Learning Chinese!

(tl;dr summary: memrise.com is pretty cool for learning foreign language vocabulary)

One of my medium-term aims is to learn Mandarin to a reasonable conversational standard. I think it’s a really neat language, and at the moment I can’t speak any languages other than English 😦 which is something I’d like to rectify. I went to Chinese School on Saturdays when I was quite young, and I wasn’t very into it (as I recall, my attitude was “… school? On a Saturday?”) I think that helped with my ability to hear and distinguish tones and sounds found in Mandarin. Also, I remember growing up listening to my Mum talking to some of her friends in other Asian languages – although I didn’t understand a word of it, I was exposed to a lot of non-English syllables and sounds, which can only have helped.

In New Zealand, I studied Mandarin in Year 9 and 10. But when I moved to the UK in Year 11, (unsurprisingly) the school I went to didn’t offer Mandarin as a language option, so everything pretty much stopped there. I’ve always intended to pick it up again, and have done the odd little bit here and there, but I really can’t say anything very useful. I’m at that stage where I can say a few simple things, but have such a small vocabulary that I wouldn’t really be able to have a conversation about anything.

So a couple of days ago when I read about memrise.com in Wired magazine, and how it aims to use mnemonics and brain science to help you learn foreign language vocabulary, it sounded pretty awesome. (Learning informed by brain science? One of my favourite things!) I’ve signed up and so far, I think it’s pretty cool.

You can choose your course – some content is user-generated, and I guess that will gradually become a bigger part of the site, but the stuff I’ve been looking at has been generated by the team. You “plant” words (i.e. get introduced to them), “water” them (revise – in a variety of ways, clicking boxes, typing out the English meaning), and “Harvest” them. I expect there are things to do with retaining them in long term memory too but I haven’t been using it for long enough to get there yet.

It’s really cool, and I’m really pleased to have found a way to try and improve my Chinese and increase my vocabulary. One of the best things, in my opinion, is that many words are recorded by several voices – so you get a chance to hear what the word sounds like at different pitches, which I think is really useful. Another thing I really like is that it does talk about the construction of characters in terms of their parts making sense (or not making sense … tree + sheep = appearance. Hm. Well, it helps to remember the character – “The sheep hides behind the tree because it doesn’t like its appearance!”) and there are visuals to help associate the character with the meaning – like this animation of the character for “eye”.

Sometimes the site seems really slow to load, which can be a bit frustrating – though once a session starts, I don’t seem to have problems. But apart from that, everything is pretty awesome. I’m really happy to have found this – and it’s so cool that it’s free, and that users can add content and upvote/downvote content. Plus, it will help me realise another long-held minor ambition: to learn enough French to be able to transliterate French words! (One day I’d like to be able to speak French. Long before that, I’d like to be able to confidently read French place names / cookery terms / etc properly, without having had to hear them beforehand).

Which languages do you speak? Which languages do you wish you could speak?

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2 Responses to Learning Chinese!

  1. Good luck with learning Chinese!!!
    It’s quite a tough language, so it will require some effort 🙂



  2. Lucie says:

    Ooh, cool! That is a pretty amazing site. I’ve set up a profile to see if I can ever sort out the sad state of my German.

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