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Chinese proficiency report

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Even though only little more than a month has passed since the previous report,  enough has happened to motivate a new article. The previous post dealt with my Chinese ability in general terms and also more specifically about listening ability. I concluded that my ability in general is probably good enough to survive the master’s degree program I’m currently enrolled in. I also lamented the fact that spoken Chinese is much more context-based than any other language I’ve studied, which makes listening something of a problem sometimes. This time I will talk about pronunciation.

Attitude and pronunciation

I regularly ask people I speak with to offer suggestions for how to improve my pronunciation and I have done so since I first started learning. Often, these questions are met by surprise: “Why do you want to improve your pronunciation, it’s already quite good!” The answer is complex and something I plan to write more about later on Hacking Chinese, but it’s precisely because I have this attitude that I have managed to acquire the pronunciation I have now. If I were content with being better than the average foreigner, I could have stopped focusing on pronunciation years ago. The road to good pronunciation is very long and being complacent certainly doesn’t help. Thus, I still think I need to improve and that’s what this article is be about.

A question of tones

In general, I think my pronunciation of initials, medials and finals is pretty good. I don’t want to say that it’s perfect, but it’s definitely good enough for teaching Chinese to students. Even though I’ve tried, I haven’t found any serious problems in this area for a couple of years, so I don’t think this is something I need to improve much.

Tones are different, though. I don’t think I have much problems when pronouncing them individually or in isolated words, but as soon as words are connected into longer sentences and intonation starts being important, I make several small but significant mistakes. During this semester, I’ve asked a number of people to pay attention to my pronunciation (thanks to those who have helped, you know who you are). I have also recorded my own speaking to analyse myself. The native speakers may have used different words to describe these problems, but in essence, they mostly agree on the below analysis. I do, too.

Second tone, fourth tone and pitch range

In general, my tones are correct insofar as the direction is correct (second tone rises, fourth tone falls), but the distinction isn’t clear enough. Occasionally, both these tones are incomplete and usually too low. There are some other, minor problems, but I would say the main problem is pitch range. Since I seem to speak Chinese with a deeper voice than I speak English or Swedish, the pitch range becomes too narrow.

The suggested solution looks as follows:

  1. Prolong second tones. Since the direction is already correct, making the tone longer will ensure that it goes high enough as well. Once I’m used to that, it should be easier to keep the tone height while decreasing the time it takes to get there. Right now it feels a bit uncomfortable, but I’ve checked with a few people and they think the new, higher version sounds better.
  2. Modifying the onset of the fourth tone. Right now, the general contour is correct (falling), but the fall is a bit abrupt. If I want to speak clearly to allow others to master tones as will, I should mark the beginning of the fourth tone better. See the graphs below.
  3. Paying more attention to the third tone. In theory and most of the time when I speak, I pronounce it correctly, but I sometimes slip. This is probably best remedied through more practice. My best performance here is good enough, so it’s mostly a matter of making sure my normal performance approaches my best performance.

The T4 to the left is from a tone reference chart and is a model T4 (female speaker, which explains the higher pitch in general). The T4 to the right is my own normal T4. Both pitch contours were drawn using Praat. Note that I lack the plateau in the onset (red ellipse).

Proposed line of attack

Changing pronunciation in general is hard, changing pitch range when you speak is several magnitudes harder. People tend to identify themselves with their own voices, so changing something as basic as pitch range requires time and courage. I’ll simply have to accept that this will take some work and time. I don’t doubt that it can be done, though. my plan is roughly as follows, although it isn’t really serial (I won’t wait until step one is entirely completed before attempting step two and so on).

  1. Individual syllables
  2. Disyllabic words
  3. Sentences
  4. Natural speech

The goal is to practice each step until it feels natural. Changing natural speech will be very hard indeed, so I’ll try to build up to it slowly, making sure I’ve implemented the above changes in a controlled environment. I’ll have several native speakers helping me, so I’m sure I will be just fine.

Benchmarking

Before I started analysing the problem(s) in detail, I did a recording with me reading an article. It’s roughly three minutes long and even if it isn’t the best I can do (I speak much better than I read), I still think it’s fairly representative of my pronunciation in general. I’ll leave that article alone for at least a month or two until I feel that I have actually achieved something. Then I’ll read it again and see if I have really achieved something or not. I used Praat to check some passages of that article, but tones in connected speech are so complex that I think that seeing the pitch contour doesn’t help much. In this case, I’ll rely on competent native speakers instead.

Please help

Changing pronunciation like this is difficult in many ways, but one of the hardest parts is staying focused. Naturally, I can’t spend all my energy thinking about tones, because that will make communication awkward. However, it would be very nice indeed if people who speak with me regularly remind me of this. As you well know, I don’t mind being corrected, indeed, it’s an essential part of learning. With your help, I should be able to correct these problems!

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I’m now five weeks into the Teaching Chinese as a Second Language MA program at NTNU in Taipei. This post is mostly about my own language learning, but will not follow the stricter style of the previous proficiency reports (scroll down). Since I left Taiwan last time in 2010, my goal has been to learn Chinese to a level where I can survive a master’s degree about Chinese taught in Chinese. Since this is exactly what I’m doing at the moment, even though I might not be in a position to say anything with certainty, I can still comment on the current situation and my progress towards that goal. In short, is my Chinese good enough?

The academic setting

The short answer is “yes”. I can read most textbooks we have without using a dictionary and I can follow along lectures without too much trouble. It requires some effort to produce formally correct Chinese and I still need help with that, but I very seldom encounter situations where I can’t express what I want. I feel confident enough to speak up in class, ask questions and discuss. This was quite nervous at first, considering that two thirds of of the class consists of native speakers.

Written Chinese is as yet an unknown area since I haven’t handed in any written reports yet. However, I’m confident that this will not be a big problem considering that my reading and writing has always been stronger than my listening and speaking. I will need help, I will need corrections and I will need lots of time to think, draft and revise,   but I’m sure I can produce acceptable, formal Chinese. Writing a complete master thesis is another matter, but I still have at least a year before I need to start thinking about that and I have lots of opportunities to learn before then.

The social setting

Speaking has stopped being a problem entirely, at least subjectively and in comparison with other areas. I can talk with someone for hours without feeling tired or without stumbling too much. Sure, I might not get all collocations right and I still make other types of mistakes now and then, but I’m usually able to correct myself. This is what spoken Chinese has felt like for some time now, so that’s not what I’m going to talk about.

Instead, I’m going to talk about context. I’ve known for a long time that context is important in Chinese, but it has only recently dawned on me how immensely important context is for understanding spoken Chinese. At first, I thought my experience might just be due to the fact that I was less familiar with Chinese than Swedish, English or French, but I’m now convinced that this is not the case. Understanding spoken Chinese is extremely dependent on context because of the vast number of homonyms or near-homonyms (words that are pronounced the same way or almost the same way).

The dreaded one-line question

This has lead to some serious frustration recently. Let me give you an example. As I said above, I can listen to a three-hour lecture about Chinese phonetics and understand 100% of what’s being said (although I might not know all individual words, I can extrapolate what I miss). However, when a friend asks me if we have midnight sun in Sweden, for instance, I sometimes need to hear it twice before I understand.

The problem isn’t that I don’t know these words. I do. I have known them for many years. It’s not a question of vocabulary. Instead, it’s the complete lack of context. Perhaps we’re having dinner with a few other people and people are talking about some other topic when someone suddenly thinks about something else they’d like to ask me. If it’s a short question and there is no context, I often fail to understand the first time. This almost never happens in English or even French (I should point out that in general, my Chinese is much better than my French). Also, as soon as I know the topic, I have no problem understanding much more complex sentences about that or related topics. Also, I would consider these questions trivial if put in writing.

A difference between languages

Someone (can’t remember who) made an excellent point illustrating this dependence on context. If you walk up to someone in an English-speaking country and, without warning, say the name of a technical term or chemical substance, the person is very likely to hear what you say, provided he knows what the word means in the first place. This isn’t necessarily true in Chinese, not even for native speakers, provided that the word is a fairly short compound. Again, this is because Chinese has very few syllables compared to English. I have no actual proof for that this causes the language to be more context-based, but it seems the natural conclusion to draw and also matches experience. As far as I know, there have been no scientific experiments conducted on no-context utterances, but let me know if you know of any.

Naturally, this doesn’t meant that native speakers can’t handle the basic communication situations I described above. The reason I fail to understand sometimes is partly due to external factors (noise, music, distance), but it’s also because of a lack of listening speed. In short, I don’t associate sounds with words quickly enough (see this article on Hacking Chinese for more about this). This might seem odd considering that I have heard many of these words hundreds, perhaps even thousands of times and can use them fluently in my sleep, but I still think it is the reason I don’t understand what’s being said. There is a significant difference between “very fast” and “native” in this case.

I’m not complaining, but I do feel frustrated sometimes

Unfortunately, this means that there isn’t much I can do apart from listening to more Chinese, which seems to be the remedy for most language problems I have. Still, this is okay, because all things considered, this is a very minor problem. I can still communicate without too much trouble with most people I meet. I can read and understand textbooks about linguistics, phonetics and teaching methods with some degree of confidence. I can talk about these topics and I can understand when others discuss them. I don’t complain, but I do feel frustrated sometimes.

Perhaps it’s partially a matter of pride. Not understanding a very basic question will lead people to believe that I can’t speak Chinese or at least can’t speak it very well. Considering that I’ve spent some serious time learning to speak Chinese and consider the endeavour to be a success on the whole, this feels a bit bad. However, it’s also just a matter of frustration arising from the fact that I know that this problem raises a barrier between me and some native speakers. Of course, people who know me know that they can mostly treat me as a native speaker in dialogue about a specific topic, but realising that takes much longer if basic communication sometimes fails.

In short, this will lead people to underestimate my language ability, which is about more than just hurt pride since it does influence interaction with these people.

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I have now striven for the goals I set up in January for almost five months. Even though I intended to study according to those goals until September, two things have made me change my mind:

  1. I don’t feel like keeping track of how much I study in such detail
  2. There is no way I will accomplish all the goals, some winnowing is needed

I will revise the goals and limit them to things that I can actually accomplish before the summer is over. If I don’t revise the goals, I run the risk of missing some goals that I deem more important than others. Because to be honest, even if I can improve my individual character knowledge from 4675 to over 5000 by spending a dozen hours or so, there are other things which are more important.

What I have done

Goals are dynamic, living creatures that need to adapt or face extinction. This is one of the major insights I’ve had into goal management over the years. No system is perfect and each system needs to either change or collapse. Sticking to goals that are no longer valid or relevant isn’t only stubborn, it’s stupid as well. I haven’t reached all the goals I set for myself, but I’ll show you briefly what those goals helped me achieve from February to the beginning of June:

  • Vocabulary work: 157 hours (~1.3 hour per day)
  • Writing practice: 128 hours (~1.1 hour per day)
  • Hand-writing: 20 hours
  • Reading: 93 hours (~0.8 hours per day)
  • Listening: 193 hours (~1.6 hours per day)
  • Other studying: 151 hours (~1.3 hours per day)
  • Hacking Chinese: 178 hours (~1.5 hours per day)
  • Learning 道德經: 18 hours
  • Administration: 62 hours (~0.5 hours per day)
  • Total: 1000 hours (~8.4 hours per day)

One thousand hours in little more than four months can’t be considered a failure. Sure, I spent time with other things than I thought I would and i haven’t completed even half the goals I specified, but I have still studied and learnt a lot. Note also that some aspects of learning haven’t been included, such as speaking and background listening. Anyway, the point here was to show that even if I now will abandon most of the goals, I don’t want to give people the impression that I consider these goals to be failures. They have served their purpose and it’s time to move on.

New goals to be achieved before September

This list of goals is much more limited and contains several items I consider very important (or essential) if I’m going to survive a master’s program taught entirely in Chinese. Therefore, these goals aren’t just guidelines, some of them are indeed necessary. I need to spend time with Hacking Chinese now if I intend to be able to post articles even if I have no time to write new articles during by first semester, for instance – 未雨綢繆. The goals are as follows:

  • Spend 60 hours practising handwriting (I need this, badly)
  • Spend 120 hours reading any material (for speed and vocabulary)
  • Memorize 道經 (that’s the first half of 道德經)
  • Study 漢語語法 (a comprehensive grammar handbook, mainly for vocabulary and reading practice)
  • Study The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (I need a broader base)
  • Write 27 articles for Hacking Chinese (these will last until Christmas or thereabout)
  • Write some kind of Hacking Chinese book (type yet undetermined)

Why count time for the first two goals? Because I don’t write anything by hand if I don’t force myself to. It’s not that I dislike it, it’s just that I don’t do it. Counting how much time I have spent and see the accumulated hours rising (I use poker chips to represent hours) is good for motivation. I read even if not prompted, but much less than two hours per day. Note that this goal overlaps with the grammar reading.

Hacking Chinese means quite a lot to me and I don’t want the project to die simply because my mind is otherwise occupied. My plan is to write enough articles to allow me to last until January next year. Of course, I don’t think I will be so busy that I can’t write anything at all, but I don’t want to feel the pressure to have to write articles. The same goes for the book , which is okay to write now when I have time, but might be trickier to write later.

That’s about it, really, time to get started!

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This is a report detailing my progress towards the goals I specified in January 2012. This won’t be a traditional proficiency report, because it’s primarily an evaluation of the goals mentioned above rather than an assessment of my overall proficiency in Chinese. I will start with a chart summarising the data, then move on to commenting the different categories and finally round off with a brief discussion.

This is what I’ve achieved in May:

Number of hours spent practising various aspects of the Chinese language in May, 2012. The total number of hours is 289 which gives an average of 9 hours and 20 minutes per day, including weekends, holidays and so on. “Studying” means anything that I consider to be studying Chinese, but which isn’t covered by the other areas (speaking practise, thesis writing, reading books about Chinese in English etc.). Administration means things necessary for studying, but which isn’t studying in itself (finding suitable audio material, writing this article).

Things that went well in May

As you can see, I spent quite a lot of time studying, mostly because I found proper routines for listening and writing. I wrote a total of 32 articles on Lang-8 in May, not all of them very long (usually a few paragraphs), but this feels incredibly good. I wrote much in April too, because of the course in modern Chinese literature I took earlier this year, but this month’s writing is in a way worth much more, because it was the result of my own determination and not externally applied pressure. I’ve been lazy with 道德經 before, but during this month I finally picked it up again and reviewed the first 20 chapters. I now feel ready to move on.

Things I need to improve in June

In general, I’m quite satisfied with how things are going, but there are some things that need to be improved:

  • Read more. Much more. I hardly opened a book in Chinese last month. For June, I plan to spend at least three hours per day reading. It doesn’t really matter what it is and I plan to split the time between reading grammar (漢語語法), junior high school textbooks (國文), news and novels. I need this both to improve speed and to consolidate vocabulary.
  • Spend less time on Hacking Chinese maintenance. Right now I spend quite a lot of time with Hacking Chinese. I think the minimum maintenance (writing one article per week, maintaining a stream of tweets, writing newsletters and reading relevant new articles) could be managed in about 7 hours/week.
  • Spend more time writing articles and books. I have many things I want to write, some of them related to Hacking Chinese (note that I wrote “maintenance” above). I have spare time to invest now and during the summer, so it would be a pity to waste this opportunity.
  • Resume vocabulary acquisition. Since I haven’t read much and haven’t dedicated much time to learn vocabulary, my Anki deck is still around the 21000 mark (21118 more precisely). I have some 400 individual characters queued up for learning, along with roughly as many new words. I should have reached 22000 before the end of June.

That’s it for the time being. Next month, I will provide a more detailed update on how I’m doing with the individual goals specified in January. See you then!

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This is a report detailing my progress towards the goals I specified in January 2012. This won’t be a traditional proficiency report, because it’s primarily an evaluation of the goals mentioned above rather than an assessment of my overall proficiency in Chinese. I will start with a chart summarising the data, then move on to commenting the different categories and finally round off with a brief discussion.

This is what I’ve achieved in March and April:


Number of hours spent practising various aspects of the Chinese language in March and April, 2012. The total number of hours is 448 which gives an average of 7 hours and 20 minutes per day, including weekends, holidays, my birthday and so on. Remember that we’re talking about pure study time here; breaks, transportation and similar things don’t count. Studying means anything that I consider to be studying Chinese, but which isn’t covered by the other areas (speaking, thesis writing, etc.). Administration means things necessary to study, but which isn’t studying itself (finding suitable audio material, writing this article).

Last time, I repeated all the goals and provided some information about progress for each of them. I’ve found that to be impractical and time-consuming, so I have decided to update the original post instead. That means that you should check here if you want to see how I’m doing on a more detailed level. The rest of this post will be about the bigger picture. Here are a few insights:

  • What I’m doing now is not enough – The things that aren’t counted in hours (such as writing my thesis or managing Hacking Chinese) takes much more time than I thought. Thus, completing the goals involving huge volumes of time (reading, listening, writing) will not be possible if I continue at this rate.
  • The goals are harder than I thought – I think that I have underestimated the time it takes to complete the goals on this list. I thought that eight hours a day would be enough, but I think that’s not the case. I think the true number is above 12 hours per day, which is inhuman in the long run. I don’t know how to handle this yet. I haven’t given up, though, I just need to plan my damage control.
  • March was a catastrophe – Sure, I applied for universities and a scholarship, but I hardly did anything else. Adding a week of relaxing in April meant that I achieved about as much on the reading, listening, writing front in March and April as I did in February alone. That’s not very good.
  • Satisfying overall output – That being said, I still think the overall output is acceptable. I was fairly close to eight hours a day, which is what I planned. I will keep being satisfied as long as I spend at least eight hours a day studying Chinese or doing things related to studying. It won’t allow me to reach all goals, but I’ll just have to accept that.
  • The previous few weeks were quite good – One summary for two months makes it look like I haven’t done much at all, but I’ve actually done much more reading, listening and writing recently. If I extrapolate the hours from these weeks, the future looks quite bright after all.
  • The summer contains fewer obligations – May will most likely be the last month when I have any serious obligations related to my education. During the summer, I will have lots of time and almost no fixed duties. The potential to study Chinese is enormous, even though Chinese will have to compete with unicycling, volleyball and much more!

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This proficiency report won’t actually be a traditional proficiency report, but since it deals with my Chinese learning in much the same way, I’m going to put this among the rest of the progress reports to make things more coherent. If you want to read an update of my Chinese studies, you could look at the post from September last year. I have of course improved since then, but not in any significant way that merits a new progress report. Instead, this time I want to talk about this spring and what I intend to do. For once, I have lots of time on my hands and I need to invest it wisely. Before I start going into details, let us remind ourselves of my overall goal at the moment:

Overall learning goal: I want to take my Chinese to a level where I can manage an MA in teaching Chinese as a foreign language, taught in Chinese for Chinese-speaking students. Without dying. This mostly involves being able to swallow academic literature at a reasonable pace, being able to understand fast-paced, formal spoken Chinese, as well as being able to write formal Chinese with more fluency. If things go according to my plans, I might be required to do this starting from September 2012, so this is the deadline for most of the goals mentioned here.

What I’m going to do below is detail in fairly specific terms what I’m going to do this spring in order to achieve the above-mentioned goal. As usual, I’ve divided the goals and tasks into the four standard categories of speaking, listening, reading and writing. I have also added vocabulary.

Please note: These are my long-term goals. They aren’t the goals I will work towards on a daily basis. I won’t sit down thinking that now I’m going to practise listening for two hours. It doesn’t work like that. Long-term goals are broken down into manageable chunks and short-term goals, but I won’t discuss them because it would take too much time. Read more about goals here. All tasks mention below overlap if possible, so spending X hours reading book Y will also count against the read-a-total-number-of-Z-hours goal.

Please also note: This article is updated regularly to show how things are going. I find this to be much more efficient than copying the goals and commenting on them for each month. Thus, the numbers here are typically update once a month and linked to from the summary for that month. Here are the summaries published so far:

懸樑刺股 – This Chinese idiom (成語) means “to study diligently”, but how diligently? If translated literally, it means to tie one’s hair to the rafters (so as to not fall asleep) and jab one’s thigh (in order to stay awake). In this way, the student can study more. Perhaps I won’t study that diligently, but I still like the story.

Speaking

In general, I don’t feel that speaking is a big problem. That doesn’t mean that I have nothing to learn and that my pronunciation is perfect, it just means that I think that I could survive with the language level I have now. Sure, I would probably need to adjust and start using more formal language, but I feel that this is very difficult to practise on my own. Also, this problem is connected to writing, since focusing on improving writing will at least give me the tools to speak more formally as well. Once I start a master’s degree program, I’m sure I can convert my writing skill into more formal speaking. I’m not saying that it will be easy, but I do think it’s the least of my problems right now. Let’s move on to more interesting areas.

Tasks to complete before September 1st:

  • None, social talking will probably be enough

Listening

I’m convinced I need both quantity and quality when it comes to improving listening ability. I’ve been focusing on quantity a lot during the autumn and it worked out fairly well. I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of radio, news broadcasts and podcasts. I’m not going to go into why I think this kind of aural immersion is essential, I’ll just say that I intend to continue doing it. Any material is good, as long as I can understand what’s being said (which is true for 95% of all the material I’ve found so far, so this s not a problem).

Quality has been sadly lacking, however. What I mean with quality is active listening where I spend time to really understand what’s being said and weed out any problems. I have several ideas on how to go about doing this, but here is one: I will pick a news broadcast (perhaps 10 minutes long), then I will try to transcribe what’s being said, then correct/complete my transcription with the official one. After that, I’ll go through the text in search for new words, interesting patterns and so on. Then I will add the news broadcast to a special review queue, which I will listen through occasionally. In general, I want to spend more time on fewer minutes of audio, delving deeper instead of just aiming for quantity.

Tasks to complete before September 1st:

  • Continue aural immersion (mostly passive listening)
  • Spend 300 hours actively working with listening material: 93 (+30 last month)
  • Listen to, transcribe and check a total of five hours of formal Chinese (mainly news from RTI): 40 (+14 last month)
  • Listen to one audio book

Writing

My main focus (compared to what I’ve done earlier, not in absolute terms) over the coming seven months should be writing. Being able to make myself understood in Chinese is simply not good enough, I need to be able to express myself correctly as well. This require s a awful lot of practise, including analysing my own mistakes and listening to other people’s advice. In my experience, writing an article might take an hour, but correcting it and understanding why the corrections were made might take three times as long. As for listening, however, I think there is call for both quantity and quality.

Another problem I need to fix is that my handwriting isn’t good enough. I need to learn this for many reasons, but the fact that I want to teach Chinese should be enough. There might also be tests, reports and so on during a master’s degree program that requires handwriting. Don’t get me wrong here ,though, it’s not as if I can’t write Chinese by hand, it’s just that I’m not good enough. I’m too slow, need to think too much and have forgotten how to write some characters.

Tasks to complete before September 1st:

  • Spend 300 hours actively working with writing of any kind: 82 (+20 last month)
  • Spend 75 hours practising handwriting: 15 (+3 last month)
  • Summarise everything I read in some way (reviews, analyses, chapter summaries)
  • Translate both my theses into Chinese (~60 pages about phonology)

Reading

I’ve already said that writing should be the main focus, but reading comes a close second. Reading is a less direct way to improve writing, but is still essential. Also, reading in itself is necessary because I need to be able to read texts on topics such as grammar, phonology or syntax without having to look up one word every sentence. I have read texts on these topics before, but not close to the amount I need. Just as for the other areas, reading is also about quantity and quality. I need to read more, regardless what I read, and I need to need more relevant literature in-depth, with 100% comprehension as the goal. Doing this, I will of course also pick up the vocabulary I need, but more about this later.

In the following list, “read” means just read through and “study” means read, understand and take notes.

Tasks to complete before September 1st:

  • Spend 300 hours reading any material: 72 (+14 last month)
  • Study 漢語語法 (a comprehensive grammar handbook): 40 pages (+40 last month)
  • Study 華語文教學規範與理論基礎 (about the theory of teaching Chinese): Finished, not summarised.
  • Study 漢字說清楚 (about similar characters native speakers often mix up)
  • Read 國音 (about the sound inventory of Chinese)
  • Read 中國文化史 (about Chinese cultural history)
  • Read 孔子的部落格 (about Confucius in modern Chinese): Finished.

Vocabulary

Vocabulary is the glue that connects all the above parts. I currently have more than 20 000 active cards in my Anki deck, so pure volume is not my main problem. I need to focus on learning specialised words in areas I will need (anything related to language study) and I also need to start sorting out near synonyms and word usage.

Tasks to complete before September 1st:

  • Read, understand and take notes from the Chinese Synonyms Usage Dictionary: 50/500 pages (+0 last month)
  • Read, understand and take notes from The Phonology of Standard Chinese: Finished
  • Increase the number of characters I know to 5500 (I’m currently at around 4250): 4675 (+25 last month)
  • Keep queues (including leeches and marked cards) in Anki at zero: 

Meta and miscellaneous

This category is naturally more difficult to discuss, but I do think I need to learn more about Chinese. Much of this will come from books I have already included above, so I won’t mention them again. However, I do think that I need to learn more about second language acquisition in general, which is probably best done in English. I also have some other more or less ambitious projects going which can’t be sorted in any of the above categories.

Tasks to complete before September 1st:

  • Read, understand and take notes from The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (this is a 900-page monster)
  • Read, understand and take notes from The Phonology of Standard Chinese: Finished
  • Memorise and be able to handwrite 道德經 in classical Chinese (the Taoist classic commonly called Tao Te Ching in English): 20/81 verses memorised (+0 last month)
  • Apply for master’s degree programs, along with associated scholarships (deadline: end of March): Application submitted, scholarship acquired, university admissions pending.
  • Complete my thesis and graduate: Draft finished, defence seminar scheduled.
  • Make monthly updated on my progress on the goals in this post
  • Build up a queue of at least 20 articles ready for publication on Hacking Chinese (these are of course in addition to the normal one article/week): I have a number of drafts and pending articles, but it’s hard to count the exact number of finished articles.
  • Write Hacking Chinese book: Still only exists as a concept.

A plea for help

This is an ambitious undertaking. I estimate that it will take about eight hours daily to complete everything on this list. Every day, including weekends. This means that any kind of longer break will severely increase the workload. Still, I’m not going to do much else during this semester (apart from taking some credits in Chinese, but I think those will be largely incorporated into tasks already mentioned in this post), so it’s definitely possible. Leaving one day each week for things not related to studying, I’ll have 9+ hours workdays, which is quite a lot, but not impossible.

The major problem is that this is my own time and the only one keeping track of it is me. Nine hours a day might not sound like much if you spend that time at work everyday, but this is different. Very different. Therefore, I need your help. I don’t need any encouragement right now, because I’ve just started, but I need people to keep in touch, ask questions and read my updates. Cheering on is welcome at any moment. If you have any suggestions for what I should study you’re more than welcome to leave a comment. Likewise, if you have ideas on how to practise something I’ve written here, do let me know. Thank you!

Edit 1: Added goal: Meta: Build up a queue of at least 20 articles ready for publication on Hacking Chinese (these are of course in addition to the normal one article/week).

Edit 2: Added goal: Meta: Write Hacking Chinese book.

Edit 3: Reduced all “X hours” goals with 25% to allow for more time on the meta/misc category.

Edit 4: Changed “transcribe 100 news items” to “transcribe 5 hours of formal Chinese”.

Edit 5: Cancelled the goal “Update twitter account daily in Chinese (everyday language)”.

Edit 6: Cancelled “Take the TOCFL test again, even though I have passed it”

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It seems as if my progress reports come at longer and longer intervals, perhaps because I feel that I don’t learn as much as before or simply because I’ve already reached a stage where it takes a lot of time to actually notice any difference. It’s been four months since I last wrote a Chinese proficiency report. I left Taiwan in July, so all this time has been spent in Sweden.

Overall learning goal: This is just a restatement of the same goal I’ve had for some time now: I want to take my Chinese to a level where I can manage an MA in teaching Chinese as a foreign language, taught in Chinese for Chinese-speaking students, without dying. This mostly involves being able to swallow academic literature at a reasonable pace, being able to understand fast-paced, formal spoken Chinese, as well as being able to write formal Chinese with more fluency.

Let’s see how I’ve done over the past four months.

Speaking: I have actually spent a lot more time speaking Chinese this semester than I would ever have thought possible, mostly because I have a very nice neighbour who wants to learn Swedish and we seem to be able to co-operate well (she’s from Taiwan). It’s very difficult to say if I’ve improved or not, so what I said last time is still true. I can speak about almost anything with reasonable fluency, although it’s not necessarily grammatically or idiomatically correct all the time. My pronunciation still has some quirks (especially the old third-tone problem and the fourth tones not being distinct enough), but I’m working on it. I’ve started practising with very basic words to weed out any problems that might remain. Since I’m only half-way through that project, I’ll get back to you about that next time. Still, I don’t think speaking is a problem. I can speak more correctly, but not much more fluently than I do already.

Listening: The more I think about it, the more I realise that listening is the most difficult part in learning Chinese. It requires an extraordinary amount of time and it’s difficult to keep it up. I don’t feel that I learn much Chinese from listening to radio broadcasts or news, but that’s the only way I’ll learn how t understand more formal Chinese. As it is now, I can understand ordinary radio programmes with out too much trouble, but I still think listening to news is hard, although I get the gist most of the time. Regarding more colloquial Chinese, that’s seldom a problem if I’m talking with people, but it’s of course trickier to listen to many native speakers talking at the same time among themselves. I can still understand enough to follow conversations and participate in them, even if they are not intended for me and thus not simplified or slowed down at all.

Writing:
This is perhaps the area where I’ve improved the most. I think it feels a lot better to write articles now, and I don’t have use dictionaries as much as I did before. When I ask people to correct my articles, I receive fewer and fewer “I don’t understand” comments, but more detailed feedback on word usage and style. I’ve tried to write more on my Chinese blog and I intend to write even more in the future.

Reading: As I’ve often said, reading a lot can be done anywhere, so this is something I’ve done a lot more than when I lived in Taiwan, but perhaps something I should have done even more. I’ve kept on learning words and my database now totals around 12 500, which is 1 500 more than last time, so a slight increase, but a lot slower than when I first moved to Taiwan. I’ve started reading more serious books in Chinese. I’ve finished my first novel, I have started on a second and I have begun going through a book about Chinese grammar, in Chinese. It feels good to know that I can read these books and understand most of what is written there without using a dictionary!

In general, I think I need to spend more time on passive learning, such as reading or listening. Not only will it result in the obvious, better listening and reading ability, but it will also increase my understanding for spoken and written Chinese, and enhance that holy grail of language learning, the gut feeling for what is right.

On the whole, I feel satisfied with my Chinese studies. Of course, I don’t have as much time as I had in Taiwan and it’s obvious that the learning speed is slower, but I haven’t just managed to avoid a retreat, I feel that I’ve been able to advance a significant distance as well. It will take time to reach my goal, but I’m slowly getting there.

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It’s been an incredible six months since I last wrote a proficiency report regarding my Chinese studies. Since I spent four of those months speaking a lot of Chinese and continued studying full-time, I should have written a report just when I left Taiwan in July.

However, I had too many other things on my mind, which means that a report now will have to do. Since I haven’t been studying more than sporadically (perhaps an hour a day) since I returned to Sweden, I don’t think much has happened. Therefore, in many regards, I think this report represents what I knew after my two years in Taiwan and also what I know now.

Overall learning goal: Regardless of whether I go back to Taiwan after graduating or not, my goal is to take my Chinese to a level where I can manage an MA in teaching Chinese as a foreign language, taught in Chinese for Chinese-speaking students, without dying. This mostly involves being able to swallow academic literature at a reasonable pace, being able to understand fast-paced, formal spoken Chinese, as well as being able to write formal Chinese with more fluency. I will achieve these goals by studying on my own, parallel to my other courses, during the coming three years.

Here are the four different parts with a discussion of where I am now and what I plan to do in the near future to achieve the goal I described above.

Speaking: This is the single biggest change that occurred during the spring semester. I spent more time speaking Chinese during these four months than I’ve spoken Chinese in total during the previous two and a half years. It’s mostly thanks to people I’ve spent a lot of time with, but also a conscious effort to focus less on reading and writing and more on speaking.

I feel that I can comfortably talk about almost anything with fluency. I don’t do it correctly all the time, but with friends, I can talk for hours about fairly complicated matters without feeling tired. I have reached a stage where expressing my opinion or ideas is never a problem, but should instead focus on doing it correctly. This is a very nice level to have reached, since it’s not very tiring to practice (thanks to everyone, especially Yang-xuan and Jia-fen).

As future plans go, I don’t think I’ll be able to advance very much in this area, but I hope that I’ll have time to keep in touch with people in Taiwan as well as finding some new friends here in Sweden to maintain my speaking ability.

Listening:
The problem with listening remains. It’s a lot easier to study how to pronounce, read and understand Chinese than it is to listen to it. Of course, speaking with people I know (teachers, friends) is not a problem, even if the topic is abstract or complicated, but I still find news broadcasts fairly difficult, although I do understand the gist of them and sometimes a lot more than that.

Listening is almost as easy to practice in Sweden as it is in Taiwan. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to hours of news broadcasts every week (I’ve almost stopped listening to audio books; it’s only the Economist and Chinese now). This hasn’t paid of yet, but my goal is to keep listening a lot during the coming years. I want to be able to listen to news with almost full comprehension within a year or so.

Writing:
When in Taiwan, I argued that there is no point in focusing too much on learning how to write Chinese while abroad, that could be as easily done in Sweden. It’s true that I have been writing a lot more since I left Taiwan, but still not enough. As usual, you can see how I’m doing on my Chinese blog.

My written Chinese has improved a lot since February, mostly because of the above-mentioned boost of speaking ability. Earlier, I wrote some kind of semi-formal Chinese that wasn’t very good, but I think that it looks a lot more natural now. I will try to maintain this and have people correcting me; then I can slowly work myself up to more formal Chinese again when it feels okay.

Reading: As is the case with writing, it seems stupid to waste too much time on reading while abroad. Still, I have learnt a lot of characters and words since last time, although a lot of them haven’t entered my Anki database. It now totals around 11 000, which is only an increase of 1400 words since last time, but as you know, this was a conscious strategy to focus more on speaking.

One major obstacle towards perfecting my Chinese is reading speed. On most standardised exams I’ve taken, the only reason I haven’t scored very well for reading is speed, never comprehension (i.e. I understand everything, but don’t read fast enough). I’m currently trying to change this by reading novels, then I plan to change to more serious, academic literature (thanks again to Yang-xuan for providing me with this).

Starting reading the novel (a translation of Robert A. Heinlein‘s Citizen of the Galaxy), I had a reading speed of about 61 characters per minute. This means that I cover a page in about eight minutes and the book in approximately 45 hours. I plan to check every 100 pages and see how things change, stay tuned.

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Even though I wrote my previous report only a month ago, I think it’s time for another report, simply because I’ve realised that my reading ability and vocabulary is a lot better than I thought. This is no accident, but rather the result of hard work (more about that in a separate post). Check studying Chinese page to learn more about my studying or follow this link to see older reports). This report sets the stage for my last semester in Taiwan, at least for the foreseeable future, so apart from assessing where I am now, I’ll also specify some goals for the coming semester.

Speaking: Not much has happened with my speaking recently, so what I said in the previous report still holds true. My goal for the coming semester is to implement the theoretical knowledge I have (pronunciation, vocabulary) in my everyday speaking. I think I can handle pronunciation quite well when I’m reading something or when I concentrate, but I need to transfer that knowledge into the real world. I will achieve it using two different methods: direct tutoring and learning to speak more slowly (this is when I make most mistakes), and of course attending 15 hours of class every week should help a lot too.

Listening: My listening ability is also similar to last time (I can understand most of what people say if I’m in a conversation, but it’s still really hard before I get used to the person and/or the situation).  I feel that listening is difficult because it requires so much practice. Quantity is truly king and that makes it hard to achieve anything quickly. However, I do live in Taiwan and hear a fair amount of Chinese automatically. I will try to improve by hanging out with friends, listening to the radio and so on, but to be honest, I can’t be bothered to put in a huge effort here, since I might as well do that in Sweden (radio, film, Chinesepod).

Writing: Frankly speaking, I have only written one text in Chinese during the vacation, but on the other hand, it was quite long I feel that if I’m careful, I can almost almost make myself understood, even though the topic might be difficult or complicated, but I still lack a feeling for when to use lots of words. I know how they are translated into English, but I need to read a couple of hundred books or spend a few years here before I actually understand what’s the difference between them and in what contexts they are used. Learning to write better is not a priority right now, but it might be later, when I’m back in Sweden.

Reading: This is actually the main reason I wrote this post, because I’ve accomplished two things since last time. First, I’ve finished going through the 3000 most common Chinese characters and I’ve learnt all those I didn’t know before. This doesn’t mean that I know how to use all of them, but I have greatly increased my vocabulary (I’ll write a separate post about this project later). Second, and partly as a reult of the first, I’ve realised that my reading is a lot better than I thought. I’ve read a few newspaper articles while waiting for my food in restaurants, and more often than not, I understand most sentences without needing a dictionary. Naturally, it becomes very hard if I have no idea what the article is about or if it’s about something I’ve never encountered in Chinese before, but generally speaking, I can understand newspapers, provided I have enough time, and today I had my first lesson using a book which in the preface is mentioned to be designed for people who have studied Chinese for four years or more. I can handle the contents, but of course it’s difficult. I’ve also started reading manga books, which is also great, especially for more colloquial language (I’ll probably write a post about this as well).

In short, I have achieved a reading ability in Chinese where I can understand texts meant for adult native speakers, provided that it’s about something reasonably familiar and not at a very advanced level. I don’t understand everything, but I understand enough to make it worthwhile. I’m not at an adult native speakers reading ability yet, but I’m working my way towards that goal.

If we look at the numbers behind this, it’s not that hard to figure out why I feel that I know more words. I had 8500 words in my vocabulary list last month, now I have 9600, an increase of 1100 words in 22 days, which gives an average of 50 words per day. Since many of these where single characters I didn’t know before, I feel that I can guess the meaning a lot more often than before. Furthermore, four months ago I had 6400 words, which means that I have increased my vocabulary with 50% in only one semester! No wonder I feel my reading ability is a lot better.

So, what about reading for coming semester? Well, reading is something I mostly do because I like it, so apart from text books, I’ll probably read lots of Chinese, perhaps a lot of manga. This isn’t because I feel I have to or that it’s good (in fact, it would probably be a lot better if I focused on speaking and listening instead; reading I can easily do in Sweden), but simply because I enjoy it. However, reading is still good, so I expect to improve here as well, although perhaps not as much as last semester.

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Another semester in Taiwan has come to a close and it’s time to yet again evaluate where I stand at the moment (see my page about studying Chinese or follow this link to see older reports). I do feel that I’m in the middle of things, such as learning the 3000 most common characters, but since I’m always in the middle of something, this is as good a time as any to stop for a while and think. First, these are the grades from last semester, although they should mean nothing to an outsider. In short, most grades are what I expected them to be and I’m satisfied with that. Mots of these courses where way above my level, and I’m happy to have survived.

綜合華語 (Integrated): 85
漢字學習 (Characters): 85
讀寫訓練 (Reading/Writing): 85
聽力訓練 (Listening): 81
會話訓練 (Conversation): 86

Speaking: Speaking is a gradual development and I think that’s the way it’s likely to be in the future as well. The time when I experienced quantum leaps now and then is over and it’s now mostly a question of improving vocabulary, more complicated grammar and pronunciation. Since conversation is seldom a problem nowadays, I’m going to focus on pronunciation instead.

I think that I have pinpointed a few problems with my pronunciation, although some of them have been with me for a while. I do believe my third tones have improved a lot during this semester (I have focused on that a lot), but recently I’ve found out that the fourth tone might pose an even bigger challenge. It’s not that people don’t understand what I’m saying, but I need to make these tones more distinct. The fourth tone in Mandarin is very hard for westerners, because it sounds so aggressive. We think that we’re pronouncing it correctly, while in fact we aren’t doing it enough. I’ll write more about my plans for next semester later, because I regard correcting this as one of the more important goals for the coming months.

Listening: Listening keeps being the main problem, mostly for the same reasons as before. I haven’t practiced nearly enough as I should have, although I have started listening to radio a lot. Listening comprehension requires extreme quantities of practice and I seem to be unable to focus enough on this. I wrote about leaving the surface a while ago, but I still have a secure connection to the world of English and Swedish. Perhaps this is bad for language acquisition, but it’s good for my mental health. For those of you who are familiar with Chinesepod, I can quite easily follow the advanced lessons, although there are still a fair amount of new words in there.

Writing: As with speaking, writing keeps improving at a steady pace. The biggest difference between now and at the beginning of last semester is that I can now write fairly complicated texts relatively quickly. I had some assignment I missed doing in time and so had to complete extremely fast, but it still worked okay, a feat which would have been impossible half a year ago. The main problem with writing is word usage (i.e. I can make people understand, but they might think it sounds weird). That’s okay, it’s part of my learning strategy and something that will go away with time and practice.

Reading: I think reading is where I make the quickest progress right now. I keep on adding substantial amounts of new characters and words, leading to an increased ability to guess or feel what words mean, even though I haven’t seen them before. I’m not yet at the level where I can comfortably read newspapers, but I can usually understand the general meaning. The textbook in Chinese for the Taiwanese junior high-school still contain difficult parts, but it isn’t as intimidating as it was at first.

In pure numbers, I have 8500 vocabulary items in my ZDT lists now, which is 900 more than last time. I expect to add anotehr thousand or so from the dictionary, but I think the learning curve will level out around ten thousand words. At that point, I will probably stop focusing on vocabulary and just learn words I happen to come across and focus more on mastering what I already know. Knowing 10 000 words and roughly 3500 individual characters is of course far from a native speaker, but it’s enough to read most printed media and enough to be able to handle all kinds of situations. Expect me to write more about this when I’m done with the dictionary, which hopefully means before the start of next semester!

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