Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Learning Mandarin

Lets take a quick look at Chinese (Mandarin) grammar.

From Tim Ferris' blog post on how to master a language in an hour, I've laid out translations of his sample sentences. The purpose of it is to quickly gain insight into the grammar and sentence structure. 

The apple is red.

It is John’s apple.

I give John the apple.

We give him the apple.

He gives it to John.

She gives it to him.
I must give it to him.

I want to give it to her.

It's easy to see that Chinese grammar is very simple compared to other languages. There is no conjugation of verbs like in Spanish. The word "Give" (给) is the exact same in each of the sentences. Only the person changes from I(我), We (我们), He (他), She (她). Every sentence has the same pattern. People often hear that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn. It only is considered hard since reading and writing is considered. To get to basic conversation however, Chinese is relatively simple.

Ok, the above is just to get a taste of the language and "learn" the language in an hour. But my goal is to become fluent. Before I started I took some time to scan for the best techniques and methods for learning Mandarin quickly. Here is what I found is working for me.

Anki Flashcards - Anki works on PC and mobile phone. It basically is digital flashcards. It uses a spaced repetition technique so that you will see words that you don't know frequently and words that you have learned less frequently.

Pleco Chinese dictionary - works on your mobile phone. This is an absolute must because it has an overlay feature (it was a $10 add-on) where I can be surfing the web and tap on any word and it will tell me the meaning of the word. Pleco integrates with Anki where I can hit a button to automatically add that word as a flashcard in Anki. Pleco also seems to have the best character recognition so when I see a character in a movie or on a sign and try to write it, it usually is able to bring up the right character even though my writing is very sloppy. The Chinese google keyboard doesn't seem to be as consistent for me; probably because my stroke order is incorrect.

Du Chinese - a mobile app to practice reading. This is an amazingly well written app. I really like it because of the quick feedback. If I don't know a word I can click on it to see its meaning and get it read out to me as well as save unknown words to my word list. Since each reading is recorded by a native speaker instead of text-to-speech, it sounds very smooth. Also as a plus the stories and articles are fun and give good insight into Chinese news and culture.

Media that I'm interested in - language learning shouldn't be rote and boring. It is essential that you look for media that you find interesting or you might lose interest very quickly. I pretty much use YouTube to find TV shows and songs that I like. The best have both English and Chinese subtitles but some of them are just Chinese and in that case I pause after each scene to look up the words using Pleco. 

Practice speaking - I've made a rule to only talk to my family and friends (who are capable of speaking Mandarin) in Mandarin only. At first its awkward but try anyway. The people who learn the quickest are the ones who are the most willing to go with it and look foolish. If I don't know a word I'll use Chinglesh at the very least and keep a note to look it up later or ask them. If you don't have anyone to practice speaking with I've heard that actually speaking with yourself works really well. There's also an app called HelloTalk to find people to talk to. It was ok but I find it difficult to find the right partner because the Chinese always want to talk in English while you want to learn Chinese. You'd need to set up a system to either take turns or each person respond in both languages. But there are a lot more Chinese wanting to learn English than English speakers wanting to learn Chinese so it is easy to find people who want to chat. 

Immersion - so far for me this has meant turning my phone and laptop language settings to Mandarin. This can be a bit frustrating at first because a popup will come up and it will take a while to look up what it is asking. In the end it pushes you to learn quickly due to necessity. It reminds me of myself not really speaking Spanish despite 4 years of high school classes. But my trip to South America forced me into speaking it and at the end I felt good enough to get by. I have a trip planned for later this month to China so I'll be fully immersed soon!