Experiences with learning Chinese

I've had a few friends asking me about learning Chinese and what I've found works and doesn't work. I was answering a question on a mailing list today and I thought I should post this info where it might be useful to many. The question that was initially asked was whether Rosetta Stone was useful but I've provided much more info on learning the language here.

I’ve used Rosetta Stone with Chinese but it’s really hard to know whether to recommend it or not. Rosetta Stone works the same way in all languages. They show you photos and then let you both see and hear the target language and get you to work out what they’re talking about. The thinking is that that’s how children learn. However, at first, I found it very frustrating. I’d be staring at photos trying to work out what they were really trying to get at. Sometimes it’s far from obvious. I could not have survived without Google Translate open at the same time. The other weird thing is that the photos are from a mixture of countries. While that’s good in a way, it also means that they are endlessly showing pictures of something that would never happen in the target language and culture.

For any language, constant interaction with a speaker of the target language is needed. Rosetta Stone has a “Studio” option. That’s the best part of the program. In my case, it lets me connect around twice a week to a live online class from Beijing. Classes usually have the teacher plus two to four students. You get some Studio access with the initial packages but need to purchase it for ongoing use. I find it very inexpensive. It seems to work out to about $70 (AUD/USD) for six months. That’s a real bargain.

The other downside to Rosetta Stone is that they tend to teach very formal language, but as with other languages, that’s not how the locals speak. It might have been correct at one point but no-one actually says that. As an example, Rosetta Stone teach Gōnggòng qìchē (pronounced roughly like “gong gong chee chure” for bus. Most of my friends from areas like Taiwan would just say Gōngchē. Google Translate says Zǒngxiàn (pronounced somewhat like “dzong sheean”) instead. Mind you, the Rosetta Stone option isn't really as bad as "omnibus"; it's more like saying "public bus". If you say the option they provide, people would understand you.

I also listen to ChinesePod in the car. They also have SpanishPod. Each podcast is about five minutes of spoken conversation. It is very good for providing current language.

Another resource I use is local Meetup groups. Most cities have these and for a variety of languages. It’s way less structured (just standard conversation) but good for getting interaction.

The obvious challenge for Asian languages is reading/writing. The input editors for Chinese that are part of Windows are excellent. Many of my Chinese friends speak fluently but cannot read or write. I was determined to learn to do both. For writing, I’m talking about on a computer, not with a pen. (Mind you, I can barely write English with a pen nowadays). When using Rosetta Stone, you can choose to have the Chinese words displayed in pinyin (Wǒ xǐhuan xuéxí zhōngguó) or in Chinese characters (我喜欢学习中国) or both. This year, I’ve been forcing myself to just use the Chinese characters. I use a pinyin input editor in Windows though, as it’s very fast.  (The character recognition input in the iPad is also amazing). Notice from the example that I provided above that the pronunciation of the pinyin isn’t that obvious to us at first either.  Since changing to only using characters, I find I can now read many more Chinese characters fluently. It’s a major challenge though. I can read about 300 now and yet you need around 2,500 to be able to read a newspaper fairly well.

Tones are a major issue for some Asian languages. Mandarin has four tones (plus a neutral tone) and there is a major difference in meaning between two words that are spelled the same in pinyin but with different tones. For example, Mǎ (3rd tone马) is a horse, Mā (1st tone妈) is like “mom”, and ma (neutral tone吗) is a question mark and so on. Clearly you don’t want to mix these up. As in English, they also have words that do sound the same but mean different things in different contexts. What’s interesting is that even though we see two words that differ only by tone as very similar, to a native speaker, if you say the right words with the wrong tone, you might as well have said a completely different word.

My wife’s dialect of Chinese has eight tones. It’s much worse.

The reason I’m so keen to learn to read/write Chinese is that even though the different dialects are pronounced so differently that speakers of one dialect often cannot understand another dialect, the writing is generally the same. The only difference is that many years ago, the Chinese government created a simplified set of characters for some of the most commonly used ones. Older Chinese and most Cantonese speakers often struggle with the simplified characters.

This is the simplified form of “three apples”: 三个苹果  

This is the traditional form of the same words: 三個蘋果 

Note that two of the characters are the same but the middle two are quite different.

For most languages, the best thing is to watch current movies in the target language but to watch them with the target language as subtitles, not your native language. You want to know what they actually said, not what it roughly means (which is what the English subtitle would give you). The difficulty with Asian languages like Chinese is that you have the added challenge of understanding the subtitles when they are written in the target language. I wish there were Mandarin Chinese movies with pinyin subtitles.

For learning to read characters, I also recommend HSKReview on the iPad. It is targeted at the HSK language proficiency levels. (I’m intending to take the first HSK exam as soon as I’m ready).

Hope that info helps someone get started.


9 thoughts on “Experiences with learning Chinese”

  1. Good luck in learning Chinese. Another way is to go to China/Taiwan / Singapore and study/live for a few months, I bet your Chinese will have a good boost.

  2. Hi Jeff,
    Yes, I try to visit there when I can. I spent time in Beijing last year and enjoyed it.
    Hi Andrew,
    Yes, I saw that. While it's really just an extension of existing technologies, it's so impressive to see it tied together so well. Thanks!

  3. Greg, You've done great learning work! Your vocabulary seems doubled since our last talk. This should allow you to use Chinese dictionary to learn Chinese. This is the way how I learned in China when I was a child.

  4. Hi Greg,
    How long have you been learning Chinese?
    You can read around 300 Characters. But what about your speaking? can you have a decent conversation?

  5. Hi Hayden,
    About 2 years. Not sure how many words for speaking but it's quite a few. My vocab has been growing steadily. The first time I was to attend an online class for an hour that was all in Chinese, I wondered how I'd go. But I do those now all the time ok. (Classes have a fairly constrained set of topics though)
    I try to learn words in sets eg: above, below, in front, behind, left, right, or many things of the same type: blue, red, green, yellow, purple, white, grey, black, etc.

  6. You should try learning to sing songs in Chinese, it is a very effective method for anybody with a musical background even as an adult
    You first learn to sing without necessarily learning the meaning of the words, then you learn the meaning of each word & finally you learn to write each character.
    This approach brings many new words, each within a learning context which is memorised in three ways.
    Learning via Chinese poetry is similar

  7. Hi Greg,
    Yes I know a number of people that have done that quite successfully. Many others reckon Karaoke works well 🙂
    I just wish I could find movies with pin yin subtitles. Just been watching "Safe" the Jason Statham movie. It's got quite a bit of Mandarin dialog and I'm ok with quite a bit of it. I think it's because they were targeting the language at a young girl in the movie.

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