19 September 2010

Learning Chinese is no walk in the park

Two posts in two days!  I'm on a roll!

I heard a report on NPR a couple of weeks ago about the book Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language by Deborah Fallows.  Since I'm in the process of learning some Mandarin before the trip, the lead-in to Melissa Block's interview of the author caught my attention: She said, "When Deborah Fallows went to live in China with her husband, she was armed with a few semesters of Mandarin lessons. But when she got to Shanghai, she found she couldn't recognize or speak a single word of what she'd been studying." (I recommend giving the report a listen, and I plan to read the book.)

My heart sank when I heard this. If she, with months of classroom study, could not speak a single word of understandable Mandarin, how could I, with a few weeks of sporadic lessons in Rosetta Stone and some flash cards of Chinese characters have any hope of successful communication on our trip?

Well... So what?

I've enjoyed--still enjoy--learning a few words. I can recognize some characters. I'm even interested in trying to write some characters, although the simplified characters I'm learning may be less aesthetically pleasing than the traditional characters one is used to seeing in Chinese calligraphy. Pronunciation is is what I've found to be the most challenging. The tones are killers! If I have the Pinyin transliteration, I stand a chance of reading a word or short sentence correctly (well, to my ear, anyway--and Rosetta Stone approves, most of the time). But remembering the pronunciation, meaning and tone of a random character, let alone enough to formulate a sentence? Fuggedaboudit. Not there, yet. I will have fun recognizing a few characters on the trip, recognizing a few words or phrases, and maybe speaking a few phrases. Hey, I can say hello (ni hao), goodbye (zai jian) and thank you (xie xie). One can go far with just that. And if I ever have to say, "These women are eating rice" (Zhe xie nu ren zai chi mi fan.), I'm all set.

(I know I'm learning because the other day I was channel surfing and ran across the movie Red Corner, which stars Richard Gere as an American attorney on business in China who gets arrested after a Chinese woman he met the night before is murdered in his hotel room. He must stand trial in Chinese court, and things look grim when the young defense lawyer he is assigned has trouble believing his story. Anyway, at one point, the lawyer, played by Ling Bai, gets a phone call late one night. When she obviously receives some news she wasn't expecting, she says, "Shen ma?," which I immediately recognized as, "What?" It's only one little word, I know, but that moment of understanding told me that I'm making progress.)

Some other books I've purchased: The Oxford Beginner's Chinese Dictionary is a terrific basic dictionary. Clearly laid out, readable, with many useful tables and explanations. It includes an index to characters by radical and a handful of useful phrases, and is reasonably priced.

I also purchased the Mandarin Chinese-English Bilingual Visual Dictionary published by Dorling Kindersley. Well organized and visually appealing (the hallmark of all DK books) it suffers from its small format. Although its size makes the book more portable, the labels for the visual elements are so small that I need a magnifying glass to read them, limiting its usefulness.

I've also downloaded a half dozen apps for my iPod Touch. The one I'm using most, whenever I can, is the Flashcard Fu app, which features 5,000 flashcards of simplified characters arranged into decks of 20 characters each. I've mastered 66 characters so far, although I would not say "mastery" is the best word to describe the ability to pick the right answer for the name or meaning of a character from a list of four possible answers on a flashcard. I am making progress, though, and enjoying the process. Also downloaded: Qingwen Chinese Dictionary, Marty McDonough's Mandarin Chinese Free, My Chinese Library by TrainChinese, Chinese Learner (for learning how to write characters), and a few others not used so often.

Anyone have any other recommendations for books or apps about China or learning Mandarin? Leave a comment!


deborah said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for mentioning my book, Dreaming in Chinese! Since you're on a mission to learn some Mandarin before your trip to China (a great idea, anything helps!), I thought you might like to watch this very short video I gave last week at a Google Zeitgeist conference about how adults can learn Chinese. Here is the link:


The Google "ignite" talks are strict format: 5 minutes, 20 slides, 15 seconds auto-advanced, no notes! no mercy!

Deb Fallows

Peter Alan said...

Thanks, Deb, for stopping by. I look forward to reading your book, hopefully on the 14 hour flight from Newark to Beijing!