Chinese Resources

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Goals for 2012, both the long-term and short-term

With 2012 well underway I suppose it is time to solidify a few of my goals for the year and make them public. For those of you who don't know, I am currently doing a degree in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language at National Taiwan Normal University in Taiwan. The program is very demanding on my time, which means I really need to spend my time outside of studying for my degree very wisely.

Many of my personal goals for Chinese this year are associated with teaching Chinese, so here are my teaching goals for the year.
  1. Find one more student to teach at least once a week, bring my total teaching hours to 6 hours a week outside of school.
  2. Review three grammar points a week from Jianhua Bai's Chinese Grammar Made Easy: 對外漢語語言點教學150例 and be able to comfortably teach all these grammar points to my students.
  3. Finish "studying" 今日台灣, writing one complete lesson plan a month that incorporates a minimum of three teaching methods, two large activities, and a comprehensive way to assess student performance (one lesson completed so far). 
  4. Publish one academic article (or academic review) in the field of CALL research. My research study and first draft should be completed before September 1st.
  5. Start an online Mandarin corner (still a bit fuzzy on how I want to proceed with this goal).
In addition to my goals as a teacher, my overall goal in Chinese is to pass the TOP 流利級 before the end of the year. However I need to have a plan for how to achieve that goal, so here are my goals broken down by the four aspects of language study.
  • Writing: This section is realistically broken into two large sections for me, those being: written Chinese (Chinese characters), and improving my Chinese writing as a whole. I'm a massive user of Skritter and this year I would like to break the 5000 individual Character mark. I plan on doing this by spending a minimum of 20 minutes a day on Skritter and a maximum of one hour on any given day. I'm currently at 3000 characters so I think that this goal should be very achievable. As for improving my Chinese writing this section is divided into literary Chinese and everyday Chinese. My literary Chinese goals are taken care of by school, with weekly reports and summaries of readings. As for everyday Chinese I started the year by telling myself that I would spend 15 minutes a day writing a Chinese journal that I post on my other blog, and also on ChinesePod, but after one month I only completed 15 posts. I've realized that writing about what I did that day is not interesting to me (at all) and I need to focus my efforts. Therefore, much like iLearnMandarn my goal instead is to complete one focused journal entry a week, either following things I'm learning in school, articles I'm reading, or telling a story in as much detail as possible. Given the amount of writing I do for school I'm going to limit this goal to one hour a week of solid writing, and then as many hours as it takes to edit and review my writing as necessary. 

  • Reading: Again school keeps me quite busy on this front. Using last semester as an indicator, on average, I read around 200 pages of academic writing a week. But I need something more in my life, something that feels a little more real and authentic. My long term goals are to read 20 articles pertaining to Computer Assisted Chinese Language Learning (for personal pleasure and not for homework), I've read one so far this year so only 19 to go. My current short-term goals are as follows:
  1. Finish 《安德的遊戲》by March 1st. I'm simply reading for pleasure, so I'm not checking a dictionary, and simply reading for general meaning and gaining understanding through context. As of right now I have 300 pages to go, which means I have to read 10 pages a day... very doable. 
  2. Finish 《大小雞婆》by March 1st. I have 55 pages left in this book, but my process in a little different. For this book I read a single chapter a day (around 5 pages) and look up every word that I don't understand (after an initial reading). This vocabulary is then added to a Skritter study deck with the purpose of committing everything to long-term retention. Once I've completed the entire study deck on Skritter I will re-read the book dictionary free at an undetermined time before year's end. 
  3. Complete 《讀報學華語(一)》by September 1st. Averaging two lessons a month.
  •  Listening: Listening is my strongest skill in Chinese, and my understanding of formal Chinese (in an academic setting) is actually better than my daily listening skills. Therefore, this year is about increasing my input of daily spoken Chinese. I'll be supplementing this process with 5 ChinesePod lessons a week (2 Intermediate, 1 Upper-Intermediate, 1 Advanced and 1 Media). I plan on fully studying the Upper-Intermediate and Advanced lessons, and using the Intermediate and Media lessons simply for listening practices. With all lessons I will be adding them into my Skritter study sessions (but not making them a focus). Whenever I have completed a particular lesson I will use that as a reminder to go back and review the audio once more to test how much I understand. When time permits I also watch the news and watch movies, but being a student this is often the last thing I'm able to do during any given week.
  • Speaking: To be honest I don't have any particular goals for increasing my speaking. I feel that the amount of interaction I have on any given day with my friends (most of which are Taiwanese) and my classmates is enough to further develop my Chinese speaking skills. When I am away from my computer, I very rarely speak English and I have no intention of changing that in the near future. 

Those are my goals for now. As an attempt to keep myself on task I'll be updating and checking in once a month.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The massive input strategy

For many students (myself included), the study of Chinese is largely facilitated through textbooks, podcasts, and other learning materials. We work on one lesson until we grasp the material and then move onto the next.This is how I have spent nearly 5 years studying Chinese and I've learned a lot about the language in the process. However, when I was sitting in my Computer Assisted Chinese Language Learning class a few weeks ago, my teacher brought up a different strategy, which I'll call massive input.

What is the massive input strategy?
Massive input/output is essential opening the floodgates of a language and letting the information wash over you. It is not studying in the traditional sense-- no flashcards, textbooks or fancy iPhone Apps necessary. Massive input is about increasing exposure to a language during your daily routine and giving you a better feel for that language. It doesn't matter if you don't understand everything that you are hearing, the point is that your brain is still  subconsciously processing some of the information.

This means trying to expose yourself to more of the language in its natural form. Music is, I think, the most obvious way to use this strategy, but we should really be using the same tactics with other materials as well: books, poems, movies, TV shows, radio broadcasts and blogs are all great ways increase your exposure to the language. By understanding that you are not going to understand everything from the beginning, it makes it easier to just let the language flood over you. Don't understand a word, a sentence, a paragraph... who cares cause you're not going to look it up anyway (at least not yet). 

The reward doesn't come from "learning" new things, rather, massive input is about linking together everything  you already know to estimate, guess, and predict the meaning of what you are being exposed to. 

As my teacher metaphorically described, massive input is about building a skyscraper not a house. Massive input helps us build the "skyscraper" by stacking a ton of information higher and higher. Traditionally, studying and the material to study from is very controlled. Vocabulary and grammar patterns are presented systematically, which is good for building a foundation for a language (or a two story house), but there is nothing natural about it. However, it is also something that we should not, and cannot, ignore, it helps fills the gaps of information that are missing for our skyscraper... it is the cement in our metaphorical language building. 

My own experience with massive input

Ever since that lesson I've been trying to apply this strategy to my own life to better understand what my teacher was saying. On top of reading a an article from a Chinese newspaper every morning during breakfast, and watching the news or movies when I have some time, I'm also currently reading two books in Chinese:《安德的遊戲》,a translated copy of Ender's Game , and《大小雞婆》.  Since Ender's Game is a book I have read quite a few times in English I'm not looking anything up... ever. I'll probably go back through once I'm done to start and cement the gaps in the language, but right now I'm just reading for pleasure. It was frustrating at first, but after a while I started to get a feel for the text and the translation a way that looking up every other word cannot provide. 

With  《大小雞婆》, a book originally written in Chinese, I'm reading it chapter by chapter. Instead of stopping to look up words that I don't know I'm just highlighting them and making guesses about the meaning based on context. Once I'm done with the chapter I will go back and check the dictionary for every word that I highlighted. I've found that this process takes about an hour a day. 

More than anything I've found that my reading comprehension is increasing at a very rapid pace. I'm beginning to notice how certain nuances contained in grammar patterns, simply because I'm seeing them in a space that isn't controlled by a textbook. Since I don't worry (as much) about individual characters or phrases, I'm able to focus on the overall meaning of a text without too much effort. Hopefully this should pay off greatly when reading academic articles or taking any kind of standard test in Chinese. 

Do any of you use a similar strategy with your language learning process? If so please leave a comment below. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Reaction: Benny's video two weeks into the challenge.

Last night Benny put his first video attempt in Mandarin on the web for the world to see... or to use a Chinese phrase I learned yesterday (在眾目睽睽下Benny開口了說出國語)

After speaking Chinese for just two weeks, it is clear that tones are a big focus for him. As well they should be. It will allow him to be understood while speaking to a native speaker who is not a Chinese teacher. I'll talk more about this in another post, but for now I'll just say I think we should all start learning Chinese this way. Don't wait a month or a year to learn tones. Learn them and use them from day one. 

This video has a very raw quality to it. For nearly 10 minutes we watch Benny struggle for every word, trying his best to get the tones right. As he states on his website the video is scripted, translated by his Chinese teacher. No doubt that during the process he also learned everything that we hear him say into the camera, so no need for monkey jokes. 

My big question, however, is how we as language learners (or teachers) should feel about how the video was made. There is no doubt that he is speaking Chinese, and I can understand just about everything he said, but he didn't write the script. In his words: 
"So with that in mind, a couple of days ago I asked my Chinese teacher (I’ve getting private lessons for now) to translate a script with everything I would say if I was giving a tour of my home in a language I speak fluently. I wanted to explain complex things, like that I replaced my laptop with a desktop, that I don’t really use my fridge etc., and she wrote it up for me in Chinese (which I used for the captions) and in pinyin, which I was studying to learn all the new vocabulary, and memorising the lines themselves since then."
For some this is blasphemy, "he is using a teacher, or  "he didn't write the script" they say, but negativity never seemed like a very good way to learn anything, so instead I want to discuss what we might learn from his video.

When we open a text book we are presented with new material. There is a dialogue or maybe even a short essay. After the essay we get a nice word bank (with further examples if we are lucky) and a section on grammar. Some of us memorize that material.  That is essential what Benny did, he memorized the textbook, only he also helped write the textbook... or script rather. While this video may not be his own words (or at least the Chinese) yet he now has a pretty good understanding of how to talk about: time, location, distance, direction etc. He can also tell people why he can or can't do something (因為....所以).

Okay, now for my point. Sometimes when learning a language we need to memorize things. We can't do it passively, cause that is a huge waste of time, but we should do it actively, taking sentences or phrases and committing them to memory. However, we can't stop there. Once we have the phrase (or sentence) we need to make it our own, by swapping out nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. to create new strings of communication, sort of like what I did at the start of this blog. The phrase 眾目睽睽 isn't my own, but through the active process of studying it, understanding it, and committing it to memory, I learned how to use it.

I'm sure that Benny will be a lot more comfortable "in the wild" now that he understands everything he said in the video. Even if he can't create sentences of his own using some of the grammatical phrases (yet), he will be able to understand them in reading and listening when they come up.

This  in Chinese is called 語言定式教學法, a sort of formulaic speech teaching method and I find it quite effective. I've wrote roughly about how it works in a classroom setting in a past entry called Stuff the Duck.

I would love to hear all your thoughts, so please post them below.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why Benny's "Fluent Mandarin in 3 Months" challenge is good for the Chinese community.

It is true, I'm a little behind the game. Admittedly, I only heard about Benny the Irish Polyglot yesterday when Confused LaoWai wrote a post (more like an essay really) titled: On Learning Chinese in 3 Months. Basically, for those still in the dark, Benny has moved to Taipei, Taiwan and will be spending three months learning Mandarin Chinese, with the goal of reaching somewhere near a C1 oral proficiency during that time.

This mission has cause quite the stir in the Chinese language learning community. For a moment, I too wanted to join the masses. While I still take umbrage with the notion that conversational fluency is equal to C1 aptitude, I applaud Benny Lewis for his overall mission statement-- speaking from day one. For a better understanding of his own advice, check out this video from the recent TEDxSanAntonio below.


As with the countless other languages he has learned, he has made a goal (and made it public) and will work at that goal regardless of the outcome. No matter what level his Taiwanese Mandarin reaches, it will be far better than it was three months prior.

As for the Chinese language learning community, his challenge has us talking about learning and studying the Chinese language. While most will (still) admit that Chinese is a relatively hard language to learn, Benny's own mission is to find ways to make studying languages easier... for everyone. This is what sites like Chinesehacks and Hacking Chinese (confusing I know!) do as well, provide ways to make learning Chinese easier and hopefully more fun.

Based on Benny's first week blog I noticed a few things that certainly deserve some praise.
  1. He is relying a lot of context. This is a crucial part to understanding any language. Making assumptions about what the other might be saying will help you figure out appropriate ways to respond to the situation and clue you in on some vocabulary that you can pick up for later use. It is also a great way to fill in the gaps on information you don't know. This works great for both listening and reading (something I covered in some depth over on the Skritter blog).   
  2. He is cultural minded. Handing over money to a cashier with two hands is certainly a good way to make a great impression here in Asia, and these kinds of cultural practices can open doors for further conversation, or at least a little more patience on the part of the locals. I've certainly gotten a lot of conversation out of learning how to drink with Chinese hosts, but lets save that for another post.
  3. He is getting out there. Rather that sit at home and watch TV (which can be a great way to learn some Chinese) he has joined a gym. Basically, he is trying to live his life as he sees fit. Not letting a language barrier get in the way of doing what you would like to do is an important part of language learning and self discovery. I had a similar experience in China when I decided to go to the park and learn how to play the Hulusi (albeit poorly). Sometimes we need to go out and learn by doing (again, something I've covered before.)
So what about the goal: fluency in 3 months? Fluency is a very relative term, and it is his own goal, not ours. However, making goals like this (or maybe something a bit more modest perhaps) are what keep us going on the language learning journey.

I for one will be pushing myself a little bit harder when I'm out living in Taiwan. Speaking more, and trying to be a bit more ambitious. While I personally think that setting a goal that one cannot possibly achieve can be as bad as doing nothing at all, setting goals that strive for us to work harder are how we see positive results.

It reminds me of a great story that Dr. Michael Everson  told my fellow classmates and I this summer. When asked the question of how much effort was needed to learn Chinese (or any language for that matter) he turned to some of the college level athletes and asked them how often the practice their respective sport. The general response was three to four hours a day (seven days a week). The message is quite clear, language, like anything else takes effort, and time. It isn't something that is going to come overnight.

Regardless of the outcome, I hope that Benny's journey will help inspire others to stop making excuses as to why they can't do something, and at least try.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Stay tuned for 2012

 As my first semester at Shida comes to a close (and it couldn't come any faster) I want to wish everyone a very happy New Year.

When I first launched iLearnMandarin back in March of 2011 I had big things planned. It turns out that finishing a degree in America, moving to China for the summer and then moving to Taiwan for graduate school really can take a toll on those plans. But, this year is different. This year I'm settled in. This year I'm adjusted, and now more than ever I want to share with everyone some of the amazing things that I'm learning.

I feel like a spy who has made contact from the enemy camp. Working with my classmates who are the future generation of Chinese teachers all over the world I'm learning a lot of wonderful information... and I want to share it with you all.

So what's on the menu for 2012?
  • Lots more app reviews. I've just order a new iPhone, which means I'll finally be running the newest iOS.
  • Website reviews. Don't waste your time with crappy websites, let me weed them out for you! I'll be taking a look at what is out there from both a student and an educators point of view.
  • Sentence patterns. This year we will be looking at some fun sentence patterns and learning how to use them. 
  • Interviews. (in Chinese and English) 
... and much, much more.

Stay tuned folks. Cause 2012 is going to be amazing.

-Because I can-
Chengyu for your thoughts:

bǎi wén bù rú yí jiàn
Listening to someone else talk about something many times never compares to seeing it for yourself once.
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