Learning Chinese Creatively

Last week I wrote a guest blog post for our friends at Native Tongue. For those of you unfamiliar with Native Tongue, they create apps for language learning, one of which is Mandarin Madness. They make language learning fun–as it should be. You can read my post here, where I talk about shopping in Chinese markets and grocery stores: Navigating Food Shopping in China.

Waygo can be useful to a huge variety of users including (but not limited to!): foreigners living in China, travelers to China, foodies (not necessarily even located in China, but in Chinese restaurants abroad), Chinese language learners, and even curious native Chinese speakers. Today I’d like to speak to Waygo users who are on the quest of learning the Chinese language.

I agree with Native Tongue; using flash cards to learn languages can be boring and fruitless. Over the years I’ve attempted time and time again to use flashcards in my endeavors to learn Chinese, Italian, and Spanish. No matter how many thousands of flashcards I make, it never proves to be a successful learning method. Since the journey to learning a language never ends (heck, I’m still learning English!), the journey’s gotta be fun.

Flashcards use up loads of paper and time, not to mention they lack the ability to store and track progress. And specifically in regards to Chinese, flashcards are too “flat.” Since Chinese is what I call a 3-D language, the actual physical shape of a flashcard is insufficient, whereas a flashcard’s shape works for 2-D languages like Italian and Spanish. What do I mean by 2-D and 3-D? 2-D means that to learn a word, you need to learn 2 main components: the definition and the spelling. 3-D means that in order to learn a word, you need to learn 3 main components: the definition, the spelling (or in this case, the drawing of a character), and how to pronounce that character. A flashcard–being a 2-dimensional object–is incapable of capturing the 3 main components of each Chinese character. Flashcards are also geared towards solely learning vocabulary, not for broader comprehension, grammar, or building sentences.

Alright, alright…enough bagging on poor ole’ flashcards! If they work for you, great! However, if you are itching for other methods for learning Chinese, I’d love to help you discover more effective and fun methods–first of which I’ll touch upon is Waygo.

Waygo allows you to leave the confines of a classroom or living room, as all you need is your cell phone (which is probably already glued to your hand!) Since Waygo operates without a data connection, you can truly take your learning anywhere–to where no chinese learner has gone before. So you study Chinese characters for hours and hours? Now it’s time to go out into the world and test yourself. After you read through a menu or sign, hold up Waygo to see how you did. Pre-Waygo, in order to test yourself, you’d have to fire up your dictionary and draw in each character by hand to cross-check your translation. Now it’s instant and can blend into a scene, without too much interruption. The key to learning a language is leaving your comfort zone in order to truly interact in the language, and Waygo is just one among many tools that allow you to do so. Keeping reading for more:

Explore the app store for games like Mandarin Madness, or Dim Sum Warriors, a comic book that not only helps you learn Chinese language, but the culture as well. These apps can be played anytime, anywhere. Also explore podcasts. My favorite podcast is Mandarin Lessons with Serge Melnyks. He has single-handedly made me a much more confident Chinese speaker. In each lesson, Serge covers a different topic, giving you relevant vocab and phrases pertaining to common situations.

Another fun idea is to watch TV dramas, which tend to be more simple than other media or literature. There are a number of sites that stream Chinese TV, but I usually use Youku or Tudou. For a project during my senior year of university, I translated the drama 蜗居. It proved a super interesting and challenging project, as it forced me to actively intake, digest, and interact with the information, rather than simply view it. The vast majority of Chinese TV includes character subtitles to aid viewers who are not as comfortable in Mandarin than their own region’s dialect.

Tried the language partner route? Well how about with an elementary school kid? Yes, I realize there may be reason for concern when a college student or working professional puts out an advertisement for a 3-foot language partner, but trust me, this works! When I lived in Nanjing, my landlord gave me even cheaper rent each month in exchange for babysitting her son once a week. He proved to be the absolute best language partner I have ever had, and he had no idea! He spoke slower, had clean tones, and shared with me the dozens of educational songs and stories that he learned each day at school. I found the difficulty of these songs and stories to be in tune with my own abilities, or at least not too over my head. We also reviewed the hundreds of characters he was learning by drawing them over and over. And did I mention that I had the grand honor of giving him his English name, Jack?!

There will never be a lack for ways to learn a language–you just have to be on the lookout. Yesterday, for example, I found FourTones while browsing Waygo’s Twitter feed. FourTones allows you to learn Chinese by playing Chinese music! Since one of China’s favorite pastimes is karaoke, you’ll need to know at least a few Chinese songs in order to hold your own at KTV, impressing your new Chinese friends. Every night I skipped out on studying or homework and went to karaoke instead, I never felt guilty because it was a real-life opportunity to learn Chinese. In order to learn the meanings behind the lyrics of your favorite Chinese songs, you can use Waygo to translate.

Although the current version of Waygo does not include pinyin, nor does it allow you to save certain translations, these are features that are in the works to help better serve Waygo language learners. For the time being, you can screen shot translations and/or individual characters you’d like to remember.

Happy Chinese learning! And as always, we’d love to hear your feedback. Do you have any effective Chinese learning practices you’d like to share?

Oh and if you happen to ever find me frantically creating and flipping through flashcards, please do the following: take me by my shoulders, shake me, and remind me of this post. I CANNOT learn a language just by going through the motions of  flashcard learning.