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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Children Stories

Are children stories good for beginners? I think they are good only if the beginners are children!

There many people who are frustrated because it's hard for them to find any suitable reading materials in Chinese. Often the books which includes pinyin are children story books. However, I find that what qualifies a story as a children story is only the content, not the grammar. It is actually quite hard for a beginner student (who is a grown up) to read a children story.

An alternative way, perhaps, is to read all different kind of textbooks as extra reading materials.


Friday, November 20, 2009


In linguistics, accent refers only to pronunciation, while dialect refers to grammar and vocabulary as well.

Nowadays, accents are quite standardized. It is impossible to speak without an accent. In most languages, the majority of accents are reginonal. And people's first language characteristics will have an impact on their second language. In the end, people carry all different kinds of accents.

I believe that all accents are equal. So, for me and for all the people who are learning Chinese, it doesn't matter whether you carry a Taiwan accent or Bejing accent.  There should not be too much fuss about how you pronounce a certain word, or whether you have that 'r' sound or not.

Moreover, there are the newscasters of national TV. And they have traditionally been regarded as carrying "official" accent, that is, the accent that is considered to be standard and neutral. And that will make our accents fluid and ever changing.


Saturday, November 07, 2009


It's always useful to find connections among words, and that also helps to remember them. For example: 酒 jiu,

we can have 酒店, 酒吧, 喝酒, 啤酒, 葡萄酒, and later on can extend to 喝醉了, 睡觉, 喜欢, 不喜欢, 生日, etc. Memorizing all these words in a theme makes it easier.

Then try to make a sentence with each word in your list. The last step would be use your sentences in your conversations with your teacher or friends.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

If you want to walk well, maybe you should start to run!

Many things are required a step further, like walking. It seems simple enough. But I observed that who can walk well, also runs. The strong legs which give a light, easy walking steps are actually built through running.

The same thing goes to language learning, probably especially true with Chinese characters.

If you want to read well, you should practice writing. I have met so many people who only want to recognize the characters, and think they can develop a reading ability. This is really as far fetched as you can get. If you don't write, you can't read.

Make a habit of writing for one or two hours every day!


Friday, October 16, 2009

What lies behinde a language

Why do people learn a new language when they can speak one perfectly well? The answer may carry some very practical causes, such as doing business, or pleasing your spouse. But fundamentally I think learning a new language is to unlock a closed mind.

We can be so used to one language. We listen to, we read and we communicate everything in one language. And that language creates something we feel familiar with, like food, certain type of TV programs, etc. And we don't even realize that people who speak other languages can be very different and can represent a whole set of new ideas.

So when we are learning a new language, we become receptive towards a different kind of food, different kind of music, different kind of books and customs. And therefore help us to open up and take a took at the world at large. That's probably the most beneficial thing one can get by learning a new language.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Quick Fix

"I want it, and I want it now!"
I always get this impression from all aspects of life. And the media always gives re-enforcement through all kinds of channels.

For example, I see things like these every day:

- Loose 10 pounds in two weeks!
- Improve your memory in 2 hours!
- With these pills, you can get stronger bones and joints in 1 week!
And of course,
- Speak fluent Chinese in 15 minutes a day!

I have come to realization that, most of the time, quick fixes are seriously flawed, short lived, and most seriously, often carry some terrible consequences. The real result and satisfaction often come from slowness and persistence.


Friday, September 11, 2009

The Meaning of "International"

I was told by a friend who recently went to China and had a nightmare. One of them was a language problem.

She went to Kun Ming and at the service counter of Kun Ming's international airport, she couldn't find anyone spoke English. And thus the conclusion is: how can this be international airport???

I guess if a Chinese person goes to a major city in US or UK or Australia, he wouldn't demand anybody at the service counter there, however cosmopolitan or international that city can be, to speak Chinese.

The real meaning of "international" is English.


Saturday, August 29, 2009


Last Sunday I was told a classical story on why a person can fail in learning a language.

This gentle man tried to learn Cantonese for about two to three months. And one day he went to a shop and tried to use his Cantonese to get things he wanted. But it appeared that the shop assistant didn't understand him at all. Similar things happened a couple of more times and he was totally discouraged. And he stopped learning. Now he only remembers a couple of words and never take the initiative again.

I don't think anybody can avoid this kind of situation, especially at the early stage. The sad thing is that this situation can put people to a stop.

The best thing to do is: be aware of this type of setback and be prepared, and know that if you continue you will pass this stage very soon.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Three Self Study Tips

It's nice to be around a teacher, but not all the time. It's vital important that you find time to do self study. It's during these hours that you consolidate, you refresh, you memorize and you learn!

1. Listen without reading all the text in your textbook. Check your understanding.
2. Do exercises in your workbook.
3. Read aloud what you have learned.

If you have one hour lesson with your teacher, you probably need two hours to consolidate and be able to claim what you have learned are really yours.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Deliberate Training

When learning Mandarin, there are so many things to cover, grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, writing, characters, comprehension, culture background, etc.

For many people, one thing is on top of the list and that is communication with Chinese people. Communication involves two ways. One is to listen and one is to speak. And there is no short cut to build your listening and speaking skills. Only deliberate training on listening and speaking can help.

You can not and will not speak fluently if you study grammar books and do grammar exercises all day. You can not understand when people talk to you even if you have memorized all the vocabularies one by one. It's not like grammar and vocabulary are not important. They are very important. But only studying them will not help you listen effortlessly and speak fluently. It's like that you exercise your arms a lot with the hope of getting strong legs. You have to, must, train your legs.

You need to train your ears to the sound and train your mouth to the words deliberately!


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Audio Flash Cards

Many people like to make flash cards when learning a new language. They are quite useful and handy. The only problem is that most flash cards are made for the eyes only. So what often happens is that people don't understand when they hear the words.

An improvement is that you can make your flash cards into audio ones. A lot of phones can do the recordings right now. So if you happen to have one of those, that can be quite convenient. If you don't have one, you can use your computer to do the recording. Windows has this feature. You can ask your teacher to record those words, or you can record them yourself. One advantage of doing it yourself is that you can hear yourself talking. If you are not happy about your pronunciations, you can make a conscious effort to improve. And nothing can be more important than a conscious effort.

You can record 20 to 30 words or phrases at a time, and save the audio file into your phone or mp3 player.

The next step is to listen to your home made audio flash cards whenever you got two minutes free!


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Why Can't I Remember That Word?

It happens often to language learners that there are some words that don't want to be remembered. It could be a simple word or a complicated one. For some reasons, we just can't remember them. Different people will have different group of words which fall into this category.

There are some similarities between a newly acquired language and the language you have already spoken. A science article Why your brain just can't remember that word gave some insights on tip-of-tongue experience, especially for people who are bilingual. And I believe it applies to language learners as well. From the article:
One possible explanation is that similar-sounding words compete for our brain's attention. Since bilinguals know twice as many words as monolinguals, there's more chance for tip-of-the-tongue experiences. Since bilinguals, by definition, speak two languages, they are bound to use many individual words less frequently than monolinguals.
The key issue is right there. If we use a word less frequently, we tend to have this experience. And it applies to language learning. When we use a newly learned word all the time, and even it is a rather complicated word, we will remember it. But for less frequently used words, they are easily forgotten.

To activate a second language is to use it as often as possible, even when you are talking to yourself.


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Studying Grammar

Grammar is a very important part of every language. It is important for both native speakers and non native speakers.

For native speakers, learning grammar can help him gain full awareness of the language. While for non-native speakers, it's the path to true proficiency.

Luckily for Chinese beginners, Chinese grammar is over overwhelmingly simple. Word orders, verb conjugations (there is no verb conjugations!) and sentence patterns are made so logical and straightforward.

The grammar part of Chinese is definitely a blessing.


Monday, May 25, 2009

How Many Words Did Shakespeare Know?

When starting learning a new language, people are often obsessed with how big their vocabulary is. But the really important issue is not how many words you know, but how you use the words you know.

Take the example of the master of English language, Shakespeare. There are some wonderful statistics in Bill Bryson's work Shakespeare The World As Stage:

Marvin Spevack in his magnificent and hefty concordance counts 29,066 different words in Shakespeare, but that rather generously includes inflected forms and contractions. If instead you treat all the variant forms of a word - for example, take, takes, taketh, taking, tak'n, taken, tak'st, tak't, took, tooke, took'st, and tookst - as a single word (or lexeme, to use the scholarly term), which is the normal practice, his vacabulary falls back to about 20,000 words, not a terribly impressive number.

Obviously, it wasn't so much a matter of how many words he used, but what he did with them - and no one has ever done more.
Right there, we can see that Shakespeare's vocabulary was not greater than any average educated person now a days. It is thought, the average person today knows probably 50,000 words. A simple reason is that there are thousands of common words - television, sandwich, seatbelt, etc. - that Shakespeare couldn't know because they didn't yet exist. So vacabulary alone didn't count for what made Shakespeare Shakespeare.

Another amazing thing about Shakespeare is that he was really liberated to coin new words whenever he felt the needs. More from Bill Bryson:

He coined - or, to be more carefully precise, made the first recorded use of - 2,035 words, and interestingly he indulged the practice from the very outset of his career. Titus Andronicus and Love's Labour's Lost, two of his earliest words, have 140 new words between them.

In plays written during his most productive and inventive period - Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear - neologisms occur at the fairly astonishing rate of one every two and a half line. Hamlet alone gave audience about six hundred words that, according to all other evidence, they had never heard before.

Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, well-read, and countless others (including countless). Where would we be without them?
That was amazing. I wonder if anyone can do the same thing today, if anyone can write a play, or a fiction with this large amount of newly invented words there.

On another thought, it also shows how easy it is to coin an English word. It won't be as easy to invent a new Chinese character. That is one of the reasons that Chinese has stayed so stable over the past thousands of years. And expressions invented 3000 years ago are still in use.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Learning Spanish

Four weeks ago, I started to learn Spanish. It is fun and difficult at the same time. Since I'm a complete newbie in Spanish, naturally I have some thoughts when learning this language.

I followed a small book called 15 Minutes Spanish. And clearly I spend more than 15 minutes a day to learn it.

The first difficult part is that I can not pronounce the trilling "r" sound. This sound makes Spanish so lively and musical. But for the time being, I'll have to let it pass. And I hope one day it will come to me. It's like the "r", "j" sound in Chinese. Eventually most of students can do it.

The second difficult part is all the differentiation of genders. Women speak a word ending with a, while men speak the same word ending with o. And also the nouns and adjectives have to tally with each other, not mentioning the verb conjugations. Those really make learning speaking Chinese (through pinyin) bread and butter. And that also makes me wonder whether that makes a Spanish speaking woman more feminine, and a man more muscular.

It's also interesting to notice that the first chapters cover family and food. I wonder whether it is because Spanish people value family and food the most. And the questions like "Tiene ninos?" "Esta casado/a?" make me feel that Spanish people are like Chinese, not so much about personal privacy which English people value so much.

It is so much fun to learn a new language and what this language represents. I am not in a Spanish speaking environment, but I hope in one year, shall I have a chance to visit any Spanish speaking countries, I would do just fine.


Monday, May 04, 2009

The Advantage of Being a 40 Year-old Learner

Everybody knows that for a person to learn a new language, the younger the better. If you can start learning at 4 years old, it certainly beats learning it at 40 years old.

It's certainly true. But that doesn't mean that 40 year old doesn't have his own advantages.

The number one advantage is: The concentration level a 40 year old can bring into his study. He can put two hours every day to study. And he is conscious about what he is doing and where he can improve. You will not expect a 4 year old to do that. And that makes a huge difference on the outcome.

The second one is: The cognition level is a huge advantage for a grown up to learn a new language, not only the language, but also the culture behind the language. He certainly appreciates it more than his 4 year old counter part.

The last one is: A 40 year old requires shorter time than a 4 year old. Time is definitely 40 year old's best friend. For example, if a 40 year old dedicates himself into learning Mandarin Chinese for one year, and by the time he turns 41, he can function well anywhere in China. But you can not expect the same thing to a 4 year old.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Victory Belongs to the Most Persevering

That is from Napoleon.

It's a very inspirational quote. Especially during holidays, like now - a long Easter weekend, or when you're so content with everything, or when work load is huge, or when life gives unbearable burdens, one must remember that at all times.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Most Useful Language - English

With the former British Empire expanding in the last four centuries, which began with the American colonies, culminated in India and Africa, the English language was spread, even after the Empire died. Today, there are as many English speakers in India as there are in England, and five times that number in North America. Across the world, one and a half billion people speak English. Yet for many years, for centuries, English was a minority tongue, which hung on only with great difficulty. But now it's the world's most useful language.

Can this status be challenged? I wonder. Sometime ago, there was prediction that Mandarin Chinese would rise to go head to head with English. With the whole world is in a panic mood of dealing with current recession, how will languages play their parts?


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sanskrit Language

William Jones was a brilliant linguist. He was the son of a professor of mathematics, and on top of everything else, an accomplished poet. He published poems in Greek at the age of fifteen, while at sixteen he learned Persian from ' a Syrian living in London'. He later said that he had studied twenty-eight languages and had a thorough knowledge of thirteen.

He delivered a speech "On the Hindus" on 2 Feb 1786. He said: "The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of the verbs and in the forms of the grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists."

The above quoted from Peter Watson.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire was rated as the best movie in 2008 and it won so many prizes in last week's Oscar. Although I know it portrayed only the lowest class in India, I am still affected in thinking that the whole India is like that. I am being terribly rational biased, and that's not fair.

The same thing happened to Chinese movies too. There are movies showing only a small part of life. But people outside of China will have mistaken that particular life for being the norms.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Why Learn French?

When reading Peter Wason talking about French language, I found it shared some similar historical path as Mandarin. The following is from Ideas:

In the eighteenth century, France was "the cultural dictator" of Europe. People looked to France as the model and standard of taste in literature, art, architecture and the ancillary arts that had blossomed and even today occupy a special position: furniture, fashion and cuisine.

French is one of the group of languages which are derived from Latin. Starting around 1549, French language was a self-conscious entity in France's intellectual and national life, in a way that other languages have never been. Throughout the seventeenth century, the language was refined and developed and purified.

This rational tidiness helps account for the language's great beauty but also for its comparative dryness and its relatively small vocabulary. Whereas other languages spread naturally, French was - to an extent - an official language, and for this reason even as late as the mid-twentieth century there were two million people in France whose mother tongue was not French (Alsatian, Breton, Provencal, etc.).

French, anyone?


Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Differences Between Beijinghua and Putonghua

Many Mandarin learners believe that Beijinghua is Putonghua. They seek teachers originally from Beijing, or they believe that they should go to Beijing to learn Putonghua.

As your humble blogger is from a small city which is 30 minutes away from Beijing, I can tell you for sure that Beijinghua is NOT Putonghua. I am in a position that I can understand Beijinghua, and sometimes fake a Beijing accent, yet at the same time, know Beijinghua is not Putonghua.

Linguistic expert pointed out that Beijinghua was heavily influenced by Manchu language. At the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, when Manchu people lived in Beijing were learning Chinese, their accent was influenced by their first language. And the result showed today is that Beijinghua is filled with massive neutrol tone words. So, if you have been learning standard Putonghua, you will find it challenging to understand Beijinghua. That is the same reason for people who learned Cantonese find it challenging to understand Haka, or people who learned Shanghaihua find it difficult to understand Ningbohua.

The second reason is that, just as any other dialects, Beijinghua is full of its very own coloquials and slangs which don't exist anywhere else. And therefore, those coloquials and slangs probably won't be understood by people who didn't grow up in Beijing area.

If you are learning Putonghua in Beijing, your putonhua will be influenced by Beijinghua. The same thing goes to if you are learning Putonghua in Guangzhou, your putonhua will be affected by Cantonese. That is the same reason why Chinese people carry their accent when they speak Putonghua. But luckily, there is a standard version of Putonghua which helps people understand each other no matter where they come from.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mandarin and Other Chinese dialects

There are a lot of Chinese dialects, probably 250. Among them, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien are the most popular judged by the number of people who speak it. Mandarin was made official and dubbed as putonghua (the common language). All Chinese students study through putonghua at school.

There are reasons why Mandarin was chosen to be the official language, but not other dialects. One is that Mandarin is in the closest relation to the written form. Almost all spoken Mandarin can be written down. But it's not the same goes to other dialects.

The second reason is that most Northern dialects are quite similar and sounds very close to Mandarin. People from Beijing, Heilongjing, Tianjin, JiangXi, Jiejiang, Henan understand each other, with only minor difficulties. But Southern Chinese dialects are so different that sometimes even neighboring towns will have their own distinguistive dialects. That made pushing Mandarin through the country a lot easier than pushing any other dialects.

Since I have been learning Cantonese for a while now, I noticed that some old words and sentence patterns are still in use in Cantonese, but not in Mandarin. Cantonese is full of slang while Mandarin has no equivalence.

Some people say that Southern Chinese were refugees from the Central part of China, escaping persecution and war. And Cantonese and Hokkien are related. Hokkien is a more ancient dialect than Cantonese.

Had it not been the commonality of the written Han Chinese language, Chinese dialects would have diverged even more, like in Europe. Thousands of years ago, when Europe was still divided among state cities and tribes, if war had broken out among them and someone had united all tribes, we would not have had the need to face so many different languages now!


Thursday, January 22, 2009

New Year Only Comes Twice

Chinese New Year, the year of cow or ox, is just around the corner.

The New Year Eve falls on 25 of Jan, and the celebration will last for 15 days until 9 of Feb.

Get ready for this festivity.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Happy New Year

Wishing you all the best in 2009!

Here's a joke talked about the New Year resolutions you can keep:

Are you sick of making the same resolutions year after year that you never keep? Why not promise to do something you can actually accomplish? Here are some resolutions that you can use as a starting point:
1. I want to gain weight. Put on at least 30 pounds.
2. Stop exercising. Waste of time.
3. Read less.
4. Watch more TV. I've been missing some good stuff.

Read more here: new-years-resolutions-you-can-keep--
And I want to add one more: Quit taking Mandarin lessons. I'll forget anyway.