Learning the spoken language before the written, focussing primarily on audio input

My point in learning the spoken language before learning the characters is that learning the characters requires memorization, where you have to learn and memorize the pronunciation along with the meaning. This ‘memorization’ of pronunciations without speaking the language reminded me of learning a language from a book or wordlists like in school, and I found myself resisting it when I started to do it at the beginning of my Chinese studies three months ago. Children don’t have to do this, as the word is already in their heads – they just have to associate it with a certain character. Consider this excerpt from page 2 of the introduction of Heisig’s ‘Remembering the Simplified Hanzi’ : 

“The Chinese themselves are not faced with (the) problem (of learning a character’s meaning, pronunciation, and writing at the same time). As children, they are exposed first to the spoken language, learning how to associate sounds with meanings. When the time comes to learn how to read, they already have at their disposal a solid basis of words whose sounds and meaning are familiar to them; all that remains is to associate those words with written forms. Doing so opens them to printed texts, which, in turn, helps them assimilate new words and characters. Those of us who come to the language as adults can gain a similar advantage by tying each character to a particular unit of pronunciation and meaning, a ‘key word’ in English, that we already know.” 

So you see, it IS possible to learn the meanings of the characters without learning their pronunciation, and that is exactly what Heisig’s book empowers you to do – I simply have not started doing this yet because I prefer to spend my time listening to the spoken language intensively in an effort to reach a level where I can understand authentic material as quickly as possible, and I am getting there fast after only three months.

Also confer this post entitled
Improving your Mandarin reading and listening without having to learn lots of characters

This method is quite effective, but a bit time-consuming. I have since been learning primarily using podcasts from ChinesePOD, as they already come with a transliteration and translation below the phrases and include wordlists, as well as an extracted audio version of just the dialogues to listen to (all of which can be imported into LingQ), and there’s thousands of interesting dialogues.

In my next post I will be talking about my learning methods and schedule and how they’ve changed since I began.

Free Mandarin resources with pinyin, word-for-word translations and mp3s

***Friday, May 27th, 2011 edit – unfortunately, only zhonwenblue is still available, and as there’s no audio, it’s not very suitable for beginners. If you’re just getting started reading Mandarin after lots and lots of listening (refer to http://mandarinfromscratch.com/2009/12/02/learning-the-mandarin-characters-hanzi/), you could use this site to practice reading characters.

Though I prefer to use dialogues and not simply sentences for learning, I think this is a great and extensive collection of useful sentences to raise your awareness of the sentence structure of Mandarin.


The Objective

The objective of this blog is to keep a journal of my progress learning Mandarin Chinese from scratch without learning the characters first, that is, only using audio, pinyin and translations, with listening as the primary source of input.

To see how I got started learning Mandarin, check out this post
In my next post I will be expounding on my reasoning for using this method to learn Mandarin (I hope to learn as a child would: listening -> speaking -> reading -> writing), as opposed to the traditional route of learning to speak and write at the same time, as most adult learners do.

How to Learn to Speak (Language) Fluently

My thanks go to Jeff Lindqvist at LingQ for turning me onto this site


On it, Anthony Lauder defines what he thinks fluency in a language is, describes his struggle with fluency in Czech, and gives great suggestions as to how fluency can be attained, primarily using what he calls ‘connectors’.
I recommend these methods for more advanced language learners, as beginners should still be concentrating on listening and increasing their aural comprehension.

Learning Languages Like Children

This is a re-post of one of my recent contributions in this thread http://www.lingq.com/learn/zh/forum/1/5099/ on the LingQ Open Forum

@ asadkhan

You may have been listening passively for 6 years, but HOW INTENSIVELY? (how many hours per day EVERY DAY)? Students in the ALG program, on average, go to class 3 hours per day every day for a year before they start speaking – that is, they listen very intensively over a relatively short period of time.

I’ve found that after only 60 hours of listening to Mandarin (an hour a day every day for 2 months), words and phrases are starting to just ‘pop’ into my head without me even thinking about them. I’m certain that this type of ‘thinking’ is not detrimental, as the words and phrases just ‘rise to the surface’ and you’re not yet trying to say them out loud. The ‘thinking’ the article refers to is trying to ‘come up with’ language (whether it’s grammar conjugations or vocabulary) instead of just drawing on the vocabulary base (which INCLUDES grammar) you’ve acquired from listening.

@ Cantotango

I do believe that words and phrases will come naturally if you listen INTENSIVELY and wait long enough to start speaking. Just ask Steve about his experience with Russian, which I’ve heard native speakers say he speaks very well – check out his video and the comments here


Notice that, although he has to think about what he wants to say, the words and phrases seem to ‘flow out’ quite readily, an obvious sign that he did lots of natural listening to the language before starting to speak to any great extent. And, although he may make some mistakes with grammar, remember that native speaker children ALSO make grammar mistakes (‘I goed’ instead of ‘I went’ etc. – confer Krashen’s Principles and Practice in SLA) and yet they still come out speaking fluently.

I think that, once you reach a certain level of understanding (ALG posits about 80%) after CONSISTENT and INTENSIVE listening, you’ve already established a solid pronunciation and grammar base, at which point it’s just a matter of activating your passive vocabulary (which, once again, INCLUDES grammar like conjugations and endings etc.) while continuing to augment it, which is what Steve says he started doing after about two years of learning Russian.

Finally, consider that adult native speakers also make grammar and pronunciation mistakes and yet we still think of them as ‘fluent speakers’.


This is A.J. Hoge’s text and recording of an excerpt from ALG’s Dr. J. Marvin Brown’s article entitled ‘Learning Languages Like Children’


The original and unabridged article can be found here


Lingro (Ling Grow) language learning tool

Below is a description of the lingro language-learning tool, which I think is a great supplement to LingQ, especially if you’re an Anki user. Also check out Ramses’ description of the available functionalities here http://www.spanish-only.com/2008/09/lingrocom-dictionary/

Quoted from the lingro website (http://lingro.com/docs/about.html):

lingro was conceived in August 2005, when Artur decided to practice his Spanish by reading Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal. As a competent but non-expert speaker, he found that looking up new vocabulary took much more time than the reading itself. Frustrated with how slow existing online dictionaries were, he wrote a program to help him translate and learn words in their original context.

lingro’s mission is to create an on-line environment that allows anyone learning a language to quickly look up and learn the vocabulary most important to them. Whenever we’re developing new tools for lingro or planning the next big step, there are two principles we always consider:

Knowledge and information essential to human communication and interaction should be free and accessible to everyone. This is why we created the most comprehensive set of free dictionaries available under open licenses so that anyone can contribute, download, redistribute, and modify the dictionaries for their own needs. These licenses guarantee that they will always remain free and useful to society.

To have the best dictionaries, you need to have the best tools. Every tool we create, from games, quizzes, and study tools to in-context word lookup is designed for you, the user. To us, this means that they should be intuitive, fast, easy to use, and hopefully fun. 🙂

Why you think you need grammar

Yet another great post from Ramses at Spanish Only: Learn How to Learn Spanish


I personally don’t spend any of my time learning grammar, as listening, reading and learning vocabulary are more interesting and grammar knowledge comes as a result, not as a precursor.

If it’s not top-down, get outta town.

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