The zen of learning Chinese

Earlier this year I decided to start learning Mandarin Chinese. I’ve been studying pretty diligently for the past few months, soaking up language CDs and educational software and textbooks and bugging my Chinese friends to critique my pronunciation. I can’t hold more than a very basic conversation yet, but I’ve learned enough to experience some new, strange, and interesting things.

The biggest ripple effect comes from the fact that written Chinese and spoken Mandarin are not tied very tightly together. When I learned Spanish in school, or when I learned some Russian before my trip to Moscow, learning to read and learning to speak were symbiotic. I could pick up a new word from listening to someone speak or from reading something, and immediately say it or write it myself. There is no such symbiosis in Mandarin: you don’t “learn a word,” you “learn to say a word” or “learn to read a word” and you have to do both, almost as separate learning exercises, if you want to read and speak.

Granted, it’s true that many characters contain elements you can use to make a guess at the spoken form. For example, the character that means “horse” is pronounced “ma” and a smaller form of that same character is part of the character for “mother,” also pronounced “ma.” But even in those cases, it’s only a guess: you’ll also see that character as an element of “chuang” (to rush or dash.)

Since my audio materials and my written materials cover different vocabulary, I am finding it a common occurrence to be able to read a block of text and comprehend its meaning while drawing a complete blank on how to say most of it out loud. It is impossible to have that experience while learning Spanish. The written form is the pronunciation. And of course the other direction is even more common; I know how to write only a small fraction of my spoken vocabulary.

Then there are the tones. I don’t mind the tones per se. All things considered, it didn’t take me too long to distinguish one from the other reasonably reliably. And what I realized was that I was hearing a lot more of them than I expected. “Use the right tones or you’ll call your mother a horse,” I’d heard. That’s not untrue, but what constitutes the right tone for a word can be a tricky question. Depending on which words you’ve just said or are about to say next, a rising tone might turn into a falling tone, or a flat tone might turn into a rising tone, or a word that normally rises or falls might turn into a “neutral tone” word that does neither.

But at least all that happens according to some rules that can be learned. What’s worse is that as far as I can tell, rapid conversational-pace Mandarin is pretty sloppy with its tones, rules or no rules. A couple weeks ago I took sound samples from a couple Chinese TV shows and slowed them way down on my computer just for kicks. To my surprise I found that the actors seemed to be getting quite a few of their tones wrong. I’m told by my Chinese friends that the dialogue in question is perfectly easy for them to understand, so all I can conclude is that the language actually gives you a fair amount of leeway in terms of tones as long as you give your listener enough context to work out what you must have said. Either that, or there are tone-change rules that aren’t covered in any of my books.

Don’t get me wrong, though! I’m actually having tons of fun learning. Part of the point of learning such a different language than I’m used to is to stretch my brain in new ways, and it’s certainly doing that. It is funny to me to be able to pick up bits and pieces of the conversation the Chinese woman a couple cubicles over has with her kids on the phone. I am still not used to looking at a sign in Chinese and, even without knowing what it says, recognizing the structure and some of the components of the characters. I still smile when I watch a Chinese movie or TV show and the dialogue is no longer a stream of incomprehensible gobbeldygook, but rather a set of sentences with words I haven’t learned yet.

And I have to say, I have it tons easier than any student learning Mandarin even ten years ago, thanks to technology. For example, I have this wonderful program called PlecoDict installed on my Treo. It is an electronic Chinese dictionary program. And it’s an excellent electronic dictionary. But it’s much more than that; it’s a learning tool. For one thing, if I’m looking at the entry for a word I want to learn, I just click a button and presto, it’s added to my stack of flashcards. When I’m standing in line or waiting for code to deploy, I can whip out my PDA and give myself a little impromptu vocabulary quiz, and the software remembers how I did. Any words that I get right all the time will quickly start to show up less often than the ones I’m having trouble with. PlecoDict can look up words from multiple dictionary databases at once; I have three Chinese-to-English and two English-to-Chinese dictionaries installed, along with my own notes. You can look up words by sound, by radicals (character components), or by sketching them out on the touchscreen. That last one alone raises its usefulness way above the level of any paper dictionary, especially given that it isn’t too picky about stroke order. They say the next version will include audio recordings of native-speaker pronunciation, and that’ll just be the icing on the cake.

I wonder what kind of curve ball this language will throw my way next!

One Response to “The zen of learning Chinese”

  1. JC Says:

    Nice isn’t it, those chinese lessons. I started last year in september and also reached the point where I can understand part of conversation or at least see some structure in the dialogs the chinese speakers are having.
    The reading and writing was supprisingly easy. I’ll put my knowledge to the test when I go to China at the end of april, visiting the parents-in-law. Having a chinese wife sure helps learning chinese.

    Oh, by the way, I ‘m also struggling with Ubuntu, but managed to install SCIM and now can use it to write out the summary of the chinese lessons, as well in chinese characters as in pinyin.

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