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With the right approach, you can do it easily in a single day.

When I first started taking Chinese classes at the Mandarin Training Center in Taipei, I already knew pinyin… or at least I thought I did. I had a basic idea of how to spell Chinese words I heard. They had a phonics training course that used zhuyin and I figured it would be a waste of time.

I found a chart at the back of my Chinese-English dictionary that mapped every syllable initial and every final to its zhuyin equivalent. I knew from my Japanese classes in college that learning a new alphabet (or syllabary if you insist) isn’t that hard. Our teacher told us to learn the curly alphabet—hiragana—before our first day of class. She just gave us some worksheets and sent us off!

hiragana sahiragana "shi"hiragana-su

How I learned hiragana and katakana

It actually only took a day to pretty much get it down. I went row by row through the worksheet. After writing each character of the first row with I closed my workbook and wrote each of them down. Then I checked and saw I’d made a mistake with あ and also with お. So I wrote them again and got them all right. Then I got a glass of water and wrote them again when I got back. Next, I practiced each character in the second row—. Then I closed the workbook and wrote them all from memory. After the fourth row or so, I tested myself on the whole thing and took a break for lunch. Upon getting home, I retested myself and then went on to the next row and continued like that.

I won’t say that my ability to write or even read hiragana was perfect at the end of the day, but it was about 95% there and I’d only spent about three or four hours, broken up into four sessions. When I woke up the next day, I tested myself on the full set of hiragana and got them all!

Next, I shifted focus to the more angular mean-looking Japanese alphabet called katakana. It was a bit harder because some of the symbols look almost the same. vs and vs . I was fine in class on Monday. I misread a few things, but it wasn’t a big deal and with constant exposure there was very little danger of forgetting any of them, unlike kanji which were my bane.

Learning bopomofo in one evening

Back to the original story… I was absolutely brimming with confidence when I discovered there was a Chinese alphabet, 注音符號, to learn. Equivalency table in hand, I just marched through the alphabet column by column, starting with and continuing until I reached and .

zhuyin-zhzhuyin-chzhuyin-shi

Half a day and done! That’s all it took to learn to read and write the mandarin phonetic alphabet and if you’re already a Chinese speaker, you can probably power through it even more quickly using the method I described. If you’re someplace such as Taiwan or a school for overseas Chinese where it’s used, keeping it is pretty trivial and it opens up a lot of learning resources.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t already a Chinese speaker and I’d just made a horrible mistake.

Learning the symbols is easy, learning the sounds is hard

I actually should have taken that bopomofo phonics class. Learning to recognize and write the characters wasn’t the main thing to have worried about (or taken pride in). Learning the sounds of a foreign language is much harder task, especially if you’re over the age of about 5. The problem is that I learned Chinese first through Pinyin and I basically went through English phonics where possible. I quickly realized that something special was going on with x and q. A while later I realized the pinyin r and u also caught my attention fairly quickly and I got them mostly sorted. But I spoke Chinese every day for years developing some messed up pronunciation habits related to thinking that the b and d were basically the same sound in Chinese pinyin as in English. They’re not. In retrospect it seems blindingly obvious. I wouldn’t try to speak French as if every letter were pronounced exactly like in English. Why would I do that with Chinese?

But that’s a different story for another day. You can learn to read, write and recognize just about any alphabet in a day. Thai might be pushing it, but for Japanese, Korean, Chinese or Russian, it’s mostly about having a decent resource, preferably with some sort of mnemonic like those liked above, diving in and testing yourself. If you’re studying the language, you’ve really got no excuse not to go for it!


On a side note, I’ve recently made some improvements to the Pinyin – Zhuyin converter. It now converts zhuyin to pinyin and handles tonemarks, too.

Let’s face it. Most people spend a lot of money on foreign languages either directly or through their public schools and the results aren’t usually that great. [1]

What are the problems? Well the biggest one is probably that most people studying foreign languages don’t want to be studying them! Some of my old students in Taiwan showed up hating everything about English! It took countless months of benevolent brain washing and fun materials to get even half of them genuinely interested in a language they only needed at school. But I’m basically going to set that problem aside and talk about the difficulties for people who really do want to learn. Let’s look at the main options and then the problems (and strengths) of each.

The main options

  • Classes
  • Self study courses
  • Online tutoring
  • Offline tutoring
  • Conversation exchange
  • Immersion
  • Other online tools
  • Self-designed study methods

Classes

  • Classes with professional teachers are expensive.
  • It’s cheaper to be part of a large class, but most students want talking time.
  • It’s very difficult to handle students with very different levels of proficiency.
  • Most classes focus too much on grammar.
  • Most classes focus too much on intensive activities instead of extensive reading.
  • Classes tend to be very rigid in terms of when students can start or stop studying.
  • There are limited times when students can join or leave.
  • Group classes motivate people to study regularly.
  • Native speaking teachers can correct students.

Self-study courses (books + CDs/MP3s)

  • Most are of poor quality (this can be mitigated by looking at online reviews).
  • There’s no correction. This is a huge problem for pronunciation.
  • Don’t generally get students to the level where they can use native materials.
  • Good for learning vocabulary and basic grammar.
  • Usually a reasonable value for the price.

Online tutoring

  • Online tutoring extremely expensive due to its one on one nature.
  • Teachers don’t generally have the same incentives to make study plans as those making courses for schools.
  • It’s difficult to become friends with an online tutor and some platforms forbid it.
  • Due to the individualized attention, tutoring is very time efficient.
  • Students able to continue spending $5 to $30 per hour can learn to a very high level. 
  • Students anywhere can learn from teachers anywhere.
  • It’s easy to switch teachers.

Offline tutoring

  • It’s more difficult to find offline tutors if you aren’t at a university or hostel.
  • There may not be a tutor for the language you want to learn where you live.
  • Offline tutors sometimes to become genuine friends or introduce students to other native speakers who become friends.
  • There are no middleman costs from a platform or payment processors.

Conversation exchange

  • It takes some effort to find a good match (online or off)
  • Many conversation exchanges devolve into a struggle over which language to use.
  • There’s a MASSIVE imbalance between who wants to learn what languages. For every English speaker who wants to learn Arabic, there are probably 100 Arabic speakers who want to learn English.
  • People doing conversation exchange have to or at least should spend 1/2 of it helping the other person.
  • Conversation partners often end up becoming friends.
  • Conversation partners understand each other’s struggles.
  • Conversation exchange leads to more cultural understanding.
  • Conversation exchange is free.

Immersion

  • People are remarkably capable of creating their own language bubbles and resisting immersion. Just living in a country is no guarantee you’ll learn much.
  • Moving to another place is a huge life decision affecting work and relationships.
  • It’s costly to move and figure out how everything works in a new place (either in time or money or both).
  • The ability to take advantage of immersion to learn a language really depends on social skills, and sadly physical beauty. Not everyone can recruit the locals to help them learn.
  • Combined with study, immersion is one of the surest ways to learn a language.
  • It’s exciting.
  • It generally forces people to grow.

Other online tools

There is an ever-growing wealth of online tools available for learners. I’ve often thought my Chinese would have improved nearly twice as fast if I’d been born 10 years later and had access to those tools while I was learning.

A lot of great tools have a narrow focus and will help you with one specific aspect of learning a language. Obviously these can’t be relied upon exclusively, but they can definitely be valuable additions to your other activities. Anki, for example, is a long-time favorite of many language learners. Lang-8 is popular for those who like doing and receiving writing corrections. Another interesting option is LingQ. I will definitely write more about them in the future.

I’ve heard great things about some of the language-specific programs, in particular Frantastique for French learners. Due to their very high prices, though, I haven’t tried it out.

Podcasts are definitely worthwhile. The key is to find podcasts that are interesting, are at the right level and don’t waste your time with too much branding or chit chat in English.

The 100% free resources available online don’t tend to be time efficient.

Some of the most popular, like Duolingo are highly gamified, very addictive and not very effective. I’ve known some people who have spent hours a day on Duolingo for an entire year without developing basic speaking or listening abilities. Students with time but no money would be far better advised to take advantage of the free tier on something like LingQ and then start doing conversation exchanges after getting a basic foundation (or even after just getting enough to make it through one conversation on a pre-prepared topic).

Self-designed study methods

  • Only really an option for people who have experience learning languages and know what they’re doing.
  • For veteran language learners, personal approaches developed over multiple languages of experience are often very effective even for languages lacking study materials.

Lowering your learning costs—the bottom line

Here’s the best advice I’ve got based on today’s tools:

1) Get a self-study textbook + CD set. I had a decent experience with Living Language for Spanish. It was like 3 textbooks (of which I did nearly two), plus CDs for only $30 on Amazon. Just work through that.

2) If you’re learning a language that it supports, use the free LingQ to build up some vocabulary through reading and download the audio for each lesson you’ve read. Listen to that when you’re out walking around. If you really like the service, then it’s probably worth the $10 per month.

3a) If your native language is popular enough (e.g. if you’re an English speaker learning French or if you’re a Japanese speaker learning Korean), then get a conversation partner on mylanguageexchange.com or on Italki.

3b) If you’re having a hard time finding a conversation partner because you’re learning English (or maybe Spanish or French), then go to Verbling, sign up and go to the community tab as explained here.

4) I’d suggest using tutoring on an as needed basis and make sure you have all the questions you need to ask prepared ahead of time. If you know exactly what you want, most teachers will be very helpful.

And repeat

As you improve, keep listening, keep reading and keep talking with people about whatever topics you can. You don’t need to spend a ton of time, but if you can do 30-90 minutes per day and keep at it, you will get at least basic proficiency and even counting a few intermediate-level books and tutoring sessions the cost will be under $500.


1. One exception would be northern Europeans. They’re outliers though. Their native languages are closely related to English, they’re pretty small in terms of speakers, and they can’t use their native languages abroad. They also from a very young age and get a great tons of input from English-language media that they don’t dub. A speaker of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese or especially English has a very, very different situation.

There are two major forms of Chinese characters used in the world today—traditional and simplified (or three if you count Japanese). Most Chinese learners very reasonably decide to learn only the character set that’s used where they intend to use their Chinese—simplified in China or Singapore or traditional in Taiwan, Hong Kong or most overseas Chinese communities. Some learners even more pragmatically decide not to bother learning how to write either type and instead use the time saved to learn a couple of Romance languages!

Really the people who are asking which they should learn first are the unreasonable people with grand ambitions. A lot of them are college students planning to take on both character sets, maybe study some classical poetry and then pick up another language before graduation. I like those people 😀

By far the most relevant thing is which type of writing you have access to, but there are some objective advantages and disadvantage to each approach.

Why learn traditional first

As their name suggests, traditional characters predate simplified ones. The simplified characters were, in fact, simplified from the traditional characters. (See! Some things related to the Chinese language are very easy!) As a result, the way of simplifying characters is often pretty reasonable and not always reversible.

It’s often easy to remember how to simplify a character you know

For example, many characters are simplified just by using part of the original! In these cases, it’s very easy to remember how to write the simplified if you already know the traditional. The opposite isn’t true.

豐 -> 丰 (a piece from the top)
麵 -> 面 (the right half)
廣 -> 广 (first 3 strokes)
號 -> 号 (the left half)

Similarly, a lot of characters were simplified by just swapping out a big scary complex component with a simple one that has the same or a similar sound.

讓 -> 让 (sounds kind of like 上)
認識 -> 认识 (sounds like 人 and sort of like 只)
餐廳 -> 餐厅 (聽 sounds a lot like 丁 and exactly like 汀, 耵, etc)

Once again, this is very easy for someone who knows traditional. They can often remember how to write the simplified character immediately since it’s a sound substitution and the substituted component is simple. If you were a simplified learner, you’d have to try to think of a complicated component with the same sound, you’d have lots of choices to guess from and then you’d still have to remember how to write a complicated component.

Some characters were “merged” during the simplification

The character 麵 mentioned above was indeed simplified to 面, but 面 is a traditional character, too. In traditional characters 面 is face and 麵 is flour. In simplified characters, 面 could be either. Similarly 發 (to emit or project) and 髮 (hair) are both simplified to 发. In general it’s easier to remember to lump two things together mentally than it is to start distinguishing them (e.g. as students of Japanese have a much easier time merging their l and r sounds than Japanese students of English have in separating them).

Traditional may be easier to read

Traditional characters do tend to be easier to distinguish, in my opinion. Part of this is due to having more semantic information available and part of it is due to simplifications that created new characters very similar to existing ones or to other simplifications:

nothing vs day
无 vs 天 (simplified)
無 vs 天 (traditional)

head vs buy vs read
头 vs 买 vs 读 (simplified)
頭 vs 買 vs 讀 (traditional)

bountiful vs life
丰 vs 生 (simplified)
豐 vs 生 (traditional)

You have to learn the “hard” components eventually anyway

Even though you can avoid the difficulties involved with the right hand side of 讓 and just learn 让 in your first semester class, you can’t escape it forever. 釀 (ferment) simplifies to… 釀. Guess you still had to learn that right half of 讓! The same sort of pattern plays out with many, many other characters.


Why learn simplified first

Simplified might be harder to read, but its definitely easier to write. Every single simplification was made with the purpose of making a character easier to write. And with the possible exception of one or two border-line cases such as 者 -> 着, it was successful. It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal this is.

Reading is easier than writing

Even if learning to read simplified characters were a full 30% harder than traditional (which it definitely isn’t), it would still be a great bargain if it made writing 5% easier. Why? Reading is far easier than writing in terms of the time investment required to become competent.

Writing traditional characters is brutal for beginners

There are certain extreme simplifications such as 個 -> 个 that were done on very basic characters. This is amazing for beginners! 個 isn’t too bad, but every single Chinese textbook for foreigners I’ve seen includes the word “doctor” in the first few characters and learning 醫 as one of your first couple dozen characters just sucks. 医, on the other hand, isn’t too bad! Ditto for 讓 -> 让, 認識 -> 认识 and 興 -> 兴. The sum of all these simplifications is that writing just a huge ordeal instead of a cruel form of punishment for beginning students of Chinese.

Some traditional characters are just ridiculous

I used to live in a town called “turtle mountain”. This is written as 龜山. I had to write that 龜 every single time I wrote my address. Why couldn’t it have been 龟 or even just 亀 like in Japanese? 龜 is ridiculous. Even worse, it’s a radical which means it’s used as merely a part of even bigger, even more ridiculous characters.

Speaking of ridiculous characters, you know which one really depressed me upon encountering it in my level 2 class at Shida in Taiwan? It was part of the word for depression, actually! And since it would be basically just a black splotch on the screen otherwise, I’ll blow it up for you:

Yeah… lets all memorize how to write that one when we’ve only been in class for a semester!

Handling complex Chinese characters gets much easier over time

This is the biggest reason why it’s better to learn simplified characters before traditional. Complicated characters, even crazy characters aren’t that bad if you know enough of the building blocks. I haven’t really written any characters by hand in years, but it’s still easy to write that horrible doctor/medicine character 醫 from chapter one of my first Chinese book from memory because I know the parts. I know the simplified 医 (and that it contains an arrow 矢 in a box radical 匚), and I’m familiar with 殳 from many other characters and it’s easy to remember you 酉, one of the 12 celestial stems associated with the animals and years because it’s inside a lot of other characters including 酒 (alcohol) and I imagine an ancient Chinese doctor using alcohol to sterilize a wound before treating it.

Therefore…

I still think it makes sense to learn the character set that’s in your environment because learning both is a gigantic effort that very few people make. But for those who really are going to learn both, I think the faster way is actually to start with simplified.

If a genie were to magically grant you one or the other, the right move would almost certainly be to take traditional since it would make learning simplified so easy. But that’s not going to happen. You’ve actually got to do the learning yourself and you’d might as well start with the easier system that will let you get a faster start. Doing it the other way would be kind of like going to a gym out of shape, and starting with the heaviest weights you can with the plan of later being able to easily switch to the lighter ones.

Related Content: Also check out Chris from Fluent in Mandarin’s take on this question:

Learning Chinese is no longer as popular as it was a decade ago for westerners, but the options learners have is pretty staggering compared to what I had to work with. I probably wouldn’t have made all those Chinese learning mistakes that cost me a year of my life if I’d had todays tools.

There is one mistake I’ve seen new companies making again and again, though. It generally ends up resulting in poor support for a large segment of learners, especially advanced students. It also results in dictionaries that confuse words with each other, often merging them into single entries when they shouldn’t. And this problem ends up at the core of the company’s tech and they often just give up, figuring they’ve already invested to much to go back and do things properly.

In many ways the decision that leads to these problems is rational for a young business with limited resources, but it’s also a red flag for learners since it shows the business is more about short-term earnings and less about the love of the Chinese language or the desire to support everyone who wants to study Chinese for work, study, history, Chinese medicine, etc.

Can you guess what the mistake is?

What was a completely understandable choice in 2005 is a lot worse to be making in 2015 now that it’s well understood territory. While it doesn’t “doom” a company, I think it’s a huge red flag. What do you think?