July 21, 2009

tools 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 5:33 pm

I tend to ramble a lot, and when I go back and read what I’ve written I can see how people might get lost, so I’ll try to keep this post on track. I’m going to talk about what I currently think is the best approach to learning Mandarin. I’ll try to refrain from talking about why each thing is useful, and instead link to where I first talk about it. Or I’ll write about it at a later time if I feel I need to.

So here it is: the approach I’d recommend to an absolute beginner of Mandarin, assuming you’re learning Simplified Chinese rather than Traditional Chinese. If you’re learning Traditional, much of this will be no help.

What you need:

A computer w/ internet connection – Congrats! If you’re reading this, you have completed this step!

A Palm PDA – Just about any Palm will do. I got mine 4 years ago (OS 4.1) and it works great. You can buy a used Palm m130 on Ebay for about $40. A Pocket PC could work too, but you’re on your own finding the software for it.

A VCD player – Your DVD player should support this, but if not, use your computer’s CD-ROM drive.

China Panorama: Approaching Chinese – You need the VCDs (and the MP3 CD that is included) and the books.

Audacity – A free audio editing program for PC, Mac, or Linux (so you have no excuse).

CD Player – If you don’t own one, you have bigger issues than learning Mandarin. A repeat function is essential.

ZDT – This has a built-in dictionary, plus the stroke order for many of the characters, and other features.

Paper & Pen – For practicing writing.

CJKOS – This is an IME that allows you to read and type Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters on your Palm. It costs $28 but is necessary if you want to use Supermemo or anything else that deals with Chinese characters.

Supermemo – Fantastic flashcard program for multiple platforms. I recommend the Palm version because of portability, so you have no excuse not to use it.

Optional Stuff:

iPod – Just about everyone has one of these anyway, but it’s handy for learning on the go.

Reading & Writing Chinese: Simplified Character Edition – William McNaughton’s fantastic reference for 3000+ of the most common Chinese characters, including pronunciation, definition, stroke order, an even which HSK list it appears on.

Wenlin – A little pricey, but very good. This is a computer program designed for learners of Chinese. I haven’t even figured out all the cool stuff it can do, but I’ve already found some very useful stuff that I’m incorporating into my program.

Chinesepera-kun – A popup annotator for Firefox. When it is turned on, you can roll over some Chinese text and a window will pop up with the pronunciation and definition for each word.

KDIC or PlecoDict – These are dictionaries for your Palm. PlecoDict is a bit expensive while KDIC is free, but I’ve heard the PlecoDict is very much worth the price. I haven’t used it yet, and KDIC will do if you don’t want to drop $100.

Pinyinput – Free IME developed by a user that allows you to type pinyin easily on your PC.

Other texts, tools, etc. – I have other things, but they are all supplementary to my program, used for a change of pace. Some are free, such as games for Palm, and some are pricey, such as Pimsleur and New Practical Chinese Reader (neither of which do I really like at all).

That’s it! Assuming you already own a computer, a CD player, and a DVD/VCD player, the rest of the required stuff should only set you back by about $200. This will be enough for about 8-12 months of study, taking you well into the intermediate stage of learning (which I won’t touch on because I’m not there yet).

The Method:

Phase One – pronunciation and pinyin:

There are sounds in Mandarin that do not exist in English. No matter how hard you try, or how much you listen, you will have a hard time distinguishing between and producing these sounds without some good training. You hear through a “filter” of your own native language, especially if that is currently the only language you speak. There are sounds that are considered different in Mandarin that the English speaker’s ear will hear as being the same such as ‘x’ and ‘sh.’ They may sound a bit different to you, but even still, odds are you’ll pronounce them both the same way you’d pronounce ‘sh’ in English.

Enter FSI Standard Chinese: A Modular Approach. The first part of this course is called Pronunciation and Romanization. This is the one you want to study. Feel free to study the course further (I did, through part of Module 2), but be warned: it’s dry, boring, and tedious. It is certainly effective, since it was developed by the US government to train diplomats, but it is all typewritten and the audio quality is poor (a copy of a copy of…you get the idea…all from old cassettes).

Download the Text for this Module and print it out. The PDF also contains the text for the rest of the Resource Module, so only print out the P&R section. Download the 6 tapes and start listening, book in hand. Once you successfully complete the tapes, you’ll have no problems hearing and producing all the sounds in Mandarin. It took me a few days, an hour or two per day, to finish. It may take you longer (or shorter), but it’s ok. The time you spend on these lessons will save you a lot of agony down the road.

The module also teaches Pinyin. This is the standard system of romanization in China, and it is very logical. Some of the letters have pronunciations that you won’t expect, but once you learn those and a few rules, you’re set. There are some books that use older systems of romanization, such as Wade-Giles or Yale, but these are not standard in any country, and so are unnecessary for most purposes. Taiwan uses Zhuyin Fuhao, or Bopomofo as their phonetic alphabet, but if you were interested in learning Chinese as it is used in Taiwan, you should have stopped reading when I said “Simplified.” Kidding. If you ever plan to visit or live in Taiwan, learn Bopomofo and Traditional Chinese, but there’s no reason not to learn both, since most Chinese speakers live in China (duh).

Phase Two – learning the language:

Each part of this phase will be repeated over and over until you finish all 30 lessons in China Panorama: Approaching Chinese. Don’t think of them as sequential steps so much as stuff that’s all going on at once. You’ll be watching videos, drilling words in Supermemo, writing, chorusing, and reading all the time. Sort of a conjugate method for language learning, if I can borrow a term from the weight training world.

Part One – Understanding

The first thing you do is read the vocab list in the first part of the lesson you’re working on in China Panorama. Don’t worry about the characters for now, just the pinyin. Say the words out loud and try to remember what each word means. Now watch the first part of the lesson and see how much you understand. You might not get very much of it at all, but that’s ok. In a few days, you’ll understand what they’re saying, and you’ll be able to read it, write it, and say it yourself. Watch all of the explanations in the video. They’ll help you understand why things are said the way they are, and when to use certain words and phrases. There are also demonstrations where you can see the language being used in context.

During the other phases, when you feel ready, move onto the next part, do the exercises in the book, etc.

Part Two – Character Recognition

For this part, you need your Palm and Supermemo. Input all the new words from the lesson into Supermemo, characters on the question side and pinyin/definition on the answer side (I’ve done the first 6 lessons already for you and will be adding to it as I go along). Put them all into a drill and drill them until you know them all. It may take one session before you feel comfortable, or a few days, but once you feel like you know the characters well, commit them all to testing. Now Supermemo will start scheduling reviews of the characters based on how well you do in the tests (I’ve explained it before, so I won’t bore you now). All you have to do is make sure you complete the test each day (it doesn’t take long, and if you don’t do it daily it messes up Supermemo’s magic), and you’re set.

Part Three – Speaking/Chorusing

This part can get tedious, but it will improve your pronunciation by leaps and bounds. Import the MP3s for the lesson into Audacity. Cut up the track into sentences that you feel are good to practice. Try to use sentences that are long enough to actually practice (你好! isn’t the best choice) and preferably have some challenging sound combinations. 晚上一起吃饭,好吗? would be a good choice, or 我不喝冷饮,我喝茶。 These offer some variety in the sounds and tones, so you get a good feel for the intonation of the spoken language. After a couple weeks of doing this, a Shanghainese friend of mine told me I had a nice Beijing accent, not an American accent at all.

Part Four – Reading

You won’t really be able to do Part Four until you have a decent amount of characters under your belt. There just isn’t much reading material that I’ve found for people who know less than 300 or so characters. But once you know a few hundred, find some reading material for beginners and start reading. I like this site, recommended to me the other day by Matt, one of my readers. It is in Traditional Chinese, but you can convert it to Simplified using Wenlin if you have it, or if not, using this page. Make a Supermemo database for characters you come across in your readings that you don’t know yet, and start drilling and testing them just like in Part Two. This will expand your character knowledge beyond just what is taught in China Panorama. Once you know the new characters, go back and practice reading the original until you can read it fluently out loud and know what you’re saying. Don’t necessarily memorize it, although that may happen anyway. The goal is not rote memory, but fluency and understanding.

Part Five – Writing

I put this part last because it is most likely the skill you’ll use least. You’ll speak and listen all the time, and you’ll read a whole lot. But there aren’t a whole lot of situations where you’ll need to write (typing is another story). I tend to de-emphasize this part too much, though, and it’s one of my goals for this summer to bring my writing ability up some. Anyway, look up the character in ZDT and watch the stroke order animation if it is there. Practice writing the character on paper until you’re comfortable writing it. Maybe write several sentences each day (perhaps the same ones you’re chorusing), or write out whichever reading assignment from Part Four you’re working on, or write each character you test in Supermemo. There are lots of different ways to do this, but as long as you’re practicing writing, it’s all good.

Once you’re done with all of these steps, go back and re-watch the dialogues on the VCDs to see if you can understand all of the conversation. If you can, you can probably also say it all (since you’ve been chorusing daily, right?). So move onto the next lesson, and repeat all of these phases. Ideally, it should take about a week per lesson, more if you’re pressed for time or if the lesson has some more difficult concepts (such as telling time…that took a bit to get used to). For the more difficult things like this, make a Supermemo database and start drilling and testing. Don’t get hung up on something like telling the time. It will come with practice, so don’t make the mistake of not moving on to the next lesson just because you can’t quite master this yet. It will come if you let it.

Follow this plan through the end of Approaching Chinese and you’ll have reached a comfortable intermediate level. I can’t give any advice on that stage, because I’m a good way off from it, but the method I’ve just outlined has given me really good results as a beginner. Enjoy!

Technorati Tags: FSI Chinese, China Panorama, Supermemo, Chorusing, Reading Chinese, Writing Chinese, ZDT, Wenlin


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