Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Results of slightly more than one year of Chinese study

I've been meaning to record myself in a Chinese conversation, and I finally did a recording successfully about a week ago.  I started studying right around August 30 of 2012.  So right now it's 13 1/2 months later.  This gives you a sense of what I've managed to accomplish in that time.  This is a totally unscripted discussion on Skype with a woman who lives in China, with English text added.

I think it's pretty good.  There's plenty of mistakes happening here.  It's a bit cringe inducing as I go through it myself after the fact, transcribing it, because I see spots where we're talking past each other or I listen as I pretty much butcher the tones throughout.  But that's just part of the process of course.  There's no other way to learn but to make mistakes over and over again.

Some people have accomplished a lot more in 13 months.  Others have done a lot less.  My feeling is it's all about doing the work.  Work more than me and you'll be better than me, work less and you'll be worse.  Generally speaking.

My method, if you're curious, was the following.  I started with Pimsleur, which was free at my library.  That took about 3.5 months.  Then I did a program called Assimil.  That took about 4 or 5 months.  I thought both were quite good, but other methods might work better.

Throughout the process I spoke to Chinese people whenever I had the opportunity, trying out the things I'd learned.  I've had so much fun with that.  You might think people get annoyed or don't want to be bothered.  With rare exceptions the opposite is true.  Chinese people are happy to see you trying to learn their language and very willing to help.  Part of what has been enjoyable about this is not just getting better, but meeting such great people.

After Assimil I tried to increase my spoken use of the language.  I joined a local meetup group.  That has been great, not just because of the learning but also the friendships.  I have tried to do more of the Skype exchanges.  How they work is you spend half the time on the language you are interested in and half the time teaching English to your partner.  That's also been fun.  If you prefer you can pay a teacher and spend the entire time learning your target language, which I've also done.  For me it's been something like $9 an hour.

I continue working my way through a new program post Assmil, now using an online service called FluentU.  I can't say enough good things about it.  They take native content, like commercials, movie clips, music videos, all found on YouTube, transcribe it for you as it plays, then create a quiz that exposes you to the new words and tests you to make sure you understand the dialogue or message.  This is a paid service.  It was free when I started because it was in beta, but now it's something like $15 a month.  Highly recommended if you are interested and the money isn't problematic.

My tentative plan is to continue studying Chinese until I reach what is called a B2 spoken level.  Sometimes that's called Upper Intermediate.  You can read at Wikipedia what that means.  For me I mean that in the sense of the spoken ability, not written.  I'm not doing much with writing at this point, though that may change.  Then I want to start studying Spanish.  These are two languages I'd love to understand.

Let me know what you think.


Chad said...

I could use your assistance this evening - 7 pm conference call with a supplier and my interpreter just called off! Now we won't know what they are saying in the background which can be scary occasionally.

Good job.

Jon said...

Thanks man. Would love to get to the point where I can eavesdrop on the unsuspecting. With time.

Unknown said...

WOW! very impressive. glad I was able to help a little. what an accomplishment.

Jonathan said...


Congrats! You sound great. Shows what a little persistence can get you. What's your next goal?

Jon said...

That's right, man. Plug away and my belief is you'll get there. Next goal? Well, like I said I'd like to be able to converse much more easily. I'm at the point where my conversation is of course very stilted. We both have to work very hard to understand each other. I would love to be to the point where it's not work to communicate. It just goes easily. That's that B2 level. It's not like we're talking about technical things or detailed political arguments. Just basic talk, but without strain, or at least with little strain. So that's what I'm working on right now.

Examinator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Examinator said...

Well done on learning the language so far.
["eavesdrop on the unsuspecting?!"] hmmm... isn't that what we hate about the NSA program? In principal what's the difference?
The problem with eavesdropping you are imposing on their right of privacy.
Don't forget the importance of your 'tells'. Some ethnic groups react badly to outsiders eavesdropping. This may range from acute loss of face to downright aggression as the following war story shows.

I remember how one train journey with my apparently (multilingual) business associate and me. In an early lingually stained conversation between me and a local couple who shared our compartment got the misunderstanding that as Foreigners neither of us, spoke their sub language. Unknown to me at the time he sort of did. Part of his mixed ethnic heritage... grandpa spoke the official language like his parents. Being Americans they spoke English at home. However grandma was ethnically of same sub language group as the passengers. Grandma had taught him a smattering of the language, enough to understand and be understood... Sadly he didn't correct the couple's misassumption... later in the journey his tell alerted the couple that he did understood their conversation. This caused the woman to run out of the train compartment in tears, her companion threatening to beat my associate and we nearly got thrown off the train.

Unlike Chad's (myopic) self interested intentions, Whenever I used an interpreter I always made it clear up front that the interpreter worked FOR US as part of OUR Team and apologised for that necessity. We also made it clear that we assumed their interpreter worked for their team or they understood English. The latter was normally true.
We called it 'a token of good faith equal partner negotiations' etc.

Then again, most of my inter language negotiations were face to face.

It is a psychological fact that it's easier to lie to a person at distance (an outsider/foreigner) than face to face, to someone with whom one shares commonalities (friendships).

Also one mustn't the importance underestimate prior research particularly into the 'culture(S) involved'. There ARE differences.
i.e. Ethnic Cantonese, Hockanese (spelling?) etc have subtle but important differences in their ways of thinking than the ethnic Mandrin. Much like that which exists in the US (in fact most countries including Australia.)

I found it common that the Asians with whom we dealt knew more about us and our culture than we knew about them and theirs Hmmm. Likewise they often commented how non standard American my business style was.

Jon said...

Thanks Ex. Really I'm not looking to eavesdrop. I had just read of another learner that really felt like he was progressing when he realized he understood the conversation of others that wasn't directed at him. It's more that I'd regard it as a milestone, not that I want to trick people. I have thought about what you say though and I am inclined to let unsuspecting people know early to avoid anything embarrassing.

Examinator said...

Why wait ?
Where we lived in the states there used to be an All nations video hire shop just up the road. You could hire the latest movies from Almost any country... including China and Taiwan.
In addition to that you could hire international copies of US movies and choose the national subtitles.
Have you considered getting a Mandarin movie and try to follow it without the subtitles? or the reverse get an american movie turn off the sound to Mandarin dubbing and away you go. Instant conversations not specifically for you.
Even if you can't follow the Chinese movies without subtitles some are a hoot. PS give "the weather girl" a miss unless the children are asleep and your wife is out or has an extraordinary open mind.
We hired it because the cover said it was a Science Fiction. We wondered why the shop assistant eyed my wife funny when she paid for it. Well lets just say that all that action and the positions were a bit science fiction for us. (PS it was porn set in SiFi genre on steroids/ speed AND LSD.