Tag Archives: Chinese

Chinese study 2019, part 2

Previous story: Chinese study 2019

In the previous post, I only got as far as trying to identify where to spend effort to learn Chinese. But there was no plan about what to do. Here's what I'm thinking about that.

The two things that need to go way up in effort: speaking and composing.

The two things that need to give way: listening and reading.

There's another way to put that. The thing that needs to give way: practicing by myself. The thing that needs to be increased: practicing with others.


Here's an idea I had: Zhongwensday. It's a sketchy portmanteau of 中文zhōngwén ("Chinese language") and Wednesday. Every Wednesday, I would take the results of speaking and composition—presumably a video and an article, which could be different versions of the same topic, both in Chinese—and present them for your consideration. It's simple, it lends itself to refinement, and the quality of the output can be compared over time. One more thing: other people can do the same thing, and we can all share with each other and compare.

...

I know it's a good idea, but I'm not entirely sold on taking such a big drink of embarrassment... but what the hell? The base goal is not "Avoid embarrassment" but "Speak fluent Chinese".

One other thing: I run a daily service called Chinese Word of the Day. (Better on Twitter and Facebook, @zhwotd and @zhwotd, respectively.) For the most part, it's just been words words words, but no examples, no digging into the characters, etc.—no context, just words. Words are easy. Turning the words into thoughts and ideas is hard—but not impossible. That's the next step on zhwotd.com.


So we'll start 2019 with those two as the focus: (1) Zhongwensday and (2) context on zhwotd.com. Because, again: learning how to learn a language is hard. These two things are wonderfully discrete and easy to measure, but will require some work to develop and some practice to pull them off. Hi ho.

Chinese study 2019

Next story: Chinese study 2019, part 2

Learning how to learn a language is hard.

I've been trying to learn to speak Chinese now for about six years with, I think, little to show for it. I can't watch TV and understand an episode. I can't listen to people talk and understand it. More importantly, I can't listen to people talk to me and respond to them, unless it's childishly simple—and even then, there's a limit, and it doesn't take long to reach it.

So there's that. And there's the people I know who speak English as a second language with great results, nothing to give them away but an accent, proving empirically that that it's possible to jump the wall from one language to another—the same wall that I'm beating my head against. I don't have the answer on how to do it right, but I suppose I can just live the process out loud, here, and hope that the exposure causes some some sense of obligation to do it right.

What are some different aspects of learning a language? Speaking. Listening. Reading. Composing. Handwriting. The last two could be the same, but in Chinese, composing something by keyboard is wildly different than composing it by hand. (Never mind aspects like semantics, syntax, vocabulary, etc. I guess I'm really talking about modes.)

Speaking and hearing are the most important pair if you want to communicate with someone else in person. Composing is important if you want to communicate via email, WeChat, website, etc. Reading is useful, but mostly for yourself, alone. Handwriting is fun, but it can be thrown out without consequence, although I enjoy doing it because it looks like magic.

So that's the rough ranking in terms of importance: hearing, speaking, composing, reading, handwriting. Now: what to do about it?


Here's what I'm doing now.

Listening. For pure listening practice, I listen to TV shows on YouTube. It's a good drill, but it's limited.

Speaking. I do this almost never, and never in any sustained way, just a few simple things here and there at home. We'll come back to this.

Composing. Never. I really don't write or say anything new.

Reading. Yes. I do this the most out of all of the different modes. It's (relatively) easy to do because I can pick the speed, and I can stop to look things up when I don't know them. Every week I pick an article and pull out some new vocabulary as a way of discovering words for Chinese Word of the Day.

Handwriting. A little, actually, as part of listening practice.


How should the levels be adjusted? Let's arrange things in terms of effort:

Mode Current effort Should-be effort
Speaking 10% 25%
Listening 60% 30%
Reading 25% 15%
Composing 0% 25%
Handwriting 5% 5%

A method for learning Chinese by watching TV

(This is mostly for my own reference, but I'll share it in case someone else finds it useful. By the way, the video I'm using for this post is 向往的生活2 episode 1. I'm a 黄磊 fan.)

The short version of what I do: I listen to short clips of audio from Chinese TV shows and practice listening. Hearing Chinese sounds is very difficult for me—much harder than reading, writing, etc.—so I'm trying to overcome it with more deliberate practice matching what I hear to what the actual sound is.

Programs/services used

This is all running on a 2011 MacBook Air, so it doesn't require anything really sophisticated.

Setup

  1. Find a video. This one is easy for me—I just notice what my wife is watching. I'm looking for videos that have Chinese subtitles, not English subtitles. The important issue here is not worrying about the meaning of words, sentences, or topics—in fact, I find that to be a distraction. I'm focusing solely on the link between listening and hearing. It's the hardest part of Chinese for me.
  2. Download mp3 audio from video. Use the YouTube to MP3 app. I put these in a folder in Dropbox (Language/Chinese/[show name]).
  3. Set up table. Here's a blank table. I put these in a folder on Google Drive (Language/Chinese/[show name]).

Action

  1. Open the mp3 file in Audacity. Usually takes a while to import the mp3, so later I'll save it as an Audacity project (.aup) and use that file.
  2. Select a range of audio to repeat. ⌘1 to zoom in, then select the range with the mouse. Usually I select less than 10 seconds at a time so I get to hear what's being said until it sinks in without being overwhelmed.
  3. Shift + Space to play the range on repeat.
  4. Listen and write the sounds that I hear in a notebook. If I know the character I'll write the character, but it's not important—the important thing is to correctly identify the sound.
  5. Select a new range and repeat.

After about a cumulative minute of video, I compare what I've written to the actual Chinese subtitles in the video.

Sometimes it's obvious and I recognize the character. Sometimes I can type the pinyin into Pleco or MDBG and see if what I heard matches a sensible word. Other times I have to switch to the Chinese handwriting keyboard on my phone and write the characters I don't know and let Pleco help me out.


There's a pattern to the colors: Black for what I hear; Red for corrections; Green for Hanzi; Blue for selected definitions (although no definitions shown here).

After I've figured out the correct sounds and characters, I'll store them in a table for later. (Example: 向往的生活2 #1) Sometimes I'll use that to later run longer ranges of the video and read along. Also, I'm saving the info for later when I want to study meaning, sentence structure, etc.

Extra step: New vocabulary gets used for another project, Chinese Word of the Day (@zhwotd).