Poetry is alive and well in China

I came across this article today about a popular poetry app in China. The article is by Wu Yiyao in Shanghai at China Daily. The story is about a WeChat (微信 wēi xìn) app called 读 诗再睡觉  (dú shǒu shī zài shuìjiào Read a poem before bed). Poetry has been an important and integral part of Chinese society for most of its history. Though poetry is no longer a part of the Chinese education system, to some people it is still important. The 40,000 subscribers to this app are evidence of that. The original story is below, along with a link to the China Daily (Europe) online version.

Here also is a link to a Chinese story about this app.

http://www.nx.xinhuanet.com/2013-10/20/c_117789507.htm

Source: China Daily (1/30/14):

http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2014-01/30/content_17265962_2.htm

Reviving the power of poetry

By Wu Yiyao

Wang Xiaoyu’s favorite bedtime routine now is to reach for her smartphone and play a poem. Every night at 10 pm, the 32-year-old sales executive in Shanghai logs on to a poetry-sharing group on the social network WeChat and listens to or reads a poem. It has become a regular pastime ever since she discovered the group, whose Chinese name literally translates to “Read a poem before you sleep”.

“At first I felt the poetry helped me relax and made me calm, but I gradually discovered that joining the group also let me connect with people who share the same passion,” Wang says. Like many of the 40,000 subscribers of the account, Wang used to write poems when she was in college, but gave it up after she started working. Having a family and raising a child left her little time or energy to get creative.

“Read a poem” was initiated by Fan Zhi-xing in March 2013. He had intended to make it a romantic way to express and connect, by reading a poem “to the one you care and love for”, in this age where relationships are both advantaged and disadvantaged by virtual connections. He started the ball rolling with a Chinese translation of Crossing the Bar by English poet Alfred Tennyson.

More and more found out about the poetry account and started to join the discussions, and shared poems. By early 2014, group members had already shared more than 300 poems of a wide range of genres. Subscribers soon grew beyond Fan’s personal network, and volunteers joined an editing team to select works to be sent out through the account. An introduction posted on the poetry-sharing group tells newcomers that “poems will not erase the wrinkles on your face, but they will keep your heart young”.

“It all started from a private emotional need, but it so happened that it also answered the inner callings of many others,” Fan says. A poet himself, Fan says he believes poetry is not distanced from the fast pace of modern life. Not so long ago, poetry societies flourished in China’s universities and high schools, and even with the far-reaching influence of the Internet, a poet at that time would still find a large and appreciative following through books, magazines or even hand-written copies.

“Those were times when people were zealous about poems and poets, which I reckon may not necessarily be healthy. But these days, there is a noticeable gap between how people feel and their ability to express their feelings.”Emotions are often suppressed in today’s world for many reasons, Fan says. It could be due to a lack of time, a neglect of personal feelings, and sometimes, a systemic failure to encourage expression.

His poetry-sharing group has gradually shifted focus from just individual expression to a broader mission – to close the gap between emotions to be expressed and paying attention to and understanding these emotions. “Poetry appreciation is unlikely to be adopted in our education system, and it is not necessary for it to be. Since we have the Internet, we can promote it outside the schooling system, through mobile devices,” Fan says.

An increasing number of volunteers who join the editing team add diversity to the poems introduced to subscribers, who may find themselves listening to a wide range of poetry ranging from Batso Basho’s haiku to Chinese rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) love songs to the works of the English Lake poets.

Some poems, often recommended by “a friend of a friend”, may also make their debut on the poetry cluster. One contributor of original poems is Yu Xinqiao, whose work If I Die, I Must Die in Your Hands was recently adapted into lyrics for a song which became popular after being promoted on a television program on songwriters. Like Yu, many contributors are keen poets who are not shy about expressing their strongest feeling or most delicate emotional nuances. Some poets may be more reticent about seeking fame, but for the editors of the poetry group, they feel it their duty to share interesting works with their subscribers.

In the age of we-media, there are now more channels to share their works with others, even total strangers. Read a Poem can expand the reach of these interesting poems to a wider audience, Fan says. “Mainstream, scholarly monographs or periodicals may not spare space for these new poets, but they deserve to be more widely known. They are the current voices of this age,” Fan says.

Chinese Poetry & a Visit to Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the West we have Greek philosophy, Roman law, Renaissance art, and Italian opera. In China poetry is the most striking cultural element of Chinese civilization.

Poetry was one of the earliest forms of written expression in China, with the Shijing 诗经 shījīng or The Book of Songs dating back to the 7th Century BC. It became the highest form of creative expression throughout Chinese civilization and was promoted by the government and pursued as a vehicle for personal pleasure and communication.  For most of China’s history, poetry was an integral part of daily life for the educated class. In the Tang Dynasty (618-908) alone more poetry was composed than in all the rest of the world combined until the 18th Century. One anthology, the Complete Tang Poems (全唐诗 quán táng shī), which is considered incomplete, contains 48,900 poems by 2,200 poets. People in the Chinese speaking world today still read and compose classical poems in the styles developed during the Tang Dynasty.

杜甫草堂 Dù Fǔ cǎo táng Du Fu Thatched Cottage

杜甫草堂 Dù Fǔ cǎo táng
Du Fu Thatched Cottage

When I visited Chengdu earlier this year, one of the first places I wanted to visit was the  thatched hut of perhaps China’s most famous poet, Du Fu. What I wasn’t quite expecting was the carnival-like atmosphere at this very popular cultural site. It was swarming with Chinese tourists and was a reaffirmation to me of the importance of poetry in Chinese culture, history, and civilization. Not only does the site pay homage to Du Fu, but it also celebrates all of Chinese poetry and the great poets throughout history.

Statue of Du Fu

Statue of Du Fu

Du Fu (712-770, sometimes written Tu Fu) was a scholar-official during the Tang Dynasty. His career varied from government official to full-time poet at various times during his life. Du Fu was an innovator in language and structure and wrote about public and private life. His poems are accessible, intimate at times, and offer a glimpse into life in China during this period. He spent about five years in Sichuan Province where he built a comfortable thatched cottage on the outskirts of Chengdu. He wrote prolifically during this period, and though he suffered financial hardship during this time, it was a kind of hermitage for him and it was a happy and peaceful time. The Du Fu Thatched Cottage attraction is now in the center of Chengdu. Archeological excavations done on the site have unearthed buildings and pavilions that fit the time period when Du Fu lived there and are very similar to structures he describes in his poems.

The whole complex is in a beautiful park with bamboo groves, flowers, trees, and ponds. At the entrance to the park is a long paved “walkway of the stars.” This consists of a timeline of Chinese poetry with each poet having a star on the pavement. Statues of the major poets line the pathway as well.

The long pathway of the star Chinese poets

The long pathway of the star Chinese poets

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Li Bai's star

Li Bai’s star

Su Shi of the Northern Song Dynasty

Su Shi of the Northern Song Dynasty

Balloon vendor along the Chinese stars path

Balloon vendor along the Chinese stars path

The Tang poet Bai Juyi

The Tang poet Bai Juyi

The Tang poet, Han Yu

The Tang poet, Han Yu

Du Fu and Li Bai with Qu Yuan in the background

Du Fu and Li Bai with Qu Yuan in the background

This gentleman was practicing calligraphy on the sidewalk using water for ink. He was writing poetry of course.

This gentleman was practicing calligraphy on the sidewalk using water for ink. He was writing poetry of course.

Ponds with fish to feed for the children

Ponds with fish to feed for the children

One of many pavillions

One of many pavilions

Pond and walkway

Pond and walkway

The complex also had several buildings with statues, paintings, calligraphy, and some excavation sites.

The Tang Dynasty Poet, Wang Wei, one of my personal favorites

The Tang Dynasty Poet, Wang Wei, one of my personal favorites

Tao Yuanming (365-427)

Tao Yuanming (365-427)

The actual Thatched Cottage was a replication of course. But it was interesting nonetheless.

Replication of Du Fu's Thatched Cottage

Replication of Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage

And a few shots of what it probably looked like on the inside.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was an enjoyable few hours we spent at this park. It was  refreshing that the Chinese still care about their heritage and that poetry is still an important part of their past, and hopefully their future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What exactly is “Mandarin” Chinese?

School kids in Kunming

School kids in Kunming

Mandarin Chinese actually can be defined in two ways. One, in a broad sense, it is the dialect of Chinese spoken in Northern China and is often referred to as 北方话 běifānghuà in Chinese, which literally means, “northern speech.” Two, Mandarin is used to refer to the National language that is taught and promoted by the governments of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. On the Mainland, this is referred to as 普通话 pǔtōnghuà (“common speech”), and in Taiwan is referred to as 国语 guóyǔ, (“national language”).

Would it then surprise you to know that technically there are no true native speakers of Mandarin Chinese, that is 普通话 pǔtōnghuà? From here on when I refer to “Mandarin” I will be speaking about the National language of China, and not the northern Chinese dialect. First, a little history.

The idea of a national language as the modern standard Chinese in China was promoted as early as 1906, based on Japanese models of a national language there. After the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, these efforts were intensified with the organization of an eighty member commission tasked to decide on a standard pronunciation and basic sounds of the standard language. They came up with a National Language 国语 guóyǔ but with all the political turmoil during those years, not a great deal was done to promote it. After the founding of the PRC in 1949 efforts were again intensified to come up with a standard national language and simplified script. In 1955 a resolution was passed and 普通话 pǔtōnghuà was defined as being based on Northern dialects (Mandarin from our first definition above), with the Beijing dialect as the standard pronunciation. It was further articulated as follows:

1. Phonology or pronunciation was based on the Beijing dialect

2. Vocabulary was based on northern dialects (Mandarin)

3. Grammar was based on modern written Chinese (literature)

So as you see then, there are no truly native speakers of this fabricated National language. What then is the role of Mandarin Chinese in China today?

• It is the language that everyone learns in school. In other words, when kids go to school and have their language arts class, they are taught standard Mandarin Chinese, or 普通话 pǔtōnghuà. For example, when they are learning to read, they learn to pronounce characters in Mandarin regardless of their dialect background. All those people in China that speak a non-Mandarin dialect growing up are essentially learning another language (or dialect if you prefer) in school. What this means then is that educated individuals in China can speak and understand Mandarin. It also means that many people in China are bilingual, knowing Mandarin and their home dialect. This does not mean that they all have wonderful pronunciation. Generally speaking, the farther you go from large urban areas   and get into rural areas, the less standard Mandarin people tend to have. Of course there are always exceptions to this.

• Mandarin is the language used in government. All meetings and official communication is conducted in Mandarin.

• Mandarin is the language of business. This is especially true when speakers from different areas of China are communicating with each other.

• Mandarin is the language of the media. The vast majority of television and radio broadcasts are in Mandarin. There is some programming in the local dialects (at the regional level), but most is in Mandarin. So everyone who watches TV can at least understand Mandarin pretty well. One thing you will notice when you watch Chinese TV is that there is almost always subtitles in Chinese characters on the screen, regardless of the type of program. Why? So those not as familiar with spoken Mandarin can still follow along.
• Mandarin is the prestige dialect in Mainland China. Using Mandarin is a way to show that you are educated, sophisticated, and in the know.
Mandarin is also the Chinese that is taught to foreigners, in China, and abroad. It is the most useful language for anyone traveling to China or Taiwan. I tell my students that with Mandarin language skills you can communicate with just about any educated person in China. I have found this to be true in my travels in China. Again, that doesn’t mean everyone will have great Mandarin language skills though. I remember a time in the far Northwestern corner of Yunnan Province talking with a small group of Tibetans and a Han Chinese guy. The Tibetans had much better Mandarin that he did. His Mandarin was heavily accented by his local dialect. As such, it was easier to communicate with the Tibetans than with him.
In addition to the terms discussed above, there are various other terms that are used to refer to the Chinese language. They are:
1. 普通话 pǔtōnghuà          “the common language”; this refers to the national language
                                            promoted by the government in the PRC; this term is only used
                                            in the PRC
2. 国语 guóyǔ                     the “National language”; this term used in Taiwan, and in Hong
                                           Kong when referring to Mandarin
3. 中国话 zhōngguóhuà     literally the “language of China;” this is a generic term used to
                                          refer to spoken Chinese
4. 汉语 hànyǔ                    “language of the Han’s;” this refers to spoken Chinese and is
                                           used in the PRC
5. 中文 zhōngwén              this is a general term that means simply “Chinese” and can
                                           refer to the spoken or the written language. It is used in China,
                                           the PRC, Hong Kong, and elsewhere

China’s Linguistic Diversity

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The linguistic situation in China is very complex. There are literally hundreds of different Chinese dialects spoken across China. Linguists have long debated what we call these linguistic variations, dialects or languages. In the West, we typically use this definition for dialects—

mutually intelligible varieties of the same language

This definition works nicely for most Western languages. For example, British English and American English are largely mutually intelligible. But this definition doesn’t work for China because many of the dialects are mutually unintelligible. And using the term languages as in different languages doesn’t work that well either because there is a standard written form, and there is cultural unity that usually does not exist across languages, such as Spanish and English in the United States. The Chinese term is 方言 fāngyán literally meaning “region language” or as one linguist called them “regionalects.” That English term didn’t really take. Those who argue for calling them different languages (i.e. Mandarin and Cantonese) use the intelligibility test. Those who argue for using the term dialect fall back on the cultural unity and literacy issue. We often use the term dialect simply because it is convenient, even if it doesn’t completely align with the Western definition of the term. I’ll use dialect in this post to refer to the different varieties of Chinese. In China there are 7 main dialect groups. They are:

Dialect                    % of speakers                    Region spoken

Mandarin                   71.5%                                  Northern & Southwestern China

Wu                             8.5%                                    Shanghai, central coastal areas

Gan                            2.4%                                    Jiangxi Province

Xiang                         4.8%                                    Hunan Province

Kejia (Hakka)           3.7%                                   Scattered throughout the South and Taiwan

Yue (Cantonese)      5.0%                                    Guangdong, Hong Kong, overseas

Min                           4.1%                                     Fujian, SE coastal areas, Taiwan

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mandarin dialects are the most widely spoken by a large margin. But what makes the linguistic situation more complicated is that there are sub-dialects within these groups that are not mutually intelligible. When I was in graduate school taking a seminar in Chinese sociolinguistics, we listened to tapes of speakers of a Mandarin dialect just 150 km north of Beijing, and we could understand very little. There are Cantonese dialects that vary from village to village, some so much so that they are not comprehensible to each other. One more thing to keep in mind. Perhaps you’re thinking, “well only 5% of the population speak Cantonese.” Do the math. 5% of 1.3 billion is a staggering amount. In fact, there are as many Cantonese speakers in Southern China as French speakers in France. To help my students understand what I’m talking about I like to play them some audio samples of people speaking different Chinese dialects. In each of the audio files below, the speaker will say the following, at least how they would say the same thing in their dialect.

1. Shéi a? Wǒ shì Lǎo Sān

(Who is it? I’m Lao San)

2. Lǎo Sì ne? Tā Zhèng gēn yígè péngyǒu shuō zhe huà ne.

(What about Lao Si? He’s talking with a friend right now).

3. Tā hái méi shuō wán ma?

(Has he finished speaking?)

4. Hái méi ne. Dàyuè zài yǒu yì huǎr jiù shuō wán le.

(Not yet. (He’ll) probably be done talking in a moment).

1. Běijīng Dialect (Northern Mandarin)

2. Xī’ān Dialect (Central Mandarin Sub-group; Shaanxi Province)

3. Hángzhōu Dialect (Wu Group; Zhejiang Province)

4. Chángshā Dialect (Xiang Group; Hunan Province)

5. Méixiàn Dialect (Hakka Group; Guangdong Province)

6. Cantonese—guǎngdōnghuà (Yue Group; Guangdong Province)

A final note: In China there are 55 Nationally recognized minority groups that speak non-Chinese languages. These groups include, Tibetans, Mongolians, Uigurs, Kazaks, Miao (Hmong), Zhuang, Yi, Bai, Koreans, and many others. In most cases their languages are not even linguistically related to Chinese. These ethnic minority groups make about 7% of China’s population.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tips for Self Study, Part 3: Using a Tutor 个别辅导 gèbié fúdǎo

High School kids in Wuhan

Using a tutor can be a very effective way to learn Chinese, maintain what you have, or go beyond what you have learned in the classroom. Keep in mind that just because a person is native Chinese person does not automatically qualify them as a good tutor or teacher. To effectively use a tutor, it is important that you have clear objectives in mind and that those objectives are understood by your tutor.

Finding a tutor 

The best place to find a tutor is around university campuses. Students are often looking for a chance to make a little money on the side. You may also want to arrange a language exchange—you help a Chinese person with their English in exchange for them helping you with Chinese. There are numerous Chinese students that could use help with their English. A good place to start is with the department of foreign studies, or whatever department teaches Chinese as a foreign language. Many of these kinds of departments not only teaching Chinese as a foreign language, but also have graduate programs for Chinese learning how to teach Chinese as a foreign language. You may also check the English language department, or any other department where you have interests. For example, if you are studying engineering or are an engineer working in China, finding an engineering student may be best suited to help you with your specialized Chinese language needs. Most campuses have an “English Corner” where people get together in the evenings to practice English. This may also be a good place to meet a potential study partner.

Some Chinese have a deep-seated belief that foreigners cannot really learn Chinese well. You may need to convince your tutor that you are serious, and that you want to go beyond basic greetings and survival language if that is your goal. Hiring a faculty member, or a retired one, may also be a good bet. Often they could use the extra money and are just happy to interact with a foreigner. Or if you are working in China, a colleague may be willing to help.

Pay for services rendered 

If you want the best from your tutoring experience, I think it best to hire and pay for your tutoring services. You may have Chinese friends that will offer to help you out, but when they are not getting paid, they may not take it as serious as if they were getting paid and felt the accompanying responsibility to do a good job. In this case, you often get what you pay for.

Have clear objectives—you call the shots 

It’s usually not a good idea to hire a tutor and give them no guidelines. This usually results in chit-chat sessions that wander around but seldom get anywhere substantial. You will get much more mileage from your sessions with clear objectives about what you want to learn. If you are using a textbook or phrase book, make a copy of the lesson you want to cover and give it to your tutor. Tell them specifically that you want to work on the material in that lesson for the appointed meeting. This way, they will come prepared, and you can work together on practicing the material in that particular lesson. If you are not using any formal materials, come up with a plan of what you want to learn, then share with your tutor specifically what you want to learn. For example, if you are a beginner, you might want to work on basic greetings, talking about yourself and interests, asking others about themselves, and so on. You may also want to learn how to order a meal in a restaurant. Before each session, tell you tutor what you would like to learn so they can come prepared with some vocabulary items and phrases to practice with you. If you want to work specifically on your reading and writing skills, either pick out a reading passage from a textbook, or have your tutor select some passages for you based on your language level. Without a textbook, this may be challenging unless you are at the advanced level. Even at the advanced level it is suggested to at least read the newspaper or talk about current events.

 

Tips for Self Study, Part 2: On Your Own in China

Primary school kids in Nanjing

Merely being in China does not guarantee that you will have a good language learning experience. The number of programs in China that offer Chinese language instruction is mind boggling. Some programs are excellent and some are pretty awful.

This post is for the many students, professionals, and travelers in China that are learning Chinese on their own and are not part of a formal language program. By following the advice below, you will be able to make good use of your time learning Chinese independently.

Take advantage of your environment 

Being in China is a great advantage to your language learning efforts. You have an instant language learning lab just outside your door. You are surrounded by people speaking Chinese; there are Chinese characters everywhere you turn and you are immersed in a living society where people act and react according to Chinese attitudes and standards. This can be intimidating, but you to be a successful language learner you must be bold. You cannot be afraid to speak and use the language that you have learned. Make it a point to use Chinese whenever you can. Take every opportunity to use Chinese, even if you could use English. You will make mistakes, but hopefully you will learn from those mistakes and improve with every language using opportunity, such as riding trains.

For many it is so easy to hang out with other foreigners, frequent the bars and restaurants where foreigners hang out, and otherwise avoid, sometimes subconsciously, using Chinese.

 Be positive and confident 

You must believe that you can learn Chinese and use it on a regular basis. If you believe that Chinese is just too hard, then it is a lost cause. Chinese is challenging for the western learner, but it is not impossible. It will take longer to learn than European, cognate languages, but you can learn it. Thousands of Americans have done it. The more confident you are of your abilities and your potential the more likely you will be a successful learner and user of Chinese.

Set Goals 

Making specific language goals can be a great motivator. Make daily, weekly, and monthly goals about what kinds of things you want to accomplish. It may be as simple as learning and using a few new vocabulary words each day, or as ambitious as  you want to be able to order a Chinese meal on your own by the end of the month. You may also have a goal to read a new newspaper article each week, and talk about it with a Chinese friend or colleague.

Enlist your friends and colleagues 

Ask your Chinese friends and colleagues to correct your pronunciation. This will be hard for most Chinese, so be insistent. You may need to really convince them that you want them to do this. You may offer to help them out by correcting their English. Often we go around saying something thinking it is correct only to discover later that you have been saying something wrong all along. This is usually because Chinese will be reluctant to correct your pronunciation. This results in what we call fossilized errors, that is, errors that are difficult to change because we have been making the error repeatedly over time. Chinese may complement you even if you only said two words to them. Don’t let this go to your head. Tell yourself that you need to study harder and that your Chinese is actually pretty poor. In general, Chinese people in China are usually surprised that foreigners can speak Chinese. No matter what you say, they will be impressed.

Repetition is key

Learning a foreign language really involves over learning. That is, you need to practice enough until it comes fairly naturally. Repetition is essential to mastery. The first time you do something in Chinese will probably be fairly difficult; it won’t feel very natural. But the twentieth time you do it, it will feel smooth, normal, and natural. This goes for speaking as well as reading. The more you use or see a word or pattern in context the more likely you will remember it and be able to reproduce it in a correct way.

Use what you have studied 

Meaningful learning involves contextualization. That is, you must use the material you have studied in real live situations, whether that be reading a newspaper article or having a conversation with someone. When you learn a new word or grammar pattern, try to use it in your everyday interactions. Using it will help you remember it, especially when it is used in a meaningful context. It is amazing how after learning a new word, you suddenly realize that you are hearing it all around you. When you hear a word used by Chinese around you, try to use it yourself. The more you use the language you have studied the faster it will become a part of your everyday working language.

Use a language learning notebook

Get in the habit of carrying around a small notebook. Jot down things that you see and hear. Write down vocabulary items that you have studied and want to use. Write down characters on a sign that you don’t recognize, or items on a Chinese menu. Later you can look these words up in a dictionary, or ask a friend what they mean. When you encounter a situation that you do not understand, jot down a few notes so you can ask someone later what was going on. This simple notebook can be a great language learning tool.

 Be a keen observer

Watch carefully how Chinese interact with each other. Pay attention to what they say and how they say it. Observe how Chinese haggle over prices in a market. Watch how the Chinese greet each other, how they take leave or each other, how they pay for items at a department store, and so on. If you are ever unsure about what to do in a given communicative situation, watch and listen to what the Chinese do, then imitate their behavior.  You will not be successful if you think you can just do things the way you do at home, but using Chinese to do it. You must do things the way Chinese people expect people to do things.

There isn’t always an exact English equivalent 

Get used to the fact that language learning, especially learning Chinese, that there is often no one-to-one equivalent of words and expressions in English. Rather than asking, how do you say “hi” in Chinese, the better question is “how do Chinese greet each other?” The answer then is, it depends on the situation and your relationship with the other person. Understand and accept that the Chinese do things differently; they say things differently than we do in the US. Ordering a meal in China is done very differently than in the US. Learn to play by the Chinese rules of the game. That is, learn how the Chinese get things done and follow suit.

Reading strategies 

Reading a text once is usually not enough. I recommend that you read a given text at least three times. The first time, read for the gist; get a feel for what the text is about. The second time, read for details. Try to understand the grammar and vocabulary. The third time, put it all together and hopefully understand the text better. Don’t write pinyin or English above characters in a written text. This will immediately become a crutch. The next time you see that passage you will immediately go to the pinyin and not the characters. It is better to write pinyin for a word or definition on a separate sheet of paper, or maybe in the margin where you can cover it up when you are reading. This allows for a nice neat, and authentic text and fosters real reading and not decoding. The more you read the better you will get. To really master Chinese characters you must use them. Be consistent and try to read something in Chinese everyday.

Flashcards are just a tool

Be careful how you use flashcards. Instead of just writing the English equivalent of Chinese words, write down the word in a Chinese sentence so you better understand how it is used. Just knowing how to pronounce a character and know it’s English equivalent does not guarantee that you will actually be able to use it in an appropriate context. Remember that flashcards are simply a tool. It is important to know what words mean, but to be successful you must be able to use them in the right contexts at the right time. This goes far beyond flashcards.

Consider hiring a tutor

Hiring a tutor can be very beneficial. You can tailor your learning to fit your exact needs and aspirations. More on this later.

Tips for Self Study, Part 1: Learning Resources

On the Nanjing University campus

Students ask me all the time questions like:

“I’m going home for the summer, how can I keep up my Chinese?”

“How can I improve my listening comprehension?”

“I’m taking a year off from my studies to work, what can I do to maintain my Chinese?”

And so on. There are quite a few resources out there but there is also a lot of junk as well. The internet has a wealth of resources but sometimes its hard wading through all the crap to find the good stuff. Below I outline some resources I have found to be useful.

Chinese Reading and Reference Software

These kinds of programs allow one to read Chinese online by having an instant pop-up dictionary wherever you place your cursor. In other words, when you place your cursor over a character, the definition pops up in a window. This can make reading much faster. They are sometimes called text annotators.

The three main software programs for this are:

Wenlin (www.wenlin.com)

Keytip (www.cjk.com/keytip.htm)

Clavis Sinica (www.clavissinica.com)

All three of these are quite powerful and have very good dictionaries. They are also fairly expensive, but sometimes you get what you pay for. Free programs that do much the same thing are around, but have some limitations. They include, Dimsum (which can be found at http://www.mandarintools.com), and the fairly new Google Chrome Zhongwen Pop up Chinese Dictionary. I have just recently started using the Chrome dictionary and it is pretty good. It allows you to have instant access to a Chinese dictionary when you are browsing a Chinese website. You can find it by going to the Chrome app store and searching for “zhongwen Chinese dictionary.” Firefox also has a free pop up dictionary as well. These free options do not have all the functions of the paid programs, but they are still pretty good. I personally use Wenlin in my own learning and teaching and the Chrome dictionary when I am browsing Chinese sites on the web.

Two Chinese sites that function more as translation tools are:

http://fanyi.youdao.com/

http://iciba.com

Chinese Dictionary Apps for your smartphone

The best that I have found and use all the time is called Pleco (www.pleco.com). I would pay for the upgrade to be able to write characters with your finger for automatic look up. I’m amazed at how good this feature is, even if you have crummy penmanship.

Online Resources

http://www.learningchineseonline.net is a clearinghouse of information with links to sites that offer all levels of resources for speaking, listening, reading, writing, proununciation, and just about anything else related to learning Chinese.

http://www.chinesepod.com is a subscription based service that provides all levels of listening comprehension practice. I have known people that have used it and really like it.

http://chinalinks.osu.edu has more Chinese related resources than any site I know. You can find information on everything from Chinese dialects, schools that teach Chinese, Chinese linguistics, learning Chinese, and everything else. Highly recommended.

Popular online dictionaries can be found at:

http://zhongwen.com

http://www.nciku.com

These are just a few, but the better resources out there, that can assist you in your Chinese language studies. If you know of other good resources, send them along in the comments section.

Remember that learning a language like Chinese really is a life-long process. It is important that you know how to learn on your own and that you know how to use the resources effectively to continue your studies beyond the classroom.

In a later post I will discuss specific self study strategies, like how to effectively use a tutor.