Category Archives: learn Chinese

A Very Particular Period of Chinese Language Studies

When I first started learning Mandarin Chinese, I relied heavily on a series of Pimsleur courses. I found these very helpful in learning the different sounds and tones of the language, as the Pimsleur method places heavy emphasis on repetition (quite useful for speaking Mandarin).

It has been four years since that time and here I am: still working on the basics.

As part of my journey to pass the HSK 5 I am trying out some new techniques and experimenting with using new material. In particular, I have been very interested in using material from the US government’s Foreign Language Institute.

Today, I actually got around to downloading and listening to one of their tapes. You can find that tape here . (Please note that this site is not affiliated with any government entity and is privately owned).

Now, it doesn’t say exactly when the course was created, but on this particular website it uses the words “many years ago”. After listening to the tape, I realized that they were not exaggerating.

The two speakers I heard on Unit 1 Tape 1 spoke not only very quickly, but also with a heavy Beijing accent. After listening to the tape I found it very curious indeed how people were able to learn Chinese twenty or thirty years ago.

The tapes are interesting from a cultural perspective. They harken back to a time when people in the USA and China did not know very much about each other. I imagine that many of the more experienced China hands I know today learned Mandarin using similar materials.

PS: I could not find a record of the first US student to study Chinese in Mainland China. I would love to know who this person was and their story. If you know, please drop me a line.

Wikipedia Background Links

US-China open door policy and 1978 opening to foreign investment
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Door_Policy

Brief history of Chinese language studies
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_as_a_foreign_language

Cross the river by feeling the stones.

Looking outside for desirable things –

day dreaming about Caribbean beaches and sleek sports cars –

thinking about what could happen in the future – or what could have happened in the past.

We indulge ourselves in fantasy.

But what if we focused on making the things we have better, instead of thinking about far away places? Things like our relationships with other people, our daily crafts, and the way in which we go about our lives.

Just like the late Chairman Deng Xiaoping said: we must “cross the river by feeling the stones (摸着石头过河).”

How to Find an Apartment in China: Tips and Tricks

guomao

Trying to find an apartment in Beijing sometimes feels more hopeless than trying to climb up a rock wall slathered in baby oil.

The real estate agents, all working for a different real estate company, somehow all manage to show you the same godawful apartment in your round’ of the neighborhood. (You know, the one with a wretched stench and cracked faucet).

Before moving to Beijing, I was not used to such extreme apartment hunts. I grew up in suburban America. Finding an apartment there meant that all you would had to do was to type Craigslist.org into the URL bar of your favorite internet browser, then look up the number of a man or women that had a room in some empty farm house or the like. There were no thirty-story apartment complexes. I didn’t even ride on the metro until I was in my twenties.

In fact, prior to moving to China, I had only lived in a city once before – and that was during a study abroad program in Budapest, Hungary. And even then I didn’t have to find my own apartment as it was provided by the university

Searching for an apartment in Beijing or any other large Chinese city is no easy task. Here are some pointers.

Tips and tricks

  1. Agents charge one month’s rent as commission. In Beijing that means a full months rent. You might be tempted to skimp out on the agency fee, but this is hard. The best way to do this is to find a room in a flat already leased on the Beijinger’s housing classifieds (Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen should have something similar). However, if you don’t want to share a place, be prepared to fork out one months rent.
  2. When talking about the size of an apartment, the common language is square meters (Chinese is 平米). This is a good way to know how large an apartment is before you visit. Sometimes the floor space can be laid out nonsensically, which makes this metric less useful, but still it is a good measurement to start out with nonetheless.
  3. Which way the apartment windows face (north, south, east, and west) is very important. At least, it’s important to Chinese. I am still not quite sure how much this really matters, but for some reason the Chinese are slightly obsessed with the direction of their apartment windows. For me, I think of it in terms of sunlight and the other buildings surrounding the apartment. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the cult of fengshui (风水) is also behind this.
  4. An apartment’s location in relation to the nearest subway stop is crucial. You should find out the address, shops around the apartment, and how long it takes to literally walk there. The subway line which you choose to be close to should be carefully considered in terms of where you work and your main areas for social interaction.
  5. Have a budget laid out before you decide on your apartment. This is tricky, because we can often be lured away from factors of convenience like distance to the subway, work, and social life, for the sake of shaving off a couple hundred RMBs. If you know how much you are willing to spend ahead of time, then you can more easily filter out apartments which are out of range or fail to meet your requirements. (Remember to factor agency fee and deposit plus three months’ rent into your budget. You will need to pay this upfront if you are using a traditional real estate agency. When planning my budget, I find it most useful to think of renting in terms of all monthly payments plus agency fee; i.e. rent= monthly rent x 13.).
  6. Make sure that your landlord can provide both a deed for the apartment (房本) and Chinese ID card (身份证). This means that your landlord is legally allowed to rent to you and you will be able to register at the local police station (a requirement for all foreigners in China).

These are some of the basics that I have picked up along the way while searching for an apartment. Keep these principles in mind during your own apartment hunt to find a suitable apartment in a city which is very unforgiving to those not well prepared.

A note on landlords: Landlords in China, especially in comparison to back in America, don’t believe that much, if anything, is their responsibility beyond collecting your money. In America, it’s very much considered normal for the landlord to replace basic things and make sure that the maintenance of the place is kept up well. However, Chinese landlords really just ignore your request most of the time, unless of course you find a good one. (I’m not saying that good ones don’t exist, just that I have had a very hard time during my four years in Beijing).  

A note on location: Commuting in any large Chinese city can be incredibly rough, so one learns quickly to either rig the game in one’s favor, reconfigure the “chessboard”, or leave the city altogether. Take it from me, you really don’t want to spend an hour and a half one way to travel to work sardine style, packed into a subway traveling across town. You also don’t want to live in the middle of nowhere, isolated from a Starbucks or friends. In short, a balance must be struck.

5 Useful Attitudes and Habits to Adopt When Learning Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is a notoriously difficult language to learn.

When I first came to China in the summer of 2013 I knew zero Chinese, but still I had hope that I could succeed where other language learners before me had failed.

In the beginning I learned the easy stuff. Phrases like “听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng)” for “I can’t understand what you’re saying!” and “没有- (méi yǒu)” for “I don’t have it”.

With time and practice I learned more. However I was still so oblivious in those early days that I would often make some pretty cringe-worthy mistakes. Oftentimes, I would try to bull rush my way through a conversation, speaking quickly and imitating a Beijing accent; hoping that the other person would mistake my incompetence for “a more rustic feel” of the language.

I now look back at this technique and many others similar to it that I employed and see them for what they were: shortcuts.  

Shortcuts are useful in that they help produce results quickly. However, in the long run they are like a festering wound. I was like a man trying to run a marathon without any regard for the physical health of his body.

I wrote these five points to help novice Mandarin learners develop good language learning habits. They do not deal with linguistic or grammatical concerns, but rather the types of attitudes and ideas that many have adopted becuase of their effectiveness. These have come as a culmination of both my own and other’s trial and error.

  1. Tones Matter

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language which means that the tone of each word corresponds with its meaning. Maybe in the beginning you don’t want to admit it, but yes, tones matter. A pronunciation error can completely change the meaning of a word.

Some people might disagree with this, but that’s because their Mandarin isn’t that good. Although you can get away with not knowing the proper tone by speaking fast and glossing over certain words, this shortcut will ultimately handicap your progress

The best way to combat this is to focus obsessively on learning each word’s proper tone. That way, people can understand when you want to buy something, and not sell it (see 买 mǎi and 卖 mài).

Link: https://chinesepod.com/tools/pronunciation/section/17

  1. Learn How to Read and Write Characters

The written system for Mandarin Chinese is complex. It uses both character symbols (汉字 hànzì) and pinyin, which is the romanticized form created in 1958 with tones written above the letters- the same one that I have been using alongside characters here.  

In the beginning it’s common to say that “I only want to learn pinyin, characters take too much time”. However avoiding the deliberate study of Chinese characters is one of the biggest mistakes you can make when learning Chinese. Not only will you not be able to take any of the advance level tests (HSK for simplified characters), but you will also not be able to chat with Chinese friends online or read any of texts in the target language.

A side-note on reading:
Developing reading comprehension is especially important. It helps you to practice the language without having to find a conversational partner. It also allows access to content that will prove invaluable to you as a student of Mandarin. By developing strong reading skills you will have a unique perspective into Chinese society and culture that is often difficult to find as a foreigner due to an undercurrent of xenophobia (possible without, of course, but still inherently difficult).

  1. Work with a Qualified Tutor

There is a certain mythos surrounding those who are able to learn a language purely through self study and immersion. It’s easy for novices to believe themselves “language learning rogues” who will learn the language by “living among the people”. And while participation and interaction with native speakers is certainly important, this belief can be largely damaging to your progress in Mandarin.

Working with a qualified teacher is an effective way to keep your feet on the ground and make steady progress. A good teacher will drill the basics into you early and often. They will motivate you to speak and make mistakes, but will not let you believe that you are invincible.

A personal anecdote:
I was one of those students that didn’t believe I needed a teacher. In the beginning I managed to kind of bulldoze my way through and, as a consequence, I developed a rather gawky, toneless form of Mandarin. At that point in time, many of my Chinese friends told me that I spoke with an incredible amount of slang, which they called 胡同话 hútong huà. (Sidenote: this was/is not a complement).

I eventually hired a teacher and my Mandarin has been all the better for it. There are certainly a lot of positives about self-study, but I have found that a teacher helps me to correct errors that I didn’t know I had. Looking back, I can now also see how they helped me to make consistent progress.

  1. Speak slowly and deliberately

A lot of times when we start learning a new language we get very excited and tend to speak very fast. We think that this makes us sound more authentic and like we actually “know” the language. However the reality of speaking quickly in Chinese before you are ready is that you will hear “tīng bu dǒng” much more than if you were to speak slowly and deliberately.

Slowing down when you speak, and putting emphasis on the right tones, helps others to understand you.

A side-note on speaking:
Think about speaking to another person who is learning your mother tongue. Is it easier when they speak fast and try to add their own “flair” to the language, or when they speak to you at an even pace and try to keep things as simple as possible? If you want to have conversations with native speakers, and so make progress, then you need to do the same.

  1. Do Not Refuse to Speak English

Another tendency of the fledgling Mandarin student, especially while living in a Chinese speaking country, is to refuse to speak English with Chinese friends. This can lead to some awkward situations that you want to avoid.  

The fact of the matter is that many native Chinese speakers have been learning English their entire life and feel very proud of their ability. They don’t necessarily want to make you feel bad about your language level, but it’s slightly awkward and embarrassing when you are trying to have a conversation with someone, and that person insists on using a language they don’t know.

Be tactful with whom and where you practice in the beginning. Don’t, for example, try to respond to your boss in Chinese when she tells you something in English. Have faith that as you continue to study and immerse yourself that your Chinese will blossom like the Beijing botantical gardens, Summer Palace, or… well you get the point.

A side-note on no refusing to speak English:
If you work hard enough, then eventually you will find yourself in many situations where the tables have been turned, that is, your Chinese is better than the other’s English. If you don’t understand what I am talking about now, perhaps you will have more appreciation for this point then.   

Wrap Up

The adoption and commitment to these attitudes and habits will help you improve your Mandarin level and get rid of some of those nasty habits that are holding you back from developing a more thorough understanding of the language.

Until next time, Cheers and 加油!

A Master Teacher Produces Brilliant Students

名师出高徒 (Mingshi chu gaotu); a Chinese idiom that means “A master teacher produces brilliant students.”

We see teachers in all areas of our lives. At school, in the temple, on the playground… teachers are everywhere.

We are often teachers to others.

We need to constantly ask the question, “Who is my teacher?” Don’t be fooled, we always have one. And if a master teacher produces brilliant students, what does a mediocre teacher produce?

It’s hard to find a master teacher. So we float around and learn things here and there. Then we move on. A sort of teacher-student carousel.

But what do you do when you find a good teacher?

You hold onto that teacher. You follow that teacher, because master teachers are worth their weight in gold.

Questions That Effective Language Learners Ask Themselves

Have you ever wanted to learn something so badly that you studied it all the time?

If you are like me, then you have experienced the point at which studying becomes counterproductive.

When learning something new, it is important to take intermittent breaks. This practice allows you to replenish your “focus muscles” and reflect on your progress.

In fact, this past weekend I took a break from my Mandarin studies.

I knew it was time for the break because I had lost both my focus and desire to sit down with textbooks, flashcards, movies, etc. Moreover this period coincided with a three day weekend courtesy of Qing Ming Festival in China (I live in Beijing).

Qing Ming is a time for Chinese to visit the tombs of their ancestors and pay their respects. For me, it was a good time to let my brain relax.

While I relaxed, I noticed how my brain actually had a hard time cooling down. It seemed like I was constantly looking for things- anything I could consume- a book, movie, writing in my diary, anything to distract myself.

(I am very aware of my own preoccupation with being occupied. I find that meditation, exercise, and eating healthy are good ways to keep myself sane.)

But sometimes I still blow up little things, like my language learning hobby, and create new areas of stress.

That’s why I take breaks. And when I take breaks I also ask myself some questions.

I like to reflect and consider these areas of stress within the context of my life.

Once I do this, I can better understand why I am acting in such a way, and then change my behavior if it will help to decrease my stress (or accept it and move on if there is nothing that I can do in that moment).

I wrote down these questions for language learners, but you could also apply them to other subjects/areas in your life.

OK, so here it goes…

1. Why am I interested in learning this language/subject?

The most successful students have a good answer to this question. Such answers normally go deeper than the surface. They are tied to our likes, interests, and backgrounds/childhoods.

In terms of language learning, people who live in a target country have a strong reason to learn. People with family ties to a language also have a strong reason.

Try asking yourself a few questions about why you are learning a particular language.

  1. Do I enjoy the culture?
  2. Do I plan on living/visiting this country in the future?
  3. Do I have familial ties to the language?

2. What are my goals for learning the language?

Tests and courses are popular for learning because they give people clear learning outcomes. They become even more useful when they are tied to industry or academic standards.

People who are studying English, for example, often take the TOEFL or IELTs to enter university or acquire that highly sought after raise. Such reasons are powerful motivators.

These questions should help you judge the efficacy of your language learning goals.

  1. Do I have a professional use for the language?
  2. Will I use the language outside of my job?
  3. Am I interested in the culture that the language resides in?

3. How much time and resources do I have to put towards learning the target language?

People have different amounts of time and resources available at different times of their lives. When you are younger, then you need to consider your studies. As you get older, professional and familial responsibilities take up more of your time.

Tutors, language courses, books, apps are all good resources but they also cost money.

A student, for example, will have much more time than a single mother. A young sales clerk might fit somewhere in between.

Consider these questions to help better understand the limitations of your time and resources.

  1. What are my personal and professional responsibilities?
  2. How much free time do I have and when do I have it?
  3. How much money can I allocate towards learning materials?

Wrap Up

These three questions are a good start to understanding 1) why we are interested in a language (or subject for that matter), 2) what we hope to accomplish, and 3) if we are being realistic or not.

I find that being realistic is perhaps the most important of all the three. If we are not being realistic, then we are apt to either overstretch or underestimate ourselves.

Of course, a large part of this practice is the art of understanding yourself. The more practice you have in learning new things then the easier this will be for you.

Do you use a process similar to this? Is there anything that you agree or disagree with in the article? What language are you learning now?

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