How Translation can help you learn Chinese

So, I made it to the pages of Hacking Chinese, talking about the benefits of translation Chinese-English for language learning.

Remember? Once upon a time, translation used to be the main method for learning a foreign language. But then a new model came into fashion, called the ‘communicative approach’, promoting direct interactions in the target language. This makes sense: most of us are learning Chinese to communicate, not to become professional translators. So why should we bother practicing translation at all?

This was the introduction to my post – you can read the full piece here

Will the machine help us learn – or will we learn to use the machine?

Last year, I followed a MOOC called ‘Education and Digital Culture’. I deliberately came to the MOOC with Marco Polo Project glasses on, and in the end, one core question about the future emerged: will we develop better systems for learning languages, or will we develop better translation systems.

At the moment, both are growing in parallel through the power of the web.

On the language learning front, the following is happening:

  • Traditional teaching methods are adapted and circulated online: podcast series offer a full language curriculum,  tutors are available through skype, and Language teachers share their wisdom through blogs (like Olle Linge’s Hacking Chinese).
  • Companies are developing more ergonomic language learning tools online – all-inclusive training apps like duolingo, or more focused vocabulary building apps like skritter.
  • Collaborative platforms facilitate peer-to-peer learning – foremost among them Lang-8, which organises a multi-lingual community of amateur bloggers correcting each other.

Meanwhile, we can observe similar developments in the translation space, :

  • Dictionaries are available online or as apps – in Chinese, MDBG and pleco come to mind.
  • Translator forums, such as Proz, offer peer-to-peer support on difficult constructions.
  • Google translate and other companies are developing automatic translators.

Learning a language online – whether assisted by online curriculums, apps, or forums, will still require effort and time from the learner. Online dictionaries and translation forums also reduce the time needed to translate, but still imply effort. Automatic translators, however, differ in quality. The dream beyond automatic translators is to go ‘beyond babel’, allowing direct communication between people speaking different languages, and by-passing the need for language learning altogether.

So what future are we heading towards? Wwith better training, translation tools may not be so necessary? But with translation tools, language training may not be so useful either. Or will we need trainers to use these automatic translators? At present, google translate is improving, but complexities still require interpretation, testing, rephrasing. Teachers will help new humans master the machine that overcomes the language barrier.

Both scenarios hover between a utopian vision of a post-babel super-humanity to more dystopian visions of the future. On the one hand, a ‘mental athleticism’, or cognitive hyper-competition, where if you stop studying, more languages, faster, with better tools – you fall behind. On the other hand a ‘technical-only’ education that forgets about the beauties of idleness in the name of efficiency, or an education losing the wisdom and choice. Maybe, too, the division between a privileged class of overeducateds wired-in ergonomists at increasing distance from under-privileged undereducated people.

That uncertainty about the future of automatic translators and language learning tools also has political implications: if we’re on the verge of developing efficient translation tools, then why invest time in learning foreign languages – there’s better things we can do with our children’s time and our education money. Conversely, if better tools are coming, we should make sure we adopt them early, and train our people for a future where multilingualism will be a basic form of literacy.

We can’t predict what will happen, but we should be well aware of these tensions, and that no scenario, in the present, is at all certain.

Three core tips on pronouncing Chinese

From years of experience teaching French and English phonetics, I know that often, one simple change in the way we make sounds can improve our pronunciation dramatically. But few teachers – and almost no untrained native speaker – can accurately describe what a non-native needs to change in order to pronounce better.

I studied Mandarin on my own mostly – and like most Westerners, I’ve struggled with phonetics: tones, vowel quality, rhythm, aspiration. I didn’t know quite how much until recently. Early during my stay in Nanjing, I had an opportunity to join a singing show on Chinese TV (in the end, it didn’t happen). Before my interview, I wanted to check that a live performance wouldn’t cover me with ridicule, and recorded myself singing Chinese on my iphone. ‘Thick laowai’ is about what I sounded like. But this unpleasant experience had one very positive outcome: I was able to pick out some of the problems with my pronunciation, and based on what I heard, improve it.

The three tips below are based on this experience, and represent three areas of pronunciation where I feel I made significant progress just by changing one element in the way I articulate Mandarin. They may be strictly personal, or work for you – try them out!

1) More vowel, softer consonants

I’m trained as a classical singer, and I have a particular fondness for Schuman’s lieder. I also grew up in Strasbourg, and German is he first foreign language I learnt: trained ears still recognise echoes of it in my English. I could hear more than faint traces in my rendering of Jay Chou. I could hear every consonant exploding, hacking the flow of sound, like a pounding march: it sounded nothing like Chinese. I remembered some of my French classes: I improved some of my students’ accent by instructing them to de-articulate their consonants. I needed a serious dose of that. I recorded myself again, making sure I avoided any strong impulsion from my lips or jaw in between vowels, only softly closing them in between vowels. The result was astounding: it radically changed the quality of my singing, and I thought: “this really sounds Chinese”.

3) Use your diaphragm

Softening my consonants was a real improvement, but now my pronunciation was two soft. I listened to Chinese tracks again, and they all had a rhythmic beat I lacked. I thought again of my classical practice: one of the things we were encouraged to do was se our diaphragm on stressed syllables to mark an impulsion. I thought, if the structure of the Chinese language is such that every syllable has its own independent meaning – and a tone – maybe they all need an impulsion from the diaphragm. I tried, while keeping my consonants as soft as I could, and it worked! More importantly, I tried the same technique to speak aloud, and for the first time, noticed a radical improvement to my tones.

Tones – like all linguistic elements – form a system. And ‘bad tone pronunciation’ must be systemic. In a tonal language, changes in pitch carry word-meaning, as in the often quoted: 妈,麻,马,骂. These characters/words are all pronounced ‘ma’, with tone 1,2,3 and 4 respectively, and mean mother, hemp, horse and curse. Western learners (or teachers) generally focus on the difference between tones, trying as best we can to use a first, second, third or fourth tone, as required. But more fundamental is the difference between marking and not marking tones; yet we never learn about this more fundamental difference. From this experience, and others later, I have come to believe that these changes in pitch require every syllable to start with an impulsion from the diaphragm. I tested the theory with a few Chinese friends who concurred, feeling that in Mandarin, the sound came from ‘down below the throat”. Therefore, to speak better Chinese, the first step to to give each syllable its own impulsion from the diaphragm.

Concretely, when you speak Chinese, at the start of every syllable, you should push forward with your diaphragm. To check that it’s happening, you can put a finger just below your solar plexus, the bit where your ribs come together at the front of your chest, and push it forward by contracting the vert top of your abs. If you do that simple move well, speaking Chinese will feel like a series of small jumps and hops, you will start sounding more like a native, and you will experience the four tones as a different type of dance step.

3) Use your nose

The balance of consonant and vowel improved, and the general beat of the language improved, but something was still off the mark – I still sounded like Bel Canto practice. One of my goals in coming to China was to learn the beauty of Chinese opera: to my untrained ear, the singers’ nasal shrill sounds were simply unpleasant. But my own non-nasal voice was certainly not right. I tried: I sang in a nasal voice – and sounded like a Beijing opera star.

How do you speak or sing in a nasal voice? The sound (and air) goes both through the mouth and nose. It’s particularly clear when pronouncing a Chinese ‘i’. Imagine that there is a vertical piece of cardboard in the middle of your mouth. Then, try to imagine that the sound is resonating inside a small sphere located somewhere between your back teeth and your nose. You can also place your hand in front of your nose – if air comes out as you speak, then you’re nasal.

No teacher ever taught me these three tricks, and I never saw them explained anywhere else. Maybe because they don’t actually work – maybe because nobody’s bothered to research and describe them – or maybe they are widely known, and I just didn’t know where to look. I encourage you to try them at least – and see whether they bring any improvement. Please share your own advice on pronunciation here.

Language levels – beginner, intermediate, advanced

Students of a foreign language are typically classified into three bands based on competence: beginner, intermediate, advanced. In my experience, progression is not strictly cumulative, but requires returning often to the same contents until the student integrates it. For that reason, most students are at an ‘intermediate’ stage, which is also the most difficult to teach. Language is a performance, like sport or music – you don’t only ‘know’ a point of grammar or the word for a certain object or action, but you can apply it in a setting to perform a communication or expression task. This is very common knowledge. Less often understood is this second point. Each language is a system, and forms a totality. Therefore, each new element we learn needs to find its proper place in the system. Tenses or word order rules, for instance, form a whole, but so does vocabulary. For that reason, language learning requires three very different activities:

  • ‘Growth’. Learn new words or refine the meaning of known words, learn more advanced grammatical patterns, improve pronunciation accuracy, and develop more adapted rhetorical skills.
  • ‘Clarification’. Correct errors in pronunciation, grammar, use of words; fill up gaps in certain semantic or pragmatic areas, so that the learner will understand and correct recurring errors. This clarification phase could also be called ‘systemic integration’, as what needs to happen is a fast check of the whole system every time an error is detected.
  • ‘Endurance’. Automate whatever is known already: the same task should be done with less effort and more quickly, with more distractions present, or in a more stressful setting.

Based on this analysis, I would advocate for a radical rethink of language teaching pathways, while keeping the traditional division between beginners, intermediate and advanced learners.

Beginners should have a clearly articulated pathway to grammatical and core vocabulary building. I base my teaching on quickly developing basic syntactic patterns for localising and naming the immediate environment, expressing modality (I want, I can, I must), and simple interactions (a similar method is described in this blog post). In classes, growth, clarification and drills should be balanced, to ensure quick integration of the core structures. The beginner stream should finish by one or two sessions of systematic revision focusing on automating question and assertion; time, space, and aspect; persons and possession; modality and causality. Meanwhile, beginners’ vocabulary may be limited to a few essential objects, family names, and core action/relational verbs.

Distinguishing intermediate and advanced students is in itself a challenge, but I would propose the following criterion: advanced students are autonomous language learners, which means they can progress on their own without a teacher or structured method, through sheer immersion, while intermediate learners still require scaffolding from a teacher, a book, or any structured learning system.

Advanced students still benefit from the presence of a teacher or structured environment, along two different lines. On the one hand, advanced students can particularly benefit from a few targeted one-on-one sessions that will focus on correcting remaining errors in pronunciation, syntax or semantics. On the other hand, classes on a topic of interest delivered in the target language by teachers aware of linguistic difficulties can be particularly beneficial to build endurance, nurture motivation, grow vocabulary in specific areas, and clarify some confused pockets – particularly in semantics. But mostly, advanced students will strongly benefit from a stay in-country, where their existing levels will allow them to enjoy full immersion, and practice informally in all sorts of social settings – while building up confidence and training their endurance.

Intermediate students present by far the biggest challenges to teachers – mostly along two distinct lines:

1) Intermediate students are extremely diverse. All have a thing in common: they have major gaps in their linguistic knowledge to fill. However, not all have the same gaps, because not all followed the same beginner’s track – or any track at all – and not all integrated the same parts of whatever they learnt. That’s before even considering their individual motivations and learning styles. Even though institutions do their best to stream intermediates into various bands, each class will have massive discrepancies that have to be dealt with.

2) Intermediate students need very strong internal motivation. On the one hand, their level is still too low for them to enjoy a film, a book or even a conversation in the target language, unlike advanced students. On the other hand, their progress is less perceptible than beginner students; and since perceived progress is one of the strongest motivators for further studies, their risk of dropping out is very high.

I haven’t cracked the code yet of how to best teach intermediate students, but I believe the ultimate solution is to find ways of reducing the time students spend at ‘intermediate level’. My personal style is to delude myself into believing that I’ve reached an advanced level very soon, so that I can sustain motivation through direct encounter with quality contents. But less confident learners may feel discouraged by materials or situations too hard for them – and lack the generic cross-linguistic skills I’ve developed through years of language practice. Another possibility would be to remain in the beginner track longer, and ensure that bases are extremely solid, so that ‘intermediate’ studies mostly focus on growth.

Do you have any experience of teaching intermediate students? Please share them here!

I used grammarly to proofread this post. I’m not a native speaker of English and sometimes still wonder if my grammar’s all OK. They do a great job of spotting minor mistakes, and it means I can save my native friends’ brainspace for more in-depth advice on the contents of my writing. 

My language progress

Ten more days in China: time to review what progress I made in the language – and start thinking of a plan for when I get back to Melbourne. I have made significant progress in four areas: reading speed, phonetic accuracy, endurance, and confidence. These concrete example demonstrate my progress:

* I bought a novel yesterday, and read forty pages between last night and this morning, enjoying the plot, and with minimal gaps in my understanding. Though I still need to use pleco for the meaning of certain words, reading a Chinese text – including a large monograph – is no longer something I consider impossible. I am also able now to read and understand 90% of weixin messages sent to me without using an electronic translator, up from about 40% when I arrived.

* Three different Chinese people have complimented my pronunciation, saying that, in certain instances, I could be mistaken for a local. And I no longer experience problems getting people to understand what I am saying. I do note that my pronunciation becomes blurry under stress or when I get tired – but for a short period at least, I have reached my desired level of fluency.

* About a month ago, I had an in-depth five hour conversation with a Chinese friend on a wide range of topics – social enterprise, the meaning of life, family values, multiple server hosting, language learning. Between Christmas and New Year, I took part in a walk around old Guangzhou with a group of young Chinese people, and was able to lead and follow many conversations, one on one or in a group, while navigating the city, and was energised after this event.

* Yesterday, I made three phone calls in Chinese, including an important one to a writer I want to invite to the Marco Polo Festival. I was able to organise an appointment, explain the core concept of the festival, and get an in principle agreement exclusively over the phone. I still find phone conversations remarkably demanding – the low sound quality and absence of any non-verbal cue make it very difficult to communicate – but I am no longer terrified at the thought of making initial contact in Mandarin through this medium.

The main thing I want to pursue while in Melbourne is read, even read aloud. I also want to find a few Chinese friends who will speak to me primarily in Mandarin. And I need to find a series of podcasts or radio series to follow, so my listening keeps on track. I am also thinking of getting a few sessions with a tutor to brush off remaining mistakes, and make sure my bases are really solid – if you want to support Marco Polo Project, this is a great way to volunteer, and I promise to give you detailed feedback on your pedagogy. Anyone in for that :-)?

In country learning

A common trope of language learning advice is that you don’t need in country learning anymore, since you can design your own linguistic environment anywhere. This is both entirely true, and extremely short-sighted.

Indeed, with online news, TV and radio, international communities, and resources like lang8 or skype teachers, it is entirely possible to build one’s own ‘in-country-like’ environment. But how much effort and willpower does it take to craft and maintain this environment.

I taught myself Chinese, most of it outside China, and passed an HSK 5 last year. I am the living proof that you can self-teach outside China. Yet I am a very strong advocate of in-country learning.

I’ve been in China for just over four months now, skipped about half of my classes at uni, and made more progress than I would ever have in Melbourne. Necessity has a force of its own. I needed Chinese for my everyday life, and I needed Chinese to fix issues at home. More importantly, I needed Chinese to develop a social life – I soon had enough of the local expats, and most of the locals spoke only minimal English. On average, my friends in Shanghai or Beijing don’t speak Chinese as well as those living in second-tier cities. They never properly learnt, because they never had to.

Learning a language is an extremely demanding task, not just intellectually, but emotionally. Suddenly, simple cognitive tasks become significantly harder than they used to be – suddenly, you’re no longer able to perceive or express intellectual subtleties – and you feel exhausted all the time. The temptation to give up is extremely high, no matter what level you’re at. Learning at home is all very well, but by the time you’ve carefully blocked out all English and crafted your Chinese bubble, do you still have the moral strength to stay there and learn, or resist the many temptations of home – the cup of tea, the phonecall, the facebook page, the drinks with friends. That’s not to say you cannot succeed – I managed. But every step requires a double effort – not only learning, but also keeping that artificially constructed second-language environment alive, possibly keeping out friends ad family who will bring you back to your mother tongue. In country, you can just focus on learning, and every step forward is a step towards more social integration.

Language is a social bond, that creates emotional and intellectual communities. And for that reason, I believe the is nothing like in-country learning to build the necessary motivation. For that reason, scholarships sending students in country are extremely valuable – and I am very happy both that I was able to receive one, and that our government was enlightened enough to set them up in the first place.

Language learning and general intelligence

Teachers and students generally think of language learning as its own intellectual bubble, and linguistic fluency as a somewhat unique (and odd) skill, somewhat like wood-carving or tap dancing. But the capacity to read, write, listen and speak in another language, like the capacity to run, is closely intertwined with a number of other, more fundamental set of intellectual abilities, ranging from basic spatial and numerical competence at beginner level to solid understanding of history, geography and economics for advanced learners.

Here’s a concrete example: in one of my classes at Nanjing University, the teacher gave us an article to read about the Chinese economy. Students, in turn, had to define words like ‘GDP’, ‘investment’, or ‘real estate bubble’. My Chinese is possibly the poorest in the class, but I studied philosophy and worked in government strategy, so could compensate my limited linguistic ability with a good general understanding of the concepts and ideas discussed. Sometimes, I did better than other students who knew many more words, made no grammatical mistakes, and had a perfectly authentic accent. Note that is not just an arbitrary classroom exercise, but what may actually happen in – advanced – conversations where people debate and argue, coming back to the concepts and pulling out threads of meaning to support their view, bring others into their world, or just entertain.

Well conducted language classes may be an opportunity to train ourselves in these rhetorical skills, and particularly, go beyond the labels of media talk and management newspeak: empty strings of words often translate badly. In fact, last year, as part of my cross-cultural training during the Asialink program, we did just that all in English: one of our exercise was to define a complex concept from our field of work – multiculturalism, somatisation, risk management – using exclusively basic semantic blocks. Reformulating ideas as if addressing people with completely different assumptions about the world. And in fact, I did that kind of exercise often in my Greek philosophy classes, when we glossed and paraphrased the use of certain words – aletheia, arche, basileus – to understand what different world views and social structures they referred to.

General intelligence and culture will probably make it easier for you to master a foreign language. Conversely, learning a foreign language may contribute to your general intelligence – and therefore, we could make a case for increased emphasis on cross-linguistic competence as a core skill to be developed in schools, alongside mathematics, and native language literacy. What do you think?