Today’s digital age is the best time to learn Mandarin Chinese because of the numerous online tools available. The Chinese language learning blog Hacking Chinese has catalogued over a thousand relevant resources. On Hacking Chinese’s 50th podcast episode Julien Leyre discusses his doctoral thesis on modern Chinese language learning tools, his efforts to categorize them, and how they can work together. One identified problem with all these resources is that new Mandarin Chinese language learners do not know where to start.
I am not a fluent Mandarin speaker, a linguist, or a language learning expert, but I have spent a few years trying out different Mandarin learning tools through my own self directed study. Some have become part of my daily language learning, while I’ve tossed others in the bin. In an effort to share the results of my own struggles and experiments, below is a short list of resources along with any identified pros and cons. If you want a comprehensive list of resources, I suggest checking out Hacking Chinese, but if you want a place to start, look below.
[For truly new learners of Mandarin, I want to define two terms before the lists. First, Pinyin is the romanization of Chinese characters. It takes the sounds of thousands of Chinese characters and presents those sounds in approximations in the Latin alphabet. Second, the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) is an official People’s Republic of China (PRC) Chinese language proficiency test for non-native speakers. The test has various levels, which can be used to determine one’s proficiency in the language. Now, onto the resources.]
This (surprisingly long) list is only a small fraction of the options Mandarin learners now have at their fingertips. This list is not a roadmap to Mandarin language proficiency, but hopefully it gave you the materials to build the road. Your first step is to try a few and make choices on how you can efficiently spend your time while ensuring the content is entertaining enough to keep you engaged. Learning Chinese is a worthwhile, challenging endeavor, but with technology, is now easier than ever. 加油!
"En un agujero en el suelo, vivía un hobbit”
Did you ever get your report card and have to masterfully change some of those F’s to B’s on the bus ride home? I doubt that this has ever successfully fooled anyone, but this movie trope illustrates that report cards can be terrifying. They do, however, provide a useful piece of information: feedback. Without feedback, it is difficult to tell if learning is happening. Am I closer to mastery now than I was when I started?
Well, over a year ago I travelled to Mexico to visit my good friend Dave in Chiapas. I had worked my way through Duolingo and even did Rosetta Stone for a bit, so while I would not have considered myself fluent, I figured I could get by. This assumption was quickly smashed against the rocks of reality at Customs and I spent the remainder of the trip staring blankly at anyone who had the misfortune of attempting to speak to me.
The trip was still a blast, but I made a commitment to improve my Spanish over the next year. In the Spanish language section of Barnes & Noble I picked up a copy of El Hobbit by the legendary J.R.R. Tolkien. Maybe you’ve heard of it. I had been wanting to reread it for a while so why not try in Spanish. My goal was to read one page per day with a goal of finishing it within a year. At 283 pages, this seemed more than achievable.
Just last week I finally learned how the story ended (happily ever after), but I had no way of knowing if I actually improved my Spanish at all. There was no feedback.
There was one piece of information that I could leverage to my advantage, the number of words I translated per page. In an effort to actually retain some information I would write the translation of words or phrases I did not know over the words in the book. So I counted these up for each page. You can see the breakdown of the page totals sorted by chapter in the graph below. The average for that chapter is shown in red.
Overall the chapters had a statistically significant downward trend! I may have learned something after all. This works out to be about 2/5 of a word improvement per chapter on average, from an average of 20 words per page in chapter 1 to just under 12 words per page in chapter 19.
I am still far from being a fluent speaker. In fact this did not teach me anything about speaking Spanish. But at least I have a report card to show my parents.
P.S. When I told my dad about this he responded, “Son, you’re a huge nerd.” Thanks pops.