Boonie Bears(熊出没): Language Learning with your children

I was reading a blog article the other day about encouraging your child’s language learning through active encouragement of their progress, and the post definitely struck a chord with me. When I thought back to the children’s language school where I worked in China, you could definitely tell a difference in the enthusiasm and proficiency on the faces of the children who had parents who also liked to make English small talk with the teachers and staff.

As most working adults can sympathize, there never seems to be enough time to do everything you want (or need!) to do.  With limited time to spend on language learning, it’s always great when you can combine it with other passions—- for me, spending time with my son watching Chinese cartoons has been a fantastic experience that enriches both of us. On that note, we’ve been working on singing the theme song to 熊出没 (Boonie Bears) and this video shows where we’re at now, including our practice writing out the lyrics.

I’m very proud of the progress that my son has made with Mandarin– it wasn’t something he was really interested in until we discovered this cartoon.  It’s not our intention to ‘force’ him to learn Chinese, but watching this show has been solid source of inspiration on which to build.


Edmonton Confucius Institute: The First Five Years

This is a wonderful video that captures the story behind the Confucius Institute here in my city.  I’ve said it in other posts, but after living in China for a few years, my earnest study of Mandarin didn’t really begin until I returned to Canada; as part of that process, I first got in touch with the CIE about four years ago to ask about participating in the HSK proficiency tests.

The staff have always been exceptionally warm and supportive—in addition to registering for the tests and making use of their fantastic library, I’ve also had the pleasure of participating in some of their public events.


Talking about big numbers in Chinese and English

I put the chart below together for someone I know who, despite having a strong grasp of English, often seems to get tripped up when talking about large numbers. It may seem like a trivial topic but this particular person works in a financial institution in a sales capacity…… I’m sure you can understand how a slip of the tongue in this kind of context might make someone lose confidence in their abilities.

I figured I could put something together that they could put beside their desk and refer to in a pinch– maybe it will work for you?  Feel free to print/cut it out.

big numbers

As it happens, this can be an issue for English speakers learning Chinese as well— the primary challenge being that English and Chinese (this is actually true of Japanese as well), put breaks at different points in large numbers. While English leaves things in clusters of three digits (thousands, millions, billions, trillions), Chinese groups the digits in clusters of four (i.e. units of 10,000: 万,亿,兆).

Continue reading

UN Security Council permanent member– # of peacekeepers.


“(current UN Secretary-General) Ban Ki Moon expressed his gratitude on behalf of the United Nations and said that China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is fully committed to undertaking its international responsibilities: indeed, among the five permanent members of the Security Council, China is the country that deploys the most peacekeepers”

Reading this article (link above), I was surprised by this little piece of trivia.  As it happens, it turns out to be quite true; however, looking into some of the available UN stats, I was dumbfounded by the disproportionately large number of peacekeepers that are deployed from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Ethiopa.

I had to scan pretty far down the list to find Canada, and that made me sad:(


Rose Garden

“No matter where it takes place, whenever I hear about discrimination against outsiders, I actually feel a sense of pity for the poor souls who do this in order to feel a sense of superiority; their minds are so narrow, the world they know so small.”   Luqiu Luwei (闾丘露薇), October 21st blog post: 我的城 (“My city”)

Trying Lingq again—Chinese Tracing Aug 7 – 12

Linq as a tool for online reading

For the last year or so, I’ve mainly used three tools to help with reading Chinese online:  Zhongwen is a great Chrome popup tool for being able to ‘mouse-over’ characters you don’t understand; Popup Chinese (formerly adsotrans) can be used for similar effect, but it’s amazingly useful for generating pinyin from Chinese text; finally, it’s hard to beat Google Translate in terms of continuing improvements— you can even click on the ‘listen’ button and hear a decent computer-generated reading of passages in the target language.

Another tool that I’ve tried in the past is Steve Kaufmann’s Lingq platform.  Following my last post recognizing that I need to get back on the horse with Chinese reading/writing and pass HSK 6, I went back and set myself up with a basic membership and linked a badge to this blog.

If you’re looking for a new language-learning tool, you might want to take Lingq for a spin.   They always seem to be tweaking the system and adding new features— it had been almost a year since I last used Lingq, and I was surprised to see the many subtle ways that the platform has improved.

To understand what the number of “known” Chinese words in my Lingq badge represents, you can take a look at the video below.  It’s easy to imagine how powerful Lingq can be after you use it for awhile and accumulate words in your dictionary— the basic idea is that, after importing a new passage, you have an instant sense of how many unfamiliar words are present because they’re highlighted in blue.  Words that you’ve marked as noteworthy in previous articles, for whatever reason, are highlighted in yellow.  Admittedly, I will have to do quite a bit of mundane clicking of words I know before reaching that point.

Writing practice

Admittedly, this isn’t for everyone, but I quite like the idea of keyboarding (simply re-typing target language passages) as a language learning tool.  Does it work?  Why? How?  I don’t have an argument to convince you, but somehow I find it useful.    When I recently watched Everything is a Remix, I was interested to hear that “Hunter S. Thompson re-typed The Great Gatsby just to get the feel of writing a great novel.” (skip to the 1:00 mark of the video)— I had never thought of re-typing a whole Chinese book but maybe there’s something to this?

As for writing by hand, I wrote a post on making your own tracing pages earlier this year.  Last weekend, in an effort to get back into the groove of regular writing practice, I pre-made tracing sheets for the week and worked on one every day.   My writing can be neat if I take my time, but if you look through the completed sheets below, you’ll see that most of the tracing is scratchy and rushed.   At this point, I don’t know if it’s better to try and do a better (neater) job on a smaller text, or stick with the current character count (repeat a 100-180 character passage twice) until I can comfortably get through the passage without feeling like my wrist is going to cramp.

Who knows?  At this point, putting pen to paper every day is a success, so I’ll take it as a win for now.

Passed HSK Advanced Spoken (高级口试), but not HSK 6–why?

I recently got a classic set of ‘good news/bad news’ from the staff at the Edmonton Confucius Institute.  The good news was that I passed the Advanced Spoken HSK test (yay!); the bad news was that I didn’t quite make the grade for HSK 6 (ohhhhh).   As I look at regrouping and looking at trying again, it’s worth asking the question–what happened??

Advanced HSK Spoken vs. Intermediate HSK Spoken

There was quite a jump between the Intermediate and Advanced levels on the spoken test.   A couple of things to note:

  • Both tests consist of listening and reacting to questions from a pre-recorded test on a CD;  a digital audio recording of your responses is made by the proctor, and I understand the actual grading is done by Hanban officials back in China. The pre-recorded CD contains timed pauses during which you give your responses, so the test really is exactly the same, no matter where you take it in the world.
  • Whereas the Intermediate HSK Spoken Test starts with a series of short sentences that you simply need to ‘repeat’ back into the microphone, I was initially surprised by how long the passages were for the Advanced HSK Spoken Test– I suppose some kind of genius could parrot the passage back word-for-word, but I think the goal of the initial section is to see if you can hold the relevant facts in your short-term memory (you can make short notes), and then reproduce a bit of a summary.
  • There is a section that asks you to read a passage aloud– as I recall, you have a few minutes to read it over before speaking.
  • In the final section, the voice on the tape asks you to respond to a few questions– in this part, it wasn’t so much of a question of  “what is the correct answer?”, as it was an opportunity for you to give your personal opinion on the topic.

Overall, just as you’d imagine, the Advanced Spoken HSK Test offers more opportunities to talk about more complex things, show off some more challenging vocabulary, etc.   I still have plenty of room to improve, but I’m very happy that I passed this test!

Why I didn’t pass HSK 6

Put simply, I didn’t pass HSK 6 because, up until this point, I have concentrated almost exclusively on my listening and speaking skills, and largely ignored reading and writing.   The result is that I was easily able to pass the listening section of the HSK 6, but I still have a ways to go on the reading and writing sections.  This wasn’t really a surprise, but it’s a good reminder that I really do need to shake things up if I’m ever going to get beyond HSK and communicate like a reasonably literate person.

  • I try to listen to full-length interviews and watch movies, but I don’t read short stories or books.
  • During my commute to work every day, at least 2-3 Chinese podcasts and/or songs make their way into my ipod playlist, but I don’t read the news in Chinese very often.
  • I do type some Chinese, but I rarely pick up a pencil and write by hand—- (Even in English, consider the difference between writing a passage on a computer, and writing it by hand without the help of a spell-checker)

As long as the above remains true, I can’t really expect to progress much farther than my current level.

This isn’t of course, to say that I can’t read and write in Chinese at all; after all, I did manage to pass HSK 5.  If I’m composing an e-mail in Chinese, I can type in pinyin and choose the correct hanzi from the options presented in order to create text that is reasonably understandable.  If I’m unsure of a particular phrase, I can even ‘test’ a phrase that I’ve written in Google to see if anyone else has created a similar sentence.

All of my preferred ‘tools’ are useless, however, when presented with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper. Here is the description of the written section of the HSK 6 written section from the Hanban chinese testing website:

The test taker will be required to read a narrative article of about 1,000 characters within 10 minutes, and then rewrite it into a shorter article of about 400 characters within 35 minutes. The test taker should also create a title for the article. The test taker should recount the article and is not required to express personal opinions.

So, to make a long story short, I need to read more and I need to practice writing more.   I have talked about writing practice before, so it’s now basically time to practice what I’ve preached.

Interviews with successful adult language learners in Edmonton (#1: Matthew-Mandarin Chinese)

 Do you know anyone in the Edmonton area who might have a story to share?


Let’s pretend that you’ve moved your family to a completely new country– sure, you can get by in the language; however, among the list of challenges you must negotiate as a newcomer, you’re trying to manage the sometimes daunting task of learning how to negotiate the local financial system.

It’s not hard to imagine how happy you would feel if, in such a situation, a local staff member came out and worked with you, in your language. Again, maybe you feel comfortable with the language, but what if your spouse doesn’t speak it as well as you do–aren’t you meant to be having these conversations together?

The scenario I’ve described–specifically, the role of the helpful bilingual staff member–captures a little bit of what Matthew does every day right here in Edmonton: speaking Mandarin Chinese with some of his clients.   But what’s the story here?  Matthew grew up speaking English in St. Albert, one of Edmonton’s satellite communities–naturally, I was curious to sit down and ask him about his experience of learning Chinese.

Why Chinese?

According to Matthew, his journey began when he was twelve, when he got involved with Tae Kwon Do, “which is actually a Korean martial art–but my teacher was from Hong Kong”. Hearing the teacher speak Chinese from time to time piqued Matthew’s interest, but he never had a chance to do anything about it until he got to University.

Fast-forward to the year 2000.  Watching TV one day during the summer between his first and second year, Matthew stumbled upon a NFB documentary (Dashan – Ambassador to China’s Funny Bone) about Mark Rowswell, a Canadian who is fluent in Mandarin and wildly famous throughout China. Matthew had originally considered simply taking a couple of Chinese courses to satisfy the language requirement of his Arts degree; however, after seeing how far Mark Rowswell had taken Chinese after not studying as a child, Matthew thought,  “if he can do it, why can’t I?”.

By the time Matthew graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Chinese Linguistics and Culture, Mandarin–something that he had originally considered studying “on a lark”–had became a genuine passion.

Matthew’s learning process

In addition to the Chinese that Matthew learned in University, his HSK Chinese Proficiency Exam score in 2003 earned him a scholarship to study at Nanjing Normal University for the 2004/2005 school-year. Since returning home to Canada, he says his preferred way of continuing to learn is a method that one of his fourth-year professors used to teach a course here in Edmonton.

“What she basically did was take an old Chinese movie, 早春二月 (zǎochūn èr yuè) (Early Spring in February), and transcribe every single line in the movie, highlighting some of the grammar points and vocabulary for us. She divided the film into twelve units and we systematically made our way through the whole film over the semester”.

While he learned a great deal from that particular movie, after all was said and done with his ‘school’ studies, he decided that what he really needed to do was learn more colloquial speech. To that end, since returning to Canada, he has made a personal project out of studying a modern Chinese dramatic series set in Vancouver, entitled 别了,温哥华 (biéle, wēngēhuá) (Farewell, Vancouver). Just like his old professor, his goal is to essentially transcribe and translate every word in the series, writing down the pinyin of every idiom and trying to find an English equivalent.

Why movies?

“Have you ever heard some of the language tapes that some people use to study English?” asks Matthew. “The vocab is great, but real people simply do not talk like that.  When people flow with natural English, they drop syllables, consonants and round out vowels— Chinese is exactly the same.” For that reason, Matthew finds that movies and TV shows to be a more authentic learning resource.

Matthew says that he enjoys continuing to study in his spare time, and is currently about half-way through the 24-part series of Farewell Vancouver. “You have to understand, when I was studying in China, it was exhausting studying Chinese class all day.  When class was over, all I wanted to do was speak English with my Western friends or watch a DVD so I could unwind. Now that I’m back home, it’s more of a hobby that I can enjoy at my own pace.

How far do you want to go with your Chinese?

Regarding the question of continuing to learn Chinese, Matthew was quick to answer that “it never really stops”.  The question, in his mind, is really about the level of intensity that you’re willing to put into it at any given time.  For the time being, he has set himself the modest goal of “always being better”.

“Don’t get me wrong, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would go back to school to get my masters in Chinese linguistics”, says Matthew. “But, things being as they are, I have to be realistic and balance my Chinese study with my life, my friends and family–I have courses that I have to take for work and those take time too”.

For those interested in learning more about China, Matthew recommended a book that is available at the Edmonton Public Library: The Man who Loved China, by Simon Winchester, is the story of Biochemist Joseph Needham. (audiobook here)

Do you know any successful language learners in the Edmonton area?

Just like Matthew,  the profile that I’m looking for at the moment is someone who grew up primarily speaking English, started learning another language as an adult, and now speaks the language well enough that they feel confident enough, if the opportunity presents itself, to use it in a workplace setting.

Given the amount of diversity in our city, I am confident that Edmonton is home to many successful adult language learners.   Perhaps you know someone who learned to speak a new language to communicate with their in-laws, a new neighbour or perhaps a business partner?  I look forward to continuing this series as I get in touch with more people.