Now, one thing is for sure: you will not find me making bold statements about mastering the art of Chinese language learning. This is in part due to the fact I have been such a slow and unfocused student of the art myself, and in part because I realize it is definitely a life long task. I am, though, now beginning to take my Chinese studies seriously again. Consequently, I thought I would note down some of the online resources that are out there to help. But first, my brief take on the three basic phases of Chinese learning.
The initial phase is to get to a point where we have enough words to order food and drinks, get around town, and be able to have some very simple conversations with locals. This is the stage where we find the words tīng bù dǒng rising to our lips with utterly depressing frequency. Sadly, it is a symptom that can still be found in the early stages of phase two.
This second phase is like the first of two very big jumps. This jump takes us to a point where we can do most things in daily life, and chat simply about a variety of topics. We can reach a level here where we can get out and about confidently knowing that tīng bù dǒng are words we rarely have to use. At this level we know enough to get people to explain things using language that we do understand. To arrive at this position takes an awful lot of work.
The third phase is another huge jump. It takes us from this “everyday, no worries” level to fluency, which means using the language in almost the same way that we can use our own. This includes being able to discuss, to a reasonable depth, a wide variety of topics, only really being restricted by personality and specific interests.
This phase is going to require a level of focus, daily commitment and long-view perspective even greater than that which went into getting through the second phase. So far I have lacked the motivation to take this next step. My Chinese has been fossilizing for a couple of years in that get-by-everyday-no-worries sort of state. However, now that I am re-engaging with my studies, I will simply list a few online resources that may be useful for all students of Chinese.
I will begin with a heads up to a Lost Laowai series of interviews, known as Mandarin Mondays. Here Ryan McLaughlin, of the Lost Laowai site, has gathered together a number of China language specialists with an online presence, to offer reflections on, and tips for learning Chinese. These interviews act as good reminders and motivators; to help all of us students take steps in the right direction.
One of the interviewees is John Pasden. John has been blogging about the art of learning Chinese, on his Sinosplice site, for over 10 years. He is also the John of ChinesePod fame. Most people are aware of Chinese Pod but not everyone is using it. Even though I am only a recent convert, I have already become a zealous practitioner. All I can say is get those podcasts downloaded and work on them alongside the pdfs that they supply.
The podcasts at Popup Chinese are also highly recommended. Brendan O’Kane, who is one of the hosts, also gave one of the Mandarin Mondays’ interviews, which is worth a read. The Popup Chinese site also hosts the very informative Sinica Podcasts. They have no language-learning value but are interesting discussions, in English, from commentators knowledgeable on Chinese current affairs. Lingomi.com is maybe worth keeping an eye as it continues to build up its online audio resources.
Chinese Hacks and Laowai Chinese are two well-developed sites worth dropping into for tips, strategies and a mixture of resources and links. Another site I appreciate, even if I don’t always take advantage of its amazing vocabulary lists, is Carlgene.com. Carl is an Aussie based translator who provides useful vocabulary, translation activities, some good tips and some excellent links. In addition, the Chinese Forums site has an active community offering answers and guidance. Dave, from Chinese Hacks, also recommends participating in real Chinese forums, and engaging with native speakers on topics that you have a specific interest in. Weibo and QQ are also good for this, while Youku is good for interacting with a whole variety of Chinese language content.
In terms of phone or computer based study tools Anki is up there as one of the best. Anki is a flashcard tool that enables you to download cards or add your own. These cards are shown to you at intervals that depend on your evaluation of how easy or difficult you found the words. I had always made my own flashcards and was loathe to switch, but I am now glad I did.
Anki adds more computer time than I would like but this system really can help get Chinese vocabulary into your head. There are other good flashcard tools out there, for example HSKflashcards.com, but Anki comes out on top in the views of many. To really reap the benefits, though, flashcarding – as only one aspect of the language-learning process – does need to be mixed up with classes of some kind, podcasts and other audio resources, appropriate reading materials, and some good old-fashioned chats with native speakers.
Whatever and however you are studying you are going to need a dictionary. Paper dictionaries are supposed to help the memorizing process, but most people are now using electronic and online versions. There are a number of online dictionaries out there that are worth book marking. I go with Nciku, as it has good real life example sentences to help with understanding. Other popular dictionaries are MDBG, Yellow Bridge and Dict.cn. A recent discovery of mine is Mandarin Spot, which has a good dictionary but is also an excellent tool for getting longer excerpts of Chinese text rendered into pinyin.
As far as mobile dictionaries go, I use Pleco all the time. The Pleco software is compatible with Apple products, Android phones (experimental version), Palm OS and Windows mobile. I have also started using Qingwen Chinese, as it has a user-friendly interface and a very useful word list tool. When it comes to practicing written Chinese, which I don’t, as I write using the computer, Skritter has become the tool of choice for a lot of people. However, with the release of the new iPhone4S’ Siri speech recognition software, writing may be becoming a thing of the past…
Somebody was asking recently what people do during the winter months in Xi’an. One answer is to hunker down and continue learning this language. Emerging in the spring with an ability to understand more, to read more and to speak more. That is my plan for the winter at least; we’ll see how I go. Good Luck to those planning to do the same. I, for one, am going to need it.