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Why you Can’t Learn Chinese Through Osmosis

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

As I grew up in Canada, I got to know a lot of immigrants who moved from non English speaking countries. When they first arrived, they could barely say a word in English. However a year or two later, they could converse in English with no problem.

When I first arrived in Taiwan, I assumed the same thing would happen here. Sure, I couldn’t speak any Chinese when I got here, but give me a year or two and I’d be fluent! However, after a year or two, I came to the realization that I could still barely speak any Chinese. Why was that? Was I that bad at learning the language?

The truth was, I hadn’t put much effort into learning the language. Why would I need to? I live in Taiwan! I hear Chinese all around me, and see Chinese characters where I look. So what was the problem?

The problem, it turns out, came from the characters. When people learn English for the first time, they usually start with the alphabet, then work their way up from there. When learning Chinese though, many students (myself included) skip learning characters, as they are too complicated. Instead, we focus just on listening and speaking - using pinyin as our writing system. What’s wrong with that?

Back to how people learn English - a lot of the learning comes from reading. When we hear this, we assume they are learning from reading children’s storybooks, but this is only a part of the learning. A bigger part of learning comes from being out on the streets in an English environment.

CitiBankImagine that you’re just learning how to speak English and you see the picture to your left, in front of you.

You know it’s a bank, because of the ATM in front of it, and you see the word “bank” on top. You’ll start to recognize this word, as you’ll see it on every bank that you see. So eventually your brain will recognize this word as meaning bank, even though you may not have consciously taken note of it. If you’re really eager, since you’ve learned the alphabet, you might even try to pronounce “b-a-n-k” in your head, so that you can reproduce this word in the future, should you ever need it.

Now extend this typGrocery Store Titlese of experiential learning throughout your daily life in a new country and you can see how you can quickly learn the language just by reading the titles of all the objects and places you’re interacting with regularly.

Now compare this with trying to learn Chinese in a similar manner. You see a bank in front of you and recognize it as a bank (after all it’s the same Citibank you’re familiar with) and try to associate it with the equivalent word in Chinese, but this is what you see instead.

CitiBank (Chinese)

Since you haven’t learned any characters, it takes a lot more effort to recognize that 銀行 refers to the word “bank” in Chinese. Even if you could recognize those characters, it would be a lot harder to reproduce this later on, since you won’t know how it’s pronounced. As a result, in most cases, the brain just ignores what it can’t understand.Wulai

This results in a lot of wasted learning opportunities with all the signs in Chinese we see in front of us on a daily basis. Imagine how fast your Chinese would improve if you could read each sign and figure out what it was referring to. That’s the edge most people are missing.

So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just learning the Chinese alphabet first, since there isn’t one. Instead you have to go through the process of learning each character, one at a time, and hopefully maintain your character recognition skills with the vocabulary you’re learning.

The current CLO course has an emphasis on listening, leaving you to learn the character portion on your own, using the available transcripts. For those interested in emphasizing characters more though, I’ve recently begun work on a new course, that is based around the same CLO course material, but with an emphasis on reading and typing Chinese. Create a free account and try it out today!

Learning Chinese through Setting Goals

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

Navigating the long road ahead

When I first came to Taiwan, I assumed I would pick up Chinese without much effort. After all, I was constantly exposed to it everywhere I went, so even if I didn’t want to, I would automatically learn, right? A year later, feeling like I hadn’t learned much, I realized that things didn’t quite work this way. I actually had to put in effort to learn the language. To make things easier on myself, I decided to focus on listening and speaking only. Learning to read and write characters just seemed like too much for me.

Three years later, while I don’t consider myself fluent by any means, I have learned a lot about the learning process, especially through creating the CLO course and communicating with listeners. Through this process, I have tried to create the tools that would have helped me the most, were I to start learning again from the start. Like anything else you want to accomplish in life, it can be highly beneficial to set goals for yourself when you have a long, arduous task in front of you. When you begin, it may look like a long road ahead from the start to the day you consider yourself fluent. However, with some due diligence you can find that the goal isn’t as far off as you think.

Many people “want” to learn Chinese, but give up early when they realize how many characters they would have to learn to be literate. Constantly being bombarded with new vocabulary, while easily forgetting old words can also make it easy to give up. What I have found is that having a system of learning greatly reduces the complexity of this process. This system can be broken down into 4 steps.

  1. Determine where you are
  2. Determine where you want to be
  3. Set a time frame to reach your goals
  4. Allocate the time necessary to reach your goals

So for example, if your goal is to be able to write characters, set a goal of how many characters you want to know. Looking at our course, you need to know about 500 characters to get through level 1 and level 2. A moderate pace would take you a year to finish two levels (you can adjust this pace for yourself). This means you would need to learn 1.36 characters a day to achieve your goal. All of a sudden that doesn’t sound so hard, does it?

Learning to write characters usually involves writing it over and over again. You can practice using the worksheets we’ve created for you here along with our new character introductions. For me personally, I have a habit of writing 50 characters (half the worksheet) each day. This is a combination of new characters and reviewing old characters.

It is important to note that this process is MUCH harder up front. Of those 500 characters, over a hundred are introduced in the first ten lessons. This means a lot of time will be spent up front where it seems like you aren’t making progress. However, once you’ve made it past those ten lessons, all of a sudden things become much easier. New characters will be easier to learn since they will mostly be based on characters or elements you already know. Plus you will find yourself spending less time on stroke order since it will now be more natural to you. A similar process can be used for learning new words with the new memorization mode on our flashcard program. Choose a range of lessons and learn the vocabulary associated with them by logging in once a day.

By dividing up the chore of learning into daily, manageable steps, you will find the process much easier, as you will actually be learning something new each day. The above steps add about 30 minutes to my daily routine, but the results have been much better than the haphazard, plan-less program I was using previously. The way I look at it, another year will pass whether I put in daily effort or not. This way though, I know exactly where I will be a year from now, rather than just hoping I have improved.