesepod, and the transcripts provided by Yves (what a guy!) Incidentally, if it weren't for John's English interventions during the Intermediate lessons, I would have to switch over much much earlier to the transcripts. I've just started in this level, and the speed and vocabulary is very challenging. However I wonder if after another year I will find the English intervention more a distraction than a help?
  3. I read the transcripts fully over and over, using hanzibar as a dictionary. I skip over elements that are likely to lead to linguistic indigestion.
  4. Then I go back to the lesson and listen over and over again, hopefully distinguishing, understanding and absorbing more that I did the first time round.
(I wasn't going for a digestion metaphor here, but now that it's done, it does seem appropriate).

This is very different to what I do with the Elementary lessons, where I spend much more time on the hanzi, and where I actually try to speak the dialog (I keep that activity for the car, as it's not such a great idea in the supermarket). I feel comfortable enough with the Elementary to start to get a bit academic or even adventurous with it.

And from the specific, back to the general:
A conclusion, in so much as I can offer one, is that the points of contention between Ken and Steve (importance of speech and the use of the learner's language) coincide quite precisely with the differences between techniques that I would personally apply for different levels. I'm not going make any suggestions as to why this is - I'm just pointing out this fact.

So maybe they are both right! Feck!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

What!? Not again!

I thought I was safe with ni hao. I was wrong. I thought I was safe with using first names. I was wrong. I thought I was safe with xin1nian2kuai4le (新年快乐) but again, my Chinese colleague tells me I'm wrong.

Maybe this is a regional thing (he's from Da4lian2 大连). But according to the man I address in a tongue-in-cheek fashion as xiao3wang2 (小王) - he's neither that young nor am I that old - 新年快乐 is used on the 1st of January only. One should say guo4nian2hao3 (过年好), and should say it after the day of the Chinese New Year has passed (or at least not before it).

What's going on here!

On a different note, xiaowang also calls me the "second most proficient Chinese speaker in the company". Guess how many Chinese people work in my company...

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Blogging your way to the back of the class

Over on Tower Of Confusion, Edwin points out that blogging time can creep into you learning time, effectively slowing down the learning process. I have to admit that I can see this happening with me, so as soon as I read his blog entry, I immediately began about it.


But the urge to communicate is amongst the reasons that many folks have reported as being the reason they are learning Mandarin, over on the Chinesepod blog. So it stands to reason that language learners should also be bloggers. There are a number of other reasons that I can offer as to why we should blog about our attempts to learn. Some of these even make sense.
  1. Fear. The Roman military leaders used to toss their standards into the ranks of the enemy amassed in front of them, by way of, emmm, encouraging the common soldiery to fight harder in order to retrieve it. (Apparently going back home to Rome without your standard was not considered good form). Similarly, if you continue to tell the world that you're learning a language, it's a hell of a lot harder to give it up, than if you were studying under your duvet with a torch.
  2. Feedback. If you talk Chinese to yourself in an empty and solitary location (like the shower, the car, or the space between Dubya's ears) then there is no opportunity for correction, or indeed fear of contradiction. That's a good thing of course, and you can replicate this by deleting all negative comments from your blog. Try doing that in the normal course of conversation.
  3. Ferrets. This is one of the reasons that doesn't make any sense at all, but has the duel virtue of starting with 'F' and being a third point (you always need a third point). See this interesting Wikipedia article about Feeding The Sick Ferret (which to be frank I always thought was slang for something completely different). It will at least take you away from this page.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Sidebar: China's economy, China's ecology

I know that posting about another post is the cheapest of blogging activities. When that other post is your own, from a different blog, then I'm not sure if this compensates for the apparent laziness, or makes it worse due to egotism.

You be the judge.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sidebar: Schoolyard Creole

This evening, my daughter was showing me the latest clapping game that she plays with her schoolfriends during break. There's two really interesting things about these games and how they are played here right now.

Firstly, they are making a comeback. My sisters played them thirty years ago or more (it really is a girl thing) but they had disappeared over the intervening generation. What's brought them back? Immigration. Many kids have moved to Ireland from so many different countries - especially Poland - and they have brought back this really sweet schoolyard game with them.

Secondly, the game that my daughter showed me was in effect a kind of creole version of the game. Well this isn't linguistically correct of me - no new language was being created here - but the game now has a Polish language component to it (Nina (7) is very proud that she can pronounce the Polish 'perfectly' - according to her Polish friend Milena).

Given the very high numbers of Polish families in certain Irish towns (my one included) I wonder whether in a few years there'll be some new words in the local teenage lexicon whose roots will be clearly visible as Polish. I can't tell you how exciting a prospect this is, and how unimaginable it would have been just a decade ago.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Making the leap to Intermediate

Something is definitely happening. There have been a number of recent indications. I've been trying to learn this language for almost a year and a half. When I took stock of things after the first year, I came to the conclusion that all I had managed to do was remove the initial strangeness of the tones, the characters and the strange grammatical structures (whadya mean, shi4 doesn't mean 'to be'?!). The sounds and the concepts were a little less foreign to me, even if I still couldn't understand or say much.

Perhaps I've become a bit more diligent, or maybe I've paid enough dues now, but it feels like I've moved up in the bus. When I hear a sentence on Chinesepod, or read my teacher's notes for a new lesson, the number of percentage of new words compared to ones already seen, is smaller. Often the old faces appear in new company, but still make some degree of sense or have some recognizable logic to them.

Yesterday, during our weekly lesson, I found myself listening to and understanding longer and longer sentences. Even the structure are coming a little easier.

Don't get me wrong - I'm still a crap Mandarin speaker. But I'm a crap Mandarin speaker who's started listening to (and kinda getting) the Intermediate Chinesepod lessons!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Chinese for the Classroom

For those who are studying in classrooms or with a tutor, here's some vocabulary that you might find useful (on my teacher's site). As is often the case, I've made flashcards out of this for those of you who, like me, suffer from bad memory.

As well as suffering from a bad memory, I suffer from a lack of opportunity to use chinese. This means that very often, during classes, I (and my classmates) are slow to speak. What I really like about this particular vocabulary is that it allows us to stay in Chinese for longer, without resorting to English at the first hurdle. While this might not seem very important, but the impact is tremendous. Staying "in charactor" as one of my classmates buts it, makes Chinese seem much less like a thing to be studied and more like a language to be spoken.

Sidebar: Braille for Chinese

Following on from the irrelevant but disturbingly attractive discussion on hearing aids and chinese tones, and the resulting avalanche of questions from Chris, I found myself trying to find out how blind Chinese people dealt with reading Braille.

You might think that this is just a simple matter of googling the words chinese and braille and selecting the first returned page. Well you'd be right. Feeling kind of smug now, aren't you.

Well then, can you figure out how the Chinese braille system works before following that link? You probably think that it's nothing more than a braille representation of pinyin, don't you? You do, huh? Well you'd be right again (dammit). So now that smug feeling is transforming into something altogether more sinister - you're feeling rather self-satisfied and superior by now. Wondering what the hell you're even doing hanging round a blog entry like this, eh?

Right then - clear off! Go on!

Bloody intellectuals.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Requesting Advice on Travel in China

I've posted on my Round The World Trip blog looking for any travel tips related to China. If anyone out there in the Chinese-language-learning community has any advice to offer, please do check out this post and leave a comment. Thanks!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Some more flashcards...

I've created a single flashcard file that I intend to expand a lot. I'm transferring the vocabulary (and eventually sentences) from the notes I've taken during the last term of lessons here in Cork. I won't blog every time I update it (that would be too noisy) but feel free to download it regularly to pick up any changes.

As ever, my flashcard files can be found here.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Cork Chinese Learners: This weeks flashcards

For my fellow Cork Chinese students in particular, but for anyone else who may be interested:

I've made flashcards from Liping's lesson number 9. They can be found here along with any other flashcards. This time I've realised that there was no need to enter the cards twice (doh!) and it's simply a matter of selecting the last of 4 'side modes', under the advanced menu, when starting a lesson.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A slight change in direction

I started learning Chinese for the challenge and to try to keep the synapses crackling. But very soon afterwards, the idea of travelling around the world began to form in my wife's mind and my own (in that order - as with most good 'family' ideas).

Now it would appear, in a delicious irony, that I've got to learn another language before leaving Ireland: Irish! In order to home-school the kids while we're on the road, I'm going to have to get my Gaeilge back in order (it's been 20 years since I last studied it, and 26 since I last enjoyed that study). Ken from ChinesePod (if you're reading): How's your Irish?! I realise the market is about three orders of magnitude smaller, but any chance of you coming back here and setting up IrishPod ;-)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sidebar: Mandarin Tones and Hearing Aids

I just came across this short article (and I wasn't even looking up anything to do with Mandarin!) which explains that folks with hearing aids might have difficulty understanding tonal languages.

Besides the interesting description of how one must use both sides of the brain in understanding tonal languages, it begs the question: Do native Chinese speakers fare worse with hearing aids than speakers of non-tonal languages? Are there some special specifications for hearing aids in China that make them more sensitive to musical sounds? Does this really matter?

No. Probably not.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Sticking my neck out

Following my own excellent principle (ahem) that you can never learn a language unless you are prepared to make a complete arse out of yourself, and also taking on board Chris's excellent advice about going to Chinese medicine shops to try out speaking Mandarin, I found myself in front of Dr. China in Mahon Point, Cork.

Well actually I just found myself there by chance. But also by chance I have a persistent arthritic pain in the knuckle of my right hand. But the direct approach is not for me. Oh no. Instead of marching in there, rapping (arthritically) on the counter top and announcing my Mandarin intentions, I perused the leaflets on arthritis (and other ailments) that were strategically placed around the outside of Dr. China. And there I lay in wait, counting on the same entrepreneurial zeal that so cleverly placed the leaflets, to react to someone nibbling at the bait. In under 10 seconds a member of staff appeared from what seemed like a very busy shop to ask if she could help me with anything.

So far so good. Well we chatted about the availability of the doctor and the shops opening hours while I plucked up the courage to speak some Chinese, for all the world like a 16-year-old boy asking for throat lozenges in a pharmacy when he really wants condoms.

"One last question" I said, "ni3 shou1 zhong1wen2 ma?". She replied automatically in the affirmative, and in Chinese. It was only when I offered "wo3 zai4 xue2 zhong1wen2" that she seemed to realize that I was actually attempting communication. Now that, as far as the Chinese content of the conversation is concerned, is that. I switched to English to explain that I was learning here in Cork and that I was just trying it out (if not indeed trying it on). That's the problem about learning how to swim in pools - there's always a nearby edge to grab hold of.

Despite the embarrassingly basic level, it felt really good to have stuck my neck out and not get it chopped off. I fared much better than the time, for example, that I was watching a film in Italian with my Italian girlfriend (now wife) and my parents-in-law to be. On hearing the word "sega" over and over again, I asked aloud what "sega" meant.

"Wank" apparently.

Anyone else out there got any similar confessions?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Flashcards Continued: Some more

Taking a leaf out of John's book, and based on the lessons from my local teacher here in Cork, I've put together some flashcards using the jMemorize tool. This is just a first attempt (and only covers 3 out of the 8 lessons that Xiong Liping has prepared for us). The categories are a bit misleading, as the names of the lessons don't always coincide with the word-building section from which they are derived.

Again taking my lead from John, for each word I made two cards - one the reverse of the other. I wish the tool would make this easier by including a copy-and-reverse option.

My cards show simplified Chinese characters with toned pinyin on one side, and English translations on the other. If you download them, please let me know if I screwed up somewhere!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Flashcards: Thanks for the Memories

At the age of 37 (to steal that famous line from Marianne Faithful's Ballad of Lucy Jordan) my memory is sadly in tatters. I think it has been for some time. So one of the biggest problems I'm having with Chinese at the moment is absorbing new vocabulary.

I've taken to playing chinesepod podcasts, and my own local teacher's mp3 files in the car over and over, based on the old proverb that if you through enough mud against the wall, some of it is bound to stick. But thanks to John's Flashcards I now have another facility to deal with my fizzled out synapses.

John - thanks for your work on this. So far I'm finding it a really useful resource - so much so that I'm considering writing some flashcards for my fellow students here in Cork, based on the content of our course so far.