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THE STORY OF MY LEARNING CHINESE


self-taught-mba
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To understand my background go here to the introduction page: http://www.chinese-forums.com/showpost.php?p=52905&postcount=179

THE STORY OF MY LEARNING CHINESE

To (try to) be brief, I will give a short timeline:

Winter 2003, first year of my MBA program:

• A Chinese classmate tricks me into saying “Wo3 ai4 ni3” to a Chinese girl.

• It piqued my interest.

• I started to read about economic trends and decided that because of my focus in operations the Chinese economy may be a future target.

• I’m thinking about starting to learn but do nothing.

• Because about a third of the MBA program is Chinese/Taiwanese I think it might be a good environment.

August 2003, 2nd year MBA:

• A fellow MBA student asks for me to be his roommate. He suggests we can help each other with language, although I will later learn that he does not believe I was serious, and had very little intention of doing anything but improving his English.

September 2003 (my study starts):

• Purchased 1 used Chinese cassette tape from eBay (Berlitz, outdated). The translations are bad, but I imitate and often: this will mark the beginning of my actual language study.

• Purchased the lonely planet handbook and taught myself pinyin. Between the listening and the book I seem to do well.

• Tried to enroll in a Chinese course. The MBA program will not let me do it because it is not on the graduate-level. The Chinese department won’t allow me to do it because they say there is no space (I later learned that this is because 75% of the class is taken up by Chinese)

• I decide that I’m on my own to study

• Attend an MBA conference. At the conference meet other MBA students who are studying Chinese at Thunderbird University. They all gripe about a similar experiences: the Chinese use them for help with their English but are not willing to reciprocate fairly.

Throughout Fall semester 2003:

• Roommate does absolutely nothing to help me before besides jotting down a few phrases that I can use to flirt with girls/meet people etc.

• Asked Chinese classmates for help and none of them are willing to help me; they are more interested in improving their English.

• Briefly dated a Chinese girl who only wanted me to correct or English and gave me virtually no help.

Christmas break 2003/2004:

• Roommate finally realizes I’m serious and after much begging and pleading begrudgingly helps me a little bit but for no more than a few hours during the break.

• This primarily consists of him correcting my tone and/or pronunciation and explaining some questions I had.

Spring semester 2004:

• Preparing for CPA, roommate again refuses to help despite my constant correcting his English. I am hardly diligent myself, spending approximately 20 minutes per week, primarily with my single tape and lonely planet handbook. However, I do manage to get approximately 10 minutes worth of questions answered a week.

• I begin to use some phrases from the handbook and the tape with Chinese/Taiwanese classmates and Chinese that I meet. They think it is cute but do not take me seriously.

• A few friends teach me some dirty words.

• Later half of the semester, I begin to start making flash cards. Spent extensive time researching in deciding on computer-based flash card programs. I only dedicate time for the flash cards if I am using wasted-time (walking to class, waiting for the class to begin, or on the bus).

• My cards are exclusively in pinyin: if there is a question of ambiguity, I link it to another word that I am learning

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June 2004:

• MBA program is completed; my roommate and I graduate. My roommate leaves.

• Through the Internet I find a new Chinese roommate who will also be starting my second Masters with me together. My apartment is awesome and a great price, and as a condition of him being my roommate he signs a contract pledging at least two hours of help a week with Chinese—I promised the same for him. However he is from Guang Zhou.

• I am now pretty serious about trying to learn Chinese. I find in this forum and other resources such as Mandarin tools, and zhongwen.com etc. I build an enhanced flash card system based on psychological interval-based learning theory.

Summer semester 2004:

• New roommate willingly answers questions for me and gives me two hours of language exchange every week.

• I begin to speak simple sentences to him. He responds to me in English and I correct his English. He generally does not speak to me in Chinese because my listening is so poor.

• I am now being more consistent with my flash cards and have developed a definite system and am building my vocabulary quickly.

• By chance, I meet the director of the Chinese department. He thinks my speaking is good enough for third-year Chinese department suggests I take the second-year intermediate course because I don’t know characters.

• It is during this time that I start to purchase other learning materials, software, multimedia packs etc. I find that there is a lot of junk but some things are good.

Fall semester 2004:

• Because I met the Director, I was able to enroll in second-year Chinese.

• I start to attend Chinese class

• The teacher gives me a hard time and seems to resent the fact that I am there and that I don’t know characters despite the fact that I have a much larger vocabulary and can speak better than her current students. She seems to resent this because it requires extra effort on her part.

• I begin a frantic effort to learn the entire first year worth of characters in both simplified and traditional (because they were taught in traditional first year and then move to simplified the second year).

• I purchase all the books for both simplified and traditional characters for the first and second years of the practical Chinese reader

• I began seriously looking into self-study methods

• Concurrently, my roommate teaches me some basic straight stroke order and I try to start learning to write characters.

• In less than two weeks I learned to read approximately 600 or so characters that are in the first practical Chinese reader—I do this with flash card systems and software and training aids

• I try to fill in any gaps that I missing their self-study methods, and using online resources/software

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The Chinese Class in America

• The classes for one hour every day five days a week; students seem miserable; complain of a workload of at least an hour of homework/character practice every day

• 75% of the class are ABC’s, some can already speak Cantonese and can already read, there are a few Koreans/Japanese (who of course already know many characters),

• There are only five white people and they are completely miserable and feel isolated. Because they are in the minority and the rest of the students have some knowledge of characters, they find that the teachers have an expectation that they magically keep up. There are even some fluent Chinese who took the class simply to get an easy A.

• I’m beginning to realize that the teaching system is geared more towards the ABC’s or planned linguistic majors than those who wish to communicate.

• I speak with the director of the Chinese department. He acknowledges the problem, but also acknowledges that it is a political issue.

• I bring my Chinese roommate to class to evaluate: he concurs that the student pronunciation are horrible, the material not too practical, they are wasting all their time writing characters, and the teacher is typical of the Chinese method of teaching (which he is not all too happy with already because of his frustration in coming to America with limited communication skills)

• The teacher makes it clear to me that she does not want me in the class, even saying so.

• The teacher says I need to go back to Chinese level one and learn to write all the characters; she refutes my argument that these days being able to read and type is enough

• I write down the answers to a test in pinyin—she is not very happy

• Nearly every day she continues the verbal onslaught of how I am not learning the proper way

• In frustration I drop the class after attending for about a month.

• I start shopping for Chinese schools in China primarily relying on the Internet; I intend to attend during the Christmas break

**Note: During this time I spend approximately 90% of my time trying to evaluate which learning method will be best for me and only a few minutes every day actually learning. For example, it took me over 20 hours of comparison and testing to find what I thought would be suitable flash card program for me. At heart, I am a perfectionist, and this manifests itself in how I approach a new project. I believe that when you set up a system (something my work experience and to graduate degrees deal with) you need to put extensive effort into setting up the system and be a perfectionist. Then while implementing the system and doing the learning/work one needs to be a realist.

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Christmas break 2004/2005:

• Because of visa problems, I do not attend Bei3 Yu3

• My Chinese roommate is nice and we are able to spend approximately one hour per day.

• He helps me with difficult questions but the primary responsibility of learning is up to me

• His Chinese friends , that they believe his pronunciation has improved since living with me, because I yell at him every time he pronounces an “sh” sound with out the “h”, or the harder “q” sound as opposed to the almost “t” as in “qi4che1” (as Southern people often do). (I believe that because I always study pinyin based flash cards, and have strict adherence to the painting rules my pronunciation is very standard and I am told so by everyone I meet; however listening is nonexistent.)

Spring semester 2005:

• Realizing that I’m probably on my own (because classes are not suitable), I continue my self-study but at an increased pace and I devote approximately 10 to 15 minutes per day.

• For about 10-15 minutes per day, on an ad hoc basis, my roommate and I am exchange basic sentences in Chinese (in addition to my self-study)

• I spend more time programming my flash card programs that I actually spend learning

• I begin to exchange basic sentences with Chinese friends and classmates.

• I insist that those that help me explained things in a manner that is more suitable (of course I’ve helped them very much with their English)

• I decide to go to China during the summer to study.

• I call both the director of BCLU and BCLA, explaining that I can speak a little, my pronunciation is very good, I know approximately 2000 words at this point, but I cannot read very much, in that I do not wish to learn writing.

• I decided on BLCA because they said my situation would not be a problem and that they would not force me to write by hand. BCLU said they would.

April 15 through May 15, 2005

• Because I helped my roommates speak English for the past 11 months and because we have not had an opportunity to speak Chinese (because my level was not good enough), we agreed that the last month of our living together we will attempt to speak only in Chinese.

• Of course, this meant that our long discussions quickly became very short interchanges because of my limited ability :mrgreen:

• We modify our plan from immersion to what I call “modified immersion” where I insist that he speaks what I know and plugs in words that I don’t or takes English sentences and will plug in new words which I give to him.

• This month greatly improves my sentence structure

• I also concurrently listen to Chinese tapes which helps with my sentence structure

• However, my listening ability is still very weak because, for the most part, I have only spoken with other people and they respond in English. I only have one month of listening under my belt, and have not sat in class for an hour every day.

• I’m scared to death about my listening ability in China

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June through August 2005: attending BCLA

• On the plane to China, I try to review the 600 or 700 so characters that I previously learned during the failed attempt of what they call a Chinese class (I haven’t reviewed them since).

• I arrived knowing approximately 2000 words and can string together sentences.

• I find that I can argue and haggle at the airport with the fake taxis

• I arrived and the head instructor gave me a placement test. They are amazed at my speaking ability, especially my vocabulary (the students and the Chinese class were busy learning the names of places, food names, and such while I was learning function words and verbs) and pronunciation, and especially when they learned that I’m primarily self-taught, and that I’ve only been doing it for about a year and a half. So much so, that she doesn’t even bother to give me the speaking/listening part.

• They place me in a class that is just moving to the “C” level

• Their level system corresponds to the BCLU system

• I find that my listing comes about as I become used to the variances in the way people speak

ABOUT BCLA

This is my experience at BCLA:

• BCLA is essentially a knockoff of BCLU: they hire some teachers that teach at BCLU (maybe a third of them), they also use the BCLU books/tapes.

• The class sizes are smaller than at BCLU; They say they have a maximum of eight per class although I saw them sometimes break this policy. This is a good thing, however, they don’t have the resources that BCLU has.

• Despite the fact that they said I would not need to write by hand, immediately some of the older teachers tried to force me to write by hand giving me ting1 xie3 all the time (I told them I would be willing to type with my laptop :mrgreen: )

• I spoke with the head instructor about this situation and she pretty much said “tough luck”

• I’m still in the C level class

• My classmates had been attending class for six hours, every day, for a year.

• I found something very similar to what I experienced in America: the writing skills and reading skills were very good, however their speaking skills are not always so good. Everyone had a horrible pronunciation and accent. I ask them about this and they said they only spent one week on pronunciation/pinyin.

• Additionally, I noted some of the teachers had a nonstandard accent.

• The students of the C level had a comparable vocabulary although their vocabulary set was different from mine; the teacher somehow expected me to know everything they had ever learned, including the cultural based words, and names of places and people

• The majority of the focus was primarily reading based

• The BCLU books are pretty good but still have a lot of useless junk inside of them especially for someone like me who only wants to learn to communicate and wants to learn culture and history at a later time

• Teacher turnover was a problem: I counted over five teachers that changed in and out among my classes

• I dropped down to the B level, because I couldn’t accommodate the teacher that was forcing me to write by hand, and said I would fail if I stayed in his class because he would not accept pinyin

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B Level Class

• At the B level students have been studying Chinese in America anywhere from two to four years

• I found this level to be too easy except for the reading for which I hired a tutor (Tutor story below) to help me with

• Again many of the students obviously had focused on writing and reading.

• The teachers would seldom correct the students pronunciation and focused more on strict rules and a textbook

• Students know a lot of place names and names of food dishes etc. but cannot handle some of the more common communication tasks, they can read the menus at the restaurant but can’t find the damn restaurant

• I begin to feel that this is also going to be a waste my time

• We spent an entire chapter and an entire week on hu2tong4 related issues (a place I plan to only go to once in my life)

• I go over to Bei3yu3 quite often and even visit classes with friends attending over there; I find the same type of situation

• With two weeks left in my course, many of the students were leaving: because

Worldlink does not want to have a class that is too small (read: they don’t want to spend that much money only for a couple of students despite raking in plenty of money by overcharging for accommodation), they discontinue my class and try to place me in a new class (not the first time either). The nearest class to the level I was it was two weeks behind in the material.

• Accordingly, the last two weeks of the program was spent sitting in a class going over what I just studied before and therefore was wasted time; they basically cheated me out of two weeks.

• At the end of the course I get a “grade” despite not having taken a test (because they effectively canceled the previous class I was in) nor was the previous teacher asked about my performance

• Nowhere throughout the program or any of us asked to evaluate the teachers or materials

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I believe that while attending class by speaking skills actually degraded because 1) I spent six hours in class a day and didn’t have time for my own learning methods 2) my classmates often spoke horribly and I picked up some bad habits 3) the teachers, unlike my roommate, would not correct me or the other students

However, my listening did improve by the process of sitting in class and listening to a native speaker.

During this time and BCLA I played the “tutor game”, I quickly discovered that language partners were not necessarily or very good at explaining things. I found, I was better studying on my own and just having someone to ask questions. I went through three different tutors before I finally found one that was borderline acceptable. It took me a month and a half. Even with her, I had to convince her that no I really don’t need to write by hand, and had to take control of the learning so that we were learning the most useful things first.

Now I have stayed in Beijing to do research regarding supply chain management/operations improvement.

I obviously feel that I am better off learning on my own or with a tutor with whom I can ask questions.

I have just returned from a month stay in America. Upon my return, the Chinese people with whom I often chat at the hotel say my speaking has improved. That’s right, after going back to America I was able to improve my speaking!!! I did this by going back to some basic listening materials and training tools I had previously used and tried to weed out some of the bad habits. I also went to dinner three times with a close Chinese friend and in those three hours or so worth of time she constantly corrected my mistakes which I’ve made with every Chinese person, everyday here in China, but they never corrected me.

Obviously, this whole experience has been very frustrating for me. Don’t get me wrong, I really do enjoy learning Chinese, but only in a way that yields effective communication. It is so exciting for me to be able to chat with someone for an hour in Chinese, and I only wish other students could have a similar experiences without all the negative side believe exist in the traditional system. Other self learners have mirrored my feelings.

My experiences have led me to the conclusion that the Chinese methods of teaching languages are not very effective and are outdated. I have met many self learners who are at a higher level than those who have taken language classes.

How come I can reach the same level as someone who has been studying at a college for three/four years with only minimal effort over a year and a half? Is it because I am so smart? Is it because I am a language geek/freak as some people say, “oh you just have a knack for it”? I don’t think so (remember I failed German). Self learners are often normal people of average intelligence but have had to find creative ways and more effective ways than the traditional Chinese teaching methods. Even my Chinese acquaintances concur. I have started to put together a big rant of what I see are the major problems with the Chinese learning process, and I hope to post it soon. For now I’ll just post a few preliminary thoughts.

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The major problem I see is that the Chinese way of teaching is not calibrated towards learning to communicate quickly. It is heavy into writing (by hand) and reading. The materials are outdated and are not augmented by modern technologies. But a lot of this I see as a culture problem. After living with Chinese roommates for two years (despite not speaking Chinese with them) and seeing Chinese classmates in two graduate programs I have made a couple of conclusions which is backed up by academic literature which I have read:

1) The Chinese have a problem understanding the concept of trade-offs: Sometimes putting forth lots of effort and insisting that I just need to be more “nu3li4” is not worth the outcome. In this case, I am specifically referring to the insistence of handwriting characters. Yes it may be possible after several years to write many characters and have a thorough understanding, but many of us do not have the time nor wish to spend the time to do so. For us, in the modern age, typing would-be enough. This also goes towards the idea of priorities: when time is limited, certain things are just more important than other things.

2) Lack of efficiency: every major business article or academic study regarding production in China has mentioned this problem. In many ways I believe this a holdover for me previous Communist –based society. Materials are not made with the end goal in mind of effective communication. Materials and the teachers are seldom if ever evaluated. If you do not measure or evaluate something it is impossible to manage or improve upon it. With so many new technologies and software programs and multimedia programs which many of us on this forum have used, it would make sense to employ some of these to make the process more efficient.

3) Resistance to change: This is not unique to the Chinese; it is universal for everybody. In my job as an operations manager and then in my studies of process improvement, I often have heard or read people say, “but we have always done it this way”. That is not a reason to continue with a methodology. There’s nothing wrong with continuing an old methodology if it is the most effective, however it should be constantly evaluated and if new technologies, methods or theories come into play that are more effective then they should be evaluated and utilized if appropriate.

4) Intertwining of culture and language: I am not anti-Chinese culture; I am not against learning culture. However, there’s a trade-off to be had here. There are institutions of higher learning that have entire courses dedicated to different cultures without mixing languages. Learning the language can be challenging enough without adding culture materials. More specifically, however, is the focus on the type of culture that is the problem. Learning about ancient poets and hu2tong4s are interesting but probably do not have the same priority for many people as learning communication. Culture is very important, however relevant culture, I would argue, is more important and can often be taught separate from the language (please accept the business card with two hands not one, don’t put the chopsticks sticking straight up in the rice bowl etc.). Would it be a good idea to teach a learner of the English language Beowulf and Emerson and about log cabins? Sure, both are part of our history/culture, but are they of immediate relevance? Or would be better to tell them not to spit out food while you are eating and to chew with your mouth closed?

5) Acceptance of mistakes: Thankfully, as we have all learned the Chinese are the opposite of the French. They readily accept our poor Chinese. And for this I am grateful that they are such an accepting people. While this may be good on a social level, I find it very hard to try to convince someone that yes I actually would like them to correct my mistakes. Even the teachers are often reluctant to correct students. I’ve been told in my conversations with Chinese that as long as they can understand my meaning it doesn’t matter. However, I would prefer not to build bad habits.

I could go on, but I will not. I will try to finish, my “What’s wrong the Chinese methodology” post/rant later.

I wanted to share my experiences because I have met a few people out there who have had similar frustrations. I also wanted to hear people’s thoughts.

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Thankfully, as we have all learned the Chinese are the opposite of the French. They readily accept our poor Chinese.
Please speak for yourself only. I found French to be very tolerant towards errors, as long as they see you trying. What they don't seem to like is foreigners not even making effort to learn the most essential terms - hello, thanks, bye...

If you go into a shop in France and say "Bonjour", you are much more likely to be given a warm welcome than when saying "Hello", even if in both cases you continue speaking English.

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Sorry, not intending to insult the French at all. They have a beautiful language and I understand why they protect it. We americans overseas often don't make an effort. and of course I am generalizing to make a point. Please excuse if I offended.

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self-taught-mba,

Your assessment of standard learning is right. You're one of the few that gets it.

I admire your persistance and motivation, despite the setbacks, English replies, and poor learning environments. Keep it up. You are a dedicated language learner will be very successful.

Best of luck,

Green Pea

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I just want to comment and/or ask about the necessity of being able to write hanzi by hand. I realised long ago that this is the main hurdle, which would take many years to master. I keep doing it but I am far ahead with my texts in just reading and understanding while looking carefully at characters and their components at the same time but I find the number of characters I can write from memory without looking at them is much more limited even after writing them (6 times in avergae) and just hand copying a number of texts. I agree, it may not priority #1 (to be able to write all characters), especially if you're busy, want to learn more words and learn to read more complex texts. I have divided this task into 2: 1) Learn more words and characters passively - 20 characters a day, 2) Learn characters thoroughly - 5 characters a day. It's all approximate, of course. Mind you, I've got a full-time job and family commitments.

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Please speak for yourself only. I found French to be very tolerant towards errors' date=' as long as they see you trying. What they don't seem to like is foreigners not even making effort to learn the most essential terms - hello, thanks, bye...

If you go into a shop in France and say "Bonjour", you are much more likely to be given a warm welcome than when saying "Hello", even if in both cases you continue speaking English.[/quote']

Really? Wouldn't it seem stupid and pompous to the French person? 'Everyone knows what "hello" means in English, just use that and stop trying to pretend you know french'

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Really? Wouldn't it seem stupid and pompous to the French person? 'Everyone knows what "hello" means in English, just use that and stop trying to pretend you know french'
Maybe there are some that feel this way, but that should be a rather small fraction.

I think going into a shop in France and saying "Hello" is quite a rude thing to do, as you're imposing your culture onto the host (who in this case happens to be very aware and proud of his.)

As another example, consider politeness in Chinese. In many aspects, it is completely different from Europe. I am far from knowledgeable about it, and maybe never will be, but the few things I do know, like for example having to refuse an invitation a few times before accepting it, I will apply. If I went and acted polite according to German standards, I assume some Chinese would find my presence (even :mrgreen:) less enjoyable.

Of course, if you have the right attitude, you can also speak English anywhere you go and still leave a good impression, but I think that the more you show that you are trying to appreciate and adapt to the host country's culture, the easier it will be.

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hmm, okay. Are you French, btw?

self-taught-mba, so how do you like to learn your characters. If you are just learning recognition (so you can read them, and use your spoken [pinyin] to input the right ones into the computer like Chinese normally do), how do you go about this? Do you just stare at the character and that is enough for recognition-memory? or do you write it out a couple of times too?

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In fact I did live in the US for a little less than a year, but I still cannot accept your compliments. I still have a long way to go until my English deserves the the appraisal I use in my CV now already :mrgreen:

BTW, what makes you think it is impossible to learn good English in the UK?:wink:

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Self-taught-mba, I too applaud your tenacity. I had rather similar experiences both in the US at university (my class was taught by a very friendly elderly Taiwanese man who did nothing but read the text outloud over and over, and the only ones who made heads or tails of it were two HK girls who were already fluent). I do question your seeming refusal to learn to write characters, though.

Granted, I haven't had the need to handwrite many things in my two years living in China, but I find that, particularly with more complex characters that are very similar to ones I already know, learning to write them gels everything in my brain. It has also been easier for me to read handwritten Chinese (which is something I commonly have to do) since I've started writing.

Obviously your method works for you and I'm not trying to dissuade you from something that produces results, just throwing in my $0.02.

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Thankfully, as we have all learned the Chinese are the opposite of the French. They readily accept our poor Chinese.

I have lived in France 10 years and the French are different, they do not readily accept my poor Chinese:D

Many French people do not speak English and even those who do are flattered if you try to use their language. A common complaint is of tourists who ask for directions in English without even first asking the Frenchman if he speaks English.

I can understand your experience. I am doing self-study because I have been on differenet language courses in the UK before (French, German) and find that you go along one evening a week for 2-3 years and reach a level were you are only able to ask for directions. You only go as fast as the slowest person in the class. I know how I learn and what I need to learn and would get frustrated having someone imposing a method in which I do not fit.

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