This week has been a sudden adjustment for me. The Inter Chinese Language Program at NTU (wonderfully shortened to ICLP) has been hosting lectures pretty much every morning of this week. All the sudden I have a schedule with set things to do. It is refreshing. The lectures tend to focus on more practical elements of learning Chinese. While they (the talks) were conducted 99% in Chinese, I picked up vital pieces of information as well as interesting questions towards language learning. I’d like to sort of send my thoughts to you concerning the different talks thus far, there is one more planned for Thursday morning covering Mandarin Phonology, which has been a strong interest of mine recently.

As a side note, I have grown highly interested in language pedagogy. I keep wondering what it would take to modify and expand a newly budding Chinese program at my home institution. The process of learning Chinese is demanding, to say the very least. Courses on the subject should reflect that aspect by being more intensive. Let’s face it, Chinese can be more challenging than learning the typical romance language picked up by most undergrads to fulfill gen eds. But! All of that will be an ongoing conversation, because I don’t know if a student has the ability to shake his (or her) fist for a strong Chinese language program. Regardless, it is my personal goal to continue studying the best way I can.

Monday the chief instructor at ICLP held a talk about the usage of dictionaries for studying. She had a good twenty plus books that she felt were the best guides from the Far East 3000 book, which gives details on the 3000 most common characters seen in print media, to more advance books dealing with synonymous words in Chinese. I frankly lacked the vocabulary to understand all of it. I felt surprised to see so many resources available for language learning, especially the level of specificity that some of the books go to. Functional words, synonyms, near synonyms, measure words, etc. The ICLP library has all sorts of books upon books explaining the etymology of a specific character and then some. A dictionary can certainly be your best friend, and already my 3000 guide has been enormously helpful as it offers the word, plus stroke order (the number of strokes and how the character is written), and some words that it can be commonly seen in and combined with. I really want to get my hands on some of the dictionaries and build up a collection for my own reference. Sure, right now the books won’t be super useful, however later on I can certainly see them being put to good use. The advantage of buying now is that the books won’t be any cheaper than buying them here. Some of those dictionaries are very hard to come by. Let’s face it most bookstores don’t carry pure academic texts. Even a “history” section feels much more sensationalized for a non-history audience. The language books experience similar issues. It’s all about how to pick up the speaking quickly, not effectively, or the dummy’s guide to Chinese. These aren’t reference books, they are for people who want a quick preview and not a full understanding. Imagine if someone had a Dummy’s guide to surgery, and that was all they ever read! Would you trust that person? Who gave them their license anyway? Granted, language training isn’t rocket surgery, but if you want to speak a language well you have got to have good exposure and a strong vocabulary.

An interesting turn in the conversation was towards the usage of internet resources. ICLP has taken some serious time to get to know what is out there on the web for people to use. So they found loads of dictionaries and a website that will annotate a chinese text for you. This isn’t the same thing as translation mind you! The program, found at http://popupchinese.com/tools/adso marks each word and gives a definition and an explanation of what the word is doing in the sentence. Give it a whirl, look up a chinese newspaper and copy/paste a sentence. The really good stuff seems to be useful once you can use Chinese words to define Chinese words. All of the sudden your definitions become deeper and more nuanced, which for language is 100% necessary. Chinese isn’t all “Nihao ma”. What really caught my eye was a program called MyCT (my chinese tutor). You can pick up a subscription and take a crack at the online lessons which have been specifically tailored by ICLP. It has some great functions and has a sort of choose your own adventure style to how you can respond to other people’s comments within a dialogue. My favorite function is its feedback. When you record yourself copying the dialogue, it will give you a grade and suggestions to correct your tones, rhythm, and pronunciation. All that being said, I take beef with the fact that it only works on the PC… Regardless the program comes with a host of good lessons and can be taken at whatever pace is good for you. While I don’t believe it would totally supplement straight up training from a structured language course and lacks the ability to give full feedback (as compared to a live instructor) it makes for a wonderful substitute.

I’ll have to post up the list of good dictionaries later. The list is pretty extensive, but hopefully I will be whittling it down later (wish list coming soon to a computer near you!!)

Tuesday’s lecture had two sections, the first in Chinese by one of the instructors and the other by a grad student. Both talks focused on the tough matter of Chinese Characters. In all reality the acquisition of characters has to be one of the most frustrating and depressing tasks in learning the language. There is no royal road to learning the characters beyond doing the grunt work of constantly practicing stroke orders. However, there is some method to the madness and characters have structure and clues for the learner to pick up both sound and meaning. Understanding the nature of characters can immensely help with the learning process. The second speaker stated it beautifully “sitting there and writing the character and making the sound is just self-defeating.” If we can come to grips with the characters, we can make some definitive progress. I have heard a great deal of mixed reviews concerning the purpose and effectiveness of learning radicals. Radicals, just to fill in, are a component of a complex character that is helpful for finding the words in dictionary and also to understanding a character’s definition (sometimes).

The problem is, as one speaker stated, the radicals don’t give you a clue to the sound. Here’s the thing the thing with learning Chinese: You have a character let’s say (to use a simple example) 女, not only do you have to be able to recognize and write the character, you also have to remember a sound and definition. The character is pronounced nu (and has 3rd tone which is the falling rising tone), it means woman. Now, that character can be seen in 媽媽,姐姐,妹妹. All of these characters are family relations (Mom, Older sister, younger sister). The character for woman clues us into the fact that each of these deals with a woman. The problem is none of these are pronounced with anything resembling the sound “nu”. We’d have no idea what it sounds like. This is kind of the big deal and makes memorization a headache. How do you link sound, shape, and meaning. And then do that a couple of thousand times for all the different characters? There have been a number of different approaches, but I think it is a highly personalized thing. What works best for you? I’m not entirely satisfied with that answer. It feels very empty and not at all well explored. I found a blog post discussing an apparently popular book for memorizing characters. I wouldn’t mind at least checking the book out to see how useful it really is. Thoughts?

Since this post is bordering on being too long, I’ll wrap up by asking all the Chinese language students: how do you memorize characters?

The Panda has Pondered.

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.