Monthly Archives: March 2017

18 Lines and 345 Stations

As of today, Beijing’s metro has…

  1. 18 lines and 345 stations.
  2. 9.98 million people per day ridership (average).
  3. 574 km (357 mi) of track in operation.

In the future, Beijing’s metro will have…

  1. 24 subway lines.
  2. 18.5 million people per day ridership (average).
  3. The potential to be the longest fully automated subway network in the world.

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A metro system says a lot about its city.

I used to live in Budapest, Hungary. They have one of the oldest metro systems in the world. It was quite elegant.

American metros are old and rusty. But they work and that’s enough.

Beijing-Shanghai-Guangzhou… they all have shiny, new metros. Great steel monsters. They are packed full of Chinese every morning and every night.

White collar workers playing on phones during the morning commute.

Migrant workers sitting on plastic chairs and laughing together.

Children in uniforms reading their books.

They are symbols of China’s economic miracle.

How To Watch Movies and Learn a Language (Will’s Movie Study Technique)

My Technique For Studying Chinese Via Chinese Movies

Watching movies in Chinese is a great way to improve your fluency in the language.

Similar to learning a language through immersion, this technique forces you to progress via context and setting. If used effectively, this technique will not only increase your listening comprehension, but will also increase your vocabulary and cultural knowledge.

To_Live_Poster

How I Use Movies To Study Chinese

As many of you know, my current target language is Mandarin Chinese. As part of the “campaign to increase the development and prosperity of my language learning efforts”, I have begun to incorporate the practice of watching Chinese movies into my weekly study routine (approximately two nights a week).

This past weekend I finished the classic To Live (活着) by Zhang Yimou (张艺谋), based on the novel by Yu Hua (余花). The movie portrays a man and his wife as they live through 20th century China; a country torn apart by war, politics, and ideology.

Beyond the benefit of immersion, those who make use of movies as a language learning resource also gain valuable cultural knowledge. With each Chinese movie I watch, the deeper my understanding of Chinese culture becomes. In Yimou’s To Live, for example, I contemplated the narrative of a layman’s family during the Chinese Civil War, The Cultural Revolution, and the Great Leap Forward.

This type of knowledge is useful to both understand colloquial sayings (whose roots are in cultural events) and the psychology of Chinese citizens today. Remember, communication is both verbal and nonverbal.

There are many ways to use movies as a language learning resource. However, I find this practice most useful when I use my movie study techniques. Perhaps these can help you make use of movies as a language learning resource as well.

I have broken down my movie study technique into five simple steps below.

Will’s Movie Study Techniques

  1. Use Target Language Audio and Subtitles

Make sure to use your target language for both audio and subtitles. Watching a foreign movie in your native tongue may add to your cultural knowledge, but it will not improve your language level. The audio improves your listening comprehension. The subtitles improve your reading comprehension.

  1. Create a Vocabulary List

Keep a pen and pencil close by to record any words that you don’t know. After the movie you can copy the list down again and translate any words which are unclear. Make sure to label and date your vocabulary list.

  1. Watch Movie Alone

Watch the movie alone to increase your focus. Refrain from inviting a friend or significant other to the viewing. While movies are most often used to relax, don’t forget that this is a study session and it should be taken seriously.

  1. Utilize Context and Plot to Learn Words and Phrases

It is almost 100% guaranteed that you will not understand everything in the movie. That’s ok. The point of this exercise isn’t for total comprehension. The point is that you are focused on understanding. Use the actors body language and scenery to understand what is happening in the movie.

  1. Read Reviews and Plot Summaries in Your Native Language After Watching

After the movie is over read some commentaries and general overviews in your native language. This will reinforce a lot of the cultural points which you might have noticed but are still a little confused about. Allow yourself to consider the main idea of the movie, its plot, characters, and political slant.

Final Thoughts

Watching movies is a great language learning technique that is underutilized by most language learners. While it cannot replace the heavy lifting required of grammar study and raw vocabulary accumulation, it is an effective method learners at any level to increase their fluency.

Postscript

Below you will find six movies that have stuck in mind ever since watching them. Each is special to me for a variety of reasons, but have mainly served as good resources for studying Mandarin. Perhaps you can find some use in them as well.

  1. Movie: To Live
    Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Live_(1994_film)
  2. Movie: Black Snow
    Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Snow_(1990_film)
  3. Movie: Keep Cool
    Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keep_Cool_(film)
  4. Movie: Saving Mr. Wu
    Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saving_Mr._Wu
  5. Movie: Raise the Red Lantern
    Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raise_the_Red_Lantern
  6. Movie: Beijing Bicycle
    Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing_Bicycle

Building Mountain Culture in China

will_snowboarding

Gray Morning at Beidahu, Frontside 180 at Beidahu’s Park

In light of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics you might think that skiing in China is alive and well. However, a recent trip to the mountain of Beidahu in Jilin Province, China, said otherwise. This, at a time when most of the trails on the mountain were open and the conditions were phenomenally good. 

My Trip to Beidahu (北大湖山) 

This past weekend my friend and fellow snowboard advocate was in the city of Changchun (长春市) for the weekend, so I decided to buy a plane ticket and meet him there to try out Beidahu Mountain (北大湖山).

We met late in the evening after my plane arrived in the airport. From there we hired a car to drive us an hour and a half southeast, passing by the city of Jilin (吉林市).

Beidahu was a welcomed relief from the normal dreary China ski trips. The trails were long enough for 10-15 minute runs, there was plenty of snow, and the chairlifts were all brand new. Moreover we stayed slope-side, and although it wasn’t cheap, it certainly was a better deal than what I would have got  in the states (about 450 RMB a night).

So, nice spring skiing conditions. A large swath of trails open. Heated chairlift seats and a functional gondola.

I’m no Warren Miller, but I believe it safe to say that one would expect the slopes to be crowded…

Yet we rarely had to wait in line to get on the lift and the slopes were desolate.

I know that I shouldn’t complain about it, but I think Beidahu’s brand new equipment and empty ski slopes are representative of ski resorts in China. In fact, the construction of a big, fancy ski resort here was a poor decision for two reasons…

1. Lack of Mountain Culture

Skiing and snowboarding are smaller parts of Mountain Culture. People don’t just go to the mountains to ski, they also spend time with friends, visit towns nearby, and even get married.

“Going to the mountain” is a tradition. These kinds of traditions make up the Mountain Culture.

Traditions take time to establish. Culture takes time to coagulate.

Beidahu has top of the line infrastructure. It has a gourmet food lodge on its peak. But what it doesn’t have is a solid Mountain Culture. And without the Mountain Culture, there aren’t many on the slopes either.

2. Too Expensive! 

Do you like to pay a lot of money for something if you don’t know that you like it? I know I don’t. So why are the ticket prices around 400 RMB?

I was willing to pay that steep price because I love riding. But many Chinese still don’t know if that is true for them.

Maybe it’s more important to convince people that skiing is fun then it is to make quick money.

The successful resorts of the future need to get people on the mountain in the early years, whether they make money or not. Don’t worry about people falling in love with it. Nature will take care of that. 

Longterm View

Skiing is more than fun, it’s an activity which connects us to nature in the depths of winter. I think for that reason it is inevitable that any group of people, given time, will enjoy skiing. 

But it’s not like selling a phone or movie ticket.

Encourage others to learn about it. Become a teacher. Let the community decide that they like it.

These things take time. Time big investors might not have. But sorry to say that there isn’t another way.

slopeside

View from the Western Face of Beidahu

Watching the Culture of Winter Sports Grow in China

Can China’s increased  investment and development of winter sports infrastructure make it a more attractive country for foreign nationals to reside?

For me, the development of ski resorts close to Beijing has certainly made winters more enjoyable. Furthermore it has allowed me to continue a hobby which I have practiced nearly my entire life. It seems that in China, the growth of ski culture mirrors the country’s ever increasing standard of living.

World Class Riders

A friend of mine has lived and worked in China since 2004. Before moving to China he was an avid snowboarder and, like myself, carried on the tradition after making the transition abroad. This past weekend we visited Nanshan Ski Resort 南山, perhaps the most famous ski destination nearby Beijing.

The mountain is quite small, but they run weekend buses which you can take from two separate locations (in Sanyuanqiao 三元桥 and Wudaokou 五道口 respectively) form the city to the mountain for just 40 yuan. There is also a well-built park. So, if you are like me, you can amuse yourself flying three feet into the air with your eyes closed.

My friend tells me that back at the turn of the millennium, he was easily the best rider on the mountain. Now, there is not even a comparison between him and the best Chinese riders on the mountain. More and more we can world-class Chinese riders on the slopes.

Middle Class Culture

The rising skill level of Chinese skiers and snowboarders shows us how China is in the process of developing a new identity for its middle class spending habits.

Up until very recently if you were living in China then you really couldn’t have much hope of going to a ski resort or golf club. Now there are plenty of both.  Beijing will even host the Winter Olympics in 2022 Olympics in the nearby city of Zhangjiakou 张家口 in Hebei province 河北省.

 China… A Better Place to Live?

I think the take away for people who are interested in China is that, yes… the country is becoming a more and more welcoming place to live.

Although there are many areas where the country does still fall short in terms of outdoor sports (yes- I definitely still prefer to ride in Japan), the recent developments make China a more attractive country for both Chinese and foreigners alike.

Of course there are still many negative issues of bureaucracy, discrimination, and human rights. I don’t mean to gloss over these things. However, if you are completely apathetic to politics, you might find yourself really enjoying a China life.

Skiers and riders alike gather on the slopes of Nanshan Mt’s park 南山 to enjoy a spring barbecue and the end of the season.

What are some changes you see happening in China that are at the same time obvious, yet intriguing? Have you skied or snowboarded in China? What were your experiences?

6 Ways To Improve Your Mandarin Studies

Have you ever wanted to find and implement a more effective approach to learning Mandarin Chinese? People who study Chinese know that it is an incredibly arduous process, full of pit falls and roadblocks.

I remember when I began studying Mandarin in 2013. Like most of intellectual pursuits I start, it was so incredibly interesting and fun in the beginning.

In that time I would drive down to Boston every weekend to learn the basics like numbers and greetings. I got a thrill from it. Yes, this is it… look at me! I would think to myself. I am learning something truly exotic and interesting. 

I moved to Beijing that summer. I would sit in my cramped Beijing apartment, copying down characters over and over, hundreds of times even.

What had seemed like an exciting hobby in the beginning had effectively become a pool of anxiety. Yet, despite my doubts I kept going. Maybe it was ignorance. More likely it was pride.

I have used, and continue to use, multiple methods when studying Mandarin: Pimsleur, university courses, training school courses, tutors, self study, e-learning resources, language partners- and so on.

I have reached an HSK level 4 and am currently preparing for the 5 (Chinese proficiency test administered by the PRC).

The following is a list of methods which I have found most useful. I hope that it can provide some insight for those interested in Chinese and/or language learning in general.

1. Use Standardized Tests As Goals (HSK)

Standardized tests are very helpful in goal setting. Goals in the context of language learning allow us to push ourselves and develop a strong base in vocabulary and grammar.

Don’t fall into the trap of learning language “from the streets”. Humble yourself and take advantage of what professional organizations have created as a means accelerate your language learning process.

HSK is an acronym for the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试), which is a Chinese proficiency test administered by the government’s Confucius Institute. It is the most popular and useful accreditation for learners of simplified Chinese.

(Sidenote- international companies are more and more attuned to this qualification and if you are serious about a career in China/dealing with Chinese then it looks good on your resume.)

2. Pimsleur

Pimsleur is a series of audio recordings that uses repetition to help learners improve their pronunciation and listening comprehension. I have found it particularly useful in learning Mandarin because of the inherent difficulty in learning the phonetics and tones.

I suggest doing the Pimsleur courses on your way to work or class. When I first started out I downloaded it to my smartphone and participated during my commutes.

Sure, people probably thought I was a little strange, but it was a great way to practice listening and speaking before I was able to actually have a conversation.

3. Attending Chinese Only Events

Events where people only speak Chinese are a great way to get practical experience as well as to train your ears. In the beginning you certainly won’t understand everything, but that isn’t necessarily the goal. The goal is to learn the language’s cadence .

I think learning a language is a lot like muscle memory. You need to expose yourself to the language and, the more you do this, the more your brain will start to recognize differences in sounds, pronunciation, and tones.

If you don’t believe me try this. Pay attention to people that study Chinese a lot on their own without much exposure to native speakers. Compare them with those who are exposed. You will notice that the first group has less trouble communicating with native speakers, even though their knowledge of the language may be less nuanced. 

4. College Courses

I have attended both training schools and college programs in Mandarin. I don’t go to training schools anymore because I think they are mostly a scam and the curriculum is nonexistent. Teachers just show up and go through a book (if you are lucky). That’s good for them, bad for your Chinese.

Similar to standardized tests, university courses offer a much more structured approach to learning Chinese. Furthermore, and a perhaps stronger reason, is that you will be surrounded by students who’s Chinese is most likely a lot better than your own (I’m looking at all the Koreans now).

When I took a college course I often felt compelled to study and prepare more because my classmates were at a much higher level. If you are looking to make a big jump in your Mandarin, I highly suggest taking a college course.

5. Translation

I use the translation method to practice reading and writing. I don’t literally translate the text into my native tongue, but I go over it a few times to make sure I understand it well enough that if I were to be asked what it meant, then I could explain it in English. I have found that writing it down in English is largely counterproductive and a waste of time.

I am really in love with this method and perhaps I will write more about it in a future post as there are many different aspects to it.

6. Flashcards

I prefer to use flashcards that I make on my own with cut up pieces of paper and a black pen. The words I write down come directly from my own translations and therefore are very useful.

Flashcards work well in combination with testing environments because they are an extremely efficient way to increase your vocabulary.

I have also used the online service Memrise, which is a very nifty flashcard E-learning site/app. (Although I don’t recommend shelling out for the premium version).

Final Thought- think about what helps you to focus.

When designing your own study routine think about what is most effective for you. When I say “most effective for you”, I am really talking about what kind of activities can hold you focus.

People say that you need to understand how you learn, but I think that is too vague. It is easier to think about which activities allow you to focus and stay engaged.

From my own personal experience it is very easy to just “go through the motions” when studying anything. Just “going through the motions” isn’t what you want. If you want to progress in anything, you need to bring your attention to it and understand how all the little pieces fit together.

There isn’t a magic pill, but there are small incremental changes you can make that will improve your efficiency. People aren’t naturally better at learning languages then others, they simply understand which activities are most effective.

Do you agree with me? What methods have you found effective for studying Chinese or another foreign language?