The concept of “fluency” in Mandarin

peckishlaowai Posted in China, Learning Mandarin,Tags: , ,

Like every other Mandarin learner I dream of becoming a “fluent” Mandarin Chinese speaker, but this goal can seem pretty unattainable and daunting if not broken down into smaller achievable milestones. You can also dream as much as you want about it but if you have no plan of action and no regularity in your schedule, you won’t get or go anywhere. So this is where I’m currently at – defining what I need to do (at least roughly in the next 6 months) to get me one step closer to becoming “fluent” in Mandarin. If I’m going to want to get anywhere with Mandarin in the near future – I have to put some stakes in the ground (a couple at least). I have to define what my goals are so that I know what I’m aiming for.

Fluency….? Have a laugh :)

“Fluency”. Yes there is a hint of skepticism – hence the use of quote marks. I’ve often wondered about becoming fluent in Mandarin and I have had so many questions about it:

Is it even possible? Do you need to live in China for a number of years to become fluent? At what point would I know that I am fluent? Is fluency relative, defined by what you want to achieve with the language? It seems such a vague concept at times. When I struggle with the basics I often ask myself whether I am crazy studying this language… If I didn’t have this burning desire / passion in my heart I probably would have given up ages ago. (Oh wait, sorry – forgot – was out of action for nearly 2.5 years – life got in the way…) Well at least I rekindled the flame, didn’t I?

Some conversations I’ve had with native speakers have left some doubt in my mind too – comments like “Not even Chinese people are fluent in Mandarin”. Another reply that also left me rather puzzled about the validity of the concept of “fluency” in Mandarin was when I asked a native speaker why they said “shenme” so much in a conversation and whether they ever had difficulty understanding one another. To this question, I was answered with, “Oh us Chinese don’t always understand what’s going on”. Baffled I was. If statements like these don’t leave a Mandarin learner confused, then I can only present another inspiring example (smell the sarcasm): “200 Kilometres (from here) and we won’t be able to understand one another if we speak Mandarin – no point for foreigners study Mandarin! Better if Chinese people learn English!”.

When you think it can’t possibly get any darker and gloomy though :) , along comes a Mandarin angel, who puts back the silver lining around the (damned) dark cloud: “Don’t worry so much about the pronunciation and tones, even though China is so big, if you put the words together in a sentence, people will be able to understand you. Your pronunciation and tones don’t have to be perfect – just close.” This last statement which I had heard from a native speaker very recently, is certainly very encouraging especially when compared to the statements I had mentioned before. It also however confirms the idea that standard Putonghua is not something everyone conforms or even aspires to – but I’m pointing out the obvious – none of this is news. I suspect it’s known already and not just by me. In this case though this last example is rather comforting. I’ll be an optimist and keep with the last person’s words in my mind as I continue on my path.

Getting back to my point though – all of these questions aside – I reckon one should simply decide that negative comments will not be allowed to discourage. When feeling overwhelmed – the only thing to do is to be realistic and break the end-goal down into several achievable milestones and as for me, I have to define what I’m aiming for and how I’m going to achieve it, with the time (and other resources), I have available to dedicate to this beast. :)

I also need to define what I think fluency means to me. I reckon if I can close a business deal in Mandarin I’d consider myself fluent. For now though, I have rather more rudimentary obstacles to conquer.

Patience is a virtue.

A virtue I (for the most part) do not possess.

Heisig 500: Why penguins rule and Lucy Liu ain’t my taskmaster

peckishlaowai Posted in Heisig, Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , , , ,

If you stumbled upon this page and you had no prior context you’d probably be wondering just what the heck this post is about. And if you’ve visited this blog before you’d be excused if you were still baffled by the title – but be baffled no more – I’VE JUST REACHED MY 500th HANZI using the Heisig method!! (Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters)! This calls for a dramatic crazy headline, doesn’t it?

So I realise that simply studying characters using Heisig isn’t enough to get one to read Mandarin Chinese – I know how the language works. However – after just 500 characters – I’m now able to recognise characters that would have made my eyes glaze over before.

Some progress with Heisig - being able to recognise characters that was just a blur before...

Some progress with Heisig - being able to recognise characters that was just a blur before... Do you want to enlighten me?

As an example: I walk past this building (above) every day and have only ever been able to recognise 2 characters in total before I started my Heisig adventure (天 and 家) – that is up until today…

This morning as I was passing the same building – I glanced up and realised that there were more characters familiar to me. In addition to 天 and 家, I recognised the 2nd, 5th and 7th characters and recognised primitives too in the remaining ones.

I stood still for a moment to appreciate what had happened. I probably looked slightly odd to people who passed me by and I’m sure to them it looked like I had never seen such a poster before in my life :)

To me – this is progress. True that I don’t have the vocab to decipher it all combined – and the definitions I’ve learned in Heisig may not even apply in this context. The English that could / or should guide me in this instance seems rather cryptic too, but I thought I’d share this with you anyway as I feel happy about it. :D

If you want to enlighten me – to make sense of the vocab / characters used – please do!

I’d also like to share with you some of my further observations in my study of the first 500 characters. The findings below relate to my “random” title. There is – believe it or not – some method to my madness :)

Finding #1: It may (or may not) take me roughly three characters before I decide on a visual image for a series of characters that use the same primitive(s).

The first visual that pops into my head (or the one I may prefer to use) isn’t necessarily the one that’s going to work for the characters that follow.

As an example I’ll use the ‘taskmaster’ primitive – the second character used in this character 攻.

Ever seen Charlie’s Angels with Lucy Liu clad in a leather-tight suit with a whip beating the hell out of tables etc? I’m afraid I might lose some readers completely if you check the video out now – but go on – and remember to come back and read the rest of the post ok?

  • Now if I have your attention again- you might ask – do I have the concepts of a dominatrix and taskmaster confused? Which I’ll answer with a question – which do you think is think is more visual – a traditional taskmaster or the image of Lucy Liu one I’ve just described?
  • The more visual you can get the image in your head the better the character sinks in – don’t ask me why this is so, as I’m not studying the workings of the mind and I never have – just trust me that it does…

HOWEVER in looking at the first couple of characters that used this primitive I realised this image wasn’t suitable at all and I instead reverted to an image of a strict unpleasant taskmaster – who you can’t forget for perhaps rather unpleasant reasons … and Heisig simply suggests you think of a taskmaster or taskmistress from your past whom “you will never forget”. The result: I’m at least 10 characters wiser – all of them using the taskmaster primitive even though it’s done with a more unpleasant image in mind – not the more exciting first choice with Lucy Liu.

Example: 攻 / attack
My story: the work (primitive on the left) of a taskmaster is to attack you – easily remembered if your visual is right.

Finding #2: Once again I AM NOT suggesting you follow my example – however you might consider changing the story for a primitive or character.

NOTE: Do this only if you must and do so at your own risk… Know the implications of that action as you move forward – you’ll have to change EVERY story that use that primitive and you’ll perhaps have to get a bit more or a lot more creative with your own stories – or not. This one explains why I’m having so much fun with penguins. :)

I was very weary about changing a primitive meaning in my post regarding my initial findings on Heisig and I still am but am now finding I am taking some bigger risks. Thus far – (strangely enough) it’s been working out well enough for me. I’ll explain my example re penguins below.

#444 立 is an adjective and means ‘standing up’
As a primitive when you you use this character inside other characters Heisig suggests you use ‘vase’ or its character meaning e.g. standing up or think of something standing in an unusual way.

To me this character looks like a little penguin – a little penguin standing tall – chest pushed out and all. Can you see a penguin too? No? With a little imagination perhaps?
So shortly here’s an example of how I’m remembering some of the characters that use this character as a primitive.

#451 Salesman 商
Instead of using vase / standing up my penguin is the salesman (he looks rather dodgy) and is selling some creepy stuffs inside a glass container – body parts e.g – animals legs and mouths etc…. Trust me that I have no trouble remembering this one…

#482 赔 Compensate
Compensate someone with shells (primitive on the left) because your naughty pet penguin bit someone else’s pet… The penguin has a muzzle on as a result. (Background – in Heisig the penguin primitive and the mouth primitive below it together forms the primitive ‘muzzle’.)

I can go on and on and rather surprisingly I manage to create a nice story /visual in my head with a penguin for each character with this primitive and it’s done rather easily. So I guess you can see I am certainly having fun with penguins :)

If you’re interested to see how I’m using my “penguin primitive” in more characters, get in touch and I’ll share more of my stories with you.

Finding #3: To speed up the process – always use images / concepts that are already available to you.

For example – stories with American elements don’t always work for me e.g. character #345 mentions a song ‘America the Beautiful’. As I’m not always familiar with the cultural context or background of things mentioned in the story I don’t always have much of a choice but to change it to something else that is more familiar to me.

Me crazy?

Am I playing with fire and am I going to get burned taking such big risks changing my stories for primitives? Most likely. I’d like to view this risk as part of my exploration and adventure in using this method ;)

Your thoughts?

You might ask – what’ the point of buying a book if you’re going to have to change so many things to make the stories work for you?

  • Firstly, probably 85% of Heisig’s images do work for me. I’m still experimenting and am only changing things as I need to or perhaps in places where I want to.
  • Secondly the book is a great technique for studying characters and really effective – did I mention my retention rate is still about 90% for new and mature characters?
  • Did I also mention that studying characters this way – breaking the characters down into the different primitives or vice versa constructing them using the primitives and other characters you’ve learned gives you a whole new appreciation and perspective on the Chinese written language? It’s like someone lifted a veil and I can see it all more clearly – it’s not just all lines anymore… I see little characters now – amazing…

I’ll say again what I’ve said before – I am certainly loving it. :)