The first three to four months – my Mandarin-learning methods and how they’ve evolved

My methods have changed quite a bit since I started learning Mandarin in September, and if I had known then what I know now I would’ve learned a lot more in the last three months, and had an easier time doing it. However, as always, I consider such experiences to be necessary for becoming a better a language learner, and I do not regret them, as they empower me with knowledge that I can use to help others avoid the same ‘hardships’.

When I first started out with Mandarin, I had full intentions of learning the spoken and written languages at the same time. Or better said, I thought my ability to learn the spoken language was dependent upon my ability to read it, because text is what allows you to ‘access’ the meaning of audio recordings and learn words and phrases. To clarify, this means that I usually adhere to the following learning sequence on LingQ

1) I choose a new text on LingQ and listen to it once or twice without reading. I may or may not understand any of what I hear, but even if I don’t, I still get a feel for the text.
2) I listen to and read the text once through without worrying about what I don’t understand.
3) I listen to and read the text again, pausing the audio to LingQ words and phrases. I almost never read without listening, even at more advanced levels.
4) I listen to the text many times, trying to understand more than I did in step 1 and listening out for my saved word and phrases. 

The number of times I listen depends on my interest, the difficulty of the text, and the amount of time I have on any day. If I don’t understand 80% of the text, I go back and read and listen, then listen again without reading. I do this as many times as is needed to understand as much as possible of the text without reading, time permitting. After this intensive interaction with the text, I put it on my mp3 player and listen to it (sometimes actively, sometimes in the background) whenever I get the chance as many times as I can until I get bored with it. As long as the amount of listening I do far outweighs the amount of reading (L 90% / R 10%), my pronunciation will not suffer, as my brain is acquiring the spoken language and not what it thinks the written language sounds like.

The problem with this approach when applied to the learning of Chinese, however, is that if you don’t know the characters, your brain has no frame of reference for remembering the progression of the text and picking out individual words and phrases when reading. And this was the problem I was faced with when I tried to start learning Chinese in September on LingQ – although I could look up each individual word and see the meaning and transliteration, I had no way to see the language at the sentence level and to then isolate individual words. I knew exactly what I needed to start out though, as I had seen it in Spain at a book fair before I came back to the States – an audio book with short, transliterated dialogues and vocabulary lists on the side (this was before I knew about I knew that with such a resource I would quickly be able to learn to understand a lot of words and phrases in the context of dialogues without having to look up lots of words or know the characters. The book was Zhang Peng Peng’s ‘Intensive Spoken Chinese’ – I describe my method for using the book here  

Originally my plan was to learn the spoken language and the characters at the same time using Zhang Peng Peng’s book combined with ‘Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters Volume 1: A Revolutionary New Way to Learn and Remember the 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters’ as an introduction, but the ‘problem’ with the Tuttle book is that it very effectively helps you to memorize the meaning and pronunciation of the characters using mnemonic devices and archetypes which represent the tones. So I found myself memorizing the pronunciation and tones of words I had never heard before, and I’ve had enough experience with English learners who learned from books with very little audio for most of their lives to realize that that was not the way to learn to speak Mandarin well, not to mention that I quickly became bored with the monotiny of memorization, even though the authors go out of their way to make the learning method fun and engaging, and the book is one of a kind and will be among the books I use to learn the characters down the road.

So about one month in I stopped learning the characters and started to concentrate entirely on the spoken language. I still didn’t know about ChinesePOD at that point, and besides the ‘Who is she’ and ‘Eating out’ series which I had listened to many times and become bored with, there wasn’t very much on LingQ for my level, so I started to translate the LingQ Chinese podcasts (which are for advanced students) into English using Google Translate and listen to the podcasts while reading along in English. I think doing this is the main reason why I was so quickly able to reach an intermediate level of comprehension, and why I do not feel at all uncomfortable listening to more quickly spoken Chinese. The only problem with this method is that it is difficult to ‘pick out’ individual words, and though I’m sure that if I had listened to them long enough, I would have eventually been able to, I felt that reading along in pinyin would be the quickest way for me to pinpoint and learn new vocabulary. Since the pinyin of the LingQ Chinese podcasts was not available, I used PopUpChinese to transliterate the podcasts and read along – I started doing this in November, about two months in, and I describe my method here

Although I benefited from the transliteration method, I quickly became tired of it because I had to look up a lot of words to be able to interact with the text, and in some cases the LingQ Chinese podcasts were simply too quickly spoken for my ears to pick up on the pronunciation of certain words, despite the fact that I was reading along. At that point I had the false impression that my Chinese comprehension had already reached a general intermediate level, and though that was the case for the texts I had use the transliteration method described above with, I knew that I was still missing a lot of basic vocabulary, so I looked back at the ChinesePOD podcasts that I had had for a while but hadn’t done anything with. I soon realized that they would provide exactly the structural base I needed, so about mid-December I jumped in and started listening to the Intermediate podcasts (which are half in Chinese and half in English) supplemented by just the dialogues from the Newbie and Elementary levels, as the podcasts at those levels are mostly in English.

The great thing about ChinesePOD is that you can download the podcast, an audio extract of just the dialogue, an audio vocabulary review of the new vocab in the dialogues with the English and Chinese terms (which I use for the Intermediate and Upper Intermediate dialogues to isolate all the new vocabulary before and after listening to the dialogues), and of course the transcripts, which include the written dialogues with Chinese characters, pinyin, and the English translation, all stacked on top of each other, as well as a word list of the new vocab (which is recorded in the audio vocabulary review) at then end. This is very convenient, as it allows you to listen to the dialogues and read along in English while conferring the pinyin, and then later listen while looking at the vocab list to ‘listen out’ for individual vocab terms, with the objective of eventually listening and comprehending without reading at all.

Up to now I have listened to about 75 hours of Mandarin, and I was suprised the other day by how much I could understand when I listened to a Shanghai radio station I hadn’t listened to in a month, and how much clearer and natural the language sounded. 

In the next entry I will talk about how I currently use ChinesePOD on a daily basis, why dialogues are such a powerful learning tool, and how I could have reached the level I’m at now as much as twice as fast as I did.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. MattAmerige
    Jan 26, 2010 @ 04:15:54

    That’s an interesting approach to listening vs reading. Having learned Japanese I know how overwhelming the characters can seem at first. I’d recommend trying out James Heisig’s “Remembering the Hanzi”, or even using and applying the same kind of mnemonic method. I myself used Heisigs Remebering the Kanji Vol 1 and 3 – coupled with Anki I learned 3000ish characters, so from this standpoint chinese isn’t so daunting. I’ve also just recently started learning mandarin and lately I’ve been doing much more listening than reading. I found the mandarin version of “Dragonball” on and have been watching that, as well as listening to some content from LingQ (such as the beginner story “Who is she”). I also downloaded some chinese podcasts and ripped the audio off of the movie 霍元甲. Fun stuffAnyway good look on your chinese project!-Matt


  2. Trackback: Learning the Mandarin Characters (Hanzi) « Mandarin From Scratch

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