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Different learning styles, how do you approach Chinese?


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The idea of this topic came from http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/16298-new-book-on-using-memory-techniques-to-learn-characters, my apologies if it's more appropriate for another forum.

In particular, this quote caught my eye:

A: For me I have to know the character before I can remember the pinyin ...so I am buggered when I just want to learn conversation

B:??? Huh? That's a new one here. While 60% or so of characters may have some phonetic component to give a clue to the pronunciation I'm not sure, why you can't remember the pinyin until after you know the character.

People smarter than me have done tons of research into the question of "how do people learn things?", and identified four unique "learning styles".

  1. Auditory learning occurs through hearing the spoken word.
  2. Kinesthetic learning occurs through doing and interacting.
  3. Visual learning occurs through looking at images, mindmaps, demonstrations and body language.
  4. Tactile learning occurs through writing notes and drawing diagrams.

Taken from the Wikipedia site

Anyway, I found an interesting website that presents a few questions online to figure out what type of learner you are:


And it confirmed what I discovered about myself, that I'm a visual learner. For studying Chinese in particular, it means that I rarely pick up new words if I hear them in conversation, but I can get a better understanding if they write down the pinyin for me. Additionally, I remember the uniqueness of a word if I know the characters for it (like in the case where shi4 describes about 20 different words, the character gives a more absolute meaning). When I'm trying to piece together something that was said in a conversation, I visualize the characters...

As such, I've learned (through spending way too much money on too many books that I haven't completed) that the most effective way for me to learn was to just read a textbook that has a heavy focus on Chinese characters.

So my purpose of starting this topic is two-fold:

1. Hopefully, people will follow that link up there and post what type of learners they are (I imagine there's a wide spectrum).

2. And secondly, recognizing that we are different learners, what has been the most effective method of studying Chinese in your experience?

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Interesting post.

I have never really thought about what kind of learner I am, but now it's quite clear to me that I am a "tactile" learner (which the test confirmed). In college, I learned best by reading and especially by writing things out. Before exams I would always write down my own study guides, and I would write out paradigms and vocabulary when I studied Greek & Latin.

However, it's difficult to use this style of learning for Chinese, especially considering that I used to study dead languages and really only needed to read (& rarely write). I have had little problem with reading Chinese, either characters or pinyin. But when learning a living language, one MUST learn by listening, which is what I have been trying to force myself to do. (See this thread to see my concerns about listening and learning aurally.)

So, writing is my best learning method, BUT I decided to not focus on learning how to write characters, since this was taking a huge amount of time to do. This presents me with a slight conundrum, as you can see. I'm not really sure how to reconcile my learning strengths with my goals for learning Chinese.

Considering that, what would others suggest as my best method?

And to answer your original question, I am really still figuring out how best to study Chinese (which is quite clear, ha).

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Welcome to the forum. :)

Related threads

What would you do differently if you were starting to learn Chinese again?




Why learning spoken Chinese as a foreigner is easy and hard




& this one (kind of)

Language Schools Teaching Methods



For your questions:

1. Not telling :wink:

2. This thread is a good start: Some advice for beginners

I agree with most of it. And we try to incorporate some of the same advice at the school here. (Much of the same conclusions were arrived at independently) I think focusing on a lot of listening and pronunciation in the beginning, as well as having very solid pinyin, is essential

The second part of the opening quote was from me. (The original poster said he could not learn the pinyin without learning the character.) My point was that there is not necessarily a strong relationship between a character and its pronunciation. In fact I should have emphasized when I said they have some phonetic component. The 60% is on the high end of things too by the way. So the point is even if you are a visual learner, in the absence of visual clues or connections between the characters and the pinyin, claiming that you need to characters first in order to know the pinyin seems a little strange.

I'm not making this up either. :)

From my favorite article of all time: Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

It is not true, as some people outside the field tend to think, that Chinese is not phonetic at all, though a perfectly intelligent beginning student could go several months without noticing this fact. Just how phonetic the language is a very complex issue. Educated opinions range from 25% (Zhao Yuanren)7 to around 66% (DeFrancis),8 though the latter estimate assumes more knowledge of phonetic components than most learners are likely to have. One could say that Chinese is phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic: technically so, but in practical use not the most salient thing about it. Furthermore, this phonetic aspect of the language doesn't really become very useful until you've learned a few hundred characters, and even when you've learned two thousand, the feeble phoneticity of Chinese will never provide you with the constant memory prod that the phonetic quality of English does.

(quote tags minimized to keep Roddy happy I hope:D)

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You have a multimodal (VARK) learning preference.

Apparently, I'm strongly aural, tactile and kinesthetic, and weak in visual, which surprised me. I thought I'd be mostly a visual guy -- I can only remember names and pronunciations if I see them written, and when I pronounce things, I can visualise them and see the writing in front of me.

Similarly, I find it easier to follow TV shows by reading the Chinese subtitles than by listening to the conversation. So I think that the visual part should be stronger.

But I would agree that I'm quite multimodal. And my studying reflects that. I give plenty of time to listening comprehension, character study/reading, talking and learning from textbooks.

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Don't be surprised - reading words and even characters is not part of the 'visual' group. Visual in this categorization means pictures, shapes, patterns, etc. Reading words is in its own category "Reading/Writing". Actually there is no "tactile" on the pages of that site I read.

I'm entirely (equally) visual and kinesthetic. The other two were almost nothing. I agree with that. Being highly visual I can tell you that does NOT mean reading! :( Sometimes when I read something I need to go over it again & again (for example instructions), when I could figure it out quicker if I just dive in & do it, looking at diagrams if I get stuck.

How does that fit in with how I learn Chinese?

Let me think...

Well, if I'm looking at a sentence or paragraph, I first read it and understand what I can with what I already know. I'm sure we all do that. Then I start looking up new words. Normal, right?

But now how do we LEARN these new things, and use them and remember them....?

Well, when I learn a new hanzi, I like to see ALL the possible meanings. I write the hanzi and in a visually appealing way, write most of the meanings, with examples, in whatever way it flows out of me... not necessarily a list, but sometimes. To some people my notebook might look messy, because I might write in groups, blobby shapes, or along the edge. I underline with double lines or wavy lines or circle things that I want to stand out. I highlight and change pen colors often. If I write/read lists and orderly things, it looks boring to me and not in any useful order. To me, my blobs of information are more orderly. They are categorized; things spring from other things, like spontaneous little flowcharts.

I (like OP?) also have trouble remembering a word from only hearing it. It helps if I at least look it up in my dictionary at the time, or have the person write it... but even then it won't stick. I have to USE IT to remember it. It makes all the difference in the world.

And Self-Taught-MBA -

Let me see if I can help you see it our way (I agree with the other two, that learning a hanzi helps me remember the pinyin)... it has nothing to do with whether the hanzi is phonetic or not...

You can TELL me the word for 'visa' - 签证 qian1zheng4, a million times, I can repeat it 100 times, write the pinyin, doesn't matter... nothing. But if I study the hanzi, learning that there's some bamboo on top, and it's an official document under a roof (or whatever I imagine, real or not).. etc... then, although old bamboo scrolls under a roof have NOTHING to do with the pronunciation "qian", I will remember it better. SEEING the picture, both the story/imagination in my mind, and the hanzi, simply helps me remember the whole thing. Like a rat connecting the food to pressing the bar to the bell ringing; connections are made even though the bell actually does not represent food literally. Stupid rat.:wink:

A sound, just simply "qian" is nothing to me, like air... you may as well ask me to remember the sound of some old lady on the bus farting yesterday... LOL.... sorry,... I'll be like... "Uh... I learned a word yesterday? huh?" it's gone, it's nothing, it blows away in the wind like the smell of yangrou chuan'r... lovely but fleeting, to be replaced by all the other sounds I'm hearing and thinking. How can I possibly remember one syllable of the whole day full of jumbled syllables? (that's important and a clear point, here it is again)

How can I possibly remember one syllable of the whole day full of jumbled syllables?

I need to make a connection with something more odd & memorable, the hanzi.

BETTER YET, for me, the kinesthetic learner, I need to USE IT. Once I use it, IT'S MINE. Once I go to the visa bureau with my passport and use the word qianzheng a few times, I got it. It's there. It's mine. It's part of me now.

Although we should all know how to say the words "embassy" and "passport" as a matter of safety, I didn't remember those words for over a year until I HAD to use them. Then I used them 2-3 times and they're mine.

That's how my 2 learning traits show up in my Chinese.


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You're right, there is no "tactile", it was a late edit messup. I, of course, meant reading/writing.

From your description of visual, I can understand how I have it to a certain point, and that it is weaker than the others -- I sometimes use diagrams to visualise some concepts, but they are definitely not my favourite, and I don't think that learning from images is very successful for me, compared to well-organised textual information. So I think your explanation made it clearer to me, thanks for that.

Having said that, my grades were

Visual: 5

Aural: 9

Kinesthetic: 8

Reading/Writing: 7

So I'm obviously strongly multimodal. I wonder how much of it is influenced by our experience. My results are probably influenced by the fact that I've studied different things, including music, sports and science. Yet, I've never studied visual arts or anything similar. I'm willing to bet that there is a correlation, human mind is very melleable in my opinion.

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  • 3 months later...

I found this thread as a result of searching the term 'phonetics'

considering that the quote in the original post is mine, I find the whole exercise a little coincidental (& little humourous) and potentially of tremendous benefit to me and maybe someone else....

For me I have to know the character before I can remember the pinyin ...so I am buggered when I just want to learn conversation

...if you can bare with me, you will see that I really want to thrash this thread out and furthermore that I have a desperate (very desperate) need to do so.

I will explain my position 1st as a way of qualifying my statement and I will be keen to discover from other Foreigner-learners if I share an experience or if I have followed a path to ruin. I also stress that I am not offering my experience as a strategy for learning but rather as an experience of learning under certain conditions. I also need to begin by returning your attention to the disbelief of my learning method in the original thread, and thereby the root of my angst ....

B:??? Huh? That's a new one here. While 60% or so of characters may have some phonetic component to give a clue to the pronunciation I'm not sure, why you can't remember the pinyin until after you know the character.

I had an opportunity to combine Chinese Language studies with an Engineering(Mnf) Degree but I could find nothing of better convenience than a correspondence course run by another University many(many) 100s of miles away. It was my first look at Chinese and I had no Chinese experience beyond no:#14 braised chicken with cashews. The workload far exceeded that of any Engineering unit and is best described as aggressive.

We launched into characters immediately, and remember this is remote learning from staff written guide books so the learning is inherently visual even if your learning preference is not. The text was Practical Chinese Reader (regards to comrades Gubo & Palanka) and accompanied by the 'hissy' cassette tapes. In an exam or assignment the focus was of course oral or written, in an exam a Chinese (Character) text required translation to English, an english text required translation to chinese(Character) ...and an oral exam required reading a (Character) text. Some questions had pinyin but I regarded this as an unnecessary aid because afterall you needed the character and if you knew it then you knew the pinyin (from memory).

...are you catching on :roll:.

The learning method was ZERO and was instead replaced with QUANTITY, so what the hell is a phonetic? ...and therefore many things slipped by because there was nothing other then a 3-day workshop twice a year ...so no chatter or banter between myself or anyone else in a class and as far as I know I am the only Engineering student in the whole country studying Chinese (this is in 1990 and in Australia).

You will miss an amazing amount of (small) info if you learn Chinese in isolation, and even worse you can(might) develop the worst of study habits (that is if I have and is why I am persisting with this thread). Instead of learning the details progressively, you accidentally lumber into insights ....Oh! the length of a stroke does matter when you mean to write great warrior and not great dirt. (funnily this happened only last week on Big Brother Australia when a Japanese house-mate translated a tattoo on another house-mate's arm) I pounced on my Pleco (God bless Mike & Pleco) and saw for the first time a significance in the length of a stroke. (mind you there is a Chinese Tattooist somewhere out there that did not know this either:roll:)

My life continued, my business grew, I became a family (well actually a God of sorts because I have two very handsome boys:D) ...and my experiences in Chinese business were at best the content for another hilarious book (anybody read Mr China by Tim Clissold).

So I STOPPED studying Chinese.:cry:

So 15-months ago I decided to return to study:D, I am still very busy but what I have is time in a day when I can hide from everyone and just read and write Chinese.

As you can see in this same thread there are already contradictions to the uniqueness of my study habits.

So let me explain how I see my studies panning out.

I have started on the hardest the first ...the Characters. I have (yes the progress is slower) about 1000 (and if I stop for more than a month then I will have only 200). Hopefully before the year end I will have another few hundred.

In another 2-months I am going to buy (apologies but I just love that that phrase) a Chinese language companion ...we will go shopping, travel, visit an art gallery, drink beer and coffee and 'natter' away in as much Chinese as possible. If it is a 'he' then we will talk about girls, if it is a 'she' then we will talk about hair & shoes. My companion will laugh at my poor tones and shocking grammar and whenever I want to be understood I will write the character on my pleco (did I already say God bless Mike & Pleco?).

So do you have anything to say that might help :help ....or are your eyeballs still hurting :wink:.

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With a background in education (training teachers in all subject areas) as well as in language teaching in particular--though up until now, all European languages-- the subject of preferred learning styles is a famiiar one. I too am fascinated by the difference in learning style required for Chinese, compared to other languages (at least in my own experience). I am an almost totally auditory learner. I am SO NON-visual that I literally don't see what's in front of my face. This makes tones a breeze and characters the bane of my existence. My second preferred style is--alas--kinaesthetic, but this does have an up-side. It means that the hand-memory involved in always writing characters in the correct stroke order is very useful to me. Having said all that, however, I think that the trick is a slightly different one. Teachers in training are taught to expand their own preferred learning styles so as to be able to help their students. This is what I have been trying to do in order to help my own Chinese language learning and based on my latest end-of-semester mark, it seems to be working!

So, the next question is: what are the best strategies for expanding one's own preferred learning styles to include ones which may be more necessary for Chinese learning? Any ideas?


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Madot - Useful observations. Learning styles might be relatively fixed, ie you are not going to be more successful using a style that it not suitable for you. However, I find it useful to switch often between the different components - listening, conversation,dictation,reading, writing, grammar. Keeping the brain on its toes and getting out of the comfort zone, and especially introducing an element of frustration has helped me learn faster. It also reflects real-life situations more, ie you have to deal with someone speaking to you and you responding whilst jotting down notes and reading something they just sent on email.

I find it is a bit like triathlon, keep the body guessing what you are going to do next so it can stay alert and ready for the next activity (whatever might be thrown at it).

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The website rate me as:

* Visual: 10

* Aural: 7

* Read/Write: 9

* Kinesthetic: 10

Personally, I think my aural abilities are overrated in this test. However the test might explain why I'm not very successful when learning with only one of these methods. I actually get the best results when reviewing in different ways, like looking up the word in the dictionary (online), read sample usages / applications in real text, and sometimes get it explained (with background info) from a friend or teacher.

I also feel that it's easier for me to remember stuff when there are some pictures in the book (or website) which I can mentally link to the vocabulary or grammar. I really have trouble to memorise vocabulary when I just hear it. Writing it down already helps a lot, especially because I can look it up again later.

Duo to my preferred way of learning, my biggest drawbacks at Chinese are talking and especially listening (and understanding).

I also found out, that learning the right pronunciation is helping me a lot to link the spoken part with the written part when learning new vocabulary, independent to whether I hear it or see the new vocabulary. It also improves my ability to remember the tones, at which I'm still not very good.

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