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Learn Chinese in China

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1Q 2022



As omicron ravages through HK, work has got much quieter. I myself came down with the virus a few weeks ago and suffered moderate cold symptoms and some bronchitis. One result of the omicron surge is more time for self study. 

Face to face lesson plan


Just before the present outbreak, I did go for an assessment. I wanted to give myself a good kick in the backside to make a breakthrough and decided in-person small group lessons could provide the necessary stimulation (despite the extra expense) and found a language school recommended to me by a contact. This person had spent time in China and speaks English, French, Dutch and German but found Chinese a totally different proposition. If a person such as him recommends a school (after trying out others), then I could do no worse than try out his school!


The assessment went quite alright. It was just a conversation using mandarin (with my dreaded 港腔) explaining learning objectives, desire for face to face interactions, accent problems and vocabulary limitations. They explained their learning structure with small group classes and videos of online homework - IMO, a good thing to force me to do more. 

The assessment put me at HSK4. Nobody else signed up for that level making the small group class effectively a one on one. Not a bad deal though the hours would be decreased slightly. Naturally, most demand would be for beginner to low level intermediate classes. 

Unfortunately, social restrictions came into effect a couple of weeks before we were to start. I was offered online lessons, but I declined for two reasons: a) the primary desire was face to face, b) if I go online, I might as well go for italki lessons which would be significantly cheaper. 


Back to italki  (pro)


This time, I changed my learning strategy and went back to italki after a long break. The vast majority of previous italki lessons have been community tutors and we go through conversations with me trying to converse. The idea was common vocabulary comes up often so I learn like a SRS style. 


However, this time, I have decided to take a package of lessons and go through a textbook with a professional tutor to force me to be more systematic in learning basic grammar and vocabulary. I am three weeks (one lesson per week) into it and try to read the material and do the exercises in advance. It’s HSK 4 level.

Back to italki (comm)


One lesson a week is not enough. I have included a community tutor to work with for some general conversations. I have decided that total Chinese immersion is not necessary and sometimes just a bit of English from me will greatly facilitate the class. 

As mentioned before, I have the 港腔 problem. A new community tutor caught my eye being 土生土長 北京人 and advertising 北京話. To be clear, I am not going for 北京話 - my purpose is to try and get a bit of overemphasis on a northern accent to decrease the effect that Cantonese has on my speaking mandarin.

Our first lesson went pretty poorly. She didn’t have earphone and microphone (said it was broken) and the quality of sound was very poor with a bit of echo effect. In a way, that forced me to concentrate more on the listening and trying to work out what she was saying. I believe I am her first student on italki and me being a bit blunt, told her to use an earphone and mic next time.

Sound aside, I took control of the lesson. Firstly we had some general chat. She identified my sentence construction problems and I asked how to structure the sentences better. Normally for me, an italki tutor will simply type out the vocabulary I don’t know and move on. This time, I wanted her to type out the full sentence and I try to practice more than a few times. This gives me translation from English to Chinese in my own thoughts. 


With other tutors, the pace has been quite fast with lots of material covered. I think I have a feel of Chinese fluency from Cantonese which makes tutors think I can handle input fast (they are very mistaken). This time, I have been more careful to try and slow down the pace aiming for better retention of a smaller amount of material and concentrating on obvious areas for speech improvement. After about another 30 mins of this class, I deliberately stopped and said to go back to the beginning and revise the sentences again rather than just keep adding more.

We created ‘only’ 13 sentences. With new vocabulary and trying to improve the characteristics of speaking, it was enough for a first lesson. Remember, quality over quantity. 

She’s given me a post lesson recording of the sentences- I reminded her again to use the 北京味儿. Also for the Chinese sentences, she marked out the words which I have difficulty with - either fluency, intonation or pronunciation. It’s for me to do the practice using my computer. 

For the next lesson, I have explained that I want to go through these sentences again. Her role will to ask me one the English sentences at random and I try to parrot off the Chinese in a way that would become semi-automatic. She will also help fix pronunciation problems. If you say I could use Anki, you would be right. That’s part of the plan. 


Being her first student is pretty good because, a) she’s more diligent in making a good impression, and, b) her prices are less expensive.


Audio software 


I can’t believe I just discovered the function of slowing down speech in audio software but keeping the pitch. Maybe I did in the past but just got overloaded with all the amount of audio material that I collect and forgot to use it. I am using Audition to slow the sentences down and sometimes isolating parts of the sentence to hear them clearly. I find slowing down 1.5x for practice keeps most of the quality- any slower and the voice quality starts to change. This feature is also in audacity if anybody is interested. Again, I am working on fewer sentences but trying to improve the quality of each sentence. 


Other things


To pass some time, I did buy a TV box which giving access to a lot of channels. I tried watching some drama material but again the amount of new vocabulary was just overwhelming. Even though I am listening, many times I miss the meaning because of different words being pronounced similarly and I don’t have enough context.


I have played around with Hellotalk speaking to a few people. Generally good for chit chat practice rather than actual learning. One person said to me oh, you’re the first person who can speak more than a bit of Chinese. She said the people she’s spoken to before have only been able to say a few sentences and then give up with the rest of time in English- I remember me doing that as well. Because of that, I actually had left Hellotalk deleting my profile. Rejoined it again a year later after I had some improvements. Now it’s more equal but I struggle a lot with unknown vocabulary. 

In summary, the plan for is systematic learning via textbook structure, semi systematic learning via targeted conversations with community tutor, general chilling with other media and not getting frustrated with the amount of vocabulary I don’t know. 


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I came across an old post of mine in 2019 than estimated my ability to be HSK3-4. Quite embarrassing to admit that I haven’t really moved on from that in three years.


I had my lesson with my professional tutor - this time she did free talk all the way through and tested me on some random words which I mostly read correctly. I wonder if this is as effective value for the money or whether it’s better to plough through the textbook. After all, I was looking for following the textbook to be a little more systematic in learning.


The second lesson with the community tutor was much better - she got her earphone and mic sorted. I think we had a good discussion. Even though her English is better, when I reviewed the sentences afterwards, sometimes her translation was a little off. I think it’s also sometimes me using an English word that might not translate well literally into Chinese. If I have some doubts, I ask for clarification with one of the hellotalk language partners with even better English. I don’t really mind because a) I can easily ask opinions elsewhere and come back to her, b) I am really after her accent. Acceptable trade offs for the overall picture.


Anki, cloze function and voice recording is going well so far. Before, I had tried having the English sentence and the recall the Chinese sentence. To be honest, it was quite hard even with listening many times to the Chinese  sentence (I set it to repeat the sentence audio automatically about 8 times). The community teacher tested me on the sentences we covered the week before (she spoke one of the sentences at random ) and I got all of them fairly well. 


This time, I have made the front card English, and then the cloze sentence underneath. The back card shows the answer and plays the voice five times. As well as listening, I am also reading and shadowing. The community teacher said my pronunciation was much better on the second lesson.


The anki Notes are from sentences I built up in the past. Apart from the the new vocabulary within sentences in the lessons, I also look for the new vocabulary in other sentences in the accumulated library and put that sentence in the cloze deck. I vastly prefer sentences with audio recordings. My main library deck is not quite designed as efficiently as it could be and some time will need to be spent on tweaking it.


I need to remember my goals of building up vocabulary and recognising them through listening. It’s so tempting to go off track and do other things such as try to push the new vocabulary into active recall, get distracted by social media, watch a bit of TV in mandarin but not really understand it nor be able to follow. Could the last one be counted as ‘learning’? There’s that holy grail of understanding 98% of the words spoken in a conversation to understand what’s going on.


On a slightly good note, I had a look at “Growing Up With Chinese” (not looked at it for a few years). I remember it being very difficult to follow for the subtitling exercise creating .srt files. The actress who plays the mother spoke really fast - pleasantly surprised to find I can now follow her speed of speech much more easily.


All in all, lots of positives with a real feeling of progress. Let’s hope this continues. If I start lagging, then perhaps I can go back to the tutorial centre for face to face interactions. We have a date when social restrictions in HK will be on a phased reduction - April 21. I will need to be really disciplined with mandarin when other activities start up.



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Last week, my learning was not so productive. 

I had my textbook lesson. That went ok. I do my pre reading and we go through the lesson. If there’s something I don’t quite understand, I can post the question up on Hellotalk.


I didn’t have a good time remembering my cloze sentences. I was tested by my community teacher and failed quite badly on some sentences. What I should have done is suspended the previous weeks cards to concentrate on the new sentences. I wasted time reviewing old sentences making things inefficient. She has given me more sentences with the same vocabulary.


My community teacher was ill on one day and I scheduled someone else to just chat. I think it’s sort of OK. I got lots of single word vocabulary from it but Without a feeling of having learnt the words. It was stupid of me to fall back to my old lesson routine but I forgot about asking the teacher to use the last part of the lesson to review the vocabulary covered earlier in the class. Yes. I got practice speaking and listening, but overloaded with lots of vocabulary that I have lost the context and a feeling of dissatisfaction. 

After three weeks of lessons, reviewing sentences in anki and shadowing, a couple of people have commented on improvement. The 港腔 is better controlled. I pay close attention the the rhythm and also the volume and speed of the sounds relative to each other. For example I used to say 不太好 trying to make each tone clear. Now I realise 不 is spoken with a very short duration that makes the speaking sound more natural. 

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