Comprehensible Input

The key to learning a new language is finding sources of “comprehensible input”. This is a source of material that is slightly above your current level of understanding. Why is this important?

Your brain is remarkably good at identifying and learning patterns. Most of the learning you actually do is done in the background by your brain, without your conscious knowledge. The trick to optimal learning is to put your brain in an environment that it can learn from, and that’s where comprehensible input comes in.

WChinese Street Signshen I first came to Taiwan, I was overwhelmed by all the Chinese signs and labels around me. I couldn’t wait for the day when I’d actually be able to understand what they all meant.

With so much material around me to “learn” from, I’d be able to pick up Chinese in no time, right?

Well, it doesn’t quite work that way.

Since all these characters were foreign to me, my brain didn’t know where to begin, and so very little learning could take place. In fact, what I found happening was my brain would instantly pick out the one or two signs that were in English, since that’s all it could decipher!

This is why when kids are learning to read, we don’t start them off with Harry Potter. You start with easy to read books with smaller sentences first, then let them work their way up to more difficult material.

When learning Chinese, you need to use the same approach. If you’re just starting off, you’ll want to start with some absolute beginner material that introduces you to the basics. Once you’ve learned the basics, you can them move on to more difficult (but only slightly more difficult) material, so that your brain can process the new material in the context of what it already knows.

If the new material is too easy, then while it may be fun to absorb, no actual learning will take place. If it’s too difficult, then your brain will give up as there will be too much new information to process.

CLO was designed with this approach in mind.

Each lesson only teaches a few new words at a time, while reusing words that were previously taught. Dialogs and articles are presented for you in their entirety in the beginning of a lesson, so that your brain can try and process the new vocabulary on its own first, before the explanations are given.

If you ever find your learning reaching a rut, where you don’t find your Chinese improving, it may be because there is a lack of comprehensible input being provided to your brain. This happens when you hang around the same people all the time who are speaking at the same levels that you are already used to.

If this happens to you, the it’s time to look for new sources of input. Try striking new conversations in new topics that you’re not familiar with. Or try reading or watching a program that is slightly above your current ability.

Doing so will ensure that your learning never ceases, and that you’re constantly making new progress.

Image Source

The Importance of Proper Tones

Has this ever happened to you?

The man on the left is trying to order shuǐjiǎo (dumplings) but he can’t remember what tones to use, so the vendor doesn’t understand him.

Along comes the new man on the right who uses the proper tones and thus gets what he wants.

To native English speakers, words sound the same even when you change the tones used, but to Chinese speakers they result in completely different words with completely different meanings.

So make sure when you’re learning new vocabulary in Chinese, to also make note of what tones to use to avoid being misunderstood!

Learning Street Chinese

Chinese Street Food

Photo Credit

During the first few years of my life in Taiwan, I didn’t take any formal training in Chinese, assuming that I would learn Chinese just by being here. I quickly came to realize that that wouldn’t be the case. I actually had to put some effort into it.

The good news was that there was so much Chinese being spoken around me. The bad news was that there was so much Chinese being spoken around me that I didn’t know where to start.

Basic Greetings and Politeness

I began by learning what I needed to know. Basic greetings, thank you and goodbyes. Vocabulary that I was likely to use on a frequent basis. Using these words and phrases often and actually being understood gave me the confidence to continue my learning journey.

Basic Vocabulary

From here, I began to learn the names of objects around me that I was likely to interact with or name on a daily basis. If you’re a teacher, then these may be objects in a classroom. Listen to how students identify them and learn them for yourselves. Start with the most frequent objects and work your way down.

The trick here is to focus on the vocabulary that you’re likely to use regularly since this makes it easier to stick. If you learn a word that you’re not likely to use in the immediate future, then you’re more likely to forget it. Save it for later.

The reason we focus on widely used vocabulary at this early stage is that your brain is still getting used to this new language that is so different from the languages you’ve learned in the past. So it’s important that it’s getting exposed to constant repetition.

Later when you’re more comfortable in the language, you’ll find it easier to learn lesser used vocabulary as new words will now be placed in context of words you already know. Right now at this early stage, you don’t have this context so what can be remembered is limited to what you’re exposed to often.

Basic Expressions

By now, you’ve learned basic greetings and basic vocabulary that applies to your daily life.Perhaps you’ll recognize some of these terms when people around you are speaking. However there is still a lot that you don’t understand. Instead of trying to learn it all, try and pick out a few words or phrases that you hear often. For me it was phrases like Méi guānxi, bú yòng and kěyǐ. 

I didn’t recognize any of the words before or after those, but I kept hearing these words over and over again. I asked the people around me – “What does bú yòng mean?” Slowly I learned these expressions, and started to pick these out even more, now that I knew what they meant.

Answering Basic Questions

You’ll find yourself in situations where clerks or the people around you ask you the same questions all the time. For me, it was at the grocery store, when the clerk would ask me if I wanted a bag, or if I had their store’s member card.  Early on, I had no clue what they were asking and generally ignored it (they tended to move on if they sensed you didn’t understand, which suggested to me that their question wasn’t very important to begin with).

Now that your goal is to improve, you’ll need to find out what these questions are. Get someone to come with you and translate exactly what they said, including the exact words they used. There may be a lot to take in, but again since these are questions you’re being asked frequently, you’ll be able to pick it up quickly. In most cases you’re only answering with a méiyǒu or bú yòng so it’s not exactly rocket science. It will increase your confidence though to know exactly what it is they asked you!

Handling Basic Tasks

You are now ready to move into a more active mode. Look for situations in your life that you’ve been able to handle so far with minimal Chinese. Perhaps it was ordering food, or filling up gas. It is now time to find the exact words and phrases you need to accomplish these tasks – no more pointing or miming!

One of the best places to improve in this area is when you’re standing in line. In most cases, the people in front of the line are accomplishing similar tasks – what words and phrases are they using? If that’s not enough, you may need someone’s help initially to say exactly what you want to say.

If the task is complicated then you may have to use a mixture of Chinese and pointing, but at least make the attempt. Over time you can replace the pointing with new Chinese you pick up along the way.

Learning Synonyms and Alternate Phrases

If you follow all the instructions above, you’ll eventually get to a stage where you know the names of all the objects you interact with regularly, and you know all the phrases that get you through the day. At this point, it’s easy to get comfortable – after all, you know all the Chinese you need to know. Imagine if your mom could see you now!

But yet you know that’s not enough. You still have no idea what other people on the street are saying when they are talking to each other. So how do you make the next jump?

It is time to start learning alternatives to what you already know how to say.

You know how to order your lunch box like a pro (you better know how, since you’ve been ordering that same lunch for the past three years!). It’s now time to start looking for new ways to accomplish the same task. When you’re in line and listening to the people in front of you, notice that they don’t all the use the exact same expressions. Some will use an alternate form. It’s now time to start learning what these alternate forms are.

So instead of asking hǎo ma all the time, switch it up with a hǎo bù hǎo instead (yes, be dangerous!).

And while you’re at it, why don’t you try eating something different for a change?

New Situations

You’re now at the cusp of greatness. You live your life like a boss. You feel like you’re practically one of the locals.

But you know deep inside that you’re far from it.

It’s time now to take things to the next level. Move outside your comfort zone.

Before you start kicking and screaming, remember that you already moved outside your comfort zone by coming here in the first place. Your friends are still back home, liking your Facebook posts from the comfort of their home, but you’re here! So why stop just before the finish line?

It’s time to make new friends. Local friends.

Join some clubs. Volunteer. Do anything – just get out there interacting with people.

Engaging in new experiences will expose you to new situations where you’ll need to learn new Chinese to keep up. The good news is that you already know what you need to do to get up to speed. Follow the same steps you did above. Rinse, wash and repeat.

Supplement with Other Resources

Following the steps above will take you a long way from “just getting by” to being able to master the Chinese you know to experience local life here.

To complete your learning however, I recommend you supplement your learning with 3rd party resources like CLO (of course). This will provide you with additional benefits:

  • Vocabulary that you might not have encountered so far (but will in the future)
  • Grammar explanations that will make sense of what you’ve been hearing so far (but weren’t able to explain)
  • Confidence to explore new situations by preparing you in advance
  • Learning proper pronunciation that some locals may not have

If you have any additional tips to learning street Chinese that aren’t covered above, do share them below!

Learning What You Need to Know

Taiwan Shilin Night Market

How do you answer this question?

Can you speak Chinese?

Do you reply with “Yes, I can speak Chinese“? Or is it “I can speak a little“.

Of course your actual answer might be more complicated.

What level do you have to reach to change that answer from “a little” to “Yes I can”?

To answer this, you have to determine your own goals. What is your reason for learning Chinese in the first place?

Do you live in a Chinese speaking society and want to be able to communicate with the people around you?

If that’s the case, then all you need to do is get to a level of fluency where you have enough vocabulary to get your point across. You may not be using the optimum vocabulary, but your meaning still comes across clear (”foreigners” tend to get a free pass in this area).

Or perhaps you have married into a Chinese family. All you want is to be able to say things like “Can you pass the soy sauce”?

The path here is a little clearer. If you make a determined effort to always find out how things are said in Chinese, you’ll find yourself being able to say them yourself over time, without having to ask for a translation. This works especially well with words and phrases that are constantly repeated.

Perhaps you work in an industry, where you deal with Chinese clients. In this case, it’s important to learn the vocabulary for the items in your industry. What types of conversations will you be having with your clients?

Listen to the word choices that the translators are using and try to come up with them on your own. Over time, the goal should be to depend less on them, as you’re able to come up with those word and phrase choices on your own.

Living here in Taiwan, I’ve seen westerners selling goods at the local night market. They seem fluent in Chinese, being able to bargain with customers and answer detailed questions about their products. In many cases, the Chinese they know is limited to that industry. They only learned what they needed to know.
How about you?

Are you focused on learning what you need to know? Or are you wasting time in areas that don’t match your final goals?

[In regards to using the CLO course, if you come across words or expressions that you feel you’re unlikely to use in your daily life, I wouldn’t spend much time reviewing them. Focus on the “that sounds like something I should know” items.]

Match your Learning with the Right Chinese Tools

Chinese is a difficult language to learn. We’ve all heard that. The tones are hard to grasp and there are too many characters to remember. Many have tried learning Chinese in the past, only to give up in frustration.

Part of the reason for giving up is that the training methods they were using didn’t match the goals they had for themselves.

When I first started learning Chinese in Taiwan, I enrolled in a local university language center. All I was looking for, was to improve my listening and speaking skills so that I could improve the quality of my daily life here. However, in the course I was in, there was a heavy emphasis placed in reading and writing, both of which I wasn’t interested in at the time.

In addition, a written placement test was given to me, so they could place me in the right class level. However my reading and writing skills were non existent at that time, so I was placed in a beginner class, despite my listening and speaking level being much higher than that of my classmates.

This resulted in a poor learning experience for me, as I spent a lot of time repeating things I already knew, while also spending time in areas I wasn’t interested in.

At CLO, we have separated the skills needed to learn Chinese, so you can focus on the areas you want to strengthen yourself in.

The 4 skills required to learn Chinese are:

  • Listening:
  • Speaking:
  • Reading
  • Writing

The learning methods you choose should depend on what priority you put towards each of these skills.

If you want Listening to be your strongest skill, then focus on the CLO lessons, since there is so much listening content provided there. Don’t worry about characters, and just use the pinyin transcripts available for each lesson.

If you want to practice speaking, then I recommend our Skype One on one program, where you’ll be matched up with a teacher who will give you a lot of speaking practice. Since pronunciation is important, focus on the tone marks for each word in pinyin, to make sure you are using proper pronunciation.

If you want to focus on Reading, then you’ll need to look at the character (simplified or traditional) word for word transcripts provided with each CLO lesson. You can also try out our new site that helps you read and type in Chinese.

Lastly if you want to become really good at writing in Chinese, then you’ll need to learn the stroke order system. You can either use the character sheets that are provided with most lessons, or look at third party tools like Skritter that focus solely in this area.

4 Chinese Skills

By matching our tools with your exact learning needs you should find yourself seeing faster progress, as you’re only spending time in the areas you need to. You’ll also experience much less frustration in the areas you’re not interested in.

How about you? What skills are you most interested in developing? What tools do you find the most useful for you to improve in this area?