Monday, June 3, 2024

My Wild Idea: Language School

I had been mulling over the idea for a while. My Chinese was approaching intermediate level, where basic Chinese is too easy, but native Chinese still presents a big challenge. I started to dream that I could spend a few weeks in China at a language school. My employer wasn't interested in sending me, so I would have to do it on my own.

Everyone I talked to encouraged me to do it. My Chinese colleagues and friends were especially supportive, as were my friends in my study group for Chinese learning. The idea kept growing in my mind as I frequently checked the cost of flights.

I browsed the websites of language schools in China, dreaming of the possibility, thinking it probably wouldn't happen. As the flight costs finally approached a somewhat reasonable price, I realized I didn't have any excuse to not go. I am not getting any younger and it will only get harder to bear the physically demanding flights to China. My private commitments won't be getting any lighter, either.

I wrote an inquiry to LTL Language School in Beijing. They answered all my questions. The details were good and the price was reasonable. I was especially intrigued by their option of a homestay. Plans were starting to materialize.

Between work and family schedules, I decided May would be the best time with reasonable weather to head to Beijing. I got the time off of work approved. Then, I did it. I signed the paperwork for the class and paid the fees! I was locked in! Well, there were cancelling options, but the main leap had been made.  

My employer did support me in getting a business visa so I could visit our offices in the area, so I got that long process rolling, too.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

New Home

This little bit of blog, if you can even call it that, was being hosted on a platform that was going to cost me a decent chunk of money. So, I recently moved the blog to a place that would host for free. (The domain still costs a bit.) Unfortunately, I didn't get the pictures moved over like I had hoped, so it'll be a bit before I have this looking the way it was before. Also, the links between the posts probably don't work any more.


Thursday, November 30, 2023



My background

You have no reason to care to know anything about me, but since this is a site that holds my observations and opinions, it might be helpful to know a little about what forms the basis of my opinions. This is not my “day job”. All opinions, helpful as well as off-the-wall, are mine and are formed based on my experience and my own background.

Learning Chinese is a hobby for me. I’m not working toward a degree, although I’ll probably end up taking some of the HSK tests. Maybe someday it will be useful in a job, but right now all of my Chinese colleagues speak infinitely better English than I speak Chinese. My native language is (American) English. Although I’ve learned bits and pieces of other languages, this is only the second foreign language that I’m putting a large effort into learning. I am fluent in German, which I learned under much different circumstances. It is often interesting to compare the two languages and methods of learning.

What is my current Chinese ability?

As of early 2021, I am about halfway through the HSK 3 course. I have not actually taken the official HSK 1 and HSK 2 tests, but I did take practice tests that indicated I would have passed them. I had intended on taking the HSK 2 test, but 2020 happened. I do hope to take the HSK 3 test some time in 2021, if it’s possible. So, I am not far removed from those ultra-beginning stages when learning Chinese seems like an almost insurmountable task. I’m still excited about learning the language and I hope to help keep you interested, too.

Update: I passed the HSK 3 test in June of 2021!

Update: As of mid-2024, I'm probably around HSK 4, but I haven't tried any tests.

Why start this site?

I’m an adult and not in school, so any time I spend comes from my oh-so precious free time. Why should I spend that free time on a website that will likely be seen by a total of 3 people? That’s an excellent question. I’m glad you asked. Anyway…. There are many, many tools and methods out there to help you learn Chinese. I’ve tried many of them. Some are very effective, some less so. Some resources cost a pretty penny (or yuan?), others are free. All require time from you, which is, of course, not in infinite supply, either. I hope by offering up my experiences to you, you can make better choices in where you spend your time and money. If I’m not successful at that, I’m sorry. Here’s a video of a talking raven playing a piano as consolation.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Mandarin Blueprint review

 This is a copy of the review I left on Google for Mandarin Blueprint March 3, 2023

I’ve been using Mandarin Blueprint for about 1.5 years now. I cannot recommend it enough.

After I passed the HSK3 and worked on HSK4 for a few months, I realized the vocabulary was getting too advanced too fast and I was not able to differentiate similar characters. Remembering tones was even worse! I couldn’t even fully remember many of the characters and words I learned in HSK3. So, I started looking for something else to help me along. At first, I tried flashcards of the HSK characters. That helped some, but it wasn’t enough. I had heard about Mandarin Blueprint, but it was a little pricey (now I know why… totally worth it!) so I decided on a two week trial. That was enough to sell me on the courses. I took up Mandarin Blueprint and eventually dropped my HSK4 studies, since it wasn’t getting me to where I wanted to go.

Like other methods, Mandarin Blueprint uses spaced repetition flashcards. Unlike other methods, the flashcards in Mandarin Blueprint are very well thought out. They teach you the character from the ground up, the pinyin of the character, the tone, its meaning(s), words it is used in, and how it is used in sentences and grammatical structures. The flashcards as well as readings of graded texts they include have everything read by native speakers.

You are fed information at your own speed, bit by bit. Eventually you get to where you can read level-appropriate sentences, passages, and stories that they provide. It’s obvious they have put an incredible amount of thought into how everything in these courses is structured.

When you have questions, often they have already been asked by another student and answered in the course material, so you have an instant answer, but if you have a new question, Luke or Phil are usually quick to get back to you.

Is this a secret method so you can learn Mandarin Chinese overnight with no effort? No, of course not! Mandarin is a difficult language for English speakers to learn. There is no way to learn it without consistent effort over a period of time, but using Mandarin Blueprint will ensure you go about it efficiently. It’s going to take a while no matter how you go about it, so you probably don’t want to waste your precious time! In addition, it’s even fun!

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Printed Notebooks!

Given how bad my handwriting is, regardless of in English or not, it may be a surprise to anyone who knows me that I enjoy writing things down. I even have a love for fountain pens. By the way, a fancy pen does not guarantee fancy handwriting!

As part of my journey through learning Chinese, I’ve enjoyed incorporating putting pen (or pencil) to paper. Currently, and for the past year and a half, I’ve been working through the Mandarin Blueprint Method for learning Chinese. This course is made to teach you characters and words. It’s not required to write characters, but it’s recommended. In fact, I’ve heard even native speakers don’t write much, since most interactions are online or electronic. Sure, it is easier to type characters, but I found that differentiating similar characters when typing was getting harder and harder as I learned more characters.

I also find the muscle memory of writing characters helps me remember their structure. It also takes a little longer, so I’m required to focus a little more attention and therefore am more likely to remember it.

For a long time, I wrote in a wide-ruled composition book. The problem with writing in a lined notebook was that my characters often had odd proportions. So, I started looking for paper I could print out to write characters on. There are two main types of paper with guides, mi zi ge (米字格) and tian zi ge (田字格), where the respective guide lines in the boxes you write in look like the character 米or 田.

I found most of the paper I was able to print out had boxes that were too large, had lines that were too dark, or some other thing I wanted to improve. So, I pulled up Excel and made my own paper. I tried many different versions of the paper until I settled on a style I liked. After using this style quite a bit, I had loose practice paper all over the place. I really wished I had this paper in a notebook. All of the notebooks I found had boxes that were too big and most were larger than I wanted. I take my practice paper with me everywhere in my purse, so I can work on my reviews whenever I have a free minute.

So, I ended up self publishing some notebooks on Amazon in the way I like them. I’m really thrilled with how they turned out. By using Amazon, they are printed on demand whenever you order them. I do get a little over a dollar for each one sold, but I assume I’ll be my own main customer!

My first proof copy arrived in October of 2022. I was thrilled to see how well it turned out. However, I was unsure how it would hold up long-term, being thrown in my purse all the time, tossed around the house as I moved from desk to couch to bed. In the end, it held up really well.

I made the notebooks with 88 pages, given the auspiciousness of that number in Chinese culture. In March of 2023, I finally filled up my proof notebook. It had withstood several months of abuse and held up much better than I expected.

Now, I’m on to my first non-proof notebook. This one is, I think, very nice looking. I’m excited to start using it. The quality seems to be the same as the proof notebook, so I’m optimistic that it will also hold up well over time.

Like the red dragon book, there is a title page where you can write information about the book. Then, there are 88 pages of tian zi ge guides to help you write characters nicely. I’ve heard that these types of guides are used in other languages and writing systems, so I think they would work well for those, too.

Tian zi ge page in the notebook

If you’d like to try one of the notebooks, you are welcome to order one from Amazon. The links are below for the designs currently available. Also, if you have a specific design or color you’d like to see, let me know. I’ll consider adding it. I have a couple more in the works that I will add a little later.

Cherry Blossoms

Purple Flow

Red Dragon

Monday, November 8, 2021

Hikaru no Go – Chinese drama series

Category: Chinese drama

Language: Mandarin Chinese with subtitles in English and several other languages

Format: Series, 36 episodes, ~50 minutes a piece

Access: Streaming, 7 episodes on YouTube, full series on iQiYi

I love a good movie or series about friendships. At its heart, that is what Hikaru no Go is. Enjoying the story is, for me, a great reason to watch a series to help learn Chinese, even if I don’t understand all of the Mandarin.

To be clear, I am talking about the Chinese live action series that came out in 2020. I gather there are also Japanese manga and anime series that this Chinese series is based on. I have not seen or read those. You can read the synopsis of this Chinese drama series and see the actors at MyDramaList.

I became interested in this series after seeing clips that were used as example sentences for learning Chinese. That led me to the first few episodes, which were on YouTube. I was hooked. I even signed up for iQiYi, which is the company that made the series and also streams it. It was totally worth the small cost to see the rest of the series.

Recommending series for learning Chinese is tricky. You probably have different tastes in content and language needs than I do. I have found dramas to be the most useful for me. It seems like a lot of Chinese dramas are either set in ancient times or are about a modern romance. Although it was mostly set in the early 2000’s, Hikaru no Go was released in 2020 and takes a different approach than most of those Chinese dramas.

This series has a good helping of cultural examples. You see kids interacting with parents, students interacting with teachers, students interacting with each other, and adults interacting with each other. All of these are helpful to learn in the background as you are learning the language.

I often find very young characters to be helpful to learn from, since they often speak more simply and use more words that I am familiar with. That was true at the beginning of this series. The little boy, Lu Si Yu, who plays the Shi Guang at the beginning is a really good actor! I do think the acting was pretty good by all involved.

This is, of course, a series filmed for native speakers. Although I could often understand a phrase here and there, I did need to use subtitles. The subtitles were well done.

There are a LOT of Chinese dramas out there that are set in ancient times. Hikaru no Go is not, however it does have a touch of ancient times with the Go-obsessed ghost, Chu Yin. I thought that mixture was clever. It was a unique way to combine the two. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Quick Thought – False Friends

Yesterday morning, I was talking with my Chinese colleague (who is not a false friend!) and came across a problem remembering a certain Chinese word. This morning, soon after waking up, I suddenly realized why I was having a problem yesterday.

Generally, I try to get to a place where I have feeling about a word I’m learning, rather than just strictly translating. With the words in question, they were new enough that that feeling is still under development. This encounter, I believe will go along way to cementing a feeling for the words in question into my brain.

During the conversion, I wanted to say that I was a little worried about something. The two words that came to my mind that I needed to decide between were 担心 (dānxīn, worry, be anxious, etc.) and 放心 (fàngxīn, rest assured, be at ease, etc.). I knew they were more or less opposites, so I needed to make sure I selected the right one. 担心 was the newer word for me, so I was focusing on trying to remember 放心. I was having conflicting ideas in my mind surrounding 放. One side had the feeling of setting down, like setting down your worries, and the other was picking up or grabbing and holding tight. I was stuck.

We discussed it a bit and I remembered the definition of 放 was along the lines of to put, to place, or to let go of something. Obviously that wasn’t what I wanted to say.

She also mentioned that 担 has a hand component on the left and that 担子 is the traditional way two heavy baskets or buckets are carried with a pole balancing over the shoulder. Now, I even have a great visual to use in the future for 担心 too! (And what an appropriate image! Those baskets of worries can get pretty heavy at times!)

This morning I realized why 放 (fàng) was giving me trouble. Between different languages there is a concept of “false friends.” These are words that seem like they should be equivalent words in the other language, but they aren’t. These are especially interesting to me when their meanings are not only different, but different in a way that could be troublesome. One of my favorites is kind of a false friend love triangle:

English – poison & gift

German – Gift (means poison in English)

French – poisson (means fish in English)

I probably get more joy out of those words than I should.

The meaning that was tripping me up was the German word fangen, which means to catch. If you are going to throw something to someone, you might yell “Fang!” This is pronounced very much like the Chinese 放 (fàng) and not like the toothy English false friend, fang. The related German word gefangen means caught and also captive, like being in a jail, for example. So fangen and 放 (fàng) had a sound connection in my subconscious, but that was already associated with an action that was more or less opposite. What made it harder was that both actions involved using the hands. How interesting!

My Wild Idea: Language School

I had been mulling over the idea for a while. My Chinese was approaching intermediate level, where basic Chinese is too easy, but native Chi...