Category: Chinese learning diary

Tail chasing dog or dog chasing tail?

Oh my! the 11th week has flown by and here I am cramming and trying to do as much as possible in 2 days. Well, seems like I am going to have to wait until next week.

A break down of this week:

I leave for work at 8 a.m. and come back home around 6 p.m. This week was a difficult one for two reasons. First of all, I spent a nightmarish week battling with a defensive colleague and I should have seen the signs earlier. His main goal was to sabotage the work that needed to be done and then frustrate me. He did not frustrate me completely but he did achieve one thing, he side tracked me from the stuff I want to do for myself. I did get the work done but what did I do for myself? After a long day of inefficiency and head banging the office walls, I come back home tired. The Sun is making his way to the Americas and our electricity provider cuts the power.

These are the little things in life that I got in the way and I let them get in the way.  YEAH to that!!

Moral of the story:

On trying:

Try not to let things get in the way. If you mess up a week, try again. If you mess up another week, just try again. Don’t stop, always try.

On chasing your own tail:

Don’t waste your energy on someone or things or emotions that just cannot be changed. If you must, then limit it (wasting your time) to 20 minute sessions per day so that you can move on. I think that that will teach you to be brief.

Helpful site:

In the meantime, I found a helpful little site that should help anyone get far in their learning experience. My book has become too difficult and this is very helpful.

I am using resources that you may or may not have therefore I am adding this site to my learning mix and I will share with you my weekly progress as well as the lessons completed. I actually enjoy this site and the grammar sections are truly helpful and a lot of thought was put into the lessons.

Totoro my neighbour by Studio Ghibli

It is week 10 and I have made no modifications to my learning routine.
Sometimes I keep to my timetable and at other times I don’t. I just accept this as fact of life. I am more disciplined but I am still prone to distractions. I set a side 10 minutes before going to bed to listening to audio and 10 minutes before going to work to listening to more audio.

My only complaint is that I am no longer watching Chinese programmes. I am learning actively with material tailored for beginners, but I am not watching TV programmes for the Chinese diaspora. Our office has cable, I think I’ll start watching Chinese programmes for 30 minutes or more.

In the meantime, every other evening I watch a film produced by Studio Ghibli. If you don’t know any of their films/anime I would suggest you take a look. I think Hayao Miyazaki’s work is beautiful, subtle and innocent and the soundtracks often trigger warm childhood memories.

I started watching Miyazaki’s work during the 2009 Christmas season with the help of an alert market vendor called Sunday. Sunday asked me: “what do you like?” I said: “cartoons from Japan”. He showed me a couple of things that were of the Pokemon, Digimon calibre. I hissed and I started walking away. Sunday whispered to his apprentice and begged me to wait patiently on his bench by the fan under the hot Sun while the apprentice rummaged through their bigger shop that was a couple of blocks away.

I waited for a long time. I waited for approximately a quarter of an hour and 15 minutes is a very long time when you are sweating profusely and busy wondering about whether or not your white shirt has become transparent.

As promised he came back with a new smaller collection of CDs. The pile included Naruto, Bleach and all the series I love to watch and were available on I was quite excited because it was not possible to buy anime from the market sellers in 2005. So yippee!!!, our faithful CD pirates had extended their range of products. Then to my amazement I spotted three DVDs with sketches of Totoro and it dawned on me that I had hit the jackpot. No point in asking the vendor what the DVDs were about, but I could tell each one had a collection of films from the same company. I love anime, I love the Japanese language and I would have bought it with or without the English translation. I spent 1,500 naira ( +/-$10) and went home with Miyazaki’s work of art.

Once home, I was glad to discover that the subtitles were in Japanese, English and Chinese. I never did check if I could change the audio. I was content. My CD collection is in Lagos and I am now happy to report that every single anime film is dubbed in Chinese 🙂 and now that I can recognise Chinese characters, well the subtitles are in traditional hanzi.

Something tells me I should pay Sunday another visit, just in case he has other films. I am sure he does, I can’t wait!

PS. I know that pirate copies are bad. I hope one day to buy the whole collection, each film costs about $12 dollars but I doubt I will find them in Europe with Japanese,Chinese,English subtitles and Japanese and Chinese audio. My collection of DVDs was and still is a life saver.

Richard asked me these questions:

  • What are the 3-5 basic skills that every language-learner must master? 
  • How does one measure progress in each?  
  • What resources allow progress in each?

I honestly don’t know what basic skills every language learner must master.

I can think of a lot of skills but I also think that these same skills are needed in most new activities that you would choose to invest in. If I answered this question and then failed in my language learning quest then it may just undermine my credibility.  🙂 I really do not know and I do not have the answers. And to think that before embarking on this journey, I used to spend a lot of time (really a lot of time) researching on how to learn Japanese and no straight forward answer was ever given.

Many suggested I move to the country where my language is spoken. I tried and for reasons beyond my control I never did  make it to Taiwan. Others suggested I get a Chinese speaking boyfriend. I doubt that my French husband would understand such a move. “Sorry chéri, I now have a preference for all things made in China, you are relieved from your conjugal duties”. Others suggested I attend classes and that is what I wanted but my work prevents me from doing this. So the next best thing, was creating this blog as a way of tracking my progress and every 6 months read and analyse my diary and create a roadmap for the next 6 months. I do a lot of planning and executing.

So really, the number one skill to nurture would be record keeping before changing countries, ditching your spouse or paying for traditional classes.

From my humble experience, I believe that it is important to know what and how you are learning. Language learning can be divided into

  1. listening
  2. reading
  3. speaking
  4. understanding
  5. writing
  6. dreaming  <– take breaks to avoid this one

At the beginning of your journey, you may choose to just concentrate on understanding (aka comprehension) and that is fine.

Imagine you had a pie chart and in the first month of your language learning you spent the bulk of your time listening. This is what I did. I spent two hours a day on Chinese. That amounted to 14 hours of learning per week and an extra 70 minutes of ‘other things’.   In each hour spent on Chinese, 50 min was spent on listening and repeating words, 10 min on reading while listening (to prepare me for the character learning phase) and at the end of each exercise, I would seal my daily language learning with 10 minutes of listening to all the lessons without pausing. The grand total was approximately 130 minutes of Chinese per day.

OK, here’s a visual pie chart of my daily learning strategy for the month of December and most of January.

Learning strategy for week 1 to 9

End January, I changed my strategy to including writing and I spent 2 hours per day excluding the weekend on learning new Chinese material.

My new routine is:

I pick up my book, learn the dialogues with the audio, then I read the French dialogues  (my book is for francophones learning Chinese), visualise the conversation and say it aloud in Chinese. In the past, this lasted 5 days of frustration and not understanding where I was making a mistake, I used to read the dialogues and sight translate. I did really well but I was not internalising the language. Now, I read the dialogue, pause, remember what I am asked to do, visualise and say it aloud in Chinese. After translating aloud, I write down the translation in hanzi, then once I have spell checked and corrected the grammar, I compare my French to Hanzi translation with the book’s Chinese dialogue.  I now focus on two hours per day of dialogue learning, dialogue vocab building, dialogue internalising, memorising as well as writing. I then work through one to three chapters of my Chinese character book once a week. If I go too fast, I will forget because I am not using a reader to reinforce my learning nor am I going fast enough in my dialogue book to come across what I am currently  learning in the character book.

I do have a reader  that I will start using in the near future. I do not own a paper Chinese dictionary yet.

The new learning chart for february 2012 looks like this:

10 hours/week on new material from the book. On the weekend I revise, that is a further 4 hours of revision. There are 90 lessons in my dialogue book. I am currently on lesson 18.

I use:

  • the dialogue book as a way to gauge  my progress,
  • the Hanzi book as a way to know exactly how many characters I have learnt,
  • translation as a way of internalising the dialogue (I do so aloud).

Future activities

I will use the dictation exercises (listen to dialogue then write Hanzi) as a way of knowing how well I spell. Of course, I do all the exercise drills in the book (yes sometimes boring!!!!)  and will continue to do so over and over again. How will I do this? Well once I have completed a lesson, I will write it down on a piece of paper and add it to a little box. Each lesson completed will go into this happy box. Once I have reached lesson 25, that’s when I am going to pick three pieces of paper from the box and practise all skills.

It is very easy to lose what you have learnt, and I think this ‘game’ may be a good way to make it stick. On some days I learn one dialogue lesson and on others I learn three, well chances are that now I won’t go beyond one dialogue per day because the dialogues are getting harder and I am not in the mood to switch to Chinese class 101 lessons just yet. 😀

In sum, RECORD KEEPING is the surest way to quantify your progress. It may seem at times that you are getting nowhere but as long as you invest the time, I think you will experience a breakthrough. Record keeping ensures better time management which in turn should have a positive impact on your learning experience, right?

Apparently I need 300-800 hours for basic HSK level (HSK is the Chinese proficiency test). Well let’s see,  in maths terms,  300 hours/14 hours per week = 21 weeks. That is a little less than 6 months to reach the basic HSK level. The next HSK 1/2 tests are scheduled for the 19th May 2012 in Nantes, Rennes and Paris in France.

Something to think about.

In a nutshell what am I saying:

I think it is important to work on these skills:

  1. Listening
  2. Reading
  3. Writing
  4. Speaking
  5. Understanding

You may want to think about getting material for each one of these aspects of learning Chinese and learning language as a whole. I’d recommend readers for reading and Memnonic books to learn the Hanzi and a course with a lot of audioto train your ears and understanding of the language.


For reading: John DeFrancis’ Chinese Reader textbook

For writing: Tuttle’s Learning Chinese characters  by Alison and Laurence Matthews.


I tried both Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur for learning Japanese in 2003. 2003 was what I’d consider to be my Internet days. Emule, a P2P programme, was on 24/7 downloading everything and anything and that is when I came across Pimsleur. I tried Pimsleur for a couple of weeks and I almost died of boredom. I know it works for some and does not for others but I downloaded it and remembered falling asleep. The idea is great but you better have solid concentration and I did not or have solid reasons for learning and you will succeed with Pimmy.

I then considered Rosetta Stone. I was ready to fork out 500 dollars (I had drastically reduced my food budget to save money to buy this programme), it promised so many things, I believed and the reviews were positive. Just before I did,  I found a pirate version of Rosy and really and truly I was not impressed. The FSI course (you can either buy it or download it) and the Teach Yourself series did a much better job.  Again this is my subjective opinion and I am more of a visual than an auditory learner.

How did this little story end?  I lost 4 kilos and I spent more time searching for the course that would guarantee my success in language learning and I never did find it until I went to a library and I bought my first book in 2006.

Just like Prince Charming does not exist nor does the ‘all in one course’ exist. One course for 300 dollars will only mean you will fork out another $$$ for another course. Just like you do shop around to find the ideal mate and to discover yourself (may the Lord smite those who deny!), I would suggest you do the same with your language learning material. You will discover your polygamous tendencies 😀

Confucius my love, que piensas?

‘Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous’.

狡兔三窟 or jiǎ tù sān kū means a rabbit should have three holes to hide from the enemy.  In other words,  don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

I am going to explore the need to diversify your portfolio. Learning Chinese is an investment and I have invested a lot of time and money in Chinese. It all started in 1996. I bought my first Chinese learning book ‘méthode 90 pour débutant’ (Chinese for beginners).  It is a slightly difficult book for true beginners in spite of that it is a comprehensive course with 6 CDs for 45 euro. In 2008, I bought four more books that cost approximately 150 pounds sterling at Foyles in London and Today I am subscribed to Chinese 101. Money wise, I have spent exactly £350 on Chinese learning ‘potions and creams’. I am more than happy with these books and my greatest wish for 2012 is to finish using every single book. Doing so should give me the level to take HSK1 or attempt HSK 2 in the near future.  Doing so will also give me a strong sense of self satisfaction. I want to take charge of my learning experience, I want to finish what I started, no more loose ends!

Now why have I suddenly become an accountant?

Well I am back in Lagos, Nigeria and that is where all my precious language books are. I have done the sorting out and I have five books: One reader, one character writing and remembering book, one full course (dialogues in Pinyin, Hanzi and audio), one conversation course (dialogues in Pinyin only and audio) and an online Chinese course (dialogue in pinyin, hanzi and audio). As you can see I have a book for reading, a book for writing, a full course (comprehension, speaking, listening, translating), a book for listening and speaking, and an online course that provides cultural insight and is catered to learners with no knowledge of Chinese. When the full course methode 90 gets too hard, I know it is time to switch back to the online course and build a foundation before going back to méthode 90.  Switching back and forth while working on the Hanzi means I am progressing slowly and I am doing so in all four aspects of Chinese (reading, writing, listening, understanding) as for speaking that is another matter. Switching also keeps boredom at bay.

I mentioned the monetary aspect of my investment in Chinese, now I am going to talk about time.  I have been studying and thinking about Chinese in a consistent manner since December 2011 but because my studying phases have been somewhat erratic, I cannot quantify the number of true hours spent learning Chinese.

In my week 8 Chinese diary entry, I started monitoring the time spent on Chinese and I reduced it to one hour per day plus an extra hour on the Hanzi and other Chinese related activities. The grand total is approximately 10 hours of Chinese per week. With what I have in mind for myself, this is not enough 😦  As for listening to Chinese, I do so  passively on a daily basis. Sometimes 20 minutes and at other times I do so for four hours.

Hanzi is one of the only ways to quantify your progress, but it could lead to your undoing, I think it is important to strike a balance, anyway those of you learning every character by rote and those of you embarking on this approach will understand.

I have learnt 148 out of the 800 basic characters. I can recognise, read and write them from memory and I know many words but I know less than half of the required vocab for HSK 1.