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.




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! 🙂

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!

My favorite website for learning languages – Guest post by JannaM of Janna’s English Blog and LingQ

The post below was published by JannaM on her webite and is reproduced here with her express permission. Janna went to the same university as I did and she has extensive experience with just about every Romance language there is, so don’t be afraid to take her advice about language learning to heart. She created “Janna’s English Blog” for her students in Spain and all the rest of you English learners out there, so be sure to follow the link and check out all the great content!

My favorite website for learning languages

Posted on March 31, 2011 by jannamelissa

The Internet is a very useful tool to help you learn English (or any other language). There are many useful resources on the Internet. Soon I will post a longer list of useful resources. But first I just wanted to highlight one website that I have found to be particularly useful in my own experience, learning Portuguese, Spanish, and some Italian.

The website is called LingQ, and the URL is It is an input-based learning system, which means that you increase your fluency by focusing heavily on listening and reading, and less on grammar.

In your regular language classes you might be frustrated or bored of focusing so much on grammar. There is a better way, and that is focusing on hearing and seeing the language as much as possible, so that the grammatical structures are naturally reinforced in your brain, without directly studying them. You should listen to/read the language in a wide variety of contexts and situations, with all the different grammar items mixed together—the way it is in a real conversation.

The benefit of LingQ is you can create a FREE account, and have access to unlimited free podcasts with transcripts. You can also download the MP3s and put it on your iPod or MP3 player. You can also use their system to easily learn new vocabulary words (it has a built-in automatic dictionary), so it makes reading new material in English a lot less tedious. There is also a tool for online flashcards (vocabulary cards), but you have to pay for this feature. However, the basic membership price is very reasonable—only $10 per month.

Here is a short video introduction of LingQ (demonstrating how it works):

I am currently a member of LingQ with the basic membership and I find it to be a very helpful system for learning various languages. I personally recommend it to you because I think you might find it to be helpful in your efforts to learn English. The more you read and listen and study using LingQ, the more you will benefit from your conversation classes. It’s necessary to practice both—reading and listening (input) along with speaking and writing (output). I can help you with speaking in my classes, but it’s up to you to read and listen outside of class to improve more. It’s not enough to just speak for one hour per week.

Another advantage of LingQ is you can import any articles you read anywhere on the Internet. So you can even import this blog post and use LingQ to look up all the words you don’t understand!

If you’re like me, you will find LingQ to be a fun and even addicting way to learn a language. The most effective language learning system is one that is fun, that you enjoy doing, so you will feel motivated and continue. In my opinion that includes things like reading books in English, watching TV shows and movies, listening to music, but also studying that language more intensely (examining new vocabulary, for example), and LingQ is a very helpful medium for that, another tool for you to use.

Try LingQ, and tell me what you think! If you do use it, please click on this link so we can be friends on LingQ.

And if you’d like to contact me on LingQ, just do a search for “DavidMartin” on the friends page once you’ve signed up for a free account! Thank you Janna!

100 hours of Mandarin listening! / Audio version of “Learning Languages Like Children”

I hit my first 100-hour mark last week! Sometimes I feel like I already understand so much, and sometimes I’m totally lost – I never appreciated how relatively easy it is for English speakers to acquire any Germanic or Romance language until I started listening to Mandarin. Instead of starting at 30-50% comprehension, you start at 0%. That’s why it takes two to three times as long to acquire some languages than others –  they’re not “harder”, they’re just “different” – so you have to start from scratch.

Refer to this chart of approximate Language Learning Expectations for English Speakers from the Foreign Service Institute of the Department (FSI) of State and this thread on LingQ for more on the subject.

***There’s also a Wikibooks link for the chart here).

I’m currently listening to the Elementary and Intermediate podcasts from PopUpChinese and CSLPod‘s Intermediate, Upper Intermediate, and Advanced series (CSLPod’s Elementary stuff is too slow and repetitive for my level) and trying out their Premium material (Lesson Guides and audios at the sentence level for some newer lessons) on a $10 Basic Subscription.

The only thing you get in the CSLPod Lesson Guides that you don’t get in the free content are the Hanzi texts for the post-dialog vocabulary explanations, but as these make up half of each audio track, I thought I’d try them out. However, as they don’t provide the translations for these like they do for the dialogues, I have to rely on rough translations from Google Translate. Sometimes I understand the majority, sometimes I don’t, but if the content is interesting enough, I keep listening.

One thing that’s nice is that CSLPod does the work of parsing the Hanzi text with pinyin so you don’t have to use a pinyinization tool like at PopUpChinese.

Also, I’ve just uploaded recorded versions of the intro and first chapter of Learning Languages Like Children by Dr. J. Marvin Brown to the LingQ English library.

You can access the collection on LingQ here:

I will be recording and uploading chapters 2-5 over the next few days, so make sure to check back for those if you’re interested!

Transition to WordPress

Hi all

Please forgive the capriciousness of my site while I make the transition to WordPress 🙂



Previous Older Entries