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wushijiao

My recent studying methods, Part II

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wushijiao

I wasn’t exactly sure where to put this post. I was thinking of putting it in the 2009 Aims and Objectives, but I think some of my aims and objectives will necessarily be more long term. Also, I think that this has as much to do with my personal goals as it does with specific goals related to Chinese. In a sense, I want to figure out what my next Chinese learning stage should be. To some degree, I think this is a continuation of the post I wrote called “My recent studying methods”, which synthesized some of my thoughts about learning Chinese right as I was at the stage of going from intermediate to advanced/fluent, if you will. I’ve been at a certain stage since then, and now I plan to map out a way to get to the next stage. With that in mind, I’m going to map out some of my stages of learning Chinese (before I get too old and forget them!), and the goals that motivated them.

Stage 1: October 2001 to May 2003 (SARS): From nothing to something

Goal: Learn as much Chinese as possible, but main goals still uncertain. (I had the vague idea of attending a university in Chinese, however, and the vague idea of becoming a sinologist, if you will).

Main Methods: Reading textbooks (of which the best was “Rapid Fluency in Chinese”, making flash cards, chatting with everyone possible, read 活著

Main Drawbacks (in hindsight): Not nearly enough listening work, slight over-emphasis on individual characters (instead of words), teaching English (as a means of supporting myself) ended up taking up more time than I had thought, especially in terms of analyzing my piss-poor lessons or ineffective classes. Overall, although I studied probably 1-3 hours per day, I still wasn’t putting in the time needed to achieve fluency. Also, since I became able to have basic conversations with people quite quickly, and because I could understand a lot of characters (maybe 1,000-1,500), and because I was being complemented left and right, I had a certain cockiness and arrogance that didn’t allow me to see the objective level of my Chinese- which was good, but certainly needed work.

Main Things I Did Right: Worked in the middle of nowhere (Henan) where no one can speak English very well (but where people are outgoing and friendly), wasn’t afraid of making mistakes, studied pretty hard, had a lot of fun doing learning Chinese and living in China (which made further progress sustainable). Went from the “ni hao” level, to a decent intermediate level in a year and a half.

Stage 2 May 2003- February 2004: Traveling with brothers in Europe

Lived in US and traveled in Europe with my brothers from three months. Chinese level undoubtedly regressed.

Stage 3 January 2004-(roughly) October 2004: Re-adjusting to China

Goal: No real goals. Scattered learning here and there.

Main activities: Read 許三觀賣血記,我是你爸爸

Main drawbacks: In hindsight, still needed more audio, not spending enough time studying per day, watched too much American TV and movies (pirated DVD’s are the Achilles’ heel for most studiers in China). Also, in hindsight, I seriously should have consolidated more formal grammar and sentence patterns. Overall, this stage was defined by my re-adjusting to China.

Main Things I Did Right: Read a decent amount, and re-gained skills from stage 1. Joined Chinese-forums, and started to hash out some of these issues with other folks, which undoubtedly helped me more objectively realize what I needed to be doing.

Stage 4 October 2004- September 2006: Becoming "Fluent"

Goals: Started to set strict, short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. My long-term goal, at the time, was to take the HSK and get a 6 (so I could apply to universities), and eventually pass the HSK Gao.

Main activities: These are summed up in the post mentioned above, but the main activities that mattered the most were: listening to audio for 1-3 hours per day, speaking to my wife (married in January 2005) at least 90% in Chinese, learned many useful things (like sentence and grammar patterns (ie. 只有。。。才) for HSK that I had not bothered to learn before, or just kind of assumed I knew because I knew the characters), tried to read lot of newspapers, magazines books, watched Chinese TV shows and tons of Chinese movies.

Main drawbacks: Very few majors errors in this period. I was still teaching, and although teaching no longer took up as much of my time (and just as important, mental and emotional energy) as it did before, mainly because I really tried to improve myself as a teacher, teaching still put me in an English-speaking environment for 8-10 hours per day on working days. (And I’m not knocking this, since those years teaching, mainly at 上海大学, were an unforgettable and truly rewarding experience, but it wasn’t ideal from a career or studying point of view).

Main things I did right: Prioritized, used lots of different studying methods, did lots of audio per day, but overall, became obsessed with learning Chinese! From waking up in the morning, to going to bed at night, learning Chinese was my overriding focus. The results were truly staggering. Major highlights from this stage:

-2005 was my “year of becoming fluent”, which, arguably, happened, depending on one's definition of fluency.

- I went from being able to semi-read a newspaper kind of slowly at the beginning of this period, to being able to read almost anything under the sun, with very good comprehension (with the help of Pleco- also a very important tool).

-Got an HSK 6 in December 2005, and 7 in April 2006

-Started “book of the month” in 2005, which, to some degree, was a major factor in taking me to the next level

-Started to read somewhat more challengng books, like 中國農民調查,and 中國威脅誰?

Stage 5: September 2006-February 2007: Attending Fudan

Goals: Started going to Fudan University as an “advanced senior student”, which enabled me to take BA, MA, and Phd level classes in international relations (in Chinese) – a subject I had always been interested in. At the time, my goal was to do well in that, and then to do a MA at Fudan, while becoming a hardcore sinologist (very nerdy to admit, but true).

Main activities: really just a continuation of previous stage, although I started to attend classes and make friends with other students (Chinese and international, mainly, Vietnamese and Korean).

Main drawbacks: None, really.

Main things I did right: Continued to work hard at class, and free time study. In the summer of 2006, I went to HK and bought some political books, the two volume T.A.M. Papers in Chinese, another 6-four book, and Wang Li xiong’s book at Tibet. I read these over the next few months, learning traditional characters in the process (which really isn’t that hard to do if you have something like Pleco, which enables you to see simp and trad side by side and hand write new characters for recognition). Got HSK 9. Overall, I was also really enjoying Fudan.

Stage 6: February 2007-September 2007: Growing Frustration

Goals: Continued studying Chinese obsessively, but my career goals/academic goals went into flux.

Activities: Same as other stages, except I got an iPod in Feb 2007, which really makes this stage stand out from the previous one. I listened to the BBC’s program (中國從談), 德國之聲, Chinesepod, and Anti-wave, along with others). Over time, this brought my listening up a notch, and quite significantly, I think, my tones went from piss-poor to much, much better. This is because, I think, whereas before, I might recall that, say, 架構 was jiagou, or maybe jia4gou4, but even if I could recall what the tones were, I was recalling what the tones were as written on Pleco or a flashcard. After more much more listening (first with tapes, and then with real podcasts), I found that I increasingly recalled words from memory by their sounds in my mind, meaning that I could much more accurately and consistently reproduced their tone and tone sandhi. Meanwhile, foreigners speaking in the “foreign neutral tone” started to sound appalling. (Of course, this up-grading of my tone ability is still very much a work in progress)

Main drawbacks: In contrast with my first semester, I enrolled in some horrible classes at Fudan, two of which were ridiculous, 憤青, Party propaganda. In another class, I truly respected the prof’s knowledge, but his teaching methods were mind boggling (ie. staring off to a weird, fixed place in space, and lecturing at no one in particular for three hours, while the students directly translate “classic” articles from English to Chinese with almost no discussion of the merits of the articles). So, this, combined with my experience in the first semester with a Chinese scholar who specialized in Korea who treated me like a CIA mole, made me feel very cool towards the idea of spending three years of my time getting an MA at Fudan. In hindsight, my attitude was also a problem, and I should have picked better classes, and done more to make friends and participate in events. At the same time, I was teaching at the Jiaotong MBA program (just business English), but I was loving that, so I was wondering whether to go back to a life of teaching. Eventually, my wife and I decided to go to HK: I’d do an MA at HKU, she’d get an MBA at CUHK.

Main things I did right: listened to a lot of podcats, read a lot- including Zhao’s memoirs (as written by his friend, Zong), 楊繼澠’s book, and a book by易中天.

Stage 7: September 2007- June 2008: Getting an MA/ Ending Chinese Obsession

Goals: Work hard in to get an MA, and trying to find a job in public affairs of some sort.

Activities: Similar to before.

Main drawbacks: I found that doing a degree in English necessitates that a lot of studying and things will be in English (of course), and I found I was mainly speaking English in HK. So, to some degree, my Chinese level decreased, especially my speaking, although my reading and listening continued to plod along. Also, for personal reasons, I got very interested (or re-interested) in veganism, health issues, and Buddhism, and so studying Chinese went from priority 1, to priority 3-5 or so. To some degree, I might have deepened and consolidated certain skills in this period, but I didn’t blaze any new trails.

Main things I did right: started to network and meet people in the areas that I’m interested in. Continued to read and listen to a lot of material. Read 2/3 of 三國演義. When my class from HKU went to 北大 for a two week seminar/class, I sometimes served as informal translator at government offices, CASS…etc, which was fun. On a personal level, moving to HK seemed to be a great choice. It's a very well organized city, has freedom of speech, great hiking, traditional characters, Cantonese, a lively media, and more job opportunities for expats.

Stage 8: July 2008- Now: Re-engagement with issues

Goals: Consolidate skills, search for new path

Activities: Similar to before. Have been fairly good about goal of reading one Chinese book per month, while also reading magazines like Zhengming and Guang Jiaojing every month.

Main things I did right: Got a great job with a Chinese NGO. As a side effect, I get to use Chinese (in meetings, or in researching) probably somewhere between 2-5 hours per day. After doing degree (in English), more time per day freed up to study Chinese.

Drawbacks: I’ve realized that I didn’t have any hardcore, strategic goals, as far as studying, even though I do quite a bit. That brings me to my next stage, that I’m mapping out, and hope will become another turning point that brings me to the next level.

Final Stage: Now and Onward: Getting to the Kissinger Level

I was thinking of naming this the “Da Shan” level, and while I highly respect him for his achievements, his media work, and for his adroit understanding of what the general public needed at the beginning of “Reform and Opening”, psychologically, after years of a mixture of state-sponsored xenophobia and insecure self-abasing, I also think that the “Da Shan” model is, for me, not entirely appropriate, since I doubt if near perfect pronunciation and tone will ever be my thing. Nope, I think it’s more likely that I’ll always speak with a noticeable accent, but with the possibility of speaking and writing as well as native speakers. From the point of view of, in English, there are lots of examples of this type: Henry Kissinger, Arlianna Huffington, Arnold Schwarzenegger…among others.

To accomplish this goal, I’m determined to do the following two main goals:

1) Set the goal of getting an 11 on the HSK.

I’ve generally considered this unrealistic, since the curve probably only allows people in the top 1% or so to in the listening, reading, and zonghe to qualify, and by writing by hand is terrible. But, essentially, I want to be the LeBron James of Chinese, and even only 1% make it, I want to be there. This might seem ridiculous, seeing how I recently took the HSK and felt like there was probably a 20-30% chance I failed the Gao, a 60% I re-got a 9, and a 20% I got a 10. (I’ll certainly look like an ass if I say that I’m aiming for an 11, and miss even a 9 this time!) But, I think setting this goal will help me in two key areas: first, improving my formal knowledge of grammar, rather than my Krashen-like knowledge now. Second, it will force me to get great at writing characters by hand. A great score on the zonghe and the writing are dependent on this. This goal might take 10 years, or forever, but realistically, I think I can do it in 1-5 years.

2) Set up website dedicated to writing about all of my main interests: international relations, social justice, veganism, food, health, politics, Buddhism, societies…etc. In addition to that, I envision it as somewhat of a Danwei in reverse (English to Chinese), with me translating articles that are interesting (but might go unnoticed by traditional media). The site will be only in Chinese, and I’ll write all the posts by hand (with electronic pen input device). If it succeeds, who knows where it could go. If it fails (ie. it’s read only by me, and maybe occasionally gato, probably not even my wife), then it will still serve as an important way to improve my writing and clarify my thoughts on certain issues. Also, while I think that there are now an amazing amount of insightful blogs and great sites dedicated to Chinese news and events, the commentary on the sites, however good, is really somewhat pointless, since it’s only the same group of a few hundred or thousand people reading things, and vigorously and boldly discussing events among themselves. I think for any of these ideas to have even a fly landing on an elephant’s back kind of impact, that conversation needs to be in Chinese.

Besides that, I think I’ll keep doing what I’m doing as far as studying.

Well, that in a nutshell is the history of my Chinese studying (and I’m sorry if this comes off as arrogant or too boastful). I did this in part to map out a road for myself, and partly as a way to recall a lot of the things that I did years ago (which are already starting to become hazy). Also, since I largely succeed in doing what I had planned to do, at least up until this point, I hope that others can gain some insights from what I did well, but just as importantly, I hope that people can avoid some of my mistakes. I think what I was able to do could be done by someone else in a faster, more effecient way, hopefully

Edited by wushijiao

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gato

Great writeup, wushijiao! But how come marrying your wife isn't listed as "one of the things I did right"? :lol:

In addition to the things you listed, I'd recommend that you study more classical Chinese, and idioms with flashcards if you haven't already, as I find a knowledge of classical Chinese is very important for reading more sophisticated material and for writing like a college-educated person.

I am a bit of book shopaholic, and below are some books that you may find helpful, too.

http://product.dangdang.com/product.aspx?product_id=9235020

英汉法律翻译教程 (A great English-to-Chinese hand book; though it's written with law in mind, it's great for learning to express more complex ideas in Chinese)

Nice, short guides to writing for secondary school students, written in the 1930s. They are free of the usual platitude you find in contemporary Chinese writing books.

http://product.dangdang.com/product.aspx?product_id=20034579

文章讲话——跟大师学语文

http://www.chinese-forums.com/newreply.php?do=newreply&noquote=1&p=187877

怎样写作——跟大师学语文

http://product.dangdang.com/product.aspx?product_id=20034500

语文随笔——跟大师学语文

http://product.dangdang.com/product.aspx?product_id=9304529

文章修养

Classical Chinese:

http://product.dangdang.com/product.aspx?product_id=8753730

古代汉语知识教程

http://product.dangdang.com/product.aspx?product_id=20371303

古汉语语法精讲

Some grammar books:

http://product.dangdang.com/product.aspx?product_id=9222955

语法学习——经典新读文学课堂

http://product.dangdang.com/product.aspx?product_id=8912926

汉语基础

Edited by gato

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roddy

Interesting stuff, especially as you started out pretty much in the same way I did - studying while teaching. However, although I did pretty well in my first year in comparison to a lot of people I never had a grand plan of fluency or anything, so generally pointed myself at the bits of Chinese I needed, or found easy or interesting. No bad way to study, but I have no doubt I'd be better off now, or would at least have arrived at the same place sooner, if I'd had some kind of master plan for world domination, in Chinese.

Similarly pirate DVDs and more recently downloads have taken up no small chunk of my potential study time. I'm unsure about this. Would I willing to forget The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire in exchange for the ability to read Chinese a bit faster, or to stumble over my words less often. I'm not sure.

Looks like I quit teaching English earlier than you - I did three years, then got a proofreading job with a translation firm. That was brilliant for my Chinese reading, but didn't do so much for any other skills as you might hope - with everyone doing piece work it was pretty much heads down and tapping away, with virtually no meetings and so on. Plus I came and left at odd hours compared to everyone else. Wasn't just the job though, I could have made more effort.

Good luck on reaching the Kissinger level (though if Henry is your role model, it's no surprise people think you're a CIA mole). I think HSK11 is an achievable, if not easy, goal, and even if you don't get there, you'll get somewhere on the way.

Re starting your own blog: I've always thought that having Gato among your readership is a decent definition of success for any website.

I wasn’t exactly sure where to put this post.

General Study Advice / Discussion is best, I think - it's pretty broad.

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wushijiao
Similarly pirate DVDs and more recently downloads have taken up no small chunk of my potential study time. I'm unsure about this. Would I willing to forget The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire in exchange for the ability to read Chinese a bit faster, or to stumble over my words less often. I'm not sure.

That's a good point. I tried to limit myself only to the really good stuff. I think it's the easy, fun, addictive TV (lke 24, for example) that I really tried to limit. All my friends back then would pass around the latest TV series, and I tried to say "No!" to the brain crack.

Looks like I quit teaching English earlier than you - I did three years, then got a proofreading job with a translation firm. That was brilliant for my Chinese reading, but didn't do so much for any other skills as you might hope - with everyone doing piece work it was pretty much heads down and tapping away, with virtually no meetings and so on. Plus I came and left at odd hours compared to everyone else. Wasn't just the job though, I could have made more effort.

Interesting. I think it's a challenge to find a way to make your work environment more Chinese friendly, especially when at an intermediate stage. If I could do it over again, I think I might have looked more for volunteering opportunities for a good cause that involved Chinese (like helping the elderly, or working at a pet shelter...or something like that).

Gato- thanks for the links. Actually, I had planned to get busy and re-start a lot of Classcal this summer, mainly by finishing Classical Chinese Primer/ 古文入門. But those other books look great- I'll be sure to get them.

But how come marrying your wife isn't listed as "one of the things I did right"?

Ha! Good point. It's funny though...for all of my planned efforts at learning Chinese, she seems to effortlessly absorb English, and her Cantonese is also getting really good as well.

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weilian

Great post man,

Its useful especially for someone who is following a similar path. I started out in Beijing and plan to remain here for a while, but the time I spend with my Chinese friends grows each week. I'm waiting on notice for the CSC and if this doesn't come through I'll probably be dropping the teaching job for something different.

Thanks for the notes and I really think that you hit in on the head when you note that goal setting is quite important.

Will

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wushijiao
Its useful especially for someone who is following a similar path. I started out in Beijing and plan to remain here for a while, but the time I spend with my Chinese friends grows each week. I'm waiting on notice for the CSC and if this doesn't come through I'll probably be dropping the teaching job for something different.

Good to hear it might be of use. :D Good luck with the CSC!

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