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dakonglong
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Nice start! I pretty much went through the same phases as you did.

 

The only only things  I would add, although it might be tricky during these pandemic times, is to volunteer someplace that services Chinese-speaking immigrants. I have a background in the health industry where you're bound to run into Cantonese and Mandarin speaking folks (more on the Canto side though), so I'm able to frequently (and more recently, exclusively) practice listening and speaking to people in a very immersive way.

Besides healthcare, immigrants may have need for legal, housing, employment, educational, and other areas of help, so whatever you know or are familiar with, or have an interest in, where you can actually help people, would be mutually beneficial for you and the native Chinese speaker. I respect folks who learn languages simply for the love of the language--two of my friends are so inclined; I just know that using a language in a utilitarian way really helps to get a firm, albeit working, grasp of the language. When the people you interact with can see the sincerity in your intent to help them, they will be open to helping you understand their mother tongue.

 

You don't have to start out communicating 100% in your target language, because no doubt, whatever language you speak--I'm assuming you're a native English speaker based on your post here and on your website--immigrants know at least some basics, so you'll have a better chance of understanding one another and besides they may see the opportunity to learn their new country's language when communicating with you.

 

It would also be good for you to add either audio to your website, either with audio clips or by supplementing your website with podcasting or videos because that's another avenue to hone in your language capabilities--you'll research ways (whether it's by researching or reaching out to natives) to string words together and practice, practice, practice saying the words/sentences until you're able to upload something you don't find too cringe worthy. Plus this aspect of your language learning journey could be fodder for your website content.

 

Like I said earlier, you have a nice start, really nice, so keep up the great work!

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@PerpetualChange, the funniest example I've ever heard was a story of an American guy who wanted to know how to literally say "blow me" in Japanese so he could use it to tell some dude in his neighborhood to f* off. He wouldn't accept an equivalent culturally appropriate phrase but he wanted those exact words translated to Japanese. I'm sure it left the dude wondering what's going on...

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On 1/3/2022 at 12:45 PM, dakonglong said:

Ultimately, I convinced myself that I did not need to understand every word of the content to catch the basic meaning, and that I needed to actively ignore what I couldn’t immediately understand to focus on what I could.


I did this out of necessity for Cantonese. However, I think it’s a technique for communication rather than for learning Chinese per se
 

 

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On 1/5/2022 at 4:27 AM, Jan Finster said:

So, if I am not sure e.g. about the tone of a certain character I read, I rather look it up than to (erroneously) keep "thinking" it is 4th tone.

 

I agree. In order to account for this, I typically split my time between: (1) looking up unknown words and re-listening to unfamiliar input, and (2) just reading and listening without interruption. The first method allows me to acquire new vocabulary, reinforce correct tones, etc... and the second method helps me generally improve my reading and listening, as well as process unknown input. I just wanted to reinforce the importance of practicing with unfamiliar input because it's something I neglected for a long time, and it created comprehension issues for me.

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On 1/4/2022 at 12:43 AM, PerpetualChange said:

Many people want thing they want to say in English precisely translated into Chinese. I was just in a language group recently and one of the guys (there's always one) kept interrupting our native and high level speakers to ask questions like "how do you say that a girl is 'emotionally unavailable' in Chinese?" I kept thinking to myself, “come on bro, just say 「她不喜歡我」 and move on.”

I think sometimes I’m guilty of this as well but not to that degree. Still thinking in English is the problem for me, it creates frustration unnecessarily, makes me feel like I can’t express myself even though in reality I have all the tools to say it in Chinese in a more authentic way but because I keep thinking in English I keep running into vocabulary problems. 

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On 1/5/2022 at 8:39 PM, amytheorangutan said:

I think sometimes I’m guilty of this as well but not to that degree. Still thinking in English is the problem for me, it creates frustration unnecessarily, makes me feel like I can’t express myself even though in reality I have all the tools to say it in Chinese in a more authentic way but because I keep thinking in English I keep running into vocabulary problems. 

 

I asked a tutor yesterday if she noticed any improvement in my Chinese over the last six months. She told me that six months ago said something in English and then translated it into Chinese. And ended up with weird grammar or word choices. But now I speak more naturally and interject English words here and there when I don't know some word.

 

I think that has been a major breakthrough in my own speaking. One that I hadn't even noticed myself!

Thinking in one language while speaking another seems to be a problem best fixed with more practice.

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On 1/6/2022 at 1:01 AM, dakonglong said:

I just wanted to reinforce the importance of practicing with unfamiliar input because it's something I neglected for a long time, and it created comprehension issues for me.

 

Could you clarify a bit better what is unfamiliar input? Does this include words you already know but used in a different way and therefore affecting comprehension?

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On 1/5/2022 at 2:41 PM, Flickserve said:

Could you clarify a bit better what is unfamiliar input? Does this include words you already know but used in a different way and therefore affecting comprehension?

 

I think that the most common example is what people typically encounter in the HSK5/6 where up to 15% of the words used in the test are not from the official vocabulary lists (and therefore typically unknown to the test taker). This volume of unknown words used to be enough to completely throw me off, even if I understood the other 85%. It took practice for me to be able to infer/ignore the unknown words to catch the general gist of the content, and not strive for perfect comprehension.

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On 1/6/2022 at 5:51 PM, dakonglong said:

The short answer is 3,285 hours.

 

That sounds right to me! It more or less matches my own experience. I'm aiming for 99.8% reading comprehension (for the books that are near the middle of the bell curve of difficulty), and that's turning out to be an additional 3000 hours or so. Then by the time my speaking and writing are up to a functional (but still awkward) level, I'll probably be at a total of 10,000-12,000 hours.

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The figure sounds good to me too. I haven't counted hours before, but I'm estimating I probably spent about 1000 hours on Chinese last year. The year before that probably half that and the year before that up to the same amount of time, so I'm currently probably at around 2000 hours spent learning Chinese and I'm feeling like it has finally taken off the ground.

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Hi all! Newest article here:

 

https://selfstudymandarin.com/how-important-is-vocabulary-when-learning-chinese/

 

How important is vocabulary when learning Chinese?

 

One of the most common ways to estimate Chinese proficiency is the size of your vocabulary.

 

The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) exam, the standard certification exam for Chinese, differentiates between its six levels of proficiency primarily based on (1) your vocabulary and (2) the number of Chinese characters you know—see the HSK level criteria below. Each level also provides a description of your expected fluency.

 

The implication is that your vocabulary count directly correlates with your Chinese abilities. Is that true?

 

In my experience, yes, it is. I will explain why below.

 

HSK level criteria*

 

HSK 1, 150 words, 174 characters: Test takers can understand and use very simple Chinese phrases, meet basic needs for communication, and possess the ability to further their Chinese language studies.

 

HSK 2, 300 words, 347 characters: Test takers have an excellent grasp of basic Chinese and can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.

 

HSK 3, 600 words, 617 characters: Test takers can communicate in Chinese at a basic level in their daily, academic, and professional lives. They can manage most communication in Chinese when travelling in China.

 

HSK 4, 1,200 words, 1,064 characters: Test takers can converse in Chinese on a wide range of topics and are able to communicate fluently with native Chinese speakers.

 

HSK 5, 2,500 words, 1,685 characters: Test takers can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays, and give a full-length speech in Chinese.

 

HSK 6, 5,000 words, 2,663 characters: Test takers can easily comprehend written and spoken information in Chinese and can effectively express themselves in Chinese, both orally and on paper.

 

*Source: chinaeducationcenter.com, wikipedia.org

 

There are two important takeaways from the descriptions above.

 

First, the HSK dramatically overestimates a student’s abilities at each level. For example, I would not expect an HSK 4 student to be able to “communicate fluently with native Chinese speakers,” nor would I expect an HSK 5 student to be able to read a Chinese newspaper.

 

More important, though, is the second point. It may seem obvious, but wasn’t apparent to me when I started learning:

 

Proficiency is limited by vocabulary.

 

Your vocabulary represents a hard ceiling on your Chinese ability. You will not be able to exceed this ceiling no matter how much you read, write, speak, or listen unless your raise the ceiling.

 

Let me illustrate this with a personal example.

 

When I was around HSK 3 or 4 level, I spent hundreds of hours listening to Chinese radio. At that time, I could understand only snippets of the conversation, which encouraged me to continue. Reflecting back, I probably never understood more than 20% or 30% of the content, but I assumed that more practice listening to Chinese radio would improve my comprehension.

 

That turned out to be incorrect. In fact, my listening skills were always appropriate for my level. However, I was never able to realize that because my vocabulary was so deficient. I kept assuming I had mis-heard words when I had actually heard them correctly—I just didn’t know them.

 

Across hundreds of hours of listening, my comprehension never did improve because my vocabulary was too far below the level of the material. I would have been infinitely better off spending 100 hours learning new vocabulary vs 100 hours listening to the radio. I only understood this in retrospect, however.

 

To avoid repeating my mistake, I recommend that you:

 

  1. Always maintain a focus on vocabulary. It is the raw material you need to practice the other skills.
  2. Scale up the difficulty of your learning materials only in coordination with improvements to your vocabulary.
  3. Practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking as needed to ensure that no individual skill falls behind the others, but try to make sure that none of these skills “outrun” your vocabulary.

 

Below are a few estimates of the vocabulary you need to productively study (not fluently understand) some common materials. I started using most of these materials before they were truly useful to my learning. I wish I had waited a bit longer to start using them:

 

  • 1,200 words (HSK 4): Peppa Pig.
  • 2,500 words (HSK 5): Xiyangyang.
  • 2,500+ words (HSK 5+): Chinese novels.
  • 5,000+ words (HSK 5+): Chinese TV dramas.

 

Please feel free to help me add to/modify this list in the comments below. Thanks!

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Hi @dakonglong, again a good article, though I feel you should have given some pointers on how to go about learning or measuring vocabulary. Now you basically raise the problem but don't give anything with which to fix it.

 

Also I personally quite strongly disagree with this point

On 1/13/2022 at 7:26 AM, dakonglong said:

Always maintain a focus on vocabulary. It is the raw material you need to practice the other skills.

 

Focusing on vocabulary is impossible or in the very least impractical since your vocabulary growth is a function of your using the language. Also you need to distinguish which type of vocabulary you mean and how much. All of those HSK levels also first describe actions that you need passive vocabulary for (can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays) and then actions requiring active vocabulary (give a full-length speech in Chinese). There is no need to focus on vocabulary but rather on comprehensible input and especially on reading. When you can pick words from context, they will first enter your passive vocabulary and a subset of those will afterwards activate as active vocabulary. You can't really learn vocabulary in isolation, though drilling flashcards may give you such an impression, and they can be used to facilitate learning vocabulary, but the actual process of learning vocabulary happens through consuming and producing the language.

 

I think your point about it being futile to listen to hundreds of hours of too difficult content is correct, but the solution is not to replace that with concentrating on vocabulary, but finding more appropriate content.

 

Also reading is a lot better than listening for vocabulary growth because you're more engaged with the content and more in control of the speed you consume it. Though neither is a substitute for the other but they do mutually support each other.

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@alantin, thanks for the feedback!

 

I think our opinions on vocabulary growth may just reflect different experiences.

 

At this stage of my studies I can read 10+ pages of a Chinese novel each day, and I definitely do acquire new vocabulary via use of the language (reading). However, at earlier levels, I found myself unable to acquire vocabulary naturally.

 

The issue that I ran into is that the learner-focused materials I was using were too short, and did not provide adequate repetition.

 

For example, a Chinesepod intermediate episode may be 10 minutes long, and during those 10 minutes you get repetition of a word 2 to 3 times at most. Similarly, a Chairman's Bao article is about half a page, and there is little repetition there either. I needed far more repetition to be able to retain new vocabulary words (longer form content on a focused topic). The one exception, that I could learn from, was graded readers like Mandarin Companion and Chinese Breeze, but there are a limited number of those at each level.

 

Basically, I found that if I wanted to learn a word, I had to encounter it in context and then flashcard it, otherwise I wouldn't retain it. I spent a lot of time thinking I was learning new words from context, but then finding that I couldn't recognize or use them later.

 

One of the greatest improvements to my Chinese came after I spent a year forcing words into my brain with flashcards. At the end of that period, I realized that most of the issues I had with my Chinese were gone, because they were all related to lack of vocabulary.

 

So, I would say my conclusion (the solution you mentioned above) is to just actively learn new words while you study (with flashcards) and not assume that you can absorb them naturally until you reach more advanced levels. As I mentioned in the article, I do believe that your proficiency is limited by your vocabulary. So, unless you're actively forcing your vocabulary to become larger, you have a tendency to get "stuck" at certain levels.

 

Again, just my experience as a mostly self-taught learner. Things may be different if you have a tutor/class that can introduce vocabulary slowly and provide adequate repetition.

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I'm not a stranger to flashcards either, but I wouldn't bother with them for rote learning previously unknown dictionary words past the beginning phases (HSK1/HSK2). I did rote memorization of vocabulary for years when learning Japanese thinking I was making progress, but my Japanese never really took off until I made Japanese friends and began using it daily. With Chinese I used them differently. I made sentences with tutors an reviewed those for a time. Then I used them to practice Chinese characters for a while and now I'm using them to listen to sentences while I write them down on paper to learn to write characters in contexts. Now the difference is that the words are all in my active vocabulary, I'm just getting used to write them by hand too.

So I guess my approach to SRS has changed over the years from "a magic bullet to memorize vocabulary" to "a surgical tool to address specific weak areas".

We seem to be at about a similar Chinese level but I haven't had the problem you describe of vocabulary limiting you even when I began reading Harry Potter on LingQ while still at around mid HSK4 level. Maybe I just didn't mind checking every third word and that was enough SRS for me.


I also recognize the dilemma with the length of the practice materials. I hope there are going to be more graded readers in the future.

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I definitely plan to do a bunch more of these articles, so I will plan to write one on flashcards!

 

Also, similar to you, I use flashcards for a very specific purpose - just to drill vocabulary into my medium-term memory. Typically the process looks like this:

 

Read something and come across a word that interests me. For example, I recently encountered 宇宙 in my book. Not the most useful word, but one that piqued my interest so I'd like to learn it. I don't know when I'll come across this word again, maybe not for 100 pages (probably not soon enough to learn it naturally). So, I add it to my flashcard deck.

 

I will then drill that word for one day intensively, that is enough to get it into my short term memory. After that I will drill it sporadically for a couple of weeks and then drop it from my list. That will get it into my medium term memory. After that, if I don't see it again in my reading material I will forget it, which is fine. But at least for me, I would never get to the point of recognizing 宇宙 in context without the flash-carding. I just don't see it frequently enough in the wild.

 

Our reading process is also a little bit different. I read paperbacks and use Pleco's image recognition to look up unknown words. This is an intentionally slow and arduous process which forces me to try to infer meaning before I lookup words. If I "flash-carded" words this way as I read them, it would take me an incredibly long time to read anything, even looking up four words per page at 98% recognition. So, it sounds like your use of LingQ and my use of flashcards overlap a bit.

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