Qua locus

Keeping both eyes on the long game.

如何我正在学中文 (How I’m learning Chinese)

This blog has been split in three and all content moved to the new blogs – Qua Locus LifeQua Locus Tech and Qua Locus Puzzle – comments are disabled here.

For some reason, the fact that I’m learning Mandarin seems to impress lots of people. Whatever – I guess it’s because it’s a tonal language and doesn’t use a Latin alphabet? You could say the same thing about plenty of other languages like Russian and Arabic, but I only speak the one language right now so I’m not exactly in a good place to judge…

Anyway, I’ve poked at it for a while now, but 3-4 months ago I really started focusing on it, and now I’m making fantastic progress. It wasn’t just the extra focus though, because doing a few things differently really helped!


First things first. The mindset. In the past I never really had much motivation for learning another language. I thought it would be useful, in some kind of vague and abstract way, but nothing more. After all, really, why? Actually, when I bothered to read and think about exactly that question I got motivated and fast.

But motivation alone doesn’t make you learn a language. I use a structured approach – described below – and I also practice every day (sometimes twice). Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re motivated if you don’t create the time to do the learning as well. It sounds obvious, but that’s tripped me up with other things before.

I’ve also spent a fair bit of money – not heaps – on tools and classes and material to help. In the past I avoided doing this and worked around it, created my own material or tried to “make do” without. It didn’t work, but the tools I’ve got now do work – and I’ll describe them next.

Useful tools

The Pleco iPhone app is really good. It’s does three things:

  • Dictionary
  • Flash cards
  • Reading material

The dictionaries are excellent, and the Hand Writing Module and Stroke Order add-ons are well worth the money too. Now, I can practice my writing whenever I’m looking up a word up the dictionary. The flashcards and reading material are really powerful too.

One extra language learning challenge that I face is that I was born in NZ’s educational grammar gap, and so I was never formally taught anything useful about language outside my Latin classes (thanks to Mrs Gorman for putting up with me!). This makes generalising what I learn in another language much harder, so I’m using the IGE application to teach me some formal grammar as well.

I’ve also become a big fan of Anki. This is a general flashcards application, but it’s not just any amateur flashcard app. It is available online, on the iPhone and as a desktop application, and it is easy to synchronise your decks across all of these devices. There are a huge number of decks freely available, and it takes advantage of all the latest research to make flashcard learning as effective as possible.

Finally, I’m also paying to take classes. They’ll come to an end soon, but I’ve really pushed in them to help build a solid foundation of knowledge that I can build on. Now, I’ve joined a few MeetUps to help ensure I get that face to face contact and motivation infusion in the future too (hat tip to Alex Flint for the suggestion).

Reading and writing

Which brings us to actually using all these fantastic tools. There are two parts to learning another language – “reading and writing”, and “speaking and listening”. Until now I’ve mostly focused on the former, but the latter is really important too and I’m just starting to engage with that. I’ll cover them one after the other.

The key for me to learning to read and write Mandarin was/is using a systematic approach. I started by using a good beginner’s textbook to focus on the most common characters, and I use Anki and Pleco flashcards to help me learn them as effectively as possible.

Pleco also has a “Document Reader” and links to online graded content. Learning individual words alone is great, but recognising flashcards and reading text are not quite the same! This is something I’m only just picking up now, but it looks like Pleco’s “Reading Material” will help a lot. Similarly, I am starting – rarely, now and then – to write sentences in my journal in Mandarin. Over time, I will write more and more this way, and so practice my writing skills.

It’s also important to realise that learning to read and write Mandarin is actually quite straight forward if you approach it in the right way. Each character (e.g. 他) is actually made up of radicals in the same way that English words are made up of letters, and these radicals help determine the pronunciation, tone and meaning of the character.

Just as the relationship between English spelling and pronunciation can be pretty tenuous, so it is also for Chinese, but knowing the radicals can help a lot. Even now, as a relatively weak linguist, I can more and more often guess the meaning and pronunciation of characters I’ve never seen before. As well as flashcards for individual words, I use flashcards for radicals and there are several (including one of mine with images) freely available on AnkiWeb.

Speaking and listening

As with flashcards for learning the characters, I also use flashcards for learning to speak and listen. The AnkiWeb “Mastering Chinese” decks (levels 1-10) include audio to listen to, and I force myself to say the words out loud each time for my other flashcards as well. Spending some time up-front on basic pronunciation and intonation has also been really important. My spoken Chinese is a long way from perfect, but it’s improving from a good base and that is what really matters!

On the todo list is listening to more Chinese speech and watching more Chinese TV. This will help with my listening, and some good resources I have found are:

Finally, I’m hoping to improve my conversational Chinese using London-based meetups (linked to above), Skype and other web tools like Verbling* and Conversation Exchange. More on this as I figure out the best and most effective ways of using these!

* Just launched and currently only available for Spanish and English, but shows fantastic promise!


Written by CGF

June 23, 02012 at 18:35

One Response

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  1. Just spotted, see also this post on QS on flashcard learning: http://quantifiedself.com/2012/06/spaced-repetition-and-learning/

    Christo Fogelberg

    June 23, 02012 at 18:52

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