Use your target language to learn something new

Since the middle of last year, I’ve needed to learn a number of new Excel skills to manipulate and analyze data at work; for the most part, this has meant paying regular attention to youtube videos by Bill Mr. Excel Jelen, and Mike Excelisfun Girvin.  They have both quick and easy “here’s something you might not know about Excel” videos, as well as longer “clear and concise instruction of an Excel function” videos.  In addition to their own ‘shows’, they also get together and share unique approaches to the same excel problem and share their differing answers together, as part of an ongoing series of “Dueling Excel” episodes.  I’ve learned so much from these videos, as well as their books (many available at my local ibrary).

Excel in French?

A while back, I wondered if it would be hard to track down similar Excel videos in other languages.  As it is with most things these days, all I needed to do was turn to Google and ask “comment utiliser index match excel youtube“. Once a youtube video that was remotely close to what I was looking for opened up, I was set— Youtube’s “suggested videos” eventually guided me (as expected) to videos with a decent number of views.  Without trying very hard, I found a short video introducing the =VLOOKUP function, which is evidently called the RECHERCHEV function French– voila!

Other hobbies?

If learning Excel in another language isn’t your thing, what about guitar?  In English, you can have James Taylor teach you how to play Fire and Rain, himself. If happen to enjoy the guitar and also want to learn Brazilian Portuguese, why not try learning how to sing and play a song? Or just sing along…. or just play along.. etc. etc.


I don’t know how to say “how to play guitar” in Portuguese, so I used Google Translate, and then used copy/paste to put the results, “como tocar guitarra,” into a google/youtube search.  Once you start adding in the names of artists and songs that you like, you may find something.  In my case, I ended up finding a high-quality guitar lesson for Caetano Veloso’s ‘Sozinho’.  The video wasn’t done by Caetano Veloso himself, but this teacher quite cleverly incorporates great on-screen tabs as well as original audio from the song.


What if the language level is over your head?

At this point, I don’t understand more than a few words of this video (i.e. I don’t speak Portuguese); however, looking at the guitar instruction, it’s pretty clear that it’s a good video (over 80,000 views at this point).  If I stuck with this video long enough to pick up the song on guitar, I’m confident that at least a few of the phrases from the teacher would stay with me.

Don’t torture yourself

If you don’t feel like learning the whole song, remember you might just want to try learning the chorus before moving on to another song.  I don’t think I would ever encourage people to treat these kinds of videos as something to memorize; however, if you’re not using your target language as a tool for learning something new every once in awhile, then you may find that this kind of exercise is an interesting change of pace.

Again– if Excel and Guitar aren’t your thing, what about French instruction on how to cook?  Are you a student in the Sciences? Why not listen to how a French math teacher explains integral equations?  There’s nothing really revolutionary about anything that I’ve written here, but I think many language learners would benefit from giving it a try.


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.

Passed the new HSK level 5, as well as the intermediate spoken Chinese test

I sat both HSK tests last November, but didn’t see the results until yesterday—- what a great way to start off the year!

I did extremely well on the spoken test, as well as the listening section of the HSK 5 (fifth level of the new six-level scheme); however, my reading and writing scores are definitely telling me that I need to do more practice in those areas.

It’s worth noting that the written section of the test requires you to write chinese characters by hand— if you’re used to typing chinese, you may find it easy to compose text by inputing pinyin and ‘choosing’ the correct character, but it can be a bit of a challenge to recall the character when you’re stuck clutching your pencil.

As I recall, there were a few different kinds of questions in the writing section— some involved putting sentence fragments in the correct order, and others involved being given three or four words (eg: 电脑, 游戏, 学校) and having to compose a sentence.