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Thoughts of studying Chinese this year and tips to begin or re-boot your studying Part 2

This is the 2nd part of my Thoughts on studying Chinese this year and tips to begin or re-boot your studying (part 1).


If you are looking to study a new language, or looking for a re-boot to revitalise your studying, here are my recommendations.

Plan your study time and Fight through the wall.

No matter what you do to study, there will be times where you hit a wall and you just don’t want to do it any more. Its very easy to stop if you are studying alone. Or even if you are in a class its very easy just not to participate. Have realistic expectations about how much you can study in one day, and how long it will take in total. My recorded times this year have amounted to 300 hours, at a rate of between 2 and 4 hours per day. And I expect to double that to 600 hours before getting to a level where I could reasonably work professionally in Chinese.

Lets say you intended to sit down for 2 hours of study after work or class. You sit down with your study book, laptop, tablet, or mobile phone and a cup of coffee. 15 minutes later your mind starts to wane and you wonder what’s happening on facebook, someone sends you a message, your coffee is finished. There are seemingly a mountain of things that you want to do before you get back to studying. Every time you check your watch, it seems like time is standing still. Your mind is blank. You can’t think of the answer. What’s happening on facebook?

There’s the temptation to just give in and take a small 5 minute break to clear your mind, then of course you will definitely be ready for the remainder of those 2 hours. The only problem is 15 minutes later the same happens again. Before you realise it, the 2 hours of time you gave yourself are over and you have other obligations. You take a look back on what you’ve done, to realise you haven’t even completed one page of your 400 page study book.

This has happened to me countless times before, and still embarrassingly often now. The key is to not give up. Just keep pushing and you will pass through the wall. When you catch yourself thinking of something else, just switch back to study and keep going. If you can’t think of the answer and can’t think what to do, just think about the mechanical steps to find out the answer. Turn the page to find the Vocabulary list. Look down the list until you find the word you want the translation of. Look left until you see the English word. That is the translation. Turn back to last page you were on and go back to the last word. Keep reading. You will get back into the swing again. I find often that my first wall comes after 10-15 minutes. If I can get past that one, I can keep on going for another 45 minutes or so of straight studying, without even realising the time pass. During this time of being in the zone, in flow, I’m not considering whether or not I like studying, whether I have any new messages, I’m not even aware of background noises or where I am. I’m just studying. The next time I check my watch its already been 2 hours and 5 minutes.

Study alone

You might go to classes to study, you might find language exchange meet-ups are a fun way to practise your language skills but these don’t provide the complete steps to learning. Imagine the 4 steps of competence, 1. Unconscious incompetence, 2. Conscious incompetence,  3. Conscious competence and 4. Unconscious competence.

Before you even go to class or pick up a beginners’ book, you don’t know what you don’t know. In the class, you are introduced to new content. That takes you from Stage 1 to Stage 2.

Having conversations rely on your ability to know the content. Practising to a level when you are not even thinking about what you are saying is stage 4. so Practising conversation takes you from Stage 3 to to Stage 4.

The missing part is Stage 2 to Stage 3.

A class might provide exercises in class and homework exercises to help this process to reinforce what was taught in class. But in the absence of classes, I was forced to develop my own techniques. The result was using the Flashcard app to memorise vocabulary by listening, reading and translating from English. I ended up creating an open-source app to help with this.

The key is to keep on reviewing vocabulary until you instantly recognise the meanings. I don’t mean after 5 seconds you get finally get it, I mean keep on repeating the words until you see a word or phrase and can instantly imagine it, even quicker than you can speak it. In the case of learning Chinese characters, it means seeing the shape and/or combination of the characters and instantly knowing its meaning and how to say it. When this happens for most words in a list, it makes it far easier to use these words when reading examples, having practise conversations, and when out in the wild having conversations with people in the real world.

Speak out the vocabulary

As mentioned before, the tones in Chinese are vitally important. Speaking out the vocabulary gives you a chance to practise the tones in words and it will built a sort of muscle-memory when you pronounce words.

Create strange stories to remember Vocabulary.

If I find myself continually repeating the same vocabulary and just not making any progress on an individual word, I will try to think of a story to help me remember. The weirder the story, the better it helps. A website called memrise uses this technique to help with remembering, but I feel I remember better if I create the story myself. After I get to stage of instant recognition of the word, I tend to forget the stories, but I already have the word learned by then, so it has served its purpose. Example words might be the Japanese word 婚約, Konyaku, to get Engaged.  The story is at your engagement party you will have a drink to celebrate, and everyone drinks Cognac. Another word, in Chinese.  詛咒, zuzhou, curse. I just imagine the the 2nd character to look like a frowning face, because no one likes to be cursed. Over time it becomes easier to use relevant words in the Language you are learning, using similar sounds and shapes.

Another technique I use to remember the tones in particular words is to imagine the shape of the tones if they were put together. For example, Shēngqiān (promotion) is a long flat stick, Shěng qián (save money) is a unicycle travelling right. They don’t have to really make sense, but they do have to stick. The uncooked letters “TN” riding a unicycle to save spending on bus fare may not be a thought you can relate to, but to me that means saving money.

A similar technique I remember reading about was using peg-lists to remember position numbers of letters in the alphabet. i.e. a Dog has 4 legs, a Flute has 6 holes, the Queen has 16 houses. They don’t have to be true, they just have to be memorable stories that link numbers to letters.

Try different study techniques

Maybe your class or book already provides examples to help you learn. And maybe its enough. In my case, even at a time with classes to study, the content didn’t really help me enough to gain fluency. After searching through various techniques, I finally found a combination that really worked for me. Maybe you do better talking with a another person in an exchange situation. Maybe watching TV shows can help you to learn listening skills. The point is, if you aren’t seeing the desired effects, chances are its because you havent yet found your perfect way of study. If thats the case, keep an open mind and search for a new way of studying.

Move to the country

Quite an extreme option, just to learn a new language. However, it does provide some real incentive to learn. Other options may be to find exchange partners in your own country. Getting exposure to real-life situations where you must use your new language skills is essential in order to solidify what you learn in a study environment. Good luck!

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Thoughts of studying Chinese this year and tips to begin or re-boot your studying Part 1

I’ve been living in Taiwan for 9 months now, studying at least a little Chinese most days and i’d like to give my thoughts on how its going and what advice I could give for others when studying a new language.

This has turned into quite a large post, so I’ve split it into 2 parts.

In total, I have recorded 300 hours for Chinese study this year, mostly by myself. I haven’t done any tests to assess and have no official qualification, but my ability is such that I can introduce myself in a conversation, explain what I’m doing now and my hobbies. I can ask what the other person does and largely find out what they do, i.e. Study, work, travel, and make arrangements for meeting, restaurants, fun activities, exchange contact details, etc.

I have had 2 job interviews in Chinese, and while there were points where I had to speak English for intricate details, I felt I largely manage to convey my ideas with Chinese, hand waving and drawing pictures. It’s not quite good enough for working 100% in Chinese, but I would estimate that with another 300 hours of study, I could get to that level.


Why Chinese, and why Taiwan?

I have had this question put to me by Taiwanese people in some rather strange places. When I was applying for my ARC card (Foreigner ID in Taiwan) and at job interviews. I won’t go into specific details about why this is such a common question, but the decision came last year when I decided I wanted to learn Chinese as I saw the way market trends were moving in my field, for mobile apps. I already had Taiwanese friends who recommended Taiwan. In addition, Taiwan recently allowed UK citizens to have a work holiday visa, which makes it a great deal easier to have an open-ended plan here, over a specific plan such as having a full-time job or being a student at a university.


Studying approaches

Over the years I have undertaken various approaches and situations to studying Chinese in UK. Overall I would say each one has an effect proportional to the effort I put in to each one. My first step was to take a 1-semester beginners course at my university. In this course I studied about 3 hours per week in classes with perhaps 2 hours per week revision for about 12 weeks. My exam results gave me a “9” which was a bare minimum pass. I was by no means conversational but I could manage a short introduction and read and write a few Chinese characters.

2 years later, now working, my flatmate decided to take some beginners Chinese night classes and I decided it might be interesting to join him. This took the form of 2 hour study sessions once a week for 8 weeks. I think this was my least productive time for studying Chinese as I didn’t learn anything new and just barely managed to answer the teachers questions. In addition, I was tired after work and certainly wasn’t in the mood for studying.

3 years after that I found myself with a 2 hour commute driving each day. About the same time I found Pimsleur CDs for learning languages. So I put the lessons into the car music player and studied away every day for a few months. I studied all 3 courses, about 45 hours worth of material in total. I’ve read reviews saying that the time spent using Pimsleur might be more effectively spent using more conventional methods, such as studying from textbooks. I would agree as I don’t really think I learned as much vocabulary as I could have, and lessons felt like they became more of a drudgery over time. One critically important missing part of this was any reading skills. Of course, being an audio-only course, it’s understandable why you don’t learn the Chinese characters, nor even the pinyin required for typing. On the other hand, I did feel it helped with pronunciation (English speaking learners of Chinese find this part particularly difficult, trying to distinguish the tones. Pimsleur, to its credit, does make a point of helping with this) and it was only means I could find to offer visual distraction free and hands free learning whilst driving. Most importantly, it cultivated a methodology of listening and repeating words spoken. This I consider to be hugely important and I have taken this with me when studying alone now.

Later on, whilst in Japan, a friend studying Japanese introduced me to the ANKI flashcards app to study vocabulary. This was the first time I had ever heard about SRS (Spaced Repetition Software) and I thought it was pretty neat. I was also impressed by the huge collections of downloadable flashcards I could download. I played with it a bit, but 2 things prevented me from getting significantly ahead by using the app. One, whenever things got boring, or I hit a wall, I just stopped. And two, I didn’t get into the habit of using the software every day to learn. At the time I was concentrating more on getting a job than I was to learn any more Japanese. At that time, I was already at a conversational level, so I let other priorities take over.

Finally when I came to Taiwan, I had the tools to study and the urge to do so. Despite my previous Chinese study beforehand, I could understand very little of everyday conversations. Ordering food at a restaurant involved pointing at a menu and asking “do you have England?” in Chinese, then praying that pointing at one of the options wouldn’t generate a barrage of new questions that I wouldn’t understand. The Tea shops were particularly painful. So many options about hot/cold, how much ice, how much sugar, what size of cup. There was more than one time I got a drink I didn’t quite ask for. I’m not averse to sweet food and drink, but I swear on some occasions they must have thought I asked for triple sugar with my bubble milk tea.

Every day I used the ANKI app to study vocabulary. I had my old textbook from my Chinese class at uni, Hippocrene Beginner Chinese , so I studied from that. Later on I bought the 2nd book, Hippocrene Intermediate Chinese, and had it sent to me to continue study. I ended up studying between 2 and 4 hours a day. I had few problems with the grammar (Chinese grammar is easy compared to English or Japanese) but the vocabulary and pronunciation was exceptionally difficult. Thankfully each of the 10 chapters in the book was structured the same. A conversation text section, followed by vocabulary section, some notes about new grammar points in the text, then some exercise questions to practise. I evolved a method of first inputting the new grammar in to the ANKI app, and memorising the words first before than looking at the rest of the chapter. This way I wouldn’t be struggling through the text in the book because I couldn’t read it. This significantly reduced blocks when it came time to reading from the book or doing the exercises. Because of the interactivity of the Flashcard app, it felt easier to spend time memorising the word lists.

A side result (and huge benefit) was now having a vocabulary list in the mobile phone allowed me to study on the go, without having to be sat down with my Chinese book. I could then study on a train ride whilst standing or waiting for a friend. As an experiment, I attached sounds to the Flashcards, which worked so well that it allowed me to study even while walking. I now walk every day outside for at least an hour and study at the same time. It combines the Pimsleur approach of audio-only learning with the interactivity of the Flashcard apps. I occasionally glance at my phone screen for translations and pinyin if I don’t quite understand the spoken words, but largely this is only for new words I haven’t repeat-studied before. I can remember the positions of the buttons on the screen so I can press them without looking at the screen. I wouldn’t recommend this for driving or cycling, but certainly it’s little enough of a distraction that walking is no problem.

The biggest challenge I found was to get into a routine that allowed me to study for long periods of time. Beforehand, I usually only studied for about 30 minutes, until I hit the first wall. Then I would stop, and do something else and never get back into studying. The best thing I ever did was to get into the habit of fighting through the wall and continue studying. This was driven by the thought that if I didn’t learn Chinese, I would forever be drinking super sweet tea and eating sandwiches from the 7-Eleven. I couldn’t even order a coffee or burger from MacDonalds!

The combination and evolution of tools has allowed me to study for at least 2 hours a day, as part of my daily routine. As a result I am making remarkable progress in my Chinese. After 9 months I would say it has surpassed my Japanese level (after 2 years living in Japan and 3 years studying back home using more conventional methods)

One important note to make is I am not studying how to write Chinese. This is because I feel no need to do so as I almost never write any more. I feel my time would be better spent studying reading and pinyin as these are the skills required as a foreigner to type Chinese in to a computer. A user would type in the pinyin and a list of predicted characters are presented to select from. I must admit its annoying for the few occasions that I must write something (i.e. my name on an application form, or address) usually I will write out what I want to write using my mobile phone, then copy the characters on screen by hand. Its slow, painful and very untidy but I have to do this so infrequently that I would rather concentrate my efforts on reading and typing on computer. I have found however that studying stroke order is useful for those occasions (I studied some writing in uni for Chinese and Japanese) which increases the chance my written text is readable.

The tones are important  in Chinese. For example, (你)好嗎 (Ni) hǎo ma means how are you, 號碼 Hàomǎ means Number. 升遷 Shēngqiān means promotion, 省錢 Shěng qián means save money. Upon first listening these sound identical, which makes differentiating them in conversation hard. Its important to also pronounce them differently so listeners can understand you. To help with this, I practise speaking out the vocabulary and listen to the words using the Flashcard method mentioned above. I find this practise has helped me significantly in getting the tones right.

I found that, as with Japanese, my Listening skills were substantially worse than my Speaking and Writing skills. Especially being able to differentiate between tones in real life conversation settings. On more than one occasion I paid 14 Dollars when I should have paid 40. Over the months of living here I have found it to be less and less of a problem, I can tend to understand people more, but its certainly something I am looking to improve. Perhaps watching TV programmes might help more with understanding.

Part two continues here

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