March 22, 2006

ChinesePod review

One of the challenges of language learning is the law of diminishing returns. At an advanced level, you just don't get as much mileage out of learning fifty new words, or practicing listening for five hours as you did when you were beginning. However, if you want to get to the level where you can understand the Chinese news well enough that you actually enjoy watching it, you'll just have to put in a lot of hours practicing. (At least that's my guess--the results I have achieved using the non-practicing method are less impressive than expected.) So, how to practice?

I think repetition of the same material is more valuable than just listening to streaming radio, and an actual recorded Chinese lesson sounds like the most direct way of learning, so long as the material is interesting. If you search for Japanese language learning podcasts, there are quite a few available, but for Chinese learning, I've only seen one podcast with a significant amount of material, and that's from www.chinesepod.com. They recently put up a couple of advanced lessons, so I decided to give it a try.

The ChinesePod lesson consists of an introduction, a short vocabulary section in which they describe five to ten words, a text read aloud, and discussion. I think they have done a good job with the very difficult task of producing something useful for all the different levels and types of advanced students.

In the two lessons, I think I only learned one new word, but that does not mean it was a waste of time. On the television news, there are not too many words that I do not know, but it is very difficult to catch everything when the news is read rapidly. Daily conversation, even when spoken rapidly, is just not comparable to news broadcasts. The language of a news broadcast, which is written first then recited, is simply at a higher level then conversational commentary on the same topic. Therefore, I think that one needs to practice specifically for this type of listening activity. Just as ChinesePod has done, it is nice to have a brief introduction to a topic. Proper names can be introduced here, and introduction of any particularly difficult vocabulary is helpful. The main part of a listening lesson should be a piece of news, read just like normal Chinese news, but more slowly. Last, a discussion can help review one's comprehension and keep things interesting.

My biggest complaint with the podcasts is that I did not care for the classroom tone of the show. Co-hostess Liv spoke quite naturally, but hostess Jenny sounds like what can only be a Chinese teacher, with unnaturally perfect pronunciation and intonation, and a tendency to firmly steer the conversation to a planned path. I'm sure a lot of listeners will appreciate the clarity of her voice, but for me it brought back memories of tedious Chinese classes. (I make an exception to the criticism here for reading the news. In reading the news, speaking unnaturally is only natural.) There was obviously a lot of preparation that went into the show, but my advice would be to relax and let the discussion proceed more naturally. If the hosts talk about something that genuinely interests them, then it will probably also interest us listeners.

Another way that this show was helpful was in offering some exposure to the way Chinese is spoken in China, which is different from in Taiwan. Here are a few of the differences in pronunciation and vocabulary that I picked up in the podcasts: shu2ren2 (熟人) instead of shou2ren2, ben3zhi4 (本質) instead of ben3zhi2, yi4yi (意義) instead of yi4yi4, and dan1ci2 (單詞) instead of dan1zi4 (單字). Of those, hearing ben3zhi2 pronounced as ben3zhi4 was the most unfamiliar.

I have to give them a lot of credit to ChinesePod for making advanced lessons available for free. If they could regularly put advanced lessons on the web, I would consider paying for them, but a few lessons here and there seems more like a free service than an attempt to make money. Although a few lessons will not lead to dramatic improvements, they are worth the listen.


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