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Learning Chinese

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Last autumn, I started working on a project called Hacking Chinese. I did this because I thought there were lots of websites and books teaching Chinese, but none that in detailed described how to learn the language. Having studied Chinese for about four years, I’ve learnt some tricks to make things easier and the goal with Hacking Chinese is to help other people learn Chinese (and other languages) more easily and avoid both the mistakes I’ve made myself and the mistakes I’ve seen other people make.

I need your help

My long-term goal is to write a book about learning Chinese, but in the near future, my main goal is to make the website as useful as possible. Every article on the website will always remain free, so I’m only asking you to help people help themselves. If you know someone who might be interested in or is currently studying Chinese, please let them know about Hacking Chinese!

There are many ways you can help me, regardless of if you study Chinese or not. Remember, the website is about learning languages in general as well, so if you study English, Japanese or Spanish, I promise that about 95% of the content will be useful anyway. Here are some things you can do:

  1. Tell a friend who is into Chinese (or languages)  in some way
  2. Tell your teacher who teaches Chinese (or another language)
  3. “Like” Hacking Chinese on Facebook
  4. “Like” articles I’ve written to spread the word
  5. Post questions, comments or give feedback
  6. Link to Hacking Chinese from your website
  7. Link to Hacking Chinese on relevant forums

I’ve invested a lot of time in this project and I hope that people will benefit from it. If you could help me with only one of the above, I would be much obliged. I’m also deeply indebted to people who have helped me so far. I wouldn’t have been able to come this far without you; I won’t get much further alone either. If you want to know more about Hacking Chinese, please read on. This is copies from the About page.

Hacking Chinese? Hacking? Chinese?

“Hacking” means to gain access to hidden information using a skilled and sometimes secretive method. The ideas shared on this website aren’t secrets as such, but since I find that very few people indeed speak about them, in some cases they might as well have been highly guarded state secrets. To learn Chinese, you need to to unlock and unveil the language and understand how it works, and you need to know how you can do this in a skilled way. In other words, you need to hack it!

To the outsider, “Chinese” might seem like a straightforward term. It isn’t. However, what I mean here is simple enough: I mean all aspects of modern Chinese as it’s spoken, used, studied or otherwise exists in the world today. Most of the articles will be applicable to learning languages in general, others will even be relevant for completely different subjects. As for spoken Chinese, I’m going to focus exclusively on Mandarin, but if you for some reason want to learn another dialect, I can assure you that over 95% of the articles are still relevant.

Opening doors rather than showing the correct way

The primary goal with Hacking Chinese is not to tell you the ultimate solution to all language learning problems, because it’s naive to think that there is such a thing. Research and science might lend credibility to certain methods, but even so, students and their learning environments differ wildly across space and time. My mission is to open as many doors as I can to show you a multitude of ways to reach efficient learning, but it will be up to you to walk the roads behind those doors. Only you know if a road suits you or not.

Hacking Chinese is for everyone

This website is meant for anyone who is interested in learning Chinese, regardless if you haven’t started yet or if you have been studying for ten years, if you study a few hours every week in your home country or if you study full-time living in China, if you study because you think Chinese is the most interesting language in the world or if you study because circumstances force you to do so. Naturally, different sections will be relevant for different groups, but I’m sure that you find many articles of interest regardless of who you are.

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


No, this post is not related to anything written by Jorge Luis Borges, but it is related to both dictionaries and labyrinths anyhow.Although there are hard-line radicals who advocate using only the target language when studying foreign tongues, I think most people agree that using knowledge from one’s native language is good or indeed necessary. When I started studying Chinese, if I encountered a word I didn’t know what it meant, I looked it up in a Chinese-English dictionary. Of course, this comes with it’s own problems, since the words in Chinese and English overlap only to a certain degree (much, much less than between Swedish, English or French for instance), but it’s often good enough, at least for understanding. Using a dictionary in a language you know is like using a bad map, which will allow you to find your way around, but will occasionally lead you astray.

Sooner or later, however, every student needs to start using a native dictionary. I almost never use English-Swedish dictionaries (I do sometimes for plants and animals) and I don’t need to, because I understand 99,9% of all definitions in a normal English-English dictionary. That’s not true in Chinese, but during the past six months or so, I’ve been trying to shift from Chinese-English to Chinese-Chinese dictionaries. I think that this situation can be much likened to entering a labyrinths, trying to explore and map unknown territories. This a post about this adventure and also a guide to how to survive in these convoluted corridors.

Entering the labyrinth

The first time I used a Chinese dictionary, I gave up immediately. Even explanations of simple words I knew well contained many words I had never even seen before. In other words, I stepped into the labyrinth and saw the path ahead of me fork off in numerous directions. Picking one at random, I found that the next intersection was equally unfamiliar. However long I walked in this labyrinth, I would never reach the middle and I would never return to the position where I started. The few points in the maze I knew (words I had studied) were close to useless, because they were too sparse and not connected. This is why I think it’s a waste of time to try to learn Chinese in Chinese for a beginner, you need at least a rough map to refer to in order to survive.

However, through the years, I’ve kept eying the labyrinth sideways, when it isn’t looking, and I’ve found some things out that make it more interesting. I have tried to enter it many times, using different approaches. I think that I’m now well enough equipped to enter it properly and survive in it’s winding corridors. I’ve been doing this for around six months now and I’m still sane enough to write about it!

Different kinds of labyrinths

To start with, it’s not true that all dictionaries are the same, and thus there are many different labyrinths with many different properties. Using a highly specialised dictionary  is considerably more difficult than using a more accessible one. Let’s consider these examples if you’re studyng English. Let’s look at the word “labyrinth” as defined in two dictionaries, first Merriam-Webster:

1a : a place constructed of or full of intricate passageways and blind alleys
1b : a maze (as in a garden) formed by paths separated by high hedges
2: something extremely complex or tortuous in structure, arrangement, or character : intricacy, perplexity
3: a tortuous anatomical structure; especially : the internal ear or its bony or membranous part
1: a large network of paths or passages which cross each other, making it very difficult to find your way [= maze]
2: something that is very complicated and difficult to understand

I don’t mean to say that either of these entries are extremely hard, but there is a considerable difference in required reading ability between these two dictionaries. To start with, the Merriam-Webster entry contains 38 different words and the Longman only 26. To understand the first entry, you need to already master words such as “intricate”, “blind alley”, “maze”, “tortuous”, “intricacy”, “perplexity” and “membranous”, whereas the second entry require a lot less. An interesting point here is that many of the words I just listed are considerably more difficult than the word we are currently looking up.

Thus, before you even think about entering the labyrinth, try to find out something about it, preferably by asking an advanced learner or a native speaker who can easily judge which dictionary is the most suitable for you. I would never ever recommend Merriam-Webster to a beginner (or even fairly advanced students), because the Longman dictionary is good enough for almost all situations. However, sometimes Merriam-Webster is a lot more complete and accurate, making it the preferred choice. It all depends on what knowledge and tools you carry with you into the labyrinth.

This is what we’re going to talk about now.

Surviving gear you will need in the labyrinth

Since I’m studying Chinese and that’s the kind of labyrinth I’m exploring at the moment, I will take examples from my own travels, even though most of what I say should be relevant in any language. I had three things that helped me a lot:

  • A broad vocabulary of around 9000 words. This enabled me to piece together most sentences and identify the words I didn’t know. Without basic vocabulary, finding you way will be like entering a normal maze blindfolded.
  • Knowledge of a high number of individual characters (parts of words would be applicable for other languages). I went through the 3000 most common Chinese characters before starting. This turned out to be incredibly useful since I usually only need to combine things I know rather than learn something completely from scratch.
  • I have an electronic dictionary which allows me to just tap a screen to go to the next intersection in the labyrinth. Using a browser-based dictionary is a good substitute, but it’s very practical to have a physical device.

I don’t mean to say that you have to have so and so many words, I’m just saying that’s where I started and I still find it quite difficult to only use Chinese-Chinese dictionaries even if I get the point most of the time. I have hard time understanding those teachers who recommend using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries from the start, except if the dictionary is written for preschool kids, but that’s quite unlikely because they can’t read.

Shortcuts and cheats

Yes, it’s possible to cheat and there are shortcuts. You can study some basic labyrinth architecture, bring your shoddy, native-language map, you can skip some corridors that end up in places you’ve already been and you can try to avoid the less trodden parts of the labyrinth.

  • There are many words which are commonly used in dictionaries but not otherwise, such as “signify”, “indicate”, “describe”, “contrast” and so on. Make sure you take time to learn these words, because they occur so frequently that you can’t really hope to survive without them. In Chinese, it’s sometimes hard because the words also exist in contracted forms (i.e. using only one character instead of two).
  • Decide that after a number of intersections, you always resort to Chinese-English dictionary instead. This means that if you look up a word, you always try to understand that entry in the dictionary in Chinese, but if there are words in that entry that you don’t understand, you look them up in your native tongue. Or you go one step further and only do that for words you don’t understand in the definition of the definition.
  • Skip parallel paths when you encounter them, i.e. don’t learn too many near-synonyms. In the labyrinth, they are only similar paths leading to roughly the same location. You will need to explore these parallel paths later, but if you’re trying to find your way around, don’t bother with them. If you know the component parts of these words, you will often enough be able to guess their meaning.
  • Avoid straying off the illuminated paths in the labyrinth. If you’re using a fairly advanced dictionary, you might leave the more commonly used parts of the language and enter the more dangerous areas where few people go and hideous monsters abound. Here there be Thesauruses! Don’t be stubborn. If you’ve decided to follow advice one above, it’s okay to stop if you peer into a dark corridor and two yellow eyes the size of your fists stare back at you.

Entering the labyrinth with the goal to map everything (i.e. not heeding any of the above advice ) is probably stupid and definitely impossible. A language is simply too big to ever grasp fully (you don’t mean to say that you know everything about your native language, do you?). How you choose to limit exploration is up to you, though.

Wild adventures and treasure hunts

Still, you can go on a rampage now and then if you like. This might be even more fun if you do it with a friend:

  • See how long it will take you to follow the definitions of a certain word until you arrive at an intersection where you know all the paths (i.e., keep looking up words until you find a definition you fully understand without having to look anything up).
  • Name two words and see if you can find a path between the two words. If you pick to very different words, it will be quite hard, but this can of course be made easier by choosing related words.
  • I sometimes just walk randomly, noting down words I find interesting and skipping the rest. This is probably not very good from a learning perspective, but you do stumble upon pretty cool words sometimes.

During these adventures, it’s up to you how detailed a map you want to draw. I’m currently writing recording almost every unknown passage and intersection, storing and reviewing everything with Anki, but you definitely don’t have to do that. If you encounter words more than once on separate journeys, it’s usually a good idea to look them up, though. A problem is that most dictionaries won’t tell you how commonly used a word is.

Some closing remarks

So, what do you choose, using a badly drawn and inaccurate map, or entering a strange and perhaps dangerous labyrinth, trying to understand how it has evolved? I think that the answer depends much on how much you have studied (i.e. how strange the labyrinth is) and what your goal is. If you’re short of time, running around in labyrinths all day is usually not a good idea, although you might have to do that sooner or later anyway.

I personally prefer to have a rough map that contains errors, but lets me find my way to whatever place I’m going, rather than having a patchy, incomplete map with weird symbols on it that I don’t even understand myself. Neither of these situations is ideal, but for my three first years of studying Chinese, the rough map has been a formidable guide. I write this post because I’ve now taken the step into the Chinese-Chinese dictionary and I feel that I can survive in there, I even relish the thought of yet another adventure. I hope I have been able to shed some light on this subject, as well as provided you with the tools you need to survive in the dictionary labyrinth!

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


This is the fifth article about pronunciation and I will continue writing about this subject as long as I think I have something worthwhile to share with others. So, far this small series consists of these articles:

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Attitude
Part 3 – Identification
Part 4 – Tones
Part 5 – Analysis (this article)

Self-analysis of my own pronunciation in Chinese

At the beginning of this semester, I decided that I would focus pronunciation and speaking in my Chinese studies. This is not because my ability to speak Chinese properly is very poor, but rather because it will be a lot harder to do this after I go back to Sweden. Continuing improving vocabulary and reading ability is, on the other hand, almost the same thing here in Taiwan as it will be in Sweden, at least in theory, so it feels stupid to focus on that now.

In order to improve pronunciation (see articles tagged with “pronunciation”), it’s essential to identify and understand whatever problems are present and then find out ways to correct them. This post is not about how to do this, but is rather intended to show the result of such a survey, i.e. what problems I think I currently have in Chinese.

If you’re interested in reading about what you can do to identify problems yourself (what I did to produce the results presented below, in other words), the article you’re looking for can be found here in these two articles: identification and tones..

A few of the problems are probably unique to me, but I imagine lots of foreigners make similar mistakes, so perhaps other people can learn from my mistakes as well.

It should b noted that this is the result of a fair amount of work, meaning that most of the mistakes have already been corrected. I feel that my pronunciation has benefited a lot from doing this; simply being aware of problems helps a lot! I don’t imagine my pronunciation to be perfect (yet), but I’m learning all the time and I know which way to go.

Method

The results presented in this article seem to be very well organised, but since this is only true because of the fact that I spent quite a lot of time arranging it properly, I’m going to explain briefly what I did to do the analysis below. I used all the methods presented in this article (including Arnauds method for analysing tone problems). Here is what I did:

  1. Focus on pronunciation
  2. Take notes whenever a problem is spotted
  3. Do this thoroughly for an extended time (4 months in my case)
  4. Look at all your notes and try to find patterns
  5. Sort the various mistakes into categories
  6. Analyse and discuss each problem with a few teachers
  7. Try to define what the problem is and what you should do about it

Below, I have separated the pronunciation problems into two categories: tones and sounds. Tones deal with the different tones in Mandarin and the way they change in context. Sounds deal with how syllables are pronounced, regardless of tone.

Tones

My biggest problem with tones in Chinese is that the pitch range is too narrow, meaning that the difference between the lowest tone (the end of the forth tone) and the highest tone (the end of a second tone) is not big enough. I pronounce these tones correctly, but not clearly enough. This problem is of course a lot more serious when I speak quickly and naturally, and doesn’t occur as much when I read aloud or speak slowly. In short, my tones tend to converge towards the centre of the spectrum; I need to fight that lazy habit. In Chinese, you would say that my tones 不到位.

In addition to this, there are some specific problems. Below, numbers represent tones directly, so if I write 3 + 2 -> 2 +2, it means that a combination of a third tone and a second tone tend to become two second tones instead.

First tone

No problems, as far as I know.

Second tone

The second tones doesn’t rise high enough, especially for 不,一 in compounds (例如:不要,一樣). These two characters are unique in that they change not according to meaning (which is true for many other characters), but according to the tone of the following character. I’ve known this basically since day one, but the millisecond required to figure out which one it is enough to render the tone less clear than desirable.

2 + 1 -> 3 + 1 (例如:學生,國家). This is an isolated error which means that the second tone followed by a first tone sometimes turns into a third tone. I seldom make this mistake when speaking slowly or reading, but it does happen.

Third tone

Only last year did I learn how to properly pronounce the third tone in Mandarin (I wrote more about that in this article). That means that even if I know how to do it now, I still have problems sometimes, especially when speaking quickly. Here are the tricky combinations:

3 + 0 (例如:兩個,椅子)
3 + 1 (例如:小偷,九千)
3 + 2 (例如:可能,口頭,有沒有)
3 + 4 (例如:解釋,好像)

As I’ve noted before, the third tone here should not be completed, but starts low and goes even lower, before it changes to the next character. It does NOT go up like you think it would if you read almost any textbook.

4 + 3 + 0 -> 4 + 2 + 0 (例如:這兩個,錄影啊). This is just yet another example, but one I think is extra tricky (it’s the same as the 3 + 0 above). It took me some time and practice before I could pronounce this correctly even when speaking very slowly.

3 + 3 + 3 + 3 (slow parsing). Third tone plus another third tone is simple enough, the first one simply changes to a second tone. The problem comes when you have lots of third tones in a row, because then you need to figure out which belong together. For instance, 馬總統 (ma3zong3tong3) should be parsed as (馬)+(總統), making only 總 a second tone. To do this, you of course need to know that 馬 is a surname and 總統 is a title. These cases are not very common and fairly easy to sort out. The problem arises when this has to be done on the fly and fairly quickly.

3 + 0 + 0 -> 2 + 0 + 0 (好了嗎). This is something of an isolated example. It seems that if I’m not careful with the third tone, it sometimes causes trouble later in the sentence. This example is very clear. If I pronounce the first character too sloppily, the two following characters suffer. If I pronounce the first third tone properly, the rest follows naturally.

Fourth tone

My fourth tones don’t go down enough or sound too mild (especially for 不,一 in compounds). This is the same problem as with the second tone, but the other way around. The fourth tone in Mandarin in quite short and aggressive and as a foreigner it’s hard to pronounce it naturally without feeling that you’re cursing. This is even more difficult when many fourth tones occur in a row (I’ve seen sentences with eight or more fourth tones in a row).

太 + 4 -> 3/2 + 4. This is an isolated case. It seems I don’t like 太 (fourth tone) followed by another fourth tone. To avoid this kind of harsh sound combination, I cheat and turn the first tone into second or third tone.

那 -> 哪 (那裡,那時候). This is probably one of my worst systematic errors. I tend to pronounce these characters the same way, which is very bad because they are frequently used and mean completely different things (one means “where”, the other one “there”). I can control this when speaking slowly, but I still get it wrong most of the time when speaking quickly.

Syllables

-un is not a monophthong. Reflexive sounds plus -un (zhun, chun, shun) lacks -en component and becomes a monophthong, but it should be a diphthong. I seldom make this mistake after non-reflexive phonemes such as lun, dun, tun, kun, etc. After becoming aware of this problem, I found it relatively easy to change.

The n/ng distinction is not the same as in English or Swedish and also affects the previous sound. This is a problem especially for -ing and -in, such as distinguishing between 林 and 凌 or 心 and 星. The problem is that the i-sound is different depending on the following n or ng. It should be noted that many native speakers in Taiwan can neither hear the difference or produce it themselves.

Syllables that start with y in pinyin do not start with a simple i vowel sound, but rather with a faint consonant sound akin to j in Swedish, a kind of fricative. Here are some examples: such as yi, yin, ying, yu, yun. This is not common in everyday pronunciation in Taiwan, but is very clear when proper pronunciation is important, such as the recorded instructions for a national test.

I produce the three sounds j, q and x too far forward in the mouth sometimes. This is not a big problem and something I’m aware of. The situation is possibly aggravated by the fact that many Chinese dialects really pronounce these sounds very far forward in the mouth (Cantonese is the most obvious example). Examples: 希望, 期望, 冀望.

Miscellaneous

Of course, not all mistakes are systematic, even though most turned out to be just that. Here are two problems I’ve found that I have problems with if speaking quickly:

I sometimes pronounce 自己 sloppily and the first syllable becomes unvoiced. This is a bit strange, because I have not noticed similar problems with other words.

別人 sometimes becomes 1 + 2 instead of 2 +2, but this seems to be an isolated case again, because I don’t have problems with other similar words such as 其實.

Conclusion

The above analysis the result of hard work over several months. This means that I have already corrected most of these problems at least to an extent. I need more practice to erase old habits, but I think that I’m on the right track. The above analysis would not have been possible without the help of several teachers and friends, so a big thanks to everybody who has helped me so far.

I don’t think my pronunciation will be perfect after these mistakes are corrected, because there is still a lot to learn about intonation and tone changes, but I do believe that when this is done, I will have come quite a long way down the road towards my goal of achieving perfect pronunciation in Chinese.

Tags: , , , ,

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


This is the fourth article about pronunciation and I will continue writing about this subject as long as I think I have something worthwhile to share with others. So, far this small series consists of these articles:

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Attitude
Part 3 – Identification
Part 4 – Tones (this article)
Part 5 – Analysis

A new way to identify tone problems in Chinese

Studying Chinese (or any other language), it’s sometimes hard to assess the quality one’s own pronunciation. People in your surrounding might understand what you are saying, but how do you verify how clear your pronunciation is? In an ideal world, it would be easy, you could just ask a qualified teacher and given enough time it would be possible to figure out most of the pronunciation-related problems.

However, the world in which we live is far from ideal, at least in this regards. Teachers sometimes tend to be complacent, lazy or just unwilling to point out mistakes, especially once your language level is good enough to communicate without too much trouble. I’m not trying to blame the teachers here, because this situation probably arises because students are different (I probably have loftier goals than most, for instance). Therefore, as I have said earlier, it’s really up to you as a student to take responsibility for your own learning.

A brief introduction

What I am going to talk about in this post is an ingenious way of checking if your pronunciation is clear. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s perfectly correct, but it will take you a long way in that direction.. I first heard this idea from my class mate, Arnaud Laraie, and even though I have added and expanded it a bit, this is more his idea than mine. Credit where credit is due!

This is what the method can achieve:

  1. Identify errors for closely related sounds.
  2. Prove whether your pronunciation is clear or not.

The second point needs some further explanation.Couldn’t you just ask someone if your pronunciation is clear or not? Of course you can, but most of the time you will get a misleading or even wrong answer. People don’t like pointing out the mistakes of others, especially if you’re a foreigner and a guest in their country. They might also have wildly different standards than you, so if you strive for a close-to-native-speaker level, they might just think that you are slightly better than the average foreigner, which is far from enough. In other words, don’t trust random people when they say your pronunciation is good!

The method consists of the following steps:

  1. Define a number of sounds you find difficult to distinguish
  2. Draw a diagram of them or just write them down in a list
  3. Read the various sounds and let a native speaker guess the word.
  4. Repeat until you make sure that no chance is involved.

In this article, I will use the tones in Mandarin Chinese as an example, but there is no reason why this method could not be useful for other languages or other aspects of learning Chinese. I will write more about this towards the end of this text, but now over to the tones in Mandarin.

The five tones in Mandarin

In Mandarin, there are five tones, numbered one to four with a fifth tone called neutral. These are different changes in pitch for a given syllable that is essential to determine the meaning of a word. It is hard for us Westerners to handle, but tones are most of the time more important than other parts of pronunciation.

For instance, if you’re in the lift going up to your apartment and you say the word “四樓“ (si4lou2, 4th floor) correctly, but with the wrong tones (let’s say you say si2lou2), the other person is most likely to hear something like 十樓 (shi2lou2, 10th floor), because those words are quite similar, especially in southern dialects of Chinese, but the tones are different. Chinese people listen to the tone more than the other sounds!

On the other hand, if you get the pronunciation slightly off (like switching sh and s, you say shi4lou2 instead of si4lou2), but get the tones right, you’re almost guaranteed to end up where you want to go. In other words, tones are something alien to us, but which is of paramount importance when studying Chinese. It’s also the perfect example to demonstrate this method of verifying clear pronunciation.

Getting started

From here on out, it’s assumed that you know how to pronounce the tones in Chinese independently and in theory, because I will deal with the real problem, which is tones in combination and in context. If you’re not clear about the tones in the first place, you can check this website.

This is a diagram showing all the possible tone combination in Chinese. I used a table almost identical to this one when I tried this out with native speakers and if you can’t come up with any smarter idea, you should try the same:


This is a simple way of rpresenting all the combinations of two syllables in Chinese. First look at the column to the left and select a tone, then combine it with any of the five available tones that can follow it. If you do this with native speakers, it might be a goo idea to use symbols instead of numbers.

Now comes the clever bit. Since native speakers tend to understand what people say even if they are pronouncing the tones incorrectly, you are now to choose a sound that has no specific meaning. There are many ways of doing this, pick one you like:

  • Use a single syllable in Mandarin (I used “ma”)
  • Use a word in your native language (“Paris”, “parloir”)
  • Use a sound without meaning (such as “mm”)

Analyse those tones!

Now, start pronouncing the chosen word or sound using the different tones! Let’s say you chose option two above and that you are using the word “parloir” to practice. Separate the word into its two syllables “par” and “loir” and add the tones. The goal is to check if the tone combination you pronounce is the same as the one the native speaker thinks you want to pronounce. Follow these instructions:

  1. Select any of the twenty combinations at random.
  2. Add these tones to your word (e.g. par2loir3, par4loir4, par1loir3)
  3. Let your friend/teacher point on the combination she hears
  4. Repeat at least twice for all combinations
  5. Repeat using a different friend/teacher

Of course, if you want to monitor your pronunciation in detail, you need to do this in a systematic manner and make sure you cover all the tones. Write it down! After you’ve practiced for a while so your friend/teacher is aware of how this works, you can also use reaction time to determine how good your pronunciation is.

  • If she points to the correct tone combination without the slightest hesitation, you can be quite sure your tones are good.
  • If she points to the right tone, but hesitantly, then you might have a problem.
  • If she points to the wrong tone, you obviously have a problem.

The really clever part here is that there is no way your friend/teacher can cheat or try to make you feel better about your language skills. If you pronounce something incorrectly or unclearly, you will know. Of course, you can still cheat, but that would defy the purpose of this exercise in the first place, so don’t do it.

Wider usage and some problems

This is a clever and very powerful way to identify and analyse pronunciation proeblems with the tones in Chinese. However, the same method can be used to teach and/or learn other languages as well. Any sounds that are close to each other in pronunciation can be used, such as n/ng in Chinese. If you want to check a students pronunciation in English, give her the following words to read:

  • World
  • World
  • Whirl
  • Were

As before, you guess which sound the student is pronouncing and thus lets her know what (if any) problems are present. However, it should be noted that this is a self-analysis tool more than it is a method to test someone else. In the setup above, it’s possible to cheat, even though this could be avoided by having a predetermined order of the sounds.

A problem with this method is that it doesn’t actually test correct pronunciation, only clear pronunciation. For instance, the sounds might be wrong, but as long as the teacher can tell which one is which, this system is useless. Let’s say that someone can’t distinguish “world” from “word” and starts pronouncing the “l” as a separate syllable. That would be extremely easy to recognise, but it doesn’t mean it’s right!

Conclusion

I wish someone had introduced me to this method (or something similar) about two years ago. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time and energy to correct my pronunciation and if would have known about my problems earlier, it would also have been a lot easier to correct them.

I tried this roughly a month ago and found that as long as I concentrate and stick to two syllables, I have almost no problems whatsoever. This is reassuring, but also a bit sad since I know I would have found lots of interesting things a lot earlier if I had used this method before. Please read this not as complaining, but as an encouragement for you to try this out earlier than I did! How good are your tones in Chinese, really?

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


This is the third article about pronunciation and I will continue writing about this subject as long as I think I have something worthwhile to share with others. So, far this small series consists of these articles:

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Attitude
Part 3 – Identification (this article)
Part 4 – Tones
Part 5 – Analysis

Part 3 – Identification

Starting to read this article, I assume that you already have the right attitude (i.e. you realise that improving pronunciation is your own responsibility; see article one) and that you understand the importance of actually knowing in theory how Chinese is supposed to be pronounced (see article two). Obviously, having the right attitude and the right knowledge will not enable you pronounce a language perfectly. You still need to do two things: identify errors and finding ways of removing them. This article is about finding out your mistakes.

Passive learning won’t take you very far

It might sound easy or obvious to identify mistakes, but nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, teachers are not as much help as you might think, simply because there are too many students, they have too low demands, are complacent, think it’s embarrassing to correct foreigners too much or, in extreme cases, because they aren’t very sure of the theory themselves. I’ve written more about how to handle this in the second article.

As I’ve stated earlier, being a native speaker does not mean you know everything, so you can’t rely on friendly native speakers either (if teachers are not enough, the same is even more true for ordinary people). Most people are happy if they can understand what you say and will thus be very unlikely to correct you, even if they say they will

How to identify problems with pronunciation

There are of course a huge number of methods to do this, but  below I will discuss the ones I’ve found useful and/or interesting. A combination of many methods is more likely to do the trick that solely relying on one single strategy.

  1. Listening for pronunciation – Listening actively to native speakers is sometimes very helpful. This might be obvious, but I think most people listen for meaning and not for actual pronunciation. In Chinese, you can actually ignore what someone is actually saying (except if they’re talking to you , that is) and still learn something about pronunciation. Listen to the tones and the intonation of the various parts of the sentence.
  2. Reading easy textbooks – Find a text you can handle quite easily (i.e. with very few or no new words), a text book you have already studies or something similar will work well. Read it with your teacher, friend or whoever is kind enough to help you and make sure they point out mistakes. Read the same paragraph or sentence more than once if it’s hard. The reason the textbook has to be easy is that otherwise you will spend too much energy just understanding the sentence and thus your pronunciation will be somewhat impaired.
  3. Theoretical studies – Reading more or less theoretical descriptions of the languages (phonetics)  is helpful. There are also lots of other people out there who have had the same problems as you have. I’m only one person, there are lots of others who can help you shed light on pronunciation. As an example, take a look on this discussion of the third ton in Mandarin.
  4. Reading along with native speakers – Find a text which is reasonably easy and read it together with someone. Let them read a sentence, or even half a sentence, and mimic their way of speaking. Listen for tones, emphasis and other things which are almost impossible to learn in any other way.
  5. Record yourself – If you have never recorded yourself speaking the target language, I think you will be surprised at how many mistakes you can easily hear yourself. Reading textbooks is of course the easiest way, but I would also suggest that you record natural conversation to see how you fare when you’re speaking entirely on your own. Recording might make you nervous for a while, but this should go away quickly.
  6. Guessing games with native speakers – This is a brilliant and very effective method to analyse and identify problems with tones in Mandarin. It also works for other parts of learning Chinese and the principles involved can be used for other languages as well. Since this is such a wonderful idea, I have written a special article about it.

Conclusion

There are numerous ways of identifying problems with pronunciation, you simply need to find one that suits you as a person and your way of thinking. I suggest using as many different methods as possible, because they are likely to catch different kinds of problems.

If anyone has suggestions of further tactics that can be employed to spot errors, please let me know, both so that I can make this article more complete, but also so that I can improve my Chinese more easily. The important thing is to continue finding out new ways to improve, because relying on the same methods all the time is unlikely to illuminate all the aspects of pronunciation.

The next article will be an expansion of point six in the list above, i.e. it will introduce an ingenious way to identify errors with pronunciation. It’s most effective for tones, but can easily be adapted to other areas. Stay tuned and good luck!

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


I’ve heard many stories about people in East Asia who try to learn English by committing complete dictionaries to their memories Even if it’s true that some people actually do that, I think this somewhat puzzling technique is in the decline. Hearing such stories, it’s easy to shake one’s head and wonder why all rational thinking has deserted (at least this part of) the world.

Then perhaps it comes to you as a surprise that I spent roughly one hundred hours spread out over six weeks learning all the characters in the Far East 3000 Chinese Characters Dictionary (you can use any dictionary as long as it only contains commonly used characters). Of course, I knew a lot of them from before, but I still ended up with 2404 new words (including one extra word for every new character, so the number of characters I didn’t know were actually half that number, i.e. around 1200).

In this post, I’ll explain why I think going through this dictionary was an excellent idea, and I will also share some thoughts on how to do this without running into some of the problems I did. I used the book mentioned above, but if you don’t have it, a similar dictionary or this online list will work equally well.

I never expected this, but the day has come when I actually recommend other people to memorise a dictionary!

Why?

First things first, why would memorising a dictionary be a good idea? I’ve argued before that Chinese is a language consisting of many building blocks and rather than learning a character, it’s fruitful to learn its composition instead. The same goes for words in Chinese (words consisting of more than one character). Making sure that I know the 3000 most common characters, I thus gain access to a huge number of new words. By access I mean:

  • I can sometimes guess a compound word because I know the characters in it
  • I can learn new words more easily, because I know the component characters

Let’s look closer at these two benefits. The first one might be either useless or invaluable depending on the word. Chinese consists of lots synonym compounds (i.e. words that consist of two characters which mean the same thing, such as 快捷 or 饋贈) and if you know both the characters, you can be pretty sure about what the word means, whereas if you only know one, the meaning might be anything.

There are also numerous examples where there are more than one similar way of saying something (compare 時限, 期限 and 年限, which are really easy to distinguish if you know what the individual characters mean, but might cause trouble if you don’t).


The picture is from Patrick Zein’s excellent introduction to Chinese (in Swedish). On the X-axis is number of characters one knows and on the Y-axis is the expected ability to understand written Chinese, assuming that grammar and character combinations are not a problem (which they of course are, but that’s not the issue here).

Even though being able to guess words is important, I think the second point, that it’ll become easier to learn new words, is more important. The problem that faces most students of Chinese is that when they encounter a new word, they sometimes also need to learn new characters, which takes considerably more time than just combining characters one already knew.

Thus, having gone through all these characters, I feel that I can learn new words at a much higher speed. In combination with the first point, this means that sometimes words can be guessed at and learnt even without using a dictionary.

Suggestions and tips

After having completed this project, I have some suggestions to make:

  • Be careful, sometimes you just think you know what a character means because it’s so common, but in fact it means something completely different when it’s on its own.
  • Learn at least one example word where a given character appears, also make a note of this word in connection with the single character so that when you revise it, you can easily see at least one example.
  • If you use the same dictionary as I did, don’t use the example words in the book. Some of those are extremely rare and some native speakers have never seen them. Find words in a normal dictionary or a corpus instead.
  • Don’t learn the words in alphabetical order, starting from page one and going through the book, because it will be extremely hard to distinguish between one hundred different “shi”. A better way would be to first learn the first character on every page, then the next time learn the second character on every page.
  • Spread it out! Even if you’ve studied for a while, 3000 characters will take a while to get through (100 hours in my case). I managed this by portioning it out, going through a dozen characters now and then.

Some final words

Conclusively, memorising dictionaries is not a very good idea in general, but in this case I found that making sure I knew these 3000 characters meant that my reading ability made a quantum leap up. This will not take care of reading speed, complex grammar or other problems associated with reading ability, but it will enable you to understand many texts you would otherwise have been completely unable to decipher. More importantly, it will make it a lot easier for you to learn more later, given that you now have more building blocks and tools to deconstruct the language around you!

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I have studied Chinese full-time for more than two years now, and before that I have spent a decent amount of time learning English and French. In this article, I’m going to describe my general learning strategy. Here are the core concepts, which I will elaborate on in due time:

– Knowing lots of words superficially beats knowing few words in detail
– Expanding passive vocabulary is extremely important
– This large amount of words will enable you to learn a lot faster
– Listening and reading is the key for everyone but the true beginner
– Practice is important, but far less so that most people think

This method differs in some important ways from traditional language learning:

– It does not focus on detailed knowledge of words
– It does not focus on studying lots of grammar
– It does not focus on getting everything right the first time

Introduction

Learning a language is a huge task and given the varying properties of the language, the student and the environment, there are naturally a number of ways of striving towards some kind of proficiency goal.

Because of the huge number of variables, it’s really hard to show any hard evidence of what works and what doesn’t, but what seems certain is that people who are aware of and care about how they learn, tend to learn faster than those who don’t really think about it too much and just follow the herd. This post is based mostly on personal experience, but I have read quite a lot of relevant material, both from other learners and from people who have done research in the field of language learning.

Still, it should be noted that this is the way I learn. I don’t mean to say that it’s the best way for you, perhaps it isn’t even good, but it’s proved to quite successful for me, both in learning English and, more recently, Chinese.

My method can be divided into three parts, but before I even define these different areas, I’d like to make it very clear that these are not separated in time (meaning that they should be done simultaneously). Focusing on just one of these parts or neglecting one of them would probably be catastrophic for the end result.

The first part is vocabulary building, which strives towards learning as many words as possible as fast as possible, without thinking too much about grammar, how the words are used or any deeper understanding of differences between near-synonyms, etc.

The second part is immersion, meaning listening and reading as much as possible, again without caring too much about deeper understanding; yet again quantity is king.

The third part I call practising and it’s the only one in which quality is really important. Here, I try to make use of the things I’ve learnt in the previous two parts and I also adjust or highlight things that might have been unclear before.

Part 1 – Vocabulary

When it comes to vocabulary, quantity is king. If you have a well developed vocabulary, you can understand a lot of what’s going on around you and most of the time you can make yourself understood, although you need more than vocabulary if you’re going to speak or write fluently and correctly. The goal is to be able to understand as much as possible and thus reinforce part two, which probably is the most important one.

Going for quality (i.e. trying to remember everything or spending lots of time to understand all aspects and usages of a piece of vocabulary) is not only a bad idea, I think it will actively keep you from progressing at a decent rate. The idea is that you learn how to use things from seeing or hearing the words in a natural context, not by reading in a text book how they are supposed to be used, but more about that in part two.

There are many ways of expanding vocabulary, but I strongly suggest using some kind of software to help you reviewing, because after a while, this will be a major problem. It’s true that you want to cover as much material as possible as quickly as possible, but if you forget most of it, it won’t do you any good and the effort will be wasted.

Part 2- Immersion

How do we learn our native language? By listening a lot and then trying out what we hear and receiving feedback from our environment. Learning a foreign language as a foreigner comes with some advantages, such as having an adult brain which is far superior to any child’s when it comes to organising and understanding abstract concepts.

The idea in part two is to immerse yourself as much as possible in the language you’re trying to learn, the more you read and listen, the better. This might be obvious and I think most people agree on this, but this is the cornerstone of my learning strategy, not merely an important tool.

If quantity was king when discussing vocabulary, when it comes to listening and reading, quantity is the God Emperor of the Universe. The amount of time needed to absorb the necessary amounts of material is staggering, but the payoff is amazing. I learnt English through reading and listening to many hundreds of books; I did not reach my current level because of diligent studying of textbooks and grammar.

The problem with immersion is that if you can’t find something truly entertaining, it will never work. I didn’t read those hundreds of books because I thought it would be good for part two of my language learning strategy, I did it because I enjoyed reading the books! Perhaps there are people who can force themselves to invest thousands of hours into something truly boring, but I’m not one of them and I think most people are with me here.

So, the main task here is to find entertaining ways of listening and reading as much as possible. This includes chatting with friends, watching movies, reading books, listening to music or whatever happens to suit your personal taste.

So why is a large vocabulary necessary here?

  1. If you know lots of words, you will be able to piece together what you read or hear, even if you don’t fully understand the details.
  2. Since you know so many words, every time you read or listen, it will be a repetition and a learning opportunity, and you will think “ah, so that’s how it’s used”, adding to your mental database of knowledge.

Compare this to the situation which would occur if you focused all your time in learning few words, but in detail and with grammar. Then you probably wouldn’t even understand what was being said at all and so the opportunity would be missed completely.

In other words, a large vocabulary vastly expands your opportunities to absorb knowledge from what you hear or read.

When you look for material to immerse yourself in, you should strive to find language which isn’t too hard. If you don’t understand what’s going on without the help of a dictionary, it’s too difficult. The goal here is to reinforce, adjust and expand words you’ve already studied (and of course add new words to your vocabulary; these are parallel processes, remember).

This might be tricky for a beginner (try using more than one textbook on the same level), but once you get through the basics, you can start looking for children’s books and advance from there.

The ultimate goal of immersion is building a feeling for what’s correct language usage and grammar. When your vocabulary is big enough and when you’ve heard those words used many times, you will start to feel if they make sense in a particular context or if you need to find another word.

This level is hard to attain, especially in truly foreign languages such as Chinese for me as a native speaker of Swedish. It requires extreme amounts of reading/listening, but if you manage to find a way which is both fun and educating at the same time, this shouldn’t be too daunting, even though it will of course take many, many years to attain something close to a native speaker’s ability.

Part 3 – Practice

Following the principles above, it would probably be possible to attain really high levels of reading and listening comprehension, but if complete fluency is the goal, that won’t be enough. Practice serves four purposes.

  1. It helps you correct errors in your vocabulary, grammar and intuition. Most errors occur in the immersion part as well, because you will notice words that don’t fit your mental picture, but actually receiving feedback on spoken or written language is far more effective.
  2. It enables you to sort out complex or difficult parts of a language that are hard to untangle passively by reading and listening. Up to this point, quantity has been king, but now quality starts to play a significant role. Complex grammar would be a good example here.
  3. It takes a lot of practice to get good at piecing together various words in your head to create meaningful and correct sentences, so it should be obvious why it’s important.
  4. If fluency is the goal, lots of practice is needed to decrease the time you need to think when constructing sentences. You might know all the words and the grammar, but if you can’t do it quickly enough, your language won’t be fluent enough.

The third part isn’t very different from the way most people learn languages and it is in this area that almost all class time is focused (grammar drills, questions from the teacher, tests, questions, and so on), so I won’t discuss it in more detail.

Make sure you expose your language (written or spoken) to native speakers and make sure that you get feedback. This will enable you to find errors or misunderstandings, as well as identifying areas that really need specific attention (such as complicated grammar or the use of tricky words).

Integration

As I said at the outset, these three are parallel process in how I learn languages and they need to be integrated to make sense. Traditional teaching focus a little bit on part one, almost nothing (or at least not enough for it to count) on part two and quite a lot on part three. I advocate a focus on the first two parts, especcially the second.

However, it’s essential that you actively strive to integrate these processes, because a two-legged tripod (think War of the Worlds) won’t be able to move very well. For instance, this can be done by actively using words you’ve just learnt in conversations, by noting difficult or confusing parts and ask questions about them or, when listening, actively noticing and repeating to yourself various useful phrases or use of prepositions.

It goes without saying that this article is not complete in anyway. It’s also a given that this method isn’t perfect, but it has proved to work very well for me, especially when learning Chinese. I hope to be able to update this article later with new insight and perhaps also with more references to actual research.

For the time being, however, I feel that I’ve accomplished the goal of explaining the overall strategy I use for language learning. As usual, comments about what I’ve written, suggestions for further reading, personal opinions or experiences are all more than welcome!

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This is the second article about pronunciation and I will continue writing about this subject as long as I think I have something worthwhile to share with others. So, far this small series consists of these articles:

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Attitude (this article)
Part 3 – Identification
Part 4 – Tones
Part 5 – Analysis

Part 2 – Attitude

Learning to speak Chinese to a level where you can communicate at a decent level with your teach and classmates is, as I have argued before, a lot easier than most people think. However, as soon as you leave the classroom or when basic communication has already been achieved, Chinese starts becoming very difficult indeed.

Chinese teachers are used to hearing foreigners speak poor Chinese and will often easily understand what a student says, even though the tones are all wrong and the pronunciation bad, but this is not the case with native speakers who have little or no experience speaking with foreigners.

Proper pronunciation becomes exceedingly important as soon as you leave the classroom or leave the realm of everyday conversation, where much of what is being said can be guessed anyway. If you don’t agree with this statement, this article probably isn’t for you, but if you want to learn more about what I think about advancing one’s own pronunciation when learning Chinese (and other languages), please read on!

Theoretical understanding

There might be various learning styles, but I’m firmly convinced that most people who learn to pronounce Chinese as a foreign language need to know theoretically what they are doing, otherwise they are bound to make mistakes they are unable to either spot or correct themselves. I suggest taking any pronunciation courses you can find, reading books in your native language about pronunciation, etc.

Make sure that you know at least theoretically how to pronounce all the sounds and all the tones. Perhaps you can’t produce these sounds fluently and accurately, but that will come with time. If you don’t have a theoretical foundation, though, this will probably not come with time.

An example from my own studying of Chinese would be the third tone (see the first article). Because of a flaw in my theoretical knowledge, I ended up pronouncing combinations of some tones incorrectly for roughly two years, without even suspecting that I did something wrong.

This bring me to the core of this article:

You are responsible for you own learning

I’ve touched upon this before a number of times, but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate such an important point: regardless of how competent your teacher is and how good your teaching materials are, only you are ultimately responsible for your own studies.

Do not passively absorb and learn and think that will be enough. Sure, if basic communication is all you want, then perhaps you could just rely on teachers and textbooks, but at the outset I did say that this article is not for this type of student.

I’ve had numerous systematical errors in my Chinese for many years, most of them which have never been pointed out to me by any teacher (and I’ve had dozens). Perhaps I still have systematical errors I don’t know about, but having spent a great deal of energy on this over the past year, i think they should be neither many nor serious.

When I say that you need to take responsibility, I mean that you need to make an active effort to make sure that your pronunciation is proper. You need to tell your teacher and other people who might help you that you’re not satisfied with being understood, you want to get it right. 100% right, preferably, even if that is highly unlikely.

You also need to constantly monitor your own pronunciation, find errors and try to correct them as best as you can. But in order to do this, you first need to know what the correct pronunciation is supposed to be like. I realise that some people can just hear if the tones are correct or not, but I also know that the vast majority of people who learn Chinese as a second language lack this ability.

Conclusion

If you aren’t satisfied with basic classroom communication, pronunciation will start becoming important as you advance in your Chinese studies. It is of paramount importance to find and eliminate errors as quickly as you can, because changing patterns of speech after years of making the same mistake is very hard.

In ordor to achieve this, you need two things: theoretical knowledge and a proper attitude. I’m not (yet) educated enough to teach the theory myself, but in this article I’ve tried to explain the importance of studying theory.

Regarding attitude, the most important thing is that you take responsibility for your own progression. If you simply rely on others to improve, you will end up with Chinese good enough for communication, but far from perfect. You need to constantly try to find ways to identify errors and then try to correct them.

I think that identifying errors is by far harder than correcting them, and since it’s also the logical next step in this series, the next article will be devoted to various methods of finding out your own weaknesses!

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Learning Chinese

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolote. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


Introduction

Learning Chinese is not only a very complex subject, but it’s also one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. This page has two main purposes, the first being to share my thoughts on how to best learn Chinese, the second being to organise various musing on learning Chinese that I’ve written. Even though I think it’s true that learning styles vary between different students, I’m also convinced that there are some methods which are simply better or more effective than others. The only way to find out what works for you is by trial and error. Sure, you can get the idea from someone else (me, for example), but in the end, it’s always up to you to see if it works or not.

Please note that this page is about acquiring language skills in Chinese, as opposed to my other page named Studying Chinese, which is about my own studying and related reflections, posts and so on.

General
Attitude
Speaking and listening
Reading and writing
Learning languages in general

General

Overall strategy for learning languages: Still not published

Guide to learning Chinese – Beginner: This is a short introduction to learning Chinese and is meant for people who have just started (or plan to start in the near future). It contains tips and tricks to get started, as well as some questions you should ask yourself.

Guide to learning Chinese – Intermediate: Still not published
Guide to learning Chinese – Advanced:
Still not published

Learning Chinese isn’t as hard as you think: Most people think that learning even the most basic Chinese is really hard. They are wrong. Mastering Chinese is extremely difficult, but reaching a level where communication isn’t a problem and where you can understand everyday Chinese is actually fairly easy. Read this if you think Chinese looks interesting, but seems impossible to learn.

Learning Chinese is a lot harder than you think: Still not published. Most people think that learning Chinese is really hard. They are wrong. Mastering Chinese is extremely hard, a lot harder than anyone can imagine who haven’t tried to learn a language completely unrelated to one’s native tongue. Read this if you think Chinese looks easy, or after you’ve read the article above about how easy Chinese is.

Chinese regarded as a multi-layered web: An in-depth explanation why spoken and written Chinese are closely linked together, even though on the surface they might appear not to be. I discuss why I think learning to read Chinese is essential, even if speaking is your ultimate goal.

The benefits of using additional textbooks as complementary reading: The title is self-explanatory, I think, so this article is about why you should start looking for extra text books almost immediately. This is not about moving beyond text books, this is about using more than one text book at the same time.

Travelling to learn languages: Many people say that travelling is a great way of learning languages. I disagree, at least mostly. Travelling will teach you how to use what you already know, but it’s a very poor way to advance further in your language studies.

Learning Chinese using ZDT’s interval filter: If you don’t use any system that helps you sort your vocabulary into different categories based on how well you know them, you have to do so now. This article describes one way of doing this using a program called ZDT, but the discussion here is relevant even if you already use other programs.


Attitude

The kamikaze approach to learning Chinese: This article is about a specific time in my history of studying Chinese, but it can be said to represent how I think I learn the fastest. It is a call to always strive to find more challenges and make sure that you maximise your learning opportunities. This attitude has served me very, very well, but it does take some willpower and fortitude.

Seriously, why Chinese? In this article, my goal isn’t to warn people not to study Chinese, but I think it’s in place to ask yourself this question, why Chinese of all languages? It will take you significantly longer to learn than any Indo-European language you care to mention and is it really worth the effort? It should be noted that I still study Chinese long after I wrote this article.


Speaking and listening

Learning how to pronounce Chinese, part 1 – Introduction: This article contains tips and ideas on how to learn to pronounce Chinese, things I would have liked someone to have told me earlier, but that I had to find out for myself. Hopefully you will make fewer mistakes than I did if you read this. This is the first article and I will keep on adding as I learn more.

Learning how to pronounce Chinese, part 2 – Attitude: This article is focused on attitude and some important things you need to understand about the learning process itself if you hope to achieve a high level of proficiency. Put briefly, you need to take responsibility for your own learning and you need to learn some theory.

Learning how to pronounce Chinese, part 3 – Identification: The first step in making any improvement in any area is to identify where you go wrong at the moment. In this article, I discuss the importance of doing this and a few way it can be achieved. This is of course a never-ending project, but paying attention is the key to success.

Learning how to pronounce Chinese, part 4 – Tones: All Westerners (and most other people) find the tones in Chinese to very hard. There are many foreigners who speak Chinese almost fluently, but still can’t handle the tones very well (or not at all). Don’t be one of them! It’s a myth that tones aren’t important. In this article, I present an ingenious way of spotting problems with tones!

Learning how to pronounce Chinese, part 5 – Analysis: Now we are starting to come down to actually changing one’s pronunciation (although a lot of change will come merely from paying attention). The last step before pure practice is to analyse all the data you have to see what you need to improve. This is my analysis, and even though I assume that yours looks different, I’m quite sure we will have quite a few things in common!


Reading and writing

Memorising dictionaries to aid reading ability: Generally speaking, memorising dictionaries is a very poor way of learning a language, but I’ve found that there is one exception. Going through a dictionary containing the 3000 most common characters in Chinese and making sure I knew them all, boosted my reading ability significantly. In this article I talk about why and how.

Learning Chinese characters – Attitude: This is an old article about learning to read and write Chinese, so some of the ideas brought up here are mentioned in other articles on this site. Even though this was written a long time ago, I still agree with what I said here and reflecting upon why and how to learn reading and writing Chinese is very important.

Learning Chinese characters – New characters: It is true that Chinese characters are ideograms, but mostof the time, they are not simply pictures and the should not be studied as such. That would make as much sense as learning English words without learning the alphabet first. You need to know the building blocks and then construct a logical system for yourself. Chinese is sometimes very logical, but it might not be obvious!

Learning Chinese characters – Revision: This is a partly obsolete article I wrote just after arriving in Taiwan. It deals with revision and is fairly primitive in that I hadn’t yet discovered the wonders of spaced repetition software (check this post for more about that).


Learning languages in general

Furthermore, I have also written a number of articles about learning languages in general, and most of them, if not all, pertains to Chinese as well. The most important article is the one about my overall language-learning strategy. Since the rest are not the main focus of this page, I’ll just give the titles and links to the articles.

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


This post is the first of three presenting my opinions about learning Chinese. My primary goal is to help people studying the language more efficiently, mainly through sharing my own experiences and thoughts. Each article is deliberately quite brief in length, and if there are articles delving deeper into an aspect of the learning process, a link will be provided. For a comprehensive overview of all these articles, kindly refer to the Learning Chinese main page. These are the three articles in this series:

Beginner (this article)
Intermediate
Advanced

Introduction to beginner level

Chinese is a language which is, in many regards, completely different from most other languages, which makes it very hard at the outset. However, it’s surprisingly easy to get used to it once time and diligent studying have been able to work their wonders. The primary goal in the beginning is to establish routines and get to know your own abilities and limitations.

Organising your studies

One thing you should do as early as possible is to develop a system to keep track of what you learn. Some people use printed flashcards, others (me included) rely on software and electronic devices (see the tools page). Regardless of what you choose, you need to choose something. It might seem like a daunting task, but in order to learn Chinese, you not only have to learn new things all the time, you also have to remember what you have already studied. I suggest you use Anki for this. If you are taking a course in Chinese, it sometimes isn’t required of you to actually remember what you did two months ago, but this is vital if you have any serious plans of learning the language! Attitude is important.

Start looking for extra-institutional sources

Your text book might be the best available and your teacher the coolest guy around, but you should start looking for secondary language sources almost from the very start. If possible, find native speakers, but there are also loads of computer software, radio shows, film clips on YouTube and so on, to help you get started. I suggest checking out Chinesepod directly. Buying an extra textbook might also be a good idea, but remember that you don’t read that one to learn everything, just to see things from another angle. Of course, you don’t need to spend as much time on these extra sources as you do on your main one, but simply reading easy texts and listening to very basic conversations with explanations will help you get started quicker.

Perfectionism

You’ve just set out on a journey of a thousand miles, so if you don’t need to get everything right the first lesson. You should not strive to have maximum points on all tests and so on, the important thing is that you’re moving and that your moving with a purpose and a goal. There is one exception to this and that’s pronunciation. Learning to pronounce Chinese correctly, especially the tones, is difficult for most people, but it becomes almost impossible if you have to relearn everything from scratch later because your foundation was bad. Apart from this, don’t stress it, everything will come naturally with time and practice.

Find friends for help and cooperation

To start with, allying yourself with somebody who seems reasonable in class is quite a good idea, but this is nothing specific for studying Chinese. Having somebody on the same ambition level as you can be an incredible boost to your learning speed. Furthermore, at some point you want to find native speakers to actually help you develop quicker. It’s very easy to find Chinese people online who want to learn English, so if you can’t find anything else, this might be a good idea (be careful, though, just because they are native speakers doesn’t mean their Chinese is good). The best way is of course to find native speakers who you can meet and make friends with in the usual manner. I’ve found that an explicit language-based relationship is sometimes preferable, but to each his own.

Examine your goals and motivations

Why do you want to learn Chinese? What are you going to do once you have mastered the language? These are very, very important questions you should keep on asking yourself, because your learning strategy is intimately related to the answers to those questions. For instance, if your goal is to be able to travel in China and chat with Chinese people, learning to write five thousand characters by hand is a waste of time, but on the other hand, if you plan to teach Chinese, you probably have no choice. You have to know what you want in order to achieve it.

Enjoy yourself

This is not a cliché ending to make you feel good, but rather a serious word of warning. Make sure that you like what you are doing, regardless of whether it’s language exchange with a native speaker, listening to audio lessons or writing characters. If you don’t enjoy yourself, you will never ever master Chinese (or any other language for that matter). The project ahead of you requires an insane amount of time to accomplish and if you don’t enjoy it, you will never be able to invest the amount of time and energy required. So, try different ways, find whatever strategy seems to work best for you and go with it. Good luck!

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