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An answer to a reader question:  

2013-06-25 10:07:38|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Peter Pham 范逸

親愛的Mary小姐, After seeing your comments on the Spanish-Only.com blog of how quickly you learned Mandarin in the post on choosing the culture instead of the language, I wanted to asked for some pointers in what helped in your process. For a brief introduction, I'm a university student currently doing a study abroad in Taiwan. I've been studying Mandarin for 5.5 months where 3.5 were spent in Taiwan (but I'll need to return to the US soon :( ) where I started with a main focus on reading, so now I'm able to read most online news articles and non-fiction books without help (trad), though I'm still quite slow and see characters I don't know. Recently I've been searching for ways to help my spoken fluency, so I've been shadowing and listening while cutting back on reading. Regarding my situation and your experience, what would you suggest my next step be in reaching fluency? Peter Pham 范逸德, 敬上

 

親愛的 Peter先生!  Thanks for stopping by.  And after looking at your name, it seems like you might be vietnamese?  I'm half Vietnamese so it’s always great to meet another member of the team ;) (so to speak!)

 

Anyway I really suck at using this Chinese blog, so I accidentally deleted your account.  But I wanted to give you advice and make a blog post out of your question---so here goes!

 

First of all:

 I gotta say that for you to be able to read online news and non-fiction in traditional in such a short amount of time—YOU ROCK.  Learning the hanzi takes forever, and I kind of cut that corner with Japanese, but for you to do it so fast from scratch is nothing short of amazing.

 

So, this is how I reached fluency with Chinese: I worked my ass off, and I really perfected the basics.  You can learn all sorts of hard phrases, grammar and chengyu but the chances of you actually using that on a daily basis are little to none—so get your simple stuff down pat.

 

I also studied abroad, but instead of Taiwan I went to Tsinghua for about 5 months and did their Chinese program.  Because I was able to read Hanzi, the school said they would allow me to take high-intermediate Chinese.  I declined.  Instead of trying to struggle in a class too high for me, I really wanted to get the basic stuff down.  So instead, I took basic-intermediate and that helped A LOT.

 

In addition to 5 hour classes of Chinese 5 days a week, I had two language exchanges I did in the evening.  I remember struggling really hard and verbally vomiting Chinese all over myself whenever I tried to talk to my partners, but they were understanding and helpful.  I did this class, lang-exchange, class, lang-exchange pattern nonstop for 5 months, and by the end of the program my Chinese was not half bad.

 

When you go to the US, keeping that skill intact will be hard—but you can do a few things:

1.       Set a goal.  For me, it was to pass HSK level 6.  Go sign up for the test asap, pay the money, and prepare.  They  have a spoken test as well (I hear it’s crazy hard), so you can choose which medicine you want.

2.       Find Chinese friends.  Join a Chinese culture club.  Learn Kung fu.  Keep on talkin with Chinese people whenever you can.

3.       Take Chinese classes.  I have terrible self-control, so unless I pay someone money and set up a proper schedule I will never teach myself.  It may be expensive to enroll in a course, so instead you can definitely find a Chinese exchange student that is willing to teach you Chinese at a reasonable price so they can make some extra bucks. 

4.       Watch stuff in Chinese—WITHOUT ENGLISH SUBTITLES.  English subtitles will not help you at all.  But the Chinese ones will.  Unfortunately, I’m not a huge fan of Chinese TV/movies, but when I first started learning in Beijing I tried to watch one Chinese movie a night.  And try to watch stuff that is fairly modern, watching stuff about 皇帝 aint going to help you in this day and age.  If you want some suggestions for Chinese movies that won’t make you want to claw your eyes out, my first suggestion is冯小刚 movies.  They’re absolutely amazing.

 

After reviewing what I just wrote, I realize it applies to any language.  Watch stuff in the language, make local friends, take classes—whether you’re studying Hindi or Hebrew, I think the following list above can be applied.

 

If I had to mark a special characteristic or focal point for learning a particular language, in other words, a method for focusing on the difficult parts of Chinese and Japanese, it would be the following:

 

Chinese

In Chinese, BY FAR, the hardest obstacle for most foreigners to overcome is the accent.  Improving your accent and perfecting the four tones is one of the most difficult things to do, and in some cases it might just plain be impossible for a foreigner to speak with the same accent as a Chinese person. 

 

The key to improving pronunciation, as agreed upon with other Chinese language speakers, is to master pinyin.  When I first learned Chinese, my teacher made us repeat pinyin over and over for about two months, nonstop.  It was horrifically boring, and at the time I had no idea what I was saying—I was just randomly spouting out sounds and putting a tone on them.  But in the end, I think all that repetition and tonal pronunciation really paid off.  My grammar may suck, my composition may be awful--but at the end of the day most people think I’m Chinese when they talk to me via telephone.

 

Japanese people often skip pinyin since they can already read the kanji, and this is EXACTLY why Japanese people have some of the worst Mandarin out there (no offense).  Foreigners usually can’t read the characters and have to rely solely on pinyin, which gives them mind blowingly good pronunciation.  Japanese, on the other hand, skip pinyin altogether and make do with what kanji characters they can read.

 

So if you feel like your Chinese pronunciation is lacking, try to review a pinyin chart and practice it out loud—repeating AFTER a native speaker.  And, for god’s sake, don’t repeat after a southerner.  Get a CD/recording of a northerner and repeat after them, because southern China speaks crap Putonghua.

 

Japanese:

Almost nothing can be directly translated from English to Japanese, and it’s a pain.  Learning the phrases to express certain emotions and coupling it with the right grammar is just so damn hard.  I think this is what takes the most time when learning Japanese—figuring out how the natives speak, because nothing correlates with English.

 

For example, I remember when I first moved to Niigata and thought my Japanese was hot shit.  I was talking to my friend on the train and said, “毎日味噌を食べることに疲れちゃった.”  My Japanese friend, being the good person she is, said to me, “Mary, in English you may say ‘I’m tired of eating Miso everyday, but in Japanese we have a different word for that—‘飽きる.’”  

 

Another example.  I was having breakfast with my Japanese co-worker today, and she said to me “おなかの痛みが落ち着いてる。。。英語でなんと言う?” I laughed and said, “my stomach pain is CAALMIN down!”  She tried to copy the English I blurted out, but as you all know, this ‘direct translation’ doesn’t work.  Instead, I told her to say “my stomach pain is getting better.”

 

Learning to properly express yourself in Japanese using correct expressions is extremely hard, and I think the key to doing that is, well, through a Japanese friend.  “Is this right?”  “How do you say this?”  “Is this normal to say in Japan?”--This is the only way you’re going to get a surefire answer.  You can also watch modern day Japanese dramas as well and pick up on the phrases they say, but otherwise it’s hard to find a way to self study.

 

And there you have it.  My two cents on studying the two Asian languages that no Westerner should ever have to learn.

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