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...