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Do the Chinese think differently than we do? Are cultural differences only something superficial or are there deeper, more fundamental differences between people in East Asia and the West? The first time I returned to Sweden after an extended stay in Taiwan, questions like these weren’t the most common ones asked by family and friends, but they were certainly the most interesting that I spent the most time thinking about.
I have of course encountered these questions many times since, but this semester was the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to actually investigate them based on something other than my own personal experience.
In a course called “語言、文化與認知” (Language, culture and cognition), we’ve been reading mainly two books dealing with these three topics and how they are related. The first is Richard E. Nisbett‘s The Geography of Thought and the second is Language, Mind and Culture by Zoltan Kövecses. Both are quite interesting, but Nisbett’s book is much easier to read and probably also more interesting for the average Chinese student, which is why I have chosen to write this recommendation.
Even though Hacking Chinese is mostly about how to learn, I sometimes think it’s necessary to step outside this fairly narrow range. This typically happens when I encounter something which I think is very important but hard to find online (such as my guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls), or when I find something which is related to learning Chinese and is so interesting that I think it’s worth recommending to everyone. This article is a prime example of the second type.
How East Asians and Westerners Think Differently
Title: The Geography of Thought: How East Asians and Westerners Think Differently… And Why
Author: Richard E. Nisbett
Publisher: Free Press
The full title of this book is The Geography of Thought: How East Asians and Westerners Think Differently… And Why. This explains quite well what the book is about, even though almost all the words used are quite vague. East Asians in this case means Chines, Japanese and Koreans. Westerners typically mean America, but can be extended to the rest of the Anglosphere, and occasionally also to Europe. The author is not after making detailed points about the differences between people from specific countries, he’s after the big picture. The really big picture, actually.
Although the author isn’t afraid to generalise, but this book isn’t pure speculation. Rather, it’s based on a large number of studies into culture and cognition, many of them conducted by the author and his colleagues. The speculations are educated guesses based on these results. Looking at the evidence from these and other studies, the author discusses and tries to answer the following questions (from page xix):
- Science and Mathematics - Why would the ancient Chinese have excelled at algebra and arithmetic but not geometry, which was the forte of the Greeks? Why do modern Asians excel at math and science but produce less in the way of revolutionary science than Westerners?
- Attention and Perception - Why are East Asians better able to see relationships among events than Westerners are? Why do East Asians find it relatively difficult to disentangle an object from its surroundings?
- Causal Inference - Why are Westerners so likely to overlook the influence of context on the behavior of objects and even of people? Why are Easterners more susceptible to the “hindsight bias,” which allows them to believe that they “knew it all along”?
- Organization of Knowledge - Why do Western infants learn nouns at a much more rapid rate than verbs, whereas Eastern infants learn verbs at a more rapid rate than nouns? Why do East Asians group objects and events based on how they relate to one another, whereas Westerners are more likely to rely on categories?
- Reasoning - Why are Westerners more likely to apply formal logic when reasoning about everyday events, and why does their insistence on logic sometimes cause them to make errors? Why are Easterners so willing to entertain apparently contradictory propositions and how can this some- times be helpful in getting at the truth?
It might seem like an impossible tasks to discuss all these topics and attempt to find a few common sources or underlying structures for all of them in one single book, but this is what Nisbett has done and this is why I think this book is worth reading for people who live in China or study Chinese. At first, Rather than writing a detailed summary of the book, I’m simply going to link to an already existing summary written by Dr. John D. Eigenauer:
Although it’s very hard to compress all the arguments of the book into a summary of less than 2000 words, this is still a very good attempt. Of course, it won’t detail empirical support or illustrate with examples, but it should definitely be enough to let you decide if you think the book is worth reading. If you feel very brave, there is a Chinese translation called 思维的版图.
If you’re too lazy to read the summary linked to above, here’s my summary of the summary (but please don’t base any comments or start a discussion based on this very limited text, it’s merely here to give you a rough idea what the book is about):
In summary, the book starts in ancient Greece and China, discussing how the predominant philosophies, discussing the individualism (personal agency) of the west in contrast to the collectivism (collective agency) of the East. The Greeks understood things as linear and simple, devoid of context, whereas the Chinese regarded the world as a complex place in constant flux, with objects best understood by their relationship to each other, rather than as separate entities.
Nisbett then traces the origin of these different modes of thought to the socio-economic and cultural factors that gave rise to these two very different civilisations (an archipelago focusing on maritime trade versus an agricultural empire). Then, the book moves into the present day, looking at how East Asians and Westerns perceive the self in contrast to the collective, using numerous studies to support the claim that East Asians are more interdependent than Westerners, who tend to be more individualistic. The key concept in East Asia is harmony, where collective goals are held as more important than individual goals.
The next chapter shows how ancient philosophy actually does reflect the way people think today, using several studies to show that East Asians are more sensitive to substance rather than shape, are better at perceiving relationships between objects rather than the objects themselves, and focus more on context than Westerners do. Westerners view themselves as protagonists in an autobiographical novel, whereas East Asians are more like supporting roles in numerous other novels.
Next, the author moves on to the topic of causality, arguing that East Asians pay more attention to context (the other boys made him do it) rather than attributes intrinsic to the person (the bad seed). Westerners see overly simplistic causal chains where East Asians see opaque complex systems. This theme of relationships versus objects is further deepened in the next chapter, which presents studies showing that Western children learn nouns much faster than verbs, whereas the opposite is true for East Asians. Similarly, East Asians tend to group words based on their relationship to each other rather than on the categories they belong to.
In the next chapter, Nisbett turns to rationalism and reasonableness, arguing that the former is very important in the West, whereas East Asians traditionally favour the latter. Westerns strive to resolve dilemmas and paradoxes, whereas East Asians strive for compromises or can accept what to a Westerner looks like two mutually exclusive opinions.
In the final “real” chapter of the book, the author discusses how these differences manifest themselves in different areas of modern life, such as law, science, education, business, philosophy and so on.
Finally, in the epilogue, the author looks forward, discussing what effects this has for cognitive and social psychology as well as for the world in general. Will we see a clash of civilisations or will globalisation lead to a convergence of ideas?
Personally, I found The Geography of Thought very interesting. Before I talk about that, though, I want to say a few words about my thoughts on cultural differences in general. In the introduction to this article, I wrote that people often ask me about the differences of people here in Taiwan and people in Sweden. My basic approach has always been to treat cultural differences as important on a statistical average level, but not necessarily on an individual level. In other words, it matters more who you are than what culture you grew up in. Like so:
This image roughly represent my view of cultural differences. As we can see, people in Taiwan and Sweden (or wherever) differ from each other, but the differences between individuals can be much bigger than the difference in averages between the two groups.
However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for highly significant and interesting statistical differences between cultures. If we look at all Taiwanese people and all Swedish people, we will certainly find a lot of differences, although these might not apply to all of the individuals in those two groups. This is what people perceive as being the difference between the way people act and think in different countries.
Connecting the dots
The reason I like The Geography of Thought is that it connects the dots. Over the years, I have collected a large number of observations of how Taiwan (the East) is different from my native Sweden (the West), both through direct observation and through reading about the experience of other people. However, these are usually just independent data points (dots). The Geography of Thought helped me connect these together and gave me a glimpse of the big picture.
Naturally, to arrive at this big picture, some sacrifices need to be made. There are indeed several articles that discuss and criticise The Geography of Thought, sometimes because of the sweeping statements about “the West” and “the East” (how can you even discuss something which is so vaguely defined?), sometimes because of the conclusions the author arrives at (claiming that the author overreaches in his ambition to find a common denominator for the observed data). This doesn’t bother me too much, though. I don’t read this book to write a thesis in social psychology, I read it because I want that bigger picture which is so hard to get at.
Thus, I recommend this book because I really think that it offers a valuable insight into how Asians and Westerners think differently. It’s not a handbook in intercultural communication, but I dare say that most people who have had at least some exposure to the cultures of East Asia will find it interesting.
However, the book hasn’t changed my basic approach, I still think that people are people, regardless of their cultural background. I think there are certainly differences between how we perceive the world around us, but I think that the similarities are much bigger than the differences. Still, as I said earlier, these differences are important, and in The Geography of Thought, Nisbett makes an excellent attempt at discussing them and explaining the underlying patterns that make us think differently.
If you want to read the entire book, you can buy it from Amazon here.
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Reading aloud in Chinese is really hard, much harder than reading aloud in most other languages. Ever since exploring this topic in a recent article, I’ve been thinking about reading aloud in Chinese and what factors are involved. In particular, I want to know why I’m not good at it and what to do about it. The goal with this article isn’t merely to discuss reading aloud, though; I also want to show how I tackle weaknesses in my language ability. I also want to show that even though reading aloud is hard, it’s not impossible.
In the article referred to above, I said that what makes reading aloud in Chinese extra difficult is that Chinese characters might have clues about pronunciation, but they’re not phonetic. When reading silently, we just need to be able to recognise the characters and associate them with meaning, but when reading aloud, we also need to retrieve the correct pronunciation from memory and we need to do it quickly.
To add insult to injury, there is no such thing as word spacing in Chinese, which further increases the cognitive load. Finally, since Chinese is an analytic language, a significant share of the communicative burden lies on the reader, who needs to decipher ambiguities and use context to determine the meanings of words and clauses.
I also summarised the skill components needed to read aloud in Chinese as follows:
- Map characters to meaning (character recognition)
- Group characters into meaningful words (vocabulary)
- Group words into meaningful sentences (grammar)
- Understand the meaning of sentences in context (pragmatics)
- Understand the writer’s intent (reading between the lines)
- Map characters to pronunciation (pronunciation recall)
- Understand how the pronunciation syllables influences each other
- Understand how meaning influences pronunciation (intonation, sentence stress)
What am I lacking? Why am I not better at X?
This is the basic process I go through whenever I encounter a language learning problem:
- Identify and describe the symptoms
- Find out what I need to be able to do to achieve X
- Find out which part is the weakest link
- Practise that component and see if it helps
- If it doesn’t, there’s probably a mistake in step 1-3
So, let’s do this for reading aloud. I have dealt with step one and two already, so let’s move on. Looking at the above list of skills, I can exclude a number of factors immediately. The first five can’t be the reason why I’m bad at reading aloud, because I can read silently about twice as fast as I can read aloud (~250 characters/minute for relaxed material). This means that getting the meaning of a text is not the problem. The three remaining factors are more interesting, though.
To test this, I decided to dramatically increase the amount of Chinese I read aloud, to try to figure out not only which the limiting factor is, but also if there might be more to it than this. I had the nagging feeling that reading aloud is a skill in itself, so even if I had all the components above, I might still not be good at it.
The experiment: Reading a novel aloud
To test this hypothesis, I decided to read an entire novel aloud in Chinese and time each chapter. Rate of speech is not a very good measurement of one’s ability to read aloud, because quality is definitely more important than raw speed, but since I was the only test subject, I could be quite sure that most other variables were kept constant during the experiment. For instance, my comprehension of the novel stayed roughly the same throughout the entire text and I’m quite sure pronunciation quality didn’t deteriorate, but might have increased somewhat.
I selected a novel I thought would be relatively easy without being childish (I didn’t want to have too many cases where my reading was actually limited by poor character recognition, for instance). For reasons not connected to the experiment, I chose the Chinese translation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (飢餓遊戲). If you haven’t read the Chinese version, I can tell you that it’s slightly easier than other translated works of fantasy that I have read, but not by much, it still contains a fair amount of flowery language and idioms, but it’s not a difficult read in any case.
Here are some statistics for characters used in the novel, which of course doesn’t give a complete picture, but should still give you an idea (the numbers are calculated for comparable lengths of each book):
- Unique characters in 飢餓遊戲: 2800
- Unique characters in Twilight: 2600
- Unique characters in 醜陋的中國人: 3000
- Unique characters in the Bible: 3000
In case you want to count unique characters in electronic texts, I suggest using DimSum:
The question: Which factors influenced my performance?
The question I asked myself was what factors were slowing me down. Based on the list above, I identified four potential problem areas. As we shall see, most of them turned out to be irrelevant or of marginal importance.
- Character recognition (which is the first half of factor #6 above) can be ignored because the number of characters I didn’t recognise in the novel were fairly evenly spread out and were far and few between (no more than 100 in the entire book). This factor was clearly not interfering significantly with fluency and even though I learnt a few new characters, that certainly didn’t improve reading fluency in any measurable way. it might have saved a few seconds here and there.
- Character pronunciation recall time (which is the other half of factor #6 above) was more important, because even though I knew almost all characters, I sometimes found it hard to recall their pronunciation quickly enough. This was typically not a question of whether or not I could recall the pronunciation, but rather how long it took to do it. A delay of a second or more is quite noticeable on the rate of speech. Even though the recall rate should have dropped a bit throughout the novel (familiar objects, locations and so on), there are so many characters than I doubt that my overall recall speed increased at all during the experiment.
- Understand how the pronunciation of one syllable influences other syllables (#7 in the list above) would be a factor if someone never read anything aloud. When you read silently, you don’t have to parse several consecutive third tones, you don’t have to worry about tone changes for 不, 一 and so on. However, I have read a fair bit aloud in Chinese before and since I know I get this right most of the time in speaking, I don’ think it’s a major factor in this case. Still, my ability to do this quickly might have increased throughout the experiment.
- Understand how meaning influences pronunciation (#8 in the list above) was largely ignored in this experiment. I simply can’t parse the text quickly enough to figure out where the sentence stress should fall or how the type of sentence should influence pronunciation. I simply focused on reading the sentence correctly. This is a factor which is beyond being able to read aloud in a fluent manner and is closer to being able to read aloud well compared with native speakers.
The result: Reading speed might be a separate skill
I spent 1316 minutes (about 22 hours) reading 163380 characters. This is what reading speed looked like across the length of the novel, measured in characters per minute:
As we can see, there is an expected increase in reading speed between the first two parts, which is easily explained by the fact that I got used to the characters in the novel, some setting-specific words and the author’s style. As we can also see, the speed didn’t increase much from page 100 to page 300.
But then something interesting happened.I started feeling that I could look ahead much more than before and that speed crept up quite a bit. Thus, the increase towards the end was definitely noticeable subjectively and actually didn’t flatten out towards the end of the book (the final chapter had an average speed of 145).
Even though the skill factors listed above did improve during the experiment, I don’t think the they are enough to explain the ~12% increase in reading speed. This is further supported by the subjective feeling that reading page 300-400 was qualitatively different from reading page 200-300.
Reading aloud in Chinese is hard, but apart from reinforcing the separate components, reading aloud itself is also a skill. By reading aloud, you increase your ability to pronounce words and, while doing so, looking ahead at the subsequent few words, as well as the ability to anticipate tone sandhi problems.
Your ability to read aloud in a fluent manner depends largely how much processing capacity you have left over to focus on something other than what you’re currently saying and I believe that this split attention can and should be practised, at least if you want to be able tor read aloud in Chinese.
However, that being said, I think most people have more fundamental problems than that. Based on personal experience, I think most students are unable to read aloud fluently simply because they either don’t know enough characters/words or can’t remember the pronunciation quickly enough. Still, if you’re reasonably good at reading silently, but is struggling with reading aloud, remember that reading aloud is in itself a skill you need to practise!
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I’ve been responsible for teaching the introduction part of the Chinese course at Linköping university for several years now and one of the most frequent questions asked by absolute beginners is how to study characters. Not what characters to study, what they mean or how they are used, but how to actually learn them. If you need to learn X number of characters by tomorrow, how do you do it?
Since this questions pops up so often, I will try to summarise my answer in this article. Hopefully it will be useful for beginners out there (and perhaps some intermediate learners as well). If intermediate or advanced learners have other useful tips, please leave a comment!
From drawing to writing
Before I go through the advice I have to offer one by one, I want to say a few words of encouragement. Learning Chinese characters is really hard in the beginning, simply because you have nothing to link the new information to.
After a while, your web of Chinese knowledge will expand and adding further to it will become easier and easier. Thus, if you feel that it’s difficult and frustrating at the moment, don’t worry, it will become easier soon. It might feel like you’re drawing pictures, but as your understanding of Chinese characters increases, you will be writing soon enough.
Learning Chinese characters as a beginner
Here are eight crucial lessons about learning to write Chinese characters, gained both through learning to write Chinese myself and through teaching beginners:
- Study the character closely, including stroke order – Before you start to write, study the character you’re going to write carefully. How is it written? What does it look like? If your textbook or teacher didn’t provide you with information about stroke order, you can check this website. If you haven’t installed Chinese input on your computer yet, you can write the character here, but it will be hard if you have no idea about how to write it.
- Write it until you get the feel for the character - Once you know(in theory) how to write the character, write it until you can write the entire character without thinking too much. This is just to familiarise yourself with the hand motions involved and will help improve your handwriting in general. This is very good for beginners, but not strictly speaking necessary for intermediate students. The number of times you need to write a character varies greatly depending on the complexity of the character.
- Don’t copy characters stroke by stroke - Whenever you write characters, don’t copy them stroke by stroke. If you can remember the whole character at once, that’s very good, but if you can’t, break it down into its component parts and peek at the stroke order only between writing each component. Copying stroke by stroke is almost useless, because you’re not even trying to remember anything. Also, write the characters on a paper with squares of suitable size (a few centimetres). You can generate your own practice sheets with Hanzi Grids.
- Once you know the character, don’t mass your repetitions – Even if you have learnt a character, you will obviously need to review it if you want to remember it later. Some people (including most native speakers) write the same character again and again, hoping that they can etch them into their minds. This works, but it’s very inefficient. Instead, you should space your repetitions and write other characters or do something else between repetitions. This is several times more efficient than writing the same character over and over. There are programs called spaced repetition software that help you space the reviews optimally and you can read more about them here. You don’t need to use a computer program, though, simply avoiding massing your repetitions is a good first step.
- Practice pronunciation and meaning at the same time - If you’re writing characters, you might as well throw pronunciation and meaning in there as well. Write the pronunciation and meaning of the character next to it. If you’re sure how it’s supposed to be read, say it aloud. Otherwise, mimic the pronunciation here. Do not guess the pronunciation based on the letters used to spell it. Pinyin has several traps and pitfalls you need to be aware of as a beginner!
- If you see a character component reappearing in different characters, look it up - It’s much more interesting to learn characters if you learn a little bit about them. You can use HanziCraft to break down characters for you. If you don’t know which components are important to learn, you can check this article: Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals. A general rule of thumb is that if you see a component three times in different contexts, you should probably learn what it means.
- Diversify your character learning - You can do this in many different ways, but downloading a flashcard program for your phone, creating paper flashcards, pasting the characters all over your apartment and writing them on your hands are all good places to start. Studying isn’t only done in front of your desk. Diversifying your learning will vastly increase the time you can spend learning characters. Read more here: Diversified learning is smart learning.
- Creating a powerful toolkit – I have written quite a lot about character learning here on Hacking Chinese. Some of the advice will be over the heads of absolute beginners, but if you want to read more, I suggest you start with my toolkit-series, where I introduce the concepts necessary to hack Chinese characters properly. The first article can be found here.
The above advice should get you pretty far. If you want more resources for looking up characters (or anything else related to Chinese), I suggest that you read my article about suggested dictionaries (most of them online and free). However, don’t obsess about details and don’t try to look everything up. You will enter into a maze with no exit except the one you came in through. Realise that perfectionism can be an obstacle to progress.
Learning to write and read in Chinese takes quite a lot of time and effort, but it’s not as hard as it might seem at first. Sticking to the advice in this article will prevent you from making some of the more egregious mistakes. Learning thousands of characters will still take a long time, but hopefully this article will make the journey a bit easier. Good luck!
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I’m sure many readers are familiar with the term process writing, because it’s used by many teachers when teaching native speakers and second language learners alike. As the name implies, process writing puts the focus on the process rather than the product. In traditional teaching, you write an essay, your teacher corrects it and gives you a grade and that’s it. Most students only look at the grade and throw the essay away.
This is terrible waste. Feedback is the only thing in language learning you really have to pay for and students are throwing it away! This is because the course design is awful, there are usually no incentives for the students to learn from their mistakes unless they are very motivated and do so spontaneously on their own.
But what’s the point of a teacher correcting your essay if you don’t learn from the errors your teacher has found in your writing?
There is no point, or at least there is no reason you need a teacher in that case, you could just write an essay and don’t show it to anyone. You could also do the same and post it on Lang-8 for free. I guess the reason why we see this happening in schools is that the system requires teachers to grade students, but teachers seldom require students to actively process the feedback they give.
Process writing helps you learn from your mistakes
Process writing is meant to solve this problem. Instead of giving you one deadline and one grade for the essay, there are several, let’s say three, separate deadline and grades:
- Rough outline –This is just meant to be an outline. What are you going to write about and how are you going to structure the text? What do you want to express? To whom? Students often skip this step, which leads to poor texts, especially if you write in a foreign language. Very experienced authors might be able to do this intuitively, but most students can’t. By having a separate deadline and feedback after that deadline, the teacher forces the student to pay attention to structure.
- First draft –The next step is to actually write the text. This works like a normal writing exercise, except that students have received feedback from their outlines, hopefully leading to a more clearly structured text. The first draft is handed in and corrected by the teacher. Feedback is given in such a way that students have a fair chance of improving their drafts (i.e. they need to understand what they’ve done wrong and what they should have written instead).
- Final version –The students now read the feedback they received from the teacher in the previous step and try to improve their texts, correcting mistakes found in the draft. Again, this forces the students to focus on the problems they’re making, prompting them to correct them and hopefully remember what they have changed for later.
Repeat until you see significant progress
The above steps are of course just part of a cycle. You will only be able to identify and fix a few problems at a time (in fact, trying to correct too many errors at once is generally a bad idea). When you have corrected the most urgent problems, repeat the process again. This is probably an infinite cycle because perfection is a direction, not a destination. Still, this depends a lot on if you need quantity or quality for your writing practice. I think the above three steps are enough for most learners.
Naturally, following the above procedure means that it takes much longer to produce a text, but I think everybody can agree that the goal of composing a text in Chinese isn’t to write as many characters as possible. We’re unlikely to produce texts with intrinsic value anyway, so if we don’t learn anything from the process, we might as well not bother with writing the text in the first place and spend our time and money somewhere else. It’s the quality of the text you produce and what you learn from the process that matter.
Now apply this to speaking ability as well
Process writing is being widely used around the world, but I haven’t heard many teachers talk about process speaking. I think you can guess where I’m heading just by reading the word “process speaking”, especially after seeing the breakdown of the process above.
This is how process speaking works:
- Prepare an outline of a short speech or presentation on any topic. If you’re a beginner or intermediate learner, stick to things you’re already familiar with. Advanced learners should challenge themselves and select topics you are not familiar with in Chinese (but that you still know in your native language). The outline should consist of all the facts you want to include and in which order you want to present them.
- Practice your presentation until you know it reasonably well. Don’t write it down and just memorise it, talk your way through it until you actually know what you’re saying. If you’re not sure about how to say something, look it up or ask someone. Copy structures and words from others, but avoid lifting entire sentences, because they are obviously not your own and hard to internalise.
- Record your presentation, audio is enough, but video is even cooler. If you’re doing this for a course you’re taking, either bring your phone and record your own presentation or ask a classmate to do it for you. Save the recording in any way you see fit. Again, this is for future reference and analysis and you don’t need to show the recording if you don’t want to.
- Analyse the recording with a tutor. Up until this step, everything is standard practice (except perhaps that some people tend to write down their presentations first and then memorise them, which isn’t very good if you want to practise speaking). This feedback step is almost never performed, however. Ask your teacher (or hire someone else) to analyse the presentation you just recorded.
- Prepare and hold the presentation again. Some ambitious students actually do ask for feedback on their presentations, but I’ve almost never heard of anyone who actually hold the presentation a second time. Listen to the advice, which might include things like pronunciation, intonation, word usage, presentation technique, voice projection or anything else, then hold the presentation again.
- Repeat the process until you feel that you have made significant progress (in general, the more advanced you are, the longer you need to spend). I would say that giving the presentation just one extra time based on your teacher’s feedback is already a huge improvement over just doing it one single time. As was the case with process writing, I do think it’s better to move on after the second or perhaps third time, because covering new areas in new presentations is useful in itself and we don’t want to get bogged down in the same area for too long, especially not as beginners.
Stepping up the level of your current Chinese course
Naturally, if you’re enrolled in a course of some kind, you will probably encounter many situations where you have to give oral presentations or write texts about specific topics. Even though your teacher probably won’t encourage you to do what I have described above, you can still do it on your own, but it does require you to start earlier.
If you finish your presentation a week before deadline, you can give the presentation in front of a private tutor or friend and let them help you improve your speaking ability. You then have at least a week to practice and both your final grade and your spoken Chinese will improve!
Most of us use textbooks and go to class in order to learn Chinese, but this is merely the beginning of a journey or a method to reach something farther down the road. The real goal is to be able to understand and produce Chinese as it is used by native speakers out in the real world; the textbooks and the courses are simply stepping stones making the journey easier.
However, there is a problem. Chinese is quite different from English (or other Indo-European languages) and without any guidance at all, it’s hard to make sense of an unmediated immersion environment. One of the most frequently asked questions I hear from students is how to approach real Chinese (usually meaning authentic or non-learner oriented). They feel that what they have learnt is of only limited use and that the way Chinese is so much more complex and varied that what they have learnt, making it hard to just dive in, feeling that drowning is a more likely outcome than learning how to swim. In a sense, there is a gap between classroom Chinese and real-world Chinese, both in terms of difficulty and actual content.
Still, there are many people who have bridged that gap (including myself) in Chinese or other languages. There are also teachers that have helped students to bridge the gap. Rather than presenting my own opinion on Chinese immersion in the usual manner, I wanted to ask these people what they thought about it.
As you can see below, the answers are many and varied, but they have one common denominator: Immersion is about doing, it’s about trying and winning through. It might be scary, but the only way to learn to swim is to get wet. Many also stress that even if it looks frightening, it’s actually not that bad and there are many thing you can do to make it easier. This is encouraging; can we bridge, the gap, so can you!
The question I asked was this:
How do you bridge the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion?
Now, I didn’t offer any definition of what I meant with “real immersion” or what constitutes “classroom Chinese”, because I wanted breadth and variation. Thus, the answers vary not only in their actual suggestions and advice, but also in how they interpreted the question. some people reject the idea of the gap altogether, which of course is a valid approach!
This type of panel question is an experiment here on Hacking Chinese, so if you like it, please let me know. If you have questions that you would like to ask a similar panel in the future, leave a comment or send me an e-mail. Enough for me now, though, here’s a list of the contributors with links to their answers:
- Alan Park
- Albert Wolfe
- Ash Henson
- Benny Lewis
- Carl Gene Fordham (upcoming separate article)
- David Moser (upcoming separate article)
- Greg Bell
- Hugh Grigg
- Imron Alston
- Jacob Gill (高健)
- John Fotheringham
- John Pasden
- Keoni Everington (华武杰)
- Mark Rowswell (大山)
- Niel de la Rouviere
- Sara Jaaksola
- Steven Daniels
- Yangyang Cheng
- Chinese Forums
You can also read my afterword here.
Mind the gap!
Alan Park has been studying Chinese for 13 years and previously worked in China with Chinese clients as a management consultant. Currently, he is the founder of FluentU, a site that brings language learning to life with real-world video content.”
Why do Chinese learning classes use scripted textbooks while many of the most successful learners swear by immersion through real-world content?
It’s because real-world content is a double-edged sword and you can easily cut your arm off. The potential benefits are huge – it’s more fun, more memorable, gives you insights into Chinese culture, and teaches you natural conversational Chinese. On the other hand, the challenges are also great – real-world content is just plain difficult and not designed for beginners.To make it work and take full advantage of the benefits of immersion and real-world content, what I did for myself was create an efficient workflow that let me:
- Find content that was appropriate for my level and matched my interests
- Get enough support (“scaffolding,” as they say) so that I could truly digest that content
- Review those words in context and at the right time
- Continue to find new content which had the right level of vocabulary overlap with words I had already learned through this workflow
This sounds like a lot of work and it was. Ultimately, I got tired of piecing together various tools and websites and so I decided to create a solution from scratch which was built specifically for this purpose. If you would also like to do this the easy way, I would recommend that you try language immersion through FluentU.
Albert Wolfe started learning Chinese on his own when he came to China in 2005. He is the author of Chinese 24/7: Everyday Strategies for Speaking and Understanding Mandarin and a novel faceless and the blog LaowaiChinese.net.
The gap between “book learning” and “street smarts” is a common problem for language learners. In my sixth month in China I met a young guy from England in a hotel lobby. He had done at least one year of formal Chinese study in England but was having difficulty communicating with the receptionist. I was able to help translate for him even though I’d never taken any Chinese classes. Or was it because I’d never had any classes?
My language learning had been entirely reactive. In other words, I was constantly drowning in the “real world” of Chinese and only kept myself afloat by learning things that were most essential to me (including how to communicate with hotel staff).
All language instruction books (including my own) share the same fundamental flaw: the authors are just guessing about exactly what learners “need to know” and the order they should learn stuff in. Some of those guesses are pretty accurate (the numbers, pronouns, “hello,” “thank you”, etc.) but then comes that endless ocean of vocabulary and grammar that just continues into the horizon: the real world of Chinese language. It’s no surprise that language instruction texts often leave learners feeling unprepared for real world interaction. How was the author to know what you were going to encounter in the real world?
It was very early in my first months in China that I learned the word for “manhole cover” (下水道口盖子xià shuǐ dào kǒu gài zi). Why? Because in Nanchang, the city I was living in, manhole covers were frequently stolen and sold for scrap metal leaving road hazards for cyclists such as me. I saw that happening around me in the real world, wanted to talk about it in Chinese, and learned the necessary vocabulary and grammar to do so. But what first-year Chinese textbook author would ever think to include that little nugget?
All this means that there is only one solution to the gap between book-learned foreign language and the real world usage of that language: you. You are the bridge. Only you know what you want to say. Gazing out across the huge ocean unknown language stuff can be scary. Books and classes can give you the basics of how to use the oars and a compass, but there’s no substitute for just getting into the boat and pushing off.
Ash Henson – Avid language learner, after working as an engineer for 8+ years, left to pursue a language-related career. Currently working on a PhD in Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. Research interests include Old Chinese phonology, Chinese paleography, the Chinese Classics and excavated texts.
Language immersion is not only thought of as the Holy Grail of language learning, it is also the most common excuse I hear to not learn a language. “I just don’t have the environment for that.” If you don’t want to learn a language, that’s fine, but don’t blame it on not having the proper environment. With the proliferation of the internet and legally free downloadable software, basically anyone can create an immersion environment. Having said that, let’s talk a little more about the different types of immersion and when they are appropriate.
There are at least four types of immersion: listening, speaking, reading and writing and they should occur exactly in this order. Immersing yourself in a language in the wrong order will cause damage that may take years to repair (voice of experience speaking). The first type, listening, is not only the most important, but also the most neglected. Modern education is so focused on the written word that we’ve bought into the ridiculous idea that languages are best learned by reading and writing. Idahosa Ness does an awesome job of describing this problem and how to free yourself from it here: http://www.fluentin3months.com/sound-rehab/ .
I’ve spent the last 20 years learning languages and even left a career as an engineer to pursue a language related career. I’m currently in my 8th year of graduate school at National Taiwan Normal University. That is to say, I use and have been using Chinese a lot on a daily basis for an extended amount of time. I can say with a high degree of certainty that my biggest mistake learning Chinese was learning with my eyes rather than with my ears.
The optimal way to learn a language is to first immerse yourself in listening and mimicking the sounds you hear. “But I can’t hear all the sounds! How am I going to say them correctly!” You can’t hear all the sounds because you haven’t done enough listening and mimicking! Everyone who learns a language has to suffer through ear training (or ignore ear training and speak with a terrible accent for the rest of their lives).
How do you know if you aren’t doing enough listening? If, on average, you are thinking in terms of written symbols rather than actual sounds, then you aren’t listening enough. You have to develop a habit of always paying attention to the sounds of the language you are learning. But, guess what? This will also improve your grammar! Real grammar in the mind of a native speaker is sound pattern. The more you pay attention to the sound patterns, the better your grammar will be.
So what should I listen to? Listen to natural speech, like internet talk radio or tv shows and movies (as long as they aren’t too melodramatic). You use Audacity to record internet radio or movies, etc. and then listen to these recordings over and over. You can also make your own mp3s to download to a hand held device.
What should I listen for? Listen to the rhythm of the language, notice how sentence pitch changes with time; listen for short pauses; listen to what the vowels and consonants sound like. For Chinese tones, don’t think of them in terms of numbers, but listen for the rise and fall of their pitch.
Immersing yourself in reading should be put off at the very least until you have mastered the sounds (including sentence level sounds: intonation, rhythm, pitch, etc.) of the language. How long that takes depends on you and how much time and effort you put into it.
Benny Lewis - National Geographic’s Traveler of the year and professional language learner. Join along on his adventure as he attempts to learn Japanese this year.
I make it all about connecting with a real human being as soon as possible. You can get a free exchange with a Chinese person one-on-one, or you can get a good teacher who lives in China for as little as $5 and get real immersion, even if it’s via Skype. By facing a real human being you will be forced to stop thinking so much about getting everything precisely right, and start to “get by” and see that making mistakes is a necessary part of the process.
If your priority is less spoken based, then take your passion and make it something real. Read a comic book, watch some videos online or a movie – whatever you plan to use the language for, use it that way now and get used to it rather than studying until some non-existing “ready day”. Today is the day you need true exposure.
Furio is a heavy Longjing tea drinker, a writer and an entrepreneur. You can find him at saporedicina.com, where he writes about traveling, living and working in China.
The problem with Mandarin and immersion is that if you never start reading and listening from “real” sources (that is sources that aren’t specifically meant for foreigners) you’ll never become fluent, whatever “fluent” means to you. With respect to “reading” and “listening,” I found that watching movies in Chinese language with Chinese subtitles was my best bet.
Wouldn’t I get bored, if at the beginning I couldn’t understand anything? Not really, because I was watching movies that I had already watched with English subtitles (and thus I already knew what was going on) or extremely easy to understand, such as Ocean Heaven. This is also the way I learned English, a language I never studied at school (I studied French, don’t ask me why because I don’t know).
With respect to “speaking,” unless you find a topic you love and stick with it till you master it, you’ll most luckily end up frustrated. Once you master a topic, however, you can slowly move to other fields.
The “field” that worked best for me was food. I’m obsessed with food and I would learn anything about it. I’m a sponge, when it comes down to food vocabulary. So I know how to say “I want a medium cooked steak” or “If you put monosodium glutamate on my salad I won’t pay the bill.” There are many names of vegetables that I only know in Chinese, such a “baicai.” How to call it in Italian, my mother language? No idea.
One last thing. I’m not suggesting that you stick only to one topic during your conversations or only watch movies you already know. Talk as much as you like and watch whatever you want. But if you feel frustrated or tired, then switch to English, or in the long term you’ll burn out.
Greg Bell – I’ve currently got two blogs going on the matter, my language learning journey one at http://zhongruige.wordpress.
Well, for me, my immersion came in the form of a graduate program in history in Taiwan. The nature of the beast meant that I had to immerse myself in the material–forcing me to bridge the gap between textbook and classroom to real immersion in an organic and no-less-than incredibly intimidating way. It was admittedly a traumatizing situation to be put into as it was literally sink or swim going in. So, of course, my experiences entering a “real” immersion environment may be different than others as my situation basically forced it upon me.
That being said, the best advice I can give to anyone wanting to make the switch: find something you enjoy and go with it! Love T’ang era poetry? Dive right in! Want to figure out Oracle Bone inscriptions? Break into it (well, not literally, they don’t take kindly to that at Sinica!). Don’t be intimidated by what people may say is “above your level” or that “you’re not ready for it yet”. Instead, enjoy the finding out the secrets and the magic behind the characters and the language. Just take it slowly and enjoy every step of the journey!
Hugh Grigg studied East Asian Studies at university, and is trying to keep up the learning habit long term. He writes about what he learns at eastasiastudent.net , to keep track of his progress and to try and help out other people where he can.
It’s easy to assume that if you’re outside of China then you’ve got no chance at getting immersion. This attitude could be unhelpful, because if you’re going to class with a Chinese teacher than that’s one chance at immersion right there! My advice would be to see class time for what it really is: your chance to speak and listen to as much Chinese as possible in a “live” situation, and ask your absolute best questions (without using English as much as you can help it).
I think it’s actually a waste of time to spend your classes mulling over Chinese and discussing it in English. Analysing a language is generally not very useful for speaking it well. In my experience, the amount of questions someone asks in class doesn’t seem to correlate that much with their language ability, unless they’re using the target language to ask the questions. The point is that languages are a very different kind of thing to other topics that you learn using classes and textbooks. Languages are a skill more than they are knowledge, and you acquire skills by doing more than anything else.
You can’t play piano with theory alone, and you can be a great pianist with no theory at all. Even better, there aren’t many pianists in the world, but everyone is a native speaker of a language. This is something your brain is set up to do, if you just give it the chance to practice.
My general point here is that immersion isn’t the goal in itself. The reason immersion works is because it forces you to actually use your target language, no matter what hang-ups or hesitations you have about it. It puts you on the spot. Once you realise that that can be a goal – being forced to produce Chinese on the spot and being forced to understand it on the spot – you can aim to create these ‘immersion’ opportunities for yourself.
Imron Alston has been learning Chinese since 2001, and in that time has spent a total of six years living, working and studying in China, mostly in Hebei and Beijing. He is an admin on the Chinese learning site Chinese-Forums.com, and is also the developer of a number of tools designed for Chinese learners, including Hanzi Grids – a tool for generating custom Chinese character worksheets, and Pinyinput – an IME for typing pinyin with tone marks.
Although this is going to sound somewhat facetious, for me I found the way to bridge the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion was through real immersion :-) That worked well for me, and I’m a big believer in getting good at something by practicing that skill.
When my Chinese was at an intermediate level, I was lucky enough to be in a position where I was in China, and had a lot of spare time, and so I went looking for people with similar interests to my own (martial arts in this case), and ended up spending a large amount of my week surrounded by people who couldn’t speak English and who weren’t interested in learning, and who would be speaking to me and instructing me entirely in Chinese.
It was a bit overwhelming at first, but it didn’t take too long to adapt, and being immersed in that environment did wonders for my Chinese listening and speaking abilities, and really helped bridge the gap from textbook to real Chinese.
I realise not everyone has the luxury of being in the position to do that, but luckily with the Internet, it’s trivial to create a good language environment for yourself – TV shows, radio, books, newspapers, language exchange partners, and more are all readily available online. Simply find content that you are interested in, and make an effort to try and understand it. It will be difficult at first, but the more you do it, the easier it will get.
Important Note: This is assuming you already have a good base to start from and you are trying to ‘bridge the gap’ between that and native content. Jumping straight to native content won’t be so productive if you don’t already have a certain level of Chinese, so if you’re just starting out, you’re going to be better off following a textbook or other program.
I’m also a strong advocate of drilling specific skills. For my first few years of learning Chinese, I’d mostly avoided drilling because I saw it as ‘dumb’ learning. However after later trying it and seeing my reading, listening and speaking make great improvements, I’m now a firm believer in this for boosting language skills to the next level. I’ve written about these drills on Chinese-forums previously, so won’t repeat them here, but this post of mine has links to a number of other posts of mine containing drills for specific skills.
Jacob Gill (高健) – Graduate student at National Taiwan Normal University for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. Lecturer in the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s Chinese Department. Academic Advisor for Skritter and blogger at iLearnMandarin. A Global Citizen, a life-long language learner and a full-time geek.
They provide a safe space to explore and learn about the world around us. Objectives are neatly organized into bullet points on a syllabus and broken down into a series of activities and assignments that help accomplish a given goal. Along with classrooms, comes teachers and textbooks. They too share the goals of learning, exploration and discovery.
In a language classrooms, teachers and textbooks often come with a certain degree of standardization, vocabulary lists, and lots of drills to help cover students along the way. They help provide a crucial foundation, but often fall short of the raw reality of an authentic language environment. With regional accents, slang, and the average speed with which native speakers communicate, it’s easy to get lost and frustrated along the way. So how to we bridge the gap between these two spheres of language learning? One way is by being mindful of the gap that exists, and then leaping over it to new and uncharted territories.
How can we really learn about given giving and receiving directions, without first getting ourselves a little lost? What better way to learn restaurant etiquette and atmosphere than by trying a few dishes from a local restaurant and fighting for the bill. For me, the most successful way to transition between classrooms and textbooks to more authentic situations is by harnessing the power of context.
Context is the greatest weapon we have for facing any situation. It allows us to make guess about what is being said, and to communicate with others using more than just words. Body language, hand gestures and a smile can go a long way to helping increase comprehension. Context allows us to apply past experiences to situations that are filled with sentences and words we don’t yet understand.
The biggest hurdle to moving beyond textbooks is often times the fear of failure or the unknown. By forcing ourselves into new situations, however, the dialogues become our own, and new vocabulary words are given a name, a face, an emotion. Most importantly these words are given a context that can be drawn upon over and over again.
If you’re looking for a place to start, try using personal hobbies or interests or maybe even a topic you’ve covered in class. Be mindful of what you know and what you’d like to learn. Start with a simple word or phrase, and give yourself a mission. Be flexible as you explore and open to making mistakes. Most importantly, just be willing to take the risk in the first place. Trust me, the reward is well worth it!
John Fotheringham is a serious “languaholic”, an adult-onset affliction for which he has yet to find a cure. John has spent most of the last decade learning and teaching foreign languages in Japan and Taiwan, and now shares what he’s learned along the way on his blog, Language Mastery | Tips, Tools & Tech to Learn Languages the Fun Way.
There’s no need to “bridge the gap” because there should be no gap in the first place. Learners should start with immersion from day one and then add in textbooks down the road once they’ve had significant exposure to a language in context. Only then will grammatical explanations make much sense and have any chance of sticking.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to live in an area where Mandarin Chinese is spoken to immerse yourself in the language. The advent of Skype, YouTube, podcasts, blogs, online news, eBooks, etc. allow you to immerse in your target language for free, everyday, anywhere in the world (assuming you have Internet connectivity).
If you can move to Taiwan or Mainland China, all the better, but don’t let your zip code be an excuse for inaction. In today’s world, the only obstacles to fluency in a foreign tongue are motivation, discipline, and time on task, not where you happen to live or whether or not you can afford language classes.
John Pasden is a Shanghai-based linguist and founder of AllSet Learning, dedicated to helping adult learners overcome the major obstacles they face learning Mandarin Chinese. He’s also been blogging about learning Chinese for over 10 years on Sinosplice.com.
The truth is that no materials—textbooks, podcasts, videos, whatever—are entirely appropriate for any individual learner. That’s why it’s essential that the active learner adapt all materials to his own specific needs. Obviously, a good teacher is a tremendous help in doing this, and any good Chinese lesson with a teacher will involve bridging the gap between the language introduced in the study material and the language the learner can actually put to use.
At AllSet Learning we spend a lot of time selecting the study materials most appropriate for a given learner. That way, there’s less “bridging” that needs to be done by teachers, fewer additional vocabulary words that need to be introduced, fewer outdated or irrelevant terms to be filtered out, etc. More time in the lessons can be spent practicing applying the material to real-life situations.
For the independent learner (especially in a foreign language context), this issue of selecting materials is a huge challenge, and it probably involves a lot of time sorting through potential material. Recognizing that most textbooks are pretty outdated (how many textbooks currently in use never cover the words 手机 or 网络?) is a good start. The big question is then whether or not the material is truly useful for you, the learner. Usually HSK word lists and chengyu stories are not the most useful material. Neither are blindly selected frequency lists. What material is going to get you talking to Chinese people the fastest, about the thingsyou care about, adding to your motivation to keep improving? That’s the right material to study.
Keoni Everington (华武杰) is from the USA and is currently the web and marketing director for The World of Chinese magazine in Beijing, China. He has over 20 years of experience learning Mandarin through study at various universities and long stints in Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei.
Based on my own personal experience learning Mandarin, I found the best way to bridge the gap between textbook/classroom Chinese and real immersion is to live in China for at least one year and using “forced immersion” with native speakers. When I say forced immersion, I mean creating an environment in which you are exposed to the language on a regular basis and establishing friendships and exchanges with local Chinese.
Actually living in China is an important step towards real-life immersion, but in certain settings such as university campuses, hotels, office towers, and tourist areas there are many EFL speakers to interfere with having a pure Mandarin environment.
There are many aspects of living in China that can aid in language immersion that I took advantage of such as chatting with taxi drivers, haggling at the market, watching Chinese TV and films, reading Chinese comics, learning Chinese songs, and writing a daily Chinese journal. For now, I’ll just focus on two foundation pillars I used to build my Mandarin with.
The first pillar of my immersion was to establish several weekly one-on-one language exchanges with native speakers, at one point I had five different language partners each week. We would decide to speak about an agreed upon subject for a half hour entirely in Chinese and another half hour entirely in English or perhaps an hour in each language. The key was being able to speak and listen exclusively in Chinese without any English interference during that time.
The second pillar was to make many Chinese friends that understood my language goals or ideally could not speak English at all and spend time hanging out and conversing about everyday subjects that came up naturally. The key was setting the tone early on that we would always speak Chinese together and they eventually would get become habituated to the concept of only speaking Mandarin with me.
Mark Rowswell (大山) has been called “the most famous foreigner in China”, where he has worked as media personality and cultural ambassador for over 20 years. Today he is seen more as a cultural ambassador between China and the West. To many people Dashan is a prominent symbol of “East-meets-West”, of finding a common ground between the two cultures.
With language education, it’s important just to get out and start using the language, however limited your abilities, as soon and as much as possible. Language learners tend to spend too much time in class or buried in their textbooks and too little time trying to just use the language any way they can.
I think one of the best things about my Chinese lessons in the early years was that my teachers at U of T stopped using textbooks after the first two years. In my view, textbooks are really only good for a beginner level, to teach you the basics how the language is structured, and it’s important to go beyond that as quickly as possible. By that, I mean starting to learn from materials that are not written specifically for language learners but are the ways people in that language group actually use the language between themselves.
Whether it be starting to read newspapers or very short stories to listening to the radio or even learning songs in a Karaoke, talking to taxi drivers, striking up a conversation with anybody — get out and use the language. These days, with dictionaries and reference materials you can easily access from a smartphone, people who want to learn a foreign language should throw away their textbooks as soon as possible and just throw themselves into the language. Create that language environment if you have to, even if it’s only a virtual environment online.
Niel de la Rouviere has been learning Chinese for almost 6 years. He blogs as Confused Laowai and has created HanziCraft, a next level Chinese character dictionary after doing research into Chinese characters for his Master’s degree.
I’ve always felt that authentic and non-authentic materials both serve a purpose. So that in sense bridging the gap is more about walking about paths at the same time. The problem with real immersion is that the content is very different from the classroom environment. That’s why you’ll have to do some digging to find the right content.
I remember in my third year at University, our Chinese teacher gave us a novel and TV series to watch for class. We would have to make a summary on each chapter every week. A chapter usually corresponded to one episode. Even though the TV series was a soppy-over-the-top Chinese drama about girls, I really enjoyed this kind of learning as opposed to the standard textbook affair. I would watch the episode and then read the chapter. The level of Chinese was a lot higher than mine was at the time, but since we only needed to make summaries, this was a great way to explore and immerse in authentic content.
In that sense, when the time is right, find something that you can absorb content-wise, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Just make sure you get the idea right. With this you get used to natural content while still making sure your not completely overwhelmed.
Roddy, who runs Chinese-forums.com, which celebrated its tenth birthday earlier this year. The site covers discussions on many topics related to China and Chinese – textbook choices, recommended authentic materials, studying at Chinese universities, and plenty more.
I think I’d warn against a mindset of “I’m immersed, therefore I’m learning.” We all know people who’ve spent years in what should be a perfect language learning environment, yet somehow fail to make much progress. What do they fail to do?
First I think is a failure to pay attention and absorb. What do people actually say and do in the situations you’re in? Sit near the counter in a fast food place and listen to how people order food, or how the cashiers shout the orders back to the cooks. Stand near the doors on the bus and listen to how people buy their tickets or ask the conductor how to get to wherever. Note how your colleagues greet each other and how age or status affects that. Adopt that language.
It’s kind of remarkable how people can fail to do this. I was in McDonalds once eating with another foreigner, who was complaining about how they never seemed to understand his order for fries and he always had to point at the menu. Somehow he’d never noticed everyone else was asking for 薯条, not the 土豆丝 he was requesting.
Second, they meet their own low standards. “I get by.” “People understand me.” That’s great, and in Chinese it’s no small achievement. But how much repetition and clarification do they need to do. Can they walk into a shop for the first time and ask for an item without pointing and get it first time? What about a longer conversation with someone who isn’t used to talking to them? Are there tell-tale delays in what is normally the smooth back-and-forth of conversation? Watch out for warning signs that your Chinese might not be as good as it could be, and deal with them. Which brings me to…
Third, they ditch the textbooks and teachers, as why would they need them now? But good books and teachers will always be useful to speed your progress through the language. As you become more of an independent learner you might use them more for trouble-shooting and to make sure you aren’t accidentally missing out great chunks of the language – but don’t bin the books.
Sara Jaaksola has been living in Guangzhou since 2010 and on her blog Living a Dream in China she offers advice for life, love and language learning in China.
Taking Chinese classes for five years now, feeling like your textbook Chinese isn’t really fit for the life outdoors, is more than common to me. I have two excellent and free ways to tackle this problem.
The first is, watch television. Look for new dramas with plots about the life in modern China, with vocabulary that people in your age and circles uses. By watching TV you learn how Chinese people speak in real situations, not like dialogues in your textbooks. I personally started with dating shows (most well known being 非诚勿扰) as their language is on the easier side, then I continued to series like 裸婚时代. Right now I’m watching 小 爸爸.
The second tip is to get a Weibo, Chinese Twitter, account. New, popular and hip things, words and photos spread quickly on Weibo which makes it a great tool to learn both language and culture. For unknown characters or words, copy the message and read it with Pleco’s Pasteboard Reader for example. Follow users on topics you are interested in, for example I like photography and cats so I follow 照片这样拍 and 大爱猫咪控.
With TV and Weibo you can immerse yourself in Chinese listening, reading and writing no matter where you are.
One thing to remember, structured classes and textbooks should always be viewed as a starting point. Very few people can achieve real immersion using textbooks. They don’t have the scope or the time to teach you everything you need. Textbooks and classrooms provide structure, help you build a solid foundation, and hopefully fill in whatever gaps you have in your language skill set.
To bridge the gap, learners have to encounter Chinese frequently (preferably daily). By encounter Chinese, I mean see it, hear it, speak it, or write it. If you’re outgoing, then talk to friends, co-workers, classmates, or anyone you can find who speaks Chinese. If you like reading, then learn through books, magazines, weibo, etc. If you like hanging out at home, then watch Chinese TV (offline or online).
You can encounter real Chinese no matter what your level is, but remember to set your expectations properly. If you’re a beginner you might only catch the occasional word. That’s normal. And try to enjoy yourself when using Chinese. The more fun you have the easier learning Chinese will feel.
Yangyang is the founder and on-camera host of Yoyo Chinese, an online education company that uses simple and clearly-explained videos to teach Chinese to English speakers. A previous Chinese TV show host and Chinese language professor, Yangyang is also one of the most popular online Chinese teachers with more than 5 million Youtube channel views.
Bridging the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion is one of the most common problems my students face. Many of them don’t have the opportunity to study in China or to converse with native Chinese speakers and they spend lots of time rehearsing and memorizing how to ask questions in Chinese like “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”
Often, they only practice hearing one kind of response to these questions, so that when they actually get to ask a real Chinese person, they can’t understand their answers, or the person is speaking too fast for them to catch every word. After studying so hard in a classroom, this problem really catches a lot of students off guard.
I solved the immersion problem for my students by creating a special course in the Yoyo Chinese curriculum called Chinese on the Street. In this lesson series, we interview real Chinese speakers right from the streets of China so students can be exposed to the kind of authentic, non-rehearsed dialogue they will hear in a real Chinese conversation. The people we interview are not asked to slow down or enunciate their speech, so students get a chance to hear different pronunciations and different ways of asking and answering the same question. We offer pinyin and Chinese character subtitles in addition to detailed lecture notes and English translation for students to follow along until they understand every word.
Most of my students say this is their favorite course because it gives them some insight into the real China, they get to see some Chinese culture and become accustomed with how real Chinese people talk. Our students find that after immersing themselves in our Chinese on the Street course they are much more prepared to interact with Chinese people on the spot.
In response to the enthusiasm for Chinese on the Street we are also using the same authentic Chinese dialogues as source materials to teach Chinese in our upcoming Intermediate Conversational Chinese course. In this course, the student watches a Chinese dialogue clip and then I offer clear and concise explanations for each word and phrase of the dialogue. This new format will be coming out in November, so keep an eye out!
Chinese on the Street can be used in conjunction with the Yoyo Chinese curriculum or as supplemental material with any other Chinese study program, you can check it out by visiting www.yoyochinese.com.
Chinese Forums – This is the only answer not delivered by an individual, but is instead the collected wisdom of Chinese Forums. The thread can be seen here and contains many interesting ideas and useful insights. I have selected a few to include in this article, mostly dealing with areas not covered by the above answers.
First out, we have some hands-on, concrete advice for what to do by 陆咔思:
- Listen to Chinese-only advanced podcasts from sites like Chinesepod, cslpod, and some relatively easy podcasts for native speakers, and audio books for Chinese children
- Read articles and books written for native speakers on a computer/phone in an annotated way that makes reading them much easier (with http://chinesereaderrevolution.com)
- Read bilingual articles (eg from the New York Times)
- Read translations of books I already read before in English (so I won’t get confused about the content even if I don’t understand the language at some point)
- Watch TV Shows with first with English subtitles (especially for historical shows that use difficult ancient vocabulary), then with Chinese subtitles
- Chat with chinese people via QQ/skype/etc
Second, OneEye’s example of how to approach both real speaking and real writing shows that even if it isn’t effortless, it’s very rewarding:
I picked an easy manga (亂馬1/2) and an easy TV show (智勝鮮師) and worked with them until they actually were easy. With the TV show, I transcribed the entire first episode by hand into a notebook, highlighted words I didn’t know, defined them in the margins, and used it as a textbook. It took a lot of time, but then when I watched the second episode, I understood really well and only had to look things up here and there.
Third, Anonymoose questions the entire question in this way:
I think speaking of a “gap” between textbooks and authentic material is singling out a universal natural phenomenon and regarding it as a problem particular to language learning. What I mean by this, is that any time you embark on something new, there will always be a lot of new stuff to learn, the so-called “gap” than needs bridging. But why single out the gap between textbooks and authentic material? What about the gap between not knowing any Chinese and picking up your first textbook? Or the gap between your first and your second textbook? Or let’s say you practice reading about architecture (from authentic materials) in Chinese. If you then start to read about botany in Chinese, you will also experience a gap.
Although Tysond’s post is too long to quote in it’s entirety, I still think you should read it. He breaks down the problem into speed, vocabulary and contexts and offers several ways of dealing with them. He says this about vocabulary:
Preparing for situations by pre-studying what’s likely to come up. Getting a haircut? Lean about washing, blow drying, cutting, styles, length, etc. Visiting a temple? Learn about temples, religion, Buddha, in advance. I was in a bath-house the other day and didn’t realize in advance that I should probably learn the words regarding to scrape all the skin off my body and apply stinging salt to it afterwards. Painful lesson.
JustinJJ mentions the Chinese Word Extractor and explains the importance of spending some time finding the material most suitable for you. This would have been impossible in another age, but nowadays when many learners have most of their vocabularies in apps or computer programs, it’s possible:
What I find works for me is spending the time to find material that is at my level, whether it is listening material or reading material. To do this I have a big list of every word I have studied in a text file and can use the Chinese Word Extractor to determine what percentage of the words in a given native material I have already studied. If I know the great majority of the words already (i.e. the text is comprehensible), then it is much more ‘fun’ using the material and motivating and my reading speed is much faster so I can get through more material. If a text is at an appropriate level many other words I can work out by context without having to physically learn them, and over time I can up the level. If material is too hard, I find that the time I put in is not as efficient, as I would get distracted too easily and it would be too tiring, so I think it’s worth spending the time to determine if a text is at a good level for you, rather than finding out after being bored 20 pages into a novel.
Finally, Silent points out that this isn’t always a good approach because you might spend too much time looking for texts rather than reading them:
A potential trap in this approach is you spend a lot of time in searching material rather then to actually reading/study. A more efficient approach might be to pick material about a specific (somewhat narrow) subject from one source as often vocabulary and grammar are subject and writer/source specific. Then slowly expand in sources and or subjects. E.g. from your favorite sport specific match reviews you might slowly expand to other sports reviews, broader articles about your favorite sport, sports business, general business etc.
- You will only learn real-world Chinese by actually encountering real-world Chinese
- Motivation is an important factor for any immersion attempt
- Use various kinds of scaffolding to make the immersion easier
- Textbooks are still useful, but they are just part of what you need
- You don’t need to live in China to immerse, even if it certainly helps
If you like this post, please share it! If you want to read similar posts in the future, please let me know what questions you’re interested in and if you know someone else I should ask!
Improving writing beyond your speaking ability requires two things: exposure to written Chinese and focused practice, preferably in that order . Just to make things clear, in this article, writing does not mean handwriting, but rather the activity of putting words together to form a written text. Using this definition, basic writing ability is of course close to spoken Chinese, with the only difference that you write things down instead of saying them out loud.
Once you leave the shallow end of the pool and approach the depths of written Chinese, however, you do need focused practice to advance, because written Chinese really is quite different from spoken Chinese. You also need massive amounts of reading. This should be quite obvious. Less obvious is that there are many ways of making that reading more efficient if good writing is what you’re after.
What’s the weakest link in the chain?
As usual, if you want to improve in any area (writing in this case), you need to first figure out what your current problem is or what’s the weakest link in the chain. Put another way, what is stopping you from writing the kind of Chinese you want to write?
I think many people who think that their writing isn’t up to par, but don’t really know exactly what’s wrong. If you lack vocabulary, perhaps practising writing isn’t what you should do. Provided that writing is actually your problem, you then need to decide how to deal with it.
You could have problems on three levels:
- Words: Even though it should be obvious that you need vocabulary to write well, I’m not going to talk a lot about that in this article. I think writing is more about the skill of combining words rather than knowing the words in the first place. This division is made solely for the purpose of explaining how to practice writing, of course.
- Sentences: You use sentences to describe things, express opinions, ask questions, gainsaying others and so on. What kind of sentence do you have problems with? For instance, I think I’m quite good arguing a point in Chinese, as well as explaining things, but I’m not very good at describing people, places and events.
- Paragraphs: The next level deals with how you structure your text and how you make it easy for the reader to understand what you’re trying to convey. This includes linking paragraphs together, introducing a new idea, highlighting causal relationships and so on. If you have problems in this area alone, you might produce texts that are grammatically okay but make no sense or are very hard to read.
In any case, you need to identify what your problem is. You might have problems on all levels, but since you can’t focus on everything at once, you still need to select a limited number of targets. Again, ask yourself, what’s the weakest link? Now, let’s move on to how focused reading can help you overcome the problems you have identified.
Focused reading to improve your Chinese writing
It’s easy to say that you need huge amounts of reading to become good at writing in a language, but it’s not very helpful. What should you read and how? I do think quantity matters a lot, but quality certainly has a role to play as well and what we’re going to look at now is one way of increasing the quality of your reading.
When I say “reading” here, I assume that you are already reading quite a lot. It doesn’t really matter if you’re reading textbooks, graded readers, news articles, novels or academic papers, just as long as they contain the kind of writing you’re after.
Here’s how it works:
- Select an area of focus (see above)
- Start recording good examples from the material you read
- Extract sentence patterns and useful phrases
- Sort and organise the examples you record
- Keep your record handy next time you write and use the new words or phrases
- Check what you have learnt with native speakers
- Change focus and start over again
This isn’t rocket science and I think this should be clear enough, but I’ll still mention a few examples to further illustrate my point. A while ago, I found it hard to refer to academic sources in Chinese. This is so common in academic writing that it’s a big handicap not being able to do it smoothly. What I did to resolve this was simply to write down different ways of referring to authors and/or books that I encountered in my reading.
After doing this for a few weeks, I had a few dozen ways of citing sources. Then, when writing papers or reports, I simply glanced at that list and tried them out one by one, asking native speakers to give me feedback on the usage. Some ways of referring didn’t really work the way I imagined they would, but I still increased my active vocabulary in this area a lot. I don’t have a problem with citing sources in Chinese any more.
Here are some other things you can focus on:
- Ways of saying “but” in a sentence
- Ways of saying “however” between paragraphs
- Ways of agreeing and adding emphasis
- How to present a counter argument
- How to raise a sensitive topic
- How to be humble in writing
- How to describe graphs and statistics
Of course, if you read enough, you might be able to do this without focusing on it (I doubt most native speakers do it this way, for instance, and I have never done any such focused learning in English either), but it takes much, much longer. I had probably seen the words I recorded multiple times before and understood them perfectly well, it was just that they refused to move from my passive to my active vocabulary. This is an excellent way of encouraging that transfer and therefore also improve your writing ability in Chinese!
Drills and exercises are intimately connected to what most people associate with studying a language (rather than acquiring it through immersion). The goal of a drill is quite simple, namely to teach you how to use something actively. I’m not a big fan of drills myself, partly because they tend to be quite boring and partly because I stress input much more than most people I know.
In our program, it seems normal to think that if the student can’t use what he has been taught after the lesson, that lesson was wasted. I don’t agree, but that’s perhaps beside the point. This time I’m not going to bash drills and explain why I don’t like them, I’m going to do the opposite and point out that they are actually quite useful if used in moderation and in the right way.
Drills are actually quite useful
The point is that various drills and exercises are very good at what they are designed to do. If you hear someone mention a word or you notice a certain pattern, you might be able to understand it next time it appears, but you’re not very likely to be able to use it yourself.
You need practice to accomplish that. Just as any other skill, speaking a foreign language requires both passive knowledge and active skill, and you can only gain the latter through practice. Only practice won’t do either, of course, you can’t learn much without having the proper input first.
This is very natural and most beginners spend lots of time with their textbooks and teachers, going through new words and grammar. I think many of us have done thousands of those exercises, perhaps not when learning Chines, but at least when learning other language in school. I’ve sure done my share with English and French! Is there really a shortage of drills in language education?
Definitely not in the standard beginner or lower intermediate setting. However, drills gradually disappear at more advanced levels. Lessons turn into seminars where language is viewed more and more as a means of communication and as long as that tool works, it’s fine. The teacher still corrects the students, but mostly for written assignments.
The lack of drilling is a problem for advanced learners
This isn’t bad in itself, of course, I myself prefer this kind of lesson, but it does mean that advanced learners often stop learning new ways of expressing themselves or keep learning but a reduced pace. I include myself here, because I’m definitely guilty of the same thing. I know tons of words and phrases passively, but I can only use a small fraction of these with confidence.
This isn’t necessarily a problem, because I can still survive academic courses in Chinese and discuss freely in Chinese, but I do so without the variation shown by educated native speakers. Passively, I know perhaps ten ways of saying something, but I usually only use one or two. If communication is all you’re after, fine, but if you want to keep improving, you need to actively explore those other ways of expressing yourself.
Massive exposure and focused practice
In order to change this, we need one of two things: truly massive exposure or focused practice through drills. The first one is great if you have the time to invest, because if you hear and see words used enough, you will learn how to use them yourself. This is how you learnt your native language. If you think it’s a kid/adult thing, remember that you learnt academic language as an adult rather than as a child. I learnt how to write formal English and Swedish without doing a single drill and the same is possible for Chinese. The problem is that it takes an awful lot of reading.
The other alternative is to focus actively on interesting words or patterns and practice until you know how to use them. This also takes time, but you do get quite a lot of value back, provided that you choose the right words or patterns. This is where it’s invaluable to have a good teacher that will spot your weaknesses and do his or her best to correct them. If you normally use expression X, s/he might prompt you to use expression Y which is slightly more suitable in this situation. This is hard or impossible to accomplish on your own.
Naturally, the best approach would be to do both. However, massive input works wonders in general for all language skills and the value of the drilling you do is related to how much Chinese you read or hear, which means that if forced to choose between the two, I would definitely say that more input is better than more drilling, I’m just saying that drilling has its uses, too.
Which drills and exercises to use
There are hundreds of different kinds of exercises you can spend time with as an intermediate or advanced learner, some similar to those you’ve seen in textbooks and classrooms. The important thing to remember is to not lose sight of real communication, so just because you practice using a specific pattern, you can still communicate with your teacher or language exchange partner rather than merely mimic them or produce random sentences. Again, a good teacher will help you find interesting ways to use the language you have learnt.
Active skill, passive knowledge
The reason I write this article is that I feel that many advanced learners don’t drill at all (I know I don’t) and as a result, the different between my passive and active language gradually increases. It’s only natural that there should be a big difference, but getting stuck in your intermediate ways of expressing yourself isn’t very good if the rest of your Chinese ability is very advanced.
Personally, I don’t consider this to me a big problem, but if I had more time to study Chinese with a teacher, I would focus on drilling important words, patterns or grammar points I understand well, but seldom use. I would also need help with pointing out where I could have said something much more suitable but didn’t.
An alternative way if you have no teacher
One way of getting around the problem of having a teacher to help you is to practise in writing first. It’s easy to get feedback for free online, so you can simply choose a word, pattern or grammar point, write sentences and then receive feedback from native speakers.
When you’ve done this, you will be able to use the words more confidently. I often feel a bit insecure with ways of expression that I have never used myself, even if I have heard them many times before. Using them in writing is perfect for people who don’t feel confident enough to use every new word they’ve just learnt when speaking with people around them.
Of course, it will take some time before practice in writing spills over to your spoken language, but in my experience, it usually does. However, this isn’t a requirement, merely a suggestion if you want to include written language. Passive knowledge does transfer to active skill quite spontaneously over time, it’s just a matter of how much time you have.
If you aren’t taking any courses and isn’t actively focusing on learning Chinese, but still use Chinese regularly and think it works quite well, you probably still have a lot left to learn. Mastering Chinese requires more than knowing one way of expressing something and even though we can get most of what we want from immersion, I do think that drilling is quite useful to activate key vocabulary, sentence patterns and grammar, even at an advanced level.
We all experience slumps or periods when we don’t study much for some reason. This can be because the fun has gone out of it, because we’ve found other things to fill our spare time with or for a number of other reasons that are likely to be very individual.
When I talk about slumps, I’m talking about when you study less Chinese because of internal factors, so if you haven’t studied because you’re busy taking care of your newborn baby or surviving a one-man hike through the Amazon rainforest, you’re not experiencing a slump. Still, it’s important to realise that we usually have more time than we think, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
I wrote about the problem with slumps last week, arguing that slumps affect your learning more than flows, mostly because slumps tend to be long and draining whereas flows may be intense, but seldom last very long. I also said that the most important way of dealing with slumps is to prepare for them before they happen.
However, even though I think I explained the why, I didn’t really explain the how.After several comments about this both here on Hacking Chinese and on Facebook, I decided to expand the topic with another article focused exclusively on how to handle slumps in particular.
Productivity, time management and having fun
I have written three articles earlier that are all crucial to understanding how to deal with ebbs in motivation. For those of you who haven’t read them, I’ll summarise them as follows:
- Study according to your productivity level – When studying and choosing between the many things you want to learn, you should choose a task that is as demanding as you can manage. This might sound obvious, but it has some really important implications. First, if you are too tired to learn something, your default solution shouldn’t be to stop learning, but you should learn something easier instead. Conversely, you shouldn’t waste productivity by doing things that require no effort at all when in fact you feel like you could conquer the world. Scale down or scale up depending on your current state of mind.
- Have fun learning Chinese or else… – The importance of enjoying yourself is something that really can’t be stressed too much, even when we’re talking about normal learning as opposed to learning in a slump. The logic is quite straightforward: Learning Chinese takes an awful lot of time and if you don’t enjoy it or find it interesting, it will be almost impossible to force yourself to do it. It would also be quite stupid. Find ways of learning that you like, or at least make the best of every situation.
- The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think – The important lesson here is that accomplishing anything can be broken down into smaller tasks of various sizes. Some of them require serious planning because they are bulky and require a lot of space in your metaphorical time barrel (thes tasks are called rocks), some can be fitted in almost anywhere (pebbles or sand) or even superimposed on top of other tasks (water). In order to fill your days with as much Chinese as possible, you should think about how to fill all those small spaces between the boulders. The picture below shows how to fill the time barrel.
Now that we have looked at some of the key concepts involved, we can start talking about how to deal with the slump itself.
First, based on the article about productivity levels, it’s clear that we’re not going to accomplish anything too serious during a slump. Thus, anything that you consider challenging in anyway is probably not a good idea (you might still be forced to do it because of exams and so on, though), because you don’t have the motivation to see it through. To as large an extent as possible, stick to what you already know.
Another option is to choose tasks that don’t feel much like studying at all:
- Play a game in Chinese (I prefer StarCraft)
- Listen to songs in Chinese (find a KTV version so you see the lyrics)
- Watch a film/video/TV show in Chinese
Second, focus on anything you find interesting or fun for reasons that aren’t connected to learning the language itself (if you think learning the language itself is fun, you’re probably not in a slump at the moment and you’re reading the wrong article). Here’s some advice from the having fun article. If you already like…
- …music, focus a lot on learning Chinese songs and study the lyrics
- …games, play games in Chinese, but pay extra attention to languages
- …travelling, travel yourself or read blogs about travelling in Chinese
- …manga, read comics and watch movies, pick a genre you like
- …sports, practice sports in Chinese, read articles and watch broadcasts
There are many ways to expand something you like, such as:
- Finding friends who share your interest
- Reading blogs about the topic in question
- Writing about what you like on a blog
- Talking with friends about what you like
- Read books/watch films/listen to radio programmes
Third, if we look at the time barrel, it’s easy to see that the big rocks need to go. They require focus and represent major obstacles that you certainly don’t feel like negotiating right now. When you feel upbeat, go ahead, but during a slump, you should get rid of most or all the bigger, more draining tasks. Depending on how serious the slump is, you could also get rid of lots of pebbles. The point is that you should keep as much of the small stuff as possible. Here are some suggestions:
- Listening to a few minutes of audio on your mp3 player
- Chatting with a friend in Chinese online
- Reviewing vocabulary a few minutes at a time
- Background listening can be done at the same time as almost anything else
- Habits or hobbies converted into Chinese (sports in Chinese, play games in Chinese)
- A computer/phone interface already switched to Chinese
Don’t conquer, consolidate
In general, I think that one common denominator for all the above arguments is that things you know already are less demanding than things you don’t know. Familiar things fit more easily in the time barrel. This means that you shouldn’t focus too much on adding to your knowledge in a slump, which could be likened to conquering new territory, but rather reinforce the Chinese you already know, which would be more like consolidating what you have already conquered. In essence, jump one rung down on the ladder of progress, go back to where you were half a year ago.
Naturally, this is easier the more advanced you are. If you can read comics with ease, but find novels hard, stop reading novels and go back to comics. If you find new comics too demanding, re-read old ones or continue reading a series you’re already familiar with. Re-watch your favourite Disney or Pixar films in Chinese.
If you have a serious slump as a beginner, you might have a different kind of problem. How serious are you about learning Chinese? Rather than studying, I think you should try to find ways to motivate yourself in general. What made you start learning Chinese in the first place? Return to that inspirational source or find others.
Focus on ways of learning that don’t involve studying
Another way to look at this is to highlight the difference between studying and learning. The first usually means that you focus on doing something in order to learn (i.e. learning is the main goal). Learning is then the result of studying (if you’re using an efficient method). However, studying isn’t the only way you can learn! Basically, anything you do that’s related to Chinese will improve your Chinese. Don’t think of studying Chinese as sitting in front of a computer looking up characters or doing grammar exercises in a book. During a slump, focus on ways of learning tat don’t involve active studying.
You’re not alone
Although I haven’t discussed it explicitly above, social factors are very important. You’re not the only one learning Chinese and neither are you the only person around in general. It’s much harder to motivate yourself if you’re doing everything alone, but if you allow other people to help you, it will be much easier. This includes normal social interaction with Chinese speakers as well as teaming up with study partners or discussing learning online. I have written more about this here: You shouldn’t walk the road to Chinese fluency alone.
This is a Chengyu that for some reason seems very common in textbooks but which use is quite limited (as is the case with most Chengyu). This is the definition from Baidu:
未雨绸缪，拼为wèi yǔ chóu móu，
In other words, you make sure the doors and windows are tightly fastened before the storm (rain) arrives, which simply means to prepare for an event in advance, to prepare for a rainy day. Or prepare for a slump before it hits you. This is my final and perhaps most important piece of advice:
Prepare for the slump before it hits you
The logic behind this is very simple: There are many things you can learn during a slump, but most of these require effort of some kind before you get started. To name a few examples, you can’t watch a Pixar film in Chinese if you don’t have it available, you can’t reread a comic book if you haven’t read any comic books, you can’t practice sports if you haven’t found a club, you can’t hang out with friends that you don’t have, establishing habits is much harder than maintaining them. And so on.
You need to find learning activities at all different levels and establish habits when you have the energy to do so, not when you’re in a slump. I review vocabulary daily because it’s a habit I have established over many years. It doesn’t feel like a chore, it’s just something I do. Establishing such a habit is hard, maintaining it is not (that’s part of the definition of a habit).
Lastly, even though this might be obvious, don’t overdo any task that will come back and haunt you later. This is perhaps most important when it comes to spaced repetition software. Some people binge study in programs like Skritter and Anki, but fail to realise that the hard thing isn’t to add lots of flashcards, it’s to maintain those words later. Instead of just adding lots of words, spend that time actually using Chinese instead (listening/speaking/reading/writing).
If you’re in a slump now, take a step back (or down) and follow the advice above. Try focusing on the fun aspects of learning and avoid forced studying. Hopefully, your motivation will come back soon. If you don’t have much to fall back on in terms of habits or leisurely activities, you’d better make that a priority after the slump.
If you’re not in a slump now, you should prepare for the storm now rather than waiting for when the rain starts pouring in through your leaking roof. I have provided a lot of things you could look into, but I’m sure you know better than I do what will work for you in a slump. You will still experience slumps, but hopefully they will be less severe!
Let’s talk a little bit about cycling. As anyone who has ever cared about average speed knows, uphill stretches affect your average speed much more negatively than downhill stretches affect it positively. In other words, even though one might look at a track and think that a hill cancels itself out, this isn’t the case. In fact, the best kind of track is one with no height differences at all (provided we start and finish at the same altitude, of course).
Learning Chinese is much like cycling in this regard. There are people who go on binges and study like maniacs for short periods of time (downhill cycling), but then run out of steam and have slump lasting considerably longer (uphill cycling). The problem with this uphill-downhill kind of studying is that it isn’t your top speed that counts, it’s your average. Or, if you will, the distance you cover. The best is to have a steady, regular performance that gives you the mileage you need without burning yourself out completely.
Slumps, uphill cycling and procrastination
We all have slumps. People tend to think that I’m very ambitious, but in spite what is sometimes claimed, I’m a human rather than a robot, and as such, I do have my periods of low activity and procrastination, too.
However, the main difference between many students I know and myself is that my low output is still considerably higher than zero. When I “stop studying” Chinese, I still chat with friends, read comics, watch StarCraft matches, listen to music, practise gymnastics and so on, all in Chinese. I learn a lot even when I have no energy to study. A key component is to be able to adjust how and what you study according to how productive you feel.
I’ve written about low-intensity learning before (see the list below), but it’s essential that you set these habits or routines up before you find yourself in a slump. Forging habits is energy consuming it itself and when your fighting yourself up a very steep hill, you won’t have the energy it takes to redesign your study method. Here are a few areas to focus on:
Doing this, being in a slump just means that you won’t focus so much on learning new words or grammar and that you won’t tackle new texts or recordings. You will focus on consolidating rather than conquering new territory. It’s still a slump, but it’s the difference between hanging in there, pedalling your way towards the top rather than stopping altogether.
Flow, downhill cycling and binge studying
That being said, flow is still something very useful. I sometimes feel a very strong urge to learn more and I try to go along with that as much as I can. The problem is that I think this kind of binge studying might feel very good when you do it, but that it still drains energy and makes the subsequent slump that much worse. If you often find yourself binge studying and then leaving Chinese alone for long periods of time, you need to change the way you’re studying.
Obviously, you need to binge study quite a lot if its going to make up for what you lose in the intervening slumps. If you can do it and it fits your personality and your schedule, by all means do it, but I think that most people would benefit from having steady routines and trying to level the highest peaks and fill the lowest valleys. That way, the road to Chinese fluency becomes that much smoother!
Final words of advice
- Prepare for periods of low motivation when you’re motivated
- Establish habits that increases your minimum daily Chinese exposure
- Understand that all exposure counts as learning in some way
Continue reading: Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps
Having studied a significant amount of phonology and phonetics, as well as focusing my research more and more into pronunciation instruction, the question of so called fossilisation has popped up regularly. It has also been bothering me for a long time.
What fossilisation is and what it is not
In short, fossilisation means that the learner stops improving in a certain area, usually pronunciation (that’s what I’m going to talk about here anyway, but similar arguments can be made for other skills). The facts are quite indisputable: almost all native speakers learn the pronunciation of their native language to functional perfection, most adult foreigner don’t, even after many, many years. Thus, there is a period after which adults seem to stop learning and this is called fossilisation. This effect is often attributed to the fact that most adult students perpetuate bad pronunciation habits (errors) which will then be (allegedly) impossible to change.
Why I don’t like the term fossilisation
There are two things that bother me here. First, it feels like people use the term fossilisation not only to explain, but also to excuse bad pronunciation, saying that it’s natural, common and not something to feel bad about. I mean, if every adult learner is bound to stagnate at a certain level, why bother teaching pronunciation to advanced learners? This is often regarded as an absolute truth, producing statements like “you can’t reach native-like pronunciation after the critical age” (the definition of which depends on who’s talking).
This is nonsense. I have taught a significant number of adult students, both as a teacher and as a graduate students. I have so far never encountered someone who can’t improve. I would be very happy if people stopped throwing the word around as some kind of explanation for why foreigners fail to acquire proper tones or whatever. It’s a description and a name for an observed fact and has (almost) no explanatory value at all.
Diminished returns, not fossilisation
If the concept of fossilisation is bunk, we need an alternative way of explaining the fact that many foreigners have severe problems with their pronunciation and is nowhere close to near-native in their Chinese even after many years. I think the answer lies in the infamous principle of diminished returns.
Put very briefly, the better your pronunciation gets, the more time you need to make a significant improvement. I might be able to help a beginner to make huge leaps forward in just a few hours, but if I’m going to improve my own pronunciation in any noticeable way, it requires long and concentrated effort. It’s also the case that improving your pronunciation from “very bad” to just “bad” help your communication abilities tremendously, but levelling up from “quite good” to “very good” actually doesn’t help that much.
Another way to look at fossilisation looks like this: The problem with pronunciation is that the more times we make a certain error (failing to pronounce the third tone as a low ton in front of first, second and fourth tones, for instance), the harder it becomes to change that habit later. However, even if this is true to some extent, that doesn’t mean that it’s a law of nature you can’t bypass. Changing pronunciation isn’t necessarily easy, but it can definitely be done.
Why we stop improving your pronunciation
In essence, I’m convinced that the reason most foreigners have lousy pronunciation isn’t because they started learning Chinese as adults or because it’s impossible to learn as an adult. Instead, it’s because most students simply aren’t motivated enough to put in the effort it requires. This is similar to the argument I made in the article about adult vs. child learning (You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old). Changing pronunciation habits is hard, why not do something more useful instead when people seem to understand what you say most of the time anyway? Still, remember that bad pronunciation always interferes with communication.
I can come up with several other reasons:
- You don’t have time
- You don’t know what to improve
- You don’t know how to practice
- You think it’s boring
- You’re too lazy
I’m not saying that it’s equally easy to learn pronunciation as an adult compared to as a a child, nothing could be further from the truth, but I am saying that just because you won’t acquire good pronunciation automatically it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. This article is about adult pronunciation, child acquisition of pronunciation is something completely different.
What to do if you actually want to improve your pronunciation
You need to solve the above problems, roughly in the order mentioned above. Most importantly, you need to know what your problems are and how to fix them. To do this, you need feedback from a teacher. Obviously, you also need to listen a lot and mimic a lot, but without feedback, you stand little or no chance of improving (think of it like this, if you could improve only by listening and mimicking, your Chinese would be excellent by now).
Most teachers can offer you feedback and corrections, some teachers can explain what you should do instead, a few can help you design a plan to overcome you current pronunciation problems. If you’re very ambitious, you can do most of these things on your own with occasional support. The important thing is that you can do it if you really want to. I’m not going to argue that you should, that’s up to you.
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