I'm a firm believer in methodology, at least as pertains to learning (which is why I love CPod, as it lets me design my own method instead of forcing one upon me). When something is difficult to learn, you can either sort of just let it be and you'll pick it up eventually (a method that is easy and works, but takes a long time) or you can roll up your sleeves and tackle it head-on (a method that's hard work, but will get you quicker results).
I've already discussed some of my methods in a couple of discussions here, most recently how I'm to handling measure words, which are a very difficult thing to learn and thus one I need to tackle head-on (since I don't have time for the slow, passive method). But there's another legendary feature in Chinese that's elusive and hard to master: that blasted particle "了". I need to develop a method to deal with it.
So here's what I'm thinking: I love spaced repetition. I'm using StudyArcade on my iPhone and it's brilliant. So I'm gonna get a bunch of sentences, in pairs. The paris will be similar, the only difference in the Chinese will be one or two "了" particles. Memorizing them will, I hope, get me some scaffolding on which to build an understanding of what the particle really does to a sentence.
But here's my problem: I don't master the particle yet. Which makes it difficult for me to construct these sentence pairs. So does anyone know of a way for me to get them? Is there a resource I can use? Or could maybe you, dear, beloved poddies and teachers, supply me with a few? I mean, I can make sentences where the "了" just changes the meaning from present to past tense, but it seems to be able to do so much more than this.
Also, do you think this is a descent method? Do you have any methods of your own for mastering "了"?
(I fully expect this discussion to die with hardly any answers, but hey, it's worth a shot.)
changyeOctober 26, 2009, 08:43 AM
I'm afraid of falling into "a bottomless pit", so let me just show you an interesting example about the usage of "了" (or about not using "了"). Below is a news article about a disastrous suicide bombing happened in Baghdad yesterday, and surprisingly enough, no "了" is used in it.
In a way, Chinese is a language that loves to employ the writing style of "historical present (?)". Of course, this article is a little extreme case, but I think it's still worthy of attention when talking about the usage of “了”, which is extraordinariy elusive for us learners of Mandarin.
中新网10月26日电 综合媒体报道，伊拉克首都巴格达25日发生的两起自杀式汽车炸弹爆炸事件，已经造成至少147人丧生，721人受伤，是该国两年多以来最严重的袭击事件。爆炸针对巴格达省政府大楼和伊司法部大楼，现场距离设于曼苏尔酒店内的中国驻伊大使馆及新华社仅50米，由于爆炸威力强大，使馆门窗几乎全部被毁，天花板脱落，两名酒店中国厨师受伤，使馆和新华社无人伤亡。爆炸发生于当地时间25日上午10时30分，两宗袭击相隔仅数十秒。爆炸地点分别是巴格达省政府大楼门外，以及同一条街上的伊拉克司法部大楼对开。伊拉克司法部大楼内有35名职员死亡，省政府大楼内则最少有25名职员死亡。焦尸残肢四散 鲜血污水淹街 报道指，有10多辆汽车被炸毁，两幢大楼损毁严重，现场火光熊熊。街上到处都是烧焦尸体，人体残肢四散，幸存者惊慌逃跑。多条水管被炸断，大量污水涌到满是血迹的街道上。中国大使馆及新华社巴格达分社所在的曼苏尔酒店，距离遇袭的省政府大楼只有50米。新华社报道，使馆门窗被摧毁外，通道被浓烟笼罩。两名于酒店中餐厅工作的中国厨师受伤，已在使馆接受紧急治理。伊拉克安全部队和救护车随即赶往现场，将伤者送院，消防车则架起云梯升上政府大楼高层，调查是否有人受伤被困。有目击者表示，由于部分焦尸太热，救护人员只能暂时以黑布覆盖。内政部估计，死亡人数可能进一步增加。疑针对国会选举 或"基地"所为 美国驻巴格达大使馆距爆炸现场约100米，据报两名美国保安人员亦受伤。有政府大楼职员表示，爆炸后办公室漆黑一片，醒来已发觉身处医院。伊拉克总理马利基赶到现场视察，政府发言人称，袭击可能是针对明年1月举行的国会选举，并指施袭手法与恐怖组织"基地"类似。亦有报道指，施袭者亦可能是一直企图推翻伊拉克什叶派政府的逊尼派叛军。今次是伊拉克年内最多人命伤亡的袭击之一。8月19日，巴格达的外交部和财政部大楼遭连环汽车炸弹袭击，造成近百人死，逾千人受伤。各方谴责炸弹袭击案 阿拉伯国家联盟、欧洲联盟等国际组织均发表声明，强烈谴责袭击事件。联合国秘书长潘基文也敦促所有伊拉克人团结起来，保护伊拉克的政治进步，为在明年1月16日举行全国选举创造有利条件；并重申，联合国将在伊拉克应对这些挑战方面提供支持与援助。另外，美国总统奥巴马当天发表声明，严厉谴责巴格达发生的连环汽车攻击暴行，并称暴力分子只是在展现其憎恨与破坏的行径，否定伊拉克人民应得的未来。奥巴马也打电话给伊拉克总统和总理，表达慰问之意，并重申美国支持伊拉克的承诺。
xiaophilOctober 26, 2009, 09:17 AM
Well, I don't have time to flesh it out (forgive me), but 了 has two distinct yet, as I see it, similar meanings.
- It indicates that there has been a change in state (i.e. roughly the past tense) 我干了这本书 "I read this book"
- It indicates that the information the speaker is giving is new to the listener. A:你的水在哪里啊？B:没有了! A: "Where is your water?" B: "It's gone!" (as in person A wasn't expecting that answer)
They both indicate something is new, but the circumstances are different.
Okay, now let someone else add something else and hopefully we can get a full picture later. (I'm interested in this too.)
changyeOctober 26, 2009, 09:27 AM
The main/basic function of the particle "了" is not to show “it happened in the past”, but to show "completion, or change of situation". So you usually use "了" when you'd like to imply "something has (or had) happened, changed, or completed", which is a reason why "了" is consequently sometimes used in a sentence which describes something happened in the past.
As I said above, I'm afraid of falling into a bottomless pit, hehe.
simonpetterssonOctober 26, 2009, 09:58 AM
Thanks, guys. The basic usage of "completed action" and "change of state" I already knew (though theoretical knowledge and practical understanding are two very different things), but xiaophil's "information is new to the listener" was, well, new to the listener, haha.
But there's more subtle, advanced stuff that throws me off, like "我在这里住了一年了" which means "I've been living here for a year", right? But if you just say "我在这里住了一年" it means "I lived here for a year", as in I don't anymore. That sentence is simple enough, but why does adding a second "了" make it no longer a completed action? That sort of stuff really confuses me.
xiaophilOctober 26, 2009, 10:21 AM
I am quite possibly quite wrong, but I think that the 了 at the end of "我在这里住了一年了" indicates I'm telling you something new. I totally lack confidence on this one, though. I remember John laid it out quite clearly once. I really wish I could remember where. If nobody bothers to spell it out by tomorrow afternoon, I'm going to nudge the staff, because this is a good question (and post in general).
sebireOctober 26, 2009, 12:47 PM
Don't forget to check out the double le Qing Wen. It's really old. If I remember correctly, the 我在这里住了一年了 example you have given, xiaophil, is explained in that QW to mean that you've lived here for a year, and you're still living here, whereas without the last le, it means you've lived here for a year and now no longer do so.
bodaweiOctober 26, 2009, 01:10 PM
Good topic, it is a helluva thing to master. You really are a believer in methodology - if you find oa reliable method for this I will be very impressed. My experience is that this is something that is not learned quickly, unless you happened to be born Chinese. I've noticed that two year olds here are really good with 了。 My method is to listen for any use of 了 in conversation and try and imitate. I have never been particularly systematic about it, except for the purposes of sitting tests. Once the tests were over I tended to forget that particular teacher's take on 了，or discovered new and exciting uses that rendered that previous 'system' for 了 redundant. I've never seen a really good textbook treatment of this subject.
simonpetterssonOctober 26, 2009, 01:21 PM
That's the thing; I'm not really after explanations. I'm after a method that allows me to burn it into my brain. I've listened to the Qing Wen sabire talked about, for example, and I know what the double "了" means. But from there to actually being able to use it actively is quite a step. And from using it actively in thought-through writing to being able to chuck it in naturally in flowing speech is another thing altogether.
Maybe I'll check out some dry grammatical explanations, choose one usage at a time and then try to use that kind of 了 many times during the day, just idly commenting on what happens around me in my head. That could work. There's still the problem of the heavy context dependence, but I could do this with for example the double 了 pattern. Like looking over at my colleague and thinking "他在那里坐了一个小时了" and then when he's getting up, thinking "他在那里坐了一个小时".
simonpetterssonOctober 26, 2009, 09:11 AM
That article is unfortunately way too hard for me, but I can certainly understand the need to write in "historical present", since it'd probably get repetitive pretty quick if you added a "了" to every sentence.
So I'm starting to realize something here. A "了" added to a sentence can mean that it happened in the past. But you can also talk about things in the past without using "了". In that case, adding a "了" would mean something else. So what "了" means is entirely dependent on context, which makes my proposed method of memorizing sentences unfeasible.
Anyone got any other ideas on how to master the "了"? Or am I really confined to the "Just trod along and you'll get a feel for it eventually" method?
xiaophilOctober 26, 2009, 02:16 PM
The thing is, my wife (Chinese wife that is) told me that the only difference between "我在这里住了一年了" and "我在这里住了一年" is that the added 了 gives the sentence a different feel. I don't know if she just didn't think it through, though.
pretzellogicOctober 26, 2009, 03:03 PM
FWIW, I've tried this on a smaller scale, and for me it works. But what i'm proposing for you is a really big task, and i'm not sure you'd be up for it this way. But the method I'm suggesting is this:
- go to an Chinese website, like China Daily, or the People's Daily, or Network World China or the Communist Party website. The key is you need both an English language website, and a Chinese language website written by seemingly native speakers in both languages.
- review the English language website first. Look at a paragraph or two, and look for sentences for which, if was in Chinese, you'd think it had a (le) in it. Also look for sentences that you don't think should have a (le) in it.
- go to the corresponding Chinese language website, and review the same paragraph to see the following four things:
- if the sentence you thought should have a (le) in it did
- if the sentence you thought should have a (le) in it did not
- if the sentence you thought should not have had a (le) in it did
- if the sentence you thought should not have had a (le) in it did not.
Track the times you guessed right and wrong out of all the opportunities you had to guess. Hopefully you would see improvement as you tracked your progress in the spreadsheet.
I'm also curious. I understand the need to get better details on this, but why are you spending time on getting down (le)? I'm probably missing something in my own Chinese studies about (le). In fact, I know i'm missing plenty with only knowledge of a few hundred words and a few dozen sentence patterns. I guess i'm asking with so many areas to study in Chinese, what did you learn that made you prioritize learning how to use (le) higher than the other things you're learning and focusing your time on in Chinese?
simonpetterssonOctober 26, 2009, 05:04 PM
Ha ha ha! Pretzel, man, I've got to give it to you. You know how to challenge a guy. How can I not try it after you tell me "i'm not sure you'd be up for it"? I really like the idea, too. It's an interesting exercise that's a break from the usual. It looks ... not fun, but interesting. Challenging. I'll give it a try, but I'll have to wait until I have an hour or two of undisturbed free time, which won't happen until Thursday or so. Will let you guys know how I think it went and if I feel like making it a regular thing.
As to why study "了", well, first of all, it's difficult, so I feel I need to do some focusing on it to get it straight. Second, I do a lot of "thinking in Chinese", and I want to do it grammatically correct, albeit with an incomplete vocabulary. Third, I study one CPod lesson a day, shadow when walking to and from work (and anywhere else I go), do flashcard training of all the vocab with spaced repetition (I have over 800 words in my CPod vocab list by now, growing every day) and so on. All of that I do while I'm walking, or taking the bus (that's an hour of flashcard work with my iPhone, twice a day), or waiting for something, or during short breaks at work, and so on. So I don't feel I'm downplaying something else by doing this focused "了" study. In fact, I still reach moments where I don't have any more flashcards to study at the moment, and I don't feel like adding yet another lesson today. During these moments, I can do a bit of grammar work, maybe.
pretzellogicOctober 26, 2009, 05:38 PM
yeah, I realize after the fact that the way I wrote that "...what i'm proposing for you is a really big task, and i'm not sure you'd be up for it...." is pretty much goading you on. I didn't mean that. I was really thinking, "man, I sure the hell wouldn't do this much work to figure out (le)".
Oh, I should mention that my martial arts instructor periodically said, "100 times to know, 1000 times to get good at, 10,000 times to master". Not sure what your martial arts instructor told you, but i'm thinking that if you are serious about the method I suggested, it might not tell you anything actionable/effective/valuable until you got to about 1000 guesses. This is why you need to track it in Excel or some other spreadsheet program. (add disclaimer about this not being a goad here).
On the other hand, I noticed that you mentioned that you "...do a lot of "thinking in Chinese".... I can only dream of that day in the distant future when i'm saying something like that. Maybe your focus on things like (le) in the language is what I really need.
I'm not consistently translating everything I say into Mandarin, but I was thinking I should get into the habit of doing that. I'm certainly not thinking in Chinese. At best, I daydream about a Chinese lesson, and don't understand what I daydreamed.
simonpetterssonOctober 26, 2009, 09:47 PM
Right now I'll settle for "to know", as in to know how to use it. The 10,000 is reached by using the pattern correctly, not by continuing to guess in the exercise. 10,000 is to make it automatic (it's a neuroscience thing, I think).
However, I think that the context-sensitive nature of the particle can still cause some problems. The article Changye quoted is a sign to me that it's hard to just look at the English to figure out. Anyway, it might be worth a try. It's a break from routine, at any rate, and that's always good for something.
As to thinking in Chinese, it's really no big deal. Maybe I have an advantage in already speaking three languages, so I'm used to thinking in another language, but to me, it's quite simple. You know the way Jenny speaks in the Intermediate lessons? 她用中文来说，但是有时候来一个很难的话。这些时候她就 switch to 英文。然后她赶快就回来到中文。我用中文来思考的时候都是一样的。
See my point? Besides my Chinese probably being full of grammatical errors (this is not terribly important), I might encounter words that I don't know. So I think them in Swedish and then continue with the Chinese. Now, it does take some mental effort to keep to the Chinese, since you're thinking a lot slower than in your native tongue, and I wouldn't recommend you to do it when you're working, for example. But when you're shopping, or waiting for the bus, or thinking about what you're going to write as a reply to an interesting post on CPod, trying to work it out with the Chinese you have can be a very good exercise. If you also make an effort to try to find a way to say something in Chinese even when you don't know the word for it, it's even better (this is hard when you don't know much Chinese, but you get better and better until you reach a point where you hardly need to use English at all, despite not knowing all the words).
Besides the mental effort demanded to keep on slugging through the unfamiliar language, I don't really think it's that difficult a thing, nor do I think you have to be very good at Chinese to do it.
pretzellogicOctober 27, 2009, 02:37 AM
well, as I suspected, (or maybe you already said it somewhere and I missed it), you have 3 languages under your belt already. English, Finnish and Norwegian? English, Finnish and Danish? I'll give your suggestions more concerted effort.
xiaophilOctober 27, 2009, 03:13 AM
You probably do have an enormous advantage by already learning other languages. However, I did meet two people who can speak 5 languages (three were Romance languages) and they said they couldn't wrap their heads around Chinese! I suspect that they just weren't used to learning a language that is disimiliar to ones they already learned. It doesn't seem you have this problem.
You and pretzellogic are too hardcore for me. My method is just continuous exposure to the language in a variety of methods. Once I get bored with one, I move on to another. I'm never too systematic. I just use brute force. For some reason I think being well-rounded is most critical. Anyway, I have no doubt you two will get the result you want because you obviously are willing to put elbow grease into it.
Simon, I would suggest that you find a variety of example sentences, possibly from nciku.com, and then ask poddies and staff to explain what the function of 了 is in them. I did that once for a different grammar question, and in the end I had A LOT of feedback.
simonpetterssonOctober 27, 2009, 04:21 AM
xiaophil, that's a good idea, too.
The languages I know are Swedish, English and French. And yes, there's a huge difference between those languages (who are all Indo-European) and Chinese. My progress in Chinese is nowhere near my progress in French, except for when I studied it in (something like) high school. Because mandatory school learning is just that slow.
Being Swedish, I started studying English at a very young age, and saw lots and lots of Hollywood movies (we subtitle, we never dub), so I basically grew up bilingual. And studying a third language (usually French, German or Spanish, but now there's talk of making Chinese availible at that level) is mandatory in Swedish education, but very few actually manage to learn the language during these lessons, unless they're particulary motivated. I was not, so my French was terrible after high school. I didn't want all the studying to be in vain, though, so I took a semester of full-time French at a local college after graduating from a non-local one.
Uh, so that's my language history. In case you were interested.
The great thing about studying Chinese is that after this, no language will ever feel difficult again. Taking up Arabic or something when I get back from China would be like a walk in the park. :)
changyeOctober 26, 2009, 01:22 PM
I agree with bodawei. One of the best ways to understand "了" is to read or listen to good Chinese in which (preferably) a lot of "了" is used. I would ecommend that you consciouly focus on how "了" is used when you read/listen to, for example, lessen dialogues of Chinesepod.