June 27, 2011

Mandarin studies review after having changed my approach - 1 year

It's been quite a while, since I made a language related entry into my blog and since it's been around a year since I changed my approach to my Mandarin studies so I thought it might be a good time to review a little and see where I stand with Mandarin at this point in time.

It's almost unbelievable that I can say this, but I feel my Mandarin is finally getting somewhere! It's been more than a year and a half since I've been in Taiwan and more than a year since I've completely changed my approach and I think it has definitely paid off. When I speak Mandarin now, I am not tired at all, I don't think about pronunciation and often I can choose from more than a couple of ways of how to say the same thing. The sentences that I produce - since I repeat what I hear around me, are structurally Mandarin-spot on and after such a long time, I finally start getting the gist of the logic of Mandarin and can improvise in situations where I haven't heard or said similar sentences/sentence structures before. I finished reading a 12 book series of 死亡筆記本 and towards the end of the series (book 10,11,12), when I got used to the vocabulary I was reading it almost at natural speed, which made me incredibly happy. Now I'm reading a fat 400 page detective story (黑暗的回聲) and try to keep a pace of 40 pages a day without a dictionary. Well, see how that goes. I usually understand every word when it comes to direct speech dialogues in these books. When it comes to descriptive sections, sometimes I understand every word, sometimes just enough to get the gist and sometimes I don't get the entire sentence.

When it comes to oral comprehension, when talking to people it happens once every 10 minutes on average that I don't understand a word. I understand TV talk-shows pretty well, but it depends on the show. Movies are more difficult, but with Chinese subtitles it's not that bad. News broadcasts are still a problem. I can read newspapers, but the topic has to be international or something I know a little more about. If it's local Taiwanese politics, the article is usually full of names of politicians or institutions making it difficult for me to distinguish what is a name and what is a regular noun which I don't know the meaning of.

When it comes to writing, since I've been reading so much lately, it's been up a notch, but still not what I would like it to be. Per paragraph I write I usually have to ask once or twice to check a sentence structure that I wrote. Usually they are Ok, but every now and then the still look weird.

Since I dropped my conscious forced attention to tones, my pronunciation has turned out to be more and more natural and closer to the standard. There still are a couple of sounds that I am working on - especially the Taiwanese version of sh, ch and zh, since the way I pronounce it is too soft and I am still looking for the correct position of the tongue. When it comes to vowels, the one that is a killer for all the foreigners is the Mandarin "a". Who would've thought. It will give you away as a foreigner on the phone any time. Maybe it is the height of the neutral tone in that should be a lot lower in 真的嗎 than I used to pronounce it and not the sound it self, but it is this vowel that I have to work on.

Because of my previous Mandarin instruction (explanation of tones based on graphs and the use of pinyin), even given my best effort I was pronouncing rather what I saw and not what I heard so now I am basically working on rebuilding my entire pronunciation base to make the words sound like they are supposed to and not the way they I was trying to pronounce them according to tonal graphs.

Also, forgetting is a very big part of my learning process. For instance the fairly simple word 先生 is not a very frequent word in my daily life actually but a very frequent word in my Mandarin scholastic life, since it was one of the first words I learned. After hearing and saying it less and less, I forgot the details of how I used to pronounce it and when my Taiwanese friend suddenly said it, I noticed a whole lot of things. For instance that I used to pronounce the almost in a neutral tone and didn't give it it's proper length, that I used to pronounce the "ia" sound in as if it were merged together whereas the "i" and the "a" should be quite distinct and fused through a "y" but still very distinct and this small discovery led me to upgrade my pronunciation in all other "-ie" , "ian", "-eng" finals. Fortunately I make these small discoveries all the time and do this little "word sculpting" to make my pronunciation better.

I dropped pinyin a long time ago as well and I don't feel "bound" anymore by it since I also forgot the associations between the pinyin writing and the way I used to pronounce words. Individual words are easier for me to "sculpt" to the way they are supposed to sound, because I can "forget" my wrong pronunciation of them faster and thus upgrade them to a more standard one, but the most basic of words or combinations, like , 我有, 不是, 不要 and so on.. I use them a hundred times every day, so it's difficult for me to "forget" the details of their pronunciation and then notice why exactly I was pronouncing them wrong.

All in all I am quite happy with my progress and according to the how-to-learn-any-language forum classification I feel like I am approaching advanced fluency, but I'm still not there. For advanced fluency I should be able to turn on the TV at any given time and be able to understand what they are talking about just as if it were English or Slovak, I should be able to read novels almost at natural speed, I should be finally satisfied with my pronunciation and while speaking I should be able to play around with expressions in every situation, having at least 2-3 possibilities to express the same thing at any given moment. When I get there, if I ever get there, maybe I will finally be able to compete with big boys like 大山 and the rest :))


  1. Bravo! That's great to hear.

  2. Классно! Your intrepid climb up the Mandarin mountain is inspiring. You've clearly remained focused through tough times and worked very hard to reach this high level.

    Just keep your faith in reaching that summit soon, and no doubt your two feet will carry you on unawares all the way to the very top. :)

  3. Thank you for the support guys. I'm doing what I can, but it really was and is hard! :)

    I read about 120 pages of that detective story and except for the technical forensic vocabulary I think it's going surprisingly well.

    I'm also starting to memorize how to hand-write characters. My handwriting is terrible in any language so this is going to be really tough. I think I'll be happy with being able to hand-write by heart the words what I can read.

  4. Peter,

    interesting stuff. Can you let me know how it is working out for you later?

    My main concern with any kind of transcription is that it makes you focus on something that is associated to a sound rather than the sound directly. Now while in Italian or Russian for instance, it is no problem,in Mandarin there is just too much information contained in the letters and the tonal marks - may it be a diacritical mark, a number or an additional letter and in my opinion the concentration on pure sound much more effective. This romanization you mentioned might still remind you of the tonal charts and not the sound itself. If you manage to get the tones down as they are supposed to sound, this romanization could be probably the best way to write down the pronunciation of new vocabulary.

    Another problem might be, that there are still only about 400 syllables in Mandarin and new vocabulary will look very similar. If not written, then it will definitely sound similar when spoken out loud.

    Another problem is sound recognition. Will you be able to automatically tell apart the following: 老師說, 老實說, 老是說? With the way I used to study Chinese, I was unable to do that, now I can most of the time. But then again I wonder, whether it isn't because I am quite used to the language and my brain sort of expects/guesses what will/should be said.

    This is actually something I wanted to write an entire article about.. I wanted to theoretize a bit about how a person understands what he hears partly because of the sound and partly because of the fact that his brain expects a set of possible sentences. For instance if you hear someone yelling something at you from across the street, you probably clearly hear less than 50% of what is being said, the rest is being guessed by the brain. This is just an example, but it is happening in real time speech all the time. I getting off the point here...

    In either way, it would be great if you could let me know how it worked out for you. Good luck with your studies.