Sunday, 4 March 2012

Learning Chinese

As I've been unable to get around much for a little while I thought I would write about my experiences of learning Mandarin while living here in Taipei.

Practical Audio Visual Chinese

In preparation for our move here, I bought the beginner books of the standard teaching texts used for foreign learners of Mandarin in Taiwan: The Practical Audio Visual Chinese (PAVC) series. (Please note the link is to an older version of the book. There is a later edition, but these books are very difficult to buy outside of Taiwan). While there are lots of materials available in the West for self-studying Mandarin, nearly everything is based on the Mandarin used in mainland China. There are some differences in pronunciation and vocabulary, but, more importantly, mainland China uses simplified characters, whereas Taiwan has retained the use of traditional characters.

As a former English language teacher, I have a wide experience of language textbooks, and am probably overly-critical as a result. The PAVC books are okay. They have an accompanying CD and translate characters into all three of the common scripts used to aid learning. Problems with English translation, while they exist, are minimal. The characters are introduced at a manageable pace and there is plenty of repetition.

On the downside, the vocabulary item choices are sometimes questionable. For example, in the first book in the series, the words for snow and ski-ing are taught. Opportunities for using the word 'snow' are scarce in Taiwan. The word for address, meanwhile, is not taught until halfway through the second book. That is not to say that there isn't some effort made to teach useful language, but the language is very outdated, such as when teaching how to buy things dollars and cents are used, while nowadays it is only dollars. It's also quite academic language, with tortuous sentences formed in order to give an example of a grammar point (even my language exchange partner said that no one would ever say one of the sentences I showed her).

Another disadvantage of the series is that the language used, both written and spoken (in the accompanying CDs), often doesn't reflect how it is actually pronounced by Taiwanese people. I was quite confused when I first arrived when hearing shop assistants telling me the cost of my shopping, and the 'sh' I was expecting to hear was actually pronounced more like 's'. The books also add a mainland Chinese 'r' at the end of words that isn't pronounced in Taiwan. There are probably more inaccuracies that I'm currently unaware of.


So, I did some preparation before arriving, including listening to Chinesepod mp3s and taking some Skype lessons from a teacher in the US, both of which were helpful in gaining some familiarity. It's hard to compare with something that didn't happen, but I would say that the greatest advantage from doing this preparatory work was that I wasn't entirely freaked out by living in a Chinese speaking country when I arrived. I was not able to hold any meaningful conversations in Chinese.

If you come from a markedly different language background (e.g. not Japanese) then Chinese is a very hard language to learn, or, to put it more accurately, it's a very time-consuming language to learn. I've read that for the average native English-speaker it takes two years' full-time study to become fluent in one of the Romance languages, such as French or Spanish, while it takes five years to become fluent in Mandarin. As I'm not fluent in anything other than English, it's hard for me to vouch for the accuracy of this, but I do know that Mandarin requires, purely and simply, a large amount knowledge just to use it functionally.

Chinese Literacy

I am talking of course about literacy in Mandarin.

I made the decision quite a while ago that I would not bother to learn to write Chinese. There is simply no need for it other than to be able to write your name and address, which I can do. Anything else can be written on a computer, which, as long as you know how a word is pronounced, will bring up a list of characters that, if you can read them, you can choose from. So I have only been focusing on reading. This is the time-consuming activity.

There are various tricks and mnemonics for remembering the meaning and pronunciation of characters. The only thing I've found that really works is simple practice. Reading the characters over and over again is the only thing that enables me to recognise them without thinking. This is what takes time. But it is important to understand that reading Mandarin is not just recognising characters. Most words are actually composed of two or more characters, so you need to remember what particular juxtapositions of characters mean. Another factor is that Chinese is highly idiomatic. There are many phrases that do not make sense if translated literally, so the meanings of whole groups of characters need to be learned as well.


Some things that you might expect would be difficult include the use of tones and Chinese grammar. There are four main tones in spoken Mandarin (and one neutral tone). Personally, I haven't found this very problematic. I try to learn the tone as well each time that I learn a new word, and they seem to stick quite well in my head. Plus, I imagine it helps that I'm surrounded by accurate reproductions all the time. Grammar is also comparatively simple, I think. I haven't yet encountered any inflections. To express time, plurals etc. more words are used.

Now, six months after arriving in Taiwan, I don't have as much Chinese as I hoped I would when I first arrived. I came with brave ambitions of tackling the language head-on, talking to lots of people, and studying both formally and informally as much as I could. My intentions to study formally were the first to be scuppered by having the devote so much time to settling in and coping with Conrad's problems at school. Informally, I found it hard to focus when I had so much else on my mind.

There are a few difficulties with talking to other people too. I'm not too shy to chat to strangers or try to use Mandarin in shops, but when I do, I often can't understand the reply that I get. The problem is that if you begin a conversation in Mandarin, the other person assumes you are fluent and replies at normal speed. I have got better at understanding over time, but this still quite often puts an end to my Mandarin practice right there.

My reading is better, probably, than my speaking, but the critical mass of knowledge that you need to be functionally literate in Mandarin is so great that I still have quite a way to go. (I have a feeling I'm not learning the particularly useful characters through PAVC either.)

I think another factor in my slower than expected progression is that there is little pressure to learn Mandarin living in Taipei. Despite the fact that there are fewer expats here than in many other Asian capitals, the city is quite friendly to English speakers, both in signage and the number of Taiwanese people who speak English. It's perfectly possible to exist quite comfortably here without speaking Mandarin, and in fact there are a number of foreigners who do just that, despite having lived here for decades.

The Future

This is not to say that I have, or intend to, give up on learning Mandarin. I still make an effort to speak it when the opportunity arises and have increased my listening practice to help with understanding the other half of the conversation. As well as listening to my CDs, I also watch TV and listen in on conversations, go to meetings etc. So far, I can usually only understand individual words, but the frequency of my understanding entire sentences, or the gist, is increasing. As with reading, it is simply a matter of putting in enough work to get a result.

I also meet with a language exchange partner once a week when we can both manage it. These conversations begin in Chinese, then revert to English when I can't cope any longer (quite early on!). My partner is getting better at slowing down a little for me, but such is the nature of Chinese, I think, that often just one unfamiliar word will lose the entire meaning for me.

As far as textbooks go, I have decided to abandon PAVC after I finish the second book, and instead I'm going on to these books by DeFrancis, which cover the 400 most common characters in the first book. They are very old books but still come highly recommended.

As well as all of this, I am of course helping Conrad as he learns Chinese at school, or, rather, we help each other. He gets a big kick out of teaching me something, which helps greatly with his motivation. A lot of his Chinese is to do with how to play tag or 'ghosts' though, or classroom instructions, so is not always of the greatest use to me at the end of the day!

Conrad's schoolwork is as much as I'm going to do for the time being as far as formal study of Chinese goes. I now know two people who have dropped out of university courses because the teaching style is so academic and not particularly useful or effective. I may embark on conversation classes if time allows in future.

The Fun in Chinese

I'm aware that I've probably made learning Chinese to sound like a long, boring slog. It really isn't. If you're interested in languages, it's actually often fascinating, mostly due to the insight in gives into different ways of seeing things.

For example, 上 'shang' means up and 下 'xia' means down (amongst other things). These words are also used to talk about time, as in, for example, last week and next week. So which word is used for 'next' and 'last', do you think?

Also, part of the word to express 'behind' is 'hou' and part of the word to express  'in front' is 'qian'. These words are also used to express time, as in the day after tomorrow, or the day before yesterday. So, does Chinese use 'hou' or 'qian' to talk about the past and the future?

If you're like me, you assumed that the future, is 'up' or 'shang', and the past is 'down' or 'xia'. Wrong!
Also, you assumed that the future is 'in front' and the past is 'behind'. Not in Chinese!

In short, Chinese bends your head a little sometimes but if you like having your head bent, as I do, then it's quite enjoyable.

1 comment:

Wade Kaardal said...

I don't know if you've heard of Skritter, but it's a great website for character recognition. Sure it teaches you how to write, but I find writing the character helps me learn the character faster. Good luck with all your studies.