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do you transcribe what you hear as pinyin?


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Might be off topic, but when I'm listening to Mandarin, and I try to recall it later, I find that I seem to be "reading" the pinyin spelling in my mind, not "hearing" the sound in my head. Of course I know the pinyin for all the syllables by now, but I think that if I didn't know pinyin I would just do it as best as I could with English letters... I seem to do this with all languages, I don't know what I would do if I didn't know an alphabet.. is it like this with anyone else? Maybe it's a visual memory as opposed to an auditory memory?

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Before I came to China (2001), I labeled every object in my apartment with both pinyin and characters. So everytime I went to fridge, I'd say to myself 这是一个冰箱. or when I went out the door I'd read the my ghetto sign that said 门 (men2). In any case, after doing this with plenty of objects, and then later with verbs, I was able to skip the translation or pinyinization process in my head, and just think of the object or action directly in Chinese. Maybe this could help? :conf

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I think the issue is a matter of speed and purpose. If you are hearing slow clear speech, I think it is natural to match it with spelling in your head at the beginning of learning. If you are hearing speech at authentic speeds, you will simply not have time to process both the pinyin and the meaning at the same time. You will have to think in Chinese and stop spelling.

When you first learn to pronounce syllables, it is also a good idea to imitate absolutely slavishly to bring out nuances that are obscured by the spelling. At this point, reliance on mental spelling can be a big hinderance to hearing what exactly is going on. For instance, many people pronounce Chinese d's as English d's because they are fooled by the spelling.

After that, you have to interpret what you hear because different people have different accents and pronunciation habits. Imagine listening to someone saying the phrase "my horse cart was way down in the yard" while pronouncing "my" with an Alabama accent, "horse" with a Scottish accent, "way" like an Aussie, "down" like an East Indian, and "yard" like a Bostonian. The result would be ridiculous. Even where people share the same regional accent, there pronunciation will differ enough that you need to "level" what you hear. Spelling things in your head can help keep things straight up to a certain point, so that your speech can sound reasonably consistent and natural.

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i keep trying to spell things out... damn i seem to have a visual memory :( that's why I was leaning towards characters because I found it easier to reproduce the strokes in my mind... in terms of listening, when I think about it now, I can't remember the sound at all. I mean, when you remember something you heard in your studies, do you hear the "voice" or "sound" in your head? I don't :oops:

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I suspect many of us suffer from the visual memory "problem." In learning other languages, hearing someone speak a word triggered a picture of the word in my mind. To speak a word, I'd often see a picture of the word in my mind. I suppose I even do this from time to time in my native language, English, without thinking about it. My brain says the sound equals the picture. This presents a problem in Chinese because the image in my mind is the pinyin, not the character. I can't yet associate a character directly with a sound; I have to look at the character in order for my mind to retrieve the pinyin, and then the pinyin allows my mind to retrieve the sound. A slow process. More exposure, more practice, I suspect is the key.

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I am not sure you need to sweat the "spelling" problem.

I think it is important to work on good pronunciation habits and basic tone recognition skills from the very start. It is highly unlikely you will find the time, energy, and motivation to return to this later. I also think that underestimating the difficulty of acquiring good pronunciation is a common error, even with Chinese and its tones. Despite all this, I believe that when your studies later turn to listening activities that mirror real conversational situations, the spelling problem will vanish by itself quite swiftly. It is simply impossible to listen to unpredictable speech at natural speeds while spelling what you hear in your head. In the meantime, associating spellings with what you hear has some advantages.

Even if you are learning on your own, there are some pretty good listening materials for beginning and especially for intermediate learners. Stuff for advanced learners is easy to fine.

The only real issue is if you try to acquire your initial pronunciation habits only by working off of Pinyin or the other transcription systems. They all have hidden defects that will tarnish your Chinese forever, unless you have very good phonetic materials that explicate some of the difficulties. Even then, there are very few books that really discuss many of the basic issues that actually are necessary to reproduce natural speech, such as how to produce question intonation?, what is the role of syllable stress?, with what rhythm should characters be read?, what should you do with a seemingly endless series of 3rd tone syllables?, or what pitch should you actually use for neutral tones?.

Most introductory books I have seen actually have a little bit of incorrect material about these issues, since they strive for brief, digestible treatment of them and assume you will work them out unconsciously and naturally as you actually speak and listen to the language in functional situations or work with a live teacher or tutor. Since I actually like to explore dense linguistic issues, I have sought and found answers to many of these questions, but only by locating obscure sources most "normal" people would not want to touch. (Anyone want to peruse "Lexical Third Tone Sandhi" in Chinese Phonology in Generative Grammar, edited by De Bao XU?)

damn i seem to have a visual memory that's why I was leaning towards characters because I found it easier to reproduce the strokes in my mind

I hope I did not overstate my case in my posts on the other threads. I was talking about a default position. The best strategy is to go with what motivates you to learn, while simply being realistic about what limitations this may place on what you will be able to do later.

My own conversation skills are nearly non-existent, since I have not put in the work necessary to develop them and have almost no outlet to practice. The only real need I have to use Chinese is to read stuff about Taijiquan that is not available in translation or else is poorly translated. Since much of this is in the Classical language, I have even studied enough of this to get by with the help of dictionaries.

I have learned languages for fun throughout my life and find that there is a very definite time during language acquisition when you move from being able to manipulate isolated sentences to being able to use the language to a significant degree in unstructured settings. In conversation, this means being able to ask questions about the language in the language itself, going from "Please say that again" to "What do you mean by XYZ?" and being able to make small talk with strangers at a rhythm that does not drive them nuts. At that point things can take off.

I have twice reached this point with languages I have studied on my own and have suddenly had to make serious professional use of them with no advanced warning. I also had a somewhat life changing experience when I was asked to be translater for a day in a third language I had not studied formally for decades, but which I had kept up at reasonable fluency. What these experiences have taught me is that reaching and maintaining this "breakout" point can have such big payoffs that it needs to be the default goal.

I am not quite at breakout level in my oral or aural Chinese, since I can't find the time or begrudge the money to make the push I really need. I am, however, making sure to stay close enough that I know I can get there when I decide to make the plunge. In the meantime, I maintain interest through reading, some minimal listening activities, and participating on this forum! If reading or even calligraphy is your thing, by all means go with it and let it pull the rest of what you need along.

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