Do’s and Don’t’s of Learning Chinese #2

Some thoughts about the kind of drills that result in real language-learning progress…

There is a certain kind of personality that gets a rush out of making flashcards. Normally this is a person with an exceptional memory who, with just a few cycles through the cards, can nail down a whole list of words. The main problem with this method is that the memorized words are deprived of any context. Especially in Chinese, the range of meaning of a given word can be very different from its English ‘equivalent.’ Take the word ‘think.’ There’s a whole bunch of words in Chinese that would translate to ‘think’ in English. Different shades of meaning call for different Chinese words. The flashcard user will find it difficult to remember which is which.

Another weakness with this method is its limited impact on the brain. What’s happening mentally when you use a flashcard? The word you see is a trigger that is supposed to bring up (as quickly as possible) another word. Your mind hooks the new word onto the other. Imagine 20,000 pegs in your mind, one for each English word you know. Every time you learn a new word in Chinese, your mind hangs it on the corresponding English peg. This is the simplest form of translation. Word-for-word. The problem is that it is almost impossible for a person to find the pegs quickly enough to put together sentences at normal speaking speed. The real difficulty in learning to speak – and therefore demanding the most of your drilling time – is linking the words together correctly and swiftly.

So what kind of alternative drills are there? Memorization is good, but always memorize sentences, not single words. The association of the words will not only help you to remember what each of them mean individually, but it will also provide a context for understanding the shade of meaning each can bear as well as its proper place in a sentence. This also forces you to express things in the way that Chinese people do. Where will you get these sentences? I’d recommend starting here for some great building block sentences.

Almost certainly the greatest struggle a foreigner will have in learning Chinese is mastering the tones. But for whatever reason, this is probably the area most neglected by Chinese teachers. Most schools use the first week of classes to explain the different tones of pronunciation in Chinese. And that’s about the last you hear of it. That’s simply not enough. If you can’t speak in tones correctly, you’re just not speaking Chinese!

This ability only comes in one way: repetition. Though I had the first week of explanation like everyone else and understood the theory of tones, I honestly could barely distinguish between them for the first six months or so of Chinese learning. The only thing that helped in moving past that stage was a large amount of spoken drills with correction. You must find a teacher that will not let a single tone error pass uncorrected (more on that next post). Tones still tend to deteriorate – in my quest to speak fluidly, my tones sometimes get fuzzy. Occasionally my former teacher will tell me that I need to cinch up a certain tone.

What kind of drills are helpful? Well, though many students can pronounce any syllable with any tone with a high degree of accuracy, breakdown occurs when many words are strung together. Trying to flow from one tone into another correctly is extremely difficult. The good news? There are only twenty possible combinations of tones. Use a dictionary and find a few dozen words that use each of the potential tone combinations. Then practice each combination in front of a Chinese person who will honestly correct you.

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4 Comments on “Do’s and Don’t’s of Learning Chinese #2”

  1. Anja August 2, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    I am heading out to Taiwan in November for an internship with a missionary organization, and these tips are coming at just the right time. I have a university degree in Chinese but actually never got a real hang of it because it was all vocab lists and grammar rules – not much ‘sentece/context’-learning. So thanks for your advice. I was just starting the whole flashcard process again to brush up my Chinese but think I’ll head over to nciku now. 🙂

    • Vengador August 4, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

      Hope you enjoy nciku as much as I do! Glad to hear about your upcoming internship – please drop us a line sometime to let us know how it goes!

  2. China Church Plant August 2, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    You can’t make any more posts like this man… 2012 ain’t coming fast enough! 我们培养人去国外传教福音的时候, 怎么解释deputation啊, 怎么翻译才好啊?


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