Listening to Mandarin (2008-01-05/04-20)

Today I am intrigued by juxtaposition of contrasts in spoken (and written) Chinese:
  • to ask, "Is it?" say shì bú shì (是不是), putting "is" next to "isn't";
  • to refer to "thing," say dōng xi (东西), putting "east" next to "west";
  • to ask, "How many?" say duō shao (多少), putting "many" next to "few"; and
  • to refer to "size", say dà xiǎo(大小), putting "big" next to "small."
Though not in this blog's goal list, "Chat in Mandarin" is my 2008 non-work mental challenge. I listen daily on my 30 GB iPod to Instant Immersion Mandarin Chinese or Pimsleur Chinese (Mandarin) I, usually while doing 30 minutes of moderate activity. I chose Mandarin because Asia would be new to me and because there are perhaps 1.05 billion speakers. It's the language with the most native speakers (followed by Spanish and English, which I already speak)--an order of magnitude more speakers than other Chinese languages like Cantonese.

I've written about mental self-improvement several times. Recent research into neuroplasticity suggests thinking, learning, and acting actually change the brain. One of the activities Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential consequently encourages is memorization. Since Mandarin is not in the Indo-European language family like Spanish and English, it poses a memorization challenge for me (though thankfully not due to noun declensions or verb conjugations).

An additional memorization challenge is learning Chinese characters or hàn zì (汉字). In fact, some recommend against learning characters at first; others think writing is the main reason Chinese is so hard. (In contrast, to me the four tones don't sound hard so far.) I am studying an average of one simplified character and compound per day from Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters Volume 1: A Revolutionary New Way To Learn And Remember The 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters.

For flashcards I enter hàn zì into Zhongwen Development Tool (zdt),a program discussed in Chinese forums that has a plug-in to search the CEDICT Chinese-English dictionary. I also downloaded a Pimsleur word list for zdt. The zdt stores hàn zì, pīnyīn romanization, and English definition. Other information (e.g., Learning Chinese Characters visual imagery), I enter into Mnemosyne.

Instant Immersion Mandarin Chinese came with Talk Now! Plus software from Eurotalk Interactive. However, both of the SourceForge programs (zdt and Mnemosyne), like the Pimsleur language learning system, use spaced repetition techniques (an idea I first encountered in Tony Buzan's Use Both Sides of Your Brain). Mnemosyne uses an early version of (and simpler interface to) the SuperMemo algorithm discussed in this month's Wired.

This juxtaposition of modern research and tools with an ancient language and writing may help my memory, but it also provides direction for travel. True immersion may be available in the People's Republic of China, where the official language is Standard Mandarin and the government uses simplified characters.