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)


liulianxiaoyu said...


liulianxiaoyu said...

Sorry for the last comment, I never thought I could post any comments here using the new computer.

Just want to talk about a thing----your example. I think it might be much easier to understand the sentence if you think whether it is "在" or "载(carry)"according to the words or characters used after them. That is the way I think.


Brendan Lawlor said...

That's exactly what I'm getting at liulianxiaoyu. It's all about context in Chinese (or so it seems to me) and I need to try to train my ear not to hear the individual components of words (the monosyllabic homophones) but the combination of words - the duplications that narrow down the possible meanings.

Not quite sure how I'm going to do that, but that's an altogether different matter.

liulianxiaoyu said...



Brendan Lawlor said...

这是很好的忠告。我就应该找到更多时间! :-)

liulianxiaoyu said...


Chris said...

Brendan Liulianxiaoyu is correct, listen until it hurts if you can.

I have a long way to go but apart from context there are other audio cues that only come from intense listening. Eventually a single syllable will sound different when used in isolation or used as part of a word (even if the tone is the same). Also I have noticed that many Chinese speakers will give an ambiguous word (using their standards of course) a bit more clarity and space. When I could understand hardly anything I still used to listen to Chinese and try to work out where phrases started and ended, when names were used, which syllables went together etc etc. There are cues in there but it is not something you describe easily.

The simple description of tones is an approximation and a fudge that may enable a machine or robot to speak, actually there is a world more information in there....

Whether that is good or bad, I will leave to decide, I am both inspired and scared :)

liulianxiaoyu said...





Brendan Lawlor said...

Chris and Liulianxiaoyu,
I really subscribe to your advice. I am going to continue to push hard and listen over and over. The intermediate Chinesepod lessons are really challenging but also rewarding. And my local face-to-face lessons are giving me that extra impetus to prepare and practice. I think I'll probably use a month of the Chinesepod Practice during the Summer when I am away from Ireland.

I've got about 270 days left before I touch down on Chinese soil so I had better kick it up a gear!

Thanks for the advice, and liulianxiaoyu please feel free to continue to post in hanzi. It's great practice for me and no forgiveness is required ;-)

liulianxiaoyu said...


bryan said...

I've just started checking out your blog and find it very interesting. I think you are a bit ahead of me in terms of level (I am still not quite ready for intermediate CPod podcasts) and it is very useful to hear about your experiences - both good and bad. Keep up the great work!

Brendan Lawlor said...

Thanks Bryan. I'm very glad you find it interesting. Hope I can continue to add something useful.

Good luck with your learning.

By the way - I think the moment to start listening to Intermediate is precisely when you are not quite ready for it!

bryan said...

brendan said:

I think the moment to start listening to Intermediate is precisely when you are not quite ready for it!

It's funny you said that. As I was typing that last comment I was thinking that very thing especially after reading the above interchange between you and liulianxiaoyu... I think it's time for me to go for it!

Brendan Lawlor said...

Chocs away!

Enjoy. In three weeks or so you'll be feeling slightly bored with the Elementary level ;-)

bryan said...

Well, last night I did it. I remember having read on the CPod forums how the very first Intermediates were much easier than the current ones, so I listened to the first 5! These were from late 2005 when ChinesePod was still in its infancy. To be honest, the first couple are much easier than some of the more recent Elementary lessons, but if that's what it takes to get me mentally ready to tackle the Intermediates, then so be it! After the first couple they started switching to more Chinese banter which is already providing a bit of challenge. I can follow these resonably well but I know once I get further down the line things will pick up. I previewed some later ones and see that there was a shift as Ken had Aggie (I think?) join them and then later John (somewhere around the 45th lesson?). I am still learning a few things with these easier intermediates, but wonder if I should just plunge in to the more recent ones with John as well. Those would surely be over my head but maybe that's exactly what I need -- to have to listen over and over and try to get 'meat off the bone' as you call it. Guess there's only one way to find out...

Brendan Lawlor said...

I've scheduled a mixture of old and new intermediates, based purely on the topic (travel - preparing myself for the big tour next year) and I've found that while the dialogues on the more recent lessons are definitely more challenging, they are also more interesting. Moreover, Jenny and John seem to have found a good balance between English and Chinese in the banter that surrounds the lessons.

Keep up the good work! :-)

liulianxiaoyu said...

看了你们的交流,我有一个问题:你们是如何学习中文的?我的意思是:每天只是听,还是听、说、读、写(does not mean write by hand)都有?

我在上中学的时候就开始学英文,只是都是阅读和语法,所以我现在的阅读与写作能力比听和说的能力要好得多,特别是阅读能力。因此,我觉得我去年开始听英文的时候容易得多,而且,我在听的同时,只要有机会,也会练习阅读和写作能力。只是我很少有机会和别人说英文。所以,我所说的听比较重要是基于我的这些经历的。我不知道如果只是听,而不练习阅读和写作会是什么样子,有什么样的效果。 :)

liulianxiaoyu said...

Hi brendan,I also had used that meathod (mixture of old and new materials) for a period of time when I got started to listen to English last year. I think it is very helpful. :)

bryan said...

liulianxiaoyu, 你好。 很高兴认识你。谢谢你的评论。我看得懂很多你的写作但是不一切。因为我中文写的不好和没有时间会写英文。不好意思。 I have been focusing primarily on listening and speaking. In a matter similar to that of Chris (Mandarin Student), I have decided to try to become reasonably fluent in Chinese before dedicating large amounts of time to studying Hanzi. I know there are many different views about learning languages and that different methods work best for different people, but I believe that listening well and speaking are of the utmost importance and that it is from this that all else follows. My impression is that it is quite common for many Chinese natives to be more proficient at reading and writing English than speaking. Perhaps there is not enough of an outlet for practicing English speaking in China, whereas there is an abundance of English literature with which to practice. It seems that using Skype or a similar means to connect orally is becoming more and more common as a way to counteract the lack of means to practice conversational English. I also have a feeling that many find it scary or humbling to converse in another language and feel self-conscious about their pronunciation or accent. In my limited amount of correspondence with other Chinese people, I think that many feel embarrassed that their speaking level is well below that of their reading or writing level.

Perhaps you have written this elsewhere (I have just begun reading Brendan's blog), but I don't know your background. Do you currently live in China? Do you have other English speakers with whom you can practice? What materials do you use to study English? 你英文写的这么好。真厉害!

Brendan Lawlor said...

To (finally) answer your question, the way I learn is a mixture of a local teacher, and Chinesepod, so there's a lot of variety in the methods and stimuli involved.
As of recently I've been trying the premium subscription on CP and for each lesson (at least one a day) I listen to the dialog a few times, read the dialog, and do the exercises.

Occasionally I write hanzi, but not as part of any fixed program of study.

In my classes here in Cork, I'm lucky to have a very good teacher who explains things well, and who tailors the course to our needs. So I have a bit of grammar in there too, but not too much. More recently we have tried to concentrate on speaking (and this summer I plan to try the CP Practice level too, as I won't be in Ireland and so won't be able to attend lessons.)

My opinion is that the best way to learn a language is to go and live in the country in which it is spoken, and make friends there. But that's rarely possible. The only alternative is to study every day. I think that your experience of learning English, although probably considered old-fashioned by some, has probably served you very well. A foundation of grammatical understanding and exposure to the written language can really accelerate the spoken and listening learning phase. That said, I won't be learning calligraphy or studying 'The Analects' any time soon ;-)

liulianxiaoyu said...



我来自中国的中部地区河南省,现在在浙江省温州市工作,因为我的男朋友在这里。我目前在外贸公司(import & export company)工作,只是用到的大多数是书面英语。另外,我在工作之余,还帮我的男朋友翻译一些心理学方面的资料(英译中),所以我的阅读和书写能力相对比较好。听和说的能力差一些,我每天坚持听40分钟的英文对话(movies or TV shows),如果晚上有空,我偶尔会到温州当地的小酒吧去,有时候能遇到一些“老外”,和他们交流。我也在SKYPE上和别人交流学习英文,但效果似乎不是特别好,所以我现在对此兴趣不太大,再加上最近工作也比较忙。




liulianxiaoyu said...

Brendan, 谢谢你的热心回答,也谢谢你热心介绍你的学习方法。:)



Brendan Lawlor said...

I am very late replying to this comment liulianxiaoyu. I've got my in-laws in town and done find much time to 去上网。

You're right - motivation is so important. In school, a language is only a subject. When you actually use it, it comes to life and begins to make sense and become part of you.

I look forward to some day when I'll be able to use Chinese in a professional context.

liulianxiaoyu said...


期待着你明年(I remember you said you will come to China next year. Is it right?)来中国的时候,就能说一口流利的中文。:)