Measuring progress

I’m now past halfway through my China stay. Two months ago, I wrote a study plan based on the gaps in my knowledge. Now is time to take stock and confirm whether I learnt anything, and how I progressed. I am sharing this here hoping it may help other students of language when facing similar situations.

I noted four main points of focus: abstract vocabulary learning, phonetic accuracy, grammatical intuition, and endurance. I will review them one by one.

1) Abstract vocabulary building:

What I did:
• Every day, I wrote twenty words in a notebook. Some of these words were vocabulary learnt in class, but most of them were words I kept looking for when rehearsing a conversation in my head before a particular meeting or on a particular topic.
• Based on this ‘gap-filling’ method, I made a list of about a hundred ‘core abstract characters’ referring to groups and systems, which I then organized, based on semantic research conducted during my PhD.
• Finally, last week, I wrote a list of about 1000 core characters, combining my own intuition and pleco, and grouping by semantic affinity [this was also part of a systematic study of tones – see next point].

What are the results:
• As expected, I noted significant improvement in my capacity to express ideas, relations and situations, both in speaking and writing.
• More interestingly, the systematic work on characters (combined with tone-study) changed my way of reading. I particular, I am beginning to develop an etymological understanding of Chinese, comparable to what I experience in Greek, which is both rhythmic and semantic. I will analyse this in a further blog post.

What comes next:
• Finalize the list of core characters, share it on this blog or the Marco Polo Project blog, and fully memorize it.
• Extend my vocabulary in new semantic areas – in particular, I noted a gap in expressing actions and movements.

2) Phonetic accuracy

What I did:
• I was unable to find a good tutor to train my phonetics, and so resorted to self-diagnosis. For that, I recorded myself singing Chinese with my iphone voice memos. This allowed me to focus on phonetic accuracy without having to monitor tones. I clearly noticed a number of errors, in particular that my consonants were over-articulated, and the overall syllable impetus was unnatural.
• Based on my diagnosis, I made two changes in my pronunciation: I reduced the effort put in consonants (or spoke with softer consonants), which brought immediate positive results. More importantly, I accompanied every syllable with an impulsion from the diaphragm [more on this in a future blog post], which produced dramatic improvements.
• I recorded myself reading out texts, and applied the learning from my singing exercises, to confirm that results were positive (they were). And I tried applying them in live settings.

What are the results
• I developed an insight about the role of the diaphragm in pronouncing tones [I will describe this in a future blog post], and therefore significantly improved my overall intonation pattern, as well as my capacity to hear and produce tones.
• I realized a key gap in my knowledge of character tones, and proceeded to systematically learnt the tones of the core 1000 characters, by listing them two columns, character and pinyin on one side, tone on the other.

What comes next
• Fully memorize the tones of the core 1000 characters – in particular, one exercise is to read all characters seen on the street out loud, and check the right tone at the least doubt. Never ‘guess the tone’ of a character.
• Apply these pronunciation insights to daily practice and conversation – attempting very high level of phonetic accuracy for up to 5 minutes.

3) Grammatical correction in production contexts

What I did:
• I read all articles in a book listing common grammatical mistakes made by foreigners in Chinese, and tried applying some of the structures analysed when speaking or writing Chinese – with a particular focus on expressing time (location, succession and duration).
• In my conversations on WeiXin, I attempted grammatical correctness – chatting allowed me to adopt the casual tone of oral speech, while giving me time to focus on grammatical correction.

What are the results:
• My confidence in producing speech and written text has increased, and I am now able to regularly self-correct mistakes. However, progress on this point has been slower than the previous two, and I have not had any significant insight or cleared a milestone.

What comes next
• Continue WeiXin writing and seek feedback from conversation partners on grammatical accuracy.
• Focus attention on grammatical words in the 1000 character list developed, particularly those expressing time, aspect, causality, relations and point of view, and apply them in production contexts.

4) Endurance

What I did:
• I placed myself in a number of social and professional contexts where only Chinese was spoken, and I was expected to understand and reply without relying on a prepared script, and with no simple escape route.
• In particular, I had a one-hour meeting with a journalist, presented Marco Polo Project at the Shanghai Makers Festival, joined discussions in the Nanjing Hacker Space, took part in a meeting of the 创V innovation salon, and regularly talk with the managers of the BanPoCun café.

What are the results:
• I noted significant improvements on two occasions.
o I had a late night dinner with four Chinese people after the first Marco Polo Project translation event, and was able to follow and take part in a conversation about religion in the spite of tiredness and late hours.
o I had a two hour one-on-one conversation with a Chinese angel investor about a whole range of uncoordinated topics, and left with a feeling of joy and energy.
• I developed greater self-awareness and assertiveness, and insisted on finding quiet spaces for meetings and discussions to be held in Chinese.

What comes next:
• Continue to build endurance through regular exposure.
• Better identify warning signs of linguistic exhaustion, and develop assertive ways of alerting conversation partner(s)
• Develop assertive strategies for reformulation and clarification.

So these are the results I reached after two months in China. I think I’m happy. I’ll check back before leaving, and see where I’ve got by then! Meanwhile – I’ll be posting more here about learning tips, trust, and insights on life in China.

Motivation in a gamified world.

Can we gamify everything, and if we do, will it still appeal to learners?

Part of my own intellectual journey, as a teenager, was rejecting games. Is it generational, or a more universal aspiration to move on from child- to adulthood ? I don’t know.

I was born in 1978 from young ‘hip(pish)’ parents, and so find myself on the cusp of Gen X and Y. I grew up with computers, and developed a moderate video game addiction from the age of about 10. My upward mobility consisted of transitioning from Nintendo to Atari, then on to a proper PC with Sierra Online adventure games, Ultima series role playing games, and – best of all – Sid Meyer’s Civilisation. Beside, I read massive amounts of literature, watched enormous quantities of TV, and got good grades. I even joined a theatre club – altogether, a balanced early teenager life, if slightly nerdy.

When I hit grade 11 (‘Premiere’ in France), I changed schools to join a special ‘humanities’ class. At that time, I resolved I would focus on reading and study, and give up the computer entirely. I replaced Ultima with ‘teach-yourself-Latin’, and Civilisation with history books. For the next four years, I lived entirely without computers. At 18, I even rejected TV, reducing my screen-exposure to cinemas only.

This rejection was part of my growing up, and I clear remember it as a kind of ‘rite of passage’: leaving the game-screens of childhood behind, as I got rid of my transformer robots around the age of 10, and move on to the world of adults.

I suppose, this was a transitional period, before Facebook and iphones. But I still wonder: what will mark the passage to adulthood, when children grow up in a world of gamified screens?  In ‘a day made of glass‘ , the tools used by children, teachers, doctors and parents are strangely similar. Children inhabit a pre-adult world of high-tech, while adults occupy a gamified world of touch-screens. What will actually motivate these children to study? Or in this ideal high-tech worlds, is there perfect continuity between childhood and adulthood?

I remember reading the following thought in a book on education by Alain: that there should be a distinction between the class-room and the playground; that children do need to relax and play – but also need the possibility to go beyond childish play, to feel the awe for a difficult intellectual task. The same point appears, in a various form, in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. Education is about change, and this change goes beyond ergonomic playfulness. How will online education deal with this question? What will motivate learners to learn, if they have nothing to aspire to, beyond the fun of the game? Or am I just saying this is it because I was trained before MOOCS, or in France – and therefore a bit antiquated myself?

It’s not too late to learn

Speaking or not speaking a foreign language is often regarded as a form of destiny. If you weren’t lucky enough to be given the push as a child, by the time you’re old enough to make your own decisions, the time has forever passed. ‘Life’ takes over, and you’ll never speak French, Russian or Mandarin.

This is even more true with notoriously difficult Asian languages. And so I hear voice after voice telling me they wish they could speak Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian; followed by – sometimes – an added sigh of annoyed resignation that their children’s school only propose French or German!

But it’s not too late. I started learning Mandarin at 29, outside any formal setting. Five years later, I can reasonably well read and translate short pieces written in Chinese, and I recently did an interview – all in Chinese  – on ABC radio.

Did I have more time than other people? I guess not. Over these five years, I migrated to Australia, started a new career in the public service, wrote a novel and a half, directed a short film, coordinated an exhibition, and developed a not-for-profit IT start-up. I also slept, ate, and saw friends; I even watched all seasons of Gossip Girl, Dexter and True Blood.

I did start in a good place though. I trained as a linguist, and a singer. I speak a number of European languages, which I started learning from the age of nine. And spent considerable time during my studies translating from the Greek, English, Latin or German. That certainly helped.

However, it’s not all there is to it. I met other people who reached equivalent fluency in the same amount of time, without a previous Master’s in linguistics. What we did share was motivation. It’s years before you can communicate, read, or get the feel of the language; not years of once a week, but years of – mostly – daily work. So without a strong commitment, you will drop off after a few weeks or months – unless you’re a child, and you just have to do it.

My life is full enough already, I hear. And yet how many people put that much effort into their gym routine. After months and years of repeated runs on the treadmill, they can boast a firm calf; now I can reply to them in Chinese.

If building Asian literacy is of such importance for Australia, why aren’t there more adult learners of Mandarin, Indonesian or Japanese? Or at the very least, why isn’t every jogger on the Tan hopping along to Mandopop tunes?

Language is at the sweet-spot between nature and culture. By nature, humans have a language; and yet language is a cultural artifact. Let’s not fall into the trap of  taking language as pure nature, therefore, and accept this nature as our destiny. Let’s make efforts, and learn Asian languages. I think we can do it.