Advanced Chinese Self-Learning
I’ve taken four years of college Chinese, the standard term of newspaper readings, plenty of Classical Chinese, and even a year of class in Taiwan. But like many advanced students, I’m not fluent and I don’t constantly rely on Chinese to survive, so I have to practice.
1. Admitting I have a problem
For much of my class-time in Chinese, I was the most attentive or curious student, and in those environments I got used to thinking of myself as a competent, even outstanding student of Chinese. But when I moved to Taiwan and spoke with native or business speakers of Chinese, I immediately panicked. It was like the first semester in Professor Li’s Intensive Chinese I class, when he looked at me like: I can speak Chinese, why can’t you?
2. Back to work
First year Chinese mainly impressed on me: do your flashcards. But now, the pain of making them by hand and trying to keep track of which ones to review can be eased by computerized spaced repetition. After inputting your new words, flashcard software can track how well you know each and ensure that you practice unknown words frequently and known ones at appropriate intervals. Today I have two decks, one for Modern and one for Classical, with more than 2000 advanced-level items. But I can keep all those words fresh in mind by practicing only 100 a day. Software: I recommend the free Anki, commercial iFlash (OS X only), or online tools such as LingQ
3. Listening practice
My fundamental problem is finding enough input material clear and interesting enough that I want to listen and learn. Although I used to listen to ChinesePod, it wasn’t useful enough to pay for. I’m always exploring new options, but for now I regularly listen to content from:
- iMandarinPod was originally a ChinesePod knock-off, run by native Chinese teachers in Tianjin. Now, the level of the lessons is fairly high and includes discussion of news items, chengyu, and culture. The episodes are between eight and twenty minutes and usually consist of a formal reading of a written text, a more conversational re-telling of the text that stops to explain new vocabulary or concepts, and then a repeat of the original text. Many of the texts are barely comprehensible as spoken Chinese, but the program gives you a chance to practice both formal and informal listening and see how native speakers translate between them.
- Voice of America Chinese has regular news, as well as shows on economics, culture, international affairs, etc. Sometimes I’ll just tune in to the live feed though at various times of the day it is off the air. The broadcasters seem to be based in DC and the news is very much a translation of American news rather than Chinese news, but it is still excellent practice in listening to quick, formal broadcast style.
- LingQ (Chinese in beta) is the new member of the rotation. The site serves many languages and its Chinese content is currently scanty, but it does have real, very informal conversations that remind me of chatting with Taiwanese students. Some people go crazy with LingQ and use it to coordinate tutoring, all their flash cards, etc. I am going to wait and see how their Chinese content shapes up before subscribing to a paid account.
- For the truly bold, Beeline TV and Livestation have links to live streaming video from a handful of Chinese networks, including CCTV 1 and 4, VOA Chinese, and RFI Chinese.
4. Reading materials
A number of excellent books provide authentic Chinese materials with limited (but helpful) glossaries and grammatical explanations:
- Advanced Reader of Contemporary Short Stories consists entirely of stories published since 1990. The editors did not back down from all sorts of controversial material. If you want to know how people swear, or love, or argue in contemporary fiction, this has it. I found it very hard to get used to reading long, narrative material in Chinese. After so long analyzing small chunks of the language, I found myself having deciphered every sentence on the page but with no sense of what the author was trying to communicate. This was a great book to practice reading for tone and intent, rather than just syntax.
- The Independent Reader (從精讀到泛讀) is a fantastic collection of recent magazine and newspaper commentary articles. They are arranged in related themes, with very interesting contrasting views on politics, the economy, family life, and Cross-Straits relations. Unfortunately, I picked uo my copy in Taiwan and it does not seem to be available in the US. Perhaps you can buy it online.
But all of that is just practice for reading real material. I wish I had some secret for this, but I just go to Google 资讯 and pick out what looks interesting.
There’s no substitute for actually using a language to survive, so I’m always trying to improve my process. Please email me with any suggestions and I will post them here.
· Feb 3