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Progress report

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After having finished last semester with reasonably good results (thriving rather than merely surviving), I was quite sure that my second semester in the graduate institute of teaching Chinese as a second language wouldn’t crush me, even though I took more courses than the previous semester. In fact, the spring semester flew by and it feels like it was over even before it started.

Just like I did after the fall semester, I’m going to share some thoughts both about the program itself and my own performance. I will also say a few words about the coming academic year and my plans for the future.

My thoughts about the program after the first year

First things first. The program is called 華語文教學研究所 (Graduate Institute for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language) and is primarily aimed at native speakers, but also accepts international students. The institute is part of National Taiwan Normal University and is located in Taipei, Taiwan. I have now completed one academic year here and know infinitely much more about the program than I did when applying.

In general, i haven’t changed my opinion from after the fall semester. The program isn’t perfect (no program is) but is actually much better than I expected. Still, how much I learn here is much dependent on how much I do on my own and not all courses feel meaningful. With some effort, almost everything can be turned to a learning opportunity, especially since all teaching, exams, reports and presentations are held in Chinese and almost all social interaction is also done in Chinese. I might hesitate to choose this program if judged only on the actual content, but if I include the language I learn, it’s more than worthwhile. In other words, I feel that the program is perfect for me at this point in my life, but it might not have been so good earlier or later.

My grades for the spring semester

I typically underestimate my own grades, especially with courses that feel difficult. This semester, we had at least one course that I found very hard (Syntactic Structures of Chinese) and for some of the other courses, I simply had no means of predicting the results. Still, the below grades are roughly what I expected and the grades for the individual courses are more aligned with my expectations than last year when I received some undeservedly high grades.

  1. 華語文教學實習 (Chinese Teaching Practicum): 90
  2. 華語語法學 (Syntactic Structures of Chinese): 90
  3. 研究方法 (Research Methodology): 96
  4. 漢語語音研究專題 (Special Topics on Chinese Phonetics): 88
  5. 高級華語 (Advanced Chinese language course): 94
  • Weighted average: 91.4

I also passed two important bureaucratic milestones. I didn’t spend any time preparing for these, but I still want to mention that I passed both a pronunciation exam for Chinese teachers in Taiwan (華語口語表達考試) and the highest level of TOCFL (Test Of Chinese as a Foreign Language, Taiwan’s HSK), which is a requirement for graduation. I still find the reading section hard on the latter (so much to read, so little time), but the listening was relatively easy.

These results probably say less about my proficiency than the grades above, but they are still important academically. Surviving in the program ought to be harder than passing the exams, but that’s not obvious for casual observers.

The future

Apart from taking another five courses during the coming academic year, I also need to start focusing my research in preparation for my thesis writing. I don’t plan to stay in the program longer than necessary and since I already have a pretty good idea of what kind of research I want to do for my thesis, I feel that my plan is realistic. It’s going to be something about teaching pronunciation to Swedish high school and university students, but exactly what area I will focus on remains to be seen. Much more about this later, stay tuned!

 

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Like many other articles I have planned for this website, this article is long overdue. The difference between this one and the others is that I’ve actually written this one and now also published it. It would feel a bit silly to post a summary of my first semester in the Graduate Institute for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language (華語文教學研究所) months or even years after it actually ended.

Since many people have asked me about how I’m doing so far, I thought I’d write about it here. Therefore, this is in a sense also a Chinese proficiency report, even if I won’t bother to evaluate the different skills this time.

In short, I want to talk about three things:

  • My previous long-term goal for learning Chinese
  • My actual grades for the past semester
  • My thoughts about the program in general

My previous long-term goal for learning Chinese

Roughly three years ago, I set the long-term goal of being able to survive a graduate program in a language-heavy subject taught with native speakers in mind. I didn’t know that I would actually do that back then, but it sounded like a good idea and the goal was fairly concrete as well and something to work towards.

As my grades in the next section will show, I have now reached that goal. Sure, I haven’t graduated yet, but if I encounter problems during the rest of my time here, it’s not going to be because my Chinese isn’t up to par. Obviously, I have an almost infinite amount of Chinese left to learn and I still have some serious problems, but they aren’t of the nature that will make me fail my courses. Spending enough time will solve most problems.

I have been thinking about setting a new long-term goal, but rather than rushing it, I’m going to think about that for a while before I write anything about it. It’s likely to to be something related to teaching, explicit knowledge of Chinese or something similar, rather than language competence in general, as has been the case earlier.

My actual grades for the past semester

I took four courses last semester with a total of eleven credits. The maximum score for each course is 100. 70 is required for passing and 80 to keep receiving my scholarship without problems.

The courses and my grades were as follows:

  1. 華語文教材教法 (Chinese Language Teaching Methods and Materials): 89
  2. 話語語音教學研究 (Studies in Phonetic Instruction in Chinese): 90
  3. 漢語語音學 (Chinese Linguistics): 96
  4. 高級華語 (Advanced Chinese language course): 94
  • Weighted average: 92.1

The last course isn’t actually a part of our academic courses, but a requirement from our institution. All foreigners who don’t have the right qualifications have to enrol in language courses for foreigners. Of the three regular courses, the first and third were compulsory, whereas the second was elective.

In general, I’m quite happy with my grades. I think I deserved the 90 in the phonetics course and the 94 in advanced Chinese, but I actually didn’t expect the 96 in linguistics. I would have expected a result below 90. I don’t know what I expected for teaching course, but perhaps 85. This course had a midterm in-class written exam that made everybody nervous as hell, but since I got 84.5 on that one, I wasn’t too nervous about the final grade.

Apart from actual courses, I also passed the 華語口語表達考試, which is an oral exam that all teachers (including native speakers) in Taiwan have to pass in order to become Chinese teachers. I don’t think I did very well on the exam, actually, but obviously someone thought it was enough. That’s one less hurdle left on my way to graduation! Yay.

My thoughts about the program in general

My overall impression of the program so far is actually a lot more positive than I thought it would be before I came here. As you might know, I have studied at this university before and didn’t like it very much, but this is a new department (sort of), new teachers, new campus and, perhaps most importantly, a new level (master). A new start, so to speak.

The quality of the courses vary, but I know that I will learn an awful lot during my time here. Sometimes it might not be because of innovative teaching methods or brilliant lecturers, but that doesn’t really matter. The program provides enough support, a wide variety of interesting courses and a very stimulating environment. That’s more than enough to make me happy.

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I’ve been fairly lazy recently and haven’t made much progress at all with my gymnastic strength training. I blame the lack of motivation partly on the fact that I don’t feel I’m making any progress. Therefore, I have decided to do an all round benchmarking now, before the summer, and then use this as a guide for what to practise during the summer. Then, after the summer, I will do the routines detailed below once again and see how much I have improved.

If I haven’t provided a video myself, YouTube typically gives you an idea of what kind of exercises I’m talking about. If you really want to know and can’t find anything, just ask.

Strength related

The following tests were made. Time for each cycle is given for each session. Note that the number of repetitions are often pre-determined, i.e. I decided to do 9 12 9 9 10 pull-ups before I started the session. The final set in each session are always a maximum (until failure). Exercises performed in isolation (i.e. not as part of any routine) are found after the others. I have provided video clips when available, sometimes old ones simply to show what I’m talking about. All exercises are done fairly slowly and with full range of motion when applicable.

Routine A

Advanced tuck planche / front lever progressions:

  1. Warm up (at home)
  2. New cycle starts every 3:00 minutes:
  3. Advanced tuck planche: 10 20 20 20 20 (final sets very hard)
  4.  Front lever cycling: 10 15 15 15 15 (okay)
  5.  Light leg work in between


Straddle planche is still quite a long way away.


This is a complete failure. At best, I can maintain the horizontal position for one second, no more. Straddle is cool, though.

Chin-ups / handstand push-ups (against a wall):

  1. Warm up
  2. New cycle starts every 3:00 minutes:
  3. Alternate pull-ups / chin-ups: 9 12 9 9 10 (final set very, very hard)
  4. Handstand push-ups: 8 10 8 8 10 (okay)

Routine B (with at least 48 hours rest after A)

Dips / body lever / back lever

Warm up (one hour gymnastics)

  1. New cycle starts every 4:00 minutes:
  2. Dips (in rings): 5 5 5 5 8 (can be increased)
  3. Body lever: 9 12 9 9 13 (can be increased)
  4. Back lever: (can hold the position no more than a few seconds)


Routine C (with roughly 24 hours rest after B)

Weighted chin-ups (30% body weight) / L-sit

  1. Warm up (at home)
  2. New cycle starts every 3:00 minutes:
  3. Alternate pull-ups / chin-ups: 3 4 3 4 4 (final set very hard)
  4. L-sit (in rings, seconds): 20 20 20 15 17 (hands outside hips)

Miscellaneous

Human flag: 13 seconds facing right, 11 seconds facing left


Wall run: Completed 5 minutes in 9 minutes and 12 seconds

Sargent’s jump: 45 cm with hands on hips

Press to HS: Have almost managed two from handstand position

Skill related:

Front flip


This is where I’m at currently. Need more height!

Back flip


The sad thing is that I did this much, much better a year ago. :(

Front handspring


As you can see, I’ve never practised this at all. This is merely meant to define how much I suck now so I can be proud later. :)

Back handspring


I can do this slightly better on a good day, but not much better.

Conclusion

As you can see, I do some things fairly well, others not so. I’ll post something similar to this in about three months, hopefully there will be some significant improvements!

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Four weeks ago, I wrote a post (read it here) describing two new physical challenges that I would undertake, both related to vertical pulls and presses, namely handstand push-ups and ordinary pull/chin-ups. I also said that I would report regularly, and seeing that exactly four weeks has passed, this seems to be as good an opportunity as any.

Adding a horizontal component to the same workout

Over the past four weeks, a steady exercise routine has been established, which is performed three times a week (twice before ordinary gymnastics practice and once before diving on weekends). I do the following four exercises in the following order.

  1. Planche
  2. Front-lever
  3. Handstand push-ups (HSPU)
  4. Pull/chin-ups

The first two should be familiar to anyone who has read anything about what I practice during the past three years or so, but I still have quite some way to go before achieving planche, but a significantly shorter time before I get the front-lever. I’m currently focusing more on form for the planche, meaning that I’m doing five sets of 15-20 seconds with what I consider to be almost perfect form. When I have increased this to around 25 seconds, I will start moving out into straddle planche, which still seems a long way away.

Building strength in the vertical plane

I started out four weeks ago with a maximum of 19 consecutive pull-ups and 14 consecutive handstand push-ups. I have followed the exercise program over at 50 pull-ups, both for pull/chin-ups and HSPU, starting from level 5 for chins and level 4 for HSPU. In general, things are going quite well, or at least better than I thought it would. Let’s look at chin-ups first. Considering that my maximum before starting was 19 and what week four looked like, I’m quite satisfied. This is what the progress looks like so far:


Green crosses for completed sets.

Starting with week number four, I have doubted that I will be able to finish one or more sets on any given day, but so far I’ve been able to do the required number of repetitions. Week 5 looks quite daunting, with starting repetitions of 22, 24 and 26 respectively. That means personal records three times in one week with a considerable number of reps to do after that. It’s doable, I think, but not easy. It’s interesting to note that from now on, the strain keeps increasing on the first set, but is actually reduced on the middle three. It’s usually a very demanding first set, then relaxing for three sets and then maxing. I have no idea if this works, but we’ll soon see.

What about the handstands push-ups, then? Admittedly, starting from week 4 for HSPU has been quite easy and I have never been close to failing any set during these four weeks. However, I haven’t jumped ahead in the program simply because I know the perils of advancing too fast with heavy handstand workout. It’s worth to take a few extra weeks to be on the safe side. This is what it currently looks like:


Green crosses for completed sets.

Some final remarks

The best thing with all this is that I feel that the combination of vertical and horizontal components cover almost everything except leg strength. These four exercises are very efficient and can be done four five sets each in less that forty minutes. I feel that the only thing I need strength-wise apart from this is some leg workout and perhaps some extra core, but that’s about it. Managing all the strength training I crave in one program done three times a week. Actually, it feels great!

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In the spring of 2005, Is tarted a fairly ambitious project to complete 101 individually but somewhat arbitrarily chosen tasks in 1001 days. When the designated time period had elapsed, I had finished 74 of the tasks (the old list can be viewed here). With hindsight, I regard this as a huge success. Because of this project, I did lots of good, entertaining or necessary things that I would never have started without the list. Among the things I’m most happy with today, I would say running a spontaneous Marathon, reading lots of interesting books, organising my life in various ways and hiking more are the most important.

Problems with the list

However, as anyone who has compiled a similar list would know, there are lots of problems associated with having such a large number of goals running for such a long time. People change, the world changes and if the list does not morph in accordance, it will slowly be a lump of heavy machinery you have to carry around on your back rather than an engine that can propel you forward as it is was intended to be. I wrote about this in 2007, and what I said then is still true. The list is a tool and shouldn’t be allowed to take control. If something turns out to be meaningless or less relevant than it seemed at first, that item should be changed. However, simply changing things because they are too difficult would contradict the whole purpose of the list, so that’s something I won’t do.

2010 and the new list

If the 101-in-1001 list is such a flawed framework, why is it then that I launched a new list in 2010? Shouldn’t I have learnt from my mistakes and devised some other way to fulfil the same function as the list, but which has fewer drawbacks? Of course I should and I have. I experimented with monthly reports for a while, but found that they were too short-term and didn’t really give me the same motivational boost as the 101 list. Considering that I actually completed a majority of the goals on the old list, I thought that starting a new one would perhaps be a good idea, especially since I now know more about how to construct the list in a consistent and long-term fashion. It was also the case that I at that time thought graduation was about 1001 days away, so it was a nice, stable time in my life.

Or so I thought, because that was the first assumption that was completely turned over only a few months later. I now think it’s likely that I will graduate in less than one year; what I’m going to do after that I don’t know. Can a new 101 list survive such shifts in planning and daily life? Yes, I think so, with cleverer goals and a more organic view of the project itself. The 101 list is extremely helpful because it allows me to think about my long-term goals on a regular basis. It also helps me focus on various aspects of these goals, breaking them down and analysing how to best approach them.

Ideas on developing the list

By way of concluding this post, I’m going to raise a few questions. There is nothing that says that the project as it is in its ideal form. The numbers 101 and 1001 are more or less arbitrary. Wouldn’t it be possible to have a running list with a number of goals on various levels? Let’s say a flexible number of short-term, medium-term and long-term goals, and then change them or replace them either if they’re finished or become irrelevant. The rest of what now constitutes the list would be a list of potential tasks, ready to entered into the real list when needed. Such a system would take into account the fact that attention span is limited and that interest in various subjects vary over time. However, I’m quite happy with my new 101 list and I will stick with it either until I’ve developed something based on the above-mentioned system or the list stops working for some reason.

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Vertical shape up

I haven’t written anything about practice/exercise recently (in fact, I haven’t written much of anything, but lets ignore that for now). Last time I mentioned anything about this was probably last autumn when I posted a list of dreams and ambitions, some of them loftier than others. I have been working on some of those ever since, but over the last few years, I’ve focused more on exercises in the horizontal plane, mainly planche and front lever progressions. As the title of this post implies, I intend to add focus to the vertical plane (e.g.. pull-ups and handstand push-ups), hopefully without losing too much focus on the horizontal plane.

I like combining exercises that are each other’s opposites, such as the pair front lever/planche and, as in this case, pull-ups and handstand push-ups. They are more or less the same motions, but performed in opposite directions and thus using antagonistic muscles. In this quest for vertical fitness, I’m going to use a two-pronged attack, using two of the programs that seem to be all the rage these days. Let’s look at pull-ups first.

Vertical pull – The 50 pull-ups program

This all started with a friend of mine showing a program where they claim that you can reach 50 pull-ups in only seven weeks. I said something like “no way, José” and simply dismissed this as silly. Of course, these seven weeks requires you to be able to do 15 pull-ups even before starting, but since I was quite sure that I could do that, I thought it was utter nonsense to think that I could reach fifty within two months. I still think it’s impossible, but even if I fail, it will still be some good workout.

Benchmark: Earlier this evening, I performed 19 consecutive pull-ups with good form and without kipping/bouncing. This means that I start in the most advanced category of the program. I performed the first session the same day as I performed the benchmark, but found it very hard to complete the last few reps.

Vertical press – The 50 handstand push-ups program

The loyal reader will know that I have attempted this before, but that I failed utterly for various reasons (I hurt my back the first or perhaps the second week). Before, I used the 100 push-ups program, which made no sense at all because ordinary push-ups are so much easier than the handstand version that most people can develop really fast. This time I’m going to be a lot more careful. I figure that pull-ups and handstand push-ups are roughly equally tough exercises, so a progression that works for one shouldn’t be completely off for the other. Therefore, I’m going to follow the same program for sets and reps for the handstand push-ups as for the pull-up

Benchmark: Apart from the pull-up benchmark, I also performed the handstand push-up benchmark (about three hours later after ordinary gymnastics practice, for future reference). I did 14 consecutive handstand push-ups with good form, of course against a wall. After that, form collapsed and I wasn’t strong enough to go on, although I think I have more arm/shoulder strength left. 14 is not enough to place me in the most advanced category, so I’m starting from level four, which is probably just about right.

Progress

I will report occasionally, but I won’t promise when or with what intervals. I will simply write when I think something interesting happens or I feel that I have something I want to write about. Perhaps I’ll write more on Facebook for those that are really interested, but since I think no one really cares that much, I won’t spam my website with progress reports to avoid wasting both my time as well as yours, dear reader. Feel free to cheer me on, though,  or ask how things are going, because that always helps!

Update: I realised that using the 100 push-ups program is just stupid. Why not use the sets and reps from the pull-up program instead? Two roughly equally demanding exercises should be able to develop roughly at the same pace, although from different starting points.

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Reading the tag line on this website, it’s easy to believe that I’m a person who enjoy mostly abstract things, or at least activities that require more mental than physical effort. That might be true, but one reason that I don’t write more about physical activities is that there seldom is anything of interest to write. I exercise, I don’t necessarily like to write about it. However, there is one exception.

As I’ve noticed more than once, using my website as a screen on which to project my goals and dreams has been a useful method to accomplish said goals and fulfill those dreams. During my two years in Taiwan, there were a number of factors that limited my progress (mostly climate, but also lack of training partners), but now that I’m back in Sweden, it’s time to get serious if I ever want to achieve anything.

What I’m going to do is specify a number of things I want to achieve (these have stayed the same for a long time and I don’t think they are likely to change a lot in the future) and then I’m going to report regularly (perhaps once every two months or so) to make sure that I’m making progress. Some of the skills I describe here are incredibly hard to learn, and since there are quite a few of them, it’s unrealistic to believe that I will make progress on all fronts at all times. However, I intend to move in the right direction and I intend to start now.

Below is a description of what I want to achieve and where I am at the moment. I’m not going to explain the exercises, so if you don’t know what something is, use Google or YouTube. I will also hazard a very rough guess on how long I think it will take to achieve this skill with diligent practice. These estimates might be completely off, but I prefer to write something which is wrong rather than not writing anything at all.

Planche (nothing weird, just very, very hard)

This is a skill I’ve been working on for quite a while now. It takes a lot longer to learn than most people believe, because of the high risk of injury in the elbow and shoulder joint due to the extreme stress they have to take. I’m still stuck at doing tucked planche with straight back, but I might start experimenting with the straddled version in a month or so. The final goal is a minimum of five seconds.

ETA: 1,5 years

Front lever (on horizontal bar or rings)

I’ve been doing front lever progressions for about the same time as planche progressions, which is some time now, but with too many breaks. I would be ready for straddle front levers now if my legs were more flexible in that direction, but, alas, I can’t.  A tucked front lever with straight back is way too easy (I’ve held it for over a minute), so I need to find another way to progress. Right now I’m doing the straddled version with bent knees. The goal is the straight position for at least five seconds.

ETA: 6 months

Handstand push-up with clap (freestanding, forehead to floor, jump with clap, land with balance)

This feat looks very hard, but I think it firmly belongs in the “easy” range of the exercises I’m presenting here. I have a record of seven consecutive freestanding handstand push-ups and I don’t think I need that much more to add the clap. It will require more explosive strength, but that certainly isn’t impossible to get.

ETA: 6 months

Muscle-up (on bar or rings, with control, from dead hang)

A muscle-up is something I’ve never practiced specifically to achieve, but since I’ve done a fair amount of related exercises, I think it should be okay. The problem comes with the “control” and “from dead hang”. There should be no kipping here. At the moment, I can do an asymmetrical muscle-up on bars and rings, but that’s a lot easier than the real thing.

ETA: 1 year

Muscule-up to handstand (on rings, can you even do this on a bar?)

This exercise is of course a continuation of the previous one and should take a bit longer, but not very much. The biggest problem here will probably be the press to handstand on rings (provided that the muscle-up is already achieved). This will probably be hard, but not as hard as the muscle-up in the first place.

ETA: 1,5 years

Hand walking 100 metres (harder than it sounds)

I learnt to walk 30 metres in a week, but then spent a year moving up to 60 metres. Then I lost courage and didn’t make it farther than 70 or something like that. This is a goal I’ve had for a very long time, but I don’t plan to keep it for very long. Some endurance for hand-walking and handstands should do it, with some dedicated extra workouts now and then.

ETA: 1 year

One-arm chin-up (same as planche, nothing weird, just very, very hard)

Just to make things clear, this is a one-armed chin-up we’re talking about, not just simply using one hand but two arms or something like that. This exercise is similar to planche in that the elbow joint is under extreme pressure and one must proceed cautiously. At the moment, I’m doing weighted chins (5 sets of 3 reps with 15 kgs), but I should alternate with negative one-arms and add more weight.

ETA: 1,5 years

Handstand to elbow lever and back (requires some mean back muscles and balance)

I can do both quite easily since none of the exercises are difficult. The transition between them, with a straight body is something completely different, however. It’s very hard for me to say how hard it is, but I assume that general core strength, more handstands and planche training will do most of the job. I don’t plan to do any seriously dedicated work on this one for quite a while.

ETA: 1 year

Handstand to planche and back (almost impossible, but I’ll include it anyway)

Same as the previous exercise, except the trivial elbow lever is changed to the murderous planche. I don’t seriously think I will achieve this skill in anything that can be called the near future, perhaps never, but since it’s really cool (it requires so many different aspects), I want to write it here anyway.

ETA: 5 years

Front flip (standing still from solid surface)

Everybody knows what this is, nothing weird. I want to be able to do it standing still from a solid surface. The progressions are quite obvious (decreasing speed and making the ground more solid), but I still think I need more height to even try this. Right now, I can easily do this from 10 cm in a swimming pool, but that’s not the same thing. I need more height and better landings.

ETA: 1 year

Back flip (standing still from solid surface)

Same as above, but backwards. This ought to be easier technically, but I’ve worked a lot less on backward rotations in general. Since height is as important here as it is for front flips, they go hand in hand. Rotation speed forwards is not a problem, but it might be backwards. We’ll see.

ETA: 1 year

Front handspring (we’re talking about a lot of stretching)

If you’re ten years old, this skill is not very hard to achieve, but for me it will be. The problem is that my hip flexors are way, way too tight, which means that I probably can’t do a handspring at all, even if my technique was perfect. So what we’re looking at here is a lot of stretching for a year or so and then some practice.

ETA: 1 year

Back handspring (a little bit easier, but still lots of stretching)

I haven’t heard this from any professional yet, but it should be easier backwards. Still, it’s the same hip flexors than don’t allow me to bend in this direction very much, so much stretching will be needed. In fact, that’s the main reason I’ve included it here. I think it’s downright unhealthy to be as inflexible as I am in this particular plane of motion.

ETA: 6 months

Some final comments

If you want to help me achieve this, the only thing you have to do is ask me now and then how it’s going. You don’t need to know anything about gymnastics, simply making me think about this more often and show that you care will help a lot. Also, wish me good luck, because I will need it badly!

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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.

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A couple of weeks ago I finished the second steady state cycle (read more here if you don’t know what a steady state cycle is) and thus the time has come both to evaluate the results from that cycle, as well as introduce the next cycle. First, let us have a look at the exercises from the second cycle, which can be found is this document.

Evaluation of the second cycle

I’ve made significant progress with these exercises, moving from an average performance of 1.5/5 (meaning that I could finish around half of the exercises properly) to 3.5/5 (between “barely made it” and “very good”). Some exercises have seen little progress, such as planche and l-sit (no change at all and one point respectively). The performance of other exercises has changed drastically, most notably front lever (from 1/5 to 5/5) and headstand leg raises (from 1/5 to 4/5).

I also took the opportunity to do some benchmarking. There are two problems with these figures, and it’s very likely that they should be somewhat higher than shown above. Firstly, I had been ill for about a week before these exercises were tested and I had not recovered one hundred percent. Second, the weather here in Taiwan is getting hotter all the time, thus making it more and more demanding to do physical workout. As for the planche standstill, this might be explained by the fact that the form is gradually improving, resulting in a more demanding exercise and thus shorter times. Here are the numbers for this cycle (and the two cycles prior to this, within brackets):

Chin-ups: 21 (24, 16)
HS push-ups (wall)l: 13 (11, 5)
Adv. tuck front lever: 58 (51, N/A)
Adv. tuck planche: 36 (36, 24)
Handstand: 186 (N/A, N/A)
L-sit: 36 (N/A, N/A)
One-arm hang (right): 27 (N/A, N/A)
One-arm hang (left): 15 (N/A, N/A)

Presentation of the third cycle

As before, a detailed version of the program can be found here, along with notes I make continuously noting my progress over the weeks.

The third cycle will be similar to the second in many regards, mostly because I have the same goals as before. Planche and front lever proceeds according to plan, albeit very slowly to avoid injury. Chin-ups and and handstand push-ups look very much the same as before, but with increased difficulty and increased repetitions respectively. There is a greater focus on handstands, since I have added ten minutes of free handstands per week (accumulated time, usually in sets of one minute or something similar).

Regarding the legs/core section, things will change a bit more, even though the pistol remains the same (but with increased repetitions) as does the standing ab wheel, which I haven’t fully mastered yet. The two new exercises are the middle split hold, a progression towards the manna (which feels about one lifetime away) and wall climbs. These are here because I wanted to increase back flexibility and because I was bored with l-sit. I’m not sure if I like any of these exercises yet, but I should know in a couple of weeks.

In addition to this, I have added dynamic stretching to the leg/core sessions. Nothing fancy, but I want to start developing flexibility again and I feel that the time is now. I will also do static or isometric stretching in connection to the same sessions. I have also increased the dynamic stretching in the warm-up, which should at least maintain current flexibility in the upper body.

As I publish this, I have finished the first two weeks of the program and I can tell you it’s a lot harder than I thought. I’m considering backing down on the chins and some of the other exercises, perhaps going from five sets to three. It takes me ages to finish a complete session, not because I’m lazy, but simply because I need the rest.

A problem with efficiency

Although I’m in general very satisfied with my training right now, there is a specific problem that have grown inexorably all the time, namely that of efficiency. If I do my workout at home, there is a tendency to increase resting times, especially as the exercises grow harder and harder. Having a computer nearby makes it easy to procrastinate, which sometimes means that a session may take as long as two hours. It’s not the case that I rest too much between sets, but rather that I take too long breaks between completely different exercises.

I see three ways to get around this problem:

  1. I can simply disconnect from the Internet while studying, since this will enable me to do more useful things when resting (such as revising Chinese characters, an excellent choice because it works just fine even with intervals of just a few minutes.
  2. I can try to contract the entire session, leading to a much more demanding workout, perhaps too demanding.
  3. I can try to practice more outdoors, which means that there are less distractions and it’s easier too focus, but which is impractical if it rains heavily or it’s too hot.

Of these three solutions, I think the first one has by far the most potential. I don’t mind spending a long time on my sessions, but I hate wasting an entire evening without getting anything else done. Making sure I do something useful would remove the frustration, although the problem with protracted sessions would still remain.

Conclusion

Things are moving in the right direction, but somewhat slowly. I feel that I should focus more on exercises I enjoy, such as handstands. The good thing with having a wide variety of exercises is that there is always some area that develops rapidly, even if others might slow down temporarily. I feel that planche and front lever are moving very slowly, but that might also be an advantage and a way to avoid injury.

I have said it before, but I want to reiterate that this form of training program suits me very well. I think this is the first time in my life I’ve been able to stick to a fairly regular schedule for more than six months. I feel that I can keep on going like this for a very long time, because the separation into cycles makes it easier to verify progress and break the monotony that otherwise might creep in after a couple of months. If you haven’t already tried it out, do so!

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It was a while ago now I started relying on what Coach Sommer calls a “Steady State Cycle”, which basically means that one designs a workout problem which is quite demanding and then sticks with exactly the same exercises, repetitions and sets even after they begin to feel too easy, giving the body enough time to build the necessary strength before moving on to more the next, more demanding cycle.. For some reason, this kind of planning seems to work exceptionally well for me and I’ve been able to stick with a reasonably strict schedule for almost four months, much longer than any previous attempt to gain control of individual strength training (I wrote more about this when I finished the first cycle in February). I have soon completed five weeks out of at least eight on the second cycle, so that is what this post will be about.

Before I talk about the second cycle itself, I’d like to share with you some benchmarking I did between cycle one and two (I spent one week trying out maximum reps/duration for the exercises to have something to compare with later). These figures are worthless on their own and the goal here is not to show what I can do, but rather to show the difference between now and one cycle ago, and perhaps more importantly, to function as a reference for future similar checks. The only truly remarkable result is for the chin-ups, where I managed to make a 50% increase from 16 to 24 in two months without ever doing a set with more than three repetitions!

Exercise: After first cycle (before first cycle)
Chin-up: 24 (16)
HSPU wall: 11 (5)
Adv. tuck planche: 36 (24)
Adv. tuck front lever: 51 (N/A)

Having dealt with the benchmarking, let’s take a look at cycle two. Since most information is stored publicly (click here to see the document), I won’t restate anything already there. As can be seen, the second cycle is very similar to the first. There are some differences, mostly for the core/leg exercises because I’ve finally found a routine which covers what I want to cover without requiring anything else than a chin-up bar and an ab wheel. There is also a heavier focus on handstand this time, partly because I like the exercise, but also because I really want to accomplish that one hundred metres of handwalking I set up a long time ago.

In short, this is by far the most successful way of designing a program I’ve ever encountered. My guess is that it’s because it’s divided into manageable sections (eight to ten weeks) that the mind can handle easily. Setting a goal to do a certain routine for roughly two months is not a superhuman task, but setting the goal to do the same exercises with gradually increasing difficulty indefinitely is a lot more daunting. Focusing really hard on few selected exercises and then evaluating the result, designing a new program and moving on is a lot more realistinc, if not physically, then at least psychologically. If you’re interested in any of this, you can glean some information from my previous posts about steaty state training (or click here for a list of posts related to exercise), but more importantly, you should consult the coach himself, either by reading his book Building the Gymnastic Body or by checking out the forum.

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