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Chinese proficiency report 6

I just received my results from the TOP (Test of Proficiency), i.e. the standard test of Chinese listening and reading. For my scholarship, I was required to pass at least one level (there are four), but there are no rules specifying which level. After having tried the intermediate one (level three) on the pilot test and failing big time, mostly because the time was too short, not because the content was to difficult. I decided to take the two lower levels for the real test to be on the safe side. That was a very fortunate decision. Not surprisingly, I passed the first level without any problem, but, rather unexpectedly, I failed the second level.

Partly, I can blame this on the extremely bad conditions for the listening exercises (large class room, forty students, low pitched sounds inaudible and lots of echoes); some mistakes I can also blame on the questions themselves, since some of them were incomprehensible (and that had nothing to do with language). I did pass the reading and grammar sections, but I would have needed almost twice as many points for the listening to pass.

So, what is this, a reality check or simply an aberration? Is my Chinese ability only between “beginner” and “basic”? I refuse to believe that’s the case, so I need to come up with some other explanation for the result, which is hard because the test itself is of course classified. I can think of two things. Firstly, the texts we study now are much, much more difficult than those on the test, which means that I have little or no use for what I’ve learnt this semester. Thus, learning Chinese on a “too advanced” level might actually be one reason for my points to drop. Secondly, I very seldom focus on exact meaning when I read, but rather go for the overall meaning. I can read pretty difficult texts and still understand the general idea, but extremely detailed reading for easier texts might not be that good (the grammar part of the test is definitely of this kind).

Of course, two aspects aren’t tested at all: speaking and writing. Although my reading is better than both these, my speaking and writing is definitely better than my listening and I also spend a lot of time studying characters. If the test were more comprehensive, I’m confident my score would have been higher.

Still, this is a kind of reality check. It’s an indication that perhaps I’m advancing too fast, leaving more basic parts of the language before I have mastered them fully. This is strategy is only wrong if achieving good test results is my only goad, which it isn’t, but it would be stupid to shrug the result off as bad luck or unfavourable conditions.

I will now go on with my standard evaluation of my Chinese ability, focusing on what I can improve in the future. As it looks now, I might only have little more than one month left here in Taiwan, so I intend to make the most of it.

Speaking:  Continued slow development, vocabulary gradually improves and so does fluency. I could practise a lot more than I do, but on the other hand I do spend quite a lot of time on this already. It doesn’t feel like I improve very quickly, but I’m satisfied with the development here anyway.

Listening: Listening is the problem, a lot harder than anything else in Chinese. The problem here is that it’s easy to deceive oneself; I understand almost everything my teachers say, even though we discuss fairly complex subjects and words in Chinese (form news articles, for instance), but I still failed the listening test and I also find non-standard Mandarin pretty difficult sometimes. I’m going to focus a lot on listening in the future, particularly after this semester comes to a close at the end of June.

Writing: Roughly the same as before. I can express almost anything I want, provided I have a dictionary available. Although I still make a lot of mistakes, I very seldom get reactions such as “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say here”, which happened at least once per article before. As usual, you can follow my development on my Chinese blog.

Reading: Regardless of what the test result says, I’m improving a lot when it comes to reading. In the five weeks that have passed since last proficiency report, I have added about 1000 words (reaching 5400 entries) to my vocabulary database (these I words I review regularly and know, it’s not simply a list of useful words). Of these, I can write at least 3000. In other words, the pace is a little bit quicker than the first half of this semester; 24 new words every day since the previous report. I could learn more and faster, but I doubt that it would be worth it.

Regarding characters (as opposed to words), I obviously lack a reliable method to count, because last times 2100 out of 3000 has decreased to 1800 (checked twice as many characters this time). Of course, I still know a lot of characters outside the 3000 most common ones, but it seems like I have quite a few left to learn.

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  1. David’s avatar

    I have some thoughts about the listening section-

    You are basically required to do several different things during the listening section. First, you have to hear the words intelligibly. Second, you have to process the meaning of the words. Third, you have to remember different meanings for different sentences, probably all at the same instant. Fourth, you have to read and understand the question, which may happen before or after the dialogue has been spoken. Fifth, you have to associate the question with the meaning-content from the dialogue. Sixth, you have to transcribe the right answer, depending on whether the question is multiple-choice, fill in the blank, or provide a written response.

    You say that it is easy to deceive yourself about listening ability. I assume you say this because of the tendency to listening for meaning rather than content. My guess is that you can do one of two things, that is, you can listening for meaning or you can listen for content. Most people have a emotional reaction what they hear, even if that is not the intent. This is because they are focusing on meaning, and not parsing the content. Perhaps one can argue that one can do both at the same time. You are probably right. But why do people rely on meaning anyway? Quite simply–it’s easier. Yes, that’s right, it’s easier to just get an emotional reaction than it is to parse words.

    So the solution is probably not listening more, since one is probably going to still be listening for meaning, per force of habit. The solution is to start listening for content. Hear every word, don’t just get the meaning and relax. Recognize grammar when you hear it, especially if it is difficult grammar. Finally, marry your desire for meaning with your desire for content, since you cannot have one without the other.


  2. Olle Linge’s avatar

    I don’t have quite the same approach, I think, even though there might be similarities. Simplifying things, I might say that I have two listening modes, one is background, one is paying attention to detail such as grammar and specific word usage.

    However, nobody can listen attentively for hours upon end in a language they don’t already know very well (I can do it in English), so I don’t think this is much of a question, really. What I mean is, I try to listen as much as possible, and during this time, I pays as much attention as I can muster. Sometimes, I only care about meaning, but other times I might pay very much attention to detail.

    This is not a conscious decision, but it’s rather based on what I’m doing at the time. If I’m running or walking, I can easily pay attention to detail, but at other times it’s not that easy. Still, I do believe that quantity is king. Even if I don’t pay attention at all, I still hear the sound ofthe language, how tones vary over sentences and so forth.

    Your analysis of listening tests seems to be right. I’m quite sure I know why I failed and blaming bad listening environment and reading speed is not simply placing blame somewher else, I genuinely think it’s the truth.


  3. David’s avatar

    Arguably, your two listening modes are the same thing, even passively listening you can know whether you understand every word you heard or the grammar being used. After all, it’s all meaning.

    I think if you were having a very enjoyable conversation and there was a certain parity to the give-and-take, you would be able to listen and respond to Chinese for hours. Isn’t that what you do with your girlfriend for hours on end? Um, maybe that is a bad example.

    Notice I said “give-and-take”. This means that you are not only listening, you are also rsponding. You say that “{listening}quantity is king” but you probably had plenty of opportunities to practice speaking and writing English, which reinforce each other. Howwever, speaking and writing Chinese do not always reinforce each other since the written language is arbitrary and not phonetic. Passive listening is what Taiwanese do to learn English for ten years. After ten years their conversational English is horrible, the very epitome of “textbook English”. Are you sure you are not repeating their experience with Chinese?

    Why do you blame “reading speed”? Are you saying that the speed that the person spoke in was too fast to understand or that they talked like the Chipmunks in an artifically fast manner?
    If you are saying that someone speaking natural Chinese is speaking too fast, than I think the problem is not that they are speaking too fast but that you are processing Chinese too slowly. If the person or recording actually sounds like the Chinese Chipmunks, then I wonder why people manage to score highly on it, regardless.



  4. Olle Linge’s avatar

    Easiest thing first. Reading speed is a problem because in the allotted time, I only have time to read half of the questions. Listening exercises are a lot harder if you only know the questions after the dialogue, rather than before.

    As for the other thing, of course English has a lot more positive transfer between written and spoken language, we’ve already established that. Still, there is carry over in Chinese as well.

    I think I would be repeating the Taiwanese students mistake if I only didi this, but I’ve also lived in Taiwan for one year and plan to stay at least one more, so this is not the case. I do get the opportunity to experience the kind of give and take you mention.

    The reason I say quantity is king is because my writing/reading is a lot better than my speaking/listening. Often, I hear a word, but I don’t understand what it means because I haven’t heard it before. It might take me a couple of seconds to connect (“Ah, now I remember, it means this!”). The more times I hear a certain word in context, the more I run into this kind of situation, which means it will be a lot quicker the second or third time. This can only come with lots of listening, because, to be honest, I already know the most basic vocabulary and what I learn now is mostly words you don’t hear every day.

    I don’t know, does this clarify how I view this? I’ve never said that listening on your own would beat conversation, but it’s very convenient and easy to do. Sometimes, that’s true for conversation as well, but not always. Regardless of which method one uses, I’m sure quantity is more important that quality in this case. Of course, if you can have both, why choose?


  5. David’s avatar

    I agree with your assessment of listening tests. Hard to begin with, even harder if you can’t see the questions first. Even in my native language I never did well on listening tests. The main problem on TOP and any tests of this nature seems to be time. But there are people who have studied a comparatively short time yet have no problem with the time limit. It’s all about processing speed. I gripe about my inability to read Chinese subtitles in American movies fast enough to match the spoken part with the subtitles. You would think that the ability to hear meaning in class would help you, but as you demonstrate, it doesn’t on TOP. I think the reason for this is that you hear your teacher every day and you get used to her voice. You also know the parameters of your in-class interaction. This gives you a false feeling of competence.

    First you say there is carry over in Chinese, then you say you are learning stuff but “hearing” it for the first time so are unable to recognize it in conversation. To my mind, that sounds like exposure is more important than “carry over”.

    You are right that unlike the Taiwanese, you are in a Chinese-speaking environment are able to practice outside of class.
    But what I was referring to was not your situation, but the way you were approaching Chinese. You refer to this in your last post when you say, “what I learn now is mostly words you don’t hear every day.” This is exactly how the Taiwanese study English. They read Shakespeare and Chaucer, and their reading and writing skills are very high. However, they are unable to engage in more than the most superficial conversation and they watch the same stupid American sitcoms over and over again and consider that listening practice. My comparison is merely the approach, to focus on reading and writing, rather than the actual use of the language. Consider that in the Mormon church in Taichung, the American Mormons do simultaneous translation when Taiwanese speak to the congregation. And their vocabulary is limited to discussing the Mormon bible. Simultaneous translation means they understand what they hear immediately.

    I’m not sure I understand exactly what “quality” versus “quantity” means when applied to listening comprehension. After all, you complaint was that the recording was unclear, yet the TOP has been administered for quite some time, maybe ten years, and people manage to do well on it. How does listening to pristine clear dui hua over and over prepare you for the unclear recording of the TOP?

    I’m still not sure what the answer is, but I’m just trying to figure it out, same as you.