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: 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.

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.

Chinese reading challenge, April 10th to April 30th

readingchallengeWhen I launched Hacking Chinese Challenges last year, I promised that I would make sure that if you participated in all challenges, you’d get a healthy mix of practice. Last month, we focused on listening, which I think is the most important skill when learning Chinese. We (87 participants) collectively spent 1255 hours improving our listening ability last month, that’s awesome!

The other input skill we need to focus on is reading. While not as important as listening, it’s still one of the core skills and the best way of expanding and consolidating vocabulary. In some regards, it’s easier than listening, but in other ways, it’s considerably harder.

In any case, learning to read in Chinese requires practice, and that’s what we’re going to focus on this month. As was the case for the listening challenge, I suggest you focus on quantity over quality, so don’t read texts that are too hard, focus on those at or slightly below your current level. You don’t need to understand everything, feel free to skip difficult words and/or use pop-up dictionaries.

Hacking Chinese reading challenge, April 10th to April 30th

This how you sign up and join the challenge:

  1. Sign up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the extensive reading challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Find suitable learning materials
  6. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  7. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  8. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others
  9. Share progress, tips and resources with fellow students

Please note:  The challenge starts on April 10th, so even if you can join now, you won’t be able to report progress until then. I post this article today so you have a few days to prepare and find suitable reading material!

What should you read?

Start by looking here:

  1. The 10 best free reading resource collections for learning Chinese – I wrote this article in connection with the previous challenge. It’s a collection of reading materials sorted by level.
  2. Hacking Chinese Resources The resource section of Hacking Chinese contains 87 resources tagged with “reading”. Many of them are resource collections, where you can find hundreds or even thousands of texts.

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

Beginner

Intermediate

Advanced

Setting a reasonable goal

Know what works for each individual learner is impossible, but you should try to set a goal which is as high as possible without feeling unreachable. If this is your first challenge or if you’re not sure what you’re capable of, go for 10 hours or so. If you know what you’re doing, you can aim for twice that. Personally, I’m going to aim for an hour a day, so 20 hours.

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Preliminary challenge schedule for 2015

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

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

How knowing your best performance in Chinese can help you improve

Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik
Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik

Have you ever finished an exam and felt that you could have done better? Have you ever felt annoyed at your teacher for correcting your pronunciation and adding a long explanation about what you did wrong, even though you know exactly what you should have done, you just slipped? Have you ever had someone correct your typos as if they were real errors that need fixing?

Feedback always needs to be considered in the light of how close to your best performance you were when listening/speaking/reading/writing Chinese. A test sloppily done tells us that you are sloppy, not how good your Chinese is. Your best performance in Chinese is the highest level you can achieve with the knowledge and ability you have at any given time. It might not be immediately obvious why this is important so please let me explain.

Your best performance and why it matters

Your best performance is of paramount importance because it should be a cornerstone of your study plan. If you don’t know your best performance, you don’t know your current position and thus can’t plot a path from that to your goal. You might still be able to move forward, but it will be like groping around in the dark.

Provided that you have measured your best performance for a certain skill, there are two possible outcomes:

  • Your best performance is good enough (defined by your goals for learning Chinese): Congratulations! You’ve come far, but you might not be there yet. You need to be able to do this on a regular basis without too much practice. In other words, if you take your average performance and raise it to the level of your best performance, you will have accomplished your goal. To do this, you need quantitative practice, because you already know what you need to know. More of the same will solve your problem.
     
  • Your best performance isn’t good enough: This means that you have a qualitative problem, so more of the same won’t necessarily work, regardless how much you practice. For instance, if you pronounce the first tone in a two-syllable word like Měiguó with a rising tone, you will get it wrong no matter how much energy you spend. There is a fundamental error in the way you pronounce the third tone (it should be a low tone here) and you need qualitative training.

Best performance in different areas

Best performance can be broken down into as many parts as you feel necessary. Here are a few layers with ever increasing detail:

  1. Your overall Chinese ability
  2. Your speaking ability
  3. Your pronunciation
  4. Your tones
  5. Your third tones
  6. Your low third tones

I would say that the first two levels are too general to be practically useful. How do you test your overall ability? I think this is impossible to do properly. The second level is doable, but still hard, we need to get more specific than that. For the third level onward, we can actually do something useful. How specific depends on where you’re having problems. If your tones are fine, you obviously don’t need to check how your low third tones are.

Again, if your best performance in any area is good enough, you just need more practice to make sure that your average performance comes ever closer to your best performance. You might need people to remind you of your mistakes, but in essence, you already know what you need to know. If your best performance isn’t good enough, you need qualitative training, preferably with a teacher.

How to find your best performance

Looking at the above list of layers, it should be obvious that you can cut and slice your Chinese ability in any number of ways. Therefore, it’s hard to be too specific here, so I’m simply going to give some general guidelines for how to define your current best performance in a few common areas.

Best performance for pronunciation

Assuming you’re going to read a short text, you need to:

  1. Be completely familiar with the topic
  2. Understand all words, all structures and all meanings
  3. Know the text by heart
  4. Record yourself and try to spot mistakes
  5. Record again, correct the mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

Best performance for composition

Assuming you’re writing a short text, you need to:

  1. Plan and structure your article before starting
  2. Research thoroughly, know your topic
  3. Write a draft and read it to spot mistakes
  4. Rewrite any problematic sentences
  5. Read again, correct mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

What to do when you have your best performance

The next step is to answer the question above: is your best performance good enough? The best way of doing that is to ask someone who is trained to assess language ability. Beginner and intermediate learners can probably get away with asking any native speaker, but in that case you will probably only learn what you’re doing wrong, not how to fix it, but this is still helpful.

Best performance for listening and reading

You can do something similar for listening and reading. The principle is very simple: Repeat until you think that you have understood as much as you’re likely to understand at your current level. If you listen to a short text twenty times and still can’t understand one of the sentences, the likelihood is that your best performance isn’t good enough for the audio you have selected. If you re-read a passage several times without getting it, you’re reading skill isn’t up to par. This should be fairly obvious, but has some very useful applications.

For instance, if you understand 60% of an audio episode the first time you listen and 95% after listening twenty times, you can be relatively sure that your problem isn’t that you are unable to understand the audio, it’s just that it’s too fast, your word recall takes too long or there might be layers of accent and/or dialect confusing you. With such a result, more practice is what you need. If you after twenty times still only understand 75%, you’re out of your league and should focus on easier material.

How translation can help you learn Chinese

mppThis is a guest article by Julien Leyre of the Marco Polo Project. The publication of this article coincides with the start of this month’s translation challenge, so if you aren’t convinced that translation is a great tool for learning a language, this article is for you! Julien also shares many hands-on tips for making translations easier.

How translation can help you learn Chinese

Remember? Once upon a time, translation used to be the main method for learning a foreign language. But then a new model came into fashion, called the ‘communicative approach’, promoting direct interactions in the target language. This makes sense: most of us are learning Chinese to communicate, not to become professional translators. So why should we bother practicing translation at all?

In preparation for the Hacking Chinese translation Challenge that starts today, this post will talk about translation as a way to learn Mandarin. Now, translating to and from your native language (or one you’re already expert at) is a very different exercise. In a previous post, Olle discussed the benefits translation Chinese. What I’ll talk about here is translating from Chinese into your native language.

Translation as active reading

At a very basic level, practicing translation (to your native language) will bring you the same benefits as reading: you will increase your vocabulary, reading speed, grammatical intuition, and overall comprehension. If the text is well chosen, you might even gain some cultural insights in the process.

OK – I get that. But why translate? Let’s put it this way: translation is a form of active reading. In one of his posts, Olle describes different ways to practice ‘listening’, from simple background listening to active engagement with the content. The same distinction applies to reading: you can be more or less active in your practice.

To see how this applies to translation, let’s go back to basics, and start with a definition. Translation consists of creating a piece of text in a target language (in our case, most probably English), which has the same meaning, structure and stylistic characteristics as a given piece in a source language (in our case, Chinese). To do that, not only do you have to read the source text, and make sure you understand all the words in it, but you must also look at difficult or ambiguous constructions, and make sure you clearly understand all of them.

Whether in the classroom or at home, we’re often satisfied with a superficial, rough, hazy understanding of what we read. Answering a teacher’s questions (or ticking the right HSK box), or even reading aloud, does not really test our deep understanding. We skim over sentences feeling that we got the gist. Translation provides a touchstone: once you’ve got to write an equivalent in your mother tongue, you can check whether you’re actually making sense of what you read – or not.

OK, sure – but I’m nowhere near that level yet, I’m still struggling with the basics. Should I just wait?

Any form of active learning takes energy, and I’m not saying you should spent all your learning time translating, especially if you’re still in early stages. But it doesn’t mean that translation is too hard for you now. In the rest of this post, I’d like to share a few tricks that will help you moderate the difficulty, and find ways of translating that are accessible to you right now.

Choosing the right text is certainly part of the question: how long it is, how intricate the language, whether it’s full of characters you don’t know, or whether it deals with a topic you’re familiar with – all these factors will impact your ability to translate. A word of warning though: I’ve seen many people go for ‘easy’ texts, because they seem more accessible. But there’s a big catch with practicing on ‘easy’ texts only, especially graded texts written explicitly for learners: it may quickly turn out to feel very pointless.

In 2011, I set up an organisation called Marco Polo Project, which proposes translation as a way to help people learn Chinese and understand China. The project was largely inspired by my own experience and frustrations as a language teacher and Mandarin learner. I started learning Chinese in 2008, and after three years, I got tired of the trite textbook. I wanted to discover fresh and authentic writing from China – but I didn’t know where to start.

Our website offers an original selection of new writing from China, and a simple interface to translate as you read. The idea was to bring great writing to learners – intermediate and advanced – encourage them to practice translation as they read, and share their translations with less advanced learners, so they could access these new voices from China in bilingual format.

This is what our translation interface looks like – with source text on the right, and a box to write your translation on the left. Check it out at www. marcopoloproject.org – registration is entirely free.

julien1And in case you’re wondering, Marco Polo Project runs as a non-profit organisation. I hope to grow the community – but it’s not the whole point of me writing this post – there’s other ways you can practice translation. If you don’t want to do that on our website, I still encourage you warmly to exercise on a word document.

Pace yourself – be quick – and skip

I’ve taught translation at various universities. The first thing we tell students is that they absolutely have to carefully read the full text, make sure they understand all the details and really soak in the style, before starting to write their translation. Arguably, that’s how professional translators should work. But I’ll share a dirty secrete with you: that’s not what I’m going to recommend here. Quite the opposite.

If your Chinese is not perfect yet, carefully reading can take a very long time, and it can be frustrating, so frustrating actually that – unless there’s a deadline, or it’s a marked assignment, you’re more likely to give up. If your goal is to practice and learn, and if you’re not getting paid or assessed, then you should make sure the process is fast-paced enough that you get a sense of achievement and progress. There’s a simple way to do that. In my own translation practice, I always translate sentence by sentence as I go, I skip all the difficult passages deliberately – whole sentences and even entire paragraphs, and I always use google translate.

Google translate has very bad reputation, but if your reading skills are just so-so, it can be an amazing tool! It’s easy to use, it’s free, and it allows you to get the meaning of a text and sentence significantly faster and with significantly less effort than a dictionary. But you need to use it carefully. It’s often surprisingly accurate, and sometimes completely off the ball.

Concretely, this is how I would recommend you to use it. Pick a paragraph you want to translate, and paste it into the google translate box. Then split up the sentence by jumping lines after each full stop, for clarity. Look at the suggested translation, comparing it to the Chinese original. If a sentence sounds about right, copy-paste it into Marco Polo Project or your word document, or change a few words here and there to make it sound more idiomatic. You should be able to do that for about half the sentences in your text.

Half the time, however, something will be weird. When that’s the case, break up the sentence into parts by jumping lines after the main verbs, particles or connecting words. When you do that, the software will treat each component separately, and start working like a kind of predictive dictionary. Just break down the parts until you grasp the meaning. When you get it, put the parts back together in the right order, and write down your translation.

If it’s still too hard, just leave it aside until later.

julien2Now, to be clear, I’m not saying this is how you should work if you want to be a professional or literary translator. This method will not give you the most thoughtful and elegant translation every time, but it’s quick, simple and satisfying. You don’t have to spend a lot of time searching for vocabulary or stretch your memory to remember what a character means. Half the time, the machine actually does an OK job for you the first time round. Getting that sense of satisfaction, and avoiding boredom or exhaustion, will be a serious advantage for long-term learning success!

Ready to go further? Try editing your translation

Fast-translation, following the method I described above, will help you go you through large quantities of text. But if you want take it a step further, editing your own translation (or someone else’s) is a great learning exercise.

This google-assisted ‘fast translation’ probably doesn’t read very well, it might be ambiguous, or even contain downright errors and inconsistencies. To start with, I’d suggest you review the translation line by line. Focus on word order, syntax and readability. Try to make your sentences simpler, more rhythmic – but always keeping an eye on the Chinese to check you’re not betraying the meaning. This exercise will double up as vocabulary review. It will teach you to better ‘skim’ over a Chinese text, and make you more familiar with connecting words or syntactic patterns.

As a second step, consider each paragraph as a whole (or even the full text if you’ve got the time), and focus on two particular areas:

  • Tense and person: Chinese does not mark tense in the same way as English, and often omits subject pronouns. A common issue with translations will be that tense ‘jumps’ from past to present, or from ‘I’ to ‘they’ or ‘we’ without much consistency. Make sure this does not happen to you.
     
  • Keywords: your text is likely to include a series of related words from a specific semantic field related to the topic. Check that they’re used consistently from paragraph to paragraph – but also, more importantly, check that the words in English actually mean the same as the Chinese words. To do this, you might check the keywords on a couple of online dictionaries, or even with a quick google search. It’s a great way to learn a few synonyms.

And if you want to take it even further, think of style and genre. Where does your source text come from? Is it standard language, or does it deviate from linguistic norms? When you’ve answered these questions, look for elegant, concise and apt equivalents that not only map the meaning of the source text, but also the style. This is a difficult and time-consuming pursuit, not always suitable for intermediate or even early advanced learners. But it’s also a fascinating and beautiful way to gain advanced understanding of the language. If you wish to really develop your reading skills, and appreciate subtle nuances of meaning and style in Chinese, this may be one of the best ways to go.

In conclusion: beyond target language communication, train your linguistic flexibility

There’s a final type of benefit that comes from practicing translation: it will make you more linguistically flexible.

Many language classes are held in the target language entirely, we think of ‘immersion’ as a great way to progress, and the capacity to ‘think in Mandarin’ is seen as a crucial step towards fluency. I’m not rejecting any of this upfront: creating a ‘Mandarin only’ mental environment does increase our capacity to interact with Mandarin speakers and Mandarin content at a reasonable speed.

However, our capacity to switch code from one language to another may suffer in the short term – and in certain contexts, this is a very precious skill. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a concept only came to you in Mandarin, and you started wondering – what’s the word for ‘ganga’, ‘guanxi’ or ‘haixiu’? Outside the context of bilingual classroom, this hesitation may come in the way of clear expression.

As learners of Mandarin, it’s also very likely that we will find ourselves in a mediating position. As beginners, when travelling with friends who don’t speak the language at all, we do all sorts of minor translation – signs, directions, or basic polite interactions. As we reach intermediate and advanced levels, we’ll often have an opportunity to do minor translation tasks – what does this email/sign/article say? More importantly, when we spend significant amounts of time in a Chinese-speaking environment, we’re expected to report on our experiences to friends back home, family, colleagues and partners who do not speak the language.

For this, we must train our capacity to describe the values and world-views of Mandarin speakers in our own native language, and be comfortable shifting code. Translation is probably the best preparation for this task. Beyond practical, professional and social benefits, it will help us integrate all the complex emotional experiences we’ve had in a Chinese environment to the web of long-term emotional journey – and ensure some continuity between our pre-Mandarin selves, and the bizarre animals we’ve become since getting hooked on the language.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, I’ve written elsewhere about the role that translation played in my own intellectual development – and how it nurtures critical thinking, cross-cultural tolerance, and humility. So go check out this piece.

Converted yet? Try it for yourself, and see if translation works for you! Don’t forget to join the translation challenge!

A note on my own background

I’m a French-Australian writer, educator and sinophile. I migrated from Paris to Melbourne in 2008, and I can probably count myself as perfectly fluent in both French and English today. I’ve taught languages and translation at various universities in France and Australia, studied many European languages, and reached various degrees of fluency among six of them – but Mandarin has been my biggest challenge by far.

I’d love to hear more about your experience of translation – don’t hesitate to send me a line at Julien@marcopoloproject.org

A big thanks to Julien for this article! I have mainly done translation in the other direction and hadn’t reflected too much about the importance of translating in the other direction, other than making sure that people understood texts read in class, so this article is most welcome to the collection here on Hacking Chinese.

Translation challenge, December 11th to 31th

2014-12-08 19.55.35Two months have passed since the launch of Hacking Chinese Challenges and we have already completed both a listening and a reading challenge with 249 participants so far. I love these challenges myself because they help me spend more time learning Chinese.

Join this month’s translation challenge

Now it’s time to turn to a more active skill, namely translation. Historically speaking, language learning through translation has gone from being the point of language learning, through an era where target language communication only was the name of the game, to a more balanced view today. I love translation as a form of reading and writing practice, so that’s what this month’s challenge is about..

This challenge is presented in cooperation with the Marco Polo Project, a site that focuses on translating texts from Chinese to several other languages. The site is run by Julien Leyre, who also helped me developing Hacking Chinese Challenges. Julien has written an article about the benefits of Chinese-English translation, and it will be published here on Hacking Chinese on Thursday, so if you’re not convinced that this kind of practice is useful, you’ll have to wait until Thursday. You can also read my article, which is mostly about English-Chinese translation: Translating to improve your Chinese.

The challenge – December 11th to December 31st

The challenge is to learn as much Chinese as possible through translating in either direction (or both). I don’t want to decide for you if you should go for quantity or quality, or if you should go for English-Chinese or Chinese-English. It’s up to you. As was the case for previous challenges, the unit of measurement is time spent.

This is how you join:

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

Two directions, multiple skills

Translation is useful in both directions. If you translate to Chinese, it become active writing practice in that you have to use the Chinese you know to express something you know about in English or another language. This forces you into new territories and helps you get away from the things you normally speak and write about. Read more about why this kind of translation is great in this post: Translating to improve your Chinese.

Translating in the other direction is also a good idea. It’s a form of very active reading and you have to understand the original text and think about what it really means. Then you have to use your native language to express these things in a manner true to the original. This is really hard, but in a different way than translating from your native language to Chinese. Read more in Julien’s article on Thursday!

Setting a reasonable goal

This challenge covers both reading practice (Chinese-English translation) and writing practice (English-Chinese translation). If you’re a serious student who studies full-time, you should aim for at least an hour a day (that’s 21 hours in total). People who are busy know their own schedules better than I do, but I think most people should be able to do half an hour five days a week, so that means roughly 7 hours (removing a day or two for any kind of holiday celebration you might have planned).

Personally, I haven’t written much coherent text in Chinese lately, but I really should, so I’m going to aim for 15 hours. This also stretches over the Christmas holiday when I should have more time to devote to a project like this. I started translating a short story I wrote in Swedish years ago, so my goal is to finish that project. I don’t know if 15 hours is enough or not, but it should take me much closer to the goal at least.

  • What’s your goal?
  • What are you going to translate?
  • What’s your experience of language learning through translation?

The challenge starts on December 11th, so you can’t start reporting progress before then. I will of course post notifications on Facebook and Twitter when the challenge starts. See you on the leader board!