Tuesday, 25 June 2013

An Update on Chinese

Between doing the "high-powered consultant" thing and the "fatherhood" thing, I've fallen a bit behind on my blog and on my Sanskrit. The biggest hit to the latter, however, has actually been an unexpected and very welcome surge in progress in Chinese, a resolution which goes back much farther than my recent Sanskrit one.

You hear stories of people who get in a car wreck or have a stroke and have brain damage, such that they can't speak properly, and then after a few years, the brain re-arranges itself somehow, and they overcome their previous handicap. I think my first attempt to tackle Chinese was the learning equivalent of just such a car wreck, and, unbeknownst to me, my brain has been adjusting to the shock ever since. Earlier this year, things just sort of clicked into place, and now I'm making rapid progress again.

What 'clicked', exactly? The writing system, the tones, and the unusual phonology (j / zh, q / ch, x / sh, etc.). And when they clicked, I suddenly saw a clear path in front of me for learning the language.


I'll start with the writing system. Thousands of characters to learn, little built-in phonetic help, etc., etc. Everyone knows learning to read Chinese is hard. People graduate from universities majoring in Chinese and can't read a newspaper, yadda yadda yadda. In my first go at Chinese, I learned about 300 characters, and basically had nothing to show for it. In the last two months I'm up to 700 words, and steadily adding ten a day, confident that I'll be up to a 4000 word vocabulary around this time next year.

I had three breakthroughs on this. The first was simply, as I learned more about how the language worked, to stopping thinking in terms of characters and start thinking in terms of words. This is an essential step any beginner goes through, but it stopped me being perplexed by terms like 火车 (which before I thought of as "fire car"—and let's not even get into what I thought a 龙虾 was!) and let me get on with memorising words in a reasonable manner.

Secondly, back in 2006 I reasoned that, without immersion, learning the characters would be an impossibly difficult task, simply because I would not be surrounded by them every day, and seeing them less often would make them harder to remember. Using Anki (something all Chinese as a foreign language students now do) solves that problem, by ensuring that I am exposed to all my learned vocabulary at algorithmically determined intervals. Now my vocabulary is growing at such a rate that I actually have difficulty keeping up with the grammar lessons that accompany it (I'm using the NPCR textbooks both for language learning and for my Anki deck.)

Finally, I've moved to typing on a phone or computer pretty much exclusively, rather than stopping to learn how to write each character by hand. This is a massive time saver, and came from the realisation that there are really no practical use cases under which I would need to write Chinese on pen and paper (and, in the odd event that I did, I know enough to be able to copy the words off of my phone screen). I'll have pen-pals through e-mail or QQ, maybe someday I'll use the language for work (which would be in Microsoft Office), but in all cases I'd be writing on a computer. Once one accepts this shortcut, learning ten words a day and going over my revision words takes about four minutes on a good day, rather than the half-hour plus I would need otherwise.


My other, classic, beginner hang-up was tones, and to a lesser extent the whole phonology. Pinyin serves its purpose, but what really got me off the ground was to stop relying on it, and concentrate instead on listening to the words in Chinese, and imitating how they are said, mimicking the intonation as accurately as I can. I'll still need to find a tutor to help me in this regard, but the fact that I'm now using the recordings more often than the textbook (whereas in 2006 I was probably 90% textbook, 10% audio) has improved my pronunciation a great deal already.

I never found explanations
like this helpful.
Two things helped this pronunciation approach 'click' for me. One was a discussion online about the Qingdao accent, in which some Westerners couldn't understand how a failure to distinguish s and sh, in an already syllable-poor language, could be intelligible to Mandarin speakers. How would 四 and 十 be distinguished? The answer came back that only foreigners look so hard to the consonant sound to distinguish the syllable, while native Chinese speakers focus more on tone to tell which is which. You can actually change the initial letter, in some cases, and still be understood if your tone is correct. (There are analogies to this in English: I might not be able to pick up all the sounds someone with a heavy Irish or Tennessee accent is making, but still be able to grasp most of the sense from their rhythm and intonation.)

The second "a-ha" came from a remark about Westerners' bad accents, that you could tell who learned using pinyin romanisation and who learned using Wade-Giles, because each system led to systematic mispronunciations among people who mentally linked the pronunciation to the romanisation. I realised therefore that I would need to stop thinking of Mandarin as being written in a phonetic alphabet in pinyin, and start thinking of the language as a set of distinct syllables, with the pinyin simply serving to identify which of the standard syllables went with which character. From that point, traps like the fact that the vowel in zi sounds nothing like ji or that tian doesn't rhyme with an fade away. In fact, it leads to me sometimes knowing the word, its tone, and pronunciation, but not remembering the exact pinyin—which is something that happens to native speakers as well.


So two massive roadblocks have been removed; that doesn't mean this language doesn't have more in store for me. Now I'm busy trying to wrap my brain around things like 把 constructions, and I know that down the road I'll have to deal with 成语. Still, learning radically different ways of constructing thought is probably the second-most thing I love about language learning, and I knew going in that I would probably make approximately as much progress in ten years of Chinese study that I did in one year of learning French.

Still, it is fascinating and enjoyable, and, far more than another European language would at this point, it is giving me the thing that I love the most about learning a new language—opening the door for me to a completely new world, one that previously I had no way of knowing about.

Posted by jon at 7:05 PM in Languages 
« June »
Older articles
Non enim id agimus ut exerceatur vox, sed ut exerceat.