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!