posted by blueblade3000 on November 29, 2011 | 12 comments
I'm having a blast learning Mandarin with Popup. I listen in the car a lot. I'll be driving along and get excited when I remember I have podcasts to listen to. I've grown to love Brendan, David, and Echo. I've been listening casually for several months now, at the absolute beginner level. As long as I keep up with it, I think I'll do well with learning to speak and understand the language.

The written characters are another story. What do you recommend as a solid approach to learning? Everyone probably has their own methods that work well for them, but I'm looking for suggestions to get started. Set aside time every day to learn a few characters at a time? Read news or other literature, translating as I go? What has worked well for others?

One more question: Traditional or Simplified? I like the idea of learning Traditional more, but Simplified seems easier. I don't have any plans to travel, but someday I'd like to visit China. What are the pros and cons of each?

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Xiao Hu on November 29, 2011 | reply

Nice to meet you. It makes me happy to hear that anyone wants to learn Mandarin, but most especially with Popup. I've been listening to Popup since '08 and have been a fan pretty much ever since.

As far as a study plan goes, I strongly suggest to take some time out every day to practice your speaking. As long as you're a premium member, then you can have access to transcripts with Pinyin. Read those out loud everyday to practice your pronunciation.

30 minues is enough.

While you're listening in your car, make certain to repeat after Echo (and the rest of the Chinese crew), trying to match your pronuncation with theirs.

The traditional vs. simplified debate is a tough question to answer. I'm much more of a fan of traditional characters and often wish they'd never gone through the simplification process. That being said, simplified characters are still beautiful and much easier to learn how to write.

Characters are not that difficult to learn to read.

The best way is to start off learning the 214 radicals called pian1 pang2 bu4 shou3 偏旁部首. Also learn how to write them as well as their altered forms.

EG: 水 shui3 (water) when used as a side radical appears like the following 氵.

Once you've learned how to recognize and write radicals, then you can form any character in the Chinese lanaguage. Just like our 26 letters can form any word in the English language.

Simplified characters are what's in use in Mainland China, that's just an inescapable fact, so, unless you want to live in Taiwan, you MUST learn Simplified. My advice is to learn Simplified first, then later on you can make the small jump to Traditional if you're interested. The two don't look that much different. Once you learn Simplified, you can easilly handle about 85% of Traditional.

Just being able to read Traditional is OK, but you need to learn to write Simplified.

Initially, try reading simple texts like you have here on Popup. But don't always baby yourself, that will stunt your growth. Constantly venture outside your level and try studying something more challenging. Intermediate and Advanced. You don't have to study it thoroughly, just try listening to it. Go into the study materials and look around. Study some sentences. Do it until your mind feels tired, then back off and go back to lower level material. It's good exercise. It will also help you to get a much better feel for the sound of the language when it's all put together at native speed. Suddently you'll find youself whizzing through lower level material.

The biggest mistake that language learners always make is that they constantly baby themselves. If you follow an 80/20 extensive learning to intensive learning plan then you will make much faster progress.

Extensive learning means, just what I outlined above, read alot. Contact alot of new words and material. Much of it won't stick initially. But don't think that it was a wasted effort, because the next time you come accross that same material, it will be much easier to remember. Our memories need REPETITION. There are too many instant gratification language progams on the internet that make wild promises about learning a language in a month with almost zero effort, which is impossible unless you're a brilliant polyglot. For the rest of us, we need to just be smart about the way we study and dilligent. It just takes more time, that's all. But you WILL get there.

Just remember to throw mnemonic tricks out the window in favor of good old fashioned repetition and thorough study. Repetition is what will help material to stick. Thank God there's Popup Chinese, which uses humour and a clever teaching material structure to help it to stick much more easilly.

If you have any questions or need any more help or would like a study partner, just feel free to ask.

Good luck with your studies.

pefferie on November 29, 2011 | reply
I am finding myself in an uncomfortable position of contradicting Xiao Hu, but mnemonics work great for some people, myself included. I completed the Tuttle book in a few months and can testify that their system is very effective. You need to practice daily, though. A popular free flashcard software called Anki is available on most platforms and also has a web-based interface. It works great for reviewing the characters. Anki has the whole deck uploaded for the Tuttle book, so you do not even need to make your own flashcards (people less lazy than myself will say that you _want_ to make your own flashcards).

For reading, there is a series of small books called "Chinese breeze" which you can read when you master about 300 characters (that is, after less than a month of daily study - in the beginning, stydying 20 characters per day is not unreasonable, since you start with simple characters). Being able to read a whole book in Chinese without a dictionary, albeit simple, will do wonders to your confidence. These books also include a CD with the audio version recorded at two speeds.

Do all that, and what Xiao Hu said, and you will be in good shape. Most importantly, do _something_ Chinese-related daily.
blueblade3000 on November 30, 2011 | reply
@Xiao Hu

Thank you so much for your reply. You gave me a lot of insight. I'm going to take your advice and start with Simplified characters, focusing on the radicals. I have a book, Hanzi and the Kangxi Radicals by Dà Máo Hóuzi. It seems a good place to start. I've started the flashcards here at Popup too.

I'm very aware of the necessity of speaking as much as I can. I always repeat out loud the lessons as I listen. I've been trying to recruit my friends to learn with me so that we can start speaking together. Hopefully they will catch the bug too.

I hadn't thought of listening to more difficult lessons, but I'll give it a try. What you're saying makes sense. My friends (the ones I want to join me in learning Mandarin) and I love to watch Chinese movies. I find myself recognizing words here and there, which is exciting. I have as an unofficial marker of success the goal of being able to watch one of our favorites without subtitles.


I'm taking your suggestions, too. I have the Tuttle book and three Chinese Breeze titles in my cart at Amazon. I already downloaded the Anki software and loaded a basic Mandarin set. I think that's going to be a lot of help.

Thanks again to both of you! Everyone has been very helpful since I started, which is a great encouragement. Best of luck and God bless!
Xiao Hu on December 4, 2011 | reply

I certainly hope your friends catch the Mandarin bug too. Nothing's more rewarding that fluency in another language and many doors it will open up.

I'm glad to hear that you're able to understand some things in your favorite movies. You actually can learn from each other, you can have the opportunity to speak Chinese together as a group, even if you can only speak for a few minutes, it's much better to practice what you know then to wait until such time that you're Mandarin is "better" because that just serves to greatly delay the time that you are better.

Definitely go through the book, ingest it, internalize it, practice every chance you get. Once you know the radicals then writing will be a simple as remembering that 明 ming2 is nothing more than a 日 and a 月 set next to each other.

达到了我所说的水平以后写中文字会变成一件 “小菜一碟“ 的事!

If you have any questions, just pop back on the boards and ask. We'll all be happy to help. Just don't be shy. :)


BTW: What are some of your favorite Chinese movies?

My favorites are;

Jet Li's The Tai Chi Master: 太极张三丰

Zhang Yi Mou's, The Road Home,(My Parents): 我的父亲母亲

Zhang Yi Mou's, Hero: 英雄

Temptress Moon (with Gong Li): 风月

The Postman in the Mountains: 那山,那人,那狗

The Legend of Zu: 蜀山传说

The Opium War: 鸦片战争

But there are so many great ones. So many...

Brendan on December 1, 2011 | reply
Coming in late to the Xiao Hu/pefferie debate, and on the matter of character-learning methods, I cast a vote in favor of "everybody." People learn in different ways, and it's important to find a way that works for you.

Adding to what Xiao Hu and pefferie have already said:

Mnemonics seem to be one of those things that either work wonders or don't work at all. In my experience, they don't scale very well beyond the first few dozen characters, but it's entirely possible that I've been doing it wrong. Flashcards are also something that i never used much, but that's probably due to my own laziness more than anything else. The bad news about characters is that it will be kind of a slog when you start out no matter what; the good news is that it gets a lot easier once you have a hundred or so characters under your belt, because you'll be able to learn new characters by relating them to old ones -- 最 is just a 日 plus a 取, and hey, that 取 is an 耳 plus a 又. Some of these character components are radicals; others are a semi-helpful clue to the sound (工 rhymes with 空); others are just components ("primitives") that get reused a lot.

Reading and writing are kind of separate skills when it comes to Chinese. The best way I've found for learning to write characters by hand is just to write them by hand -- again and again. And again. Write a new character ten times and you've got it on loan; 20 times and it's yours. If you've got access to a Chinatown with a bookstore, you might want to look for 字帖 zìtiě -- children's character-tracing workbooks, which come handily pre-printed. The good news is that you can do a lot of this while doing other things -- watching TV, say.

As for the Simplified/Traditional debate: it depends on where you are and what you want to do -- the PRC uses simplified characters; overseas communities in the US tend to use traditional, though this is changing -- but the short answer is probably "Simplified." The longer answer is that it doesn't really matter: as Xiao Hu notes, there's a lot of overlap between the two systems, and even things that don't overlap 100% will still be pretty close most of the time -- 话 is 話; 語 is 语, and so on. Pick whichever one you like, and after a while you'll realize that you can read the other one without too much difficulty.

For speaking practice: talk to yourself. Try to narrate whatever you're doing in Chinese -- even just in simple sentences. This will feel weird at first, but it's a good way of getting yourself used to thinking in and "speaking" the language. Once you get confident doing this and you're able to form longer sentences, push yourself a bit farther -- record an audio diary every night describing what you did that day. Listening to yourself speaking a second language is painful, but it's a great way to catch yourself making mistakes so that you can fix them.

You mentioned watching Chinese movies -- this is going to be a GREAT way to practice listening once you've gotten a bit further.

Find a DVD of something you'll want to watch multiple times. First, watch it with the Mandarin soundtrack and English subtitles. Then watch it with the Mandarin soundtrack and Chinese subtitles. Even if you're only recognizing one character out of three, the Chinese subtitles will help remind you of what people are saying -- and you'll already have an idea of this from the first time you watched it, so you won't be too lost. Finally, watch the movie with no subtitles. You won't have to strain to follow the plot, so you'll be able to just relax and let the dialogue wash over you, picking out a word here, a phrase there, and eventually whole sentences.

Hope this helps -- good luck, and welcome!
Xiao Hu on December 1, 2011 | reply
@Pefferie & Brendan,

I agree with Brendan, mnemonics don't seem to work well past the first handful of characters. You'll find that you spend more time and effort trying to create or follow a mnemonic device system then it would take to just learn the character by rote or spaced repetition methods. I've also found that often times those clever mnemonic devices tend to obscure the meaning in my mind.

I adhere to visualization techniques. Very simple and direct. For new characters I just try visualizing what the character is about. For sentences, phrases etc., I just try and visualize the scene, form a sequence of pictures or a movie in my mind it works well in most cases.

That being said, I did use mnemonic devices in the past and occasionally they worked for me.

EG: the character 累 lei4. When you're tired it makes you want to lei4 down.

Having said this, I suppose it is a matter of different strokes for different folks. For some, mnemonic devices may be a powerful learning tool.

Flashcards don't work well for me either. I've found just reading words in sentence form is the best way. It's stimulating and there's always the anchor of context to remind me of the meaning.

I wish someone would create a series of sentence/phrase flashcards. One's specifically designed to be context-loaded. The target word could be highlighted and surrounded by contextual clues in simpler language. Could be especially great for learning 成语.


As Brendan mentioned, learning by watching movies is excellent. I did that at the beginning as well (until I'd gone through every interesting Chinese movie, I currently own several hundred).

Just like Brendan said, first watch it with the benefit of English subtitles. Try to pick out whichever words you can understand and relate them to the English meaning. The next time around watch it with Chinese subtitles. Again, try to pick out which words you can understand and each viewing things will come together more and more.

The great thing about movies is that there's often a strong visual context to help you grasp it.

I would often stay up until 2:00 or 3:00 AM, just watching, scene by scene, pausing and looking up new language in my dictionary. At the beginning one scene might take an hour to get through, but the feeling of satisfaction after getting through a movie and understanding it (even partially) was so intoxicating.

However, at the beginning try to stay away from historical epics or Wuxia films, 武侠片 because the dialogue is not in modern Chinese. My rule of thumb is, at the beginning stay away from any films with long beards, silk clothing, qipao, emperors or chop-sockey Kung Fu moves. At least for study purposes.

I'd like to say that I adhered to the 胡,丝,旗,拳, 皇 principle of Chinese language learning. If a film included any of those five things then I wouldn't study it.

Studying song lyrics is also very useful.

I just wish there were a Chinese resource for Chinese film scripts like is for English film scripts.

As Brendan said, after you learn the radicals, just start practicing characters. Once you write it 30 times over you won't forget it. As long as you THINK about what you're doing while you write it. If you don't think then it might take hundreds of repetitions to remember it. Break it down into the components, 取 is a 耳 and a 又 and think while you write and it might only take 5 repetitions.

Like Pefferie mentioned, learning a simple book is an instant confidence booster and great for learning the first few hundred characters. It will help build a strong foundation in the basic building blocks of the language, while at the same time giving you a constant sense that learning this complex language IS possible and in fact much easier than you thought.

I once read a blog published by a friend of one of the Popup members who said, "Learning Chinese is a five year lesson in humility. I used to think that meant in those five years you'd be fluent in Chinese and also learn humility along the way. Now, after six years of learning Chinese I now realize that what it actually meant was, that after five years, your Chinese will still by abysmal and you will be thoroughly humiliated."

With the right study plan there's no reason why you can't beat those odds. You can learn Chinese in just a few years and your Chinese will be pretty good, you'll be able to read, to write speak and understand.

Just remember to be smart about how you study and you'll get there.

gaojian85 on December 2, 2011 | reply
First post on Popup Chinese, but I just had a question for @Xiao Hu. Any reason why you would tell someone, "to start The best way is to start off learning the 214 radicals called pian1 pang2 bu4 shou3 偏旁部首. Also learn how to write them as well as their altered forms."

Seems to go against every form of Chinese teaching methodology I've ever seen. Especially if they have no idea about about stroke order, so I'm just curious.
Xiao Hu on December 4, 2011 | reply

I'm actually curious as to which methods you're referring to and which ones that you've tried in the past.

The method I outlined is the one that Chinese students use from primary school. The first thing they learn is Pinyin, the second is 偏旁部首. The radicals are the absolute foundation of learning to read and write Chinese characters. Without a rock-solid foundation in the radicals, then, reading and writing will be difficult if not impossible task later on and a piecemeal at best.

Stroke order is important with regards to the balance and beauty of the character, however not so imperative for the character to be readable. Besides, if blueblade3000 makes the decision to follow my advice and learn to read and write the radicals, then information on proper stroke order will naturally collocate with it. He'll learn the two together.

What I wanted to stress was the IMPORTANCE of making the commitment to learn the radicals and reading and writing. I've seen to many students of this language that either have no interest in learning to read and write or don't deem it important enough to spend the time learning.

Both mentalities do the learners a terrible disservice.

Once you learn to read and write, then the oral, auditory and semantic aspects of the language become MUCH easier and naturally progress in concert with the other aspects of the language.

Reading a Chinese article can do absolute wonders for better understanding spoken Chinese and vocabulary memorization and can shave years of painstaking effort from the journey to fluency.

This is why I advised blueblade3000 to put in the little extra effort at the beginning because it will pay big dividends later on.

I hope that clears things up a bit.

Happy studying,

trevelyan on December 2, 2011 | reply
I'm curious myself about the difference between mnemetics and a radical-based approach when it comes to character memorization. Are they really that different in practice? It strikes me that one advantage of explicitly learning the radicals as Xiao Hu recommends is that a certain amount of this stuff comes automatically: the 谢 in 谢谢 becomes a prostrated apology ("speaking with your body bent an inch"), 學 can be seen a child with its arms out grasping for something (knowledge?).

Either way, what this seems to be telling us is that we need a more structured database of character information here and some kind of interesting way for people to work through it.

blueblade3000 on December 2, 2011 | reply
I'm glad for all the discussion. It's very motivating to hear people's success and failure stories, and the encouragement is well received. Thanks guys!

@Xiao Hu

I tried listening to an Elementary lesson, and I was a little frightened. My first thought was, "How will I ever be able to follow this?" I know I'll get there in time, and I'm not giving up!

Watched Jet Li's Fearless last night and understood many words. This is fun. :)
pefferie on December 3, 2011 | reply
@Brendan, @Xiao Hu, maybe I misunderstood what you guys mean by mnemonics. I thought it meant coming up with a story or a picture that includes components of a character, to remember the meaning of that character. The same technique can be used for pronunciation, but I fund it somewhat less efective (but still effective). Brendan suggests that the technique only works for a handful of characters, which is a polite way of saying that it does not work, and yet gives the example of decomposing "utmost" into "sun" and "aquire" and decomposing aquire int "ear" and "right hand". So once you have decomposed the character, how do you remember that ear+right hand=acquire? This is where mnemonicks kick in. You can imagine a cultural attache holding his right hand to his ear as he acquires intelligence from a spy, for example.

You still need to use spaced repetition, because ultimately you do not want to be going through the silly story every time you encounter the character, but the story helps while the character has not be anchored in your memory.

Also, using a good book has advantages over unguided study. For example, 部 and 陪 are composed from the same parts, as are 拿 and 拾. A good book will suggest a way of remembering one character, knowing in advance that you will have to learn the other one. So for the latter pair, you will use a story or visualization where the "hand" will be underneath something that you "join together". It is impossible for a self-learner to know in advance if the clues they found will end up being ambiguous. When non-learners open a book for learning Chinese characters, they are amazed how easy it is. The next day they are still able to remember the ten or so characters they learned, because "this one looks like a bug" and "this one looks like two sticks". Of course, such a method is counter-productive very fast and that's why Xiao Hu's method of learning the radicals is much better. I find it too hard to start by learning 200+ radicals and I also suspect that beginners need guidance in properly identifying radicals.

I never use mnemonics in the sense Xiao Hu mentioned, e.g. "累 lei4. When you're tired it makes you want to lei4 down. ". It would be more like: A farmer lay "threads" underneath (BTW note the use of "under" to distinguish from 细) the "field" and moles are "exhausted" trying to get to the crops. The dwarf (dwarf=4th tone - Tuttle book invention) uses a "laser" (lei4) to make sure the threads are in a straight line. As I said, the phonetic part is less effective than the semantic one.

Xiao Hu on December 4, 2011 | reply

I'm almost embarrassed to admit that, yes I was including semantically oriented mnemonic devices in my statement about mnemonic devices along with phonetic ones. I've always found them to be a disservice in the long run. Creating stories around the characters, while fun and interesting can actually have adverse affects. Like I mentioned before, it can actually obscure either the meaning or the pronunciation.

In my mind it's much better to simply learn the characters by their components. What does each component mean? What's the pronunciation? What is the meaning when they are combined into a certain character? Finally, what is the form of the combination? In my mind the direct way is the best way.

Although, like I said, at the end of the day it comes down to how each individual learns.

Yes, using books and study guides to help shave years and years and countless hours of frustration from an already arduous (although extremely intriguing and rewarding) task is why we are all here on Popup Chinese.