Lingosteve's wisdom on learning Mandarin

Steve Kaufmann is one of the world’s most experienced language learners and a well-known polyglot. What is his best advise on learning Mandarin?

Polyglot Steve Kaufmann

Steve Kaufmann alias Lingosteve grew up in the English-speaking area of Montreal, Canada. He was a graduate of L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, France (1966), and a Canadian Diplomat. Until the age of seventeen he spoke only English. Today he knows 16 languages and speaks at least half a dozen of them quite fluently, and he is determined to add more. He wrote a book called The Way of the Linguist, A Language Learning Odyssey and has his own channel on YouTube.

What I like the most about Steve Kaufmann is this:

  • Motivation: Watching his videos is inspiring as he’s probably one of the most experienced language learners currently alive and he tells you about what methods actually work.
  • Realistic: Steve doesn’t tell you nonsense like how to speak language X fluently in 12 weeks. Language learning is a long-term endeavor and hard work about which he doesn’t lie.
  • Old vs new school: Kaufmann didn’t grow up with the internet like my generation, but he appreciates and makes use of the tools and options from the digital age.
  • Excitement for new languages: For him learning foreign languages is a lifelong intellectual journey. The scope of his interest goes way beyond the language itself (history, culture, philosophy, literature etc.)
  • Polyglot experience: He is one of the few people who is able to compare the difficulties of learning – for example – Mandarin to other languages. His experience shows that the more languages you master, the more language learning itself becomes a skill and a “reproducible process”.

Can you learn Mandarin in six months?

  • 1:49 Language is a lifelong journey.
  • 3:37 The goal is to get comfortable.
  • 4:56 Listen to dialogues and lay off the characters.
  • 7:49 Listening and reading is the most effective method.
  • 9:18 The biggest waste of time.
  • 9:47 What books and materials should be used.
  • 10:26 I would start to write as soon as I can.
  • 12:38 Don’t worry and just speak.
  • 13:23 6 months are over. What’s next?
  • 14:03 Your languages are always with you.

We discussed this question before, but I think Steve gives a more honest answer. You can achieve a lot in 6 months, but you won’t be “done”…

To initially focus on listening and reading and to get as much (suitable) input as you can makes sense. Two things Steve Kaufmann mentions in this video strike me as interesting:

  • Start speaking when you feel ready. Get comfortable first. This is interesting, since most teachers will challenge you into speaking, right from the first lesson. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, but I agree with Kaufmann that it’s more fun to engage in intelligent conversation instead of drilling sentence patterns and silly dialogues. But that doesn’t mean the latter can’t be useful or necessary. It’s just not very enjoyable and may turn some people off.
  • Don’t waste your time in the class room listening to the mistakes of others. This is another point many people will recognize. I always preferred to share the class room with people “better” and more fluent than myself just for this reason. But it’s not that you can’t learn from others. You’re likely to struggle with the same things (although with different nationalities that’s not always the case). Maybe it’s also Steve’s way of saying you should find your own approach and focus on those things that interest and motivate you rather than passively follow the teacher and other classmates.

Six hacks for learning Mandarin

  1. Listening and Pinyin
  2. Start with characters
  3. Look for patterns
  4. Read a lot
  5. Focus on listening to things you like
  6. Shadowing

Kaufmann’s main point again and again is that language learning should be interesting and meaningful. That’s why you see him throwing the 口语-book away (3:44), cause it contains so much boring and irrelevant stuff. I completely relate to that. At the end of the day, this means YOU are responsible for making your learning meaningful and fun. Read things you find genuinely interesting. This gets easier, the more advanced you get.

He also emphasizes the importance of patterns rather than learning grammar for the sake of learning grammar. Patterns that you can actually use in daily conversation, reading or writing. I agree with this. My experience is grammar patterns only stick with you when you actively use them or – in case of reading – when you meet them frequently in a sentence. Therefore, you’re well advised to look out for those elements you are really going to need and pay less attention to more secondary things like the difference between 记录 and 纪录 which get a lot of attention in the typical Chinese textbooks.

A more obvious but still very crucial point he makes is to be persistent and spend some time learning Chinese everyday. In other words, to cultivate good learning habits which automatically leads back to the first point: keeping it interesting as you’re gonna need that long-term motivation.

How Steve learned Mandarin

If you want to hear the full story of how Steve Kaufmann learned Chinese I recommend listening to this interview. Steve also speaks in more detail about his philosophy on language learning and discusses various strategies for becoming a polyglot.

Find your own way

All these tips are extremely useful, but we shouldn’t forget that each person is different and Kaufmann’s approach with its focus on characters and reading doesn’t necessarily work for everybody. Nor does every person has Steve’s intellectual curiosity and that accompanying sense of excitement. Like so many things in the world you have to make up your own mind about it.

What’s your approach to tackling Chinese? What do you think about Steve Kaufmann’s way of learning? Please leave a comment below.

Can you learn Chinese from a textbook?

Last week I listened to the You can learn Chinese podcast where the above mentioned question was discussed: Can you learn Chinese (solely) from textbooks? And if so, to what extent? Can you become fluent by studying the whole textbook series of Integrated Chinese from beginner to advanced level? I doubt it, but maybe we should start asking the opposite question first…

Can you learn Chinese WITHOUT a textbook?

Yes, you can but…

Consider the case of Alice: she spent two years in China, but for some reason never found the time to attend Chinese classes or seriously study on her own. Neither in China, nor before China. During her time in China, she started to understand and speak some everyday life Chinese, but after two years, she still couldn’t read a complete sentence and wasn’t able to answer more specific questions like the kind of work experience she has and which cultural differences she experienced…

Easy come, easy go?

I know a number of people who acquired an impressive blending of survival Chinese without ever opening, let alone studying, a Chinese textbook. However those expats were typically very extroverted, outgoing people who enjoyed communicating with the locals from an early stage, unbothered by their limited vocabulary. But then again, sooner or later, they all reached their limit. They had learned everything they could by real life communication and then gradually stopped making any significant progress. Perhaps their Chinese level was sufficient for their purposes, maybe not. It is likely though they could have done better with some kind of “formal learning” to support them.

Flying in all directions

Because without a textbook you’re pretty much like a pilot flying without navigation: you’re going in all directions. What’s more, you know you can buy vegetables and a train ticket, but you don’t know your language level. Although HSK (or other Chinese tests) can’t completely assess your Chinese language skills, it is the best standardized assessment tool so far. It’ll at least give you some indication where you’re at. More than your Chinese friends can ever tell you.

Allergic to textbooks

How far will a textbook get you then? It depends somewhat on your personality and learning style. I know people and have taught students who reacted very allergic to textbooks. I worked for a private language school which discouraged using textbooks, because such books were thought to be the ultimate means to bore (paying) students to death. Teachers should rather bring their own ideas and focus on conversation. They didn’t have a copying machine, since “teachers shouldn’t rely on books and printed materials too much” or so they said… So is language learning without textbooks the new trend in foreign language education?

Can the teacher teach without a textbook?

Textbook-free learning has many practical implications. If you ask me now, to demand from young teachers to give classes without the help of a textbook is unprofessional for a serious language institute. Freestyle teaching requires a great amount of classroom experience, because it implies the teacher knows the curriculum by heart and how to deal with all kind of student’s questions that pop up along the way. The less experienced teacher typically is more reliant on navigation tools. He can’t just fly blindly towards his target. As a freshman you might do a good job on conversation class and have fun discussions about movies and personal ambitions, but to get all your students to the next level within the set period is a different story.

For that you would have to cover an X amount of vocabulary, grammar, sentence patterns, you name it. And you would have to do it in a specific order, not just randomly. In short: you need a good textbook to guide you. Only a textbook provides a basic structure, a step-by-step plan.

How much textbook?

The Chinese language program I attended as a student was based on the idea that you should acquire the Mandarin basics first (for one year). After that, you’d be sent to China and thrown in at the deep end. In the first year, progress was slow. Nobody felt very confident when speaking to Chinese people in their language. But still, by the end of the year, we had covered the groundwork: from counting to the 把-sentence. (We did have a group of experienced teachers.) It was in China that most of us fast-forwarded their command of the language significantly. Over there, we still used textbooks, but we weren’t bent over our books the whole day. Even in class, there were other activities like role playing, guessing games, discussions and so on. Outside of class, there was time for real communication. Learning was never limited to textbooks only.

So, how much textbook then? In the podcast, they answer the question with 25 percent. The other 75 percent should be spent “outside of the textbook”. Indeed, there is no point in endlessly studying your HSK textbook, from one level to the next, without actually using the language in real communication. That’s like preparing for the Olympics for years at home without ever getting out there to compete against other athletes.

Can you learn Chinese solely from a textbook?

To sum it all up: the reasonable answer is NO of course. Just like you can’t learn how to drive a car only by studying the mechanics of a Toyota or Chery.

That being said, I’m not stating that classic textbook learning is the only way. Guidance is important. The world of language learning is changing very fast. Professionals in education are shifting their attention to developing new apps, virtual reality programs and AI supported learning. Information and language input are much more accessible than they used to be. But all that cannot replace – at least in my view – the accumulated experience of teachers that typically flows into a good textbook series.

Which Chinese textbook did you like or hate the most? How far do you think can you get without the help of textbooks? Can apps like DuoLingo and the like replace old-fashioned paper-based learning? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Chinese dictionary apps: Pleco vs Hanping Lite

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You’re learning Chinese and looking for a Chinese dictionary app to install on your phone, but don’t want to spend any money. At least not before you know what you can get for free. That’s why for this comparison I only take free features of the two most downloaded dictionary apps into account: Pleco and Hanping Lite.

Pleco vs Hanping Lite: which app is better?

I won’t lie to you: I’m biased towards Pleco as I’ve been using that app as a student until this very day and it has never let me down. But I still want to give Hanping Lite a fair chance. The app keeps getting loads of positive reviews (as does Pleco) in the Google app store and seems to match the needs of its users.

Hanping Lite presents itself as the free and limited version of Hanping Pro. The latter can be purchased for little money (3.39 €, 15.02.2019) and has some features the lite version doesn’t have like AnkiDroid Flashcards support and the stroke order of 839 characters (instead of 463 characters in the lite version). Beware though that you don’t get the full functionality of the app once you buy the “pro version”. Many “pro features” still have to be purchased separately.

Pleco, on the other hand, is Pleco. There is no pro version to which you can upgrade. If you want additional functions, you can buy the premium features or add-ons, either one by one or in bundle packages.

Google app store – review score

The score of Pleco and Hanping Lite in the Google App Store is amazingly similar, although the amount of reviews differs significantly. Pleco (founded in 2000) has been installed over one million times on Android, Hanping Lite over half a million. Hanping actually isn’t the new kid on the block I thought it was. It dates back to 2009 and – needless to say – has been further developed improved ever since (as has Pleco).

Hanping Lite – the good and the bad

To keep this short, I’ll focus on those features which positively surprised me and then discuss the more disappointing things. Here I won’t go into the essentials that you expect to get from any dictionary app so much – like comfortable word search and accurate and up-to-date translations.

Positives

Three Hanping features I want to highlight here:

  • The Pinyin soundboard: It covers all Pinyin syllables and helps you practice the four tones, however only isolated syllables, not in combination. Nonetheless, this is a great help for anyone trying to master Chinese tones and pronunciation. Pleco doesn’t have this feature.
  • The radical list: When you want to see how characters are interconnected by the same radical, the radical list is your best friend. Hanping’s radical list is superior to Pleco’s for one simple reason. It provides the meaning of every radical where as Pleco’s search list just presents the radicals. Most dictionary users aren’t familiar with ALL radicals and it’s very easy to forget them. That’s why reading the definition beneath every radical is both convenient and insightful. This is a very useful feature for anyone trying to tackle Hanzi. Apart from that both (radical) search systems are organized in the same manner (by number of strokes).
  • Tags: This is another feature that Pleco lacks. You can tag characters, allowing you to organize your vocabulary into groups. HSK categories for example – or less obvious – your own personal tags like “tech”, “movies” or “October”, “November” or whatever suits your purpose.

Negatives

Here’s what I found less satisfying and this bullet list is slightly longer:

Hanping Lite: Upgrade to Pro
Hanping Lite: “Upgrade to Pro”
  • Lacking example sentences: Any serious dictionary not just delivers the translation you’re looking for, it also gives you some example sentences and context of use. In this regard, Hanping Lite is no match for Pleco. Even though the app does contain 5000 example sentences for basic vocabulary, with Pleco you get a great deal more, example sentences for less common vocabulary included.
  • English translations of example sentences are a “PRO feature”: Hanping Lite deserves a minus point on the sympathy score for disabling the English google translation for Lite users. Hanzi, Pinyin: yes, but no English which is a pain in the neck for most people. The only rationale behind this – I guess – is to make you buy the “pro version” which does include the English translation…
  • Flashcards are a “PRO feature”: For the majority of learners a Chinese dictionary app without some kind of option to create flashcards to practice vocabulary is incomplete. The Hanping developers play into this by cutting out the flashcard feature completely, hoping you will go for the “pro version” instead. Another minus point.
  • Clipboard reader is not practical to use: When you’re working your way through a text with several words that need checking, the clipboard reader is your best option. Copy & paste the paragraph and read it directly “inside” the dictionary, so you don’t have to switch between screens and look up each word one by one. The Hanping Lite clipboard reader fails to simplify this process, because you’re still forced to open new tabs and then jump between them to look up words. The Pleco clipboard reader solves this problem with a pop-up screen that reveals the word’s meaning to you once you tap on the character(s). Simple, yet effective. You can read entire news articles with it if you want.
  • Affiliate marketing: Another minus point for promoting a VPN service and an online Chinese tutoring platform which doesn’t add any value to the user experience.

If I add up the minus points, I hardly can avoid the conclusion that Hanping Lite is so downgraded for no other reason than “to lure” people into buying the pro version. Maybe it’s worth to spend a few bucks on the upgrade – that’s for another review to discuss – but this downgrading unfortunately does reduce my sympathy for the Hanping project: If the “lite version” doesn’t convince me, why should I want to invest in the “pro version”?

Pleco – the good and the bad

What about the Pleco Chinese dictionary and its free functions? How big is the difference between Pleco and Hanping Lite?

Positives

These Pleco features stand out:

  • Most comprehensive pool of dictionaries: With Pleco you just get more. The dictionary itself is the most essential part of the app, right? It’s Pleco’s key function. According to the developer the two main integrated dictionaries cover 130,000 Chinese words and include 20,000 example sentences with Pinyin. Another 8 dictionaries are optional downloads, free of charge. Decide for yourself.
  • Most detailed character information: Expanding on my first point, I found that Pleco provides the richest information about any given character. From example sentences to anto- and synonyms, “words containing” the given character, “words ending” with the given character, breaking the character into its parts etc. This is much more than even a regular Chinese-Chinese dictionary can offer.
  • Search history is more accurate: This is another attractive feature. Say you’re watching the Chinese news and looking up several new words. This Pleco session will be stored in your search history with the exact time and date. Extremely useful, when you’re reconstructing what you’ve learnt in Chinese class, are revising what you’ve learnt the previous day or week or just want to make notes. Every word you’ve looked up will still be there. Hanping Lite displays previous search entries, but without the time and date.
  • The interface is more user-friendly: I’m a bit cautious bringing forth this argument, since I’m no app developer or UX designer. Besides, I’ve been a longtime user and may simply prefer Pleco’s interface by force of habit. What I’m pointing at though is the convenience of use. Pleco’s search screen with its tabs is designed to have everything within reach, avoiding endlessly scrolling down.

Negatives

I really gave my best to come up with some negative aspects about Pleco’s free features as well, however – even after some research – I fail to do so. I can’t find any free feature that from my point of view as a user needs improvement. Even without paid upgrades like readers and such Pleco has to offer a lot.

Pleco beats Hanping Lite

To sum it all up: Pleco is my number one.

What strikes me is that both apps follow (almost) the same business model: a free version with paid add-ons. Yet with Pleco you’re not forced to purchase the upgraded version first to get the “real deal”, you simply pay for those extra features you want or you leave it. Pleco adopted this model from an early stage and it has served them well.

Where as with Hanping Lite you get an app that is significantly downgraded, pushing you into buying the pro version that’s only slightly better. Once you’ve upgraded, you’ll discover you still didn’t get the “real deal”. But as I mentioned previously: If the “lite version” didn’t convince me, why should I want to invest in the “pro version”?

You might come to different conclusions comparing Pleco and Hanping Pro while spending – let’s say – 40 bucks on each. If you’re serious about learning Chinese investing some money into certain apps is a very reasonable thing to do. But that’s a different comparison that has to wait for another review.

Which one do you prefer, Pleco or Hanping? Which features do you like the most? Which add-ons do you find the most useful? Please feel free to comment! : )

Corona virus: 口罩都卖完了!

After the Mexican flue, SARS and MERS it was about time the world got hit by another pandemic. Allegedly, this time it all started on a Wuhan wet market where the locals buy their portion of snake and armadillo meat. In this post, I share some virus-related key vocabulary and firsthand footage from Corona-survivors.

Shortage of face masks

To start on an optimistic note: Did you know that if you’re still alive today, you’re a virus-survivor too? (One of 7.7 billion people)! If you were planning to go to China, you might want to postpone your next trip though and wear one of those trendy face masks if you use public transport, just in case. That is if you can still lay your (disinfected) hands on one. For this Chinese YouTuber it all seems too late.

With English and Chinese subtitles.

China is red

It’s a very, very serious situation, so I did some homework on the virus-related key vocabulary that you read in the Chinese news. “For your daily apocalypse click here”. The virus is everywhere. It’s amazing how quickly bad news spreads and people start panicking. (Positive news about China usually doesn’t make it to Germany, it’s mostly bad, though more and more people (mistakenly) sympathize with “the Chinese way” of governing, although they don’t live there themselves). Even here in Europe many ten thousands miles away from the disaster zone the news is dominated by it. Online news papers provide hourly updates as if the world will perish. It’s almost like a drug.

Map of confirmed corona virus cases.
China is red again! This is a map of how the virus is spreading. You can see in which countries cases have been confirmed.
Map showing the spread of the Corona virus on 26.02.2020
Update (26.02.2020): By now, it’s not only China that’s red! The virus has spread to the Middle East, Africa and Europe, North- and South America. (Source: gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com)

Business opportunities

But where disaster strikes, you’ll also find business opportunities! Do you think 25 bucks is a good price to protect yourself against virus infection? The Asian girl on the picture sure does. Did they pick an Asian girl for a reason or is it just me? From what I hear masks in Germany and many other countries are sold out at the moment.

Amazon product information for face masks. Prices are rising.
口罩都卖完了!

武汉加油!

Meanwhile people in Wuhan can’t go nowhere, so during the long cold nights they started shouting at each other to uplift their spirits. A rather unusual spectacle, isn’t it? It’s hard to imagine a complete lock-down on such a gigantic city.

武汉加油!
新冠病毒Xīnguān bìngdúNew corona virus
感染新冠病毒的人gǎnrǎn xīnguān bìngdú de rénPeople infected with the new corona virus

Who can you trust?

In this video “teacher Mike” discusses the latest rumors about the virus. Which media can you trust, the western or Chinese news? Where does Mike get his info from? After all he lives there, so he needs to know. Unfortunately, no subtitles.

Virus vocabulary

感染gǎnrǎnto infect
感染新冠病毒的人gǎnrǎn xīnguān bìngdú dí rénpeople infected with the new corona virus
受到病毒感染shòudào bìngdú gǎnrǎnget infected with the virus
无症状感染者wú zhèngzhuàng gǎnrǎn zhěpeople that are infected but do not display any symptoms
传染他人chuánrǎn tāréncontaminate others
有传染力yǒu chuánrǎn lìto be contagious or to have “contaminating power”

The ultimate learning video

I finally found a video that walks you through all the Corona-related vocabulary that you need to understand Chinese news reports about the virus. Chinese and English subtitles. Very clear pronunciation.
确诊quèzhěnconfirmed diagnosis
确诊病例quèzhěn bìnglìconfirmed cases
死亡人数sǐwáng rénshùnumber of dead people
2%死亡率2% sǐwáng lǜdeath rate of 2 %

What’s this Corona virus anyway?

For real in-depth information about the virus you need to listen to Li Yongle Laoshi, cause he can explain almost everything. He’s one of the first people I see explaining something about the virus itself: how it behaves and how it multiplies and so on. With Chinese subtitles.
封城fēng chéngsealed city
宣布”封城”xuānbù”fēng chéng”to announce that the city is sealed
武汉wǔhànWuhan
症状zhèngzhuàngsymptoms
无症状携带病毒者wú zhèngzhuàng xiédài bìngdú zhinfected people without symptoms
治疗zhìliáomedical treatment
接受治疗jiēshòu zhìliáoreceive medical treatment
扩散kuòsànto spread
病毒扩散bìngdú kuòsànthe spreading of the virus

The best vocabulary list, sorted by language level, on the Corona virus I found so far, you can download here.

Go shopping, decrease panic

In this video German vlogger Thomas阿福 shows us the “shopping situation” in Shanghai. Are prices really skyrocketing as rumor has it? You can add to the panic as I’ve written above but you can also try to decrease panic and hysteria like Thomas does here. Great job!

An expert opinion…

I’ll finish here with a message of hope from German professor and virus expert Rolf Hilgenfeld, interviewed by German Youtuber Thomas阿福. Hilgenfeld states that the Corona virus won’t be able to multiply forever. Scientists are testing vaccinations right now. Once enough people have been in contact with the virus and produced antigens, the growth will decrease and the pandemic will stop. A matter of 6 to 12 months, he estimates. Let’s hope the situation gets better soon.