Reflections on learning Chinese
I am approaching a milestone in learning Chinese – namely three years with ChinesePod in early February. 派对！ During this three years, I have lived in China for two years and Australia for one, and I am about to move back to China after a six month break in Australia.
I have been an active poster and not a very dedicated student. I do the occasional easy lesson in full, I listen to three or four podcasts each week (QingWen is my only staple). I have been doing about four hours per week with a private tutor in both China and Australia.
It is time for some reflections, and I welcome comments.
I am not a linguist nor a language teacher so these reflections are those of a learner, no more.
A couple of preliminary comments: First, I believe that anyone can learn Chinese to a reasonably high level given sufficient motivation, appropriate tools, and sufficient time. I don’t think that age is a particularly significant barrier although as hearing capacity diminishes this makes any communication difficult. And as you approach the end of your life, time is also a factor!
I’m not sure that I am convinced by hot-housing (teaching children from a young age) – potentially this is the most successful approach because it mirrors the process of natural language acquisition. But if the child is forced to learn, and they are not motivated to ‘keep it up’, then starting learning young may be a waste of time and energy. I am speaking/singing to my new grand-child in Chinese but will probably give up when she tells me to shut-up.
Second, most learners I have met at ChinesePod are interested in ‘method’ – some exceedingly so. I think that method is possibly less important than either intensity or the location as predictors of success. My reasons … we can be obsessed with method and overlook the process of natural language acquisition. Also, language learning occurs using multiple methods – it is difficult to imagine making much progress without taking an eclectic approach.
The two dimensions I use to describe ‘learning Chinese’ – are (1) ‘intensity’ and (2) ‘location’ (the space in which Chinese is learnt – formal courses, on-line, and self-study.) I don’t discuss method, exactly, although ‘location’ could perhaps be construed as an aspect of method.
There are a number of intensities associated with learning:
1. High intensity
Learning is wholly integrated with other activities in your life. It is not a separate activity, like going to school or to formal classes. It is an all-day every day occupation.
Typical situation: Dedicated study with clear goals, and most likely one to three years of full-time study. Followed by several years living in a Chinese-speaking environment, using Chinese every day in your work and/or social life. Likely end-point (with a great deal of effort) ‘Advanced’.
2. Medium intensity
Learning takes up a significant part of your life.
Typical situation: some academic study, dedicated working through ChinesePod lessons, and perhaps long-term living in China using Chinese every day. You may want to use Chinese to further your business interests. Likely end-point Intermediate.
3. A ‘lite’ approach
Learning Chinese is something you want to do as a hobby or interest.
Typical situation: Learning Chinese is something that interests you because you love China, or the Chinese language, and you are willing to put a reasonable amount of time aside each week for this purpose. You might do casual classes for up to a year in China (maybe a few hours a week) and regular work on ChinesePod. Likely end-point Elementary.
There are three different locations (or vehicles) – these can be used at each of the three levels of intensity referred to above:
1. University course, usually including an in-country component of full-time classes in a Chinese university. This is mainly a formal setting. The learner has little or no control over the space in which Chinese is learnt. There is a curriculum and testing at the end of the course.
2. ChinesePod or similar on-line resources. Chinese ‘on your terms’. Contrasts with #1 in the sense that the learner designs the program to some extent.
3. Self-study supplemented by time with a private tutor or small group classes. Contrasts with #1 in the sense that the learner has complete responsibility for design of the program.
Reflections on my experience:
I started at low-intensity – I was interested in something that might give me a ‘hobby’ (I was 52 when I did my first class.) At no time did I see it as something that might further my career, and I do not see it as a particular business goal. My intensity has gradually increased, and is now somewhere between medium and high.
I started with ‘community’ lessons, two hours per week. After about a year I decided to put more effort in. I enrolled in a formal course and completed an 18 months-long full-time Masters degree including 12 months full time in China, 8 months full-time study, 4 months travel. About a year and a half after that I started using ChinesePod to keep up my Chinese (apparently I paid my first subscription on 9 Feb 2009.)As for ‘location’, I am probably gradually moving toward ‘self-study’, with four to six hours per week with a private tutor – although ChinesePod is an excellent source of high frequency language. And fun. I am thinking about doing HSK, because no fewer than two Chinese teachers have told me they think it is a waste of time and energy. :)
jennyzhuJanuary 20, 2012, 09:18 AM
Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. You've been a staple in the CPod community. Thank you for being an exemplary Poddie who always inspires us!
bababardwanJanuary 20, 2012, 09:40 AM
"Learning Chinese is something you want to do as a hobby or interest.....Likely end-point Elementary"
I thought that I might have to explain myself... :)
First - this is a simple model, not everyone will fit. Clearly different people pursue 'hobbies and interests' to different degrees. Some people fit it in among lots of other interests, some become obsessed (whatever the hobby may be.) Some people learning Chinese as a 'hobby' will get to higher levels than what I describe as Elementary.
Second - my Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced categories are bound not to suit all readers. (And I think I've made it clear on other occasions here I have problems with assigning these labels to learners.) I do not mean to equate these to ChinesePod levels, although giving them capital letters is confusing, I admit. These labels I use are attached to levels of intensity, including time consumed learning Chinese. If it is just something that takes my 'four hours of lessons' a week and say up to another six to eight hours a week in self-study, the average person will find it difficult to get beyond 'Elementary' by my book.
I was going to have a go at definitions (other than my 'intensity' measure) but I think I'll leave that to others.
Here above I've defined it mainly in terms of how much effort or intensity is put into learning, for people of broadly ordinary ability. I am drawing on my experience in China - I see people who put a reasonable effort in over a year in China, attending classes say a few hours a day but having a 'day job' teaching English. They may have done a crash course in Chinese before they came to China. They end up capable of real-world conversation at about the newbie level at ChinesePod. Most people in this situation will have achieved little or no ability to read or write. So my 'elementary' may roughly correspond to someone who could have complete ChinesePod newbie conversations like in the dialogues, in the real world.
I have to say that in some circumstances I would fail this 'Newbie conversation' test .. I would make errors and occasionally use the wrong word or expression. So it is an 'in most circumstances' measure ...
Another test to consider is whether you have to think at all, or in any sense prepare, in a real world conversation. You get to a point where you have a conversation without conscious preparation of words and expression. In my own experience I have many everyday conversations without 'thinking', but others I need to actively prepare (either in my mind while speaking) or even do some review of vocabulary etc. before engaging in conversation.
So, to give an example, I go and pay the gas bill without thinking (newbie/elementary), but before I bought a new stove I had to do some homework, I had to discuss it with the landlord, the salespeople, the installer etc. I learnt quite a lot about talking about gas stoves, their design, the options, different price considerations, trade-ins, etc. If I had to do it again I would again have to review a few words and phrases. When I was getting instructions about care and maintenance, and about the short-comings of town gas service, I missed quite a few of the subtle messages. I am probably operating at what I call intermediate level (similar to ChinesePod Intermediate).
Does this answer your query?
Yes it does! Yours is a rather more realistic version of grading than the cpod version perhaps, which understandably concentrates on comprehension of the cpod materials. I'm considered an intermediate learner here( or rather I consider myself one) but I know the intermediate style of dialogue is well well beyond me in the real world having attempted a few in the last few days. It's largely down to vocabulary in the end. Once you know the majority of the words being said, it's far easier to follow and contribute to a conversation, even without comprehemaking of the level of gramMar necessary to be truly "intermediate".
according to your ratings and , I will never be more than newbie, since I will never get to live in China! Oh no! Hehe!
Getting to live in China is just one way of raising your intensity of learning, a fairly easy one.
Yes, part of my point here is that there is a harsher test of 'level' than Chinesepod. :) I notice when John spoke of this recently here he talked of the ChinesePod levels being comparable 'with other grading systems out there' or words to that effect.
Actually if you enrol in a course in China, the Chinese teachers can almost effortlessly grade you with a two minute interview and an HSK style test - I was surprised how reliable the entrance testing was for the three people in my family who enrolled. And yes, most foreigners are put in classes below the levels commonly employed at Western universities. I had completed level 5 at an Australian university (in a level 1 to 8 system) and I was put into level 2 in a level 1 - 8 system in China. From memory both systems have levels 7 and 8 reserved for native speakers. I graduated half way through level 3 - pretty much elementary, nudging intermediate ... :)
By your taxonomy, I am a 3-3; a hobbyist on self-directed study. I'd like to think that it is possible to get further that way than you estimate. I find that speaking ability develops the most slowly. So, if the standard is that being at a level requires one to spontaneously produce one speaker's portion of a dialog at that level, I may not be at intermediate, yet. Although, I could participate in a dialog at that level or higher, understand what was being said, and provide appropriate, if inelegant responses, at appropriate points.
'I am a 3-3; a hobbyist on self-directed study. I'd like to think that it is possible to get further that way than you estimate'
Well, it is based on my observations - unless you shift up in intensity it is difficult to get above elementary (for the ordinary learner.) I'm confident that there are exceptions, the people I meet who have reached that intermediate level have worked pretty hard at it. [As a side-note Mark - from other conversations here at ChinesePod I would have thought you were somewhere above 'lite' in your endeavours! :) And you do use ChinesePod which locates you at 2 rather than 3.]
But ... as pretzl pointed out one of the weaknesses of my model is that it's static. Most learners will be at a different point at different times. I started lite, went fairly intense, probably stayed between medium and intense, but at the same time shifted across different locations, from formal classes to less formal, heading to self-study. I'm not sure I'm really at intermediate either - I like your description there. ' I could participate in a dialog at [Intermediate] level or higher, understand what was being said, and provide appropriate, if inelegant responses,'
In striving for elegance Chinese constantly gives you reminders of any shortcomings.
pretzellogicJanuary 20, 2012, 10:49 AM
Second, most learners I have met at ChinesePod are interested in ‘method’ – some exceedingly so.
Could you explain what you mean by 'method'?
Hmm, pretzellogic ... There is a lot of sharing here about the best way to use ChinesePod - techniques, routines, practices, theories of learning. Remember all of the discussion about shadowing? Much of the discussion is directed to learning more quickly. I could refer to dozens of threads discussing the detail of 'process' as opposed to substantive matters. I would call all of that 'method'.
I admit to not being good at method. But I guess that this post demonstrates that I think about it.
Huh. Thanks for that. That's helpful. I thought it was interesting that your take was that most cpodders were interested in method. Or rather, that the ones you've met were more interested in method. My casual observation based on replies to the method comments that i've made is that very few of the people posting are really interested in method. I've casually observed way more posting around China culture, or Chinese character etymology.
BTW, I mostly agree with your post. I would have pointed out what you pointed out earlier; that maybe there's a 4th dimension, and that is time. So maybe it's 1)location 2)intensity 3)method and 4)time. With time, you acknowledge that you move through levels of intensity and method; sometimes going from high to low, then back to high. You said phases in your description, but maybe it should be made more explicit.
' very few of the people posting are really interested in method'
That 's interesting - maybe I am more interested in method than I thought, and so I notice the posts that come along.
Thanks for your other comments - I agree with your four dimensions, I was just trying to make a point about 'intensity', it's a reliable indicator of success and easy to measure.
I'm thinking 'method' as such isn't so useful as a predictor because it raise the question 'which method?' With so many methods employable and employed by the average learner it is hard to say which works. Even 'no method' or 'little method' works - it may just take longer.
tvanJanuary 22, 2012, 01:27 AM
Hello Bodawei, I pretty much fit in the methodless, medium intensity mode. I only studied for one year in college and didn't really learn that much. Additionally Chinese studies keep getting interrupted by this thing called work.
I would like to add a point re: work. I use Chinese in my job daily over here, and I think it's a lot more difficult than you give credit for. In business you typically use the language that both parties are best in. With my Chinese partners this is always rapid-fire, Chinese replete with lots of medical terms. When I'm on my own, I'd say that we use Chinese two out of three times. That's not because my Chinese is all that great; rather, it's because many otherwise learned Chinese can't put a sentence together orally. Consequently, if you want to go beyond the icebreaker stage, business Chinese can be a tough row to hoe. I've had to put in a hard year of study with a Chinese tutor this past year to attempt to get up to speed. I consider myself maybe one-quarter there.
Finally, having a Chinese significant other also adds a level of intensity if you use Chinese at home, though that is diminished somewhat by familiarity. You not only get experience with him/her, but also all of the in-laws. I'm not sure how that fits in your "intensity" rating, but in my experience it is a significant benefit.
Hey tvan - you changed your avatar!
Thanks for the added comments - work, and family, two other significant factors.
It's interesting when I was teaching I experienced something similar to your work environment - my students are unable to discuss everything we want to discuss in English and i am unable to say everything I want to say in Chinese. We are roughly equally incompetent (I am equal to about the bottom 30% - 40% student.) So we use both languages -- as one fails, you switch to the other. It was a revelation that the students would not be able to use English at this level. Fortunately there is always a few students who have better English than my Chinese otherwise, without resorting to a dictionary, which is kind of last resort, we would not achieve a great deal.
And no doubt the family often helps, but in my experience and observations some family situations don't help at all. You need either someone who is not at all interested in English, or someone who is committed to teaching.
Hello @Bodawei, your observations re: the average Chinese person's oral English skills are on par with mine. Also, I have to partly agree with you on family being a mixed bag. Having family members means that you can rely on them to help with things like negotiating a mortgage, registering a business, etc. All things that would be invaluable, albeit expensive, learning opportunities.
Re: my avatar, that's me shopping for fireworks with my youngest daughter (15 y.o.) and one of my nieces. I figured it was due for a change. I've bought a house and car here, and am settling in for the long haul; so it doesn't make much sense to use my old picture from the States.