Private Chinese Talk Show

Update: a more concise version of this post is available here.

About 18 months ago, a post entitled ‘Massive Vocab Building‘ appeared on TMJ, in response to a question by Mat Fay Long about how to improve study time.

In it, I advocated working through lists of vocabulary that were related in some way – perhaps by some common character or theme.

Here are the ways of working with the lists that I advocated at the time:

1) We can draw pictures
2) We touch and pick up objects we’re learning L2 words for
3) We can link together related vocabulary thematically (as above)
4) We can do actions ourselves

I also said:

We can then use Anki later to make sure you don’t forget what you’ve learnt.

However, this is clearly not good enough, because both Mat and I got lazy.

For example, I found that drawing pictures became all I ended up doing, and that I ended up working on ever-more elaborate works of arts – my drawing improved dramatically, but I ended up practicing almost no Cantonese. This led to a gradual downward spiral, the result of which was that all I did for about six months was speaking, with no improvement in my Chinese abilities.

Whilst I don’t think I want to retract anything I said in that post[1], what I need to do is add an incredibly important extra something.

An Incredibly Important Extra Something

That extra something requires a native and a recording device.

What you need to do is to turn the vocabulary lists into mp3s. It is similar to the method outlined in ‘The Sound of Progress‘.

The Idea

Basically, you generate lots and lots of i+1 content. You can rely on this content because it comes from a native speaker. Additionally, it completely frees you from the shackles of lousy romanization systems – you don’t need to know how a word is romanized, or what tone a character is – only how it sounds.

The Method

You get your native to go through the list of related words, with descriptions and example sentences where necessary. For example, you could go through 車-related compounds – 車呔 , 軚盤, 擋風玻璃, 車燈 etc.

You can ask them specific questions about what you would like to learn, preferably in Chinese, and ask for clarification whenever you don’t get something. They’re speaking too fast? Tell them to slow the fork down!

Make sure you record everything – you can listen to your i+1 content as many times as you like, and pick up vocab, pronunciation, grammar and so on.

Extra Comments

I usually try to get each recording to be about three minutes long – this is a manageable amount to listen to repeatedly later. I also add instrumental backing music to make it more interesting to listen to, using Audacity.

I’ve made around 100 such mp3s for Mandarin and Taiwanese with my friend over the last couple of weeks, and they are especially effective at clearing up interference in characters with tones I’m unsure of.  For example, I kept forgetting that 漲 was pronounced zhang3 in Mandarin.  Therefore, we recorded a three-minute mp3 in which we discussed 水漲, 通漲 and 漲價, mostly in Mandarin.  After carefully listening to the recording a few times, I can now get the pronunciation correct when reading Chinese newspapers.

Also, I sometimes add vocabulary learnt in this way to Anki, and sometimes not. It depends on my mood.

A picture of what you had for dinner last night would make a good topic for a recording. You should have at least 3 opportunities every day to practice what you've learnt!

A picture of what you had for dinner last night would make a good topic for a recording. You should have at least 3 opportunities every day to practice what you’ve learnt!

Obligatory Closing Questions

Has anyone else tried doing anything similar?  How did you get on?  Let me know in the comments section! 🙂


[1] I would like to make a qualification, however: don’t spend too much time on stuff which doesn’t actually involve speaking.

Example #1: a 5-second stick-man sketch is much better than a detailed watercolor that takes hours to complete.

Example #2: If you have a jar of jam in the house, by all means go and find it when you want to learn the word 果醬, but don’t rush out to the supermarket to buy a jar if you don’t.  Too much time wasted.

Example #3: Your vocab list does not have to be perfect.  It should really just be a reference for making mp3s, and can be edited at will.  As long as you can read it, you’ll do fine.


5 thoughts on “Private Chinese Talk Show

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  3. Interesting approach. I’d like to know more about how you make your recordings and how they are structured. I want to do this myself but I don’t want to listen to a recording with my own voice in it. At the same time, it seems like too much to ask to ask a native speaker to make a recorded monologue. Thoughts?

  4. Hey Kieran,

    Actually, I had this idea a very long time ago, but only started implementing it in a big way in June last year. The reason I put it off for so long was identical… I didn’t want to listen to my own voice.

    I know there is a strong desire on the part of the learner to not listen to their own voice, but I strongly recommend overcoming this fear, because it’s not actually a problem. Native monologues do not lead to the best learning outcome, in my humble opinion.

    Therefore, I guess I should add a few things:

    1) Recently, I have been recording dialogues about Mandarin compounds with a particular character: for example, 入口/entrance, 出口/exit, 口號/slogan, 口味/taste, 讚不絕口/praise endlessly, 口若悬河/speak skillfully.

    We usually fit 3 to 4 two-character compounds into a 3-minute time-slot. 成語 take up a whole three minutes, because they are harder.

    Content is typically something like this:
    我:知道!在那邊! (Points at the door.)
    她:找死是不是?我們說其他的吧! 那…你聽過「口號」嗎?

    It goes on like this.

    2) When recording, I will usually be quite passive. I will just ask ‘這個字怎麼讀?’ or ‘可以解釋這個嗎?’ The time might be split 20:80 between me and the native, so I only end up listening to myself a small percentage of the time.

    3) After a while, I got used to my own voice. I think most people dislike listening to themselves, but after a while, you’ll stop being bothered by it.

    4) I tried native monologues before, but I found they tended to be much less interesting to listen to. Also, because they included no interaction on my part beyond selecting learning material, I tended to understand less, and it was difficult for the tutor to gauge the difficultly level correctly.

    In any case, you can buy CDs of monologues and dialogues for Cantonese and Mandarin, if you don’t want to pester a native.

    5) I will always add some background music. This is a great investment of time – it might take a minute to add music to each mp3, but it will mean that you will be able to listen to it for months rather than days.

    I typically pick music from Nintendo games from my childhood, which further increases the desire to listen back to L2 later, although I have also experimented with jazz, classical music and songs in languages I don’t speak.

    A more comprehensive set of possible reasons for not having to worry about listening to yourself speak another language are here:

    1) Your native speaker corrects you when necessary
    2) Your brain has some filter which screens out stuff which it knows might be wrong
    3) You spend so much time focusing on what your native is saying when listening that you have no time to listen to yourself
    4) On recordings, your native speaks for much longer than you, so statistically you hear good L2 more than not-so-good L2
    5) You can hear that you said something wrong when listening, and you mentally correct yourself each time
    6) You can edit out serious mistakes using Audacity.

    If anything’s still unclear, do let me know!


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