Literature and spoken language / 文学 和 口语

After ten weeks following the second half of the HeadStart2 Mandarin course, a language course available for free courtesy of the USA Government, last week I started to share reviews of books that could add to both your language and cultural knowledge.

When you start learning a language, you have obviously also to set your own targets- and, in my case, the first target is always the same: learn as much as possible as fast as possible to be able to first get through newspapers titles, then keywords in news items, and eventually whole articles or books.

Instead, a more traditional approach is to learn the basics, “graduate” to comics, and the move to literature: frankly, boring.

I rather use “pattern-based” methods, where you learn basic patterns to use in situations, and then add vocabulary- which is, actually, as most of us learned our first language (by imitation and “connecting the dots”, or “gotcha!” moments- well before elementary school).

Of course, reading printed material is something that was the only practical option available when I started learning English, in the late 1970s.

Hint: as you can see, I “write through patterns”- and I read, wrote, said, listened a lot before I… read a grammar cover-to-cover, while I had some spare time in Brussels, in 2007, also I had bought many in the past.

I rather use the dictionary on my Samsung mobile telephones (one of the reasons why I preferably buy Samsung) to check the spelling or fish for alternative words, than follow the advice of Microsoft Word on both spelling and grammar- so, I assert formal ownership of any typo and syntactic jumble that you will find in my writings: but it is better than blindly follow some “suggested revisions”.

If you learn a second language after you are a toddler, it is a lifelong journey, as you have to constantly compare patterns that you are used to with patterns that belong to another culture.

Actually: trying to think in a language that you are learning using its own patterns, and not those belonging to your mother tongue, is a good “mind flexibility” exercise, and whenever I start learning seriously a language, I consider a success the first time that I have a dream in that language (in Chinese it happened few months ago); yes, in the past I had few times to learn languages that I eventually forgot (as I had no further use or need for them- but I still retain those patterns somewhere in my brain, as I discovered few years ago with Latvian, or Swedish while learning a little bit of Danish).

My approach to books (learning material or otherwise), including language books, is that if you buy them, you use them as you see fit.

In my long journey (that I consider as just started- as I would like to eventually read “old” literature- not even C2/HSK6 would be enough for that!) with Chinese, I am lucky enough to live in the early XXI century, when learning material is everywhere on the Net.

We are still in a state of transition, and therefore you can find online material that, once broadband will be widespread, probably will become “on demand” and “paid”- witness the gradual conversion into “pay-per-view” of YouTube movies that used to be free (as the upload quality was too low), and the removal of music videos from the same platform.

Luckily, for Chinese language learners, as of 2014, YouTube is a powerful tool: you can find movies in Chinese or other languages, with subtitles in English and Mandarin.

The reason for the latter is simple: while written Chinese (文学wén xué) is shared, spoken language (口语kǒu yǔ) is subject to local variations- even within China.

But, as I learned slightly more than a month ago in Milan at a nice workshop organized on May 8th in Milan by the Fondazione Italia Cina along with ANICA, the rapid urbanization of China has another side-effect: the exponential growth of the number of screens and movie theatres.

A savvy movie production model converts a mere import industry (as it is worldwide) into a production and co-production opportunity that is actually opening more creative cross-cultural opportunities.

Until few years ago I would have had to “scout” for multilingual CDs and DVDs (in the 1980s-1990s, VHS), Chinese movies in the West used to be mainly Kung Fu or movies that are the typical fare when a “new” culture is “trendy” for the “intellectual” élites- which usually implies movies that you can talk about, dissect as if they were corpses, but not really enjoy watching.

It is a typical “cultural neo-colonialist” approach: we Westerners cannot accept that other cultures too use movies as entertainment, and therefore look for “conceptual” movies that are food for our talking shops, not for our mutual cultural understanding.

I am a little bit more flexible: I might like some of those “must see” movies, and I like some of the Kung Fu movies (others are just worth watching for the fight, if you like it)- but in Chinese I liked also “Detective Dee” and “Chinese Zodiac”.

Why I singled out those two? Because both are relatively recent, entertaining, and neither is really about Kung Fu or “social drama”, albeit both have an historical background- moreover, both are available in a low-quality version on YouTube with English and Mandarin subtitles.

Back to learning: I think that each language has its own “sound patterns” and “tonal system”- and I remember when I was interviewed for a job in Brussels, and probably the interviewer assumed that I had few “wheels off my cart”, as I am inclined to switch tonal system when switching language, moreover when I am constantly immersed in a multinational environment where I can have daily examples of “tonal patterns” (as it was the case in Brussels).

It is a habit born out of switching country for business almost on a daily basis for few years: eventually, you see that it is not you grammar or your vocabulary- but how you use local patterns that make what you say understandable.

Most language courses assume that locals have a perfect knowledge of grammar and Oxford dictionary-level vocabulary- which is never the case, as language users are “embedded” within a continuum of communication that is based on “contemporary patterns” and “sound patterns” that “frame” you- not just the accent, but also how you build up phrases, and which words you use in which order.

Personally, I started watching routinely movies in Chinese with English subtitles when I was in Brussels, in late 2000s, at a time when I was learning to listen to Chinese- again, as understanding is my first step.

Maybe my choice of movies isn’t your choice, but those such as “Red Cliff” are spoken clearly, slowly, and with phrases that use patterns that are quite common- patterns that I then recognized while reading grammars etc; moreover, they contain knowledge that I can associate with my readings.

Next week I will discuss instead how, after that “listening to fetch the patterns” journey, I added more traditional language courses to complement HeadStart2- and made some funny discoveries.

Obviously, I will also add links to freely available material to test your “Chinese learning status”.

Incidentally: my recent completion of HeadStart2 and first round with an A1/A2 (HSK1/2) Italian course (which actually misses some HSK2 material and includes bits that belong to HSK3+…), I found an interesting side-effect: on the use of an electronic dictionary.

I have been using it for few years, it is free, and it works with Windows, Linux, and any device that supports Java

Along with the dictionary, it contains various tools, and the ability to pronounce words, show the stroke sequences, search by radicals (standard approach), and… search by writing.

It is a test of your ability to write- as it is not how well you write a character that matters, but you need to write strokes in the right sequence to have the software suggest you potential candidates.

In my case, these last few months were marked by a significant improvement in the speed with which I can find unknown characters that I did not have the pinyin for.

Why? Because, after few hundreds exercises, you start seeing unknown characters as composite elements, almost architectural compositions, and instinctively you identify in which order you should “pass them on” to the dictionary.

Learning the radicals? Well, not part of my phase 1 target- and for the time being I know the basic ones that allow me to identify keywords or what they refer two (e.g. people, water, fire)- the same contained within the first few lessons of HeadStart2, and few more (basically, those that I can associate with a picture).

As for myself… I will start next week a “first round” (grammar and understanding, and learning to write as much as needed to be able to then recognize and eventually read) with a B1/B2 (HSK3/4) course, while “fixing” what I learned in the previous course through a repetition of exercises and readings.

Actually, I used my Windows and Linux computers to convert into text files by using various Pinyin keyboard systems the dialogues, exercises, and wordlists of any language course I went through: as I wrote above, I like to visualize what I learning, and by using also the keyboard or pen, I add also a “kinetic memorization” element.

Have a nice week!

PS Please read the introduction to understand how to use this website 🙂


One thought on “Literature and spoken language / 文学 和 口语

  1. Pingback: #convergence and #change | GettingAroundTheWorld.Net

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