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.


Book Review: Dreaming in Chinese – Deborah Fallows

Another book that I've just finished reading on the Kindle is Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows. I had purchased the hard cover edition a while back on the recommendation of colleague Ron Talmage but hadn't got to reading it. I was glad to then see the Kindle edition of the book appear. I purchased and read it and loved it.

Deborah spent three years recently living in Shanghai and has documented many of the struggles she had with coming to terms with learning Mandarin and with getting used to Chinese society. I imagine that part of the hassle she would have had was dealing with Shanghai-ese rather than the Mandarin that she would have learned before heading off to China but I could relate so well to so many things she spoke of.

The book is also quite funny. I particularly liked the part where Deborah described trying to talk to an employee (who was wearing a big sombrero) outside a Taco Bell restaurant. She wanted to know if they offered take-away food but her attempts to pronounce the words (even though she had the correct words) ranged from asking for a big hug, to discussing hail.

My favorite part was where she discussed Chinese names. Chinese people will often adopt English names when they move to an English-speaking country, and of course, English-speaking people will often adopt Chinese names when they move to a Chinese-speaking country. The most common way to do this is to try to find a set of Chinese words that are like a transliteration of your existing English name. But it's also important to try to find words that mean something sensible in Chinese, like "Harmony". Deborah made me laugh out loud when describing one of her young friend's boyfriend who decided to choose a name to ward off gui (or evil spirits). He chose the name Fendui. Unfortunately, while it sounded like his name, it directly translated to "pile of shit". Beautiful!

If you have any interest in understanding Chinese society, even if you don't want to tackle Mandarin, this book is a great read. Highly recommended! (10 out of 10)