Mainly Mandarin?

The Next Quest!!

I thoroughly enjoyed my challenge of learning Arabic in three months.  I’m very happy that I made a considerable amount of progress in a relatively short period of time.   I will definitely come back to build upon my foundation in Arabic at some point … but for now, I have given myself a new challenge…

I have always had an interest in the Chinese languages, specifically Mandarin.  I enjoy the musical quality of spoken Mandarin and am eager for the opportunity to speak a language in tones. I have always been mystified by the beauty and complexity of the Chinese script and long for a better understanding of it.  Chinese culture is fascinating and the thought of being able to travel independently “off the beaten path” in China makes me swoon in anticipation.  I enjoy Chinese cinema and would love to be able to understand movies in Mandarin without reliance on English subtitles.  Last, but not least, how could an amateur linguist, such as myself,  not have some knowledge of the most spoken, native language on earth; a language spoken by nearly one quarter of its population?  Thus, my next challenge for myself is to learn Mandarin Chinese.

I will attempt to reach the Interagency Language Roundtable level 2 or “limited working proficiency” in spoken Mandarin Chinese by June.  What exactly is an ILR level 2 you might ask?  The ILR scale was developed by the United States Government to provide a language proficiency scale that was objective and applicable to all languages and all Civil Service positions. The scale is also unrelated to any particular language course or curriculum.   An expansion of this taken from the ILR website :

The speaker :

  • can handle with confidence, but not with facility, most social situations including introductions and casual conversations about current events, as well as work, family, and autobiographical information
  • can handle limited work requirements, needing help in handling any complications or difficulties; can get the gist of most conversations on non-technical subjects (i.e. topics which require no specialized knowledge), and has a speaking vocabulary sufficient to respond simply with some circumlocutions
  • has an accent which, though often quite faulty, is intelligible
  • can usually handle elementary constructions quite accurately but does not have thorough or confident control of the grammar.
  • is able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements.
I am less concerned with the actual “number” on the ILR scale , but rather with the above descriptions as I believe they tell much more than the number “2”.In addition, I wish to establish some knowledge of the written Chinese language.  My goal, by July is to be able to recognize the 1000 most commonly used Chinese Hanzi characters. Studies have shown that familiarity of the top 1000 characters allows one to recognize nearly 90% of vernacular printed text (!)  (from Beginning Chinese Reader, John DeFrancis,  Yale University Press, 1977).   I have been warned that this does not necessarily mean one can comprehend 90% of the text as there are several combinations of characters that can completely change the meaning of the word. Still, this seems to be a reasonable initial goal to establish “working comprehension”!

My plan of attack is as follows.

1. Pimsleur Mandarin Chinese – 90 lessons.  ( 2 months)  The Pimsleur method is ideal for a language like Chinese where the grammar is relatively simple ( no inflections, genders, or verb conjugations)  and pronunciation is vital. My biggest criticism of Pimsleur with other languages has been that there is far more repetition than necessary and not enough emphasis on grammar and vocabulary.  The whole course in total only teaches 500 or so vocabulary words which is far from what is required for working proficiency   (despite what Simon and Schuster claim on the Pimsleur website) .  For Mandarin, however, this is an advantage.  The tones are drilled with relentless repetition until they come out naturally and effortlessly.  I have heard that mastery of the correct tones is arguably the major obstacle to Westerners speaking passable Chinese.  Pimsleur does a great job at establishing this foundation.   I have already completed through unit 20 so I’ve only got 50 to go. Thank goodness my library has all 90 units so I don’t have to shell out the $700 for the complete course!
2. FSI/DLI Standard Chinese a Modular Approach – 9 modules ( 6+ months)  This course has gotten great reviews from several successful Chinese self-learners and for good reason. This is an incredible course and it is free!  What Pimsleur lacks in grammar and vocabulary is easily made up with this course.  There are probably 3000+ pages of material ( I haven’t counted) and at least 2000+ vocabulary words contained in this monster course.  There are also nearly 100 hours of mp3 recordings which accompany the texts.  The only downside is that the entire course is transliterated into pinyin so no instruction in the Chinese script.  Still, this is a small shortcoming for such a wonderful ( and free!) resource.  I have no perception of how long it will take to get through each of the modules so I may need to adjust this timeline accordingly.
3. Script practice with Anki and Beginning Chinese Reader by John DeFrancis (6+ months)  I just love Anki.  It is easy to use and has a wealth of shared decks.  Lucky for me a noble scholar added Chinese decks with the 3000 most frequent Chinese characters!  Thank you whoever you are!  They are divided into sub-decks of 500 which makes the task a little more manageable.  I have also gone through the first 10 Lessons of Beginning Chinese Reader ( again, thank you library!)  Even though this text is nearly 40 years old it works for me.  It’s not flashy, there are no illustrations, there’s just Chinese in easily digestible lessons of 10 characters.
People often ask why I jump around so much between different languages rather than sticking with one to complete mastery.  I guess it all boils down to curiosity.  I am inherently curious about different cultures, people, music languages and so forth.  If I stuck with one language for a decade or so, it is true, I would be the master of one.  But, just think of all the other languages and opportunities to learn about other cultures I would pass up as a result!?  Nah, I like the “jack of all trades” approach!

7 thoughts on “Mainly Mandarin?

  1. Pingback: My schedule: January-June « Loving Language

  2. I love what you’re working on. I think that placing the ILR criteria centrally is a great idea.

    It just so happens I’m working on a similar challenge as you, but I’m working on Farsi. I hope to follow your blog as you progress!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s