Monday, 27 May 2013

Teach Yourself Chinese

Learning Chinese isn't an endeavour to be undertaken lightly, I have discovered. I read some good advice from a long time expat in Taiwan, which was to make a decision about learning Chinese and stick to it. Either decide you aren't going to learn Chinese and accept the minor difficulties and restrictions that entails while living in Taiwan, or decide you're going to learn it and stick at it through thick and thin. The third alternative - trying to learn Chinese and giving up, or intending to learn Chinese but never quite getting around to it, can only lead to low self-esteem. Only those who never embark on, or give up on, learning can experience failure. Everyone else is either still on the path or didn't set foot on it in the first place.

I'm still firmly treading the path. About 18 months ago I realised that my efforts at working through the PAVC Beginner textbook while still in the UK had been mere pootling about in the foothills of learning Chinese, oblivious to Mount Everest looming above me. Once I finally sighted Mount Everest I gulped a little, girded my loins and set off womanfully towards Base Camp. I'm probably not even at Base Camp yet but I thought now was probably a good time for some reflection and sharing of my experiences so far.

As the title says, I'm teaching myself rather than attending classes. As well as time and cost factors, I think I know myself well enough as a former language teacher I'd be an impatient and intolerant student. Teaching yourself also offers the flexibility to learn what you want to at a pace that suits you. For example, I decided long ago that there was very little point to learning to write Chinese. The only non-computer-aided Chinese writing required for everyday living here is the ability to write your name and address, and as I've managed with just this for nearly two years I'm glad I saved myself a lot of time and effort. Some say that learning to write helps in memorizing characters but in my very early attempts I found that this wasn't true in my case.

The flexibility of teaching yourself also contains some danger. It's easy to put off studying, for one reason or another, indefinitely. I found a way around this by incorporating Chinese learning into everyday activities. When my son's doing his homework I'll sit and read Chinese alongside him, as well as being there to help keep him focused, and hopefully providing a good example. Listening takes place when I'm travelling and exercising. I've downloaded audio files from my textbooks to my phone and now just have to pop my earphones in to make good use of otherwise dead time. Those two activities make up the majority of my Chinese learning, which adds up to about 10 to 15 hours a week.

You'll probably have noticed I apparently devote little time to grammar or speaking. Many Chinese speakers will tell you Chinese has little or no grammar, but after learning the basics I would disagree. It lacks certain aspects of grammar that are common amongst other languages, such as verb conjugations, but that doesn't mean it has no grammar at all. In my own learning I've found that I acquire grammar through repeated exposure in reading and listening, not through learning and then trying to apply rules. I have suffered from a lack of speaking practice, however.

Taipei is home to many English-speaking Taiwanese, and most enjoy an opportunity for some practice, so it's quite easy to get by without speaking Chinese. Practising speaking Chinese requires some organisation and effort, and I found this has been the greatest disadvantage of not attending classes. Classes provide the opportunity to practise with people with similar levels of Chinese, while out in the wide world you are a beginner trying to practise with people at, literally, native-speaker standard. Having said that, I've found most Taiwanese to be very patient and supportive; even, unjustifiably, apologetic about their own lack of English. But I recently recognised that, to make any meaningful progress, I needed to make formal arrangements for conversation practice.

I spent a few months last year having infrequent meetings with a language exchange partner. That wasn't particularly successful, so I'd given up on the idea. Aside from formal conversation lessons, there is little alternative to language exchange, though, so I was forced to try again. Due to a number of factors, this attempt has been more enjoyable and productive. One of the biggest differences this time round is that I simply know more Chinese. It's very difficult to have a conversation when you have to look up or ask how to say every other word. Another difference is that this time my partner is a friend, so we have a lot of common interests and topics to talk about. Not only does this make it easier to find things to say, it also makes conversations more meaningful. I also have no qualms about sounding foolish (as is frequently the case).

A final aspect of learning I've found has affected my ability to progress is choice of textbook. In an earlier post I mentioned my intention to give up on PAVC, and I have done so with no regrets. I found Far Eastern to be much better in terms of language relevancy, but neither series contains enough material for the self-learner (is that a word?). It takes a lot of reading and listening to Chinese to properly retain the language, and I found both books moved onto new words and structures too quickly, so that the mass of unlearned language steadily increased as I worked through them. Used in the classroom, where a teacher can provide lots of practice, this may not be the case.

Instead, a very old series of texts and audio materials originally recorded on reel-to-reel tape recorders have proven most useful to me. The DeFrancis Chinese learning textbooks have never been surpassed for sheer amount of material in the 40 years or so since they were first published.

I don't think a less attractively-produced series exists, and no doubt the language has dated somewhat, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this set to anyone else teaching themselves Chinese. The Beginner books take the learner through the 400 most common words in the language and include tens of hours of listening material as well as thick books of texts. Despite the mundane appearance of the books, the subject matter is varied, intelligently-written and occasionally witty.

We have about 4 more years left in Taiwan. I don't know how good my Chinese will be by the time we have to leave, although I'm quite sure I'll still have lots to learn. Wish me luck as I start my ascent.

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