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Proficiency report

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I haven’t written anything about learning Chinese for quite a while now, the previous proficiency report was written almost nine months ago. This is partly because I’ve been busy writing about how to learn Chinese. Although I have been studying Chinese on my own during this time, it hasn’t been the main focus in my life. Still, I have made considerably progress, even though much remains to learn.

In this post I will take the opportunity both to evaluate my own learning and plan ahead. I need more direction when studying and writing about that is one important step along the way. As usual, I will divide the post into several parts, but I will add two new areas, apart from the standard writing, reading, speaking and listening, namely meta-knowledge and vocabulary. Let’s remind ourselves of my overall goal first, though.

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.

Speaking

Reiterating what I said last time, I’ve spoken a lot more Chinese in Sweden than I ever thought I would, which is really good. I have improved my pronunciation, fluency and accuracy.

My pronunciation will probably never be perfect, but I feel that it’s getting quite good, at least when I have time to think (as when reading). What I mean is that I know how to pronounce Chinese really well, but I haven’t had enough practice to always speak that well. I don’t think there are many areas where I’m unable to pronounce things close to perfectly in a controlled situation.

I feel no big difference regarding fluency, although I no longer feel that it’s very taxing to speak Chinese for long stretches of time. I might also be able to discuss more complex topics, but having to clear benchmark it’s hard to say.

I think my main problem is accuracy. I can already make myself understood in most situations and I can do so with reasonably fluency, but I don’t always get it right grammatically. I find that this problem just grows bigger and bigger the more I explore it. At an advanced level, it becomes very clear that Chinese and English/Swedish are truly different languages.

The plan: I think I need to improve all the three areas I mention above, but some of them I do naturally without trying too much. Fluency will come automatically simply by speaking more. Pronunciation will slowly improve considering that I pay quite a lot of attention to how I speak even when I chat informally with friends. However, I do need to focus on pronunciation exclusively now and then to improve. Reading and recording texts and sending them to native speakers for correction would be a good idea. The problem of accuracy is more tricky, but can partly be solved in the same manner. In addition to recording my own speech, I can also ask people in my surrounding to pay more attention to how I speak and mistakes I make. I need this kind of negative feedback since it’s impossible for me to figure out these things on my own. So, here’s a distilled version of the plan:

  • Keep talking Chinese focusing on pronunciation
  • Record texts and have them corrected
  • Ask people to pay closer attention and correct mistakes

Listening

Even though I feel like I haven’t improved much since last year, I really think that I have. Last time I wrote that one tricky part was listening to a group of native speakers chatting and participate in that conversation. I could do that before as well, but now I feel that I can follow almost any conversation if I really pay attention. I feel less like the stupid foreigner and more like a part of the group. There might be other things that set me aside, but I do feel that listening ability is becoming less and less of a problem.

This, however, doesn’t include formal Chinese. I haven’t practised listening to news broadcasts nearly as much as I should. I’m mostly listening in a friendly environment and if I really don’t understand something, I can usually ask and have someone repeat it. If I want to achieve my overall learning goal, I need to be proficient enough to listen to formal Chinese and be able to follow along without too much trouble.

The plan: I have said many times that the key to listening ability is to listen more, quantity is king. Still, I haven’t listened to that much spoken Chinese recently, apart from what I get naturally by speaking Chinese with friends. I need to enter the daunting jungle of more formal spoken Chinese, such as that being used in news broadcasts and audio books. There is no shortcut here, but I have several ideas on how to make this more interesting or more connected with other things I’m learning.

  • Listen to radio broadcasts more, including formal Chinese
  • Devise exercises or tasks that connects listening to other areas

Writing

As usual, it’s tricky for me to compare articles I’ve written myself, but I can compare the content. A year ago, I wrote mostly about things that happened in my life, about books I read or certain ideas I wanted to express. Recently, I’ve spent a lot more time translating from English or Swedish to Chinese. I believe this is better practice because it forces me to express certain things that might be difficult (if I use my own words, I can change the content to fit my language ability).

Translating to Chinese has lead me to discover that Chinese is quite hard to master if accuracy is what counts. There are so many things I don’t know, so many words that might mean the right thing but cannot be used in such and such a situation. Still, I do think that this is extremely good and I intend to continue doing so. If you want to check how I’m doing, check out my Chinese blog.

The plan: The problem I would face right now if I were to attempt studying on an advanced level in a Chinese-speaking environment is two-fold: handwriting and formal Chinese. I think the translation will help me to acquire a more formal language and also express more complex and difficult topics, compared with writing diary entries and commenting on current events. I think I should diversify the sources a bit, including areas that lie close to what I would like to study in the future.

Handwriting does itself contain two problems. If I want to teach Chinese professionally, I need to be able to write Chinese more accurately and I need to be able to actively recall a lot more characters. I also must learn more character parts and etymology. In order to survive courses taught in Chinese, I also need to be able to write Chinese fluently by hand. I can’t do that now. I can recognise around four thousand characters, but I can write approximately half of them. That’s not good enough. Also, some characters require time before I recall how to write them. If I’m going to sit exams in Chinese, I have to be able to write without stopping to think too much on how to write any given character. Thus, more handwriting!

  • Deliberately focus on understanding character parts and etymology
  • Spend more time writing by hand, regardless of the content

Reading

Last time, I had just finished my first novel in Chinese. Since then, I’ve read several, all of them intended for adults and some with quite complex (although familiar) content. I feel that my reading ability is steadily increasing and I seldom come across things I don’t understand at all. I haven’t found a good way to measure reading speed, but I’m slowly beginning to get the hang of reading more quickly.

The plan: I can identify two problems with reading. First, I need to be able to read advanced texts related to my subjects, i.e. teaching and Chinese. I should start reading handbooks, articles and papers in Chinese about learning Chinese as a second language. I’m going to need that knowledge later and the content might prove interesting as well. Second, I need to improve reading speed. This just involves reading and reading a lot, it doesn’t really matter what it is. Increasing the amount of Chinese I’m exposed to is also a good idea in general, so I think I should go for a mix between difficult texts to learn more useful vocabulary and how to parse more complex sentences, and easier texts simply for quantity and strengthening feeling for grammar and word usage.

  • Read difficult articles in topics related to teaching and/or Chinese
  • Read as much as possible on any level and of any kind

Vocabulary

I’ve decided to separate vocabulary from the rest of this post simply because it’s relevant for all four of them and doesn’t belong simply to reading, where it was somewhat arbitrarily put before. I maintain that vocabulary is the single most important aspect of language learning, even at quite an advanced level. I still stumble upon fairly commons words I don’t know, even though they become more and more infrequent. There is also a plethora of more formal words I still need to learn, not least words related to education science and applied linguistics.

I seem to keep on learning words even though I often say that I probably will focus less on vocabulary. Last year, I had 12 500 words in my Anki deck. Now I have close to 16 500, which is an increase of 4000 words in nine months, resulting in about fifteen words per day. Not bad. Consider also that I have learnt how to write most simplified characters and that I also have a deck consisting of the 500 most irregular or special simplified characters.

The plan: I really don’t think more words is a reasonable goal to pursue, but I really like learning/knowing words, so I seem stuck with that. I should try to focus my learning more in the direction I want to go later, so reading difficult texts as I described above and extracting relevant vocabulary seems like a good idea indeed. Apart from that, I need to focus more on the words I’ve already learnt, which is tied to what I said about accuracy above. I know lots of words, but I need to understand better how to use them.

  • Keep on learning words as long as it is fun
  • Learn more advanced vocabulary in relevant areas
  • Focus on word usage more than mere recall

Meta-knowledge

I’ve always been a person who values meta-knowledge. I like to understand what I’m doing and I want to understand the processes involved. Simply knowing Chinese very well is not enough. Basically, the knowledge I strive for can be divided into two parts: knowledge about learning and knowledge about Chinese.

Knowledge about learning involves reading more scientific writing about second language acquisition and trying to find ways to apply this to Chinese. Knowledge about Chinese involves theoretical knowledge about etymology, phonology, semantics, grammar and many other things. I know quite a lot already, but far from enough.

The plan: My career is in one way or another based on knowing Chinese quite well, but it’s also based on being able to express that knowledge. Increasing my knowledge about Chinese is at least part reflected in my wish to learn more about characters, but it’s about more than that. I need to read more scientific articles and books. The same is true for knowledge about learning.

  • Read books about second language acquisition
  • Read scientific material about the Chinese language
  • Practice expressing knowledge about grammar, phonology, characters, etc.

Conclusion

This post ended up being horrendously long-winded, but I felt that I needed to talk through what I have to do if I’m going to reach my goal. I have few people in my vicinity who want to or is able to listen to and understand what I’ve written here. I don’t expect anyone to have read this far, but if you really have and feel that you have something to contribute or point out, feel free to leave a comment!

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