Friday, November 30, 2012

Studying Chinese in 2012 is a Lot Easier than It Was In 2003

Last night was our last session of the UAA Confucius Institute's community Chinese class until spring.  The teacher, Teng Fei, has been terrific, pushing us more than is comfortable, but not too much more.  Most important is that the two Confucius Institute teachers we've had used a great teaching method - lots of oral repetition, good grammar drills, and almost no English in class.
I'd say that this is pretty elementary stuff - a dialogue about people going to someone's birthday party.
A:  Wang Peng, what are you doing now?
B:  I'm reading.
A:  Today is Gao Xiao Yin's birthday.  This evening we're  going to have a dance party at her place.  Can you come?

But elementary in Chinese is relatively advanced in a lot of other languages.  You've got the tones to learn (what tones are) (hearing the tones)  and more than that, you've got to memorize each character.  Counting through the back of the book's glossary it looks like there's about 350 characters that we're supposed to know now.

How much could you say if you only knew 350 words of English?  [Here's a list of the 300 most common English words to give you an idea of both how much it is and how limited it is.]  Actually, speaking Chinese with just 350 words is probably easier than English because there is no conjugation of verbs for present, past, and future tense.  Some of that gets conveyed with words like today, next week, etc.  And there are some words you stick into the sentence that shows it's happened already or it's happening now.  (The character 呢 at the end of line one of the dialogue in the photo is supposed to show that she's asking about what he's doing right now.  Or you could just say "right now" instead.) So you don't have to fuss with I am, I was, I will be, etc.

But, there's always the characters.  And while there are some basic repeated parts of the characters - radicals - there's no real phonetic way to know how to pronounce each character.  You have to memorize each one.  But, knowing the radicals and their meaning can help in that task.

There is so much more online help today than there was in the past.  Chinese dictionaries are ingenious, but also painfully slow to use.  If you were looking up a character you had two options:

Option 1.  Stroke count.
a.  count the strokes in the character;
b.  then in the front of the dictionary there is a list of characters starting with one stroke, two stroke, three stroke, etc.  If the character you want to look up has five strokes, you go to the five stroke characters.  They're listed in stroke order (there's a set of rules for which stroke comes first, second, etc.)  Or you can just go down the list until you find the one you are looking for. 
c.  find the character you are looking for
d1.  in some dictionaries it then has a page number to go to
d2.  in other dictionaries it has the pinyin (phonetic alphabet) and then you can look it up alphabetically in that dictionary.

On the right is a page from a Chinese dictionary.  First you have one stroke characters.  One is a horizontal line 一 and two is two horizontal
lines 二。You can see there are only two one stroke characters listed and you can find them on pages 1037 and 1049.  Then there are more two stroke characters.  The first stroke in a character is the horizontal line stroke (if there is one).  There are four such two stroke characters listed.  Then the characters that start with the second stroke - the vertical line.  Just one listed, on page 60.  Then a diagonal stroke to the left.  These are just the two stroke characters.  Imagine trying to see the 10 stroke characters.  I often needed a magnifying glass.

As you can imagine, this took a while.  New students don't always count the strokes right.  Then you you have to go through long lists of characters to find the one you are looking for. (There are a lot more three, four, five and more stroke characters than one and two stroke characters.)

Option 2.  Radical
This is similar, but instead of starting with the number of strokes, you start with the main radical in the character, then go down the list of all the characters with that radical.  This assumes you can figure out the radical.

I spent more time thumbing through the dictionary to find the characters in the past attempts to study Chinese than learning the characters.

But now you can look up characters online let's you find the character
a.  by writing the English
b.  writing the word in pinyin (the phonetic alphabet)
c.  writing the Chinese character - yes the have a little box (you would click the brush on the real page) where you can make the strokes with your cursor.  But you have to be close enough that the computer can figure out some characters it thinks you made, then you have to pick out your character from the list it gives you.  But that's true of each of these. 

Screenshot from Yellowbridge.com

And once you get the character you can listen to the pronunciation, see the etymology, see examples of other words that use the character.  Yellowbridge even has an online flashcard system that uses the vocabulary lists from the most used Chinese textbooks identified by each lesson.  So I could pick my book and chapter and do the flashcards online.  Here you can see the flashcards for the chapter we worked on today in class - this is just the vocabulary for the second dialogue of the chapter.

ArchChinese, which I found looking for the stroke order rules above, also looks like a lot of help.  It says it's been put together by Chinese teachers for K-12 and university student in the US.

So, things are much easier now.  And there are lots of different websites that offer great help.  And there are lots of YouTube videos so you can listen to the sounds.  But none of that substitutes for memorizing the characters and learning the dialogues and the grammar patterns, in writing and orally, which use very different parts of the brain.  It just makes it a little easier.

So, since last night was the last class until the spring, I thought I would recover that part of my life spent preparing each week for Chinese class.  But no.  We got homework to keep us busy until we start again, which, fortunately is not until late February.  (This is a community class, not a credit class.)  But much of what we need to do is review all the vocabulary, dialogues, and grammar that we've covered so far.  But we're also supposed to look ahead to the next six chapters (to the end of this book.)

But, I have to say, while my Chinese is very rudimentary, I am finding myself thinking in the patterns we've been learning and the vocabulary seems to be sticking a little better than in the past.  I think I've laid down enough tracks in my brain that this time it's working. 


  1. wow. The internet never stops learning how to teach.

  2. Absolutely fascinating! Eliminating the conjunctions helps. Do they have masculine and feminine nouns?

  3. Hi Barbara, yes, the internet is a great language learning tool. I didn't even get into the opportunities on skype and other places to talk to native speakers of whatever language you're studying.

    Anon, glad you found it interesting. They do have conjunctions, just not conjugations. They don't even have 'the' and 'a' let alone masculine and feminine nouns. But they do have 'measure words' or 'classifiers' which you have to use when making plurals. That's probably worth a post in itself. Actually, I've done a post on this before. But I used Thai as my example since they make plurals the same way the Chinese do. That post is called "amount of people hired as architects." If you liked this one, that one should be interesting too, and it shows how we actually still do the same thing in English for some nouns.

  4. My husband and I go to a certain Chinese restaurant a lot. When they see us they just wave, "Go ahead, to your table..." Last night, I asked the Chinese waitresses (the three who speak a little English had gathered around our table to pack up all the food we ordered but didn't eat) a few questions:

    1) When you write down our order in Chinese, you do it so fast, do you have abbreviations? -- No. But, said one girl, there is simplified version -- for countryside of China [peasants?}.

    2) How many characters are there in the Chinese language? -- Millions and millions said one, adding, the dictionary is THIS thick (6 inches). She laughed, many characters I don't know. Many, many.

    Does anyone know them all? -- No.

    3) Can you tell (among you) who has written out each order? -- Yes, of course!

    4) As we were leaving, one said, knowing we are artists, said, proudly, "There is special art making Chinese characters, it called cally-GRAPH-ee. -- Yes, we said, it's lovely.
    She smiled.

    Now I want to learn how to say THANK YOU in Chinese. Can you help me, Steve?

  5. Barbara,

    1) I'm guessing your waitresses might be from Taiwan where they still use the traditional Chinese characters (in Singapore too and Hong Kong did before 1997. Not sure what happened after. I'm sure it's still used a lot.) In China, the moved to a simplified form which cuts out a lot of the strokes in some characters. Some are the same. The point was to make it easier to read.

    2) No, not millions. From
    China Culture:

    "Kangxi Zidian (Dictionary of Emperor Kangxi) compiled by Zhang Yushu, the most recent dictionary developed in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), included more than 47,000 characters. In 1915, Zhonghua Da Zidian (Great Dictionary of China) has more than 48,000 characters. In 1959, Dai Kanwa Jjiten (Chinese-Japanese dictionary), edited by Morohashi Tetsuji, included 49,964 characters. And, in 1971 Zhongwen Da Cidian (Great Dictionary of the Chinese Language), edited by Zhang Qiyun, had a vocabulary of 49,888 characters.

    With the passage of time, dictionaries with more and more characters came into being. However, knowledge of about 4,000 characters is necessary for reading a newspaper and for most other common purposes."

    Another site says 80,000.
    (English has has up to 250,000 depending on how and what you count.)

    4) Here is a YouTube video that will teach you to say thank you. XieXie for asking. I looked at several and like this best for getting the info to you thoroughly but succinctly with good pronunciation. So, go surprise your waitresses.

  6. Great! I'm ON it. :)

    I just it just seems like millions...
    The brain pathways to learn even 1000 of them must be manic.


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