Watching Chinese TV for language learning

So I’m sitting on the couch about five minutes into an episode of this one show that’s supposedly the Chinese equivalent of Friends (爱情公寓) when Jessica, who’s sitting opposite where she can hear the dialogue but can’t see the screen, suddenly says, “Hey! I know that scene! They’re totally ripping that off!” Turns out this show isn’t just a similar; it actually copied parts of the script and story from the original Friends so blatantly that Chinese viewers complained on social media and the producers apologized.

american_Friends
(So does that make it extra Chinese?)
chinese_friends

I’ve never even seen a full episode of the original Friends, but it’s really popular in China for learning English — the dialogue is simple, filled with digestible one-or-two-liners, and the canned laughter tells you how to understand the context (funny, sad, touching, etc.). That’s what we need, only in Chinese: something that’s easy to follow because it’s simple nearly to the point of stupid. We’re not aiming for challenging content; we’re aiming for lots of content. (And the reality of it is, nearly any Chinese TV show is challenging; you’ll need intermediate/upper-intermediate Chinese to even attempt to follow most mainstream Chinese media.)

In addition to Googling through the language study blogs, I asked on Weixin what TV series we should watch for language learning. Here’s what the first 26 responses suggested: 人民的民义(x8)、西游记(x3)、琅琊榜(x2)、欢乐颂(x2)、大宅门伪装者父母爱情芈月传甄嬛传三国一仆二主大头儿子,小头爸爸小别离我爱我家康熙王朝神探狄仁杰海尔弟兄

At different language levels, you need to study in different ways. I’m in the middle of revamping my study routine — much in the spirit of what Hacking Chinese describes here — and part of that is regularly consuming more Chinese content.

Are there any Chinese TV shows you’ve actually found helpful to your language study?

We haven’t picked anything to follow yet, but we’ll take a look at 欢乐颂我爱我家大头儿子,小头爸爸 and 人民的民义,along with 爸爸去哪儿?, 快乐大本营 and 爱情公寓。And for whatever we watch, we’ll also try to get our hands on the subtitle files.

Chinese-as-a-Second-Language, Episode 6: Coffee enemas

Maybe you think writing about coffee enemas is… in poor taste. Well, this isn’t about coffee enemas; it’s about the crazy stuff that floats through our daily conversations in China and the deliciously odd experience of encountering it in a second language. Like last week’s little exchange:

“Hey, Dajiang! I sent you a Weixin message for Jessica, to help her recovery.” (Jessica recently had surgery, and our Chinese friends have been super supportive.)

“Oh, yeah? What is it?”

“It’s about a treatment that’s really popular right now: coffee guàncháng. It’s helping lots of cancer patients recover.”

(I’ve never heard the word guàncháng before, so I just ignore it. You can usually get through a conversation without understanding every single word.) “Ha, if I tell Jessica she has to drink more coffee to get better she’ll be very happy.”

“No, Dajiang. It’s coffee *guàncháng*.”

I think it’s interesting how our brains handle this kind of Chinese-as-a-language situation. All within a split-second, your brain realizes that this word does matter and searches out your best guess from within the Chinese you have. Our brains are wondrously quick and powerful, but not foolproof (as I’m about to discover).

Context is extra important in Chinese, with its relatively small number of syllables and incredible number of homophones. Every syllable is a character, and a single word can be one or more syllables (“big” + “learn” = university 大学). Guàn-cháng is two Chinese syllables, which my brain takes one at a time, starting with the most familiar:

  1. Cháng is easy. We’re talking about health so I assume it’s the cháng for intestines 肠, a character we see all the time in the market and on restaurant menus, rather than the cháng for “often” 常, “long” 长, “taste” 尝, “big flat open space” 场 or the surname 常.
  2. Guàn — Ok, medical and health topic, something about intestines, medicine that you don’t drink… guàn guàn guàn… the only guàn that comes to mind is this thing we occasionally ate for lunch in Tianjin called jīdàn guànbǐng, not very much like an oily Chinese egg McMuffin, where they slice open one side of the biscuit and crack an egg into it before frying it. I’d never paid attention to the literal meaning of the name: egg (jīdàn) + enclose? + Chinese biscuit (bǐng).

So the train of thought goes like this:

  1. “cháng”
  2. + medical treatment context
  3. = intestines.
  4. “guàn”
  5. jīdàn guànbǐng?
  6. “egg” + “enclosed”? + “biscuit”
  7. “guàn-cháng” = “enclose” + “intestines”
  8. + medicine association
  9. = “enclose” in the “intestines”?
  10. = …suppository?
  11. “kāfēi guàncháng” = “coffee suppository”?

So I’m going with coffee suppositories and the conversation doesn’t miss a beat; that whole thought process takes just a split second. But I do whip out my Pleco dictionary as we’re talking to make sure. And according to Pleco, indispensable lifeline of Chinese language students everywhere, guàncháng = enema. (Turns out guàn means “pour” or “irrigate”, not “enclose”; “egg-poured biscuit” makes more sense, too). So we’re talking about coffee enemas — “coffee-poured intestines” — not coffee suppositories. Or maybe I should think of it as “coffee-irrigated intestines”? This conversation just keeps getting better and better.

“You believe it?”

“Yeah, look! It’s not just in Hunan province — that’s just the TV station that aired the program. Lots of places are doing this!”

“Well thanks! I’ll definitely tell her!”

If you’re curious about the health benefits of multiple daily coffee enemas aka 咖啡灌肠, you can drop this link‘s text into Google translate.

You can also browse lots more Chinese health, language learning and cross-cultural fun:

P.S. — Just to be fair, this is a China blog so I write about China stuff. If I were writing a North America blog, I could mention the trendy North American health advice I received last year from an American friend who e-mailed me suggesting I use garlic as a suppository to help beat a lingering cold.

P.P.S. — For the good kind of North American health advice, see Wellness With Joanna (though as far as I know, she has not yet commented on garlic or coffee as suppositories or enemas).

Chinese proficiency in 1.7 years — *really*?

Setting personal language learning goals helps immensely. But it helps to be smart about it.

There’s a language study infographic floating around comparing the difficulty of various languages for native English speakers. It says you need 1.69 years/2,200 classroom hours to reach proficiency in Chinese:

People always disagree about how long it takes to learn Chinese, mostly because they talk about it with mushy terms: “learn Chinese”, “speak Chinese”, “know Chinese”, “fluent”, “proficient”, etc. I’m not gonna bother arguing with this graphic’s fuzzy term, but here are four other somewhat authoritative takes on how much time you need to learn Chinese. Accurate language learning expectations are important, so it’s well worth comparing.

Linguist John Pasden’s Sinosplice post “How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?” quotes two Chinese experts. First, Da Shan aka Mark Rowswell aka the most famous foreigner in China:

2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job…

5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.

10 years to feel comfortable in the language.

Second, Chinese linguist Dr. David Moser:

The old saying I heard when I first started learning Chinese was, “Learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility”. At the time I assumed that the point of this aphorism was that after five years you will have mastered humility along with Chinese. After I put in my five years, however, I realized the sad truth: I had mastered humility, alright, but my Chinese still had a long way to go. And still does.
[…]
My own experience, in a nutshell: French language students after 4 years are hanging out in Paris bistros, reading everything from Voltaire to Le Monde with relative ease, and having arguments about existentialism and debt ceilings. Chinese language students after four years still can’t read novels or newspapers, can have only simple conversations about food, and cannot yet function in the culture as mature adults. And this even goes for many graduate students with 6-7 or 8 years of Chinese.

Third, Joann Pittman, consultant, trainer, teacher, researcher, and writer with 28 years in China shares some research stats in her post, “How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?” Among her conclusions:

Even though I started ‘learning’ Chinese 22 years ago, I don’t yet consider myself to have ‘learned’ Chinese
[…]
a learner with average aptitude should plan to spend 50 weeks (@30 hours per week) to reach limited working proficiency level

Fourth, linguist and Chinese textbook author Martin Symonds in our post, “Learning Mandarin: Realistic Expectations”:

Full-time Mandarin Study
# of years 1 2 4 8 !??!
Proficiency Level Survival Daily Living Minimum Work Full Work Native

Like Joann says, the point isn’t to scare people off or kill their enthusiasm for learning Chinese, but to give them realistic expectations so they can become better language learners, and craft their study according to their language goals.

There’s lots more in our Learning Mandarin topic.

Make civilized students.
Constantly use the Common Speech. Everywhere use civilized language

文明学生
时时普通话处处文明

Diary of a Worm in Chinese! (an English / 汉字 / pīnyīn online read-along)

A friend bought our daughter 蚯蚓的日记, the Chinese translation of Diary of a Worm, as a Christmas gift. It’s actually pretty funny – I think it won some awards or something – and so as a language exercise I’ve back-translated it into English (without ever seeing the original English text).

You can read along!
After all that work, and because it’s a great book, I put my English, the 汉字 and the pīnyīn together into a PDF cheatsheet and uploaded shots of each page into a photo gallery so other language students can test their reading comprehension. On the gallery page you can click through the pages and if you get stuck, either reference the PDF cheatsheet or glance at the captions under each photo, which also contain all the text for that page in English, 汉字,and pīnyīn (the captions are ugly; go with the PDF!).

Of course, if you like it you should buy it. Checking out author Doreen Cronin’s homepage might be nice, too.

A Chinese language learning essential

09-12-18, 7am — Hypothesis confirmed: a direct correlation exists between the amount of coffee in my system and the amount of Chinese I’m able to speak before 9am.

Language learning strategies used in Tianjin

Last night at a language learners’ meeting some students — all in our first three years of Mandarin study — were asked to write down on big pieces of paper various techniques and strategies that we personally find helpful in different facets of language learning: Affective/Motivation, Social, Listening, Speaking, Reading & Writing, and Vocab & Grammar. It was interesting to see different personalities and different stages of language learning reflected in the suggestions. Some of them were pretty funny and revealing.

Here’s what we wrote down in the “Affective/Motivation” category:

  • Work for a specific time period and take breaks.
  • Don’t try to study when I’m tired.
  • Celebrate language victories, large and small!
  • Make a weekly schedule for studying in order to feel good about investing enough time.
  • Go to bed.
  • Change study location regularly.
  • COFFEE
  • Use different locations for different types of study.
  • Don’t allow yourself to have a pity party. Find someone who speaks less than you and feel better about yourself.
  • Chocolate
  • Remember how it was when you first came.
  • Morning quiet time and journaling.

Here’s from the “Social” category:

  • Go slowly through neighbourhood.
  • Do homework outside.
  • Having a bike that often breaks down.
  • Learn neighbours’ names.
  • Plan to stop and chat on way to and from regular places.
  • 1 on 1 time with friends.
  • Parties
  • Do an activity with friends (badminton, baking) but prep yourself with vocab first.
  • Class in neighbourhood.
  • Buying fruit and veggies at market instead of supermarket.
  • Learn (and translate yourself) a few songs (Chinese ones) and sing them at karaoke.
  • Live with a Chinese roommate in a xiaoqu [neighbourhood] with no other foreigners.
  • Adjust daily routine to create more social opportunities with the people around you.

A few gems from the other categories:

  • Listen for the words you do understand and try to guess what’s being said… use what you do get to ask clarifying questions.
  • mp3 brainwashing while biking/walking/busing
  • DVDs, TV, CDs, stories, mp3s
  • Sit in places where I can hear lots of people talking – try to figure out what they’re saying.
  • Selective eavesdropping.
  • Tape record someone and copy them.
  • Go to a Chinese church.
  • Read text out loud.
  • Repeat out loud with extra strong emphasis [tones]
  • Get used to and encourage correction.
  • Laugh at yourself.

Good luck, fellow language students! 加油!