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renzhe

Has your perspective changed since starting to learn Chinese?

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icebear

I agree on all points

I don't have anything groundbreaking to add, but still wanted to say I think its a great post. Point 1 especially so; it still stings to think how counterproductive my irrational reverence to/intimidation from characters was in the early days/years, and how slightly frustrating it is to hear new learners similarly insist they will "deal with characters later on".

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drungood

Thanks, this is a good post. For some reason I just wrote a long response, but I hope everyone will take it with a grain of salt because unlike renzhe I have very limited experience with the Chinese language.

1) I definitely agree. For someone who knows little about the Chinese language, the characters are the most intimidating part and seem "ridiculous" - after all there are 150 times as many Chinese characters regularly used than English letters regularly used. However, learning the characters using an intelligent method is simple and straightforward. It's actually one of the easiest aspects of the language. I've learned 1500 characters in 8 months, and I haven't been close to as diligent as I could be (in those 8 months there was unfortunately a 2-month span where I did no Chinese at all and lost a ton of what I had already learned). I think using Heisig's Remembering the Hanzi book is very helpful, and I'm excited that the second book will be released in March. The key to learning these is consistency. 8 hanzi a day ~ 3000 in a year. I tried to learn too many at once which made it painful, leading to that 2-month dry spell.

2) I haven't been pronouncing anything at all - as a result I will probably look like a complete beginner when I move to China next week rather than someone who has been studying for 8 months. When I get there I plan to hire a tutor to practice using this method:

http://olle-kjellin....LP98_Pedag.html

which has received a lot of positive feedback from members of how-to-learn-any-language.com. But of course, Chinese is much harder to pronounce than European languages, so even if this method works well for those languages it will probably take a lot longer for Chinese.

3) In additions to everything you have said, there is also profound regional differences in accents and an almost complete lack of loanwords.

4) I think it's not good to be imbalanced between passive or active methods of learning. Mostly active learning is what a lot of language learners do, which I think is a problem because they become overly-inventive as they try to translate what they want to say from one language to another.

On the other hand, entirely passive learning is inefficient, because say you're reading a book and there's some word you don't know, so you look it up...if you don't put that in an SRS or anything, it could be a couple months before you see that word again, by which point you've forgotten that you ever came across it.

I think the SRS is the best way to transfer from passive to active knowledge, by taking what you've come across passively and require you to produce it. But it's best to not get too ambitious, spending hours and hours with the SRS per day. Adding an average of 10 sentences per day is very doable (for me) and comes out to 3650 sentences per year. And as I get better at Chinese, the number of unknown words per sentence may decrease to where I can do 20+ a day without it being a bother.

5) There are no shortcuts, but there are more efficient ways of learning...for example with the characters. Some Chinese classes present no logical order of learning these - teaching by frequency rather than primitives. It's so much easier learning systematically with primitives that I would be tempted to call this a "shortcut"

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jbradfor

1) Not only are characters not as hard as people make them out to be, but they are a big part of what keeps me going. They are beautiful, fascinating, often surprising, and occasionally infuriating, and constantly challenging. [Humm, sounds like my wife....]

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Shelley

A very interesting post. I agree 100% with your first point. Characters are not really that hard, in fact they help me with meaning and above all tone. It is much easier to recognise the difference betwen different characters than the pinyin and tones. the many variations of yi for example, there are some with the same tone but different meanings, the character for each one is completely diferent and therefore it is clearer which one is meant. There are of course exceptions to this, but not too many and context always helps.

I am a great believer in learning characters and pinyin together for this reason.

i have always looked at pinyin as stepping stone to aid and guide pronouciation.

And of course characters are beautiful, artisic, and I like the long history they have enjoyed.

Points 2 and 3 are my biggest challenge as I have no one to talk to and my listening skills are low because i don't put enough time and effort into really trying to find something interesting but simple enough to make it rewarding before i give up in disgust at my lack of ability to keep up.

Point 4 is interesting because as you say your situation can make a big difference as to what you can do. I am learning outside China and will probably never get to go to China so I do as much as I can here to be active, but I really enjoy my passive learning so i have to make myself take classes, speak to people and what ever else i can do to actually talk and listen in a real world situation. i am sure my ratio is not helpful to my learning.

Point 5 I agree with 100% it is not easy to struggle through some of the more boring repetitive exercises and keep plugging away with character practice, but it does pay off in the long run. I think this point is why there was such a response (dare i say it) to the fluent in 3 months thread. (I am now running for cover for mentioning it again :) )

I think one of the most helpfull things for me is enjoying what ever learning I am doing.

@drungood China next week - lucky you. Enjoy :)

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Ludens
Not only are characters not as hard as people make them out to be, but they are a big part of what keeps me going. They are beautiful, fascinating, often surprising, and occasionally infuriating, and constantly challenging.

Constantly challenging sounds kind of hard... In my experience, characters are not too hard to learn to read and write, but it does take a lot of consistent effort for a long time.

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imron

Characters are not so hard, but the problem is that there are so many of them that it gives the appearance of being hard. Take a long term approach and just learn a handful per day - but do it everyday. Before you know it 2-3 years will have passed and you'll be laughing.

Regarding pronunciation, actually there was something I noticed in the pronunciation sample thread and seeing as no-one else has offered you feedback on it yet, I'll go back shortly and give you some specific feedback there.

Edit: Done.

Edited by imron

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xiaoxiaocao

I think the learning of characters takes on a kind of ''snowball'' effect. The first 500-1000 are extremely hard but then things just click, you are familiar with the components, and the process of learning them becomes much easier. I think it's important to settle into a routine that suits you as quickly as possible. I myself used a lot of time trying out different ways of learning characters before getting into a routine that worked for me (perhaps I was also looking for that non-existent ''silver bullet'' that would magically allow me to read newspapers overnight).

For me listening is the hardest aspect of Chinese. I always encourage people to do as much listening as possible right from the start. It seems people sometimes think ''I just need to SPEAK Chinese'' well, to have conversations you need to be able to listen and comprehend what they are saying to you as well. Does anyone else find it so much easier to understand people when talking in person as opposed to radio/recordings etc? Is non-verbal communication/gesture etc really that important?

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renshanrenhai
This lack of stress makes figuring out where one word begins and the other one ends very difficult. Another issue is the lack of morphological clues (-ar is usually the ending of a verb in Spanish, -aste is the ending of a verb, etc). They make the grammar more complex, but they also help you when listening. Unless you have a decent vocabulary, a word could begin anywhere and end anywhere in a Chinese sentence, and it could be anything.

This is very intriguing . You can find the opposite symptoms of Chinese learning English, one the of most observable pronunciation problems is caused by being unable to "stress" word.

Some Chinese even argue Mandarin is so easy to grasp as any patterns of structure can make sense in mandarin while the syntax of European languages seems much more complex and annoying with so many grammar rules to restrict the utterance.

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character
Does anyone else find it so much easier to understand people when talking in person as opposed to radio/recordings etc? Is non-verbal communication/gesture etc really that important?

The non-verbal is very important. The other factor is that scripted speech (news broadcasts, movies, etc) often has been stripped down to the bare number of words needed for native speakers.

---

WRT finding characters to be the easy part of learning Chinese, I suspect learning characters was much more challenging before computerized study tools.

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imron
I suspect learning characters was much more challenging before computerized study tools.

A large chunk of my character learning (and at least up to the point of being productive in the language) was done without computerised study tools. The biggest difference I've found is that now I don't have to lug around a giant paper dictionary :D

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imron
and some Chinese books, like 《蛙》

OT: That's on my reading list for this year. Any good?

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character
A large chunk of my character learning (and at least up to the point of being productive in the language) was done without computerised study tools. The biggest difference I've found is that now I don't have to lug around a giant paper dictionary :D

I don't dispute it's that way for you, but for me the ease/speed of lookup (by pinyin or handwriting recognition or OCR) and being able to easily set up spaced-repetition flashcard decks are major improvements over how it would have to be done previously.

Now I'm looking at a reading workflow of scanning in some pages, reading them in Pleco, adding unknown words to flashcards on the fly, and reviewing those words before reading the next page.

All told it feels like an order of magnitude improvement over non-computer-based methods.

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renzhe

Having tried the classic physical flashcard way, I agree that computers make it easier in many ways. But at the same time, Chinese children learn most of their 3000+ characters in about three years. So I'd agree with imron. Not using cool tools like Anki and electronic dictionaries is indeed a nuissance in terms of daily studying, but not something that will significantly prolong the time needed to get through the needed characters.

Actually, I am not a fan of flashcards. Before Chinese, I had never used flashcards for learning anything, ever. I also don't expect to ever use them for learning anything ever again -- I just don't find them useful. But I had to use them for learning Chinese characters and vocabulary. In many ways, I had to give up on my preferred way of learning things which had served me so well for so many years, and switch to learning things the way my Chinese friends learn them -- repetition, daily study, patience and perseverance. Chinese is odd like that.

One thing I thought of in the meantime, and which would fit under point 5 is simplified/traditional script. It's the biggest non-issue ever, at least if your goal is to read both, but only write one of them -- which is what most native speakers do.

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skylee

renzhe, about active learning, have you tried writing? I don't recall seeing anything you wrote in Chinese. You don't need to write anything long. Something of a weibo length, or something like what's on your mind/status update. I think it will help you make use of your vocab and improve composition of sentences.

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renzhe

No, writing is one of those things I have neglected. Other than occasional short emails, I don't remember writing much. I agree with you that it is very important, though.

I might start to look into the Chinese corner more often.

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David Wong

Characters are not that hard? Hmm... from my perspective as a heritage learner, living in a place where I don't encounter Chinese characters very often, they're one of my bugbears.

I find it all too easy to "forget" characters. You almost have to be reading/writing or otherwise reviewing them constantly to retain them in memory.

What's even more bothersome is all the characters with multiple definitions and pronunciations, for example 差 or 重. As if 3500 characters aren't enough already, those with multiple personality will take the "true count" even higher.

Another aspect of Chinese I find maddening is the vocabulary. There seems to be a lot more words than necessary to describe the same thing, with almost no difference between them. E.g. 坑/洞,骗/蒙。I'm sure the same is true for English but I don' t know why it bothers me more when I encounter them in Chinese. Could it be that it was already such a struggle to learn the first way of saying something that one can't help but feel dejected when one finds out that there's (as is often the case) a different group of people who prefer to say it a different way? For me, it's almost a daily ritual of discovering that I don't know as much as I thought I did.

And to all that add another ocean of knowledge to be acquired: chengyu.

Oh, I mustn't forget the handwriting. Thank God for IME; my vocab would be truly tiny if I count only the words I am able to write by hand.

Okay, time to stop whining and start SRSing. :)

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renzhe

Without knowing whether you grew up around Mandarin or another Chinese dialect, I'd wager that heritage learners often find pronunciation and listening comprehension easier than people without the cultural background, while characters are equally difficult for everyone.

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jkhsu

Alright, here are my thoughts on learning Chinese...

Make your goals realistic and do them in phases

When I first started learning Chinese, my goal was to get as close to "native speaker" level as possible. While this is still an ideal long term goal to have, I have broken my goal into more realistic phases.

As someone who is learning Chinese outside of China, I find it unrealistic to expect my spoken Chinese to be as good as those who speak Chinese all day long. I'll worry about getting to that level if I ever move to China but before then, I'm not going to stress over it.

Therefore, I've decided to focus on reading as the first phase, listening as the second phase and writing as the third phase. Now, all these phases overlap. It's just that typically, I'll encounter new material in reading first, then I'll hear it on audio recordings / radio / TV etc (don't get me wrong, I do hear new words I don't know all the time but I normally don't immediately write them down and try to learn them at that time). Finally, I might be able to write what I've been reading and hearing for a while. BTW, when I say write, I don't mean the ability to write characters by hand. I'm talking about composing text in Chinese.

I do believe that one can master reading, listening and writing without being in a Chinese speaking environment. With technology (Skype, etc.), money (hire people to talk to you in Chinese) and luck (find a significant other who is willing to speak Chinese with you all the time or get a job that requires you to speak Chinese all day), you can theoretically create a Chinese speaking environment as well but for someone who has a full time job in an English only environment and other life responsibilities, that's "unrealistic" to me. Again, I mention this because it's important to "let some things go" so that you can focus on what you can do and be happy about reaching those goals.

Work on things that you will continue to do

I find this really important. Apart from the fact that some of the textbook readings are a bit dry, I know that I will continue reading Chinese books, newspapers (news sites), etc. (I'm not there yet though). I also enjoy watching Chinese TV shows / movies and listening to Chinese music. The fact that I do have time to do those things and don't find it a chore is a plus.

I don't believe in doing things that you don't enjoy just to reach a particular level; only to constantly worry about how to keep up your skills later. This is one of the reasons why I've decided not to write by hand. I don't want to get into a debate about this but it's consistent with my "letting some things go" concept.

Use multiple textbooks

If you are learning from textbooks, it's really important to use multiple textbooks from various publishers for each level. One textbook series never covers all the vocab or provides enough sample reading material. I noticed this when I was browsing the bookstore in China and realized that some of the phrasing in the texts were different from my US textbooks. I then just started laterally reading different textbooks for a certain level until I was comfortable reading all of them.

Flashcards are optional but the idea of spaced repetition is not

This is a touchy subject and I stepped on a few people's toes last year when I posted saying that I didn't use flashcards. I do have some paper flashcards that I made when I first started learning but I just hated using them.

When I started posting in the forums last year, I was introduced to SRS (thanks to jbradfor). However, after trying out Anki for about a week or so, I realized that I didn't like it either. But, the idea of spaced repetition stuck in my mind. One of the (crazy) things I do is re-read (the text portion) all of my textbooks. You might wonder, "doesn't that take a lot of time?" Well, a 15 chapter textbook (PCR in this case) that took me 3 months to finish takes me less than 2 hours to re-read once I've learned all the words in that book. By doing this periodically, I am sort of applying the space repetition principle to textbooks (I know it's not as scientific as using Anki where the words you get right are spaced out in longer intervals, etc.)

Don't get me wrong though, I do believe that SRS apps like Anki, etc. are great for learning a large number of vocab in the least amount of time and when used in combination with reading, it's probably an ideal way to learn. However, I just find it a chore (something that I would not continue forever) and so far, I've been able to avoid it (fingers crossed).

You can learn simplified and traditional characters together

I had asked this question in a post last year. Initially, I was planning to learn simplified first, then traditional later. However, I realized that most of the textbooks I had contained both character sets. Therefore, I tried just learning both and so far it's worked. However, what I've done is learn one first, then read the other text section. Sometimes, I'd alternate which ones I'd learn first. I always make sure I can read the text portions of both before moving on though.

Langdu (朗读) or reading out loud is important

I did this quite a bit when I first started learning but have recently done more "silent" reading. After reading some posts here, I was reminded of Langdu's importance, especially in the absense of Mandarin speaking opportunties. I'll make sure I do this more often now.

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