Learning Chinese through audio books

Image credit: Jeff Daly
Image credit: Jeff Daly

I have learnt English to my current level without ever having lived in an English-speaking country. I attribute this mostly to very large amounts of input, mostly in the form of books. When I was around 20, I figured that I would never be able to read all the books I wanted to read, so I started listening to audio books as a complement to reading normally.

It took a while to get used to it, but once I had established the proper habits, I consumed a few novels a week, adding up to as much as 100 books per year.

In order to listen to enough Chinese, you need long-form content

In last week’s article, I talked about the importance of using long-form over bite-sized content when it comes to building volume. To summarise, it’s very hard to listen to enough audio if you only listen to snippets, you need longer programs or audio books to increase the amount of listening at an advanced level.

This is actually easier than it sounds, since by keeping to the same resource, many factors remain constant (such as speaker and style) or at least similar (e.g. content). Variety is good, but it also requires more effort to cope with. You can read the entire article here.

As promised, I will now talk about using audio books to learn in particular.

Listening to audio books in Chinese

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I found it much more difficult to apply this kind of massive input method to learning Chinese. There are many reasons for this. To start with, I don’t feel that there is a big difference between reading and listening to a novel in English, whereas in Chinese, the difference is huge.

This isn’t because my listening ability is bad, but because written Chinese is much more distant from colloquial Chinese than written English is from spoken English. There are many words that are only used in writing, abbreviations or contractions that make more sense if you see the characters and a very large number of near-homonyms. This makes listening to an audio book considerably harder than reading it, given roughly equal listening and reading competence.

Another factor is that in English, there are many authors who write in a very simple style. In other words, you can be a world-famous author while still writing in plain English, indeed some authors are famous at least partly because they do this (Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene come to mind).

I have not found this to be true in Chinese literature. Instead, it seems that highly held works of literature are linguistically more complicated, referential and “fancy”. Also, many Chinese novels have strong dialectal streaks, which can make it even harder. This is true for some English novels as well, but I’ve rarely found this to be a problem.

Listening to a Chinese novel written with an unfamiliar regional flavour is a bit like giving the audio version of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange to an intermediate learner of English. Good luck!

The reason I’m saying all this is because you shouldn’t be disappointed if you’re an intermediate learner and find audio books difficult. They will be, probably for a long time. I suggest proceeding with audio books only if you can already understand most of the Chinese you hear around you in an everyday setting.

Selecting the audio book that is right for you

There are a number of factors you should keep in mind when selecting an audio book. Since many of these vary a lot, you might need to try several before you choose one to actually stick with. This essential, do not just choose one randomly and dive in, because it might be many times harder than it needs to be.

Here are some important factors to consider:

  • The book is of course the most important factor. Try to find a book that interests you and which isn’t too literary or contains too much dialect you don’t understand. I suggest modern fiction in a modern setting.  Ask Chinese friends for recommendations. I have written about how to ease yourself into reading novels in Chinese, and the same principles apply to listening to novels as well.
  • The narrator is also extremely important. The most common “problem” is that the narration is too dramatic, which means the narrator changes volume, tempo and style according to the requirements of the story. This can be very hard to listen to! I recommend narrators that are as close to normal relaxed reading as possible. This might be less interesting for native speakers, but it’s easier for non-native speakers to listen to.
  • The setting is sometimes important. It will be much harder to understand something set in an unfamiliar time or place, so choose something which is as familiar as possible. This probably means a modern setting, which also increases the likelihood that the language is suitable.

I haven’t listened to enough books to be able to suggest a good book which is also relatively easy to follow, but the most suitable book I’ve listened to so far is 病毒 by 蔡駿. It’s a thriller/horror story (not very scary though) in a modern setting. There are also two sequels if you want more.

How to find audio books in Chinese

There are many ways to find audio books in Chinese. You can of course buy and/or download them from a number of websites (just search for the book title plus 有声书/有聲書, but the best way is to use one of the many apps and sites that stream audio, usually for free. This allows you to try many books before you settle on one you actually want to listen to.

Here are some apps/sites I’ve used:

Note that you can usually save streamed audio pretty easily, but that’s not something I will describe in detail here, but check this article in Wired:

Download MP3s from Streaming Music Sites

There are also many browser plugins that allow you to download streamed media.

How to listen to your first audio book

Now that you have selected an audio book, it’s time to start listening. But how? Here are my suggestions:

  • Combine text and audio – When you first start out, it helps a lot to have access to the text version of the book. This can make it easier to get used to the book. This is of course provided that your reading is up to par, but I think reading a book is still easier than listening to it for most students.
  • Listen more than once – There’s nothing wrong with listening to the first chapter a couple of times. You probably need less re-listening after that, but feel free to do it as much as you feel necessary to understand the gist of each chapter. This is the easiest way of increasing understanding, but if you find it too boring, don’t do overdo it.
  • Don’t give up – Listening to a novel in Chinese is not easy. It takes practice both getting used to the book, the narrator, the story and even audio books in general if you’re not used to it already from listening to books in English. As usual, the more you practise, the easier it becomes.

Conclusion

Audio books are a great way of learning and the best kind of long-form content I know. Have you listened to any books in Chinese? Please post a comment and share your experience. If you liked the book, please give some more information so that other readers can listen to the book too!

Bite-sized learning isn’t enough to learn Chinese

wot
This is what I read when I want to read something familiar that never ends. I’ve read about 4000 pages so far, still twice that to go. It’s the traditional translation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

I’m a big fan of bite-sized learning, because it’s easier to fit short periods of studying into your daily schedule. It’s also much less daunting to face a few sentences than it is to face something that takes at least an hour to get through. It’s hard to get started and you might end up not doing much at all. If the learning material is chopped up into smaller pieces, though, it’s easier to get started. Smaller pieces decrease the risk of choking. This is true for text as well as audio, which is the focus of this month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese:

Chinese listening challenge, June 10th to June 30th

Why bite-sized learning isn’t enough

At some point, however, you have to learn to chew longer sections of text and audio. There are two main reasons:

  1. It’s part of what you might want to do with your Chinese or part of what other people require of you.
  2. It’s the only way to build enough volume.

Let’s look at number two more closely. To reach a good level of listening and reading, you’ll need to spend thousands of hours listening and reading Chinese, and that is very difficult if your studying consists only of five-minute dialogues and short social media messages. Getting through a year’s worth of food takes a while if you’re only allowed to nibble.

Bite-sized learning is good, but it’s sometimes harder than the alternative

Staying with the same material for a long time comes with some advantages apart from the fact that it’s easier to build volume. For instance, you get used to the way the content is written or spoken, and you get used to the topic(s) discussed.

Compare reading a novel spanning 250 pages with reading 25 short stories of ten pages each. I would argue that reading the novel is considerably easier, especially if the short stories are written by different authors and not collected in an anthology with a common theme.  The same is true for audio content, so it’s easier to understand and follow a two-hour interview than 24 five-minute interviews. You get to know the interviewed and the interviewer.

Long-form content is crucial for immersion

This is great, indeed necessary, if you want to immerse yourself in Chinese (especially if you create your own immersion environment). Constantly skipping between different topics, speakers and narratives is exhausting and can’t be maintained for very long. Thus, if you want to listen and read a lot, you need to find material that is both suitable for slicing up into small pieces, but also content that you can stick with longer.

Finding the right balance can be tricky, because as I have written elsewhere, you need diversity, too (Listening strategies: Diversify your listening practice). I think this is similar to studying content at different difficulty levels. You should study difficult things, but you have to realise that you can’t do that for very long, so you need easier material for when you’re not at 100%. Diversity works the same way, so you want as much diversity as possible, but not so much that you burn yourself out.

Low intensity and low diversity vs. high intensity and high diversity

For example, when I listen to or read Chinese these days, I have a high-intensity mode and a low-intensity one. The high-intensity mode means that I listen to wide variety of content, usually selected more or less randomly on 凤凰FM. The speakers are unfamiliar, the content is often new and I have very little idea of what it’s about before I start listening. The same principles can be applied to reading.

The low-intensity mode means that I listen to and read things I’m already familiar with. The extreme case is of course to listen or read something I’ve already been through before, that’s for when I don’t want to study actively at all and just want something to listen to. More commonly, though, I want something more interesting than that, and then I aim for longer content that I can stay with for a long time. For reading, this means novels or series of novels; for listening it means audio books, something I will write more about in an upcoming article.

Preparing for rainy days

What’s worth noticing here is that it requires an effort to build up your library of low-intensity, long-form listening and reading material. Reading a novel or a series of novels isn’t easy and relaxing when you start, but it might be when you’ve done it for a while. If you don’t listen and read enough, you won’t have old material to revisit. This means that you need to make an effort to get these projects going and you need to prepare in advance. I’ve written much more about this here: Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps.

Finding suitable material

So, where do you get this kind of material? For beginners, it’s almost impossible. Extensive reading and listening, which is what we’re talking about here, is only possible if you can already understand most of the content and it’s very difficult to create such material for beginners in large quantities. You need a certain number of words and basic grammar to be able to say or write something interesting.The only thing I can recommend is what I usually recommend if you want more reading and listening at a beginner level: get more textbooks slightly below your current one.

Once you reach an intermediate stage, though, there are more resources available:

Even if you can’t find material which suits you perfectly (you probably won’t), you can still follow the principles I discussed above and reap some of the benefits. One way of doing this would be sticking to the same topic, although by different writers/speakers. Find news reports about the same event from many different channels, gather and read material about a historical event from different sources, find interviews with the same person done by different reporters.

If you can’t keep all the factors constant and find material at a suitable level, try to keep at least some of them constant. If you want to activate the language you learn passively, you can also summarise the material you have read or listened to; this is one of the best ways I know of improving writing ability in particular.

For advanced learners, it’s easier since you can start using audio and text meant for native speakers. It still requires effort to find the books you want to read and the programs you like listening to, but it’s easier than for beginners and intermediate learners. If you think it’s hard to find anything, ask native speakers for help, preferably someone who knows you a bit or has similar tastes. See also:

Easing yourself into reading novels in Chinese

Conclusion

Learning a language is a complex task and you need practice of many different kinds. In general, spend as much time you can with diverse and challenging content, but realise that you will not be able to do that for very long before tiring.

Using long-form content is an excellent way of reducing the energy you need to learn Chinese. You save that energy by not having to familiarise yourself with the speaker/writer, style and content every time you start learning. This should make it easier to spend more time exposed to Chinese, which should be the main goal!

Review: FluentU Chinese

04-23-15-11-58-39_250-250I remember what it was like starting to learn Chinese and I have since seen the same thing in students. When first starting out, everybody’s very enthusiastic and even though some parts of the language feel difficult, these challenges are there to be overcome and even repeated setbacks can’t really dent our ambition to learn more.

But it’s with language as it is with everything else in life, the sheen wears off, the dust settles and studying stops being the most exciting part of the day and turns into a part of normal life instead. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it becomes boring, but it means that for most of us, we have to make an effort to make it interesting.

The obvious way of making learning interesting is to make sure that the content in interesting, but as anyone who has tried knows, immersion in Chinese isn’t as easy as it sounds. Reaching a level where you can read and listen to interesting content takes a long time.

This week’s article is an in-depth review of FluentU in general, with an obvious focus on Chinese. I think this new service can help you solve both the problem of finding interesting material and the problem of making it accessible.

FluentU Chinese

In a nutshell, FluentU is a service that uses video and audio to teach you Chinese. While doing so, you have access to a lot of scaffolding, such as subtitles, translations, pop-up definitions, useful player features such as looping and pausing. Added to this, there is a learning and review section if you want to actually learn the content of the media you watch and listen to. Overall, I think FluentU has come a long way towards solving the problems of boredom and inaccessibility of Chinese learning materials.

If you’ve never hard of FluentU before, I suggest you check out my brief video review below. I will discuss the service in more detail below in both text and images, but since this service is mostly about video content, I feel that a video review is in place:

Let’s dig deeper and see what FluentU has to offer learners of Chinese.

Using video to learn Chinese

The videos are the core of FluentU and what sets it apart from many other services, including most podcasts. Using video to learn has obvious advantages, such as being more interesting, engaging more senses and offering more information in general. The problem is of course that video is harder and more expensive to produce, so what FluentU has done is very clever: Turn existing videos into Chinese learning material. They also offer a growing library of videos created by the FluentU team, but more about that later.

At the moment, there are 2441 video and audio clips distributed over six difficulty levels, eight types of content and nine formats. Something to note here is that for each video, you can see how many words it contains, and, more importantly, how many of these words you already know. That means that the more you use the service, the better it will be at showing you clips where you know most of the content already.

You can also view or download a transcript of the dialogue and the vocabulary found in it.

screenshot43

This is what the main interface looks like. You can play the entire clip, loop selected sections or pause the video simply by hovering over the subtitles. The video interface works well and allows you to drill-down into any part of the content you didn’t understand. There are also some extra features that increase the usefulness a lot:

  • Screenshot from 2015-05-27 18:44:49Coloured time panel based on the subtitle content so you can easily find what you’re looking for
  • A loop function that allows you to play the same section over and over
  • The option to toggle Pinyin and translations on and off
  • Choose between simplified and traditional characters

Another great feature is the pop-up dictionary. This is not your average browser pop-up dictionary that simply gives you the CDICT definition and pronunciation of the character or word you hover over, it gives you much more than that. As the screenshot on the right shows, you also get a picture and the part of speech. The pictures are surprisingly well chosen to illustrate the specific words, although not always perfect. Still, this is as far as I know the largest dictionary that includes images

While we’re at it, let’s look closer at the vocabulary, because this is one of the areas where I think FluentU is outstanding. If you click the character or word, it brings up more information about it, like so:

screenshot45There are a couple of really cool things here. First, there are numerous example sentences with translation and audio. Second, some of these sentences have video, which is surely unprecedented in other Chinese learning materials. This means that you can actually watch how that specific word is used in other videos on FluentU! The only drawback here is that if there is no specifically recorded audio, a TTS (text-to-speech) function takes over, but more about this later.

A closer look at the content

As mentioned above, the content is partly from YouTube and partly created by FluentU. The former is very diverse and everybody should be able to find something. Most of the videos are very short, many of them less than a minute. This is good for bite-sized learning, but can also be quite annoying if you want something longer and more coherent. To address this problem, videos are also organised into courses, which focus on a specific topic.

The videos created by the FluentU team are of decent quality, both in terms of scripts, acting and recording quality. Of course, lower-level videos are a bit awkward at times, partly because the speed is reduced and partly because there’s only so much you can say with a limited vocabulary. Considering that it’s almost impossible to create natural-sounding material for beginners, I’m perfectly fine with this.

There is also an audio section, which works very much like the video section, except there is no video. The interface works the same way, you can look up words and toggle subtitles the same way. I do think the audio is useful, but it still feels much less unique than the video content.

Learning vs. just watching

If FluentU was just a service which added subtitles to YouTube clips in a neat way, I think it would have been very useful, but it would be very far from a comprehensive solution for learning Chinese. One step in that direction is the learning mode, where you can study the content of a video rather than just watch it. You can do it in any order, but I would strongly suggest you do the following:

  1. Select a video where you already understand a lot
  2. Watch it without subtitles a few times
  3. Watch it with subtitles in Pinyin or characters
  4. Turn on translations and check your understanding
  5. Study the vocabulary you find interesting or useful

If you’re a big fan of bottom-up learning, you can of course but the last step first, but I strongly advice against it since that is far removed from real-world listening. You learn to understand spoken Chinese by really trying to understand spoken Chinese.

screenshot42The learning mode consists of a series of questions where you’re supposed to pick the right translation, fill in the gap, type characters (with a built-in input method) and so on. You can also view the word in different contexts, just as you could with the pop-up dictionary in the video player. In general, this section of the site makes sure you’re actively processing the content, rather than just watching it. If you want that depends on your reasons for using FluentU, of course.

Flashcards, reviewing and spaced repetition

If you want to learn something, you have review it. FluentU has a built-in flashcard system based on a spaced repetition algorithm. They don’t disclose much about it, except that it’s based on Supermemo. In any case, it’s all integrated into the system so you can review words from the videos you have watched and so on.

screenshot49What I like most about the flashcard system is that it keeps everything in context. I have mentioned this several times already, but it’s truly awesome to be able to see the word used in different sentences and the videos in which they appear.

I haven’t used FluentU for long enough to be able to say how well the flashcard system works. If you have used the service for a longer period of time and have anything to say about it, please leave a comment! I’m a big fan of SRS in general, though, and it’s something I use daily myself, although not in this form.

The FluentU iPhone app was launched earlier today, so that should take care of the mobility issues, at least for iOS users.

Pricing

Considering that FluentU creates their own learning materials and really adds value to other people’s videos, it’s definitely something you should expect to pay for. A lot of manual work has also been done with the dictionary (pictures, for instance) and the overall experience is completely different from just watching videos with subtitles on YouTube. So what does it cost? There are three tiers (click here for actual details):

  1. Free ($0/month): You have full access to all functions, but for a limited amount of content. I see no reason not to try this if you’ve come this far in my review.
  2. Basic ($8/month): You now have unlimited access to the content, but some functions are not available, such as learning mode and flashcards.
  3. Plus ($18/month): You have full access to all content and all functions.

Is it worth it? Which plan should you go for? Only you can answer the first question, preferably by first checking it out and then choosing which plan to go for. The basic plan works well if you want this as a source of extra listening and reading material, the plus plan comes closer to a complete solution, so it depends on what you’re after.

Room for improvement

No review would be complete without bringing up a few points of concern. It should be clear from the above discussion that I think FluentU is great, so the following list is not meant to discourage you from trying it out, but if you think something I mention here is extremely important for you, you should take that into consideration:

  • Text-to-speech inadequate – The single biggest issue I have with FluentU is the text-to-speech (TTS). It doesn’t work. TTS is far from good enough to teach Chinese, especially beginners. Pronunciation is sometimes completely off, clipped, garbled or just wrong. This is not a problem when you watch videos, of course, but it is when you learn vocabulary. For more advanced learners, this might be okay, but beginners should never have to hear this. Here are some examples: 就是 (jiùshì), 想不到 (xiǎngbùdào), also note the missing tone sandhi), 還 (hái).
  • Doesn’t work in China – This should be fairly obvious since the service is mainly based on YouTube videos. You should be able to get around this by using a VPN, but from what I gather, that creates delays that are so serious that it’s not worth it. If you know more about this, please leave a comment.
  • Difficult to integrate – Some learners don’t want or don’t need a complete solution, especially if it isn’t complete (and no solution ever is). That means that being able to integrate FluentU with other ways of studying is important, but it’s not easy. For example, there is no way to export vocabulary. I don’t want to be tied to a web interface to review vocabulary. The iOS app is launched today, but I don’t have an iPhone.
  • Lack of structure and guidance – This comment is only relevant if you want to use FluentU as your main source of learning. Where should you begin? Should you learn all the words? No, you most definitely shouldn’t, but how do you know which to learn? If FluentU wants to become a complete solution for learning Chinese, it needs to guide learners more. Yes, being able to choose interesting content is great, but too much choice has its own problems.

As I said, none of these issues are serious enough to stop me from recommending FluentU, but for now, I can only fully endorse the basic plan, since I think the learning mode still needs work, especially with the audio. If you want it to activate the language you learn, then go for the plus plan, but be aware that the audio is far from ideal.

Conclusion

I think FluentU is a unique and valuable addition to the different paths to Chinese fluency. It has come very far since the early days and I’m sure most of the issues I mentioned above will be addressed in due time. In the meantime, I think anyone who is interested in learning Chinese through video content should check it out. Exactly what you think about the service and if it’s worth the money will depend on your current situation and what you need, but I think the basic plan should be attractive for most students who takes immersion seriously.

Have you tried FluentU Chinese? What do you think? Please leave a comment!

Review: Mandarin Companion graded readers (Level 1)

secretgarden_book_mockup_shadowInput is extremely important when learning a language. Without having heard something, how are you supposed to be able to say it? Without having read something, how are you supposed to be able to write it? Building a passive knowledge of Chinese is essential, not only because it allows you to read and listen, but also because it is the gateway to all other knowledge.

The more you understand, the more you learn

Research tells us that the more we understand, the more we learn. If you understand almost nothing, you will learn little. If you understand almost everything, you will pick up the few bits you didn’t already know. The problem facing adult learners of Chinese is two-fold:

  1. There isn’t enough learner-oriented reading material
  2. The material that exists is not interesting enough

You need much more reading than your textbook can offer and you need it to be at roughly the same level. One way of alleviating this problem is to use more than one textbook series in parallel, but this solution is far from ideal. There is a better solution, though.

Enter: Mandarin Companion graded readersscreenshot29

A graded reader is a book with a limited difficulty, often set by a certain number of words to make it easy to read. For Chinese graded readers, the number of unique characters is the most common measurement.

Mandarin Companion offers a new series of readers, currently five books, all at the most basic level, which use only 300 unique characters. That means that they are accessible from a very early stage. I think Mandarin Companion is suitable both for beginners and intermediate learners, though:

  • Beginners can extend their reading beyond the textbook and read texts that are both interesting and capped at a certain difficulty, meaning that you can read and learn everything in these books and be quite sure you’re learning very high frequency characters and words.
  • Intermediate learners can use the series for extensive reading (i.e. the kind I mentioned above where you understand most of the text already). Even though 300 characters don’t sound like much, I think only advanced learners will be able to read through all these books without finding a single new word.

Mandarin Companion is published by Mind Spark Press and edited by John Pasden. The original stories are written by various authors (see below) and adapted by Renjun Yang.

Reading Mandarin Companionscreenshot30

In order to write this review, I read through all five books. They come in both a simplified and traditional edition, so choose whichever you prefer (I read the traditional versions) .

Before I review each volume individually, I’d like to say a few words about them as a whole. To begin with, they are all much more interesting than the average textbook, much longer and generally well-written. The language is mostly natural-sounding (given the strict limit in the umber of characters, of course) and in difference to native texts, the same words are reused over and over, which is great for learning.

Each volume consists of around 10 000 Chinese characters, so while not super long, they should last the reader a long time, depending on your reading ability. Combining all the books forms a solid step on your journey to becoming literate in Chinese. Each story is adapted from a well-known story, which has been relocated to China and populated by Chinese people (so no ten-character transliterations of words, which is a great relief).

There is also a list of words included, all hyperlinked so if you read on screen, you can find the definitions of selected words easily. Each book also comes with discussion questions, which perhaps feel more relevant if you use the books in class or in a group, but yo could also answer them and upload your texts to Lang-8 or similar. Each volume is richly illustrated with pictures of much higher quality than we’re used to in educational material, a big thumbs up!

All books can be browsed on Mandarin Companion’s homepage and the price varies from $7 to $13 depending on if you want an e-book or a printed book. I have included direct links to Amazon for each book below.

Almost 50 000 characters of beginner-friendly reading

I’m now going to introduce and briefly comment on the five stories that make up the first level. The story summaries are from the official website.

盲人国 (Country of the Blind by H.G. Wells)

coverCountryoftheBlind250x400“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” repeats in Chen Fangyuan’s mind after he finds himself trapped in a valley holding a community of people for whom a disease eliminated their vision many generations before and no longer have a concept of sight. Chen Fangyuan quickly finds that these people have developed their other senses to compensate for their lack of sight. His insistence that he can see causes the entire community to believe he is crazy. With no way out, Chen Fangyuan begins to accept his fate until one day the village doctors believe they now understand what is the cause of his insanity those useless round objects in his eye sockets.

This s my favourite story among the five. The story is well-worth reading apart from any language-learning ambition, and the twist at the end is the same as the one I thought of when I read the original story some fifteen years ago. I think the reason I liked this book the most is also that it has a well-paced narrative, a clear structure and an interesting basic premise. I have nothing to complain about, really good!

Get the paperback from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (traditional)

猴爪 (The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs)

coverMonkeysPaw250x400Mr. and Mrs. Zhang live with their grown son Guisheng who works at a factory. One day an old friend of Mr. Zhang comes to visit the family after having spent years traveling in the mysterious hills of China’s Yunnan Province. He tells the Zhang family of a monkey’s paw that has magical powers to grant three wishes to the holder. Against his better judgement, he reluctantly gives the monkey paw to the Zhang family, along with a warning that the wishes come with a great price for trying to change ones fate…

This story also has a clear narrative and good pacing. I found the story a bit too predictable and less interesting than the Country of the Blind, but still worthwhile. If you like horror stories more than speculative fiction, perhaps this is the best book for you, although like many classic horror stories, it isn’t very scary.

Get the paperback from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (traditional)

秘密花园 (The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett)

coverSecretGarden250x4001Li Ye (Mary Lennox) grew up without the love and affection of her parents. After an epidemic leaves her an orphan, Li Ye is sent off to live with her reclusive uncle in his sprawling estate in Nanjing. She learns of a secret garden where no one has set foot in ten years. Li Ye finds the garden and slowly discovers the secrets of the manor. With the help of new friends, she brings the garden back to life and learns the healing power of friendship and love.

I liked this story, mostly because the characters were interesting and not as bland as they tend to be in many textbooks. I haven’t read the original, but I think this adaptation is most suitable for younger readers. I like the theme of exploration, both in the physical sense of exploring the estate and in the figurative sense of finding out the truth about the secret garden.

Get the paperback from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (traditional)

六十年的梦 (“The Sixty-Year Dream”, Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving)

coverSixtyYearDream225x360Zhou Xuefa (Rip Van Winkle) is well loved by everyone in his town, everyone except his nagging wife. With his faithful dog Blackie, Zhou Xuefa spends his time playing with kids, helping neighbors, and discussing politics in the teahouse. One day after a bad scolding from his wife, he goes for a walk into the mountains and meets a mysterious old man who appears to be from an ancient time. The man invites him into his mountain home for a meal and after drinking some wine, Zhou Xuefa falls into a deep sleep. He awakes to a time very different than what he once knew.

This is the weakest story of the five and the only one I can’t wholeheartedly recommend. I found the premise interesting, but the story lacked an interesting plot and more felt like the main character experiencing a series of disconnected events that built up to nothing in particular.

Get the paperback from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (traditional)

卷发公司的案子 (The Red Headed League by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

coverSherlockHolmes250x400Mr. Xie was recently hired by the Curly Haired Company. For a significant weekly allowance, he was required to sit in an office and copy articles from a book, while in the meantime his assistant looked after his shop. He had answered an advertisement in the paper and although hundreds of people applied, he was the only one selected because of his very curly hair. When the company unexpectedly closes, Mr. Xie visits Gao Ming (Sherlock Holmes) with his strange story. Gao Ming is certain something is not right, but will he solve the mystery in time?

I’ve read and liked most of the original Sherlock Holmes stories and I have read several children’s versions in Chinese as well. I wish I had read this one instead! It’s much more suitable for learners than any book for Chinese children. The story is a typical Sherlock Holmes story where we follow the confused Watson as Holmes expertly solves another mystery. An interesting and neatly paced story and a good read in general.

Get the paperback from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (simplified)
Get the e-book from Amazon (traditional)

Room for improvement

I’m very enthusiastic about graded readers in general, but no review would be complete without also covering a few areas where there’s room for improvement. The most glaring examples of this is that there is no audio. John has told me that they plan to release audio, but until it’s there, this remains the only real drawback with this series of graded readers. The rest I have to say could be considered nitpicking.

For instance, the glossary sometimes feels like it’s been based only on word frequency, meaning that some phrases that are far from obvious are left unexplained, while some easy words you can find in any dictionary are included. I would have liked to see more notes for these types of phrases that I guess most beginners will struggle with. To show you what I mean, here are two examples:

陳方遠很奇怪,他覺得自己的走路聲很小,江天雨怎麼聽到的?

奇怪 here means 觉得很奇怪, but this isn’t explained. If you look the word up, it means “strange”, but this sentence doesn’t mean that he (陳方遠) is strange.  This usage is normal in Chinese, but not in English. I would have either avoided it or explained it. Students usually learn this much later than many of the words that are explained. Here’s another example:

如果你們想讓我別打你們,就應該聽我的

This is another sentence that would have benefited from an explanation. 聽我的 means that other people should do as you say, but with a beginner’s understanding of Chinese, this sentence just means that they should listen to him. Again, annotation for these types of sentences would have been more useful than some of the words that are currently included.

Conclusion

In summary, Mandarin Companion fills a gap and does it very well. I recommend all beginner and intermediate learners to get at least one book and try it out, then get the rest of them (except perhaps the Sixty-Year Dream). I would have liked audio, though, and my recommendation will be even more wholehearted when audio versions are released. Still, these are graded readers and as such, I warmly recommend them!

The 9 best Twitter feeds for learning Chinese

screenshot25Learning Chinese can feel overwhelming, especially when you’re faced with the infamous Great Wall of Chinese (text). One way of making it easier is to chop it up into many bite-sized pieces.

This makes Twitter an excellent place to learn a bit of Chinese without drowning. Each message is limited to 140 characters, so it can’t be that hard, can it? There’s an increasing number of people on Twitter who try to use these short messages to help you learn Chinese.

In this article, I’m going to share with you my favourite Twitter feeds for Chinese content. I have used the following criteria to create this list. The feeds have to:

  • Be suitable for language learners – This means including translations, Pinyin or both. I have avoided including too many Chinese-only feeds and focused on those that are suitable for beginners and intermediate learners. Advanced learners will of course benefit too.
  • Contain mostly Chinese language content – Some feeds contain a lot of interesting language content, but mixed up with too many other things. I have only included those that almost exclusively focus on Chinese language content.
  • Not rely on links to be useful – Twitter is often used to share links to interesting content. For this article, I have focused on content that is meaningful and useful directly on Twitter, i.e. without having to go to an external site.

There is of course more to learning Chinese on Twitter than just language content. A few years ago, I wrote an article called 31 Twitter feeds to help you learn Chinese. That article is mostly obsolete now, too many users have gone inactive and many new have arrived on the scene.

In that article, I included people who tweeted about language learning and studying Chinese. If you want more of that, the easiest way is to follow me on Twitter, because I share most of the interesting stuff I stumble upon. You can also follow my other list on Twitter, which is more about learning Chinese in general.

The 9 best Twitter feeds for learning Chinese

These are my favourites. If you want to recommend an account that follows the above criteria, but isn’t mentioned in this article, please contact me and I’ll add that account to my watch list. Please don’t suggest accounts that only post single words unless these are terribly interesting.

If you want to view all the accounts below on Twitter, click here to view my Chinese content list on Twitter!

LearnchineseCSL @learnchineseCSL

Focus: Unusual sentences with matching and fun pictures. Pinyin + translation. Simplified.
Comment: Great sentence source, doesn’t clutter tweets with other things.
Sample tweet:

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Hello HSK_EN @HS201202

Focus: Useful sentences with matching pictures. Pinyin + translation. Simplified.
Comment: Great content. Short and to the point, easy to use elsewhere.
Sample tweet:

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Liz Carter @withoutdoing

Focus: Interesting expressions, slang or idioms. Pinyin + translation. Occasional cats.
Comment: By far the most interesting content on this list.
Sample tweets:

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All about Chinese @allaboutchinese

Focus: Inspirational quotes. No Pinyin. Simplified.
Comment: Good sentences, sometimes a bit sentimental. Source seldom given.
Sample tweet:

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Learn Mandarin 中文故事 @ZhongWenGuShi

Focus: Useful sentences with interesting and matching pictures. Pinyin + translation. Traditional/simplified.
Comment: Tweets only pictures, so much harder to copy. Carefully matched content, though.
Sample tweet:

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LearnChineseWords @VocabChinese

Focus: Useful sentences with pinyin and translation. Simplified.
Comment: Great content. Short and to the point, easy to use elsewhere.
Sample tweet:

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Focus:  Interesting Chinese proverbs with translation. No Pinyin. Simplified.
Comment:  Doesn’t tweet often, but content is good, at least the proverb posts.
Sample tweets:

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Chinese Language @learnchinesehl

Focus: Basic, useful sentences with Pinyin and translation. Simplified.
Comment:  Words plus example sentence. A bit bland, but very useful.
Sample tweets:

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Speak Up Chinese @speakupchinese

Focus: Individual words with pictures. Pinyin + translation. Some language-learning related links. Simplified
Comment: Interesting word choice (intermediate and above) with helpful pictures.
Sample tweet:

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That’s it for now! Have I missed anything? What’s your favourite Twitter feeds for learning Chinese?

Hone your Chinese writing ability by writing summaries

 summaryWhat should you do if you want to improve your writing ability in Chinese? The answer is two-fold. First, you should start reading more. Without a passive understanding of the language you’re going to use when you write, it’s almost impossible to use it accurately and writing will be reduced to a translation exercise that relies heavily on dictionaries. You will forget most of the words right after you copied them from the dictionary. Not good. Don’t expect to be able to write something you can’t read.

Second, you get good at what you practice, so if you want to get good at writing, no amount of reading will take you there if you don’t also combine it with writing practice. I think these are parallel processes, so I don’t mean that you shouldn’t write anything until you’re literate. This is not a good idea for the same reason that it’s not a good idea to delay speaking until you can understand spoken Chinese. It’s not bad because it wouldn’t work (it probably would, perhaps even very well), but because it would take an awful lot of time before you could do anything useful with the language.

If you want to be able to write Chinese, you have to write. But how should you practice?

Low and high intensity writing practice

As I have argued many times before, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that you need activities of both low and high intensity. For casual, low-intensity writing practice, please refer to the following articles:

In this article, though, I want to look at a high-intensity activity that combines reading and writing into one. It’s the best way of improving writing ability that I know of, and can be used at any level, but works best from intermediate and up when you can read and write sentences.

Hone your Chinese writing ability by writing summaries

Writing summaries of Chinese texts is excellent practice. You might think that it doesn’t sound like too much fun, but this activity is so good that you have to check it out. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Intensive reading – The first thing you need to do if you want to write a summary is to completely understand the original text. This means going through it carefully and resolving any issues with a tutor. This kind of activity should be on your weekly schedule anyway, and so getting it integrated in a more comprehensive exercise is excellent.
  • Focused reading practice – In order to write a summary, you have to read very carefully and pay attention both to the content and the language. It’s probably a good idea to read it several times, focusing on different aspects every time. I have written more about focused reading here: How to improve your Chinese writing ability through focused reading. Underline keywords, understand what words in the text give it its structure.
  • Natural exposure to important vocabulary – If you’re goal is to be able to write about your work, your hobby or something else, by reading texts in Chinese about these topics, you are exposed to the vocabulary native speakers use when writing about these topics. Collect the words, add them to the spaced repetition program of your choice. You also have good examples of how they are used, so don’t just add words, grab phrases or sentences.
  • Making the text your own –  Just reading a text with the aim of really understanding it is a good activity in general, but it doesn’t become your own text until you do something with it. Writing a summary is one of things you can do. Other things include commenting on the text, discussing it and so on, but these require much more support than writing a summary.
  • Activating vocabulary and grammar –  Knowing something passively is one thing, but in order to be able to write well, you need to be able to use the words as well. When you write your summary, you practice using the words you have learnt from your reading practice. If you do this with several articles with a similar topic, your command of the key vocabulary will increase rapidly.
  • Preparing for exams – Writing exams are often about reading some text and then transforming it into your own. Naturally, it might not be a straight-up summary they’re asking for, but restating something you have read in your own words is common. Being able to do this well shows both that you can read well and have a command of the language that allows you to do something useful with the things you read.
  • Avoiding translation –  I think translation is an excellent exercise (Translating to improve your Chinese), especially for advanced learners, but sometimes its good to avoid translation and just focus on the Chinese. Furthermore, if you write under the guidance of a tutor, summaries don’t require that much from him or her, but discussing the finer nuances of translation is really hard and demands a lot from your tutor.

Have I convinced you? If so, let’s turn to how to write summaries.

How to write summaries for language practice

The following procedure can be changed according to your needs, but works well as a starting point:

  1. Find one or more texts about a certain topic (you should be able to read these texts)
  2. Read the text and make sure you understand everything (ask someone if you don’t)
  3. Collect interesting words, phrases or patterns from the text (learn them, review)
  4. Write a draft of a summary (length can vary, see below)
  5. Ask for feedback from a tutor (Why good feedback matters and how to get it)
  6. Correct your summary (and make sure you understand what you’re changing and why)
  7. Save your summary for benchmarking purposes (Benchmarking progress to stay motivated)
  8. Publish your summary on your blog, social media site or whatever (I publish some stuff here)

Also, don’t forget that it’s the process that matters (how much you learn), not the actual text. If you need more than one round with a tutor, that’s perfectly okay! Focusing on the process is key: Improving your spoken and written Chinese by focusing on the process.

Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese

It’s pretty easy to get quick feedback on Chinese writing for free. I have written an article about Lang-8, which is a service that allows you to upload your texts and receive feedback. In return, you’re expected to help other students learning your language (not necessarily the same people who help you, of course). These native speakers aren’t teachers, but they can still help you out a lot. Read my article here: Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese.

A brief note about length

The length of the text you read and the summary you write are variable. You can summaries a book, but you can also summarise a short newspaper article. Furthermore, the length of your review can also vary, which is perhaps more interesting. This  is actually something which can be very difficult, even in your native language, so it’s not purely related to the language itself. Try the following:

  1. Choose a text (let’s say 1000 characters)
  2. Write a summary using 250 characters
  3. Write a new summary using only 150 characters
  4. Write a third summary with no more than 50 characters
  5. Make sure each summary is still accurate!

These texts will have to be quite different to capture the gist of the article you read while meeting the length requirements. If you have never done this in any language, you will find that writing a short summary is usually much harder than writing a long one.

Learning Chinese by playing Mahjong 麻將 (májiàng)

Image credit: Sigismund von Dobschütz
Image credit: Sigismund von Dobschütz

One of the most important pieces of advice I give beginners is that they should, as much as possible, learn by doing. This can be difficult when you only know a few words, but there are lots of things in your life you can convert to Chinese after just one week of studying. The most obvious example is counting. Don’t just study the numbers and learn them for the exam, count in Chinese whenever you get the chance. Use 三 (san) eggs for your pancakes, do 十二 (shíèr)  pushups, count 三十六 (sānshíliù) steps up to your apartment.

Playing 麻将/將 (májiàng) to learn Chinese numbers

Once you have the basic numbers, down, you’re ready to play 麻将/將 (májiàng) or Mahjong as it’s often spelt in English, a game which is extremely popular in most Chinese speaking societies and beyond. It’s also fun and teaches you a bit about Chinese culture at the same time,Knowing how to play the game will also be much appreciated by native speakers. Although you can play for money, the games works equally well without doing so.

Apart from the numbers 1-9, you only need a handful of words and most of them are useful outside the game as well. I have played in Chinese with people who don’t even study Chinese, so it’s definitely doable. From a language point of view, playing mostly consists of naming the tiles you play and, sometimes calling an action based on what someone else just played. Naturally, Chinese people tend to talk a lot while playing the game, but most of this isn’t related to the game or isn’t strictly necessary.

The rules of the game

I’m not going to give a detailed description of how the game is played, but if you think of it as a card game (which it originally was), it becomes much easier. The game is played by drawing one new tile each round, then discarding one. Gradually, you upgrade the tiles you have on your hand until all tiles are part of different sets of three or four. The first person to combine all his or her tiles in this way wins.

I’m not going to go into scoring here, because there are so many different variants that it would make little sense. I have played the game many times with different native speakers, and even though the basic premise of the game stays mostly the same, the scoring system can be completely different. If you care about games in general (I do), this is frustrating, because changing the scoring system obviously changes the way the game ought to be played.

If you want a beginner-friendly introduction of how to play, check this video on YouTube.

The vocabulary you need to play

Below, I have included the basic vocabulary you need to play. There are of course more useful words than these, and there are also variants of some of them, but this is just meant to get you started, not teach you everything there is to know. There are also regional variants, so don’t be surprised if this list isn’t identical to what you have heard or what your Chinese friends teach you.

Numbers

  • 一 (yī) “one”
  • 二 (èr) “two”
  • 三 (sān) “three”
  • 四 (sì) “four”
  • 五 (wǔ) “five”
  • 六 (liù) “six”
  • 七 (qī) “seven”
  • 八 (bā) “eight”
  • 九 (jiǔ) “nine”

 General

  • 洗牌 (xǐpái) “shuffle tiles (or cards)”
  • 出牌 (chūpái) “play a tile”
  • 摸牌 (mōpái) “draw a tile”
  • 和了 (húle) “I’ve won!”
  • 吃 (chī) said when you take a tile to complete a straight
  • 碰 (pèng) said when you take a tile to complete a set of three
  • 槓 (gàng) said when you take a tile to complete a set of four

Tiles

  • 筒 (tǒng) “circle (suite)”
  • 条/條 (tiáo) “bamboo (suite)”
  • 万/萬 (wàn) “characters (suite)”
  • 东风/東風 (dōngfēng) “east wind”
  • 南风/南風 (nánfēng) “south wind”
  • 西风西風 (xīfēng) “west wind”
  • 北風 (běifēng) “north wind”
  • 红/紅中 (hóngzhōng) “red dragon” (lit. “red centre”)
  • 发财/發財 (fācái) “green dragon” (lit. “make a fortune”)
  • 白板 (báibǎn) “white dragon” (lit. “white board/slate”)

If I’ve missed anything important, please leave a comment!

Playing the game with Chinese people

I’ve played a fair amount 麻将/ games in Chinese and the only drawback is that if you’re not already quite good at the game, it’s hard to chat and play at the same time. Some people also play ridiculously fast, so if you’re new to the game, you might need to ask them to slow down. If you want to familiarise yourself with the game on your own, there are plenty of computer programs and smart phone apps out there. If you have any specific recommendations for good apps, please leave a comment!

Will a Chinese-only rule improve your learning?

chineseonlyMany language schools have a “Chinese only” rule, which means that neither students nor teachers are allowed to speak anything but Chinese on campus. The obvious goal is to make sure that all teaching is done in Chinese and that students practise as much as possible by avoiding their native languages, even during breaks.

You can of course also create a “Chinese only” rule for yourself, regardless of what your school requires of you. This post is not about language schools in particular, but about enforcing 100% Chinese language use in general.

While everyone agrees that immersion is great, is a “Chinese only” rule really as good an idea as it seems? In this article, I’m first going to look at some pros and cons, then present my conclusion.

Why having a Chinese-only rule is a good idea

The main advantage of committing to a Chinese-only rule is that it’s likely that you will speak more Chinese if you do that if you don’t. Learning a language is to a large extent about using what you know to express yourself, even if the words and grammar you know are limited. This is exactly what you practice if you force yourself to speak Chinese, even in situations and about topics you really don’t feel comfortable with. Leaving your comfort zone is the best way of learning anything.

Furthermore, by committing to speaking only Chines,e you avoid establishing habits and situations where you use English. For instance, with a Chinese-only rule in place, you’re not going to hang out with other expats who use mostly English. Instead of playing ball with some American guys, you’re going to have to find local players. Practising sports is just an example, but a very good one. Avoid the expat bubble, don’t be a tourist.

The benefits of binary choices

Students are often shy, lazy or both, which means that they avoid speaking Chinese even when they have an opportunity to do so. Without speaking, you will never learn the language, so speaking more is a good idea in general. Having a rule that says that you can only speak Chinese gives you no choice, you have to speak. If you just “try to speak Chinese more”, you’re much more likely to end up speaking English.

This is related to a psychological effect that I would like to explore further in future articles. In general, it seems like binary choices are easier to both to make and to later maintain, compared with choices that are more open. If you have a rule that says “100% Chinese, 0% English”, that’s that, there’s no discussion. You know what it means and everybody else does too.

If you instead create a rule that says “90% Chinese, 10% English”, things get more complicated. How do you count? How do you know if you actually spend 90% of the time using Chinese? Should you count per day? Per week? Can you “save” time for later periods? And so on. If you instead commit to only Chinese, you don’t have to deal with all these issues.

Advantages of using Chinese-only rules in classrooms

Before we move on to the disadvantages of Chinese-only rules, we need to briefly look at two classroom aspects, one related to teachers and one to students.

First, it’s easy to forget that having a conversation at a very basic level with a beginner is demanding not only for the student, but also for the teacher. Therefore, without a Chinese-only rule in place, it’s tempting for teachers to give up earlier and use English instead. This is sometimes warranted (see below), but not always.

Second, in classes where students come from a variety of language backgrounds, the only language everybody has in common is Chinese. What other language is the teacher supposed to use, English? What about the students whose English isn’t so good or who don’t like speaking English? Thus, in some situations, enforcing a Chinese-only rule is a practical considerations, not one related to what is best for an individual student. The rest of this article, therefore, assumes that there is a real choice to be made.

Why having a Chinese-only rule isn’t a good idea

This part of the article is slightly more controversial, because to be honest, I’m not a fan of Chinese-only rules. With all the advantages listed above, how can I support such an opinion? Let’s look at a few of the main disadvantages of adhering to a Chinese-only rule:

  • Weak explanations – Learning languages is to a large extent about being exposed to and gradually learning to use various words and sentence patterns. However, some things really need to be explained to be learnt properly (pronunciation, grammar, characters). This is very hard to do entirely in Chinese. I have met many, many students who simply don’t know even the most basic things about pronunciation. I doubt this is because no-one has told them, but I strongly suspect it’s because they were taught in Chinese and simply didn’t get the point. This isn’t true in all cases, but it is in many of them.
  • Hidden misunderstandings – When you don’t understand something and know it, you can ask questions or seek the answer elsewhere, but when you don’t know that you don’t understand, you have a problem. This happens often when a teacher tries to explain something in Chinese, but the student’s listening ability is not up to par. They both think that the student has understood, but that is in fact not the case. Sometimes, you know that you didn’t get everything the teacher said, but you simply don’t want to ask again, so you’re left with only a vague notion of what was going on. Vague notions are very hard to remember.
  • Wasting time – Most of the time, using Chinese to convey meaning is the point of language learning, but not always. Sometimes, you or the teacher just wants to get the meaning across as accurately as possible. If I correct your tones, I want you to be really sure that you understood what I meant; I don’t really care if you learnt the related Chinese vocabulary along the way. I could have explained what you did wrong in Chinese, but it would have taken ten times longer and the risk of misunderstanding would have been much higher.
  • Harder to integrate knowledge – One of the biggest advantages of learning Chinese as an adult compared with as a child is that you already know a lot of things about the world. You don’t need to learn all these things from scratch. Sure, describing the meanings of words in Chinese can be great fun and is an excellent way of practising, but it’s not very efficient. Translation allows you to draw on your existing knowledge of the world. You can draw parallels to other languages, translate abstract words for which definitions are hard to understand, use English to verify that you really understood what you just read. And so on.
  • Risk of drowning – Language immersion is great, but it should only be done to an extent you can survive. Feeling uncomfortable because you haven’t adapted yet is fine, it’s even good for you, but burning yourself out or quitting learning altogether because the pressure is too high is obviously not so good. If you enforce a Chinese-only rule, you need to make sure that you have safety valves that allow you to vent frustration. If you’re a brave soul with lots of time on your hands, kamikaze-style immersion is great, just make sure it isn’t an actual suicide mission!

Conclusion

I don’t like Chinese-only rules because they are inflexible. The ideal proportions will vary depending on your level of Chinese, but let’s say 90% Chinese and 10% English is desirable, those 10% of English can really make a difference. At the same time, decreasing the amount of Chinese from 100% to 90% is not going to affect the amount of Chinese you use or are exposed to much.

That being said, the psychological effect regarding binary choices mentioned above means that I think that imposing a Chinese-only rule is mostly a good thing, even if you don’t end up following it in all situations. Scott Young went to Chinese with about 100 hours of preparation and wrote this about his failure to use Chinese all the time with his friend and roommate:

Even though I wasn’t able to maintain the no-English rule with Vat, I still maintained it with nearly everyone else I met. One of the big reasons to use the no-English rule is to avoid forming your social groups out of people who can’t or won’t speak the language you’re trying to learn. Had I not done that, I believe it would have been much easier to just spend my time in China with other expats and only make friends with Chinese people whose English was decent.

 This hits the nail on its head and leads to the general solution: Chinese-only should be the default mode you use for almost all situations. You can then create a small list of exceptions where you think English is essential for one reason or another. This can involve speaking English with a specific person, during a certain class or once a week when you hang out with other foreigners. The rest of the time is Chinese only. This means that you can reap most of the benefits offered by a Chinese-only rule, but still have enough flexibility to make use of English when it’s truly necessary.

What do you think? Have you tried a Chinese-only approach? Did you decide to do so on your own or was it a requirement where you studied? How did it go?

Using Chinese textbooks to improve reading ability

textbooks
These are some of the textbooks I have in my bookshelf. Have you used any of them?

The title of this article might look odd, don’t textbooks at least partly exist to help you learn to read Chinese? Indeed, but it also seems popular to  bash textbooks and favour more natural and wild ways of learning. In this article, I’m going to explain why I think textbooks are good for learning to read Chinese, although there are several caveats and a few specific ways you should use them.

It’s also the case that this month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese is about extensive reading (it’s not too late to join, it’s only been running for a few days) and I have received some questions about what beginners should read. I did offer some suggestions in the article linked to above, and one of them is indeed “textbooks”. However, I don’t just mean that you should keep using your textbook, I mean that textbooks are good sources of reading material in general that you can use much more than you do at the moment. Before we look into that, though, why are textbooks good?

Texts meant for native speakers are harder than you might think

The obvious reason textbooks are useful for learning to read Chinese is that they are designed for foreign adults. This is very different from writing a book for a native speaker, even if it’s a child. They already know how to speak Chinese when they start learning to read properly!

Therefore, books for children seldom work well as reading material for adult second language learners, at least not beginners or lower intermediate learners. They focus on entirely the wrong things, and take things for granted that are actually very difficult for us.

Furthermore, it seems like the goal of these books is to teach the children new words, rather than telling an entertaining and/or edifying story, so even if the size of the printed characters indicates that a book ought to be easy, it can contain many characters and words you really don’t need to know.

Dealing with the diversity problem

If you read books in electronic format and use a pop-up dictionary (see last week’s article for more about this: The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading), you can still read these texts, but it’s essential that you don’t try to learn everything you see. Remember, for every unnecessary word you learn, you could have learnt a useful word that would have improved your Chinese much more. Use the rule of three: only learn something the third time it appears.

The main problem with authentic reading material of any kind is diversity. If you design a textbook for second language learners, you try to avoid using more new words than necessary, so it’s a very bad idea to introduce three near synonyms in the same chapter. That happens all the time in texts written for native speakers, because diversity is one of the signs of language mastery. Re-using the same words again and again just shows that the author has a limited vocabulary. As second language learners, however, that’s exactly what we want!

Incidentally, this is why non-fiction, even if it’s fairly advanced, is still easier to read than novels. When you read a novel in Chinese, the author often makes a point of not using the same words over and over. In academic writing, if you change the terminology in every sentence, you won’t get your paper published.

The benefits of reading textbooks

Textbooks introduce words at slow pace and make a deliberate effort to re-use words in later chapters to make sure you still remember them. One chapter builds upon the next. Apart from this, each new step is described and explained, and although the explanations are far from perfect, it’s still better than nothing. Most of the questions you might want to ask about the text, such as what certain words mean, how they are used in the text and how the grammar works, have already been answered.

In addition, textbooks focus on things that are relevant to your situation. Of course, the match isn’t perfect, so middle-aged Korean learners will have to read about American college students, and you might learn more about baseball than you want to, but this is still pretty good. It’s at least possible that these topics will be good to know about. It’s also better than the typical story for children, which have little to do with your situation. I’m not saying that the average textbook is terribly interesting to read, I’m just saying that the alternatives aren’t much better.

Use more than one textbook for reading practice

I have argued before that you should use more than one textbook. The reasoning is simple: since each author limits diversity in a different way, by using several different textbooks, you gain most of the benefits while avoiding the main drawback, the lack of diversity. You also double or triple the reading material you have for your specific level, which is awesome. You don’t have to learn or read everything in these books, of course, but the extra reading practice is great.

If I get the chance, I would like to try to teach a full-time student using three different textbooks and going through chapter one in all three, then chapter two in all three and so on. It would of course take longer to get to an “advanced” level, but the foundation would be much more solid and I think the end-result would be better. Some language centres and schools rush students through textbooks and I really hate that. The amount of Chinese you know is not measured by how many chapters you have finished in any given textbook series.

Some problems with using textbooks for reading practice

Even though I think that textbooks are excellent for beginners and intermediate learners, there are problems as well:

  • The language is somewhat unnatural – This is a result of the lack of diversity mentioned above. Natural, spoken Chinese is very diverse and the textbook author sacrifices this to make the text easier. Still, the language isn’t a big problem and most complaints seem exaggerated to me. I can recall many occasions where one native speaker looked at my textbook and said “we never say that” only to hear someone use that exact phrase a few days later.
  • The illusion of advanced learning – This is something I mentioned above. Many textbook series advance too quickly, meaning that they start using fairly difficult language in book three or four, teaching the students lots of idioms and formal ways of expression. This gives the illusion that the student has reached an advanced level. However, the lack of diversity mentioned above means that there are huge holes in the student’s knowledge of very basic Chinese. Use more than one textbook.
  • Limited range of topics – I mentioned above that it’s good that textbooks focus on topics relevant for your situation, but this is also a drawback once you get to an intermediate level. Thus, while it’s okay to keep to textbooks (and graded readers, see below) as a beginner, the range of topics is just too limited for intermediate learners. Of course, this varies from series to series, there are many different kinds of textbooks and some have very diverse content. Just don’t stay in textbook land too long. If you feel that you have, you might want to read this: Asking the experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese.

Add graded readers to the mix

Even though I’m fond of textbooks, there are other sources of reading material available. Grader readers are excellent, because just like textbooks, they are targeted at language learners at a specific level (measured by how many characters you know). This might still be too hard for complete beginners, but once you know a few hundred characters, you should have a look at Mandarin Companion and Chinese Breeze. They are meant to give you more volume and the content is usually more interesting that the average textbook’s.

Which textbooks to use

I don’t think it’s super important which books you use for reading practice. It’s not going to be your main source of learning anyway, so anything you can pick up cheaply or find in other ways should be fine. If you have no clue at all, here are some of the major textbooks series used around the world:

What books do you use? Have you found any other reading materials I haven’t mentioned here? Please leave a comment!

The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading

This is a guest article by David Moser about the incredible changes the digital age has brought to learners of Chinese all over the world. David holds a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Chinese Studies from the University of Michigan, with a major in Chinese Linguistics and Philosophy. He’s currently Academic Director at CET Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal University. David has previously contributed to my ask-the-experts article about learning Chinese grammar. In this article, he provides both a background for those who started learning Chinese recently, as well as an in-depth discussion about what has changed and what it means for learners today.

The pre-digital days

Two decades ago, after I had studied Chinese for about four years, I suddenly realized that I had never read a novel in Chinese. In fact, I had not read any Chinese book in its entirety – the task was just too daunting. This would be a rather embarrassing admission for a fourth-year student of, say, Spanish, but back then this was a pretty common situation for us learners of Chinese.

I had fairly good spoken Mandarin and a fair sense for the written language. Yet reading Chinese literature was virtually impossible. There were so many unfamiliar characters on virtually every line of the text that there was no way I could look them all up. So usually I would give up in despair after a frustrating few paragraphs of: “Here, Second-Elder-Sister, quickly take this (something) that our father (something) to Old Chen when his (something) was so tragically (something, something) during the Japanese (something), and never speak of this (something) to a soul (something something), I beg you!” You know the feeling.

At that time Qian Zhongshu’s famous novel Weicheng《围城》was having a revival of popularity, partly due to a TV series adaptation of the novel. My friends at Peking University were all raving about it, so I decided to read the book myself – and I mean really read it. My goal was to understand every word, every idiom, and every unfamiliar character, getting as close to a full understanding of the text as I possibly could.

The task took me six months, and I can’t exactly describe it as “reading for pleasure.” I found I had to look up a couple dozen words per page, sometimes consulting three or four different dictionaries, in order to grasp all the subtlety and nuance of Qian’s satirical novel. Not wanting to waste my dictionary efforts, I pencilled in glosses to every new vocabulary item I encountered so that I could go back and reread passages without looking up the characters again. My battered copy of the book still rests on the bookcase like a war memento. Here’s a typical page:

bookpage

As you can see from this one page, the whole process was painfully tedious. In those dark pre-digital days, we Chinese learners had to look up unfamiliar characters using the old radical-and-stroke-count method. Just searching for one pesky character might take me as much as three minutes, at which point I would have forgotten the plot of the book.

At the time, a Chinese literature professor who I respected said to me, “This is not the right strategy for students to read Chinese literature. You don’t need to understand every single word to get the gist. Just keep reading forward through the text, and don’t get hung up on every unfamiliar character.”

This advice, which is still common today, seemed like pure horse pucky to me. Reading a great novel is not like skimming the Terms of Agreement before installing a piece of new software. You don’t read Chinese literature to “get the gist of it”. Quite the contrary; you want to fully understand each sentence, savor the flavor of every colorful adjective and juicy adverb. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble of reading it at all? (The whole state of affairs reminds me of a Woody Allen joke: “I took a course in speed reading. The other day I read War and Peace in just 15 minutes. It’s about Russia.”)

I currently teach at an overseas Chinese study program for American undergraduates. One of the most common laments I hear from my students goes something like this: “I can fairly easily understand the material in my intermediate Chinese reader, but whenever I try to read an actual newspaper or magazine article, I can barely get through the first paragraph. And novels are almost impossible. When am I going to be able to actually read texts in the real world?”

Go digital, young man

The solution to my students’ problem is to go digital — that is, read your texts in e-format, whenever possible. The Chinese may have invented Chinese characters and paper, but it’s time to separate the two. Don’t get me wrong; I have a deep nostalgic love for ink on paper, but who has a leisurely hour to devote to one lousy page of text? There’s an amazing arsenal of new Chinese character processing technology out there, and it’s time we made full use it. The plethora of smart phone apps, web browser extensions, digital dictionaries and Chinese character processing devices that students are now using – or should be using – every day have totally revolutionized the previously Sisyphean task of reading in Chinese. By abandoning paper, the new digital technology finally makes it possible for the student to jump into the ocean of Chinese characters without the risk of drowning.

Apps such as Pleco or KTdict feature “document reader” or “web page reader” features that allow you to copy and paste entire articles or books into a window, create a TXT file, and read the text using the pop-up window definition features of these programs. (For those of you who have been using these dictionary apps to look up words, but have never investigated the document reader feature, try it immediately! It will change the way you read forever.) If you include features like Chrome’s automatic translation tool, plus built-in tools like Google Translate, and there’s a hardly any page of modern Mandarin out there that can’t be successfully decoded by a diligent intermediate student. For the intermediate student with three or four semesters of Chinese under their belt, there is now no reason not to escape the confines of the textbook and start navigating a wide range of real-world texts. The only question is where to find such texts.

Any text that is digitized can be a learning text

Unfortunately, the world of Chinese pedagogy has not quite caught up to the potential of the new technology, and so in some cases you will need a little creative Googling to find the materials you need. The good news is that any text that is in electronic form (Word, PDF, etc.) or on a web page can be converted to a format that is readable in one or another of the digital dictionary tools available. Thanks to the burgeoning array of Internet sites and digital resources (examples of which are helpfully available right here on the Hacking Chinese site) you can begin exploring – relatively painlessly – new textual territories that accord perfectly with your literary tastes, your research, your hobbies, and even your passions.

For those interested in Chinese literature, with a little clever searching you can find sites with online-accessible works such as Dream of the Red Chamber and Journey to the West are out there somewhere (see for example, Chun wenxue wang 纯文学网站), and works by modern authors such as Mo Yan, Han Han and Yu Hua can be found with a little digging (see http://www.kanunu8.com). By cutting and pasting the texts into your Chinese app, students can finally begin reading such authors with relative ease.

If you want to try delving digitally into Daoism or the rest of the classical philosophy tradition, there are sites such as The Chinese Text Project. And there are an increasing number of sites that provide a wide range of public domain texts from all different areas, chosen with the Chinese learner in mind, such as “Chinese Text Sampler,” which can be found at this user-friendly University of Michigan website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~dporter/sampler/sampler.html.

For current events, there are helpful news sites in both English and Chinese bilingual format, such as the New York Times’ new Chinese site: http://cn.nytimes.com/

And the VOA’s bilingual news site: http://www.voachinese.com/archive/bilingual-news/latest/1737/2404.html

By comparing the Chinese with the English, and by checking unfamiliar characters in the pop-up definition windows, a student at almost any level can read a newspaper article with nearly 100% comprehension.

Warning: Not all these files you discover on the Internet will be complete, correct, comprehensive, or even legal, strictly speaking. The Internet is like a gigantic digital garage sale, and one person’s trash is another’s treasure. But if you’re serious about building a small digital library of the kinds of Chinese material that you’d like to familiarize yourself with, some sites can be absolute gold mines.

At the outset, your primary goal for reading is to improve your speaking

Why is it so important that you begin to read more extensively? Adult learners of a foreign language don’t have the luxury of learning to speak the way babies do. To a great extent, we must absorb a foreign language via written texts. The linguist Ferdinand Saussure tells us that written language is merely the external representation of speech; the spoken language is the basis of the written language. Thus, for a student of a foreign language, who usually doesn’t have as much verbal linguistic input as a baby has, reading is a way of getting familiar with the nuts and bolts of the language, a shortcut to developing an intuitive “feeling for the language” (Sprachgefühl in German, or, in Chinese, yǔgǎn 语感). And this path is what has, up to now, been very difficult for Chinese learners.

Contrast Chinese with an “easy” language like French, where the skills of speaking and reading meld seamlessly into and strengthen one another, thanks to the phonetic nature of the script (which, among other things, makes dictionary lookup a cinch). Even lower-level French students are quickly able to read and process a vast amount of real-world texts, using the written language as a vehicle to gradually acquire mastery of the grammar and syntax.

This is no longer the case. Chinese is becoming more and more almost like a “normal language” from the point of view of reading. This means that learners of Chinese can now start using Chinese texts to directly bolster their speaking ability. With this in mind, it is a good idea to choose reading material that is essentially a record of natural speech, such as movie and TV scripts, transcripts of actual interviews, talk shows, lectures, and even posts on social media platforms like Weibo and Weixin.

Doubts?

There are those who will be sceptical of this approach to reading, considering it to be a lazy digital crutch, tantamount to cheating. Ignore such people. There is no such thing as “cheating.” But be prepared for some of the possible objections:

  • Do not worry that you might not retain all the new characters you are reading. By reading extensively and quickly, you are gaining a passive understanding of words and phrases, which will slowly become active additions to your vocabulary. The most common characters will soon be added to your long-term memory, and the rarer, low-frequency items can be thought of as temporary life vests, which can be discarded when you reach safer semantic waters.

  • Above all, do not worry that you are not learning to write by hand all these characters with which you are having a fleeting encounter. Even Chinese natives are losing the ability to write characters by hand. The crucial skill for the 21st century learner is recognizing characters, not writing them.

The digital revolution is not a dinner party

The approach I’m advocating here is clearly not for everyone. It still takes a student with a certain degree of dedication to get over the technological hump and create this kind of digitized reading environment. But for those willing to make the effort, the result is a new access to entire semantic worlds that were virtually inaccessible to previous generations of Chinese learners.

There are still a surprising number of struggling Chinese learners who have not seen the wisdom of this paperless path. But if you are already doing the bulk of your Chinese reading with digital tools, know that you are on the vanguard of a digital revolution that will eventually free all our Chinese-learning comrades from the tyranny of printed books, those mute and unhelpful “paper tigers” who have preyed on our precious hours and energies for far too long.