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.