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December 17, 2019


How would you characterize your musical aptitude, Doc?

Medium, I'd say. I played the violin (poorly) in high school, can sing pretty well. Sight-reading vocal music is hit-or-miss, but at least I occasionally hit. I took a high school course in music theory and when we did "write down the notes you hear" I was better than some people, while still not being even remotely *good*.

I have no experience with learning Mandarin beyond a crash course in Pinyin pronunciation so as not to butcher my students' names. Lots of internationals in my writing courses.

Was Drops one of the apps that you used? Liberal Japonicus recommended it to me for my Swedish and it's a good app for shoving sound and vocab into your ears and head. Good, intuitive interface and it has an icons-to-words model that helps you get over the urge to translate. No speaking, though, only ear training, but you can say what you hear and you will improve that way.

My hometown buddy Larry had a little sister who started studying Mandarin in high school. This was in the late 70's, before it become quite as common as now. She actually ended up living in China for a few years.

At some point, I began studying Larry's little sister, because she was really smart and very cute. It occurred to me that she might be impressed if I, too, studied Mandarin. So I signed up for Mandarin in college.

Both the girl and the language eluded my grasp.

I can, however, count to three, and I know the word for "library" and "American".

Doc, your motivations seem more intelligent than mine, I suspect you will have a better result.


I'll try Drops for Mandarin & see what I think, thanks for the rec. For my purposes, ear training is much more useful than speech training.

I never tried Chinese, but did take Japanese for a couple of years in college. In a way, it was far easier, because there are no tones, relatively few phonemes, and there is a phonetic alphabet.

On the other hand, there are two phonetic alphabets (not counting "romanji", which is Japanese using the Latin alphabet) -- some of the symbols are very similar between the two alphabets, but others are not. Also, since a consonant can only occur followed by a vowel*, there is a seperate "letter" for each consonant-vowel combination. Thus, for example, ka, ki, ku, ke, and ko each has a seperate (unrelated) glyph, in both alphabets: か and カ, き and キ, く and ク, け and ケ, こ and コ. Not to mention the characters borrowed from Chinese.

It's still nowhere near as bad as Chinese to learn to write, but a lot more work than strictly alphabetic languages. But far easier to speak.

* Actually, N can also appear stand-alone. But it's the only exception.

This back and forth between a Chinese woman and her South African husband might be interesting.

Some Crazy Chinese Characters that even Chinese people don't know! (YouTube)

A good Chinese police drama series.

When a Snail Falls in Love — 如果蜗牛有爱情: Mainland China, Crime & Mystery

If you really want to combine language and watching a TV series, the 50 episode ‘Tree With Deep Roots’, a fictionalised but loosely historical account of King Sejong’s invention of the Korean alphabet Hangul, is tough to beat.
Includes extensive debates on the nature of government, and some cool swordplay.
Available with the usual semi-execrable subtitles on Netflix (which has made some major investments in Korean drama).

Hoping to get around to learning Korean next year. Mandarin I long since decided is beyond me, after watching my son get a GCSE in it. I think he’s forgotten most of the characters he learned, too.

Nigel, have you watched the Netflix fronted Korean drama series, Mr. Sunshine? The production values give the impression that Netflix wrote the production company a blank check.

I saw the first couple of episodes. A bit ponderous.

Some of the Netflix funded stuff is a predictable disappointment. It has imported US production values and tends to have lost what makes Korean drama interesting, in an attempt to find a larger audience.

The recent My Country (also on Netflix) is vastly better.

Because holy cow, Chinese goes *fast*,

I think most foreign languages seem to go fast when we are trying to learn them. We may be able to pick up some words or phrases but the rest races by.

It has seemed to me that at some point learning to actually converse is in part a physical skill - a matter of reflexes - as well as a mental one.

Anyway, good luck.

Speaking as someone who studied Japanese, I can say that Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji" was a huge help to getting over the initial hurdle of just how many dang characters one needs to know just to navigate the newspaper.

The method used in that book involves basically teaching you the character and a basic meaning for it, which is then built on over additional lessons and reinforced likewise. What it won't teach you is anything about pronunciation. It's strictly about character recognition. But you'll build up a great foundation for later learning how to pronounce them, because you will already know the character, instead of trying to learn everything at the same time.

It worked wonders for me, but as always, YMMV. :)

The whole "make sense to my ears" thing applies to the eyes as well. You see differences where you are accustomed to spotting them. Equally large differences that you've never seen before can slip right on by.

I've been working on a project which, among other things, is trying to work out which variations on letters people will notice in a domain name, vs which ones they won't see -- not least because it won't occur to them to look. For example, in French they use a letter C with a cedilla (that's the little squiggle underneath). Most of us, even if we've never studied French, have seen it enough that we can see it. But a letter M with a cedilla? Unless you are familiar with Marshallese, you'll never notice. Even though the diacritic is the same size in both cases.

Thanks Doc for the post. I can only give a bad example of studying Chinese. I've taken 5 runs at it, twice using chinese characters, once with pinyin, once with bopomofo, which is like a chinese syllabic script used in Taiwan and then once totally aural/oral. The chinese character approach was always unwillingly mediated by my knowledge of Japanese characters, the phonetic differences between pinyin and standard sounds was too great. Bopomofo didn't have enough easy reading material. I think I would have had a chance with the oral/aural only if I could have gotten to a place where I could go for immersion, but that's not really possible.

You may want to try the Chrome language learning extension to Netflix

You may also want to try calligraphy, not because it will supercharge your learning, but you can remember some characters that way and if you find yourself doing well, you'll get a bit of a charge when you see the character. Even more so when you can read a handwritten character. Even if you do it with a pen or pencil is good, but doing it with a brush is even better, but there is a time committment that can be tough.

The Heisig is interesting, but I want to know the real story, not use a story that he made up (or I make up) to remember it. Though Areala's point about knowing the meaning and then adding the pronunciation is one way that Chinese pick up Japanese quickly.

I'd also recommend you get some easy children's books and read them out loud to a point where you could read it to kids.


ooo, thanks so much for telling me about the Netflix extension! That is exactly what I was looking for!

The Heisig is interesting, but I want to know the real story

Me too! WoMingBai seems to have a good, simple guide.

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