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.