web analytics

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

Not everything I write about learning Chinese ends up here on Hacking Chinese. Some things will be available later as Hacking Chinese articles or projects, but much is written for other websites.

I have updated my bibliography accordingly, and here are all the new articles published before the start of February:

Various articles about Mandarin on About.com
January, 2015 – About.com

These articles were all published on About.com through my role as Mandarin expert writer there:

  1. How to learn Chinese grammar:Sentence patterns, particles and conjunctions
  2. The second tone in Mandarin Chinese: Common problems and their remedies
  3. Aspiration in Mandarin Chinese: What it is and why you want to get it right
  4. From big to small, background to foreground: Sorting information in Chinese
  5. Spaced repetition software and learning Chinese: What SRS is and why it’s good for you
  6. How to use spaced repetition software to learn Chinese: Spreading out your reviews, designing flashcards
  7. Common problems when using SRS to learn Chinese: Things to avoid when using spaced repetition software
  8. He – “harmony” – Chinese character profile: A closer look at the character He (“harmony”), its meanings and usages
  9. Common Mandarin learning errors, part 3: Learning on your own

Confusing Mandarin pronunciation, part 1: The final “-ing”
January, 2015 – Skritter

In this article, I discuss the final “-ing” in Mandarin. It’s a final that causes a lot of trouble for learners who focus too much on Pinyin and too little on the way this sound is actually pronounced. If you think that “-ing” is simply “-in” with an added “g”, you should definitely read this article.

Understanding the neutral tone in Mandarin
January, 2015 – Skritter

The neutral tone is difficult for many learners, partly because it changes according to the environment, but also because it’s seldom properly explained by teachers and textbooks. This is an attempt at explaining the neutral tone in Mandarin and how it works. What does “neutral” really mean? What’s the difference between a neutral tone and any of the other tones? Why doesn’t Mandarin have five tones?

That’s it for now! I will keep posting one article round-up every month, collecting the articles from the previous months. If you like Hacking Chinese or what I’m writing in general, the best thing you can do is to share! Donations are also more than welcome! If you want to read more about my different roles on Skritter and About.com, please read the first monthly round-up. If you want to view all articles written by me but published elsewhere, check my bibliography page.


Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content!


  • Get access to extra tips, hacks, news and other things I don't share on the website:



Tagged with:
 

phoneticsIdeally, all students would acquire perfect pronunciation through listening to and mimicking native Chinese audio. Sadly, this doesn’t really work for adult learners, but seems to work well for children.

This is easy to prove, because all (normal) children learn to pronounce their first language, but most adults fail to acquire native-like pronunciation in the language they’re learning. It’s obvious that for most people, simply being exposed to the language and using it isn’t enough.

Still, age should never be taken as an excuse for not learning. In many regards, adults are actually better language learners than children, even though pronunciation is one of the areas where age matters the most. This makes it harder to learn, but not impossible! Don’t think than adults can’t acquire good pronunciation. You can if you really want to. As I have said elsewhere, you might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old.

The best way to learn proper pronunciation in Chinese

As most people probably know already, the best way to learn to pronounce Chinese (or any other language) is to combine large amounts of listening with lots of practice, plus having a teacher who can act as both as a role-model and give you feedback at the same time. Large amounts of listening is relatively easy to get, as is lots of practice, but accurate feedback is harder.

Few students have access to one-on-one teachers who can correct their pronunciation (even though apps like WaiChinese makes this easier). In addition, in most classrooms pronunciation is often neglected after the first few weeks or months of initial drilling of tones and basic Pinyin.

I have written a lot about how to learn pronunciation already (you can see all articles here), including last week’s article consisting of 24 great resources to help you learn Mandarin pronunciation, but in this article, I want to talk about theory. Yes, phonetics. Yes, the fancy symbols you see in the picture above.

The importance of theory

I first discovered the importance of theory when learning English at university. I first started learning English in school at the age of 10 or so, but all with non-native speakers as teachers. Naturally, my English was descent when I started studying English at university ten years later, but I learnt a lot about pronunciation in our phonetics course that I simply hadn’t noticed before.

And no, I’m not talking about descriptive knowledge of English pronunciation here, you will obviously learn that by studying theory, I’m talking about real, concrete things I had missed and were pronouncing incorrectly. This blog isn’t about learning English, but if you really want to know, vowel reduction was one of the major eye-openers. I also stayed too close to the written form of lots of words, such as “salmon” and “column”.

The same thing happened when I started learning Chinese pronunciation, although I wasn’t surprised by it this time. I keep studying Chinese phonetics and still come across things than help me pay attention to crucial aspects of pronunciation. This is indeed the main benefit.

Studying theory helps you notice key aspects of the spoken language around you

This means that studying theory isn’t always immediately useful. It’s not as if you read something about how a certain sound in Chinese is actually pronounced, you shout “Eureka!” and your pronunciation improves. It does happen, but not very often.

More often, the insight helps you direct your attention so that when you hear native speakers speak, you notice something that’s different between what they say and what you say. Gradually with practice, this transforms into better pronunciation.

I think a bit of theory is valuable for all adult learners.  The exception might be if you are extremely good at hearing foreign speech sounds and mimicking them, in which case you should do that instead. Actually, even if you aren’t so good at mimicking, you should still spend most of your pronunciation practice on mimicking and getting feedback in different ways. Theory is a valuable asset, but it’s useless (but interesting) on its own.

Some examples of how theory has improved my pronunciation

Here are some examples of things I have learnt by reading about them rather than listening to native speakers. I had lots of time and opportunity to pick these things up just by listening, but I didn’t for some reason. Instead, I only figured them out by reading about them. You might find these obvious, but again you might not. Or, you might find them obvious, but have other blind spots you’re not aware of. These are just examples:

  1. That the third tone is usually a low tone - This is a problem many foreigners have and I think the reason is that few teachers accurately explain how the third tone should be pronounced, or if they do, they fail to focus on that beyond the first few weeks or so. The third tone is just a low tone in front of all tones except another third tone. It has an optional rise when in isolation or at the end of sentences. This is rarely used!
  2. That “j/q/x” aren’t produced with the tip of the tongue and thus aren’t really in between “z/c/s” and “zh/ch/sh” – These sounds are instead produced with the tongue tip down. I knew there was something wrong with my pronunciation of these sounds, but didn’t figure it out until I actually read about it. I’ve done several pseudo-scientific experiments with this and even though the sounds produced are similar, there is a distinct difference. I have corrected the pronunciation of enough fellow Mandarin students to know that I’m not alone in having misunderstood these sounds.
  3. That no initials in Mandarin other than “l”, “m”, “n” and “r” are voiced. It’s very common to hear people pronounce for example “z” and “zh” with voicing, which I did too until I found out that that’s actually not right. This sometimes happens with b, d and g as well, although these can be voiced in the middle of words. Read more in my article about Pinyin.

Now, you might argue that I could have corrected all these problems simply by having a good enough teacher that would spot these problems and help me correct them. And you’d be right. But as I said, the problem is that most people don’t have access to one-on-one tutors that are competent enough to correct details with pronunciation.

Resources for learning Mandarin pronunciation theory

If you want to read more about Chinese pronunciation, you can start here (these are simply copied from last week’s article, which focused on resources in general):

  • Zein on Mandarin Chinese Phonetics This is a basic introduction and is suitable for most beginners. I don’t really like talking too much about equivalent sounds in English, but he does a fair job most of the time.
  • Chinese Pronunciation on Sinosplice This is a short but good introduction to some of the sounds that are unique to Mandarin (at least from the perspective of a native English speaker). It’s not very exhaustive, but still a good introduction.
  • Standard Chinese Phonology on Wikipedia This article is quite good and is the next step if you want to go beyond just describing how sounds are pronounced. There are also lots of useful references here.
  • Pinyin Traps and Pitfalls My article about various common problems students have with Pinyin. These problems mostly exist because people read Pinyin as if it were a phonetic alphabet instead of a transcription system.
  • The Phonology of Standard Chinese (San Duan-mu) This book is a great resource for anyone who thinks they know a bit about phonetics and phonology and want a more thorough discussion. Do not read this book without having read at least one book about phonology and one about Chinese phonetics. The link goes to my review.

Conclusion

Simply mimicking one’s way to perfect pronunciation might be fine for kids and some extremely talented adults, but it’s usually not enough. Therefore, I prefer adding theory to the mix. Proportions? Perhaps 95% practice (mimicking and speaking) and 5% theory, unless you happen to be interested in pronunciation in and of itself.


Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content!


  • Get access to extra tips, hacks, news and other things I don't share on the website:



By On February 24, 2015 · 7 Comments · In Advanced, Beginner, Intermediate, Speaking
Tagged with:
 

Image credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert

Image credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert

This month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese is about pronunciation. As promised last week, this post will contain my favourite resources for learning and teaching pronunciation. All of them are already listed on Hacking Chinese Resources, but I still think that highlighting the most useful resources for this month’s challenge will be useful. There are still 10 days left in the challenge, by the way, so it’s not too late to join if you haven’t already!

The best resources for learning Mandarin pronunciation

I usually limit my best-resource articles to ten, but since pronunciation is my favourite topic, I’m not going to stop there. I’m not going to give you everything I have (you wouldn’t want that), but I am going to give you more than you need. Probably a lot more. To make the recommendations more navigable, I have sorted them into four categories; feel free to skip those you don’t think you need.

  1. Basic sound references
  2. Pronunciation explained
  3. Advice on learning pronunciation
  4. Useful software and applications

If you have any other resources you think ought to be on this list or on Hacking Chinese Resources, please leave a comment or contact me.

1. Basic sound references

When you start learning Chinese, it’s essential that you have proper models to mimic. It’s also important that you look up how to pronounce syllables you’re not familiar with. There are several freely available resources that include all syllables read with all tones. I have included more than one here because as I have explained, listening to more than one voice is helpful.

  • Yabla Pinyin Chart With Audio – A web-based Pinyin chart with audio for all syllables with all tones. Also includes possible combinations that actually don’t exist as real words, which might be good for practice.
  • Pinyin audio and video on YouTube – This clip introduces all the initials and finals in Pinyin (using the first tone). It adds value to the rest of the resources here because the camera is pointed to the speaker’s mouth, showing clearly how the lips move.
  • Lost Theory Mandarin Phonetics – Another web-based resource with recorded audio for all syllables with all tones. You can also get the “spelling” of the syllable read to you, ie. Initial, final and then the whole syllable.
  • New Concept Mandarin introduction to Pinyin – Yet another web-based Pinyin chart with a different voice. It’s slightly more annoying to navigate, but only contains real syllables, which might be good as a reality check.
  • ChinesePod Introduction to Pinyin – This app is available for free for both Android and iOS and contains the full Pinyin chart with audio. It also explains the sounds, although not always accurately (there is no “nasal U” in Mandarin).
  • Sinosplice Tone Pair Drills – As the name implied, this is tone pair drilling with audio. You should really know how to pronounce all combinations and here you have them with audio references.
  • AllSet Learning Pinyin – This resource is only available for iPhone and iPad, but it’s free to download. It contains audio for all syllables in Mandarin (including tones) as well as some other useful features.
  • Pinyin Chart in IPA – In case you know the International Phonetica Alphabet (IPA) this chart provides you with a transcription of all syllables in Mandarin. It also highlight some potential issues with spelling in Pinyin.

2. Pronunciation explained

  • Zein on Mandarin Chinese Phonetics – This is a basic introduction and is suitable for most beginners. I don’t really like talking too much about equivalent sounds in English, but he does a fair job most of the time.
  • Chinese Pronunciation on Sinosplice – This is a short but good introduction to some of the sounds that are unique to Mandarin (at least from the perspective of a native English speaker). It’s not very exhaustive, but still a good introduction.
  • Standard Chinese Phonology on Wikipedia – This article is quite good and is the next step if you want to go beyond just describing how sounds are pronounced. There are also lots of useful references here.
  • Pinyin Traps and Pitfalls – My article about various common problems students have with Pinyin. These problems mostly exist because people read Pinyin as if it were a phonetic alphabet instead of a transcription system.
  • The Phonology of Standard Chinese (San Duan-mu) – This book is a great resource for anyone who thinks they know a little bit about phonetics and phonology and want a more thorough discussion. Do not read this book without having read at least one book about phonology and one about Chinese phonetics. The link goes to my review.

3. Advice on learning pronunciation

  • Tones are more important than you think – This is an article about the importance of tones. I don’t think anyone who reads this guide thinks tones aren’t important, but it might be good to have some arguments to convince your friends.
  • Learning the third tone in Chinese – I have spent a fair amount of time researching the third tone in Mandarin. In this article, I share some of the results and discuss what they mean for you as a learner.
  • A smart method to discover problems with tones – I have referred to this article already, but I want to mention it again. It introduces a really neat way of testing pronunciation without having a teacher. Everybody should try this at least once.
  • Recording yourself to improve speaking ability – This is a closer look at how you can use recording as a tool to improve pronunciation. Most of what I cover here has appeared in different parts of this guide.
  • John Pasden’s tips on Chines pronunciation – I have referred to specific parts of this site earlier, but this is the main page for everything about pronunciation. John has many good things to say about pronunciation, listen to him!
  • Extending Mnemonics to Tones and Pronunciation – This is isn’t specifically about how to learn to pronounce Chinese, but instead about how to remember the sounds (this is surprisingly often the problem; you have to remember how a word is pronounced if you want to be able to pronounce it correctly).
  • Improving Foreign Language Pronunciation – This is an interview done with me over at Language is Culture. I talk with David Mansaray about learning to pronounce Chinese (and other languages). It isn’t directly useful as a guide for how to change pronunciation, but might be interesting to some readers. The audio interview is about 70 minutes long.

4. Useful software and applications

  • Audacity – This program is excellent for mimicking purposes, but also for careful listening in general. It’s easy to use and available for free on most platforms. It’s a powerful audio editing and playback software that allows you to view and edit audio, as well as slow down,
    speed up, mute channels and much more. The link goes to my article about using Audacity and I introduce more tricks there.
  • Praat – This is one of the most widely used programs when it comes to scientific analysis of pronunciation. The program is not made for students specifically, but you can get pretty far just by using the material available on the website. Praat is free and works on most platforms. One of the most important features for students is to be able to see pitch contours and compare these to those of native speakers.
  • Pleco – This is my favourite Chinese dictionary (available for both Android and iOS), but that’s not why I mention it here. If you feel like spending some money, you can buy one or two voices that read most words in the dictionary. This is not synthesised sound, they actually
    record each word! Mimic your way to better pronunciation, don’t improvise or guess the right pronunciation.
  • WaiChinese – This app allows you to listen and record your own pronunciation, and to compare it with target audio. More importantly, it allows you to submit your recordings for corrections by a native teacher! This requires manual work and so costs money, but it’s a neat way to get quick feedback on your pronunciation.

Good luck!
Having the right resources is just part of successful language learning. Just as you won’t get strong simply be reading how to do push-ups, you won’t get good at pronouncing Chinese unless you practice. Without that, no theory in the world will help you. With the right theory, though, your practice becomes not only more effective, but usually also more enjoyable. Good luck!


Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content!


  • Get access to extra tips, hacks, news and other things I don't share on the website:



Tagged with:
 

waichinesePronunciation is one of my favourite topics in second language acquisition. I have a lot to say about learning and teaching pronunciation, some of which I have already shared here on Hacking Chinese. Because pronunciation is so important, it should naturally also be the focus of a language challenge and that’s what’s on the menu for the rest of February.

As usual, the goal is to spend as much high-quality time as possible improving your pronunciation. I will introduce some basic ways of practising in this article, but I will also post more about pronunciation during the challenge.

This challenge is arranged in cooperation with WaiChinese, where you can practise your pronunciation and receive quick feedback, both automatic and manual. Before I go into more details, though, let’s look at how you join the challenge:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the pronunciation challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  6. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  7. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others

If you want to know more about Hacking Chinese Challenges, I suggest you check out the introductory article I published when the section was launched.

WaiChinese

Pronunciation is one of the most feedback-heavy areas of language learning. It’s very hard (impossible) to learn proper pronunciation as an adult without receiving feedback. Yes, you can get far by mimicking, listening to your own recordings and paying attention, but receiving feedback is essential. The problem is that most students don’t have native speakers around to ask all the time, and even if they did, it’s not always practical or desirable from a social point of view.

This is one reason I arrange this challenge in cooperation with WaiChinese. In essence, WaiChinese is a platform for Android, iOs or the web that enables you to practice pronunciation easily wherever you are. You can listen, mimic and record, but the main feature of interest is that you can submit your recordings for manual assessment. If you want to try this out, we have arranged it so that people who sign up as part of this challenge can submit 25 recordings for free.

To start using WaiChinese, please sign up here and follow the instructions.

Additional prizes

Just like the last challenge, Hanzi WallChart has offered posters to two serious participants. In addition to that, all who sign up on WaiChinese will also be able to download the digital versions of the posters for free (value $25). We can see who signed up and will send out more information to the e-mail address you used when signing up!

How to practice pronunciation

This is a topic more suitable for a book-length text, but the point here isn’t to tell you everything about pronunciation, it’s to give you a few useful tips so you can get started.

  1. Use WaiChinese (see above)
  2. Mimic the recorded voice of a native speaker as closely as you can
  3. Play a round of minimal pair bingo
  4. Record an everyday conversation and analyse it
  5. Read up on the theory (if you think you need to)

As I said, I will post an article later with much more detailed information and an overview of what I have written about pronunciation before, but the five activities above should keep you occupied in the meantime.

My challenge

I care a lot about pronunciation and even though I haven’t focused on improving explicitly, I still speak a lot of Chinese and often pay attention to what I’m saying. That’s not always enough, though, so I will take this opportunity to focus more explicitly on pronunciation. Here’s what I’m going to do:

  1. Explore WaiChinese and the lessons they offer
  2. Record my conversational Chinese and analyse it
  3. Identify a few problems I need to work on

I strongly suspect that any problems I might find will be relatively small, but still hard to correct. Thus, I don’t really think I will be able to do much about the issues during the challenge, but simply being aware of the problem is by far the most important step.

Your challenge

How do you plan to improve your pronunciation? What materials or tools will you use? Do you have any suggestions for your fellow challengers?


Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content!


  • Get access to extra tips, hacks, news and other things I don't share on the website:



character-challengeLast month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese Challenges was about sensible character learning, an area I had neglected for months. It was meant as an opportunity for me and others to catch up a with flashcard pile of increasing size.

In this post, I’m going to give away some prizes as promised, talk a little bit about my own challenge and then give the word over to you.

And the winners are…

This is not a competition against other learners, so I didn’t select the winners based only on who spent the most time (you can check that on the leader board here). Instead, I randomly picked winners among people who participated seriously in the challenge and spent seven hours or more on learning characters (that’s an average of 20 minutes per day).

The winners are:

 

  • 5 months of free Skritter: James, Boris, Manuela, Yong Li, Aaron Joe
  • Character posters from Hanzi Wallchart:  Tadeusz W. Mollin, kizZa
  • Books from Tuttle Publishing: Steven Neubauer, Zach Danz

 

Congratulations! I have sent an e-mail to all prize winners. For the rest of you, stay tuned for the next challenge!

My character challenge

My main goal was to fight my huge queue in Skritter, which was at around 2000 reviews when the challenge started. I managed to get it down to around 1200, but what took most of my time was going through, editing and updating cards. I weeded out a lot of unnecessary, complicated and rare characters. I also added more data and studied some characters I had forgotten. Overall, I’m quite happy with the way the challenge turned out for me, even if I didn’t reach my goal and started a bit late. You can see my progress in the picture above. I spent 14.6 out of the 20 hours I aimed for.

Your challenge

How did it go for you? Did you learn anything new (except for a bunch of characters, that is)? Anything else you want to share from last month’s challenge? Leave a comment!

Pronunciation challenge: February 2015

This month’s challenge will be about pronunciation and it will be arranged in cooperation with WaiChinese. They provide an excellent platform for receiving quick feedback from native speakers and part of the challenge will be done using that platform. Of course, there are no restrictive rules involved, you can do whatever you like as long as you study pronunciation. I will write much more about this next week!


Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content!


  • Get access to extra tips, hacks, news and other things I don't share on the website:



By On February 6, 2015 · 3 Comments · In About Hacking Chinese

fireworks

Image credit: Joseph Hart

Now that 2015 has firmly established itself, it’s time both to look back at the year that was and to look forward to the rest of 2015. In this post, I will do like I have previous years: talk a bit about Hacking Chinese in the previous year, and then continue the discussion of what the future might hold.

Naturally, I also want to hear what you think, both about the past and the future.

  • What did you think of Hacking Chinese in 2014?
  • What do you expect from Hacking Chinese in 2015?

Perhaps you will have more comments after reading what I have to say, but all feedback is welcome! Let’s look at Hacking Chinese in 2014.

Hacking Chinese in 2014

In last year’s summary, I wrote that I would try to spend more time on Hacking Chinese to see how that would work out. I have spent more time on Hacking Chinese, but not as much as I thought. To allow for a more steady income to support myself, I have written much more for other people than I thought I would, but more about that later, let’s look at what has happened on Hacking Chinese during 2014:

If you think I’ve done a good job, this is as good an opportunity as any to donate an amount of your choice! All contributions are welcome, sometimes the action itself means much more than the money involved.

My personal top ten articles from 2014

The articles I like most usually aren’t the articles that get the most attention, so I will take this opportunity to select my personal favourites from last year. Without further ado, here they are (newest first):

I think the reason there is a difference between what I like and what readers like is partly due to my imperfect ability to convey the importance of what I’m writing about, but also that some things are more easily accessible and also easier to share.

What I wrote elsewhere

One of the biggest changes for me personally is that I have vastly increased the amount of articles and content I write for others (mainly Skritter and About.com). The reason is obvious: I offer the articles on Hacking Chinese for free, but I get paid for the articles I write for others.

I wrote 77 articles that weren’t published on Hacking Chinese last year (you can see all of them on my bibliography page). That’s a lot. It’s actually more than the 68 articles I published here and many of those actually aren’t real articles, but rather about a challenge start or a Hacking Chinese meet-up.

I would prefer to write twice as much or at least spend twice as much time on Hacking Chinese instead, but as long as I haven’t found a viable way of supporting myself based on this site, that’s not going to happen. Ads and donations contribute, but they are very far from enough, I’m afraid.

Hacking Chinese in 2015

What will happen in 2015 then? I hope I will be able to keep developing Hacking Chinese. I should also be able to get my book out and if that works well, others will follow. My main problem now is new taxation and accounting regulations in the EU making the selling of e-books a nightmare, but I hope I’ll be able to solve that. The book is actually ready and has been for some time.

In other areas, I won’t make any promises. I will keep developing the site and I won’t run out of things to write about for a while (probably never), so Hacking Chinese will be here whenever you need it. By way of rounding off this article, I’d like to ask you what you what you want from Hacking Chinese in 2015? What do you think I should do to focus more on my own stuff and less on that of others?

Thank you!

I would also like to thank all the people who have read my articles, contributed guest articles, participated in challenges, engaged in discussions, left comments and generally made writing all these articles worthwhile. Without an enthusiastic readership, it wouldn’t be worth running this site. Thanks!


Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content!


  • Get access to extra tips, hacks, news and other things I don't share on the website:



By On February 4, 2015 · 5 Comments · In About Hacking Chinese
Tagged with:
 

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

Not everything I write about learning Chinese ends up here on Hacking Chinese. Some things will be available later as Hacking Chinese articles or projects, but much is written for other websites.

Here’s what I wrote up to the beginning of January 2015:

Various articles about Mandarin on About.com
December, 2014 – About.com

These articles were all published on About.com through my role as Mandarin expert writer there:

  1.  Learning intonation in Mandarin Chinese: Tips and tricks for learning intonation in a tonal language
  2.  One Chinese character, multiple pronunciations: How to learn the pronunciation of tricky Chinese characters
  3.  How to spell and pronounce Tai Chi / Taiji: One pronunciation, many spellings
  4.  Learning Mandarin? Start here! Suggestions on how to get started learning Chinese
  5.  Pronouncing the first tone in Mandarin Chinese: The basics plus some common mistakes
  6.  Four great dictionaries to help you learn Mandarin Chinese: All the dictionaries you need, both for mobile and computer
  7.  Learning Chinese with Zdic.net: Why Zdic.net is a great dictionary for learning Chinese
  8.  Common Mandarin learner errors, part 1: Staying in the classroom
  9.  Common Mandarin learner errors: part 2: Aiming for 100%

When small changes make a big difference, part 1
When small changes make a big difference, part 2
When small changes make a big difference, part 3
December, 2014 – Skritter

These three articles deal with Chinese characters that look almost the same and differ only in the slope or length of one single stroke. The first article contains a short quiz and the two following articles contain explanations of all the characters in the quiz. Beginners probably needn’t worry too much, but if you care about correct handwriting, you should know about these characters.

That’s it for now! I will keep posting one article round-up every month, collecting the articles from the previous months. If you like Hacking Chinese or what I’m writing in general, the best thing you can do is to share! Donations are also more than welcome! If you want to read more about my different roles on Skritter and About.com, please read the first monthly round-up. If you want to view all articles written by me but published elsewhere, check my bibliography page.


Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content!


  • Get access to extra tips, hacks, news and other things I don't share on the website:



Tagged with:
 

kalligrafiPeople who know nothing about Chinese sometimes ask me how to write their names in Chinese characters. The answer is that you can’t. The Chinese writing system isn’t phonetic. Of course, characters contain a lot of information about pronunciation, but they aren’t very suitable for accurately representing foreign sounds, such as those that make up your non-Chinese name. The best you can do is choose characters that are read in a way similar to the name you want to write.

Names in Chinese

Chinese has very few syllables (about 400), so choosing suitable sounds is sometimes impossible. Sometimes it is possible, but Chinese people prefer other choices for non-obvious reasons (sometimes related to complicated historical interactions between Chinese dialects).

When I teach beginner courses in Chinese, I usually play a small guessing game with the students where I say a few names of famous people in Chinese and they are supposed to guess whom they are referring to. This is easy for cases like 貝多芬 (Bèiduōfēn) Ludwig van Beethoven, but impossible for cases like 福爾摩斯 (Fúěrmósī) Sherlock Holmes.

Bend Over Hedge Master Ruffian Foetus

Now, the meaning of the characters have nothing to do with the name. At best, auspicious or neutral characters are chosen over those with decidedly negative connotations, but only in rare cases are the meaning of the characters related to the name.

This leads to a lot of nonsense, so if you translate the meaning of some common English names written in Chinese, all you get is slightly amusing gibberish:

  • 喬納森 (Qiáonàsēn) Jonathan = tall admit forest
  • 伊麗莎白 (Yī​lì​shā​bái) Elizabeth = that beautiful kind of sedge grass white
  • 克利斯朵夫 (Kè​lì​sī​duǒ​fū) Christopher = gram advantage thus earlobe man

Or you can see what Stephen Fry makes of his and his fellows’ Chinese names on the BBC show Qi:

While this might be slightly inaccurate, it still illustrates the point: foreign names directly transcribed with Chinese characters don’t make much sense and don’t really work well as names in Chinese at all. Chinese personal names often have two characters, sometimes one, but it’s exceedingly rare to have more. Family names often have just one character, but sometimes two. The average length of English names is much longer.

Finding a suitable name for yourself

If you think all of this is just slightly amusing and you’re okay with being called That Beautiful Kind of Sedge Grass White, then that’s perfectly okay, that’s what’s going to happen if you don’t take action and allow someone to just find a name for you (perhaps a bored official when you apply for something in China or your overloaded, poor Chinese teacher).

I certainly wasn’t okay with this and if you feel the same, you need to find a suitable name for yourself. There are a couple of ways you can do this:

  1. Try to find a name yourself by selecting characters you like and/or sound like your name, sticking only to characters with good meaning. You might have to be quite flexible on the “sound like your name” part, but that’s okay.
  2. Steal the name or parts of it from a real Chinese person. If you’ve seen a name that you like for some reason (after checking what it means), combine this with your own family name. It might be a good idea to avoid very famous people though.
  3. Ask a Chinese person who knows you for help, finding a name that both sounds good and matches your personality. This isn’t easy, so if you ask someone who doesn’t know you well, you might get a half-hearted response.

Whatever you do, you have to check your name with several native speakers! This is especially true if you use the first two methods as it is very likely that you will pick names that don’t work very well or have unintended effects. If you’re okay with having a name that you think is cool but just sounds really weird for Chinese people, that’s fine, but you should at least know about it.

After you have listened to suggestions and opinions from a few native speakers, you should be okay. Also note that it’s absolutely crucial that you ask native speakers rather than advanced second language learners like myself! Names are about connotations and emotions, something which is very, very hard to grasp for us foreigners, regardless of how long we’ve studied Chinese.

My Chinese name

To make this article slightly more concrete and personal, I’d like to share with you the story behind my name, which I adopted before moving to Taiwan in 2008. My Chinese name is 凌雲龍/凌云龙 (Líng Yún-lóng). The personal name is taken from a movement, Cloud Dragon Playing in Water (雲龍戲水), in the sabre form in the style of Tai Chi Chuan I used to practise. I’ve always liked both the movement and the name, the contrast between a high-flying creature and the low-lying water.

The family name matches the personal name quite well since it means “soaring”. It also happens to sound like my surname in Swedish, but that’s mostly an accident. Finally, part of my name forms the part of some ambitious idioms, like 凌雲壯志, which means to have lofty aspirations.

I decided to get my own Chinese name when I received a scholarship to study Mandarin in Taiwan for a year. On the form, there was a separate field for the applicant’s Chinese name, and I figured that if I don’t get one myself, I will end up being called Bend Over Hedge Master Ruffian Foetus. No thank you. Instead, I spent a couple of hours generating names I thought okay (I had studied Chinese for about 9 months at the time) and then asked my teacher about some of the ideas. Thus, I came up with my name myself, but I obviously received help along the way.

That was almost seven years ago. I have been called by my Chinese name more than my Swedish name during that time, and today both names are part of who I am. I like my Chinese name, although the three consecutive second tones are a bit annoying. Some native speakers think it sounds a bit like a wuxia character, but there are also real Chinese people with the same personal name. Thinking about my Chinese name, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to have another name, just like it is for my Swedish name.

Your Chinese name

What’s your Chinese name and the story behind it? Are you happy with your Chinese name? Do you have any funny stories about other people’s Chinese names? Please leave a comment!


Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content!


  • Get access to extra tips, hacks, news and other things I don't share on the website:



Tagged with:
 

initials

Picture from the scoring protocol in my pronunciation course.

I have taught a brief introduction course in Chinese at my university now for five years running and every time, I try to give the students as much guidance as I can within the allotted time. Since the course contains everything from basic character writing and vocabulary to pronunciation and conversation practice, I really need to think about what I should say and what I shouldn’t. One of the things I receive the most questions about and that has sailed up my priority list is pronunciation and Pinyin. My usual reply nowadays is that the students should focus on the initials and finals, not the Pinyn spelling.

Before I explain this in more detail, let’s just go through some basic definitions here in case you’re new to learning Chinese. Pinyin is the most commonly used transcription system used for learning Chinese, so it’s a way of writing Chinese syllables with the Latin alphabet (Pinyin means “spell sound”). When it comes to initials and finals, a Chines syllable can traditionally be divided into initial, final and tone. Some syllables don’t have initials (or they have a so called zero initial), such as “wu” and “ying”. All syllables have finals. Most syllables have both. I’m not including tones at all in this discussion.

Finding the right level of detail for pronunciation

Mandarin consists of around 1000 common syllables (including tone), which is a very small number compared to English. In theory, you could learn those syllables one by one and make sure your pronunciation is correct for each one. This is impractical, however. If you remove the tones, there are still some 400 syllables that you need to learn, which isn’t impossible, but still a lot.

The next step would be to break the syllables into initials and finals. There are only slightly more than 20 and slightly less than 40 initials and finals respectively, so that makes a total of 60, which is definitely doable. It’s even doable in a week-long crash course! Some students go further than this and try to understand what sound each letter in Pinyin actually represents. This is not a good idea, you shouldn’t spend your first week of learning Chinese trying to map letters to various sounds in Pinyin, there is a better way.

One of the most well-read articles on this website is my discussion of some of the more common problems students encounter when learning Pinyin (see A guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls). These are mostly cases where one letter is used to represent several different sounds. Students who focus on Pinyn too much will want to know how “i” is pronounced in all cases and what rules are involved, how “e” is really pronounced and so on. I can of course give the answers to these questions, they are not hard, but it takes a lot of time and I think there is a better way that leads to less confusion and better pronunciation.

Focus on initials and finals instead of Pinyin spelling

The solution to the above problem is to ignore the details of the spelling of each letter and look at the initials and finals as whole, unbreakable units. The spelling will of course be used as a reminder of the pronunciation, but you should study the pronunciation of each initial and final individually. If you know them well, you will be able to produce all the basic sounds in Mandarin. As I said above, there are only around 60 of them, so this is definitely doable.

Here are two benefits with this approach:

  • You don’t get confused by some non-obvious spelling rules as much
  • It brings the focus on actual pronunciation and not artificial spelling

If you do this, you’re likely to learn the spelling rules fairly quickly anyway, I just think it’s a better idea to learn initials and finals first and then gradually figure out the rule, rather than to view pronunciation as a kind of complicated equation where the pronunciation of each letter is conditioned by its surroundings. If it takes you ten second to calculate how something should be pronounced, you’re not doing it right.

This approach will solve some problems completely, such as the multiple ways of pronouncing “e”, which is different in the finals “-ie”, “-ei”, “-e” and “-eng”. You should learn these as different finals! Don’t worry that they are all spelt with “e”, they aren’t pronounced the same way. If you don’t focus all that much on the spelling, this will be easier.

Some traps and pitfalls will remain

Even with the above approach, Pinyin will cause some problems. This is because the spellings of some distinct finals are identical. For instance, “-ün” and “-un” are normally spelt the same way, as are “-üan” and “-uan” and some others. This includes the notorious “-i”, which is pronounced differently after “zh/ch/sh/r”, “z/c/s” and “j/q/x” etc. If you’re not sure which finals hide behind these, check the original Pinyin traps and pitfalls article. These irregularities are very hard to overcome and it’s simply something you have to learn.

What about alternative transcription systems?

One alternative to the above approach and one I’m sure many readers have been thinking about all though this article is to use another transcription system that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, such as Zhuyin Fuhao (also known as Bopomofo). This system uses unique symbols for initials and finals (and medials, but that goes beyond the scope of this article). Still, Zhuyin has it’s own peculiarities (such as not writing anything after “zh/ch/sh/r” and “z/c/s”) and it’s also highly impractical for most people who use textbooks that exclusively relies on Pinyin and courses/teachers that use it.

That being said, I think it’s useful to learn more than one transcription system, but if you have already learnt basic pronunciation, I think you would benefit more from learning all initials and finals in IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) instead of either Zhuyin or Pinyin. Unlike the others, this is a real phonetic alphabet that represents sounds in writing much more accurately than any of the other systems mentioned here. I will likely be back with another article about this later, stay tuned!


Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content!


  • Get access to extra tips, hacks, news and other things I don't share on the website:



Tagged with:
 

handwritingThis month’s challenge is about learning characters. In fact, my desire to launch Hacking Chinese Challenges came partly from wanting to arrange challenges more smoothly and with more participants without collapsing under the load of manually dealing with everything. Last week, I published an article with a brief summary of the challenge as well as some useful tips for how to improve character learning.

In this article, I’m going to go into more detail. I have already written about many of these topics before, though, so this is meant to be a summary and an overview rather than a comprehensive discussion, which would be way too long. Therefore, I will try to include the essence here and then link to other articles for those who want to read on.

Understanding Chinese characters

Learning something meaningful is easier than learning something that seems to be random, even if there is a pattern you don’t see. This is because we can associate meaningful things with each other, something that is much harder for meaningless things (but it can be done, of course). This means that understanding how Chinese characters are constructed and how they work can help enormously when learning them. I would go so far as to say that it’s almost impossible to learn thousands of characters without understanding how they work. You can either gain this understanding through learning a lot of character or you can take a shortcut by avoiding some problems second language learners typically have.

Here are some important articles you should check out:

  • Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components – This is the first article in my toolkit series. It explains some basics about character components and radicals, as well as some tools for learning these. In general, the point is that you have to learn the smaller building blocks of characters if you hope to learn a large number of characters. Combining old knowledge is easier than trying to learn something completely new! The advantage with learning Chinese is that (almost) everything means something and that something is much more accessible than in, say, English.
  • Four main types of Chinese characters – I wrote this article for About.com, introducing the four main types of Chinese characters (pictographs, simple ideograms, combined ideograms and phonetic-semantic compounds). Most students think that pictographs and ideograms are the most common types, but even though they do make up a significant part of basic, nature-related vocabulary (tree, mountain, stone), a huge majority of characters are neither pictures nor ideograms. Knowing about the common ways in which Chinese characters were constructed will help you understand them.
  • Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters – This article explains why understanding phonetic components is important. If you don’t understand how they work, you don’t have access to an incredible useful memory aid for characters and their pronunciation. Chinese isn’t phonetic in the sense that English is, but most character still have clues about how they are pronounced (or if you know how they are pronounced, there are clues to how to write them). You just need to know where to look. This concept is further developed in part two.
  • Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components – This is a guest post by John Renfroe who knows much more about Chinese characters than I do. He stresses the importance of understanding the function of components in Chinese characters. As we have seen in earlier articles, components have different functions, some give the character its sound, others its name. By focusing on the function each component has, we can understand how the character actually works, which ultimately aids learning and memory

How to learn Chinese characters

Now that we have some basic understanding of how Chinese characters work, it’s time to look at how to learn them. When I say “how”, I mean it in a very practical way. You have a list of characters that you want to learn. What should you do?

  • How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner - If you’re new to learning Chinese, this article is for you. It goes through the very basics of what you should do and what you should not. It’s not meant to be in-depth, but try these suggestions out if you haven’t already. Most beginners start out with horribly inefficient methods of learning characters. Most people refine their method over time, but if I were to recommend one article about learning characters for beginners, it would be this one.
  • Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – This is a guest article by Harvey Dam, who talks about how to write characters by hand. This kind of information is extremely hard to find online today, and by reading through and applying what you learn here, your handwriting and your understanding of it will improve. There are five parts in all and they contain lots of pictures of handwritten characters combined with advice and information.

How to review Chinese characters

Let’s say that you have already learnt a few (tens, hundreds, thousands) of characters. In order to be able to use Chinese properly, you need to remember the words you have learnt. But how? There are many ways of reviewing and many tools you can use. Again, I’m not going to go into details here, but I am going to give links to the best advice I can offer and a brief summary of said advice:

  • Spaced repetition software and why you should use it – Reviews spread out over time are much more efficient than when they are massed together. Algorithms and computer programs can help us calculate the optimal intervals between each review, meaning that we always study the words we’re about to forget, rather than those we don’t really need to review. There are many ways of using spaced repetition software, but you should definitely use it in some form. I suggest using either Skritter, Anki or Pleco (see last week’s post).
  • Boosting your character learning with Skritter – Since we’re talking about learning characters in particular here, I want to mention Skritter. It offers the best solution for people who want to combine spaced repetition and handwriting. Other programs and apps offer only passive training, but Skritter allows you to write actively on the screen and corrects your handwriting. This is not only more fun, but also more likely to help you improve than if you only do manual checks of the characters. Don’t forget that there is an extra week’s free trial and a 6-month discount if you sign up with the coupon code for the challenge (SENSIBLE2015, has to be used on sign-up on the website).
  • 7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters – Apart from writing on a screen, there are many other options. Have you tried writing with your fingertip on your palm? What about mental handwriting? In this article, I go through seven ways of writing characters, along with their pros and cons for language learners.
  • Learning to write Chinese characters through communication – After all this talk about reviewing and studying, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that that’s the only way you can learn characters. That’s not true! I believe that the most powerful way of learning anything is to learn it while using it for the purpose it was meant for. This means writing Chinese in order to communicate with native speakers! Since sending snail mail isn’t really in vogue these days, you can use handwriting input on your phone or computer to achieve similar results.

Remembering Chinese characters (and other things)

Last but not least, I have published a range of articles about memory and memory techniques, mostly in relation to learning Chinese. Here are some of them:

Conclusion

This is the information I wanted to include in last week’s article about the challenge, but which took up too much space. It also took longer than I thought to compile, but I hope it will prove helpful to anyone who has joined the challenge! If you haven’t already, it just started a few days ago, so it’s not too late to join! Read more about the challenge and how to join here.


Please consider supporting Hacking Chinese so that I can keep providing free content!


  • Get access to extra tips, hacks, news and other things I don't share on the website: