Saturday, May 07, 2011

my history of learning the Chinese language

Let me tell you about my Chinese language learning history by starting with the time I requested a college roommate from France. At that point, French was the only foreign language I had ever studied and I knew I wanted to be able to speak French, so on my roommate preferences form I clearly stated that I wanted a roommate from France. Yes, that is how my interest in Chinese began, by asking for a roommate from France. If I hadn't done that I probably would have ended up with a roommate from Minnesota.

I guess the school didn't have many international students from France, so I got the next closest thing to a roommate from France. I got a roommate from Hong Kong. When I found out that I was going to have a roommate from Hong Kong, I did a little research. Right or wrong, I thought that Hong Kong was a city of China, and in China, they speak Chinese. The population of China was about 800 million and it had a long history. I thought, wow, if I knew the Chinese language I would have access to so much information and be able to communicate with so many people!

So right away, I did nothing. At least I don't remember doing anything to learn Chinese before school started. A few months later, school started and I met my roommate who had arrived a few days earlier and already knew more people on campus than I did. Well, I didn't know anyone at all. He knew at least one guy from Hong Kong and 2 or 3 ethnic Chinese girls from Malaysia. My roommate could speak Cantonese and Mandarin. The other guy from Hong Kong couldn't speak Mandarin. One or all of the girls from Malaysia could speak Mandarin and Cantonese. For whatever reason, they always spoke to my roommate in Cantonese.

My roommate was often on the phone speaking Cantonese. I think he called his mom a lot. He also talked to the other guy from Hong Kong on the phone. I heard a lot of Cantonese and I really liked the sound of it. When I say "a lot," it's not like 2000 hours or anything. I just mean that I heard it often.

I really wanted to learn Cantonese. My roommate thought I should learn Mandarin instead. He taught me a few simple things in Mandarin, like hello, goodbye, and the numbers 1 through 10. He probably tried teaching me a few other things that I quickly forgot. I remember one day there was something I asked him to teach me again and he said, "Why? You'll just forget it."

One day, during that first semester of school, I received a cassette tape copy of some Mandarin Chinese course from one of the girls from Malaysia. It must have had Chinese and English on it because I don't remember having a book for it. Nor do I remember how much I listed to it or how much I learned. I just know I did do some listening but I don't remember whether or not I repeated the phrases out loud.

However, I still wanted to learn Cantonese. Before the end of the semester I secretly bought the FSI Cantonese Basic Course part 1 and didn't tell my roommate about it. It cost me about $200. I received about 12-15 tapes. I don't remember how many. There was also a book with it. During the winter break, I started listening to lesson 1. If I remember correctly, the main portion of lesson 1 was teaching the tones. It probably taught 9 tones. I also learned a few words like, I, you, what.

In lesson 2, I believe it was, the quality of the audio rapidly deteriorated and I couldn't hear what was on the tape at all. The whole course became completely useless and I couldn't continue. My whole plan, to secretly learn Cantonese so I could understand what my roommate was talking about, was foiled.

After I went back for the 2nd semester of school, I remember trying out one of the short Cantonese phrases on my roommate when he wasn't expecting it. He had a puzzled look on his face for a moment and then said to me, "That's Cantonese." Remember, I wasn't supposed to be learning Cantonese.

Anyway, that semester the school offered half a semester of Mandarin Chinese. Yes, half a course! A whole 2 credits. Chinese 101A. I have no idea why they couldn't offer the second half of the course. But I took the course anyway because I really wanted to start learning Chinese.

The class was taught by two instructors. But not at the same time! One instructor taught on Monday and Wednesdays. The other taught on Tuesday and Fridays. The instructors were graduate students at the school and probably received a discount on their tuition for teaching the course. Both were from China.

The course started out as you might expect, going through the 4 different tones in Chinese. There were probably 10 or 12 students in the class. The teacher then went around the room and had each one of us repeat the tones after he said them.  I don't remember, but he probably had to correct the students each time. I do remember, though, when he got to me and after I repeated the tones, he did a double take. Then he asked me if I had ever taken a Chinese class before.

The next day, the class was taught by the other instructor. The lesson was pretty much the same as the first day, going over the tones again and then each student speaking after the teacher repeating the tones. Again, when it was my turn, the teacher was surprised and asked me if I had ever taken Chinese before.

Of course, my ability was due to the fact that I had listened to a Chinese tape before, and not due to some natural talent. It was probably a few weeks later, or even near the end of the 8 week course, outside of class, I remember the teacher had me repeat a tone, which I could repeat correctly, and then he asked me which tone it was and I got it wrong. I could repeat what I had just heard but I could still get tripped up on which tone it actually was.

For the final test in the course, and the only one that would determine our grade, we had to be tested by faculty from another institution. The school I was attending had a policy that didn't allow students to determine final grades of students, and since our instructors were graduate students, they couldn't give us our grades. So the university brought in outside professionals to complete the task. Our instructors prepared us for this oral test, so I guess we knew exactly what we were going to be asked. Of course, you don't learn a whole lot in an 8-week language course. The test went pretty much the way we prepared for it.

Except that in class, we went by first names. So when I was asked my name in Chinese, I hesitated for a second and then decided to stick with using my first name when I answered. Unfortunately, the word in Chinese seems to be used to ask people their family name. The testers asked me (in English) if I knew that fact, which I did and I told them I knew it. There was at least one more question that I messed up on, but I don't remember what it was.

In the end, I got a B+ in the class, based on that one test. Both of my instructors were pretty surprised to hear that. I'm sure if they had been the ones to grade me, I would have gotten an A+.

Anyway, it was only an 8-week course and you don't cover very much in an 8-week course starting from the basics. After that course, besides listening to the Chinese lesson tape every once in a long while, I stopped learning Chinese and was trying to learn Japanese.

Fast-forward 12 years later. About all I could remember in Chinese was a few words like, I, you, and "Where's the toilet?" Living in Japan for 3 years, I managed to attain an intermediate level in Japanese and was tired of waiting to become fluent in Japanese before returning to learn Chinese. I found the how-to-learn-any-language forum. I started checking out resources available for learning Chinese. I thought I would prepare myself for when I returned to studying Chinese. And then I found Serge Melnyk's free Chinese lesson podcasts. I thought, this will be great for when I start learning Chinese again. And then I thought, hey it's free, why not start using them right now?

At that time, there were not so many podcasts available on Serge's site and I downloaded them all, I think. There were about 20 perhaps. I don't recall how many I listened to of those, but it seems like it was only a few. The podcasts started from 'Hello' but quickly progressed to him describing a big house or something. I stopped using those as soon as I found another resource recently put online.

It was the Foreign Service Institute's foreign language lessons going online at fsi- languge- courses. From there I downloaded the lessons for Chinese. Those lessons, however, are filled with English explanations and so I decided to extract the Chinese parts and create single audio files for each unique sentence introduced.

With the single sentence files, I could loop the audio and listen to the same sentence over and over. So I created a player that would play the file 100 times and I could listen to it without having to watch the counter in iTunes. I kept this up for a couple of months and then for a whole month I did nothing. After my month of doing nothing was up, I decided to read the pinyin, which had no tone marks, and record my ability to say these sentences. I did that without any review or listening beforehand. It was only 64 sentences at that time. I think I continued using the FSI material a little longer, but I decided to order Assimil Chinese with Ease and was waiting for that to arrive. Also, I had a Japanese Language Proficiency Test coming up and waited until that was over to begin my next method.

The next method I wanted to do for Chinese was the Chorus method. I was going to chorus the sentences in Assimil along with the recording. Except for that one recording I made, I hadn't been speaking Chinese at all, so this was going to be the end of my silent period.  However, the chorusing made my throat very sore and I couldn't continue with it. I had to abandon chorusing right away.

So I continued by listening to the lessons but not speaking them. Assimil doesn't have any English on the recording, but there are long pauses for you to repeat and the beginning lessons (1-7) have a slow version and a not-so-slow version. I didn't need the pauses, nor the slow version, so I cut them out and made my own version of every lesson.

Once again, I embarked on a new mission. To listen to every lesson, except for the review lessons, one-thousand times. I would listen to a lesson 10 times in a row before going on to the next lesson. Each day, I would add a new lesson. When adding a new lesson, I checked out the English translation in the book to see what the lesson was about. But after that initial use of the translation, I didn't go back to it to remind myself what it had said. In fact, after the lessons got more difficult, I forgot what the sentences meant, but I kept listening to them anyway.

The amount of time I spent during each month varied, but if I spent about 30 hours in a month, it was a good month. It was difficult to keep up and I could only do that kind of listening for about 5 or maybe 10 minutes at a time. This was very active listening, trying to concentrate on what was being said. I eventually reached 1,000 repetitions in the first few lessons and 10 or 20 repetitions of the last lesson. I spent 410 hours on it in a total of 200 days. What broke my habit was a change in job assignments and it was too difficult to go back to making a new listening habit because my new job assignment had very irregular hours and days. OK, maybe it wasn't too difficult, but what I mean is that I couldn't get back into this method. I created a language learning log which has always been there, showing what I was doing with Assimil.

Then I spent 9 months doing nothing for my Chinese learning. What got me back into Chinese was the addition of Chinese to LingQ. Now I had a new tool right at my disposal and so I started to use it. I used LingQ to learn Chinese for about a month and a half. By the time I had finished, I had spent 29 hours on listening and read 54,015 words. I created 574 lingqs. I wrote 2 posts in my language learning log about it, mainly just showing the statistics and little about how I was using LingQ.

At one point, I did check out Chinese Pod (or some name like that). That was probably before I got Assimil Chinese with Ease. I only listened to a couple of the podcasts there.

The reason I stopped using LingQ is just because I wanted to use the TV to learn naturally, instead of looking up words and studying. I got this idea from reading about ALG, which stands for Automatic Language Growth. So, on 10/10/2008, I began watching Chinese TV. My TV method is all pretty well documented on this blog so therefore I will end this post here.


  1. So, you've been pretty quiet for a while Keith, after all the hullaballoo surrounding your first efforts at speaking. Any plans to give us an update on what you are currently doing now, how things are progressing , and etc? Also, if I remember correctly, you were planning to begin investing some more time in improving your Japanese? Have you commenced with that, how is it going , and what techniques will you be using with that language?

  2. It took me a long time to get this long blog post written, plus my previous computer died last month and it took me a week to figure out whether or not it could be fixed, and then a week for my new computer to arrive.

    How about a short update right here? Currently, I'm trying to get in one or two episodes of a Chinese drama every day. Yes, I've started working on my Japanese which I announced on my YouTube channel. You can see a video there about the book I'm working through. My channel is KanjiKeith.

    Now that I've finally got this post about my history with Chinese written up, I should start on the next post.

  3. Great run down of the journey. It is always fun to hear how people come to the place of learning their languages.


No profanity. Please be considerate of others. Thank you.