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Archive for May, 2010

I’ve come to value learning phonics well. Both through my experience teaching English as a foreign language and as a student of a number of foreign languages, it’s become clear to me that it’s time well invested. I don’t worry too much if my pronunciation lags a bit, but not being able to distinguish the various sounds of a language is a serious, serious problem. I can’t really remember ever having had that problem with Spanish or Japanese, probably due to the limited set of sounds in each language. Mandarin tones definitely challenged me back when I first moved to Taiwan, but Taiwanese Hokkien has presented a far, far bigger hurdle. Yes, the tones are harder, but that wasn’t it. For at least the first week or two, I couldn’t distinguish the consonants!

Enemy #1: g vs. k vs. kh

Taiwanese includes three consonants that correspond to the two English consonants “g” and “k”. The chart below links Taiwanese POJ romanization with standard IPA symbols.

Taiwanese POJIPAClassificationEnglish example
gɡvoiced velar plosiveget
kkplain velar plosiveskit
khaspirated velar plosivekit

The problem for English speakers is that while we do have both [k] and [kʰ] sounds, they’re in complementary distribution. There’s never a situation in which a an aspirated [kʰ] could be used in place of a [k] or vice-versa. Similarly, we don’t use [g] sounds in positions where a plain [k] could appear (e.g. “sgip”). As a result, our ears are well trained at differentiating [kʰ] vs [g], and not so good at differentiating between the plain [k] and the other two sounds. For me, this has been the biggest listening comprehension challenge I’ve faced in any language I’ve ever studied.

Here is an audio recording with pairs words contrasting the plain k and the g:

How easy was it for you to differentiate between the two sounds? What kind of language background do you have?

Note: Taiwanese also includes [b], the plain [p], and the aspirated [pʰ]!

Taiwanese Study Resources

The very first difficulty I had after deciding to learn some Taiwanese a few months ago was finding appropriate materials.  Despite being surrounded by Taiwanese as a second language in Taipei, very little of what I heard was useful.  With almost no foundation to start from, local radio wasn’t much help.  I tried watching some Taiyu youtube clips with Chinese subtitles repeatedly, but it wasn’t very productive.

Next, I picked up a book+4 CD set, titled 台語真簡單 for under 1000NT at the local bookstore. It was extremely straight-forward. It consisted of a word or a phrase in Mandarin and then the exact same term again two more times in Taiwanese, repeated for enough words and phrases to fill 4 CDs. I ripped them to my iPod and listened during my 10 minute commute to work and whenever I went out for a walk. The results after a week weren’t very inspiring. I’d gotten through each CD a couple of times, and I thought I knew how to say some of the words that came up frequently, but people couldn’t really understand what I was saying. I didn’t really have any handle on the phonics, either. I suspect the problem was that the CDs were intended for people who had grown up hearing if not speaking the language.

1st grade Taiyu

One nice thing after having started my studies is that help started coming from all directions. A mother of one of my students gave me a book for elementary school students here who are learning Taiwanese. One of my 2nd grade students even made me some flashcards and started quizzing me a word or two whenever she saw me after class! Her Taiwanese isn’t that good, but she had studied since first grade and was absolutely thrilled with the idea of being more knowledgeable about a school subject than a teacher.

The elementary school book was interesting. I found modified zhùyīn symbols in it, which I hadn’t seen before. Text was rendered in triplicate– characters, modified zhuyin and romanized. The Chinese characters were sometimes comprehensible to me, but in some cases they just don’t make sense to a Mandarin speaker. Below is an image of the glossary from one of the pages:
Taiwanese to Mandarin
As expected, the book was full of situational language to use at school, classroom objects, family members and animals. The CD had a dialogue and a crazy song in each chapter. I don’t think I learned very much at all, but it was fun and it motivated me to continue looking for a way to actually learn to speak a bit of Taiwanese.

In the end, I did find a very good resource, the Maryknoll textbooks. They are written primarily for Catholic missionaries, which means that a lot of religious vocabulary appears early in the text. However, there’s nothing else I’ve seen that even remotely compares. There are three primary books in the series, and each is accompanied by a lot of audio. I purchased the level one book, and the MP3 CD that came with it contained 32 tracks of about half an hour each. I strongly suspect that in the past, it was a “book and a crate of tapes” method much like FSI. I still haven’t completed the book (or even half of it), but it’s been enough to allow me to have five minute conversations with a cab driver, or to say a few polite words when visiting Taiwanese speakers.