On Comprehensible Input
Aug26

On Comprehensible Input

Hey guys! Sorry it’s been a little longer than usual since my last post – I’ve been extremely busy lately! Aside from being a full-time University student, I’ve also been running my own company (or trying to) and doing a lot of work for an organisation called ACYA (Australia-China Youth Association or 中澳青年联合会) for which I’m a Vice-President of the Monash University Chapter. In fact, I’m writing this post from the plane! I’m on my way home from the ACYA National Conference that was held in Brisbane. I met an amazing bunch of people, including many Chinese people with amazing English and quite a number of Australians with flawless Chinese – it was definitely an eye opener and reassurance that reaching a high level of fluency in Chinese is definitely possible. Anyway, on to it! —————————————————————————————————————— So, comprehensible input. What is it? I believe the term first appeared in the work done by Stephen Krashen on language acquisition (if you haven’t heard of him, look him up). Essentially, he devised a model for language learning based around input (reading and listening) as an alternative to the traditional grammar-based approach favoured in classrooms. More specifically, he contends that in order to maximize efficiency in language learning, the input should be comprehensible: meaning not too hard that you can’t understand, but not too easy that it isn’t challenging. I am a strong believer of the input model, as are other many far more accomplished language learners than me. Input, and listening in particular, makes up about 90% of my Chinese learning. The rest is spent learning characters and speaking. In the past 3 months I’ve been trying to average an hour a day of listening, and in that time I’ve progressed tremendously. Like, seriously, my Chinese is infinitely better. I wrote an article about my first month doing this challenge, which you can read by clicking here.   Why an input based approach is so effective: It’s the way we learn our native language. Have you ever wondered why everyone (pretty much) is able to speak their native language flawlessly and naturally? Or why you rarely make grammatical mistakes despite never touching a grammar textbook? The reason is because from your first day on earth, you are bombarded with an intense dose of input. A baby just sits there all day, absorbing the language being spoken around them. The result is that they have a seemingly ‘natural’ feel for the language. The good news is that you can be baby. You have my permission. Take some time out of your day to turn on your iPod and listen and absorb the...

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The Secret To Learning Foreign Languages
Jul24

The Secret To Learning Foreign Languages

You lucky devils. Today I have decided to share with you all the one true secret that I believe is essential to learning a language. Sure, knowing this information alone won’t be enough to learn a language, but you also can’t learn one without knowing this rule. Surprisingly, it is quite logical when you think about it. However, I think that this secret is, unfortunately, largely absent from traditional language teaching in schools and the like, despite the fact that, unless they are native speakers, every language teacher knows this secret and would have had to consciously acknowledge it in order to learn the language that they teach to fluency. Yadda yadda yadda. You guys just want to know the secret, right? What is it, you ask? The overarching rule of successful language learning is that the process itself must be enjoyable. What is so frustrating about this rule is that it is extremely easy to forget. Chinese is my fourth language, and yet I often find myself getting frustrated at myself for forgetting characters, or for not learning as fast as I would have liked – but this is the worst thing you can do. The learning process must, above all, be fun and enjoyable – you can’t force yourself to learn a language. You may be able to mindlessly rote learn a few basic phrases, but to gain any substantial ability to communicate in a new language, the process itself must be enjoyable. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but people often say to me that I must have a gift for learning languages. I hate hearing this, because what the person saying that really means it that they think they aren’t gifted, and so they can’t learn a language. This is definitely up there in the biggest excuses potential language learners make. I always reply that I’m not any more gifted than anyone else. This isn’t false modesty, this is the truth. Really. The reason I’ve been, so far, relatively successful in my language learning comes down to these four things: Language learning is my hobby, not a chore. I’m not learning Chinese to get that big job promotion, or to impress people. I’m learning it because I absolutely love learning new languages and about the cultures of the people that speak it. Nothing gives me a bigger rush than speaking with someone from China about government corruption, the one-child policy or the growing divide between the ultra-rich and super-poor. Call me a nerd. I’m not fixated on the end result. Perfecting a language (if that is even possible) is actually a sad thought for me. That...

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Beginners: Chinese Tones Explained With Their English Equivalent
Jul01

Beginners: Chinese Tones Explained With Their English Equivalent

One of the most daunting aspects of the Chinese language are its tones. And, sure, if you explain them like most native speakers or self-impressed successful learners do, they definitely sound it! You may hear people say “in Chinese, if you change the way you say a word slightly, the meaning can change dramatically!”. Unfortunately, its statements like those that deter many people from learning about this great language and China’s long and rich history. But really, it’s just something that takes getting used to. And, like in all languages, where there is a hard concept to get your head around, there will also be easier ones. Chinese makes up for the difficulty of tones with the simplicity of its grammar compared to, say, European languages. In Chinese, the reason for having tones is quite simple – there are far fewer variations in sounds (about 400) than in most other languages (such as English, which has approximately 12 000), and so tones are used to distinguish otherwise identical ones. Pretty cool, huh? So, What Do They Sound Like?  Firstly, tones are not a completely alien concept for English speakers. In fact, we have them in English! They are just more subtle, and have slightly different meanings. However, the basic idea is the same. Thinking about the English equivalents of tones are a great way of wrapping your head around their use in Chinese. The First Tone – ‘mā’ – is indicated by the ¯ on top of the final. This one is the most difficult to explain, but it is kind of like the sound you may make when you get a fright (‘āh!’). It is a high sound that is distinguishable because it is a constant pitch that does not fluctuate like the others. The Second Tone – ‘má’ – the rising tone, is indicated by the ´ on top of the final. Fortunately, this one is easy to explain! In English, we use this tone, known as the ‘upwards inflection’, on the last word of a sentence when we want to make it a question. Read ‘are you cold?’ out loud. The rising sound of ‘cold’ is the same as the rising tone in Chinese. So, má sounds like you’re saying ‘ma?’. Get it? Good. The Third Tone – mǎ – the low or dipping tone, sounds a lot like when you say ‘Mum!’ when she asks you to do the dishes, except, it dips down slightly lower than we would in English. The Fourth Tone – mà – sounds like when you’re in class at school, and you’re trying to call somebody’s name without the teacher hearing....

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20 Things You Should Be Able To Say To Kickstart Your Conversation Skills
Jun19

20 Things You Should Be Able To Say To Kickstart Your Conversation Skills

Learning the most commonly used elements of speech in the language you are trying to learn can put you miles ahead, and can make you seem far more competent than you actually are. Sure, looking at word lists for the most frequently used words can be helpful, but knowing how to use fundamental structures such as who, what, why etc is essential to any meaningful conversation. Here is a list of 20 such things words and structures that you should focus on learning ASAP: 1) Who – Shuí   Tā shì shúi? Shúi pèng le wǒ de shǒujī? 他是谁?谁碰了我的手机? Who is he? Who touched my phone? 2) What – Shénme   Zhè shì shénme dōngxi? 这是什么东西? What is this? 3) Where – Nǎr Cèsuǒ zàì nǎr? 厕所在哪儿? Where’s the toilet? 4) When – Shénme shíhou   Nǐ shénme shíhou lái de? 你什么时候来的? When did you arrive? 5) Past tense – None in Chinese! Add le or guò depending on the context. Wǒ mǎi le yī shuāng yùndòngxié. 我买了一双运动鞋。 I bought a pair of sports shoes. 6) How many – Duōshao  Nǐ de xuéxiào yǒu duōshao xuésheng? 你的学校有多少学生? How many students go to your school? 7) Why – Wèi shénme   Tā wèi shénme nàme bèn? 他为什么那么笨? Why is he so stupid? 8) Because – Yīnwèi Yīnwèi wǒ xiǎng xuéxí Zhōngwén. 因为我想学习中文。 Because I want to study Chinese. 9) Therefore – Suǒyǐ   Suǒyǐ, wǒ qù le mǎi zhè tái zhàoxiàngjī. 所以,我去了买这台照相机。 Therefore, I went to buy this camera. 10) To, by, with, from , for – Dào + Bèi + Gēn…yǐqǐ + Wèi le Wèi le gěi nǐ zhè jiàn líwù, wǒ cóng xuéxiào gēn dìdi yǐqǐ dào le zhèr. 为了给你这件礼物,我从学校跟弟弟一起到了这儿。 In order to give you this present, I came here from school with my brother. 11) However – Shénme bànfǎ dōu kěyǐ Nǐ xiǎng zhīdao zěnme zuò zhè ge gōngzuò? Yòng shénme bànfǎn dōu kěyǐ. 你想知道怎么做这个工作?用什么办法都可以。 You want to know how to do this work? However/whichever way is fine. 12) What kind – Nǎ zhǒng  Zhè shì nǎ zhǒng diànnǎo? 这是哪种电脑? What kind of computer is this? 13) Want to, plan to,hope to – Dǎsuàn Wǒ dǎsuàn qù Zhōngguó. 我打算去中国。 I plan to go to China. 14) Which – Nǎ ge  Nǐ xǐhuān nǎ tào fángzi? 你喜欢哪套房子。 Which apartment do you like? 15) Should, must, could – Yīnggāi Nǐ yīnggāi chī diǎnr dōngxi! 你应该吃点儿东西! You should eat something! 16) Even if – Nǎpà Wǒ jīntiān bìxū zuò-wán zuòyè, nǎpà wǒ bù shuìjiào. 我今天必须做完作业,那怕我不睡觉。 Today I need to finish my homework, even if I don’t sleep. 17) Although – Suīrán…dànshì  Suīrán zhè shì hěn zhòngyào de, dànshì wǒ bu...

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Words That Don’t ‘Stick’
Jun12

Words That Don’t ‘Stick’

As any seasoned language learner will tell you, sometimes you come across words that simply don’t ‘stick’ in your brain. Others, too, seem to stick easily and often effortlessly. Why are some words committed to memory effortlessly after the first hearing, while others continue to torment you after several conscious attempts to learn them? This can be because of several reasons. The main two would be: You don’t understand the word properly. Did you hear the word in context, or are you simply trying to rote learn it from a word list? Words that you see in conversations or other authentic material are, in general, far easier to remember, as the context serves as a cue for your memory. When learning Chinese, it can be useful to learn the meaning of the individual characters that make up the word (just the Pinyin is fine for speaking). Also, if you don’t understand how it’s used, you’re unlikely to remember it, or, at least, you won’t be able to use it. And if you can’t use it, what’s the point, right? The word doesn’t have enough perceived importance. If you don’t really care about a word, or, subconsciously or consciously, aren’t fully convinced that it’s worth learning at this point in time, then you probably won’t remember it. If you believe the word is essential to your survival in the language, then believe me, it will stick. The clear solution here is only learn words that are actually important for your current level. It makes no sense to learn the word for ‘biotechnology’ in your target language before you learn how to say ‘where’s the toilet’? Even if you are a scientist-type, the latter is going to be more important as a beginner learner. That’s not to say that learning complex words aren’t important – they are, but only when you’re at a higher level and looking to have more profound conversations with people. How Do You Make Words Stick Like Superglue? When I was in High School, one of my favourite subjects was Psychology. We learnt a lot about the brain – in particular about sleep and memory. I thought that it was so relevant to be learning how to learn things. Without boring you all too much, let me just say that the important things regarding memory that you should know is that your short-term memory can hold about 9 items. After that, without a proper ‘mnemonic device’ (memory technique) you will start forgetting them. I think the short term memory can store information for about 30 seconds, too. Therefore, you gotta make a word sink through to your long-term memory in...

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One Month Challenge: How To Change Your Chinese Learning Habits in 30 Days
May31

One Month Challenge: How To Change Your Chinese Learning Habits in 30 Days

Lacking motivation? Keep putting off that Chinese study? Haven’t learnt a new character since you bought that World of Warcraft expansion pack? One month challenges are for you. I first heard about them online a couple of months ago, I think in a psychology journal (I can’t remember which, sorry!). Anyway, I read that habits are formed in around 30 days (less in some people), and that by setting yourself a goal of doing a specific task every day for a month, we are likely to assimilate it into our life as one of our everyday activities. So, armed with this newfound knowledge, I set out precisely one month ago on my first One Month Challenge: to get 1 hour of Chinese input a day. Studying seriously becomes so much easier when it becomes a habit. Lemme explain. What is a habit? And why do we have them? People like to believe that they have absolute free will over their actions and behaviours. That they are the one master of their destiny. In reality, most of our behaviour is hardwired into our subconscious – we don’t notice, of course, but a lot of what we do is governed, and explicable by reference to these unconscious processes of the brain. An example of this is psychological addictions, such as addiction to drugs such as marijuana that, chemically, have no physically addictive qualities. Specific behaviours develop and strengthen over time. In order to use it to its full potential, we must recognise that the brain is a muscle that must be trained, just like the muscles needed to physically carry out the brain’s messages. The reason you cannot immediately play a guitar the first time you pick it up is not only because your fingers can’t physically perform the required movements, but also because your brain doesn’t have the capacity to do so yet. Over time, your fingers develop ‘muscle memory’ that allows them to quickly snap from chord to chord. Your brain simultaneously develops the neural connections associated with playing the guitar, without which you would not be able to play. We can extend this to the question of why people procrastinate. Why do they seem unable to stop themselves? In case you don’t see where I’m going with this, I’ll spell it out for you: they have gotten into the habit of procrastinating and cannot just simply, well, stop. They need to train their subconscious to ignore the temptation, and their conscious mind will follow. How does this apply to learning Chinese? We are creatures of habit. If you can commit to doing a bit of Chinese every day...

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