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Category: Language Learning

What is a spaced repetition system? What is it useful for? What are its limitations for use in language learning? See this two minute video.

For those of us from the English speaking world, Chinese characters themselves are often a big piece of what makes Chinese an interesting language to learn. My own experiences are a bit different, since I started with Japanese, but I too have been bitten by that bug. There’s something really neat about how much semantic information is packed in a character! In some cases there are literally a dozen characters with the exact same Mandarin pronunciation, but to the character literate, it’s easy to disambiguate them. That’s cool.

One neat thing about working at an international tech company in China is seeing how new coworkers go about learning English, or if they’re westerners, how they go about learning Chinese. Our CTO has been more interesting to watch in this respect than anyone else I’ve ever seen. He’s all about the characters.

Vacuuming up every character in sight

In a few months, he’s learned to recognize well over a thousand characters during his limited free time. He’s recently started to pick up stroke order from using his iPad to input them, but his focus has been at least 90% on recognition. With this sort of knowledge, he can read ingredients on food labels to ensure that they’re vegetarian, he can operate remote controls, read shop signs and generally navigate around Beijing.

Crippled without comic book bubbles

Obviously there are limits, though. My co-worker is a really smart guy with a PHD in physics and has successfully built and sold 2 start-ups, but he’s still human. There are limits to how much a guy with a family and more than a full-time job can learn in his off hours. He’s learning to recognize so many characters by not spending time on other parts of the language.

Most notably, he’s not learning how to pronounce the characters he can recognize! E.g. he might know that means porridge, but he doesn’t know how to pronounce the character. He would associate directly with the English word “run” and not with its Mandarin pronunciation. It’s kind of amusing to me because he often asks me “what’s the Chinese for (some or another English word)”, and I unthinkingly say the Chinese word to him instead of describing it character by character! Telling him how to pronounce the Chinese word for broccoli during his 3rd month in the country was useless. What he was looking for was “west-orchid-flower”… if only speaking produced bubbles in the air with characters in them as in comic books!

As strange as this method of learning Chinese seems, it’s quite a bit like Heisig’s famous Remembering the Kanji, which helped me quite a bit a few years ago. It’s just that this is the first time I’ve ever seen anybody actually use these methods from the beginning instead of starting with a traditional approach and later trying RTK.

Looking ahead

My co-worker’s current plan is to continue upon his current path until he can mostly “read” newspapers or magazines. If he’s successful, he’ll basically be like my Japanese classmates in my Chinese class– poor speaking skills but some understanding of what most written Chinese he comes across.

There are obviously downsides to going character-crazy. For one, multi-character compounds present a problem. Secondly, speaking is a more useful skill than reading for people actually in China. On the other hand, his speaking is improving from interactions with Chinese people at work, and for the most part he has mental hooks on which to hang the new spoken vocabulary he learns. He speaks more Chinese than any of the last batch of American interns last summer did, and they were half his age and spending each morning in Chinese classes. I’m really interested to see where this endeavor goes.

It was a bit easier than with Southern Min, but it really wasn’t that easy for me to find Cantonese learning materials. I found online dictionaries, but none with audio. There are some very basic youtube videos, but only a few. I emailed a few people with blogs that mentioned learning Cantonese, but nobody had any suggestions of use.

My friend David did tell me of one podcast to help people learn Cantonese, but unfortunately I didn’t know about it until I’d already left Hong Kong. Other than that, the only resources I know of are Pimsleur and the FSI course.

Trying Pimsleur Cantonese in Hong Kong

Over the past few years, I’ve heard a number of really positive reviews of Pimsleur language learning programs. Some of my friends have even lent me their Mandarin or Japanese packages. At the time it was hard for me to see the point. I had already learned the vocabulary being introduced, half the audio was English, and it seemed kind of weird. I filed Pimsleur under “stuff that works for people not like me” and put it out of my mind.

Then, not too long ago, I had a chance to see the results first hand. My friend Ben made some Japanese acquaintances and decided to give Pimsleur a shot, largely due to the recommendation of another friend. I saw him the next day, he told me he’d worked through an hour or two and then proceeded to ask me in Japanese, where I was from and if I could speak English! The thing that really impressed me was his pronunciation. To my ears at least, it sounded even better than his Chinese pronunciation! Considering he’d spent years living in Taiwan and using Chinese daily for work, that impressed the heck out of me. Afterwords, I thought a bit more about it. Pimsleur is essentially a spaced-repetition listening and mimicking program.

Arrival in Hong Kong

Before getting to Hong Kong, I’d only worked through the first three hours of Pimsleur Cantonese, but I did find quite a few chances to use what I knew. Furthermore, people in the airport answered my Cantonese in full-speed Cantonese I couldn’t understand! That’s usually a sign that your accent isn’t too far off. Obviously, it’s not ideal for communication in any given moment, but fortunately I knew how to say “My Cantonese isn’t that good” in Cantonese and switch to Mandarin. It’s not much, but even such minor successes gave were very, very motivating!

Over the next couple of days, I continued with the Pimsleur and also found I was picking up a lot of vocabulary from hearing people’s replies. Individually any given reply may not have made sense the first dozen times I heard it, but it did sink in with repetition. I don’t know how much help being a Mandarin speaker and a (poor) Taiwanese speaker gave me, but there were definitely a lot of things that sounded really similar.

After Hong Kong

By the time I left, I was able to order simple drinks, order a value meal at KFC (yay!) and talk to people a little. It wasn’t a lot, but for only spending a single week in Hong Kong, it was far, far better than I had expected. Despite my small vocabulary, locals were shocked with my canned Pimsleur sentences. One didn’t even believe that I was a tourist and not a longer-term resident! The best ego boost I got was after leaving HK, when I was chatting with a guy from Guangzhou. He said (in Mandarin), “Your Cantonese accent… it sounds like a Hong Konger.” I had been certain he was going to say laowai! I guess Pimsleur must have hired their staff from HK, not Guangzhou.

I have no illusions about the level of my Cantonese (low-beginner), but it was the fastest start I’ve ever gotten with a new language. If anything, this experience has reinforced to me just how much pronunciation matters. Especially for a clearly foreign-looking person in Asia, your pronunciation has a huge impact on how much real language input you get and how much of a hassle it is to get it. Back when I first started studying Chinese in Taiwan, I encountered numerous people who steadfastly insisted on using English with me all the time, often even it made for more difficult communication. After improving past a certain point, I almost entirely stopped running into those people. This was more correlated with improving my accent and losing some of the mainland curled R sounds than it was with vocabulary gains. Similarly, I’ve heard numerous people complain that getting HK people to speak in Cantonese is like pulling teeth if you’re a westerner, but I didn’t experience it at all. Instead, it was me asking them to switch to another language because I couldn’t understand them.

If I ever decide to learn Thai or Korean, I’ll probably start with Pimsleur.

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.

Towards the end of this Chinese New Year, I started studying Taiwanese[1]. Though most people in Taiwan speak Mandarin Chinese now, it wasn’t always the case. Even now, there are a lot of people who prefer to speak Taiwanese and I think almost everyone here can understand at least a bit. That said, Taipei city is definitely not the best place in Taiwan to be learning Taiwanese. Mandarin is very dominant here. I probably hear less than a third of the Taiwanese I heard in my previous home in Taoyuan county.

What is Taiwanese?

By “Taiwanese”, I mean the Chinese language brought from Fújiàn (福建) province during the mass immigration to Taiwan of centuries past. It’s a variant or a dialect of Mǐnnánhuà (閩南話), also known as Hoklo or Hokkien. It’s unintelligible to speakers of Mandarin. The Amoy language, is mutually intelligible with Taiwanese, as I recently discovered with delight!

Why learn?

Pretty much the first thing any of my friends asks when I tell them I’m learning Taiwanese is “why?” I suppose it is a reasonable question. I’ve met some foreigners who barely even speak Mandarin after living in Taiwan for a decade. And unlike Mandarin, Taiwanese will almost certainly never benefit my career or get me into an academic program. Worse still, a lot of younger people seem to look down on the language.

So, why learn? For me, it was a realization that I’d been in Taiwan for seven years and still couldn’t really understand a language that I hear every single day. It’s true that I never have to speak it at work, and that clerks in any store will greet customers in Mandarin, not Taiwanese. But there are still people speaking Taiwanese all around me. A lot of my neighbors in my apartment building speak Taiwanese, the people at the traditional temple nearby speak Taiwanese, the fruit-sellers at the market speak Taiwanese and so do a number of passerby on the street. It seems like a waste to ignore the language completely.

People who do speak Taiwanese really appreciate my efforts. Unlike when I was learning Mandarin and had the distinct impression that people wanted me to just give up and speak English, a number of people have taken it as a point of pride that I would learn their language. It is probably just as Barry Farber said in his book, How to Learn Any Language. The languages which are least necessary to learn for work or schooling are the ones that can earn you the most goodwill for learning.

Progress to date

I’ve made some decent progress, especially in terms of listening comprehension. In fact, it’s the fastest start I’ve gotten learning a language since I studied Japanese 10 years ago!

This isn’t to say there aren’t some serious hurdles to overcome. So far, it’s been difficult on a number of fronts– there aren’t many study materials, there isn’t a standardized romanization system, there are seven tones with complex rules, there are both literary and colloquial readings for each hanzi character, and the phonetics is just brutal. The proverbial back-breaking straw has got to be the huge schism in the Minnan dialect spoken here in Taiwan. Unfortunately for the foreign student such as myself, the Minnanhua speaking immigrants to Taiwan came from both the cities of Quánzhōu and Zhāngzhōu, bringing two different, but pretty much mutually intelligible dialects of the language with them. In most of Taiwan there are regional variations in the Taiwanese spoken, but here in the capital city you hear them all. I’m sure I’ll love when and if I get to a high level of communicative ability, but for now it’s really confusing.

Each time I successfully buy anything at the traditional market without having to fall back on Mandarin, it’s a victory.

[1] I had learned a few words here and there before, but never really made a concerted effort.

There are some great Chinese study apps out there on the iTunes store! For anyone with an iPhone, or iPod Touch, there are enough apps available to outclass dedicated electronic dictionaries in many cases. Better yet, there are enough free apps to satisfy quite a few language learners!

The Basic Tools

The things that I’m looking for are as follows: A dictionary, a lot of audio, flashcards (preferably with an SRS), and maybe some games.

Study Arcade

This is one heck of a study app! It can import vocabulary lists from ChinesePod, Anki, or a dozens of its own archives. These include HSK lists (in simplified or traditional characters!), resources for other languages ranging from Esperanto to biblical Greek, and even prep materials for standard tests such as the GRE or LSAT. The includes a flashcard “game”, that can be set to either cram mode or a spaced repetition mode based on Super Memo 2. Amazingly, the only limitation on the basic service is downloads from its own server. It starts by allowing the user to download five modules, after which it is necessary to “earn” them by reviewing 500 flash cards. Talk about motivation! Here’s the iTunes link for StudyArcade.


The Pleco dictionary has been a popular choice on PDAs for years. Many, many people have sung its praises. The iPhone/iPod Touch version just released this week doesn’t disappoint. As usual, the interface is snappy and the choice of dictionaries is top-notch. In addition, they’ve gone to the trouble to improve upon Apple’s already good Chinese character recognition software. While I hadn’t had any complaints about Apple’s character handwriting recognition, Pleco went the extra mile and added full-screen input, cursive recognition and a time-saving double-tap interface. Very impressive.

In the past, I’ve been put off by Pleco’s absurd prices (their palm version cost as much as an iPod Touch!), but with this version, things are a bit better. First of all, the complete package is now “only” $150. Secondly, dictionaries can be downloaded from within the app (after registering). The initial dictionary is somewhat pitiful, missing even common words such as “Sydney”. Some free dictionaries offered are a notable improvement, such as the ever growing Adsotrans dictionary. One final improvement in the value offered by Pleco is that the options are very modular. I have no interest in voice readings of the dictionary entries and it’s possible for me to avoid them. If I wanted to purchase just the Guifan Chinese-Chinese dictionary without paying for the ABC dictionary as well, that’s possible, too.


DianHua is a free dictionary available on the iStore that I found via some discussion boards. It’s based on the CC-CEDICT, which has some advantages over the built-in Pleco dictionary. Like Pleco, DianHua supports traditional Chinese characters fully and is fairly friendly to Taiwan-based learners. The one major advantage of DianHua is its integrated flashcard system. It makes it easy to review the words they’ve looked up, and it uses a spaced repetition system to make sure that you’re reviewing at optimal intervals. It’s a great dictionary, and it’s better than a number of non-free competitors in the iStore.


Clearly, iPods were made for podcasts. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In any case, load it up! Seize back that time on the subway that would have otherwise been wasted!


This is an area where I haven’t found anything compelling yet. I’ve heard of a game something like a Chinese version of Boggle, but I haven’t seen it. Anyone who’s found an app that manages to educate and amuse, please share!

Recently, I’ve been reading an interesting book called The 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss, and stumbled across his blog. In it, he had a video in which he and Kevin Rose that was primarily about things related to the business of start-ups. But then, surprisingly, in the last 5 minutes of the video, the conversation turned to learning Chinese. Skip the first two minutes of the video if you’re easily disgusted!

The 4th Random Episode from Glenn McElhose on Vimeo.

I thought those language learning ideas were pretty odd. In my own experience as a teacher and as a student, getting a lot of language input improves output, whereas focusing on speaking doesn’t necessarily improve one’s comprehension abilities. In fact, I recall at least unpleasant experience I had in Guatemala in which I was able to ask people for directions in a very fluent manner, but I couldn’t understand their responses. Steve Kauffman’s critique included the very same point:

2) Ferriss says that we should start with production of the language, not comprehension. I could not disagree more. You have to understand before you can speak. You have to get the language in you before you can produce anything in the language. I have seen his previous material where he places great importance on knowing the word order, and certain basic sentences, in different languages. To me the usage patterns in different languages are too varied, unpredictable and usually illogical to allow for any such formula approach. You just need to get used to the language with a lot of input, and work on comprehension.

That said, I have had very good results working on production in a few very narrow situations. The first is pronunciation. I still think the best way is to hear a lot of the language before trying to speak it (just as we do with our native languages), but focused drilling of the more difficult sounds can help quite a bit. I’ve seen it in my students’ pronunciation of “r” sounds in English, and I’ve seen it in my own pronunciation of the “ü” sounds in Mandarin. The other place where focused work on language production has helped me is with writing Chinese characters. I’m not sure that any amount of reading alone would give someone the ability to write characters. It would do wonders for the overall structure of their essays, reports or other writing, though.

This summer, I managed to get a few videos of a class at my school when they had nearly finished their second semester. It’s a pretty good class in terms of student morale. The read from an extensive reader called The President’s Murderer (OUP Bookworm). As usual for my school, this class meets twice a week for two hours each time, they spent quite a bit of time on phonics and basic grammar drills and had regular homework of an audio-lingual variety. As they progressed, the classes got gradually less intensive and more extensive. Their current level is about the tipping point between the strict, low-level classes and the more relaxed intermediate level classes to come.

First they read from a vocabulary sheet to review words in the book that they haven’t learned yet from the school curriculum:

Then, they take turns reading the chapter the teacher read last week:

After that, the teacher reads another chapter to them, intentionally making a few mistakes they have to correct. He might ask a few comprehension questions, and then it’s on to the next activity. That’s pretty much how all the reading works for the lower level classes. This class had already read Aladdin, Pocahontas and two other readers of the same level as this one, so it wasn’t necessary to interrupt for too many explanations. It would be boring to spend an entire two hours reading, but I think most the kids really look forward to the half hour they spend on it each time.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with this class. Several students quit at the beginning of the semester because their parents thought the basic phonics and grammar we started with was too easy, but those that have continued have done great. That’s including four kids who hadn’t been to an English school before, and who were a bit shaky on the alphabet and struggled with phrases like “sit down”, “stand up” and so on. Everyone has worked hard, and they have all far, far surpassed the starting point of those who thought the class was too easy.