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.

The most dangerous person in China

No, this kid is not the most dangerous person in China. In fact, he was quite innocent and rather excited to have a conversation, in Chinese, with a foreigner.

The most dangerous person in China is the foreigner with excellent language skills but is clueless when it comes to culture, especially behavioral culture. The problem is that if you have really good Chinese, the Chinese will expect that you know how to play the game; they will expect you to behave like they do. Cultural coherence refers to speaking and acting like Chinese expect people to speak and act. If someone has good speaking skills but acts like a typical American, they will undoubtedly offend people. In fact, the Chinese will most likely believe that you intended to offend them. Again, to the Chinese good Chinese means that you should know how to behave yourself. For example, the American with good Chinese uses typical American sarcasm with his Chinese colleagues and they are offended because they simply don’t understand American sarcasm. Sometimes we call this speaking English in Chinese.

It is simply impossible to separate language from culture. All communicative situations are situated within a cultural context. For language learners it is essential to pay close attention to context. It’s not just about what to say, but also when to say it, with whom it is appropriate, and so on. You must understand why certain language is used in certain situations. Language and behavior in all communicative situations are governed by the following conditions:

  1. time
  2. place
  3. roles of the individuals involved
  4. script (which includes dialogue and actions)
  5. audience (those around not directly involved)

Our behavior certainly changes from the boardroom to the classroom to the street corner. Likewise the many roles we play in life will also determine our linguistic and social behavior—from student to employee to boss to friend, classmate, and so on. Even something as simple as a greeting must be contextualized. How you greet someone depends on where you are, when the greeting takes place, and your relationship with the person you are greeting. If you change one of these conditions, then the greeting will likely change as well. Greeting your teacher or your boss will be very different from greeting your roommate or your mother.