Being 51 days into a 112 day challenge to spend at least 2 hours a day listening to Chinese, I've decided to start a blog for two reasons:
- to keep track of my progress - I'm at the stage where I don't make breakthroughs every day anymore, so I need some proof of progress to stay motivated
- to capture thoughts about the Chinese language, the learning process in general and to discuss these with others
I may post a lot or not at all - what's important is not using blogging as an excuse to procrastinate from the challenge itself.
What is the challenge?
Every day, for 112 days, I will listen *intensively* to at least 2 hours of Chinese. By intensively, I mean that I must be doing nothing else except trying to understand spoken Chinese. Typically I break this up into 2 1-hour segments - 1 hour before work, and 1 hour before bed. I usually also try to listen during my commute, but this doesn't count towards the total as I'm too distracted by traffic to focus.
I also learn new vocabulary from anki flashcards. These have only 1 type of card: Chinese characters -> English/Pinyin. This is only to ensure that I can read the transcripts from listening materials that don't have pinyin. Revising these doesn't count as part of the 2 hours, and typically takes an extra 15-20 minutes spread throughout the day.
Why 112 days? It's simply the number of days between the day that I started the challenge, and the beginning of my next holiday in China. Why 2 hours? It's about as much as I can afford on a daily basis, given a full-time job and other commitments.
What's the goal?
Mostly just to complete the challenge with the minimum number of days missed. An exercise in self-discipline more than in mastering Chinese.
Regarding Chinese, I'm interested to see how far I can get. I'd like to know what my Chinese in-laws are telling me more often (they speak a very neutral form of Mandarin, thankfully). And it'd be nice if I could follow some very simple TV shows by the end of the challenge so that I can continue to maintain my ability while enjoying myself a little more going forward. That may be optimistic - when I started this challenge I was unable to understand ChinesePod Elementary dialogues until I've heard them a good few times. It still takes me quite a few repeats to understand most Intermediate dialogues in their entirety.
I listen to a variety of sources. In order of priority:
- SpoonFed Chinese (Anki deck of 8000 sentences with audio components. I use only 1 type of card: Audio -> Chinese/English/Pinyin.)
- ChinesePod (usually Intermediate dialogues and the easiest Upper Intermediate full lessons)
- Various Chinese Breeze books (currently on level 4, just finishing 好狗维克)
- Sinolingua's graded reader series (on 1500 word book just now)
- Other online sources such as Du Chinese/The Chairman's Bao when they have free trials
Despite some of these materials being targeted at extensive reading, I don't read the materials first but instead skip straight to listening, using the written materials as a reference only when I can't parse what is said. I switch sources/buy more whenever I get bored, following some excellent advice on these forums not to persist in any learning activity that bores me.
Why only listening?
Firstly, my listening sucks in general. Like many others, I process information easily from written materials - on the other hand, I have always tended to phase out during spoken events (lectures, seminars, etc), and I struggle even more than most to understand English in noisy environments (pubs, restaurants, etc). My experience in previous L2 learning tells me that for me, listening is by far the hardest of the 4 skills - indeed, in Polish (which I learned primarily through 1-to-1 dialogues) my speaking fluency was so unbalanced with my listening that after introducing myself, people would sometimes mistake me for a native "from the mountains", only to realise after replying that I hadn't a clue what they were talking about. (Though maybe this misunderstanding is more down to how few foreigners try to learn Polish!)
Even disregarding my own issue with listening, there are quite a few discussions on these forums about how hard it is to learn to listen to Chinese. There are, as always, some very experienced individuals who disagree with this assessment, suggesting that learning to read in Chinese is far harder than listening. I personally wonder if many who make this claim are 1) in a primarily Chinese speaking environment, and 2) relatively extroverted, neither of which apply to me. As an upper beginner/lower intermediate learner, my ability to understand a given written sentence far outstrips my ability to understand to the same sentence when spoken, even when spoken slowly, in perfect standard Mandarin.
Right now for me, being able to understand spoken Chinese is simply far more practical than being able to read/write. My most immediate goal is to be able to get by while on holiday, talk with in-laws, and not rely totally on my wife when we're visiting her hometown for any/all needs - being able to visit the shops alone without making a fool of myself would be great! Speaking is of course part of this - then again, I've typically found that I can usually already find a way to express myself simply, given time, but understanding what comes back is the challenge! As for secondary goals, it's possible we'll want to move to China one day, and knowing the spoken language would help keep that option open. Also, we're planning on raising bilingual children, and this is a little bit easier if both parents can communicate in both languages.
I've also made some observations about the benefits of this challenge while undertaking it. I make faster and easier progress when I'm only focusing on a single skill at once - if I split my time up to spend more on reading I doubt I would feel satisfied with my progress in either skill. I've also noticed that both my reading and speaking have somewhat improved even without attention - in particular my tones are more natural now that I've had considerable exposure to how they are actually used, rather than visualising that near-useless diagram all beginners learn from. My reading speed has improved because I can very quickly understand a sentence's meaning from sub-vocalisation of the characters - I don't need to puzzle it out.