“Learn a Chinese Phrase” Review of the series of videos on YouTube

“Learn a Chinese Phrase” Review

I was contacted on Facebook a while ago by Patrick Bresnahan asking me to review the “Learn a Chinese Phrase” series of videos on YouTube. Patrick, his fellow students and their Chinese teachers at the Confucius institute of Wayne state university have produced a great series of videos that achieves what it sets out to do: teach viewers a Chinese phrase.

The videos are suitable for Chinese learners from beginners right up to advanced (at least for the advanced students who haven’t come across these particular idioms before). The videos are all short, humourous, with good explanations of what the phrases mean, and plenty of repetition. Putting all these things together then you have a package that is easy to watch but effective helping you remember the new vocab that they are teaching you.

Learn a chinese phrase screen shot

Relevant vocab

The phrases that they are teaching you are relevant too. I hadn’t learnt the phrase 八卦 (ba1gua4) in any text book, but having watched their video, then yesterday I understood what my teachers were taking about when they were talking about some people 八卦 other people. I think it is great when there is such a short period between learning a phrase in theory, and then very soon afterwards hearing it being used by native Chinese speakers.

The videos can be found on youku / souku for those in China, and on youtube for everyone else (or anyone with VPN).

 

Learning Chinese requires good perspective

Learning Chinese requires good perspective

It seems all students of Chinese have the same experience at some point in the study – they feel that they just aren’t making the progress they want to. I have experienced this myself, and it is currently true of one of our students at our language school here in Beijing who I met up with over lunch today.

Now, it may be that for some people they are experiencing frustration and disillusionment because they are approaching their language study in the wrong way, or simply not allocating enough time to their study. For these people it is worth taking time to stop and look at your goals, and what it is going to take to reach those goals.

But in the case of this student who is having 10 hours of 1on1 tuition each week, and topping that up with at least 20 hours of self-study, and plenty of social interaction with Chinese friends, he is doing all the right things, he is making really good progress, but he just doesn’t feel it, and he would rather the progress was quicker.

For this student, and others in similar positions, let me share with you a helpful poem that my father once shared with me.

T.T.T by Piet Hein

TTT illustration for the poem by Piet Hein

Put up in a place
where it’s easy to see
the cryptic admonishment
T.T.T.

When you feel how depressingly
slowly you climb,
it’s well to remember that
Things Take Time./


On a similar theme, you might want to check out Olle Linge’s recent helpful posts on Hacking Chinese of persevering with Chinese when you are lacking motivation.

Speaking Chinese with Feeling: Patience Required

It was September 2007, at the age of 50, when I first began to study Chinese. Because of my age I felt strongly that joining young enthusiastic university students in a group class just wasn’t going to cut it for me, so I signed up for 1-on-1 classes, and there the journey began.

 

This post however is not about the long journey, on which path I am still on, it is rather about one small aspect of that journey – learning how to speak Mandarin with feeling…. like a Chinese, without sacrificing quality of tones or pronunciation.

 

Now I know everyone is different, but I think there is a common rule for all of us when we begin learning Mandarin. That is, to nail down all of the sounds and simultaneously train the ear to hear and the voice to speak the tones correctly, including the rule exceptions. We’ve all seen the initials-finals charts, and observed how the tones are explained in a graph format to help us understand how much movement each requires, and the relative tone ranges. You’ve also likely tried to mimic a teacher in class, whether in a group or 1-on-1.

 

But I believe there is another rule to be added and that is to begin by speaking the language almost as if it was a musical score, or even more simply stated, by coloring inside the lines. What I mean is to think of the language as being very fixed, all of the tones individually and always beginning and ending at the same place, extremely mechanical if you will.

 

We’ve all listened to native speakers, and we know they don’t speak mechanically. But then again they began listening to Chinese right out of the womb.

 

Speaking from the experience of beginning late, what I learned is that after having built a foundation of learning and practicing Chinese tones in a mechanical way, it became much easier to slowly transition into a much more natural expressive Chinese.

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As with English, Chinese is not mechanical. Ideas, humor, sadness, all types and levels of emotion can be expressed without abolishing the tones (with the possible exception of extreme anger). As with English each phrase flows with a tone all it’s own, going up or down in order to express one’s feelings.

 

The point is this. Begin with a strict adherence to the tones, without the natural flow of native language, and you will eventually be capable of expressing yourself with accurate tones, the same feelings that come so naturally in your native tongue and touch the heart of your Chinese friends.

Why tones and I were not friends: how to improve your Chinese tones

You sit down in your first mandarin class and they show you something like this:

Pinyin Tone Chart

 

You practice the four different tones.  ā, á, ǎ, à.  You practice differentiating between your mother (妈: mā) and a horse (马: mǎ).  (Fair enough!  Though, I’ve often wondered how Chinese people whine to their mother.  My kids manage to make the sound ma into an entirely new tone altogether!)  You practice different pinyin drills, different tones together, the neutral tone.

Easy, right?

So, so, so wrong.

My hate-relationship with Chinese tones began way after I had begun learning Chinese.  I’d already lived in China for a couple of years, but after I started learning Chinese full time, for the first 6 months of being generally unintelligible, I’d still gotten away with being able to fudge my tones.  I was able to communicate, people would get my meaning, and just make allowances for it.  As someone who loved talking, I wasn’t going to let minor pronunciation problems stop me from communicating.

So I hacked away.  Well that’s not what I thought.  In my eyes, I forged ahead, building confidence in my ability to communicate, excited at how I grew to be able to babble on much like I did in English.  What with the new vocabulary I was learning, and the new grammar I was practicing, I felt armed to conquer the Chinese language.

That is, until I stopped to hear myself speak. To really hear myself speak.

After 2 years of absorbing the language and 6 months of seriously studying Chinese in Beijing (where, by the way, tones really matter), my husband and I made a video for some Mandarin speaking friends back at home, a video postcard if you will.  I wrote the whole script, even threw in a few jokes, and we sat down to record it.  I sat down and babbled away, whereas my husband wanted to do take after take after take until he was happy.  After editing it and sending it off, I felt as though we’d really made a lot of progress in six months.  When our friends (native Chinese speakers) received our video postcard they were really positive about our progress. But the feedback that kept coming back to us was how great my husband’s Chinese was.

I have to admit I was a bit cheesed off.  Thankfully my husband is not the sort to gloat — in fact, he was even indignant that he’d hadn’t done a thing but read my script out!  But after I calmed down (ok, it took a while!) I realised that there had to be some truth to what they were saying.  So I sat down to watch the video. Properly.

When I sat down to deliberately listen to my Mandarin, I realized they were right. My husband’s Mandarin, his spoken Mandarin, the Mandarin he needs to use every day in order to communicate, from what you could see in the video, was excellent. Mine, however, was more of an indistinguishable flow of words.  Not to say I couldn’t be understood, because I did throw in enough vocabulary and gestures and emphasis to give my meaning, but I could no longer ignore that my tones were absolutely everywhere and this was seriously debilitating my Chinese.

At that point I had a bit of a meltdown.  After all the hard work I’d put in, all the confidence I had in my language was gone.  For about a week I actually could not speak Chinese.  I’d open my mouth, completely panic at what was going to come out of my mouth, and just freeze up.  I spent a few days hating Chinese tones, or threatening to move down to 南方 (nánfāng: the South) where tones don’t matter so much, and generally just being infuriated by the insanity of this language.  But when the emotion subsided, I knew, I finally realized, that tones were something I could no longer ignore.

(Interestingly, it was a little hard to find things online on how to help my particular problem.  It’s not that I can’t say the tones.  I always could say single-syllable words very well when reading the pinyin with tone markers.  I could get through a vocab list with no problem.  My problem was more that I wasn’t remembering the tones of new words (or old words for that matter) and was just making them up or replacing them with English intonation when I spoke.)

So it was time to get back to basics.

It was slightly demoralizing to be going from book 4 of a series back to book 1 (I was learning from New Practical Chinese Reader at the time), but I did it.  Not in my classes, but for a period of time, my entire time of self-study was going back to the beginners book and not moving on until I had absolutely nailed the tones.  I upgraded my Skritter account to a paid subscription and changed the mode to Tones Only.  (In my opinion, as much as I love Pleco, doing this on Skritter was preferred to using Pleco for tones practice.  I think it has to do with the unlimited testing process (ie, keep going until you feel like a break with the same words coming up again and again, rather than having a list of words to work through only once)).  I sat down and wrote down every word in the vocab lists (even wǒ, hǎo, nǐ …) with the correct pinyin – including tone markers (can you believe I had hardly ever bothered to note down the tones when writing pinyin before!) because I started to realize that I hadn’t in my head associated even the most basic of words with their tones.  It really, truly, was back to basic, and it was a hard slog.

But it was totally worth it.

I learned the difference between

  • zhòngyào (重要: important) and zhōngyào (中药: Chinese medicine)
  • and yǎnjing (眼睛: eyes) and yǎnjìng (眼镜: glasses) (actually I still find those two really hard to say properly and 你戴眼睛吗? is just scary if you think about it), not to mention燕京 (Yānjīng: yes, the beer!)

And I learned that

  • you can’t go to the markets and ask for tù dòu (兔痘: rabbitpox, compare with tǔdòu 土豆: potato)
  • and 服务员 (fúwùyuán: waiter/service assistant) will get really confused if you ask for yī wàn mǐfàn (一万米饭: myriads of rice, read as yí wàn: note that 一 changes tone when you read with other words; compare with yī wǎn mǐfàn: 一碗米饭: a bowl of rice, read as yì wǎn)
一碗米饭 yī wǎn mǐfàn

一碗米饭 yī wǎn mǐfàn

 

Another helpful tip I found at lingomi.com,  which has a great table of 20 simple two-syllable words to build up your ‘tone muscle memory’.  After saying these words in sequence for just a short while, I felt that I could get my head around the differences, particularly anything involving the 2nd and 3nd tones, and especially 2+3 and 3+3.  This familiarization with tones helped me to hear the correct tones when listening, which has helped so much more in being able to replicate the correct tone when speaking.

By far, I’m still no expert.  The other day I still had to ask my 5-year old daughter how to say 裤子 (kùzi: trousers) correctly.  And it sometimes means I have to say a sentence (or particular words) twice over just to make sure I said it correctly (I sound like I have a strange kind of stutter).  But just accepting the fact tones really do matter was the biggest step I took to improving my Chinese.

And now Chinese tones and I are friends.

What about you? Are you friends with Chinese tones?  What’s been your Chinese tone journey?

Going to the Movies? How to use Your Smart Phone to Buy Discount Movie Tickets

My wife and I have lived in Beijing for several years. Over the years we’ve had many friends venture to the movies theaters to watch the latest hits while we stayed home and enjoyed the savings of 10RMB DVDs. Now certainly there is a worthwhile savings for those who are patient enough to wait for a quality copy to come out to the dwindling number of DVD stores, but we all know that going to the theater is just not the same experience. There’s just something about the big screen, especially in 3D that blows away the home viewing experience.

 

A few months ago a local friend gave us some free movie tickets. Another friend then told me about an app that would allow a view of all the current movies and where they were playing. I then chose a 3D movie I knew my life would love to see for her birthday, but you guessed it, the free tickets were for 2D movies. I was now finally motivated, I had to have those tickets, but the price! So I asked another friend and they told me about the app. I actually bought the tickets while standing in line at the theater and saved substantially at the counter.

 

So, if you have an interest in either watching Chinese or Western movies (in their original language) in Beijing, with the original voice soundtrack, and don’t mind or actually would enjoy practicing your Chinese reading by following the Chinese subtitles, then this app is a must. The app is free and is called Mtime, or in pinyin – shiguangwang (时光网). Below is the step-by-step process for downloading and using Mtime.

 

Note that these directions are specific to making your purchase using a Chinese bankcard.

 

1)   Download the app and open it.

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2)   The Home page is at center bottom and the current movie list is displayed with a customer rating from 1-10 (this post will not go into what the other bottom tabs are for).

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3)   Scroll through and pick the movie you’re interested in.

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4)   Push the orange purchase ticket (购票) tab.

 

5)   Here you will have a choice of dates at the top and below a scroll down for movie theaters showing your movie pick. I prefer to narrow the options by tapping the middle green circle tab (地区) so I can choose theaters in my district. If you’re in Chaoyang District you might want to choose the second tab for your nearby (附近) theaters.

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6)   Scroll down and select the tab for your choice of theaters.

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7)   You will see optional show times and prices for your movie tickets. Touch the tab for your preferred show time.

 

8)   Reserve your seat(s) by touching the seats you prefer. You can touch and order as many seats as you want from those that have not been reserved. The seats you reserve will appear orange while the rest are blue. The bottom will display the row (排) and seat numbers (座). When you’re finished you can press the orange next (下一步) button.

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9)   Enter the cell phone number and password you would like to use (there should be at least one numerical digit).

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10)  Now push the light blue register tab (免费注册) (In the future, once you’ve registered, you can tap the log in (登录) tab, that is, assuming it remembers your phone number).

 

 

11) Enter your phone number and your preferred password, then push the tab to obtain your verification number (获取验证吗) and you will receive a text with your verification code.

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12) Enter the code and push the (提交) tab.

 

 

13) You get a pop up window that asks you to confirm that you want to go forward. Touch the definitely (确定) tab if you definitely want the tickets.

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14) Now you have two choices, either registering your email address or cell phone. If you want to order tickets only with your phone, then touch the submit (提交) tab (this post only follows the track of using your cell phone).

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15) You will get a screen that confirms you order and the amount. If it all looks right tap next (下一步).

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16) Now you have a choice of payment options. The simplest is to use the Union Pay online option (使用银联在线付款) which is the second orange tab.

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17) Now enter your bankcard number and touch “next”. You will get a second window. Enter your pin# and your registered phone number and then touch the orange SMS tab. You should receive a text with the required SMS number. Enter the number and touch “Start Pay”.

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18) When processing is complete, Mtime should hold a record of your ticket purchase. You should also receive a text with the purchase details. You can show either of these at the ticket window to receive your tickets.

 

 

Of course I accept no responsibility for the accuracy of this post, or any losses you may incur as a result of following the above instructions.

 

There you have it. Enjoy your movie!

Book review: My Country and My People, by Lin YuTang

If your aim for learning Chinese is to become accepted as part of the community, your study needs to go beyond just learning how to communicate, instead extending into understanding Chinese culture, why people say what they say, do what they do, and think what they think.

One of our goals at our Chinese language school in Wudaokou, is to support all our students as they not only learn the language, but also gradually develop a fuller understanding of Chinese culture. We can learn culture through observation the society around, through reading books and watching films, and obviously through discussing differences and similarities with Chinese people. With so many books on Chinese history and culture to choose from, we want to help you find the really good books that are worth reading. On that note, here is a review of My Country and My People, by Lin YuTang. Review by Nick D. (a 1on1 Mandarin student)

Here are a few interesting comments:   On the “family system” as the centre of Chinese life: “The Chinese are a nation of individualists. They are family-minded, and the family mind is only a form of maginified selfishness. It is curious that the word ‘society’ does not exist as an ideal in Chinese thought.” (p.169) “It takes the right of contracting marriage out of our hands and gives it to those of our parents; it makes us marry, not wives but ‘daughters-in-law’, and it makes our wives gives birth, not to children but to ‘grandchildren.’ (p.173) “In the end, as it worked out, the family became a walled castle outside which everything is legitimate loot.” (p.177) “There are three muses ruling over China. Their names are Face, Fate and Favor.” (p.191) (Favor from officials or others in positions of power, in contrast to justice – p.192; which can be related to ideas of guanxi, and provides scope for corruption.)

On the problem of communication: “The Chinese, versed in this literary training, have learned to read between the lines, and it is the foreigners’ inability to read between the lines….that causes foreign correspondents to curse both China and themselves for their inability to make head or tail of such cleverly-worded and apparently harmless public statements.” (p.231)

A nice time-warp comment on rural and urban living: “The average poor Chinese in the country has more space of his own that a New York professor. But there are Chinese living in cities as well, and not all of them own huge gardens.” (!!!) (p.322)

My favourite, both for time-warp and for prophecy: “Even if cataclysmic upheavals like a communistic regime should come, the old tradition of individuality, toleration, moderation and common sense will break Communism and change it beyond recognition, rather than Communism with its socialistic, impersonal and rigoristic outlook break the old tradition. It must be so.” (p.75)

Paperback and Kindle versions are both available from Amazon.com Let us know if you have also read and enjoyed this book, or found other similar books particular helpful in understanding Chinese culture.

Without cultural understanding, your Chinese could be useless.

Many students of Chinese recognise that learning Chinese is hard, but they are willing to put in the effort to conquer the mountain that is becoming proficient in Chinese. However, if your aim for learning Chinese is to become accepted as part of the community, your study needs to go beyond just learning how to communicate, instead extending into understanding Chinese culture, why people say what they say, do what they do, and think what they think.

Danger of ignoring culture

If you only focus on the practical side of communication, and don’t take the time to learn the culture, then the communication you do have may end up being laden with frustration, and misunderstandings. You only have to spend a little time reading the blogs of expats to get a feel for how common these misunderstandings are.

Here at our Chinese language school in Wudaokou, it is one of our goals to support all our students as they not only learn the language, and become proficient in it, but also gradually develop a fuller understanding and love of Chinese culture.

Cultural understanding includes the basics of knowing when the festivals are, and what they celebrate, but it goes far beyond that and at its greatest extent includes how 5000 years of history influences their understanding of themselves, and in turn their opinions and behaviour.

So how to learn culture?

So how to learn culture? The best way is to live here, learn the language, make friends, and interact with your Chinese friends as much as you can. Over time you will build up your understanding. But we can also be deliberate about acquiring an understanding of the culture. We can learn culture through seeking to make observations about the society around, and backing this up by discussing our observations about the differences and similarities with Chinese people.

For those who are not fortunate to live in China then reading books and watching films is obviously a good first step.

Our blog: making studying Chinese just that bit easier

Taking all this into account, our aim for this blog is to make your life as a student of Chinese just that bit easier. We continuously check the latest blogs, read the latest books, test out the newest apps and attend the conferences on language learning so that you don’t have to. Anything that we find that will help you in your understanding of Chinese language, Chinese cultural we will share. On top of this we will seek to provide anything else that helps our language students as they live in China and study the language, whether that is advice on balancing your time for most effective study, or sharing about the practicalities of renting a flat in China.

Thanks for reading, look out for new articles on a weekly basis, and let us know what you think.

Study Chinese at our school in Wudaokou www.1on1mandarin.com

 

 

 

Easiest way to learn Chinese? ShaoLan shows us one way

The idea of learning Chinese would strike fear into many people. It is commonly seen as a super hard language, especially for western learners, and only suitable for the brightest of the bright.

Whilst it is true that Chinese is harder for a westerner to learn than most other languages. Getting started isn’t necessarily as hard as people think. Today’s students of Chinese have the benefit of many different resources, technologies and techniques that allow Chinese learning to fun and efficient.

This video from a recent TED presentation is a good illustration of the advantage today’s students have. The video clearly demonstrates learning Chinese that it isn’t too hard, even for those with absolutely no background knowledge or experience.


The speaker ShaoLan makes it seem easy by not only being charismatic, enthusiastic and knowledgeable (key for any teacher) but she is putting together a few basic tools for learning Chinese characters into a visual appealing format. She uses repetition, association, mnemonics, and builds more complex characters using the simpler characters you are already familiar with as building blocks. Many other Chinese teachers and study methods adopt similar approaches (e.g. Heisig, Skritter) but possibly not as visually appealing.

 

Giving people an easy first step into learning Chinese is always going to be a good thing. However, there is a Chinese phrase that is relevant here:  入门容易提高难 (rùmén róngyì tígāo nán) which essentially means that in all things starting is the easy part, improving is hard. It is really important when learning Chinese to be really clear on your goals, and ensuring that your study continues to push you forward towards all your goals.

Of course at our Chinese language school in Beijing then we not only have the enthusiastic and knowledgable teachers who can give you individual attention, but also we are committed to keeping our students up to date with all the best techniques and tools. After all everyone would like learning Chinese to be just that little bit easier.

Rote memorisation

I came across two blog posts with polar opposite views on rote memorisation today.

This blog post  reconsiders the value of rote memorisation and repeated reading as a method of increasing understanding with each reading, where as this post includes rote memorisation as one amongst a whole list of things that don’t work for learning Chinese.

Funnily enough, I think both posts have some valuable ideas, and helpful suggestions. The key being that if you are seeking to memorise texts, it is for the sake of fully understanding them and being able to effectively create new content as a result, rather than being constrained to only ever repeat the original text.

Of all the comments I found these comments by Tyson to be the most helpful (especially his point #2 which is that you want to find a teacher who  correct your pronunciation – a strength of all our teachers, and a weaknesses of many big group classes).

My personal experience of learning Chinese, and what we encourage all our students to do is to ignore any of the hype that says that you can be fully fluent in 3 months if you just buy this package, use this technique etc. Chinese is always going to be a hard language to learn, and there aren’t any foolproof short cuts, however there are lots of tools and techniques that work in different situations. We encourage all our students to experiment with all the different tools / techniques and find out what works for them given their personality and learning style.