Pinyin as a tool for easier listening comprehension
This blog appears to be turning into a showerthoughts for interpreting. Its late at night and I'm nearly done with studying today. Just thought I'd share a quick thought from my cursive practice just now.
I have recently begun using the john defrancis intermediate chinese textbook to practice my 草書. This is because the entire textbook is written in pinyin, in a repetitive, cumulative style, so that I get lots of practice writing 草書 compounds that frequently appear together, without seeing the 楷書 equivalent. Its been great practice, but I've noticed something interesting lately in my attitude towards this textbook, which I once considered 'ridiculous' in its no-character approach.
In reading and analysing the written-down sounds without the comfort of characters, I've become aware of how the brain really can effectively compartmentalize sounds separate from characters, enabling better and quicker listening comprehension. Without the character there to remind me, I immediately claw for meaning by honing in on the tone in a way that I have never done before. I can understand a single character (ie no compound to help out) because of the tone, and then the context.
If I am writing, looking at a single character written in pinyin appears to effectively mimic the process I go through when listening to rapid speeches in Chinese, constantly bumping into single character words that can only be understood by correct tone comprehension, then context. For example, hearing the single character word 'xì' in a speech may be difficult, as you cannot see it is, say, 戲, and thus realise it is not 係. The job is actually harder in listening than in reading; you must be 100% confident it is a fourth tone xi, eliminate all non fourth characters, then decide from context. Looking at the pinyin is the same, except it is made a step easier; you are given the all important tone. In this way you can cut out all the 希洗西喜席息習 etc. with certainty and focus on just 係戯細, allowing context to take care of the rest.
So the pinyin is like an intermediate step between reading comprehension and listening comprehension. I find that if I cant fully comprehend every word in a full speech written out in pinyin, theres a good chance I am not going to be able to do so when I listen to it. While the speaker brings emphasis and rhythm to facilitate better listening comprehension in the audience, reading the same speech in pinyin brings accurate tones and space dividers, enabling one to test their potential listening comprehension ability of a speech at a controlled pace. More importantly, this condition effectively simulates listening, as there are no characters, no subtitles, nothing! When listening to those all-important rare characters as they crop up in a formal speech at high speed, hearing the tone is in fact so, so much more useful than seeing the character.
I think this is the first time I have actually thought that reading through a pinyin text really quickly is a useful task for developing other skills...any thoughts from others?
edit: note this use of pinyin is effective as my target speeches are only in standard mandarin; if you go out on the streets and want to rely on tones to understand the locals, you're gonna have a hard time...