Chinese Resources

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Developing Advanced Language Skills

Part of me wishes I could go back and start my program in Taiwan over again. Not because I got bad grades or didn't learn a lot over the past three semesters, but because there is just so much I didn't know about the program then that I do now. One of those things happens to be the importance of the small lecture series that is always going on in our program. The past four weeks have been very exciting for me in this regard. I've heard lectures for Enya Dai (Associate Professor at Monterey Institute), participated in Taiwan's 2012 International Conference of Teaching Chinese as a Second Language, and heard a compelling lecture from Cornelius C. Kubler (顧百里: Professor of Asian Studies at Williams College).

All of these events have changed my life as a Chinese language student/teacher, giving me new ways to think about teaching, research, and my own linguistic development. I've made some amazing connections with professors, scholars, and students like me from all over the world. I wish that I could go back and start my program over so that I could have attended even more of these events. Since I'm not a Timelord I'll just have to keep calm and carry on (or something like that). 

Today's post, however, isn't really about looking back on missed opportunities, but rather about pressing forward. After yesterday's lecture by Dr. Kubler I realized for the millionth time that there is so much more I can do to bring my Chinese to an even higher level. Dr. Kubler has been studying Chinese for the past 40 odd years, and while he might not have a perfect accent, he speaks Chinese at an incredibly high level... I'd be lying if said I wasn't a little bit jealous. Thankfully, his entire lecture was about developing advanced language skills. While he was speaking from the perspective of an educator, and what we can do to help learners develop high-level proficiency, I was thinking about the question with a personal vested interest.

One thing I felt his lecture was lacking was student accountability for the learning process, but since he was talking to a group of teachers (not students) I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. So, here are a ideas of things we can do to develop advanced language skills, according to Dr. Kubler.
  1. Memorization: It's never too late in your journey of Chinese to memorize 三字經, or 三百首, in fact exposing yourself systematically to this kind of language will help solidify it in your brain for natural recall later. I did this a lot with Tang poetry while living in Beijing, and nothing stops people in their tracks more than a properly quoted line from one of those poems.
  2. Paraphrasing: Open up an old textbook that you've used and see if you can take colloquial sentences and make them formal, or the other way around. Take basic grammar patterns and make them 書面語 etc.
  3. Transcription: Listen to audio files from native speakers and transcribe them into Chinese (or English). This forces us to step away from language we would usually use in Chinese, and helps to solidify grammatical patterns and word phrases that are used by native speakers. 
  4. Get a tutor: I'm not talking about a language partner, or even a person who simply talks to you in Chinese. I'm talking about the kind of person who is anal-retentive about every single mistake you make, someone who will force you to say something again not because it was wrong, but because it is High School level Chinese, not professional. 
  5. Translation: Translate Classical Chinese into Modern Chinese. Translate academic Chinese into colloquial Chinese. Translate colloquial Chinese into academic Chinese. Translate English into Chinese etc. While translation is a hotly debated topic in SLA, there is no doubt that translation of any kind forces you to think about the language in different way, exposing you to a lexicon that is not your own, which can be crucial for further linguistic development. Of course, this should probably be done with the help of a tutor, at least at first. 
  6. Read Scrolling Text: Part of advanced language levels is the ability to read massive amounts of text in a short period of time. This skill is something that must be acquired through practice, it isn't going to come over night. This skill might be developed by taking text and putting it into a scrolling text program, or even watching Chinese TV shows or movies without sound on. 
  7. Parroting: Do you like the way a certain actor talks in Chinese, then why not try to sound just like him? Like memorization, we can work on parroting native speakers to help increase speaking speed, regional accent, and even tones and pronunciation. This again isn't something that will come over night, but it could be very useful at high levels of Chinese. I'll be trying this out in the coming weeks and will be sure to include more details at that time.
  8. Stamina:Increase it! To quote from Dr. Kubler's own lecture notes: the ability to maintain high level of accuracy and fluency over a period of time (often under various kinds of stress) is very important to function at a professional level. How long can you speak Chinese in a single day before you get sloppy? How accurate can you be when giving a lecture or presentation in Chinese? These might not be things that the typical language learner needs, but it is certainly something that I have to work on. I have noticed that after about an hour of giving a presentation in Chinese I tend to get "sloppy" with tones. It is something I'll have to work on. 
The above is not a genearl guideline to language learning, but rather things we need to consider when trying to reach incredibly high levels of fluency in our target language. I for one will be working on these skills for the rest of my life. There is so much more to be said about these individual topics, but today I wanted to just get the big picture idea on the page. In the coming weeks I'll be writing about some of the things I'm trying out to increase my command of Chinese. 

Stay tuned! 


  1. haha, I too wish I could go back and change some of the decisions about my Chinese learning, just as I am jealous of all the resources available and exchange programs which have been setup over the past years... but well, so is life eh, gotta do with what we have, and keep iterating our method of learning a target language.
    Thanks for sharing all your tips and introspection.

  2. Btw, two questions for you :p
    - at what point did you feel comfortable writing essays in Chinese without having someone look over afterwards?
    - about getting a tutor, I'm thinking about getting some help for my writing (mainly), what do you think is a fair rate (in 臺幣)for a quality tutor as you described?

    1. Hi Ash,
      Thanks for your comments. I'll try my best to answer your two questions based on my own personal experience.

      1) After entering my program at NTNU and being forced to write a lot of weekly reports and papers I got pretty comfortable with writing comfortably in Chinese with relatively high confidence. That isn't to say that I don't make mistakes, but they are fewer and fewer with every paper I write. That, however, is not to say that I'm writing at a level that would be considered "academic." In order to produce that kind of writing I still need to have a native speaker check over my work. It is something that I've been meaning to address in the near future since I need to write a formal essay as my master's thesis.

      I think the issue before entering the program was not my inability to write comfortably in Chinese, but rather the lack of time that I simply spent writing, and reading as well. During my undergraduate degree I would write a few 200-500 character essays a semester (at most), where now I am writing at least one of those types of essays per week per class. Reviewing past corrections from teachers was the most important part of increasing my confidence in the language. Working with my teachers I take the writing process in two steps. First, I'm looking to identify any areas that are simply unclear in Chinese (or grammatically incorrect). Once those issues are resolved I can focus on making this more formal or colloquial receptively. That still requires the help of a native speaker, but it is the best way to improve.

      2) I would seek out a tutor who has some kind of advanced degree in Taiwan, who has teaching experience. I would guess that this kind of tutor would go for the rate of 600-800NT for about an hour and a half of lessons (and I would gladly pay it). Even doing this kind of thing with one essay per week (so 800NT or so) would be great, because it gives you time to go back an analyze mistaks and make improvements the next session. A tutor like this might be hard to find, and I wouldn't be shy about making your intentions clear. If a tutor isn't giving you the kind of feedback you need get rid of them and find another one.

      Hope that helps. Again, this is only based on my personal experience. Please be sure to let me know how your tutor hunt goes!


  3. Thanks for the feedback. A lot to think about definitely, good thing 寒假 is approaching!

  4. Jake, your section about parroting inspired me to post this, about my Accent Idols:


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