The Power of Perseverance, or Mind over Method

我回來了. (I’m back, and just short of 400 hours of Mandarin listening!)

Just took my “Chinesisch II” exam on Monday, and getting an “A” was actually better than I expected, considering that I could only actively write about 50 characters at the beginning of last week (and I haven’t been doing all the grammar and test prep exercises with everyone else because they bore me to tears), and in one week I used Anki’s “cram mode” and the publicly-shared deck New Practical Chinese Reader (Books 1-5) learned to actively write over 700 (though many of them didn’t come up on the test!) The exam consisted of 120 minutes of listening, reading and writing (entirely in traditional characters, except for the section where you had to write pinyin sentences in traditional characters), including a minumum 100-character dialog to be written at the end, and a 15-minute oral exam (which I did quite well on, got props on me tones!).

The reason I knew how to actively write so few characters is that I’ve spent any free time between my two jobs and my Spanish studies this semester getting as much Mandarin INPUT as possible, usually by listening to the NPCR Classbook and Workbook CDs, which I cut to only include the normal spoken dialogs and Reading Comprehension audios and leave out the slow dialogs and boring “pattern drills”, or one of a variety of podcast programs, and then reading the texts whose audios I was already familiar with at the end of the week in Reading Comprehension class or at home, after I was already very familiar with the audio content.

I purposely went out of my way to avoid memorizing characters and their pronunciations during most of my first year of study, because I didn’t want it to have an effect on my pronunciation later as it does with most people I’ve seen. Trust me, it’s paid off.

But if I didn’t memorize all the grammar we learned in class or do any of the recommended homework or exam exercises all semester long, and most of my learning was reckless and took place “on the go”, how did I manage to do well on the exam?

I’ve talked about a number of methods on my blog, including Listening from different ‘angles’ to raise your language awarenessUsing Anki in combination with Text-To-Speech Technology, and The advantages of scaffolding-based learning, but what I usually end up doing every day is random and inefficient – it’s what I like to call reckless language acquisition. And because, try as I may, most of my language learning falls into this category, I’ve come to realize that, in the end, what really matters is PERSEVERANCE.

In an effort to “streamline my learning/make it more efficient”, i.e. “learn more, study less” with these methods, I’ve started and stopped reading Heisig’s Remembering the Hanzi many times, used Anki and created sentence audios for a week and then dropped Anki for a month, and even imported articles into LingQ, created a bunch of LingQs and then never looked at them again. Looked at individually, these are all seeming indications of GIVING UP = FAILURE. But you can’t give up without first starting, and if you keep giving up, it means you keep starting, and if you keep starting, it means you’re trying, and if you’re trying, well, you’re on your way to winning. In the end, if you keep listening to and reading Mandarin every day, every day you will understand and “assimilate” more Mandarin. Look at another way:


I have a good 10 GB worth of Mandarin content on my Nexus One, and I listen to some of it at every opportunity everywhere I go, usually starting with listening in the shower in the morning and ending with listening while brushing my teeth in evening. Some days I’ll listen to the same 5 Intermediate ChinesePOD lessons over and over again just to hear content I understand most of and let the high-frequency vocab sink in. Some days I’ll create a giant UpperInt playlist with ChineseLearnOnline, CSLPod, PopUpChinese and others in the mix and just let it play; sometimes I understand a lot, sometimes I don’t understand diddly squat. I’m not capable of listening ALL THE TIME in at least one ear, as in also when I’m talking to people, as Khatzumoto suggests (I’ve tried it), but I take every opportunity I get and listen to SOMETHING in Mandarin, even if it only amounts to 10 minutes of listening at the end of a particulary busy day. I’m listening to my ChinesePOD Intermediate lessons playlist whilst writing this.

So many times, I’ve used my Listening from different ‘angles’ method to intensively interact with and understand 90%+ of an advanced text that I only understood a fraction of at step 1 (listening without reading), only to let it slip to the back-end of my playlist and not listen to it for a month (I have long playlists;). Most of the content may disappear from memory when you learn recklessly, but choice bits stay hidden away somewhere, and it happens to me again and again that I hear a rare/difficult expression I don’t try to remember or think I’ll never hear again/be able to commit to memory, only to hear and recognize it that same or the next day in another episode of the same (or a different) podcast, after which it’s found sure enough hold in my mind I’d have to try not to remember it.

In the end, the method you choose to use (or not) doesn’t really matter, whether you do the homework or memorize the grammar or not doesn’t really matter, and the polyglot whose advice you choose to follow doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you JUST.KEEP.GOING. Only n00bs quit. It might take you longer, but you’ll get there.



Using the SitePal Text-to-Speech demo and the Firefox add-on VideoDownloadHelper to get sentence audio MP3s for your spaced repetition deck

I’ve successfully completed the first semester of Chinese Studies at university and am quickly approaching 250 hours of Mandarin listening and understanding, which has allowed me to start listening to ChinesePOD Upper Intermediate Lessons and understand 75% or more of relatively quickly-spoken Mandarin between John and Jenny about the content of the dialogues, and I’ve reached the 4th stage that Khatzumoto talks about ( in many contexts of Mandarin listening. Taking a mandatory intensive Mandarin course as part of the study program and teaching an intensive English course at the university’s language center in the last two months has thrown a bit of a wrench into the blogging process, but I’m excited to share a great tool I’ve discovered which I hope will aid you in your acquisition of Mandarin.


A lot of people are on the fence about the effectiveness of using a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) for language learning, but I’ve found that, as long as it’s used in moderation (no more than 30 minutes a day maximum for creating and studying cards, depending on time and desire), it’s a great way not only to ensure you remember the content of what you learn, but to accelerate the speed at which words and phrases move from your passive (comprehension) to your active (use) vocabulary.

After having downloaded all the audios and transcripts for the 420 lessons taught over 7 levels on ChineseLearnOnline over the course of one month, I’m currently in the process of creating an Anki deck with the 3,000 some odd sentence audios from the lessons which are available to members of the site.Theoretically, I could have done this all in one month, but studying, teaching English and doing medical and legal translations on a regular basis doesn’t leave time for much else in 30 days…

In addition to ChineseLearnOnline, ChinesePOD and CSLPod also offer sentence-by-sentence audio (the great thing about CSLPod is that they’re FREE), but what if you have sentences from your Chinese class,, or an article or book you’re reading for which you don’t have any audio and you’d like to add them to your SRS sentence deck?

I’ve discovered that you can use the SitePal Text-to-Speech Demo and the Firefox Add-On VideoDownloadHelper to create quite authentic-sounding Text-To-Speech (TTS) MP3s for individual sentences in Mandarin and many other languages. I’ve tested the authenticity of the Mandarin pronunciation and intonation of the sentences by comparing them against sentence audios from the podcasts mentioned above, and although they certainly don’t sound as natural as those created by native speaker humans:), they are really quite good and more than adequate for your purposes if you have a spaced repetition deck with sentence audios.


1) Download the Firefox Add-On VideoDownloadHelper and restart Firefox (you will be prompted by the browser) so that it will be usable. The user manual is here and will show you screenshots displaying where the add-on will show up (next to the address bar) and how to use it.

2) Choose a Mandarin sentence you’d like to add to your deck.I’ll use the first sentence from the free sentence audios from the following CSLPod lesson:

Intermediate #1297 买机票


to demonstrate, so that you can compare the pronunciation of the native speaker to the TTS pronunciation.The sentence is


(nǐ hǎo ,wǒ xiǎng mǎi liǎng zhāng xià gè yuè shíwǔ hào běijīng fēiwǎng niǔyuē de jīpiào 。

Hello, I would like to buy two air tickets from Beijing to New York for the 15th of next month.)

3) Call up the SitePal Text-to-Speech Demo and copy the above sentence from the CSLPod sentence page for that lesson into the box labeled Enter Text. Choose Chinese from the dropdown menu under Language, and then choose which Voice you’d like. I like the male voice Liang, but it’s perfectly up to you which you choose:) Then click on Say It.

4) The VideoDownloadHelper symbol of three colored spheres, which is normally gray, will light up and begin to move next to the address bar.Click on the downward-pointing arrow just to the right of it and you will see the numeric name of the .mp3 file.Scroll over the name and you will see a drop down menu with a number of options.Use Quick Download to download the audio to your hard drive and then upload it from your Downloads folder into the audio slot of the Anki card you created for the sentence (see screen shot below). The audio will automatically be copied and placed into the audio folder for your deck, which in my case is located in my Dropbox folder.

5) If you want to test out the card audio, just open up the deck browser, scroll to the end of your deck, select the new card, and then go to Actions->Cram.The card testing interface will open (shown on the right in the screen shot) and should play your audio immediately, or you can repeat the audio by using the  button just above the card on the right of the quick action bar.

And here you can listen to the original and the TTS version to make a comparison for yourself!




As I mentioned above, I’ve set up my Anki so that the audio for my decks is automatically placed into my Dropbox folder so that I can access my audio decks through AnkiWeb anytime, anywhere.

If you want to have audio for your personal decks on your Android phone with AnkiDroid (click to see an introductory video – I’m not a Mac user, but you should be able find the info you need to do this for your iPhone/iPad here), all you have to do is copy the audio folder from your computer into the /mnt/sdcard/AnkiDroid folder on your Android phone, so that it’s “sitting next to” the deck. For example, if I have an audio deck called ChinesePODVocab on my computer, then I will have a corresponding media folder called Copy this folder into the /mnt/sdcard/AnkiDroid folder on your phone, unmount your SD card from the computer, open your Anki deck, and enjoy your audio deck on your phone.

I hope this tutorial was useful. Please let me know if anything was unclear, and happy learning!

ChineseLearnOnline and Heisig’s Remembering the Hanzi: The advantages of scaffolding-based methods to learn Mandarin

ChineseLearnOnline and Heisig's RTH, the bestest of friends

The 200-hour listening mark has now been surpassed and another 2 weeks have gone by since my last post, during which I hit both a low and a high point in my Mandarin studies.

I hit a low point because I’ve been doing at least an hour of Mandarin listening every day for the past few months and all of the sudden I had the feeling that all of my ChinesePOD Elementary podcasts were too easy and the Intermediate ones were too hard and that overall nothing was actually ‘sticking’ in my head despite all the listening I had been doing.

I realized that this was due to the fact that, although the lessons and dialogues on ChinesePOD are high quality in terms of being well-thought out and explained, not to mention the wealth of learning resources for each lesson on the website (and the high quality audio of the lessons, which is the one major bummer about CSLPod), there is no natural progression or repetition as far as the teaching of vocabulary and structures is concerned, and therefore no instructional scaffolding (or base) is provided on which to improve and eventually become autonomous (in this case that means divorcing yourself from English-language explanations).

Although the autonomous learner in me loves the fact that you can just jump into the ChinesePOD library and graze the content that most strikes your fancy, with ChinesePOD there such a wealth of lessons that you can very quickly get overloaded if you don’t have some method of organizing your learning in order to get the necessary repetition required for words and phrases to ‘stick’.

And that is the beauty of the ChineseLearnOnline teaching method – it’s a progressive Mandarin course, meaning that each lesson builds on the vocabulary structures (scaffolding) taught in previous lessons. This is achieved by starting out teaching entirely in English while introducing a few new words of Mandarin vocabulary in each lesson. Additionally, new expressions, especially multi-character ones, are broken down and decoded to facilitate understanding. As the lessons progress, gradually more Mandarin and less English is spoken (where the Mandarin spoken always consists of words and expressions learned in previous lessons), eventually leading to lessons conducted entirely in Mandarin (around level 3), where you’re learning Mandarin through Mandarin, with only occasional clarifications in English, if any.

Coming from having extensive listening experience, I was able to jump in at the beginning of level 3 (lesson 121), where they are just starting to teach you the words they will use throughout the rest of the course to teach you Mandarin through Mandarin, but there are still a lot of explanations in English. After two weeks I am well into level 4, as I wanted to get to the primarily-Mandarin episodes as quickly as possible. As a result I am having to go back to occasionally review vocabulary that didn’t stick the first time through, but I prefer that to spending too much time with the same vocabulary/at the same level, or to put it another way, I’d rather my input be extensive (covering a wide range of contexts) rather than intensive to maximize vocabulary exposure. If you want to try out CLO, the first few premium lessons of every level are free on the webpage and on iTunes.

The method for learning Chinese characters that most closely approximates ChineseLearnOnline’s scaffolding-based progressive learning is Heisig’s Remembering the Hanzi series, in which both Remembering the Simplified Hanzi and Remembering the Traditional Hanzi are available. Here the description from the publisher’s website:

Based on the best-selling series of books on the Japanese characters, Remembering the Kanji, Jim Heisig and Tim Richardson have combined forces to produce comparable courses for Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters. Book 1 of each course covers 1,500 characters, organized around the 1,000 most frequently used characters (for details on the process of selection, read pages 8-9 of the download). Book 2 adds another 1,500 characters for a total of 3,000 frequently-used characters and a solid foundation for the serious student of Chinese. To facilitate the memorizing of the characters as quickly and efficiently as possible, the course introduces a unique order for learning and makes use of “imaginative memory” to combine the basic building blocks—or “primitive elements” of which all characters are composed—into memorable images and patterns.” (The introduction and a sample of both the Simplified and Traditional editions can be downloaded from the website using the links underneath the description.)

As revolutionary as this method is, I’ve found that the simple act of reading through the stories is not enough for the characters and their meanings to really ‘stick’, which is why I started learning the characters utilizing this method in conjunction with the spaced repetition writing/stroke order practice employing the already existing vocabulary list for the entire book on Skritter, allowing me to learn characters at a much faster rate, especially because new characters studied are made up of elements already learned, which means that new learning and review take place simultaneously and naturally. An additional plus to using Heisig’s books is that the site Reviewing the Hanzi was specifically designed to support individuals learning the Chinese characters with this method, and provides a forum where individuals can augment the stories provided in Heisig with their own mnemonic devices and study the characters using spaced repetition.

I wish you all happy learning, and…

祝我生日快樂! 🙂

祝大家新年快樂! Happy Chinese New Year’s Resolutions!

My 100-euro 1st-prize New Year's Hong Bao(新年紅包)

(and 祝大家新年快 to all you mainlanders;)

Once again, it’s been a long while since I’ve posted on my blog and a lot has changed in my Mandarin learning since November of last year. This week I’m going to hit 200 hours of Mandarin listening, and you’d be amazed at how much progress you can make over the course of 60+ hours of listening. I’ve also (re)discovered quite a few tools to aid you in your acquisition of Mandarin, and one of my resolutions is to introduce one of them to you each week over the coming months.

As far as my second resolution is concerned, I’ve taken it upon myself to learn one chapter a week in 2012 from the textbook series New Practical Chinese Reader (NPCR) that we’re using for our Chinese studies in the Department for East Asian Studies at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (some of my fellow students and professors were featured last year in a video report from China Central Television about Sinology studies at the university, which you can view here). This includes the meaning, pinyin transliteration and characters for all new and supplementary vocabulary, for a total of 3840 words in 60 lessons, or 52 lessons in 52 weeks, as we’d already completed the first 8 lessons of the series by the end of 2011. This will allow me to finish the entire 5-book series by the end of this year, where it would usually be completed over the course of 6 semesters!

The reason I know the exact number is that all of the lesson vocabulary for all 5 books in the series have already been uploaded and organized by chapter, and can be learned in both their traditional and simplified forms on (here’s a direct link to the NPCR vocabulary list on Skritter), which is a Chinese and Japanese character-learning tool based on spaced repetition learning comparable to Anki in its functionality, both of which I’d like to address in further detail as they’ve become two of my 最好的朋友 since having to start learning the characters for my studies in October.

In addition to NPCR, Skritter has the complete vocabulary for most books used in any university course, as well as vocabulary lists to learn the component parts which make up all Chinese characters (called radicals), the requisite vocab for each level of the standardized Chinese examination HSK (similar to the TOEFL for English), and the vocab for all of the lessons found on, which I finally decide to invest in last year as they had a deal for students on 1-year subscriptions.

I was also delighted to find that they have an Android app, which allows “ChinesePod users to download their latest lessons, listen to them, read the lesson transcripts, review vocabulary, review expansion sentences, drill down into vocabulary, play individual word (and sentence) audio, and more,” all of which I can personally vouch for. Although this did represent an expense that wasn’t exactly negligible, I’ve discovered that some things are just worth paying for in your language studies, especially if they allow you to organize and considerably speed up your language learning (and reduce your boredom factor;) – the reason why I’ve been a member of LingQ for over 2 years!

And now that I know approximately 300 Chinese characters, I been able to start using LingQ’s new SRS system to aid my studies. The cool thing about LingQ is that I can import lessons from CSLPod, ChineseClass101, ChinesePOD, ChineseLearnOnline and PopUpChinese into LingQ and immediately get sentence-by-sentence Text-to-Speech (TTS) audio by highlighting sentences and creating LingQs out of them. Although it’s TTS, it’s really not that far off from the original (I’ve done plenty of comparisons with sentence audios from native speakers on ChinesePOD, ChineseLearnOnline and iKnow (formerly smartfm)) and good enough for vocabulary review, as it’s really only meant as a supplement to daily dialog-based listening anyway. As you may remember, I talked about the power of dialogs in my post Don’t underestimate yourself – stop TRYING to learn and LET your brain do the work.

In fact, I would say 95% of the listening I do on a daily basis – which is quite extensive, as I listen to Mandarin in the morning when I’m getting ready, on the way to and from uni, between classes, on my way to work at the translation agency, in the library while I’m studying, on the way home in the evening, and even when I’m brushing my teeth before going to bed in the evenings – is dialog-based. If you’d like to know why, I recommend you read the post above!

This may seem like overloading on listening, but my comprehension has improved in leaps and bounds as a result, and I must say that I’ve found that there’s a certain amount of sense in what Khatzumoto says in his post Why You Should Keep Listening Even If You Don’t Understand, as any and all listening to your target language primes your brain for better comprehension and retention. Nevertheless, I usually try to find audios where my comprehension is 50% or greater, whether it’s purely auditory comprehension or with the aid of written translations, as from one of the above-mentioned podcasts or from Google Translate if I can get the text (with, for example), as it’s simply more interesting! I look forward to talking to you all more about these and other tools and resources in the coming weeks.

Seeing as the Year of the Dragon got off to a good start yesterday when I won the 1st prize of a 100-euro Hong Bao (see the picture at the top of the post) in the raffle at the Chinese New Year’s Festival here in Göttingen, as well as the fact that I got an A on our first major Chinese exam last week, I’d say this is gonna be a great year to learn Chinese!


P.S. – If you can’t read the Chinese characters in this post and you’d like to have them instantly decoded, I recommend the free add-on pop-up dictionaries Perapera Chinese and Words Chinese for Firefox, and Zhongwen Chinese for Google Chrome!

MandarinFromScratch greetings from Germany!

The first day of the orientation phase for the East Asian Studies department - that's me in the blue jacket enjoying a glass of Sekt under the word "SEMINAR" and basking in the glory of Olli's sign-holding skills... 🙂

After a long absence from my blog during my transition from San Diego back to Göttingen, I finally have the time and the right mindset to start writing again. I’ve come back to Germany to study Spanish Literature and Chinese Studies at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, the same university where I studied German Studies and Linguistics through UC Berkeley’s Study Abroad Program from 2005-2006. The eventual goal is to get a Master’s in Translation Studies from the University of Heidelberg with the working languages German, Spanish, and Chinese, but to that end I have to get my Spanish and Chinese up to the level of my German, and I thought the best way to do that would be by going back to school in Germany, where education is actually affordable…

Everybody keeps telling me I’m nuts for studying two languages at the same time, but in my case it’s not as hectic as it sounds because I tested into Spanish 6 (German-Spanish translation), which means I don’t have to do any of the language classes that are normally a part of the study program. The added benefit is that I have more time to dedicate to Mandarin, which I’ve been trying to listen to at every opportunity (between 1-3 hours per day is the goal) since the semester started on the 24th of October. When I’m at home in my room (like right now for example), I always have my ChinesePod, CSLPod, PopUpChinese, and ChinesePod101 podcasts running in the background, and when I leave the house I immediately put in my headphones to continue listening.

This is especially important now that I have 12 hours of Mandarin “class” every week, which includes grammar, vocabulary, phonetics, writing practice and a tutorial. Why? Because, absurdly and as I expected, they want you to start speaking from the very first day, not to mention “memorize” vocabulary and “practice” your pronunciation. Fortunately I’ve listened to almost 130 hours of Mandarin at this point so I’m already familiar with the vocabulary in all the 14 chapters of our book New Practical Chinese Reader 1, so I spend my time in class practicing writing the (traditional!) characters from the book that are already uploaded on and reading Remembering Traditional Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters (I bought the recently published German translation as an extra challenge), both of which I recommend to anyone who is really serious about their Chinese or Japanese studies.

I don’t mind so much that I’m expected to “practice speaking” in class because we only practice the dialogues from the book, which I’ve been listening to in addition to my podcasts on a daily basis, which means I can “hear” the correct pronunciation in my head when we’re repeating the dialogues, as opposed to others who have not had as much exposure. I can’t wait till we get to Chapter 7 and stop with the “phonetics practice” though, because I think it’s boring and a waste of time to “practice” saying different syllables and tones when you have no idea what, if anything, the words mean, nor, in most of the others case, have you had any real exposure to the language!

The Chinese Studies program includes a semester abroad in your 3rd year, and by then my goal is to have listened to over 1000 hours of Mandarin, which means a minimum of 1.5 hours per day over the next 2 years, hopefully reaching an HSK level of at least 4 by that time. I’ll keep you posted 😉

What is grammar good for? – Guest post by David Snopek of LinguaTrek

David Snopek is an American polyglot and computer-savvy linguist who created the open source language-learning tool BiblioBird™, an Anki-integrated web application that allows you to save words you’re learning for later review. He, like myself, is a big fan of the Harry Potter series for its language-learning potential, and he’s got a lot of insightful things to say about language learning, including some very motivating videos where he shows off his formidable Polish skills, which I why I asked him if I could re-post! If you like what you read, please check out his website Enjoy!

What is grammar good for?


Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker singing &quote;War!&quote; in the film Rush Hour

Just ask Jackie Chan! “Grammar. Huh, yeah. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”

Occasionally I write articles about grammar (like I did last week). I always feel a little weird writing about grammar, because, in general, I don’t advocate studying grammar, particularly not in the beginning.

However, studying some grammar when you’ve already got some fundamentals in the language can be helpful!

Read more to find out how!

What isn’t grammar study good for?

I started learning Polish by taking a course at the university. We spent all our time learning and practicing grammar rules. I always did well and got very good grades on the tests.


But after a year, I could hardly speak or understand any Polish! And when I did speak, it wasn’t grammatically correct at all. 🙂

Conscious study of grammar won’t help you become proficient in a language, because language learning is an unconscious skill.

It wasn’t until I started actually using Polish (by reading and listening to books) that I began to really speak Polish.

Now I can’t even remember the grammar rules! I still make lots of mistakes but I speak a lot more grammatically than I did when I knew them well.

So, what is grammar good for?

Grammar can be a useful tool in some very specific situations!

Putting your mind at ease

As adults, it is very hard to accept things without questioning. We need to know why!

Why do I say, “lubię filmy” (I like movies) but “interesuję się filmami” (I’m interested in movies?)?

Honestly, you don’t need to know why. With this word you say it like this and with another you say it like that. Just accept it! That’s what children do when they learn a language.

But adults have problems with this. They need an answer and the grammar rules can provide one.

So read them when it bothers you, get your piece of mind and move on!

Helping you recognize patterns

Languages are made up of patterns. If you don’t know anything about the language’s grammar, it will be hard to know what to look for. You don’t need to memorize any rules or take any tests, but just a quick overview of the grammar (like I made for Polish) can be very helpful.

As you learn the language better, occasionally take a look in a grammar book. It might help you recognize a pattern you’ve seen for a while but didn’t quite pick up!

In writing

Grammar rules are very difficult to apply when speaking or listening to fluid speech. It happens too fast for conscious thought! When you are writing, you have plenty of time to think.

Knowing the grammar rules can help you correct mistakes in your writing which will make you seem smarter and more educated.

Using language above your level

Features of a given language are always naturally learned in a predictable order (called the order of acquisition). For example, English speaking children always learn to use the present progressing tense (-ing verbs) correctly before the plural of nouns.

If you haven’t learned a particular language feature naturally yet, you can use the grammar rules to fake it!

This is very difficult to do in fluid speech and you might not be able to skip ten steps further than your unconscious language skill. But you might be able to do skip one or two.


I do this in Polish with the conditional tense (for example, “Zrobiłbym to” – would do it). I still haven’t acquired it naturally and can’t use it or understand it without thinking. But most of the time I can sort of fake it. 😉

What do you think? Is conscious study of grammar sometimes useful? Is it never useful? Or am I crazy and we should all be studying grammar every day?


Thanks again to David Snopek for the great article!

So Mandarin is a “tonal” language … who gives a hoot?

Are you learning Mandarin Chinese? I am. Do you know what a tone is? I do. Do you think “knowing what a tone is” makes any difference towards your eventual success in becoming fluent in Mandarin? Think again.

As is to be expected of someone with a background in Linguistics, when I first started learning Mandarin, before I had heard of “natural language learning”, e.g. Automatic Language Growth and the LingQ method, I went out in search of literature on the tonemes of Mandarin and all these nifty ways to “memorize” and “practice” the tones. The BBC Languages site for Chinese was one of these, offering a variety of kinesthetic tips to help you “learn” the tones and even a game to “practice” them.

Said tips include throwing a frisbee for the 1st tone, doing push-ups for the 2nd tone, sumo wrestling for the 3rd tone, whacking your sleeping brother with a pillow for the 4th tone, and if my grandmother had wheels she’d be a bicycle for the 5th tone (ok, ok, these don’t quite correspond to what you’ll find on the BBC site). Not only that, but they try to teach you all these ways of remembering how different tones “interact” and change at the sentence level, as if having overt knowledge of these phonetic interdependencies would actually be of use to you in a real-life conversation at natural speed.

This is essentially the equivalent of hearing something like this bunch of bunkum from your teacher on your first day of English instruction, before you’ve ever heard any real English:

“Good morning class. So, you want learn English. Well, the first thing you need to know is that English has a Germanic substrate punctuated by a thriving Romanic lexicon, and it is characterized, among other things, by the recurrence of stressed and unstressed syllables. I’m now going to make you memorize what all this means and how these syllables interact with one another, all of which will someday make you into a better English speaker.”

That is, if you don’t implode from the onslaught of hogwash first.

THUS, BE WARNED. This is not a natural way to acquire the tones of Mandarin, and any effort to consciously “learn” and “apply” them to real language use will leave your Mandarin sounding canned and robotic. The only “natural” way to get a good grasp on the tones of Mandarin is by doing lots of listening to natural conversation.

In fact, though it may be hard to believe, when I’m listening to Mandarin, I hardly pay attention to the tones at all. That’s not to say that I’m not aware of them; it’s just that I’m more interested in understanding natural speech and words and expressions in context, and I mostly do this by reading the (rough) translations of Chinese texts while listening to the corresponding audio lessons in Mandarin (I’m currently using Intermediate level CSLPod, ChinesePOD, and ChineseClass101 lessons par faute de mieux).

And though I do utilize the pinyin transliterations of the dialogues and their vocabulary lists (both of which include the tonal markings), I do this to facilitate my ability to parse auditory input (that is, in an effort to “hear” individual words in context) rather than to memorize tones. The simple fact of the matter is that you should remember tones from having heard them being used naturally in context, and not from having “memorized” and then “read” them. The former, if it so pleases the language gods, will produce natural output. The latter, however, cannot and will not produce natural output, period.

In the end, it seems as though proponents of these methods of “memorizing” the tones of Mandarin are more interested in selling you on the exoticness (uuuu…tones…shiny…) of the language than in actually aiding you in your quest to acquire it naturally.


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