Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Is it "self-study" if you have a Chinese teacher?

I mentioned in my last post how my Chinese teacher helped me translate the world's funniest joke into Mandarin. Following that, I got a couple of DMs though Twitter and one email, asking me about how I can have a teacher when I also say that I self-study Chinese ... so I thought I would explain what I think the difference is.

In later posts I will explain how I chose my teachers, and exactly what a typical lesson looks like.

I have self-studied Chinese - I'm clear about that

About 99% of what I know is through listening to podcasts (90% was from ChinesePod and 10% was Popup Chinese), studying books & websites, working through flashcards (read my posts on the topic here), reading comics & children's stories, etc.

I have also learned by having conversations with people, asking questions, having language exchange partners, being corrected by strangers that I'm chatting with ... and having a teacher on & off.

I have not attended classes, lectures, or immersion programs. I therefore am happy with the label that "I have self-studied Chinese" - although I do gladly acknowledge all the help I have received from countless people along the way. (I am even grateful to one my one Chinese friend who, when hearing that I am learning Chinese, told me not to bother - as a foreigner I would never make much progress! Thank you thank you thank you for pissing me off enough to study harder :-)

my teachers

While in London, Athena and I would meet somewhere between once a week and once a month - and even though I haven't had a lesson with her in 1.5 years, we still stay in touch - it's wonderful how well you can get to know someone even when you're talking using really short sentences and simple words!

Now in Hong Kong, my teacher for the last couple of months has been Judy - we're meeting about once a week (though my travel schedule makes that a challenge!), and doing a variety of talking, reading, sentence dissection, etc.

your teachers

I am not saying that self-study is the only way, or even the best way. But for me, I wouldn't do it any other way. And of course people use their teachers in their own way.
  • One of my friends (he's in his late 30s) is learning Russian, and he meets a teacher every week. She's strict - and he's a little scared of her. So usually the night before their lesson he stays up late, doing homework, memorising words. Their relationship works because it's the fear of the teacher that gets him to study. I don't know how sustainable this is, but for now he is further than he otherwise would have been. I can't work that way, but it works for him.
  • Another friend (around 30) is learning German, and he also meets a teacher weekly. He doesn't fear her, but he uses her as an excuse. He seems to think that because he has a teacher he doesn't actually have to learn material himself. So he doesn't. He lived in Germany for two years, with weekly lessons, and I've watched him struggle to ask for a menu and a bottle of water in German. I couldn't let myself do this.
If a teacher helps you, then get one. If you can't afford one, then find a language exchange partner. But do what works for you. And remember that it's your life and your language learning. Please don't let a teacher dictate what & how you should do things ... when you stop enjoying you stop learning.

Ultimately you will only know a language when you can speak it, understand it, read it. There's lots to learn, and only you can do that - a teacher cannot do that for you. Successful language learning comes down to a massive chunk of self-study, so spend some time this year finding your self-motivation ...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The world's funniest joke (now available in Chinese :-)

I saw an article on the CNN website, where they announce: "The world's funniest joke has been revealed after a year-long search by scientists."

It's actually a joke I'd heard before, and it goes like this:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy takes out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps: "My friend is dead! What can I do?"  The operator says: "Calm down, I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead."  There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: "OK, now what?"

I memorised a joke in Mandarin about 2-3 years ago, and I've got great mileage from it since then - so I decided to translate this one, and will set about memorising it over the next few days. Because of the subtle wording required to make this joke work, I did this yesterday as an exercise with Judy, my Chinese teacher.

In case you'd also like to learn the joke, here it is joke in Chinese. (For an easy pinyin pronunciation of any of the words, here's a shortcut to MDBG.net's version.)

两个猎人在林子里打猎,其中一个突然昏倒了。看起来他没有呼吸,他的眼睛干瞪着。他的同伴打电话叫救护车。他说,“我的朋友死了,怎么办?” 接线生说,“冷静一点,我来帮你。首先确定他真的死了。”  安静了一下,那边穿来了一下枪声。同伴说,“好了,然后呢?”

So what was the first joke you memorised? You're welcome to copy it into a comment below, or at least provide a link if you have one.

Monday, November 28, 2011

I don't know nuffin' or nuffin'

OK, I know a little.  So I know enough to know that I don't know a lot, although for now I know enough.  But like most, I don't know what I don't know. You know what I mean? Oh no!

I. It was quite early on when I learned to say "I know" (我知道)(wǒ zhīdào). That was easy. And 'not knowing' was almost just as easy: 我知道 (wǒ zhīdào).

II. It took a little longer to be able to say "I know everything": 我什么都知道 (wǒ shénme dōu zhīdào). Of course I didn't actually know everything, but even *I* could memorise that sentence.

Yet that sentence bothered me!  You see people told me that Mandarin was just like English: subject-verb-object.   I eat fish. I photograph people. I know everything. But look at the sentence above: (我)(什么都)(知道): (I)(everything)(know).

So much for Mandarin being just like English. Sigh.

And I'm sure that someone will be able to explain to me why the above still is consistent with English, by referring to compound verbs, adverbial phrases, the genetive case, or even transferred epithets.

But I'm not a linguist, I'm just someone struggling to learn Chinese. And to me, Mandarin is not like English.

III. So imagine how frustrated I became when I realised that basically I know nothing. "I know nothing" 我什么都不知道 (wǒ shénme dōu bù zhīdào).

Breaking the sentence down, it looks like this: (I)(everything)(don't know).  My mind translated this as "I do not know everything" - which did not match the actual meaning.  My mind was blown: I didn't even know how to know nothing!

Let me just make sure you're following me. In English, if I know everyone in my street, then this means I know every single person who lives on my street. And if I know no-one on my street, then the number of people I know is zero. Not one.  However when I say I do not know everyone, what I mean is that I know some people, but not all people.

So the Chinese version 我什么都不知道 (wǒ shénme dōu bù zhīdào) didn't make sense to me - because it seems to relate to knowing nothing, rather than not knowing everything. Very different!  But this wasn't the time for logic. 我什么都不知道 (wǒ shénme dōu bù zhīdào) means "I know nothing". Memorise it. And I did.

IV. At the back of my mind I continued wondering how to tell people that I don't know everything. I know something, not nothing though, but also definitely not everything either. Earlier this year I asked Maggie (Hi Maggie!) how to say it. And this is what she said was a good option to understand the difference:
     I do not know everything
     bù​shì suǒyǒu de shìqing wo dōu zhīdào
     (not all the things)(I know)

With all due respect to the Chinese language, this feels really clumsy! Item IV is logical I guess, but it's not simple and it's certainly not obvious. Oh but it works. And as I keep reminding myself, this is Chinese. I can disagree as much as I want, but if this is it, then this is what I'll learn.

Apologies: I'm too scared to re-read this post before I press [publish]. I'm worried I'm going be so confused by my own confusion, that I'll just end up clicking [discard] and blame it on the entropy of the universe. Maybe you started reading this post believing that although you didn't know everything, you didn't 'know nothing'. But now you know for sure that you don't know what I thought you should know. But don't blame me. No! What you need to know is it's not my fault.

That's Chinese, you know.

(And if you think this post was long & confusing, make sure you do not click on this link.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Discovering Mandarin

So I was sitting in a restaurant the other day, and I noticed some Chinese writing on top of a nearby building (on the right you will see the picture I took at the time). Unconsciously I found myself trying to read it, which I tend to do all the time. I can't help it.

I had earlier discovered that you reach a point in your Chinese studies where you kinda pick words up along the way, you learn new words without trying.

It becomes partly about discovering Mandarin, and no longer just about learning Mandarin.

Here is my stream of consciousness as I tried to work the sign out ...
  • My eyes gravitated to 是主 which I immediately (mentally) translated as "is master"
  • So then my eyes settled on the 耶穌 on the left
  • I knew I had seen the first character 耶 before, but couldn't remember how to pronounce it, nor what it means
  • The second character 穌 I know well, from Scotland (蘇格蘭) and soda-water (蘇打水) - but I only seemed to remember how it was pronounced , and I couldn't remember the meaning!
  • For a fraction of a second, it felt hopeless - I couldn't work it out
  • Suddenly I noticed the cross in the middle (why didn't I notice it before?) and realised immediately that there was something of a religious theme going on
  • Right away, my mind clicked that the right probably meant "is Lord" ...
  • ... so the left in all likelihood must be "Jesus"
  • Another piece of the puzzle fitted in place with the second character being pronounced sū
  • So I deduced that the first probably sounds like "ye" - making the left half sound like "Yesu"
  • Got it!
Of course, the next time I see those words I won't have to go through that whole process - which probably took no more than a second or two anyway. But now I know a new word - and I wasn't even trying.

This has happened to me a number of times before - where I saw a word that I'd never known, and based on the context I worked out what it meant - and I've never forgotten it.
  • 防水 (fángshuǐ): I know that 防 means defend (from the expression 防不胜防 which I knew) and 水 is water, and after seeing what they were selling, it was easy to see that every was waterproof. Yes 防水 means waterproof.
  • In the shopping district part of Causeway bay, Hong Kong, there are a lot of signs with 水晶 (shuǐ​jīng) written out front - meaning "water bright", which I could similarly work out meant "crystal" from the context.
  • In a store in Taipei one I saw a sign on the wall which read "手工" (shǒu​gōng) which literally means "hand work" - and it was easy to deduce that it was indicating that the items there were hand-made. Now I know.
  • Other words that I discovered without learning included: 法院 (law court), 石油 (rock oil = petrol), 加油站 (add oil station = petrol station), 海绵 (sea cotton = sponge)
Chinese isn't easy, but it certainly seems to get easier over time!  And if you've discovered words this way too, please leave a note below, for others to share ...

Friday, August 12, 2011

A clever butcher uses a cleaver

If you were learning English, then the above sentence might be a good one to stick in your flashcards. Picturing a butcher who wears professorial glasses, holding a cleaver, might make it easier  - both visually and audio-wise - to remember the new word 'cleaver'. It's certainly more memorable then the sentence: "Use a cleaver to cut meat."

And this is the logic I've tried to use when finding new sentences to enter into my flashcard deck.

As you would have seen from my post a few months back about finding sentences, I use a variety of sources for my deck. But it was only when I was reviewing this sentence below, that I realised that there was a clever/cleaver trick that I was unconsciously using.

     Lennie stopped chewing and swallowed it whole
     Lúnní tíngzhǐ jǔjué, húlún yàn​le xiàqu​

While saying the sentence during my daily flashcard revision, I realised that this sentence had a clever/cleaver style of repetition in the words 'Lúnní​' and 'húlún'.  It's not a big thing, but I realised it was a bit of a mental crutch that I had indeed being relying on when learning the cards - and on a few occasions when I was trying to recall a word in conversation.

I went back through some of my flashcards, and found that so many sentences I'd chosen had inadvertently used this trick, and I've actually tried to be more intentional in this regard.

OK, so now that you know this trick, there really is nothing else to say. If you choose not to take advantage of this, that's your choice. But if you choose to use this, here are some sentences that I've found in my deck which someone was clever/cleaver in constructing.

If you'd like to copy these into your deck, feel free ...

     Bees store honey to get through winter
     mìfēng wèi guòdōng zhùcún fēngmì
     trick:  mìfēng vs fēng

     I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow
     wǒ tóu yi pèngdào zhěntou jiù shuìzháo le
     trick: tóu / zhěntou (although, you really should have noticed this without clever/cleaver sentences!)

     She sat there motionless, nothing can motivate her
     tā yidòng​budòng de zuò zài​nar, méiyǒu​shénme néng cùdòng tā
     trick: yidòng​budòng / cùdòng

     If you lose a credit card you should report it to the police
     diūshī xìnyòngkǎ yào xiàng jǐngchá bàoshī
     trick: diūshī  / bàoshī

     Don't disappoint your parents
     bùyào gūfù fùmǔ duì nǐde qīdài
     trick: gūfù / fùmǔ

     Mr Li the shopkeeper has two assistants
     Lǐ lǎobǎn yǒu liǎng gè zhùlǐ
     trick: Lǐ / zhùlǐ

And here are a number of other sentences that appear in my flashcards, but I'll leave you to do the translations yourself if you want to use them. The trick might be around using the same sound, the same character, or anything else that makes it easier to recall one word using another part of the sentence:

纤维 / 维生素
耳朵, 耳环, 耳机, 耳语, 耳子
他们企图蒙骗公众耳目 (cheat! sounds like 'qitu')

Just to be clear ... this is not a miracle. This will not take you from a beginner to intermediate in record time. But it will make it a little easier to remember words, and since you're already investing time in learning Chinese, you may as well take advantages of clever/cleaver tricks like this.

Don't butcher it!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

How many flashcards does it take to change a lightbulb?

Some people do it daily (some people wish they did it daily!), and others only do it infrequently, or even never.

For me, spending time on flashcards has become an (almost) daily routine. I have recently already written that you should just do it, about how effective it has been for me, and to tell you how to test whether you should be using flashcards - so take a look if you haven't seen those articles.

In this next in the series, I wanted to go personal (yes, even more personal than writing about my love affair - In fact, I'm going to let you look into my actual set of flashcards, through sample sentences, numbers & dates.

Deck Statistics
Anki has a feature which gives you a whole bunch of facts about your specific deck. Here are some of mine, covering the deck itself, as well as how I've used it.

total numbers
  • deck created 2.1 years ago
  • total number of 'facts' is 1530 (a fact contains english, pinyin, simplified hanzi and (sometimes) traditional hanzi too)
  • total number of cards is 3680 (in the early days, a fact only generated two cards: english-to-pinyin & pinyin-to-english; but after a while I extended it to three: english-to-pinyin/simplified/traditional, simplified-to-english/pinyin/traditional, pinyin-to-english/simplified/traditional)
  • according to Anki, 76% of my cards are 'mature' (I've basically seen these often enough that they're 'known', 6% are 'young' (I'm currently actively working through them), and 18% are unseen.
  • In the last week I did 500 cards, averaging about 70 a day. According to Anki, I missed one day in the last week.
  • My average over the last 3 months is 45 cards a day, and over the last year is 52 cards a day. 
  • Since the deck was created, I have averaged 53 cards a day, and used Anki just under 5 days a week.
  • Since the beginning, I have added less than 5 cards a day, but this has only been around 2 a day in the last year. (Remember that by entering a single 'fact' Anki automatically generates a number of 'cards' - so I would say this averages about 2 new physical entries a day, that's all.)
sample entries

From humble beginnings ...
  • The first six entries in my deck are:  (know / zhīdào / 知道), (formal / zhèngshì / 正式), (about / guānyú / 关于), (accept,approve / tóngyì / 同意), (after / zhīhòu / 之后), (agree / shuōhǎo / 说好).
To a long way down the line ...
  • The six latest entries are:
  1. profit commission adjustment request / 盈佣调整询问函
  2. There were a lot of groupies at the Michael Jackson concert in Japan / 迈克尔·杰克逊在日本的演唱会招来了许多追星族
  3. to accumulate over a long period of time / 日积月累
  4. Unless you say it so that your word becomes another, then it's no problem / 除非你说的词变成另外一个词,否则没问题
  5. tomorrow;daybreak / 明天;天明
  6. You have to tighten up the handle, it has become loose / 柄松动了,你得把螺丝拧紧

I think you'll agree that I've improved my skill level over the last two years!  And don't let this mislead you ... I don't know all the latest ones. For example, I recently needed to know the word 'loose' while talking to someone and realised I didn't know how to say that. So I looked it up in the dictionary, found a good sentence, and entered it into my deck. A few weeks will pass before this sentence comes up to the top of the pack, and then I will 'learn' it through spaced-repetition.

So that's me

If you'd like to share some of your desk statistics, I'd love to see them - whether you're a beginner or really advanced.

Most interestingly, I would love it if you could leave a comment below to say what your first few words were, what your most recent entries are, and what the time period is in between.

And if you've just started a deck of your own, perhaps since reading this series on flashcards, let us know what your first few entries have been.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The 'Redneck' guide to flashcards

Using flashcards for the purpose of studying Chinese might not be for everyone. I gave my best recommendation in this regard in the first article in the series, but if you're looking for a slightly more 'personalised' recommendation, then this article will guide you on what is best for you.

With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy and his "You might be a redneck if ..." series of one-liners.

You know you should be using flashcards if ...
  • When you find yourself (again!) ordering "diet coke" in English in a Chinese restaurant instead of "Jiànyí​ Kelè" ... you should be using flashcards.
  • If you keep getting confused between left & right in Chinese ... you should be using flashcards.
  • If you keep asking your martial arts instructor if you have good sperm, instead of good power ('jing') ... you should be using flashcards.
  • If you can never quite remember the difference between 必须 and 必需 ... you should be using flashcards.
  • If you looked up a word last week but you can't remember the answer ... you should be using flashcards.
  • If you listen to Chinese music, and there is one word you keep hearing in songs but you still don't know what it means ... you should be using flashcards.
  • If there is a Chinese character you see all over town, and you keep forgetting what it means ... you should be using flashcards.
  • If you keep saying 'foreskin' when you mean to say 'briefcase' ... you should be using flashcards. 
  • If you find yourself asking your Chinese friend for the 8th time, "How do you say 'influence' again?" ... you should be using flashcards.
  • If you don't know which of "我什么都不知道" or "我不知道什么都" is actually correct ... you should be using flashcards.
  • If you can't remember the Chinese equivalent of "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" ... you should be using flashcards. 
  • If you sometimes visit Chinese websites, and you're always seeing a button that says "取消" but you don't know what it means ... you should be using flashcards. 
  • If you listen to conversations, Mandarin radio or Chinese TV and there are words you still don't know ... you should be using flashcards. 
  • If you are studying Chinese ... you really should be using flashcards.

And what about you? What was it in your life that convinced you that you should be using flashcards?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

My long romance with flashcards

In my previous post on the topic, I recommended very strongly that you should be using flashcards as part of your Chinese-learning efforts.

In this post I'd like to write a bit about how my relationship with flashcards has gone, and why I find it one of the most useful tools available to progress one's learning.


When I started with flashcards, I used a program that was not SRS-based, which was a terrible mistake. A random-card system was fine in school when you were trying to revise the capital cities of the world, but not when you're using it as a tool to learn Chinese words. I would learn a word, and then it wouldn't appear again for weeks, by which time I'd have to learn it again. Or words that I already knew well would keep coming up - wasting my time. So I gave up on flashcards.

But it wasn't long after that I found Anki, which felt so natural that I haven't stopped using it since then.

Setting it up 

Some people load up pre-made decks when they begin - for example there are beginner's Chinese packs available that you can you download directly into Anki. However in my case, there were just a few dozen words that I wanted to learn (or so I thought!), so I chose to set up my own deck and start with only words that I cared about.

I built three fields for each 'fact':  English, pinyin, simplified Chinese. And for each 'fact', I built two 'cards' - one where the English was the question, and pinyin & Chinese were the answer; and one where pinyin was the question and English & Chinese were the answer.

To be honest, I didn't even look at the Chinese writing, I was a beginner and I stuck with English & pinyin.

Phrases & Sentences

Over time, knowing individual words wasn't enough. I needed to use sentences, and frankly my grammar was rubbish. Some of the words I was adding were coming from the About.com daily words email, and ever-practical I realised it would take just as long to copy a word into my deck as to copy a sentence - and thus it began.

Again, although my deck is made up of words & sentences that I have added myself, you can choose to take the route of downloading a pre-made deck directly into Anki, one of which is called "20,000 Chinese Sentences". Whatever works for you.

I slowly got into Chengyu (I've written about that guilty pleasure before) and have also added a few into my deck over time.

(Here are two screenshots [1] [2] of cards from my deck, if that helps give you context.)


To make sure that I was learning words that I would be likely to use in future, whenever I looked up a word in my dictionary, and I felt that I really wanted to remember it, it became automatic to copy that word into my deck too. Took just a few seconds to make another card.

(See "Why a meal is worth more to me than my grandmother" for more thoughts on sticking to relevant learning.)

Earlier on I was just copying the word (including English, pinyin & Chinese), but over time I made sure that I found a sentence that used the word. This gave the word a context, made it easier to remember than just a lonesome word, improved my grammar, and sometimes included other useful words to learn too.

This use of sentences was so valuable to my learning that I wrote an article called Getting Sentenced in Mandarin, about how to track down good sentences.

I don't know if building up a deck from scratch sounds like a lot of effort, but if you're only doing a few a day, and since you're just copying & pasting, then it's really quick.

Do not let flashcards be your excuse. Do not spend so much time building up a deck that you never get around to using it to learn.

Chinese characters

Although I learned to recognise a few characters simply by virtue of the fact that my cards included the Chinese writing, this was incidental. It was only a couple of years ago, when I started to formally learn to read Chinese (here is Day 0 of that adventure) that I changed my flashcard practice. Instead of only using English or pinyin as the questions in Anki, I also set it to show me the Chinese version of the words & sentences I had already entered. In Anki, this change took about a minute to make - it's a great program.

And of course, having moved to Hong Kong late last year, I am now surrounded by traditional Chinese characters - but my deck was populated with simplified characters! Making some easy edits to my deck format, I added an extra field, and then any sentences that I added after that time would also get the traditional characters added too. I don't test myself based on the traditional characters, but I am still able to compare the two systems when looking at the card. And for now, that's enough.

Getting technical

More recently, rather than focusing on words from general conversation, I'm taking the time to build up vocab that I am likely to hear in meetings, or read in documents. Since I'm in the financial sector, these words include things like: assets, credit rating agency, cost of capital, assess, reserves, medical insurance, etc.

The process is the same as I've been doing - I find a word I want to learn, look it up, explore sentences of the various results to make sure I've got the right word in the right context, and then copy it into my deck. Usually it takes a few days or a few weeks before that new entry makes it into the queue for me to start learning.

So that's it for me and deck. I would love to hear about you and yours ...

Friday, July 1, 2011

Flashcards: just do it

There's a lot of debate about whether you should use flashcards for learning Chinese. And perhaps the advice I should give you is: Use it if it works for you, and don't use it if it doesn't work for you.


But I should also state that I have benefited so massively from the use of flashcards, that I really believe you should use it - regardless of whether you think it might be useful or not.

Just do it.

My use of flashcards has evolved over the years, and that's probably why I'm still getting value out of them, starting with individual words (excluding Chinese characters), progressing through to much more complex sentences which include the hanzi.

I use Anki, which is an SRS (spaced repetition system) program that runs on most operating systems. It's incredibly intuitive, very flexible, and free. You may as well install it now, if you haven't already done so, and you can learn more about how to use it optimally in the next few posts I write.

One of the more common arguments against using flashcards is that if you are reading books & newspapers & websites in Chinese, then you will end up learning the most common words anyway, without wasting your time on words that you might almost never see.

But most students of Chinese are not at that level, and therefore most students really should be focusing on accumulating words as quickly as possible. The more words you know, the more you will understand and the more you will be able to say. A flashcard system is, in my opinion, the best way to get there.

So if you're an advanced student, flashcards might not be for you. But for anyone else ... Just do it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

So how many words do I know?

I've been wondering for some time now how many Mandarin words I know. It's funny though, because I have no idea what my wordcount is in English (and frankly I don't care) but somehow this number for Mandarin is a measure of progress, and I do care.

So here are two estimates of my Mandarin wordcount - which unfortunately do not tie up together at all :-)

Method 1 - flashcards
My self-estimate was around 5000 words, based on almost no science whatsoever.

I noted that with the Anki flashcard desk I have created over the last couple of years, that about 1500 'facts' are mature which I know well, and another 500 are in progress. In the early days the facts were just one word per card, but as I've progressed I've mainly been adding sentences - which itself probably contains somewhere between 1-6 new words. So if I assume on average a 'fact' contains two words, that's 4000 I probably know. Then add another 1000 for words which I know but aren't in my Anki set, and that's 5000.

No science, but I believed to it be true.

Method 2 - statistical sampling
I came across another method on Hugh Grigg's excellent East Asia Student blog, which uses the Known Chinese Words Test of zhtoolkit.com. Naturally, I quickly cleared some time this afternoon, and ran through the test.

Basically it splits "the entire" Chinese vocabulary (36,000 words) into into a number of groups, from very common words to very uncommon words. It then samples 165 words (15 per group) and notes how many you get right each time.

The conclusion of the test is that I know just over 11,000 words. Wow - that's more than double what I thought. So either I thought wrongly, or Chad's method produces very large over-estimates.

Obviously the more words he tests you against, the better the estimate would be. I think users should be given the option of taking a quick test (current 165 questions) or a slow test (say, 500 questions), which would improve the estimate dramatically. Let me show you what I mean ...
  • The first group is made up of the most common 125 words, where I got 100% (of the 15 questions) right. This starts my total words known at 125. Good.
  • The same applies to the second group of 125 words - taking me to a total of 250. Still good.
  • In the third group I only got 80% of the 15 questions, and since this group has 250 words, it adds just 200 (80% of 250) to my total. Still OK, taking me to 450 words so far.
  • This continues through more groups, each getting bigger, although still only getting 15 questions to sample. Naturally, since the  words are being decreasingly less common, you would expect your hit rate to fall - and mine did.
  • In the last group (words 24,001-36,000) I got 5/15 right, so this is extrapolated to these 12,000 words to deduce that I know 4000 words in this class. I'm flattered.  
In the last group, that 4000 makes a massive contribution to my total of 11,050 - but is just based on my knowing 5 words out of 15 tested. Of course his test shows a huge standard deviation in that group (1460!) but given how important this contribution is to the total (because it's such a large group) there really ought to be many more questions to get the deviation to a reasonable number.

Looking at it in a different way, if you split all words into just two groups: the most common 10,000, and the least common 26,000, I find it odd that I appear to known 4000 in the first group, and 7000 in the least common group. Instinctively that doesn't make sense, and yet you can't argue with his method (other than the small sample size).

Anyway ... 
I don't want to get carried away with detail (and part of me wants to believe my total really is 11,000 :-) . Maybe the real answer lies somewhere between 5000 and 11,000 - I don't know. But I would be interested to redo this test every now and then, and see how I progress.

Just to clarify in closing, I'm really supportive of the zhtoolkit wordcount tool,  and although I think it can still be improved, it was a really interesting exercise and well worth doing.

So if you're feeling brave, do the test (it really doesn't take long) and let us know your score.

Be counted.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Chinese Scribbles

About a year ago, I took a week off to hang out in Yangshuo, near Guilin. If you're ever planning time in southern China, this is a must-visit. The photo to the right was taken right out of my hotel room window! (Apologies for the quality, it was taken with my mobile, through a closed window.)

I chose to travel alone for that week, for two reasons. Firstly, I was planning on spending a few hours a day doing volunteer-teaching at a local English school, and secondly I wanted to practise speaking Chinese - and having an English-speaking friend with me would have been a distraction. (If you remember, last January I wrote about ideas for things I could volunteer with while in China, and ended up choosing the teach-English option.)

At the time of my travels, I had scribbled some notes about what I was experiencing - as a Mandarin student - intending to write an article about it for Mandarin Segments. However, I lost those notes, and the article was never written. Until now.

Yes, this morning I found an old backup file from my previous Blackberry, containing some of the scribbles.

This post is just a set of bullet points from my time there, all in relation to learning Mandarin. I would love to hear from you if any of these strike a chord with you too.

  • I arrived in Beijing, and then took a shuttle to a different part of the airport in order to get my flight to Guilin. As the shuttle bus was pulling up, an announcement came over the speakers which said, "The terminal has arrived."  I smiled to myself, pleased that people make mistakes from Chinese to English, and therefore I shouldn't feel guilty if I made mistakes over the next week going from English to Chinese.
  • In Beijing airport, I overheard one security guard starting a conversation with another, where he started of his sentence as follows, "Gum'r ..."  I had heard that expression in a ChinesePod lesson before - it means "dude" - but this is the first time I had heard it in the wild
  • (It's actually written: 哥们儿 (gēmenr), or just ​哥们 (gēmen) if you're not in Beijing.)
  • Then, while riding the bus from Guilin to Yangshuo, I learned my first word of the trip, without trying. We drove past a petrol station, and I remember seeing the following characters as part of the name of the petrol company: 石油 (shíyóu). I already knew that 石 means 'rock' and 油 means 'oil' - so I deduced that 石油 must mean petrol ("gas", for the Americans reading this :-). So easy.
  • Also on that bus, I sat next to a Chinese woman who works in Yangshuo - and we swapped language-learning horror stories. I remember her correcting some of my tones, which I appreciated. And I taught her how to say, "She sells seashells on the sea shore" - you should have seen the joy on her face when she finally recited it free of errors.
  • While doing some shopping along the famous West Street, I spoke Chinese every chance I got. I remember the one vendor was absolutely shocked that I knew how to read the characters: 孙子 (Sūnzǐ, or Sun Tzu - author of The Art of War), and that I knew the Chinese word for 'pearls' (珍珠, or zhēnzhū​- although I only knew that because I knew how to say "pearl bubble tea" in Chinese :-)
  • Even though we were well within the borders of the People's Republic of China, I was surprised that there was so much writing in 'traditional' and not the 'simplified' script. I remember discussing it with the one waitress at a coffee shop, trying to understand why 'traditional' was being used. A couple of days later I stopped at the same place for another great coffee, and I remember the waitress asking me (in English), "Are you the traditional Chinese guy?"  Haha - I've never been called that before.
  • In comparison with my previous trip to China, it was clear to me that I was understanding a greater proportion of the conversations that I was over-hearing. Small victories ... huge pleasure ...
  • Then there was the evening when I ate a pig's penis. I passed a stall that was selling everything on skewers - all you had to do is choose what sticks you want, they'd grill it and then serve it. I could easily identify the prawns, the beef, the larvae, and the snake. But there was one I couldn't identify - although I guessed what it was! The waiters spoke no English, but I could understand zhū (pig: 猪 or 豬), and zàng (organ: 脏 or 臟). I asked them to point where on my body I could find this organ (after all, it might have been the spleen, for example) but the girls just giggled and the guys just shrugged. I kept the receipt, and have since been able to confirm that 猪鞭 (zhūbiān) is indeed a pig's penis.
  • In case you're wondering it's extremely long, thin, and really crunchy due to the cartilage. Yes, crunchy.
  • I was constantly being harassed by people trying to get me to go on their bamboo boat rides. In other cities, "zhēnde bùyào' (真的不要)("I really don't want it") has normally been very effective for getting these people to leave me alone. But even that was not powerful enough for the hawkers in Yangshuo! But I quickly discovered that my saying "wǒ yǐjīng qù guò le" ("我已经去过了")("I've already been") was all I needed to be left alone.
  •  My first few attempts at this involved saying "我已经去了" - but after two of these hawkers corrected my grammar :-)  I moved to the longer sentence of "我已经去了". I didn't want to give the impression that I had already "passed over" and thus was dead.
  • Sometimes I would ask a question (like: Where is the stairway?) and they would answer me. I wouldn't understand so I'd ask them to repeat. They would say it again using the same words at the same speed. I'd ask them to repeat, and it was almost like a comedy sketch - it didn't matter how many times I'd ask them to repeat, they would also maintain the same speed and use the same words - no attempt to slow down, no attempt to clarify. 
  • (I normally stopped asking after 5 repeats, and pretended I finally understood them. Then I'd go ask someone else.)
  • The one evening I met a Chinese woman who was working in Yangshuo and also an Israeli guy who was there for the rock climbing - and the three of us strangers spent the evening chatting. It was rather a surreal experience, trying to explain to her what a Jew is, since she'd never come across the concept before!
  • Interestingly, the waitress serving us claimed to have a Masters degree in linguistics. It's an easy claim for anyone to make, but on the basis of the conversations we had with her, I would say I really did believe her.
  • It's funny - when you're learning Chinese you sometimes memorise words that you think you're unlikely to ever use again. In my case, one such word was 翅膀 (chìbǎng)  - meaning 'wings'. And yet I am pleased to report that I did use that word, in Yangshuo! I was trying on a pair of trousers, and they really seemed to be "flappy" at the sides. She was trying to understand why I didn't like them - so I pulled on the pockets and explained it's because the trousers have 'wings'. She laughed as she got it - and went off to find a better pair for me.
In general, I had lots of conversations. And I got a lot of compliments. But I'm not deluding myself - I know what standard my Chinese is! After all, when they compliment me after I say "nǐhǎo" (你好)(hello), that was my clue that they hadn't yet done a full assessment. But they were nevertheless very genuine about their pleasure that a foreigner went as far as nǐhǎo, and that felt good.

I also made a lot of mistakes. And yet I felt no embarrassment whatsoever - I was pleased to be trying, and sometimes succeeding.

No matter what your level of Chinese, go spend some time in China - ideally outside the big cities (where English is an easy way out). Go practise - it's amazing how much your confidence and your 'flow' will increase after that.

I look forward to hearing about your experiences ...

Thursday, March 31, 2011

MyPaper, my vocab

I just came back from a business trip to Singapore, where I discovered MyPaper, a newspaper that is handed out for free at MTR stations. (It also has an electronic version of the 'paper' on the website.)

The first thing I like about the paper is that it's available in both English and Chinese. That's really useful for Mandarin students.

The second thing I really like about it is that with many of the articles, it has got a short vocab list at the end of the article. Here are some examples:

So if you're looking to learn current and relevant words, or to practise your reading, try to spend some time at the MyPaper website - I'm impressed.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Chinese Idiom in the hand is worth two in the bush

We have Idioms in English.

Every cloud has a silver lining. The early bid catches the worm. Better late than never.   But as many as we have (and as many as you were forced to memorise during your years at school) nothing comes close to the Chinese system of Chéngyǔ  (成语 / 成語 - which means 'set phrases').

Chengyu, in the strict sense, are four-character idioms, and according to Wikipedia there are over 5000 of them. Children spend a lot of time learning them at school, so you can be damn sure you're going to come across them often.

This post is not to get you like Chengyu, or even to start memorising them. But it's what happened in my own Mandarin-learning life around these idioms - just an unconnected series of personal anecdotes (although if you can see the hidden connection then well done!).

In the beginning
I had heard about some Mandarin students dedicating a lot of their time to learning Chengyu, but at the time I was thrilled if I could just remember how to say "I'm from South Africa" in decent Mandarin. So I promised myself I would never memorise any. Unfortunately, as your level increases, you can't avoid them - they come up more often that you'd like.

Losing my virginity
My first Chengyu was in a London dimsum restaurant called Ping Pong, which has the ceiling covered in a wall-paper with Chengyu written all over it. At that stage, my reading skills were rubbish, but looking around I saw one that I could actually read!

开门见山  (kāi​mén​jiàn​shān).  Literally, this is: open door see mountain. Can you work out what that means?

Open door see mountain. I had fallen in love with Chengyu. So simple, so direct. Wow - I could memorise millions of these!

I hate Chengyu
A few days later I was speaking with a Chinese friend about my new-found love, and she asked me what that particular Chengyu meant. So I explained my understanding: It was kinda like Nike's "Just do it!"  Open the door, see the mountain. It's right outside.

But I was wrong, she explained. The actual meaning is "Get right to the point."  This was so annoying, for two reasons.  Firstly, she was right - I spoke with several people, and looked up several resources on the net, and she was right. Secondly, my interpretation made more sense than hers. But no matter how much I argued, I couldn't change a few thousand years of habit for the Chinese.

Chengyu were not obvious, they were not simple. And I hated them.

Love at first sight
OK, so I learned to relax when I came across another one:  一见钟情 (yī​jiàn​zhōng​qíng). Literally, this means "one look bell emotion". Basically, it's just "love at first sight" - which was relatively intuitive, and my dislike for Chengyu started to fade again. (Love is fickle, eh?)

Which reminds me of 好久不见 (hǎo​jiǔ​bu​jiàn), which literally means 'long time no see', and the idioatic meaning is, uhm, 'long time no see'.  In fact, even though it's four characters long, it's so literally correct that I'm not sure if it's idiomatic enough to be called Chengyu. (Amusingly, I've got Chinese friends who insist that the West stole the phrase 'long time no see' from the Chinese. OK.)

Have you lost your horse?
Some Chengyu require you to understand the back-story to understand the meaning. So with "open door see mountain", although my definition is better than the actual definition :-) at least now that I know what it should mean, I won't forget.

But take for example, 塞翁失马 (sài​wēng​shī​mǎ). You can spend as much time as you want with the dictionary, you're not going to get it yourself. If you get the literal translation, you've got something like "block old-man lose horse". What?

Actually, 塞翁 is the name of a person - it has nothing to do with blocking old men from losing their horse. The back-story is in fact well known to Westerners, in various guises. Basically, Saiweng has a horse that runs away, but he doesn't take that as bad news. Months later it comes back with another, but he doesn't take that as good news either. His son then goes riding on the new horse and breaks his arm - which Saiweng doesn't take as bad news. Then a war breaks out, and his son avoids conscription because of the broken arm ... and so on.

This actually remind me of another 'story' I remember from school:
     A man takes a ride in an airplane.
     Unfortunately he falls out.
     Fortunately he has a parachute.
     Unfortunately it doesn't work.
     Fortunately there is a haystack below him.
     Unfortunately there is a pitchfork sticking out.
     Fortunately he misses the pitchfork.
     Unfortunately he misses the haystack.

But I digress ...

Do you know that?
I was reading through Carl Gene's excellent blog,  and in his one post about love idioms, I saw the following:  藕断丝连  (ǒuduànsīlián), which he describes as follows: "The lotus root is severed, but linked by threads. This chengyu metaphorises the idea of a relationship breaking up, but still being connected in some kind of way."

Nice concept, but frankly I had no idea what he was talking about. Lotus root threads? What?  So I did some searching, and came across the following really interesting article, with a whole bunch of pictures.

I did not know that!

Chengyu joke

Brilliant, isn't it??  (Actually, I couldn't see why that should be funny. See if you can work it out, even after  you've read the explanation!)

My most recent Chengyu
And to wrap up the article, I'll mention that recently a colleague of mine was visiting HK from our Beijing office (he's German, fluent in Mandarin), and the topic of Chengyu came up. He immediately announced that his favourite (and indeed his first) is ...

画蛇添足   (huà​shé ​tiān​zú​) - literally "paint a snake, append a foot".  Its meaning is to do with over-doing it, or to do something superfluous to ruin the effect. That's a great Chengyu (although I still haven't had the chance to use it)!

Chengyu tools
So that's my life's relationship with Chengyu, an apparently unconnected set of stories. I'd love to hear about your experiences, whether failures or favourites, so drop us a note below ...

In the meantime, here are some other sites that might interest you:
     Wikipedia article on Chengyu
     Chengyu Dicionary: by Chinese-Tools.com
     MDBG idioms: all 250 entries where the word "idiom" appears
     Ten Chinese love idioms by Carl Gene
     Twenty actually useful Chengyu by Carl Gene
     Ten Chinese idioms to do with animals by ChineseHacks
     My Chengyu Top Ten by Sinosplice

Sunday, February 20, 2011

In space, no-one can hear you learn vocabulary

There's a great little character (actually it's the same size as all other characters :-) that comes up really often in Mandarin, so it's worth spending a moment with it.

If you're a beginner, the content of this article may be new to you; and even if you're intermediate, then there are probably still words that are new.

Overall in the WordPack context, this is an example of what we discussed recently about being an active learner, when reasonable beavers co-operate.

The root of all time & space
Our starting point is 间 (間) which is pronounced 'jiān'. You can get the full definition at MDBG, but for our purposes, it comes down to "time & space".

When 间 (jiān) is used to mean 'space', these are some of the resulting words:

空间 (kōng​jiān) space (literally empty space)
房间 (fáng​jiān) room (literally house space)​
洗手间 (xǐ​shǒu​jiān) bathroom (literally wash hands room)
雅间 (yǎ​jiān) private room
田间 (tián​jiān) farming area / village (literally field space)

When 间 (jiān) is used to mean 'time', these are some of the resulting words:

时间 (shí​jiān​) time (perhaps literally this is: time space)
日间 (rì​jiān​) day-time (literally sun time)
夜间 (yè​jiān​) night-time (literally night time)
北京时间 (Běijīng Shíjiān​) Chinese Standard Time
格林尼治标准时间 (Gé​lín​ní​zhì​biāo​zhǔn​shí​jiān​) Greenwich Mean Time, GMT (ignore the literal meaning here, this is more of a transliteration)

Special Mentions
I've put these into a separate group because they have a bit of an 'angle' on them:

之间 (zhī​jiān) between
外层空间 (wài​céng​kōng​jiān) outer space (literally outside stratum empty space)
空间站 (kōng​jiān​zhàn) space station (literally empty space platform)
网络空间 (wǎng​luò​kōng​jiān) cyberspace
三维空间 (sān​wéi​kōng​jiān) three-dimensional space
坐标空间 (zuò​biāo​kōng​jiān) coordinate space (maths)
拓扑空间 (tuò​pū​kōng​jiān) topological space (maths)

How many of these words will you remember next week?  Are you really progressing over time?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reasonable beavers co-operate

The meeting

I was in a meeting in Taipei recently which was being run in Mandarin. Although I was able to follow the general flow of the discussion, the extensive use of technical terms meant I was really missing the meaty bits.

There was one word which, during part of the debate, kept coming up: "hé li" (although I couldn't quite get the tone on the second character, given the pace of debate).

Back at the office, I looked it up in my usual MDBG dictionary, and saw a few words that matched 'heli', being:

   合理    hé​lǐ​    rational / reasonable / fair
   河狸    hé​lí​    beaver
   合力    hé​lì​    cooperate

These words

These are all good words, I decided, and I didn't want to forget them. So I copied them into my flashcard pack. However, rather than copying them as separate words, I thought their similarity made them easier to learn as a pack (in the usual WordPack logic), like this:

   合理 / 河狸 / 合力
   hé​lǐ / hé​lí / hé​lì​
   reasonable / beaver / co-operate

(And amusingly, each time one of these words come up, I immediately hear the sentence "reasonable beavers co-operate" in my head. Now I'll never forget!)

This article

I wrote this short article, not specifically to teach you these three words (although it would be a pity if you didn't take the time to learn them quickly now), but to challenge your thinking ...

When you come across a new word, what thoughts go through your mind?
  • [no thoughts]
  • Oh, that's a new word (... now what's for lunch?)
  • I will come back and memorise it later
  • I'll quickly memorise it now
  • Do I know any synonyms for that word?
  • What other words sound the same?
  • Let me try make a sentence with that word
  • I will use that word at least once today (and also once tomorrow (and also once next week (and also ...)))
Just to be clear, I don't have the time to do this with every new word I discover, but I do it often enough that I definitely have a materially larger vocab than I would otherwise if I didn't practise active learning.

The Truth

How active a learner are you?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Heisig: my just desserts

I was reminded recently that there is a large gap between knowing individual Chinese characters, and being able to understand what the entire phrase or sentence might mean.

This is already an idea I know well, I certainly mentioned it a few times in my series on learning to read using the Heisig system, and I've left numerous comments on others' blogs to that effect.

Nevertheless, I felt this example was 'extreme' enough to be worth sharing.

As you can see from the photo attached, there is an item on this late-night dessert place, which says:

(By the way, I did screw up a bit by initially confusing the 杏 character with 否. Forgive me?)

Anyway ... so doing what I normally do, I tried to work out what the dessert was. Actually, from my Heisig days, I knew the meaning of every character, which are as follow:
    = South North apricot wood melon snow ear

I had no idea what that was!   (All I could guess was that there was melon in there.)

It's easy enough to put this through a dictionary, but even here, it doesn't get much better, because I'm still left with:
    = South North apricot [papaya] snow ear

Upon discussing this with a HK friend, it turns out that the expressions are Cantonese in nature, and so knowing Mandarin (or using a Mandarin dictionary) isn't going to help much. But I persisted ...

Now, using human input and a Cantonese dictionary, I discover that the grouping should be as follows:
    (almond)(papaya)(white fungus)

Aside: According to Wikipedia, apricot kernels are sometimes used instead of bitter almonds, but it seems to be accepted in HK amongst those I spoke to that when they see 南北杏 they generally take it to mean 'almond'. White Fungus, in this case, does indeed look more ear-like than mushroom-like.

So there we have it. (Although *I* didn't have it.  No, I ate some kind of warm red bean soup instead. Mainly because I didn't need a dictionary for that one!).

Chinese seems hard, but it's actually harder than that! :-)

Can you recall any specific words that you learned along the way where the word or phrase looks *nothing* like the characters which make it up? If so, please leave a comment below.