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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 March:

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

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

  1. HSK – Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi: The Chinese proficiency test
  2. Standardised Chinese proficiency tests: Why you should take HSK or TOCFL
  3. Preparing for HSK and TOCFL: What to study and what to avoid
  4. TOCFL – Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language: Taiwan’s standardised proficiency test
  5. Rice bowls of iron and gold: Talking about secure and highly favourable positions in Mandarin
  6. Simplified and traditional Chinese characters: Which should you learn? Does it matter?
  7. Learning Mandarin through language exchange: Tips and suggestions to make it work for you
  8. Common Mandarin learner errors, part 4: Failing to organise your learning
  9. Common Mandarin learner errors, part 5: Not making learning communicative

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.


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Tagged with:
 

waysofwritingI remember what it was like to write my first Chinese characters. It felt like writing runes with magical powers, they were exotic and beautiful, closer to art than language. I still like Chinese characters, so studying Chinese for years hasn’t destroyed that feeling completely. Still, I have to admit that I don’t find writing characters by hand very fun in and of itself. I prefer typing and reading.

A minimum-effort approach to handwriting

If you love writing Chinese characters by hand, this article is not for you, but if you feel that you want to learn to write Chinese characters, but that you don’t want to spend more time than necessary, you’ve come to the right place!

In this article, I will discuss my minimum effort approach to handwritten Chinese. I have already talked a lot about how to learn characters elsewhere, so this is more about the bigger picture. If you want to read more about character learning in general, this article offers a good overview: My best advice on learning Chinese characters.

The goal: Legible, not beautiful

Before I go into any details about the strategy itself, there are a few words to be said about the goal. My goal is to be able to write most things by hand that I can already type on a computer. That means that vocabulary, grammar and so on isn’t part of what I’m talking about here. This is about the difference between being able to read, type and perhaps say something, and being able to write it down on a piece of paper by hand.

Why would you need to be able to do that? There are many reasons, but personally, I think that not being able to write the language you are learning is a serious deficit. How serious it is depends on why you’re learning. Your friends finding out that you can’t write is one thing, but it will be harder to convince native speakers that your Chinese is good if you struggle with filling in a simple form during a job interview. I have written more about the importance of handwriting here: Is it necessary to learn to write Chinese characters by hand?

I also want to say a few words about what I don’t need:

  1. I don’t care about writing beautifully. That clearly doesn’t fit into a minimum effort approach.
  2. I don’t need to be able to write quickly. This is also a minimum effort consideration, I merely want to be able to write, even if it takes a little time.

The strategy: Four components

The four components in my strategy are reading, typing, spaced repetition software and communicative handwriting. I’ll discuss them one by one and explain how they help me reach the goal described above:

  • Reading ought to be the start of any endeavour to be able to write. Passive understanding of something is the foundation for active knowledge and without it, it’s hard to get a feel for how the language is used. Constantly looking at Chinese characters also teaches you what they look like and which characters belong together. You will not learn to write all characters by hand simply by looking at them, but reading is still the foundation of writing.

  • Typing keeps your vocabulary and grammar up to par. Typing basically includes everything that handwriting does, minus moving a pencil across paper by hand. This means that if you can type something, you generally only need character knowledge to be able to write it by hand as well. If you use phonetic input (such as Pinyin or Zhuyin), you also make sure that you know how to pronounce what you’re typing, which increases the chance that phonetic components will remind you of how to write the characters as well.

  • Spaced repetition software is crucial for any minimum effort approach because it’s by far the most efficient way of maintaining large amounts of knowledge. These programs will help you schedule each review, putting it off for as long as possible to save you time while not delaying it so long that you forget the information. It’s possible to build a large vocabulary this way with less effort than most other methods. I prefer Skritter because it gives me immediate feedback, but you can use any program.

  • Communicative writing refers to writing Chinese characters with real communication in mind. Most of the practice that takes place in classrooms is not communicative (such as translating sentences, doing exercises in the workbook or dictation). For writing to be communicative, communication needs to be the main purpose of writing. It can be with other people, such as leaving a note for a friend written in Chinese or chatting with someone online using the handwriting input on your phone, but it could also be with yourself, such as writing shopping lists, memos or blog posts in Chinese. The point with communicative writing is that it’s realistic and makes sure you constantly drill the high-frequency words you need to be able to write well. If you neglect this step, you will likely find that you forget even common characters when forced to write by hand, simply because you never write them and spaced repetition software isn’t very good at spotting weaknesses in knowledge you’re supposed to know really well.

By combining these four elements, its possible to reach the goal of being to write by hand most things I can already type on a computer. I haven’t found a way of removing any of these components, so this is why I call it a minimum-effort approach.

Conclusion

This strategy is the result of a lot of thinking about how to learn what I need without spending too much time. I have used a similar approach for a few years and it has served me well. I can write Chinese when required to and I seldom forget characters or words. I don’t spend much time focusing on only writing characters, it’s all integrated into other activities that are either communicative or meaningful in other ways.

Even if my typed Chinese is superior to my handwriting, that’s mostly because of differences between word processing and handwriting in general, such as speed, ease of editing and so on. This is at least partly applicable to any language, so I would find it harder to write this article by hand than typing it in a text editor. Thus, I still prefer typing Chinese, but I’m not really afraid of writing by hand. The only drawback is that when required to write something lengthy, the muscles in the hand aren’t really up to the task and get tired easy, but I can live with that.

What strategy do you use to learn to write by hand? Are you like me in that you want to learn it, but not more than necessary, or do you genuinely enjoy writing characters by hand?


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listening-chart

If you listen a lot, most of it will have to be passive listening. The proportions here are somewhat arbitrary, but passive listening will take up much more time than active listening.

In last week’s article, I discussed three steps to more and better Chinese listening practice. In short, you need to find interesting audio you can understand, you need to make it easily available and, finally, you need to find a way of maintaining your listening habits for a long time. That last step merits a more detailed discussion!

Improving listening ability in the long run

I have learnt Chinese for seven years now, and I know how hard it is to keep up listening practice while being busy with other things. I mentioned the key to success in last week’s article, but there simply wasn’t room to explain it properly. This is what I wrote:

It’s very hard to listen to difficult audio for longer than ten minutes. If I listen to something where I have to really, really concentrate to understand what’s going on,  I start feeling tired quickly. It’s simply not possible to force yourself to take in difficult audio for hours on end. Instead, you should strive to find audio on different levels. Some audio you can listen to when your energy levels are high, other sources are more suitable for when you feel tired.

Listening a lot is difficult, not because it’s hard to listen in itself, but because it’s not easy to find the amount of listening material you need and manage it properly. You should find audio that is comprehensible, but as we all know, what is comprehensible varies.

If I’m well rested, I can understand more difficult audio than when I’m tired. Therefore, you not only need audio suitable in general, you need to be able to adjust the audio to your current state. This is related to what I have written about studying according to your current productivity level.

I sort my audio into two categories, let’s call them “hard” and “easy”. I recommend that you create actual folders on your computer and/or phone. Feel free to use more than two categories if you want, but I’ll keep it simple here.

Category #1: Hard

Audio in this category is for active listening. It’s audio you need to focus on seriously to understand. If you listen more than ten or twenty minutes, you start feeling tired. Because of this, the bulk of the audio you listen to and therefore the audio you need to have available is not going to be in this category.

I currently  listen to 白鹿原 by 陈忠实 and it falls firmly in this category for me. I find this audio book very hard to follow and I need to focus 100%, otherwise my thoughts start flying all over the place and I lose track of the story. I typically listen 10-20 minutes each time, usually when talking a walk. I can’t do anything more complicated at the same time, I need all my concentration on the audio.

Naturally, what you think is hard depends on your proficiency level. Beginners will find it hard to listen to new chapters in their textbook, intermediate learners will struggle with learner podcasts mainly in Chinese. Advanced learners will struggle with anything they aren’t used to already.

If you don’t understand much even when you concentrate 100%, you should put the audio in a third folder called “too hard” and leave it there until your listening ability has improved.

Category #2: Easy

The audio in the “easy” category is for passive listening. It needn’t be extremely easy, but it should be the kind of audio you can keep up with for extended periods of time, preferably even while engaged in other tasks at the same time (nothing too complex, I mean things like cooking, driving or doing the laundry). Since you can listen for long periods of time in

many situations, you need much, much more audio in this category. The more the better.

I put two types of audio in the “easy” category:

  • Audio I have already listened to before and found interesting
  • Audio I can understand without concentrating too much

For the purpose of the listening challenge, I use the advanced lessons from ChinesePod and a few radio programs I’ve already listened to. Since boredom is a real problem here, focus on audio you find interesting. If you’re a beginner, it will be very hard to find audio to put in this category, it will have to be things you have already listened to. For intermediate learners, everything you have listened to already plus intermediate podcasts will work. For advanced learners, things are as usual much easier.

Moving audio from “hard” to “easy”

Part of the reason I use a system like this is that it’s easy to move audio around. If you have studied something in the “hard” category for some time, it won’t be feel difficult anymore. What most students do then is to forget about it and move on to the next challenge. Don’t do that. Instead, keep the audio, but move it to the “easy” category. This is essential for beginners and intermediate learners since this will be your main source of easy audio. It also means you get to review what you have learnt. If the “easy” folder becomes too crowded, remove things you find too easy, boring or both.

Are you listening enough?

The more you listen, the better. The more diverse your listening is, the better. As I have discussed here and in previous articles, passive listening will have to make up most of your listening practice. This isn’t because it’s better than active listening, it’s because it’s the only way you can listen enough while still living a normal life. Passive listening is for all that time when you can’t concentrate 100% on the audio. Make sure you have enough Chinese audio available!


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Image credit: Tony Clough

Image credit: Tony Clough

If you look at what methods work well for learning Chinese (or any other language), you will see the word “immersion” over and over. The analogy is straightforward: Chinese is like water and learning the language is like learning to swim. You don’t learn to swim by reading about it, you learn by getting wet, by immersing yourself, as often and as much as possible, but not so much that you actually drown.

Many students mistakenly believe that going to China equals immersion, but it can be easily demonstrated that this isn’t true. You can create an immersion environment in your home country. It’s also perfectly possible to go to China and stay in an expat or tourist bubble, thus only coming into contact with slightly more Chinese than your friends at home. The only significant difference between immersion at home and abroad is that it takes more effort at home.

Improving listening ability through immersion

This month’s challenge is about improving listening ability, so in this article, I want to focus on the listening part of immersion. Listening ability is a tricky beast. While there are some things to say about how to improve, it’s much more about exposure than anything else. You learn to understand Chinese by listening to Chinese, preferably with varied input from different speakers and, once you reach an intermediate level, with different regional accents.

Now, humans are not machines, so most of us can’t just program ourselves to listen to Chinese for six hours a day for months or years. If we could, our listening skills would sky-rocket and all other skills except handwriting would be dragged up along with it. I’m not going to focus on why it’s hard to “just do it” for such an extended time. Instead, I’m going to focus on how to overcome the problem of enabling yours to listen to as much Chinese as you ought to.

Three steps to enable yourself to listen to more Chinese

  1. Finding suitable audio
  2. Making it easy to listen to Chinese
  3. Playing the long game

1. Finding suitable audio

I have already discussed the first step in several articles, so let’s look at an overview here before we move on to the more interesting second step. In essence, “suitable” means “comprehensible” and “interesting”. Here’s what I have to offer in terms of finding resources:

2. Making it easy to listen to Chinese

One thing I have learnt on my journey towards a better understanding of how to get things done is that controlling the environment is easier than controlling one’s own behaviour, and that it’s usually more effective. If you want to do something a lot, say an hour or two every day, the first step you need to take after finding audio is to make sure that it’s really easy to listen to it.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Always have audio available - This is super important. Wherever you are, you should have Chinese audio available to listen to. In the bathroom, when out on a walk, when you learn your friend will be 15 minutes late or when you miss the bus. If at any point you realise that you could have listened to Chinese, but can’t because of a practical problem, you make an angel cry.
  • Transfer audio in advance – If you don’t stream audio, you have to transfer audio to your smart phone in advance (even if you stream most of it, you should still have audio files just in case). Make a habit of managing your audio! Every Sunday (or whatever), check what audio you have available, and if it isn’t enough to last you at least two weeks, transfer some more. Additionally, keep a folder somewhere in the cloud where you store audio you can download to your phone if need be.
  • Remove distracting audio – I have already said that you should make it as easy as possible to listen to Chinese, but it also follows that you can do the reverse, i.e. making it harder to listen to audio in any other language. If you listen to a lot of audio in your native language, it might be tempting to listen to that instead. Make it harder to access! You might not want to make it impossible unless you want to go 100% Chinese, though.
  • Solve any technical issues – This involves bad audio players, faulty earphones or slow connections. If you’ve made an effort to find audio and make sure it’s available when you need it, it doesn’t make sense if fail because of technical issues. Have an extra pair of earphones available (they can be really cheap, you’re only going to use them if your primary pair breaks or if you forget them), buy a separate, cheap mp3-player just for Chinese.

3. Playing the long game

It you have succeeded with the first two steps, you’re still not home and dry. The real difficulty lies in keeping this up for weeks and months. Sure, you can vary the amount of Chinese you listen to, but if you study full-time, you have no excuse for allowing it to drop below an hour a day. That’s not easily achieved, especially if you have to create the immersion yourself by finding audio and then making it accessible.

I have two pieces of advice for making it easier:

  • Vary the difficulty level – It’s very hard to listen to difficult audio for longer than ten minutes. If I listen to something where I have to really, really concentrate to understand what’s going on,  I start feeling tired quickly. It’s simply not possible to force yourself to take in difficult audio for hours on end. Instead, you should strive to find audio on different levels. Some audio you can listen to when your energy levels are high, other sources are more suitable for when you feel tired. Re-listening to old audio is a great way of lowering the difficulty. Read more about this here.
  • Make learning social – I like challenges, not because I like competing against others (I don’t), but because it gives me a clear and public goal. It makes me accountable and it’s easier to study when I’m doing it with others. This is why I launched Hacking Chinese Challenges, so if you’re like me, you should definitely check it out. Other ways of making learning social is to find study partners, talk about your learning on social media and so on.

Conclusion

Listening to enough Chinese audio isn’t easy. It requires preparation and some discipline. However, the whole process can be made much easier by following the advice I have offered in this article. When I fail to listen as much as I want, it’s seldom because I don’t want to, it’s almost always because I have failed a seemingly trivial step such as transferring audio from my computer to my phone. that really shouldn’t happen! I hope that by discussing this issue, you will stand a batter chance at listening to as much Chinese audio as you should. Good luck!


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listening-challengeWhen I launched Hacking Chinese Challenges last year, I promised that I would arrange the challenges in such a way that if you participated in all of them, you would get a healthy mix of different kinds of practice. Based on experience, I know that most students don’t spend enough time just reading or just listening. I don’t mean struggling through Chinese above your level, I mean sheer volume. Slightly below your level is preferable.

Upcoming challenges: Extensive listening and extensive reading

Therefore, it’s time for two basic but very important challenges:

  1. Extensive listening challenge, March 2015 (this article)
  2. Extensive reading challenge, April 2015

The last extensive listening challenge was held in October last year. 139 participants listened to almost 1000 hours of Chinese audio. I’m sure we can break that record this time! Here’s what you do to join:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the extensive listening 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
  8. Share progress, tips and resources with fellow students

Please note:  The challenge starts on March 10th, so even if you can join now, you won’t be able to report progress until then.

Extensive listening means that you should listen as much as you can. It’s the opposite of intensive listening where you try to understand everything, stop if you don’t understand something and listen for details. Extensive listening is about breadth, quantity and variety. You probably do intensive listening in class and in real conversations, but you probably don’t do extensive listening enough.

What should you listen to?

Start by looking here:

  1. The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese - I wrote this article in connection with the previous challenge. It’s a collection of podcasts, radio shows and much more. Note that I have excluded any paid resources in this post.
  2. Hacking Chinese Resources - The resource section of Hacking Chinese currently contains 86 resources tagged with “listening”. Many of them are resource collections, where you can find hundreds or even thousands of clips. First select your proficiency level and then listening.

If you have other resources that aren’t shared here already, please leave a comment or contact me in any other way. If you want an invite for Hacking Chinese Resources so you can post your resources directly, just let me know. Just to be on the safe side, here are the basic recommendations I offered last time, sorted by proficiency level:

Beginner

Intermediate

Advanced

Setting a reasonable goal

Know what works for each individual learner is impossible, but you should try to set a goal which is as high as possible without feeling unreachable. If this is your first challenge or if you’re not sure what you’re capable of, go for 10 hours or so. If you know what you’re doing, you can easily aim for twice or three times that much. The winner last time listened for 66 hours! Personally, I’m going to aim for an hour a day, so 20 hours. I have lots of other things I want to listen to that aren’t in Chinese.

banner-6d4254dcd18e969ada6d74100a40a9de

Preliminary challenge schedule for 2015

To make sure that the challenges cover all major areas, I have created a rough schedule of what challenges will be on for the rest of the year. I might change this somewhat and insert more specific or unusual challenges here and there (if you have any ideas, please let me know). Challenges in italics are preliminary.

  1. January: Characters
  2. February: Pronunciation
  3. March: Listening
  4. April: Reading
  5. May: Writing
  6. June: Listening
  7. July: Speaking
  8. August: Reading
  9. September: Characters
  10. October: Listening
  11. November: Writing
  12. December: Reading

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By On March 6, 2015 · 1 Comment · In About Hacking Chinese, Listening

When learning to write Chinese characters, we need to remember that what we have in mind and what we actually write aren’t necessarily the same thing. In other words, what we intend to write isn’t always what comes out. The difference is important. The goal of learning to write is mostly concerned with intent; you want to create a mental model of the language that resembles that of a native speaker. You might not be able to write a character perfectly every time, but that matters little if your intent is correct. With enough practice, you’ll be fine.

Posted ImageThis idea of focusing on intent has been mentioned on Hacking Chinese earlier, in a guest article by Harvey Dam (Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements). He adds another valuable observation that shows how important intent is. If you want to write the character 月, it will come out slightly different every time, even with a perfect mental image of the character. Some strokes will be too long, others too short and so on. This is natural. However, if you have the correct mental representation, you will never write the character shown on the right.

More about intent, result, mistakes and errors

The difference between intent and result can cause problems, though, because other people can’t look into your head and know what you intended to write, they can only inspect the final result. This includes teachers. If they see the incorrect 月 above, they can be pretty sure you don’t know how to write the character, but if you accidentally forget to hook the last stroke, that’s not necessarily because you didn’t know it was supposed to be hooked. To be on the safe side, teachers will treat all mistakes as errors and correct them the same way.

What’s the difference between a mistake and an error?

I have discussed mistakes and errors before (Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis), but let’s look at the basic difference again:

  • A mistakes is an unintentional slip. You know the right way of saying or writing something, but for some reason  you failed to get it right this time. You would very likely be able to correct yourself if you got the opportunity, such as if you listen to yourself or read something you have written. Typos and slips of the tongue are typical mistakes. Native speakers make mistakes all the time. For some reason, second language learners feel much worse about slips than native speakers do.
  • An error is caused by a problem in the mental model of the language you’re speaking. You think something is correct, you intend to say or write it that way, but it turns out that you’re wrong. This is much more serious, because it means you will keep on getting this wrong every time until you correct your mental model. Native speakers have very few errors. Improving your speaking and writing for second language learners is mostly about finding and correcting errors.

thoughtHow does this relate to intent? It’s very straightforward: intent is directly related to your mental model (that’s what it’s based on). If your intent is correct, you might still make a mistake, but there will be no errors in your output.With practice, the number of mistakes will drop. If your intent in incorrect, you will only be able to get it right in cases where your faulty model overlaps the real one. The larger the overlap, the harder the error is to spot.

How not to learn to write Chinese characters

One of the most obvious areas of application is character writing. The first lesson and most important lesson is that you have to know what you intend to write before you write. Here are a couple of very common ways of practising characters that don’t allow you to monitor your intent properly:

  • Copying characters on paper stroke by stroke – This is very bad. If you don’t have a mental model, it will take ages for it to form because you never actively rely on it to write, you just copy mechanically. You never check if you actually know the character or not, the representation of the character blocks your mental model. This method is also bad because it’s been shown that actively probing memory is much more effective than just exposing yourself to the information. Flashcards are good, in other words.
  • Typing characters rather than writing them by hand – Most input methods are phonetic, meaning that you type the pronunciation of the character or word you want to write. This means that you don’t even need to think about what the character looks like and how it’s structured before it pops up as an alternative on your screen. Typing is therefore a poor way of learning to write characters (but still very practical, of course). Since most input methods help you choose not only characters but entire words or phrases, you need to know even less about small but significant differences between characters.
  • Receiving too much help - Any program or method that offers hints to the user also makes it harder to monitor your intent. If you use a program like Skritter, make sure you have raw squigs turned on, which allows you to write the entire character before you get any corrective feedback. In other programs, turn off any character tracing functions and only check your result once you have finished writing the entire character.

Below, I’m going to provide a solution to the problem, but in case you want to read more about different ways of learning to write characters, I have written two articles you will find interesting:

How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters

The main goal of this article is to highlight the importance of what you intend to write before you receive any kind of feedback. Since this problem is purely in the mental domain and not directly related to what tools you use, you can take care of the problem literally without lifting a finger.

Simply visualise the whole character, component by component (or stroke by stroke) before you start writing it. If you can’t do this, you probably don’t know the character. If you tried to write it down on a piece of paper, you’ll probably get stuck. Naturally, you should be aware of the risk of cheating (intentionally or otherwise). If you want to make really sure you know a character, you have to actually write it down on a blank paper with no corrective feedback at all. You don’t need to do this all the time, but occasionally writing by hand is a good reality-check, regardless of what other tools you’re using.


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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.


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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 it 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 foreign languages. 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 it is true that pronunciation is one of the areas where age makes the most difference. This certainly makes it harder to learn as an adult, but not impossible! Don’t think that 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 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 to get. 

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.


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By On February 24, 2015 · 8 Comments · In Advanced, Beginner, Intermediate, Speaking
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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!


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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?


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By On February 10, 2015 · 2 Comments · In About Hacking Chinese, Speaking