After I said that I was having trouble learning Chinese, my friend Carl Willat made several interesting suggestions:
My ideas are pretty simple, and I don’t know if they’ll work for you but I’m thinking back on what helped me the most when I was learning Italian. Maybe they will strike you as obvious, or what you’re already doing. I’ll spell them out here anyway, and please just ignore anything that seems useless. I apologize in advance.
The big one, reading out loud and having someone correct your pronunciation, probably won’t work as well when you’re dealing with those chinese Characters instead of words in a recognizable alphabet. But the underlying concept, leaning the way a child learns, might have other applications. This was Roberta Niccacci’s approach and it worked incredibly well for me. She said pronunciation comes before comprehension. I read books out loud to her and my pronunciation got to be very good, though I didn’t understand much of what I was reading. After three or four books I could read like an Italian newscaster. “Keep doing this and you will wake up speaking Italian,” she said, and that’s what it felt like.
I found that in Italian I was developing little islands of solid comprehension in different areas of the language. As I learned more and these areas grew they eventually started to connect with each other. That’s when I felt like I was starting to become fluent. Children don’t have big vocabularies when they’re learning to talk at first, but what they do know they know really solidly. When I was in Italy with Matt he saw a woman call her dog, saying “Vieni qua!” and the dog obeyed. “That little dog knows more Italian than I do,” Matt said. It was a joke but the concept was right. The dog only knew a couple of words but knew them really well.
One thing I recommend is having phrases in Chinese that you repeat over and over until you know them so well they sound like English to your brain. These would be phrases that come up in daily life all the time. Probably you’re doing this already, right? Because undoubtedly there are things you have to say in Chinese all the time just to get by. It’s almost feels like you’re learning English synonyms or slang, instead of taking on a whole gigantic language. It helps if you have someone to help you make sure you’re pronouncing these phrases perfectly, so you’re absolutely confident in them. Same with the Chinese ideograms; get the basic ones really solidly before adding new ones.
Then, talking to yourself. At one point I started talking to myself in Italian, like all the time, both out loud and in my head. I wasn’t self-conscious because nobody was listening. I just kept up a constant jabbering. Even if what I was saying to myself wasn’t very sophisticated, I was doing a pretty good job of talking like an Italian child who talks to himself. Talking to myself seemed to make me start thinking (and dreaming) in Italian.
As far as memorizing Chinese characters, if I were going to do it I would use the same kind of memory systems I use to memorize a deck of cards or a shopping list of hundreds of items: those mnemonic and associative devices like in the Harry Lorayne books on memory. Lorayne is a memory expert and magician who would do these stunts like remembering everybody’s name in a big audience. think he’s got something on memorizing Chinese characters, maybe like what this guy is doing:
When we were learning Italian Matt and I both got this children’s book called First Thousand Words in Italian, which had colorful, labeled cartoon drawings of various objects. To this day I see some of those pictures in my mind when I think of certain Italian words. The pictures helped a lot, but we also used those crazy memory tricks from Harry Lorayne. A radiator is “il termosifone” in Italian, which we remembered with the similar-sounding phrase, “they’re mostly phony”. You know, in San Francisco a lot of apartments have old steam radiators that don’t work anymore, so they’re mostly phony. I don’t know if this method strikes you as too ridiculous, but it sure worked.
Matt and I both ended up with a pretty solid 1000-word Italian vocabulary very early in the game. This was also a lot of fun because when I was talking to Italians even though my knowledge of the language was obviously rudimentary, I nevertheless knew a lot of obscure words I shouldn’t have known at that stage. They would be astounded when I came up with the right word for sawdust, spiderweb, rain gutter or puddle. I was talking to Roberta and her Mother one time and I wanted to dig a hole to plant tomatoes and I asked them if they had a shovel, using the word “vanga”. They burst out laughing because I had asked for a very particular kind of shovel, more like a flat bladed spade, instead of the more generic “pala”. It was just like the way adults laugh when I small child comes up with the right word unexpectedly.
Movies with subtitles. English movies with Chinese subtitles, Chinese movies with English subtitles, or Chinese movies with Chinese subtitles. Especially movies you’ve seen before so you know the plot and have a vague idea what’s being said. Reading and hearing at the same time seems to help your brain get some traction. This works like a refresher course for me in French or Italian, and is especially good for colloquial stuff that’s not in the books. I watched some of these movies over and over.
Songs. At one point I worked on my French with French songs from the 1930′s. Once again, singing songs meant repeating phrases, and memorizing long passages. You get in the rhythm of the language too. You’re keeping it going so you can’t really do it in a halting way. In Italian, though, I could never find many songs I liked. I spent one trip to Paris mostly tracking down sheet music to some of those old songs, to solve certain mysteries with the lyrics, and so that I could play them on piano. Having a mission or an errand like that always seems to make travel more enjoyable.
And Bridget swears by the Pimsleur method. She checks the CDs out of the library. She learned a lot of German that way before going to Germany, and was working on Vietnamese briefly so she could talk to our housekeeper a bit. When she was learning Italian the first thing she did was change her language preference to Italian on Facebook. Then every time she went on Facebook which, was quite a lot, she had to do a lot of translating in her mind. She picked it up fast, but she’s also really good with languages.