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艾墨本

[meta] A conversation on the helpfulness of learning blogs

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艾墨本

As it stands, there are quite a few blogs that cover learning Chinese and aim to promote best practices. I'm all for this, especially since just studying Chinese isn't enough, IMO, as it is too difficult. Learners need methods that have been shown to be effective to avoid wasting time.

 

Blogs often aim to fill this gap. The most well known of these is easily Hacking Chinese. It dispenses knowledge on what to do and what not to do while learning Chinese. I have followed much of the advice and it has benefited me, greatly. Most of it is written along the lines of "this is better than that and here is why." But, is the why given of any value? Saying something worked for you and saying it worked because of this reason (really, an opinion) risks misleading.

 

At what point should we draw the line between "this is my experience" and "this is best practice?"

 

As an example, take a look at this article from Hacking Chinese on determining the difficult of your study material. It's well written, and while I agree with it, it seems to be presenting opinion as science. There is no cited research that goes along with this article, which seemed particularly weird since there is plenty of research that backs it up. Is this more of a case of knowing your reader? There is no need to mention Krashen's theory of Comprehensible Input when the reader just wants you to say "do this" so they can go and start studying. Or rather, is this part of a problem that many learners make claims of having the right way to learn without having done research to back such a claim. A great example is the poster who made claims that if you paid him for access to his method you could learn to speak Chinese fluently in six months.

 

This train of thought seemed particularly important to me as many of those on these forums provide a guiding hand to new learners. Responsibly providing advice is something I aim to do but find difficult.

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Flickserve

Firstly you have evidence. Well conducted studies, defined sample population characteristics, power analysis, with sample size calculation, rigorous methodology. Remember these apply to a sample population and extrapolated to an individual. 

 

Secondly, individuals have different characteristics. Evidence yes, but applies to an individual. Books are good? Yes, they help. Applied to an individual- vastly helps some, others might find little value.

 

Complicating matters are temporal relationships. One method might be good initially, then limited effectiveness later. One teacher might be quite bad for beginners, but for a higher level student, quite good.

 

If I were to look at a language learning blog now, I would think technique can be graded in terms of stratified effectiveness.

 

something like:

level 1 - techniques backed up by scientific evidence. Maybe a subdivision of time requirement would be good. 

 

Level 2 - some evidence. Probably useful

 

level 3 - might help can help but limited effectiveness. E.g. Background radio. 

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realmayo

Science won't solve most of the questions about learning Chinese.

 

Personally I find the regular calls for 'scientific' evidence quite baffling, and I think it's a recentish phenomenon of the last 5+ years. Science as practised and glorified in the west is a complex, expensive, time-consuming business (not to mention very often wrong). It's really unlikely that there will be a pre-existing body of work that will help solve the various questions about how best to learn Chinese. I would give 10 times more weight to advice from people who have spent years teaching Chinese, even if they can't back up everything or anything with a scientific study.

 

I don't understand why people are so desperate to get a scientific study for everything. Maybe it's a Google thing: we're now so used to being able to check a fact with 99.99% certainty that we only want to trade in facts, everyone is too scared to venture an opinion based on experience. So ultimately you end up with, say, reluctant farmers told by scientific experts to grow a crop which fails and everyone starves.

 

Modern western science is great when you can collect evidence. But so often it fails massively when you can't collect enough evidence and therefore rely on extrapolating. Unless you can do several experiments involving dozens of people studying Chinese, at different stages (beginner, intermediate etc), with different time commitments, and follow them for a year or two, making sure that half of them are told to follow advice that you believe sub-optimal (so they are your 'control') ... unless you can do this, and of course you can't, then science won't solve most of the questions about Chinese. It could, perhaps, given lots of years, masses of money and thousands of guinea pigs. But it won't.

 

Instead you have to rely on extrapolation, which is likely to be flawed. And I'm just as happy that someone extrapolates from their own experience instead of from some research paper they've dug up on the internet.

 

But having said all that, I think it's a joke that some websites give the impression that they've got all the answers. If these guys, no doubt well meaning and thoughtful, make money from their sites, then I'm even less impressed. Maybe blame Google again. Years ago people wrote blogs and stuff for free because they wanted to share. Now, it seems to me, there's an expectation of monetising it. Fine for a forum -- I couldn't care less if Roddy's earning megabucks from this site, sending himself on exotic holidays to, hmm, hills in Scotland, because he's built a place for people to discuss stuff. And fine if someone decides to collate advice they think is worthwhile. But I'll only be comfortable reading it if it's on the basis of 'this is what I think', 'this is what worked for me', 'this is what lots of people told me they thought was useful advice'.

 

That hackingchinese article says nothing at all, it's just some random musings, ultimately the whole idea of combining intensive and extensive work is already very well-established and could be presented in about one-quarter of what I've written in this rather self-indulgent post, which I should stop writing now.

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happy_hyaena

I agree with realmayo. I hate to be contributing to the undermining of Science as a whole, but I'm in general a little skeptical when it comes to random people quoting papers related to pedagogy or psychology in blog posts on the web. There's a lot of that in the fitness industry, where people quote this or that study from some place that proves their broscience and contradicts the research that those other fitness experts are advocating.

 

Another thing is that the foreign language education that I, and many others, received as a kid and teenager, really makes me wonder if some of these expert educators would actually be able to successfully independently self-study a foreign language from scratch. (Of course, that doesn't make it okay to blindly believe in some hack who makes extraordinary claims either.)

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Shelley

I think learning chinese blogs are helpful when written in the "This is what I did, maybe it will help you" way and also as a list of resources. I use this textbook or online course or maybe an app. My blog is supposed to present to the reader what  I did and what I used, with a view to the reader taking what is useful to them from it.

 

As the blogs on this forum allow comments I also expected and hoped for responses, either encouragement or criticism with a view to improving my learning experience as well as others.

 

I don't think a "blog" should be consider in anyway a scientific paper or even citing other papers. Blog stand for web log, nothing is implied that it is of any standing, has any science in it, it is just someone out there in the world that has decided to write a blog.

 

I always read blogs with the view that this is only someone's opinion, if I want to check the validity i will make my own investigations.

 

Blogs that accompany something for sale will have a bias towards their product and try to show "why" you should buy it. This sort of blog should be considered as an advertisement or testimonial or similar and not something done simply to share their ideas with the rest of the world and should be read with this in mind.

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DavyJonesLocker

I really like this thread, 

 

8 hours ago, 艾墨本 said:

At what point should we draw the line between "this is my experience" and "this is best practice?"

 

and this is a key point. we have seen different views on this forum too but we should fall short of quoting  "best practice". I come from a fair  amount of failed starts at learning chinese mainly due to following  set practices and set teaching. i read a lot of Hacking Chinese in the early days and while I broadly agree  with his articles I think he is too definitive in his conclusions. Everyone needs to find their own route and adjust along the way. 

 

There is often another element left out in the discussion of learning chinese, that is the enjoyment factor. i study chinese primarily as hobby and secondarily as it enriches my life in China. I never quite understand the need for people to become fluent in X number of months. There is no medal for first place, nor is it a competition. 

 

6 hours ago, realmayo said:

Modern western science is great when you can collect evidence. But so often it fails massively when you can't collect enough evidence and therefore rely on extrapolating. Unless you can do several experiments involving dozens of people studying Chinese, at different stages (beginner, intermediate etc), with different time commitments, and follow them for a year or two, making sure that half of them are told to follow advice that you believe sub-optimal (so they are your 'control') ..

 

@realmayo and @Flickserve rightly noted that the statistical sample size are far too small and there are too many variables to come up with a definitive conclusion. 

 

Many of the suggestions and paths that have worked for other learners simply didn't work for me and believe me I tried and failed many times ;) 

 

Blogs are useful in that it's interesting to read others path through language learning but as @Shelley noted it's simply a blog

 

 

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dtcamero

well the majority of people studying chinese fail / burn out, so I def don't want to be doing whatever most people say works on scientific surveys. 

 

if scientific studies show that x method or material is most useful to the majority of students then I can pretty much guarantee that it's super boring because it has to be something everyone can tolerate, and it's probably not too effective because it's not tailored to your strengths at all, but rather aiming at a best common denominator. 

(hence the general ineffectiveness of most language schools)

 

the only people i know that succeed in language acquisition have self-studied for the majority of their learning, and have all used quite different means and materials, which were highly personalized. we all have to figure that out for ourselves based on our interests and study rhythms.

the nice thing is that after you've finally figured it out, studying the next language is noticably easier.

 

 

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pross

I suggest zhihu. It is a better source of learning experience knowledge, and there is next to no english.

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happy_hyaena
1 hour ago, pross said:

I suggest zhihu. It is a better source of learning experience knowledge, and there is next to no english.

Could you link to some articles/pages on Zhihu?  I want to learn how people usually format their content so I can search for similar stuff in the future.

 

I'm also curious because while I've in the past found pages on Zhihu and Baidu Zhidao explaining differences between two words when searching, I didn't know there were proper Chinese learning blogs in Chinese to be found. 

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艾墨本

Interesting opinions. I find it strange that the underlying argument for several of your posts seems that research isn't as helpful as experience in determining the best ways to study since studying is such a personal experience.

 

I'm of the opinion that the research is crucially helpful in determining what's a good study method. Research leads to algorithms like SRS as well as determining what is effective extensive reading and intensive reading. Imron's 98% for extensive reading is a number backed up my research. To say western science making a generalization like that is inaccurate because it fails to account for the individual seems unfair.

 

On 1/7/2018 at 11:24 PM, DavyJonesLocker said:

i read a lot of Hacking Chinese in the early days and while I broadly agree  with his articles I think he is too definitive in his conclusions. Everyone needs to find their own route and adjust along the way

 

I completely agree with this. I look at most of the research as determining how to best make use of/optimize the study tool and what situation it best suits. Continuing the extensive reading example, discussing why extensive reading is useful and when it is useful can help determine if you are in the right place to make use of it as a tool. But the jump in saying "you should use this tool" requires a knowledge of who will be using it. This is something that blogs are not capable of doing since they aren't directly talking to their readers. I think that Hacking Chinese sometimes does this.

 

All this said, I'm of the opinion that as students, we can do better to study how to study. This would mean having a better idea of what goes into studying: the actual language tools, the emotional side of motivation, how to determine appropriate goals, etc. And there are bodies of research that delve into each of these categories. It seems irresponsible to cast these aside as @realmayo seems to suggest.

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roddy
On 07/01/2018 at 8:59 AM, realmayo said:

I couldn't care less if Roddy's earning megabucks from this site, sending himself on exotic holidays to, hmm, hills in Scotland

Hush man, or you'll ruin my get-rich-incredibly-slowly scheme.

 

I only have two observations:

1) As long as you don't go mad and pick a 1920s grammar-translation text, any reasonable method of learning Chinese will work. Choose something that looks decent, put a decent number of honest hours in, balance your skills, you'll get there. The guy to the left might get there 10% quicker, the guy to the right might waste months picking and choosing from different approaches. You'll all end up in roughly same place, as long as you keep going. Read all the blogs you want, but most of the time the benefit there is a sense of community and 'a study-like break from studying'. 

2) Actually that's it for now.

 

And paging @Olle Linge, as he's got enough mentions in here it's only polite.

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Shelley
49 minutes ago, 艾墨本 said:

we can do better to study how to study

We can do better to simply study, sometimes too much time can be spent choosing methods, materials, and memes and not get on with studying

 

I don't think there is anything wrong with scientific research in to learning but this is the the sort of thing for teachers and academics, not the students.

 

As I said before there should be no expectation of any kind of quality from blogs, you may have a brilliant blog written by X but Y's blog is just drivel and Z's is just plain wrong. You will waste a lot of time weeding out the rubbish. So blogs that are recommended, have a large following or written by someone you have confidence in will cut down on wasted time.

 

So my message is get on with studying, and as @roddy said

54 minutes ago, roddy said:

'a study-like break from studying'.

so a little light reading that is not studying but has something to do with chinese, but nothing more.

 

Do not place too much trust in blogs even as a blog writer I say this because I am only human and can make mistakes, and I actually care if I do so try hard not to, but others may not try so hard.

 

 

 

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imron

That would make a good blog post :mrgreen:

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Lu
7 minutes ago, Olle Linge said:

many (most?) students don't want that. They want advice of the kind "do x" or "use method y". They want to choose less and rely more on someone who has done what they are trying to do. (...) The whole answer here can be summarised as "it depends", which is the only answer that it both true and short. Indeed, that's probably the answer to almost all questions about learning Chinese unless they are very specific. Note, though, that the second comment to this article repeats the question: What Chinese language school would you recommend in Taiwan or China?

I suddenly see room for yet another 'how to study Chinese' website. It presents you with a short questionnaire with broadly irrelevant questions (are you a cat person or a dog person?) and then gives you the definitive answer: you should use method X/go to school Y.

 

I generally agree with Roddy. How to-blogs (and these forums) have limited use, as long as you don't fall into the trap of learing how-to blogs instead of actually doing the thing.

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Olle Linge
22 minutes ago, imron said:

That would make a good blog post :mrgreen:

 

Yeah, I realised that, too! :) I'll probably will rework it into an article. It's an important discussion and I'm curious what people think. I am, after all, open to change. However, there are also limitations. I simply can't spend much more time on the site than I'm currently doing, so increasing something inevitably means decreasing something else.

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dtcamero

 

5 hours ago, 艾墨本 said:

Interesting opinions. I find it strange that the underlying argument for several of your posts seems that research isn't as helpful as experience in determining the best ways to study since studying is such a personal experience.

 

research on language acquisition has indeed come up with fantastic advances in learning methods, and I doubt anyone here on either side of the issue is studying like people were 50 years ago... the use of SRS, electronic dictionaries and other software to improve workflow efficiency is a marvel and we're probably just quibbling over the last 10% of the matter really. 

 

that being said, anyone with teaching experience will agree that people learn differently, sometimes very differently. I personally have a much greater understanding of visual stimulus than aural stimulus. This may be one reason that I'm more attracted to languages involving ideograms (japanese and chinese), and am stronger with reading than listening. 

Many of the people I know who have successfully acquired foreign languages are very strong aurally, and might struggle with a novel but have no problem carrying on conversations for hours. 

 

I don't think there are any tinfoil-hat luddites suggesting we all go back to the old days and ignore the advances academic studies have produced... simply that some are worthwhile for you and some are not. these are studies aimed at large populations, and you are not a large population. you have specific interests and learning strengths, and what is most useful for you may be one of those solutions found in academic test groups... or maybe not at all. maybe you work best with software... or walking around in country figuring out how to chat people up... or watching tons of tv... or all of the above perhaps... who knows.

 

until you've tried all those things you wont know either... but when you do find out what it is, you'll probably be happy and just keep doing it until you're comfortable with your language ability, and then disappear from the forum... so we'll never hear about the success story lol. this is the problem with language forums :wall

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艾墨本
On 1/9/2018 at 9:53 PM, Olle Linge said:

Broadening the debate a little, what should people like I do? Would it be better to publish fewer but more carefully researched articles with more references? This would be more like a literary overview, which it seems one can get by reading research papers instead. It probably would appeal to significantly fewer students, but would probably be more rewarding for those who like it. Should I point out more clearly what my sources are when referring to research? This is something I do when it's specific, but not always when it's not specific. It's definitely a good point and something I will try to improve. Perhaps listing references at the end might be enough? Or is it more about labelling, as I wrote above, about stating more clearly what the advice is based on? Would it be better if each article included a caveat that said that these thoughts and ideas are mainly based on my experience and opinions, even though that's true for most of the 400 articles? For me, that's already included in the general concept of a blog, but I might be wrong. Any other suggestions are more than welcome!

 

I think this is a good analysis of different ways of approaching writing a learning blog. I like your idea of just listing references at the end but you could present it as "further reading" section. This might spare you the extra work of citing too carefully while also recognizing that your opinion doesn't exist in a vacuum.

 

On 1/9/2018 at 9:53 PM, Olle Linge said:

But if we require evidence as a prerequisite for voicing an opinion about how to learn Chinese, we risk setting the bar so high that few people will be able to say anything at all.

 

An important point. I agree.

 

@Olle Linge: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It was insightful to see your own opinion on the matter. Made me rethink some of my own opinions. It is apparent you know your audience. When I was more intermediate level, i was most certainly looking for "do this" posts.

 

As a side suggestion of posts, have you considered creating self-study syllabi for differing situations, levels, and goals? This might drill in how different tools and methods suit different situations, levels, and goals.

 

My opinion is starting to swing toward the burden being on the reader to recognize what it is they are reading (opinion vs academic) while also encouraging writers to cite their sources as credit should be given where credit is due. Plagiarism is plagiarism.

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RaMa09

 

"Science as practised and glorified in the west is a complex, expensive, time-consuming business (not to mention very often wrong).

"Modern western science is great when you can collect evidence. But so often it fails massively when you can't collect enough evidence and therefore rely on extrapolating."

 

The way things get accepted in Science is when multiple studies, that are peer reviewed, viciously scrutinized and collected together via meta-analyses and the like to give the best possible explanation that we can get on a phenomenon. Science can change if provided with significant counter evidence and that is a good thing, however for you to say it is very often wrong is not accurate. It seems as though what you really mean is that individual studies are very often wrong, which could very well be the case. The way most meta analyses and the scientific consensus are formed is by collecting the highest quality and most heavily scrutinized research pieces. They do not simply create consensus based on a single research paper.

 

Sometimes extrapolations are one of the only ways we can deal with a particular problem. A lot of climate research is based on this. I get the impression from your tone/way of speaking that this is precisely what you are referring to when you infer that we should take extrapolations with a grain of salt.

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