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I did a video interview of Chris Parker of Fluent in Mandarin on Lingsprout. It requires a login to view, but everything on the site is free:

An interview with Chris Parker

It was about 15 minutes and covered his background as a monolingual kid in the UK, his transition to being a foreign guest on Chinese TV what his friends back home thought when they saw it. Check it out here: Becoming fluent in Mandarin with Chris Parker

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.

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.

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.

Recently, John has started up yet another well-designed and interesting blog. This one is called Global Maverick, and it’s focus is language learning. It’s also got a tools section where he’s sharing iPhone apps he’s written.

One series of posts I found interesting was his interviews of three successful language learners– Steve Kaufmann, Kelly McGuire and Khatzumoto of AIJATT fame. Steve Kaufmann is a Canadian polyglot who has achieved excellent proficiency in six languages and varying degrees of skill in another four. I’ve written about him on Toshuo before. Khatzumoto made a name for himself learning enough Japanese through self study in the US to get himself hired at a Japanese tech company before ever setting foot in Japan. He’s also written a very motivational if quirky guide on his site. I hadn’t heard of Kelly McGuire before, but her experiences with Mandarin, Dutch and Japanese were also interesting to read about.

Despite the fact that my work is teaching a second language to kids who rarely start out with any motivation at all, I’m very interested in self-directed adult language learning. Language learning has been an interest of mine for years. I haven’t really been that good at it, but I have steadily gotten better at it and examining the habits of more successful learners has been a big help.

John’s new blog is full of good stuff and just might be worth archiving, just in case.

My friend David has recently shown me some of what he’s been working on with his site for learning Chinese, Popup Chinese. Popup Chinese has always had a great technical backbone, amazing talent in its instructors, and lots and lots of free MP3 lessons. That said, this last batch of upgrades is still pretty impressive.

learn chinese

The Writing Pad

This a cool writing application that has teaches how to write Chinese characters. The only thing I’ve ever seen like it is Skritter, also a neat tool. The writing pad enforces correct proportions in characters as you write them and also enforces stroke order. The strictness of the stroke order is a little bit frustrating for me, since stroke order isn’t entirely uniform amongst all writers and the stroke order conventions my teachers taught are slightly different than those in the Writing Pad. This issue would be irrelevant to any beginning students who aren’t already accustomed to writing a certain way, though. The app will teach you how to write correctly as well as any app I know of at this point.
The Writing Pad

HSK Stuff

You don’t hear much about the HSK here in Taiwan, but if you ever want proof of your Chinese skills so you can go to college in China or brag to a prospective employer, this is the test to take. There’s an impressive array of materials on Popup Chinese to help you get ready for it:

One-Click Access HSK Tests, HSK Flashcards and HSK Vocabulary Lists
http://popupchinese.com/hsk/flashcards
http://popupchinese.com/hsk/test
http://popupchinese.com/hsk/vocabulary

Spaced Repetition

I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of my suggestions months ago made it into the site! For anyone signed up, the site remembers which flashcards they’ve answered right and which ones they’ve missed on and calculates the ideal time to show them again for review. Even for students who are unfamiliar with spaced repetition, this is a huge plus.

Practice Speaking Lessons

I’ve heard about these types of lessons before. I guess if you’re living someplace where Chinese tutors are hard to find or expensive, this option might be worthwhile. People can get one-on-one feedback on their spoken Chinese with a premium subscription.
Practice Speaking Lessons

Pricing

The prices have come down quite a bit. For the first time it’s in the price range of something I would have bought as a student. At just under fifty bucks, the “basic plus” subscription is far, far more useful than textbook in existence at roughly the same cost. I sure wish they had this stuff around back when I was in school!