Best online resources for learning Chinese #4 Popup Chinese

August 5, 2011

As a continuing learner of Chinese I am always on the look out for online resources to help me develop my language skills.  I’ve always been a big fan of Chinesepod but have now found that their Newbie podcasts are not challenging enough.

I was pleased therefore to find that Popup Chinese offers listening  materials at all levels (Absolute beginner, Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced) featuring interesting topics using colloquial language.  For a modest subscription per year there are downloadable .pdfs providing a transcript of each lesson and downloadable .mp3 files.  Their premium subscription offers additional features  such as flashcards, quizzes, online HSK tests and more. This too, is priced very reasonably.

For those who do not take out a basic or premium subscription – the site still offers a lot.  Some of the features I particularly like are the Sinica series of discussions, the Chinese news in the “tools” section, KTV Wednesday series of lessons and the dictionary tools.

The Sinica series of podcasts look at current affairs in China; recent podcasts have discussed the drought in the southern Yangtze and the problems of water supply, and the recent train crash on the high speed rail line.

The Chinese News tool presents a digest of up to the minute news in either simplified or tradtional characters or in Pinyin.  There are approximately 15 headlines and the introduction to the news story on the page; clicking the headline will take you to the full story and source.

The beauty of this is that the learner can attempt to read the news but if they get stuck they can use the mouse to hover over the troublesome character(s)/word  for a popup box to appear showing machine annotations in Pinyin, characters (traditional and simplified) and English.  I could envisage using some of the headlines even with beginners asking them say, to pick out dates, names of countries, cities etc.  It would also be good for independent learners who could use their mouse to scan for the Chinese characters for topical words such as Obama – 奥巴马.

Another great feature of the site is the KTV Wednesday series of lessons, each of which features a song.  Embedded in each page is a video link to Youtube, Tudou or equivalent and a transcript of the song is available to subscribers.

Finally there is the dictionary which allows you not only to search by character, Pinyin or English, but also shows words used in context – a very useful feature.

Serious stuff with song

August 3, 2011

Following on from my post about using a joke to introduce the topic of racism, and Ausländerfeindlichkeit in German I’ve come across this song which could also used as a resource to address these issues.  In addition to portraying the feelings of the victim:

Ich bin ein Außenseiter, ein Möchtegern, eine Randfigur von einem fremden Stern,
ich bin ein Mauerblümchen, unscheinbar und brav, ein Loser, ein schwarzes Schaf

the song also has some very good examples of use of the passive to convey the actions of the bully or the racist.

Ohne weiße Wolle wirst du ausgestoßen, ohne weiße Wolle wirst du bloßgestellt, man zeigt
auf dich – so gehts in dieser Welt, ohne weiße Wolle wirst du abgestempelt,
ohne weiße Wolle bist du außen vor. Man liebt dich nicht, da mach ich mir
nichts vor.

The tune is very catchy and there are also rap sections so should have wide appeal..

Dictation revisited

August 2, 2011

Anyone of a certain generation will instantly recognise the words in the image (left)  from the dictation exercise.  This was how listening skills and, to a greater or lesser degree, grammar and spelling were taught, practised and  tested in the days before course books came with recordings on cassette tape or CD.  For those of us who were good at this sort of thing it became a game for example,  to spot the agreements with the preceding direct object in French (and other such traps designed to catch you out) but for those with weak spelling and an insecure knowledge of grammar I suspect it was a dull, dry exercise which further reinforced a sense a failure.   At some of my workshops there has been a look of horror on the faces of  a number of delegates if I announce that we are going to do a little dictation exercise, so even those who have ended up making languages their business have been mentally scarred for life!

I was surprised to discover in the course of doing some research for this post that until comparatively recently  the dictation as a test was part of the Edexcel GCE French O level test available to international centres, and although I would in no way wish to revive it as a testing method it does have some merits which are perhaps worth re-examining.

When I first started to learn Chinese about 5 years ago I soon realised that if I was going to make any progress at all I would have to do a lot of listening to get my ear tuned into the different tones so I started listening to Chinesepod.  As I hadn’t  paid to subscribe to the site I didn’t have access to the PDF transcripts, and so I treated the dialogues in the podcasts essentially as a dictation exercise.  I used to transcribe what I heard in Pinyin and I then used my dictionary (Oxford beginner’s) to look up and write down the characters;  in effect I was creating my own transcript.

I  later discovered that with the early versions of Chinesepod that it was possible to access a transcript (in both pinyin and characters) by clicking on the Show lyrics  tab for podcasts  downloaded into Itunes;  I could then check whether I had “got it right”.  Subsequently these transcripts accompanying the Itunes downloads only showed characters, but with some cutting and pasting into an online dictionary it is still possible to create your own transcript in pinyin.

In the course of the podcast the hosts would go through the meaning of each individual word/character so I could be reasonably confident that that I had chosen the correct character.  What this exercise made me do, and one of the great merits of dictation, was to listen very attentively, to  focus on the sound spelling link of the language, and even more importantly in Chinese, the tone.

It was this  homing in on the sound spelling link (together with the exceptions and the hazards, such as  the silent vowel sounds in French, to name but one)  that helped me to develop my understanding of spoken French all those years ago,  and to demonstrate my knowledge of grammar.  Of course there were lots of things wrong with dictation.  The texts were in often too long and dull, the speed at which they were  delivered was unnatural, they were rarely examples of authentic interchanges and didn’t prepare you for the cut and thrust of following the high speed utterances of a native speaker.  Furthermore they were seen as being totally in the control of the teacher with the learner in a passive role in as much as generating new language was concerned.  But that needn’t be the case……

Dictation actually has a lot going for it:

  • In a whole class setting all learners are involved – it is even possible to differentiate by providing lower ability learners with part of the text and they have to listen out for the words in the gaps
  • It fits in very well with self and peer assessment .  Pupils self or peer assess and set their own targets for improvement (PLTS – reflective learners); for example to do some additional listening practice in order to be able to discriminate between particular sounds.
  • It can be a useful settling exercise in a large noisy class.
  • It supports phonics work in focusing on the relationship between sound and spelling.
  • It is flexible exercise which can be adapted to individual, pair and group work.
  • Depending on how it is used it can lead to the creative use of language and interactive oral communication.

In an excellent book I’ve recently dusted off the shelf, Dictation by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri there are suggestions for “dictation” activities suitable for all ages and levels, and although the examples are in English the principles are easily adapted to any language.  It’s worth checking out..