Articles by me published elsewhere: May 2015 round-up

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

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

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

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

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

  1. How to learn and remember more words in Chinese – The best tools and methods
  2. Chinese character simplification – Four methods making Chinese easier to write
  3. Why you should practise reading Chinese digitally – How modern technology will help you learn Chinese
  4. Using HanziCraft to learn Chinese characters – A quick way of breaking down characters
  5. Chinese characters vs. Chinese words – What’s the difference? How do I look them up?
  6. The second round of Chinese character simplification – What characters would have looked like if simplification went further
  7. Improving reading speed in Chinese – Tips and tricks for second language learners
  8. Introduction to the tones in Mandarin Chinese – What you need to know about the four tones (plus the neutral tone)
  9. The fourth tone in Mandarin Chinese – Common problems and their remedies

Hacking the most difficult Chinese characters (with examples)
April, 2015 – Skritter

This blog post is about learning difficult characters and brings up three examples based on which characters Skritter users have most trouble with. They all happen to be semantic-phonetic compounds, so this further stresses the importance of understanding such characters.

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

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!

Articles by me published elsewhere: April 2015 round-up

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

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

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

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

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

  1. Using graded readers to improve reading ability: Going beyond your textbook
  2. Getting a Chinese character tattoo: 7 do’s and don’ts to consider if you want a Chinese-character tattoo
  3. Chinese characters: A basic introduction
  4. Common Mandarin learner errors: part 6: Not enjoying yourself
  5. Common Mandarin learner errors: part 7: Not knowing where you’re going
  6. Useful idiomatic phrases in Chinese: Yi mu yi yang: Expressing that two things are identical
  7. Chinese characters and stroke order: Why you should make sure to write characters the right way
  8. Learning traditional Chinese with the MoE dictionary: The best online reference for traditional characters
  9. Correct pronunciation and stroke order in Chinese: What does “correct” mean? What’s the standard?

Understanding Chinese characters: Components and radicals
March, 2015 – Skritter

It’s common for beginners and sometimes even more advanced students to lack an understanding of how Chinese characters are structured. This includes misconceptions about radicals and other types of components. In this article, I address some of the misconceptions I have encountered as a teacher and as the “Chinese Guru” at Skritter. What different kinds of character components are there? What’s a radical?

Can you pronounce these Chinese words correctly?
March, 2015 – Skritter

This post contains five words in Mandarin that are tricky to pronounce correctly. Sometimes the standard pronunciation is different from how many natives speak, sometimes including people from Beijing! Do you know how to pronounce these words: 背包, 打烊, 尽快 (儘快), 下载 (下載), 一模一样 (一模一樣)?

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

Articles by me published elsewhere: March 2015 round-up

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles by me published elsewhere: February 2015 round-up

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the neutral tone in Mandarin
January, 2015 – Skritter

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

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

24 great resources for improving your Mandarin pronunciation

Image credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert
Image credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert

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

The best resources for learning Mandarin pronunciation

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

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

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

1. Basic sound references

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

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

2. Pronunciation explained

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

3. Advice on learning pronunciation

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

4. Useful software and applications

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

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

Articles by me published elsewhere: January 2015 round-up

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles by me published elsewhere: December round-up

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

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

Here’s what I wrote up to the beginning of December 2014 (I originally intended to publish this article before the new year, sorry for the delay!):

Various articles about Mandarin on About.com
November, 2014 – About.com
These articles were all published on About.com through my role as Mandarin expert writer there:

  1.  The neutral tone in Mandarin Chinese: How to pronounce the neutral tone in different contexts
  2. Four main types of Chinese characters: Learning characters by understanding them
  3. Pictographs – Chinese characters as pictures
  4. Chinese character type: Simple ideograms
  5. Chinese character type: Combined ideograms
  6. Chinese character type: Semantic-phonetic compounds
  7.  Zi – “child” – Chinese character profile: A closer look at the character Zi (“child”), its meanings and usages
  8.  How to pronounce Beijing, capital of China: Some quick and dirty tips and an in-depth explanation
  9.  How to choose the right Mandarin Chinese course: What to look for when choosing language courses

Tending your vocabulary garden
November, 2014 – Skritter
In this article, I use the analogy of tending a garden to explain what a healthy attitude towards vocabulary should look like. In short, it involves being active, regarding the words you learn and have learnt as an organism that keeps growing, but which also needs tending and trimming. More isn’t always merrier and what words you learn certainly matter more that how many you know sometimes.

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

Articles by me published elsewhere: November round-up

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

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

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

Various articles about Mandarin on About.com
October, 2014 – About.com
These articles were all published on About.com through my role as Mandarin expert writer there:

  1. Asking for directions in Mandarin Chinese: Finding your way in Mandarin
  2.  Learning Mandarin Chinese through immersion: Changing your environment to improve your learning
  3.  Music Mandarin: Eason Chan – “Ten Years”: Learn Mandarin by listening to music and studying the lyrics
  4.  Mandarin multitasking with “yibian… yibian…”: A sentence pattern to express simultaneous activities
  5.  Tone changes of the character “yi” (one): How the tone changes in different contexts, with examples
  6.  Tone changes of the character “bu” (not, no): How the tone changes in different contexts, with examples
  7.  Yi – “one” – Chinese character profile: A closer look at the character Yi (“one”), its meanings and usages
  8.  How the rule of three can help you learn Chinese better: Learning more by avoiding perfectionism
  9.  Youdao – An excellent free online Chinese dictionary: How and why to use Youdao to learn Chinese

What should you do when you forget a word?
October, 2014 – Skritter
We all forget words when learning a language, but what should you do when you forget a word? Ignore it? Take decisive action? There are numerous things you can and should do when you forget a word when using spaced repetition software, and in this article I discuss some of them. I also mention some things you should avoid doing when forgetting a word.

How to Speak Chinese Well: 5 Simple Tips for Extraordinary Fluency
October, 2014 – FluentU
Learning to speak Chinese requires a lot of practice, but it does matter how you practice and there are some tricks you can use to learn more and faster. The title of this post obviously isn’t chosen by me, but I still think the article’s main arguments are well worth sharing.

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