I am now six months further into my Chinese language learning journey than when I wrote Learning Chinese – six months. When I reread my six months post, I thought ‘oh, how discouraging, not much has changed’ because I would use similar words to describe my situation
- most of my Chinese lessons speaking Chinese with grammar or culture in English
- people tend to understand me, but I don’t understand them very well
- I still tend to remember the pinyin but struggle with which is the correct tone
- I can read some characters but not most of them
- I can write characters that I know and copy those I don’t know neatly (more neatly than locals, in the same way that my written English is almost illegible to other people).
But I have improved in small ways
- The sentences that I use and understand in my lessons are longer, more complicated and more frequently accurate
- People understand me better than six months ago. When I give our address to taxi drivers, I don’t need to ask if they understand because I know they will. If I know all the words and have my sentence structure right, locals just reply.
- I understand more than six months ago, even if it is still not very much. Sometimes, I can pick out tonal differences and I can understand numbers at the market or shopping. When people speak to me, my mind sometimes works out what they were saying a few seconds (or minutes) later. I know some words immediately but my poor brain keeps whirring – assessing the context, filling in gaps, determining the missing words and which sounds and ones they might be (sometimes needing to look them up in my dictionary) and then working out the whole sentence. This does not make for flowing conversation, but I can now stretch to mini conversations with those willing to practice.
- Compared to six months ago, I know the pinyin and tones for more words and can read and write more characters.
So my overwhelming sense is ‘slow and steady’. I need to persevere and trust the process. When traveling, dining and shopping, my language learning is encouraging. In these situations, I am tending to speak in Chinese even if locals speak to me in English. Their English tends to be a similar level to my Chinese. Both sides have stock sentences we can say effectively, and we are both excellent at understanding our own language. I feel most discouraged at work when I am part of natural conversations and understand virtually nothing.
One encouraging thing is that I now have a base to which it is easier to add new bits. The sounds are all familiar so that I can recognise the difference between ‘zh’ and ‘j’ or ‘z’ and ‘c’. This means I can look it up, and can have a go at guessing what tone was being used, so I can learn for next time. I can remember place names easily because I have the bank of sounds to call upon. When I read, I can sometimes work out from the two characters that I know what the word might be. I break characters down into primitives in my mind so can write them quickly to work out what they are.
We are now confident that I can work it out if we travel to remote places. Last year, in the national October holiday, when we went to 九寨溝 （Jiŭzhàigōu） National Park, I researched places to stay with English speaking staff. This year, as we plan our trip to another national park – 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié or Avatar Mountains) – it is all about location and value for money.
How am I learning Chinese?
Much of the ‘how’ is the same as six months ago. I still have online classes with Tutorming most week days before I go to work, use Pleco dictionary to look up things wherever I am to communicate and keep stuffing new things into my brain, and am using the Heisig ‘develop stories using primitives’ method to learn the 3,000 most frequently used Chinese characters (nearly a third of the way).
However, as I have continued to research and talk to others about what they find helpful, I have found three new activities and resources helpful.
Firstly, I have worked on improving my pronunciation by reviewing several resources intended to help English speakers pronounce pinyin. My Chinese teachers are the best at saying things properly, but they do not always know how to help me say things better. They say it again to help me and I think it sounds the same as what I am saying. An English speaker recommending a similar English word, or saying ‘put your tongue here, not there’ is a good supplement. Some people say you need to get your pronunciation right early on so you don’t develop bad habits. I agree that would be great, and I did try. But given that I am where I am, I find when I go back to these resources one bit of theory sticks and I can work on that, whereas working on all the sounds at once was too overwhelming. Also, I can know where to focus my improvement because my teachers point out something or a local struggled to understand me say a specific word. I can go to my Pleco dictionary too and listen to it over and over again to try and understand where I went wrong.
Secondly, a friend introduced me to the Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series. I gave up on Chinese language children’s books quite soon after my last blog post. They are intended for people who speak Chinese but can’t read. The Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series are for people like me, who can read but not speak Chinese. The first books assume you know 300 Chinese characters – most of which I do now. If they use words outside those 300, they write it as a footnote with the pinyin and English translation. The stories manage to be interesting for adults – so far, a murder mystery, kidnapped children, challenges of being conjoined twins, and the romantic dilemma of a software engineer developing the first Chinese software in 1988.
Reading these books has helped me reflect on how much I learned English through reading. I tended to think I learned it all from my parents, but I realise devouring all those books (we did only have one TV channel that started in the afternoon) helped so much. I am reinforcing existing knowledge, picking up new language structures, and gaining new vocabulary. For example, ‘policeman’ has cropped up a bit, given kidnapping and murder themes, and was useful when our regular driver asked me what jobs our sons do. I could say ‘My younger son wants to be a policeman’ just like that.
The best thing about the series is that each one comes with a CD with a slow and normal speed soundtrack. I have copied them onto my phone, and now I listen to the slow audios of these books whenever I walk somewhere on my own, such as to and from the bus. Listening continues to be the weakest part of my language learning and this has helped so much. One day I hope to graduate to normal speed.
Thirdly, I have discovered Anki – a flashcard software system that uses ‘spaced repetition’. I really wish I had discovered this much earlier on, but at least I have found it now. This is thanks to an opera singing polyglot – Gabe from Fluent Forever. He has developed a system that really rang true for me when I tripped over it a couple of months ago. I was realising that I was struggling to revise all my vocabulary, and for the characters I was good at revising, my revision did not take into account that I knew some really well and others not so well. I was going through them just the same whatever category they were in. Enter Anki!
Anki is free (for Android and Windows) or cheap (for Apple) software that you can use to make flashcards for anything. Once created, it gives me the cards to review at shorter or longer intervals depending on my assessment of remembering it as ‘again’ (I can’t remember this), ‘hard’, ‘good’ or ‘easy’. I can create cards on my computer, revise them on my phone, and everything I have done syncs up to the cloud and back down to each device (I know baffling you with technical jargon).
And people have created all sorts of cards already. I downloaded over 3,000 pre-made cards for my Heisig method of learning characters. Fluent Forever offers a free template relevant for languages such as Chinese with characters, and a set of pre-made cards to help me with Mandarin pronunciation for only $12.
This pronunciation guide shows me that I can differentiate between most Mandarin consonant and vowel sounds, but am terrible at recognising tone differences. However, the guide gives me the chance to keep revising these differences until I can spot them. It is quite magical to not hear a difference, then be able to, and then wonder how I ever missed it and not be able to imagine thinking they sound the same.
The second thing I like about Gabe’s method is the idea of using pictures for flashcards so you miss out the translation step in your brain. Again, because I have been at this a year, I can see how much better it is when I operate like that, and that it is desirable to remove the English step if possible. So, I am in the process of developing vocabulary cards for about 1,000 words. Gabe recommends 650, and my friend’s professor has a list of the 1,000 most commonly used words. I naively assumed the 650 would be a subset of the 1,000 – not so. So, I have developed my own list, based on both of theirs and things I have wished I could say while I am here. I am now creating my own cards using the free template from Fluent Forever. Gabe also recommends including personal meaning, so they are quite fun to develop, and revise with pictures of special places and people dotted through. Example card for ‘dark’ being created below.
I can revise most of my flashcards on my daily bus trip to and from work, and, if need be, finish up any last bits at home. (Example screenshots from my mobile phone below.)
The third thing Gabe suggests, which I will do once I have my 1,000ish initial vocabulary cards made and being revised, is grammar/sentences flashcards, again using images rather than English. I will be able to get sentences and key grammar points from revising my lessons (I confess I am falling behind on revision of my lessons, with all this cards focus). I have already captured some of these in my book of notes. Now I want to be able to remember them. Making grammar cards is one of those things that as soon as I read it, I thought ‘that is obvious, why didn’t I think of that?’
The final thing that I am experimenting with (again from the famous Gabe’s book) is mnemonics to help me remember tones. Specifically, I have assigned a tone to each of my four children and am now linking the relevant child into my stories for characters when I struggle to remember the tone. So for 委 (wĕi, committee) I had a story of women (lower primitive in the character 女) bringing their paper bag tree (upper primitive 禾) fruit tarts to a committee meeting. Now I have added the image of Andrew (my up and down/third tone child) sitting with the women on the committee who were comparing their paper bag tree fruit tarts – dishing up his tart, which is of course agreed to be the nicest by far. This sounds very cumbersome when I describe it but is surprisingly effective when I picture it.
You may be wondering how I got to paper bag tree for a primitive – not Heisig’s idea. He uses wild rice for 禾, but I got that confused with another primitive 米 ‘rice’ that he also suggests, so I changed to ‘paper bag tree’. We went camping at the same time as I was getting confused between wild rice and rice, and from the bus I noticed trees with paper bags. I think they were covering fruit. It seemed a good alternative, and has worked well. It illustrates how I take others’ systems and make them my own, and how a stupid idea is often more memorable than a sensible one.
Another new thing is trying to talk with locals. When I am in Chéngdū, I have weekly lunch with Veena, a Chinese colleague who wants to improve her English. This has been a bit helpful for Chinese learning and lovely for getting to know someone at work. However, I think we have been too back and forth between Chinese and English. A few weeks ago, I met a Chinese woman who has lived in Sydney for five years. She said that she and her language partner found it helpful to speak in one language for half an hour, and then switch to speaking the other. This forced them both to push through communicating whole ideas in their difficult language each session. I will suggest that to Veena going forward. I also feel ready to retry connecting via an online site called Language Exchange, with locals who want to improve their English. I tried late last year, but when we met it was hard work when we used Chinese and that language partner did not seem keen to continue. Several have approached me online so we will see how that goes.
So, the last six months have been a lot of learning, and learning about learning, particularly taking from others’ experiences and finding what works for me. I continue to make progress and am reasonably encouraged. I still feel discouraged when I think how far I have to go to achieve my goal of conversational fluency. It helps to remind myself how little I used to know, and that I will definitely know more if I persevere than if I give up.
And think of all those neuronal pathways I am building to offer alternative routes as my brain starts losing some of its existing ones.