Scribbles in the Sand

All About My Life in Taiwan

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Lang-8 and FluentFlix, Mandarin Progress Report Aug 2012


I’ve recently  come back to my mandarin studies after a bit of a lackadaisical hiatus which didn’t have much focus.

I’m now treating the language like a Venn diagram of interconnectedness.  Previously, reading and writing were less important, with vocabulary acquisition and speaking (attempting to) being more of a central focus.

However, a holistic understanding of many small quanta is better at reinforcing things you’ve learnt. New vocab soon gets forgotten unless it’s strengthened by seeing it used elsewhere.

Recently I’ve been using Lang-8 to improve my reading and writing, and well as boost my syntax skills. This multi- language website is a place to write a short paragraph in your target language and have natives comment and correct your work.  You then give back to the community and correct other people’s work.  I’ve found that if you make friends and happily correct a small bunch of people with good feedback, they are very willing and quick to help you with yours.  This website is very good because it encourages you to think in that language and use words in sentences, and grammar structures which were previously just a series of rules.

When I say writing, I don’t mean picking up a brush, scrapping some ink on a rock and diluting it with water to make some lovely characters. I am a firm believer that the written language is less important for a 老外 and has very few practical uses in this age of technology. Perhaps somewhere along the road I will learn stoke order etc, but for now, to be able to recognise characters is so much more important.

For instance, I don’t know how to write thank you in chinese, but as soon as I see the characters written down I know instantly. Likewise, if I want to use pinyin to input it into the computer I just type xie xie. To actually hand write these characters would take a decade for me. 謝謝

I’m also lucky enough to be using the FluentFlix beta. This new website shows YouTube videos in Chinese, but underneath has a scrolling flashcards of whats being said in Chinese (simplified so far),Pinyin, and English. Hover over a word and it gives you examples and lets you add them to your flash card database.  This is quite a relaxing way to study because it requires little effort to listen to native speakers talk about a huge variety of topics and have easy access to translations, flashcards, example sentences etc.

I’ve completely neglected my vocabulary learning software Anki, and need to go back over previously learnt HSK decks to check they’re not all lost in the ether of my brain.

I am in two minds of whether or not to just devote a year of my life in the mountains as a monk, learning chinese 14 hours a day and become truly proficient in a small amount of  intensive study, compared to a long drawn out amount of itty bitty studying. I could prepare tea, sweep leaves, meditate, and learn kung fu at the same time.

P.s  I Just watched the Taiwanese movie, you are the apple of my eye,  那些年,我們一起追的女孩 and I thoroughly enjoyed it, 8/10 drumsticks.  Other Taiwanese Movies to watch include Monga, Cape No. 7, and Seediq bale



Fun website for learning languages

I’ve recently got back into using Memrise to mix up my learning resources.  I discovered it many months back, but didn’t particularly use it because I gave up learning Chinese characters in place of trying to learn the spoken language.  Anyway, I decided to have another look at it, after a friend raved about how fun it was.  She is currently on a flight to Taipei to study at the university, (check her blog here).

The website is very attractive, and offers many languages including Chinese, French, Spanish, German and Italian.  I recommend you give it a go.  It’s free and fun.  Basically, each new language has its own garden.  First you pick a course (first 1000 words, beginner french etc) and each day plant a few new flowers (words). Each time you learn a new word it provides a nifty mnemonic to help you consolidate it.  In the case of Chinese* each characters morphs into a user-submitted picture.

With other languages, there is a quick paragraph with a memorable story, so from memory, having looked at it only once last night, I remember that the spanish for boring is “aburrido”.  The mnemonic was that it would be very boring having to eat a burrito every day for breakfast”.  The word for stop is parar, so we imagine paratroopers landing on a road, causing you to slam the brakes on your car.  I can remember all of the 10 of the words I learnt last night, and I only saw them once.  Anyway, once you’ve planted a new word, you get tested on it in several ways.  The software determines how well you know each word, and gives you a graphic representation in the form of a potted plant. New words are tiny seedlings.  Known, easy, words are fully grown. Any old words that are in need of revision are shown to wilt.  These plants get flagged up for watering.

I had a quick look at the other languages offered, and found learning new words to be incredibly easy in comparison to Chinese.  The reason is that hardly any words overlap in English or Chinese apart from things like brands.  However, 30% of English is made up of French, and words in many european languages overlap significantly.  It is also easy, as in the case of the above example to make a quick memorable story, such as parar sounding like paratrooper.  Sadly, mandarin is much harder to do this, and it takes a lot of lateral thought to make a mnemonic.  For example, the word for strange is Qí  guài.  To internalise this, I have assigned each of the four tones with specific colours.  the last word sounds like “why” with a g at the front.  Now, there are no english words that come close to this, but fi said it sounded like Jerry maguire.  So I had to shut my eyes and make a mnemonic.  Tom Cruise doing tai chi which is strange.  Now because each word requires a specific tone, I have to assign this visual picture with colours, so Tom Cruise is wearing all red clothing, and is doing tai chi in a green field. As you can see, this is an extremely lateral way of getting to the word for strange, but otherwise, this weird sounding word goes in one ear and it forgotten within seconds unless you find a way of internalising it.  Each word has to have an equivalent mnemonic which is extremely hard to make and often is so intangible that despite knowing the image in your head, can’t relate it to what it means in english.  This is a sign of a bad mnemonic.  The best ones usually involves something really weird, sexual, or rude. Once you’ve used the word  Qí  guài and heard it in the wild, you don’t need to think about tom cruise each time, but initially, it is integral to make theses storys else it is soon forgotten.

Anyway, I recommend you give memrise a quick go, and see how many new plants you can grow and keep watered.

Laurie has just begun using it and seems to be having fun, and has learnt about 15 new characters in as many minutes.  I’m definitely going to learn spanish after chinese. It will be so much easier to learn in comparison, added to this all the knowledge i’ve gained on how best to learn a language.


My Mandarin Plateau

I’ve reached a plateau in my chinese learning which has made me very disheartened.    At the beginning it was easy to see improvements because each new word learnt increased my knowledge two-fold.  Now i’ve reached a point when i don’t feel very confidant in having conversations despite knowing quite a lot of words.  At the beginning I was using Rosette Stone which is a tedious programme but does give you the very basics of the language quite well. Other learning resources included reading language blogs, listening to ChinesePod podcasts, and using the flashcard software Anki recently.

The past few weeks i’ve been going through learning word lists provided by the Chinese government for the chinese proficiency exam, the HSK.  There are 6 levels, the first level is 150 words, HSK2 is 300, and HSK3 is 600.  HSK 6 is something ridiculous like 5000 words. Anyway, i’ve learnt the words from HSK1 and 2 (not the characters) and am most of my way through HSK3, but i’ve reached the point of knowing many words but not knowing how to use them in a sentence, and getting frustrated when i forgot this endless amount of similar sounding words (there are only 400 different phonemes in chinese!). Even if a person knew lots of pages from an english dictionary, they would be  no better at trying to speak the language.

Now i’ve reverted back to listening to Chinese Pod and have begun memorising the dialogues so that I remember sentences rather than words. This is my goal for the next few weeks.  Sadly, the role of an english teacher is to speak English, so learning on the job isn’t great.  I can happily introduce myself in mandarin, and get through most situations providing i have my dictionary app for unknown nouns, but as soon as someone asks me something at high speed, i’m often dumbstruck and have to apologies, despite probably knowing how to answer the question if only I understood what the question was.

Added to this annoyance of not being a fluent god by now is that fact that the polyglot blogger Benny from (check it out) has made it his most recent mission to learn mandarin in just 3 months like his 8 other languages.  His updates on quickly becoming fluent are very interesting, but i can’t help feel quite annoyed by his progress and annoyed at my lack of.  However, I must rationalise this and realise that it is his job to learn and write about languages, and spends around 12 hours a day doing so,thus, i shouldn’t beat myself up too much.  I know everything about how to learn chinese,  but am failing to put that knowledge into practical results.   Hopefully my new goal of learning sentences, and grammar will be more fruitful.  I must also remember than before I came, i knew absolutely nothing, and had initially made an impressive start.  Now i just need to find a way of overcoming by current stagnation.  I know I should just throw myself out there and talk to ask many people as possible but this is something easier said than done.