My Promise to Myself

About nine years ago, when I had just finished vocational school, I made a promise to myself: I would continue to learn languages, and by the time I turned thirty, I would know at least ten languages. At that time, I knew four languages pretty well (German, English, French, and Spanish), and had another language at a higher elementary level (Italian), and had started with Chinese. In the coming year or two, I added a decent knowledge of Dutch to the list, to the point where I was able to read books in all six languages but Chinese. I bought a language self-learning course for Swedish, and for Chinese, since I wanted to continue with Chinese, and learn Swedish as well (that would have been languages seven and eight, with two more to go).

Fast forward to now: My French, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch are rusty at best (to the point where I’ll still understand a fair amount when reading something, but am unable to hold a simple conversation). I started the Swedish course but stopped not even one unit in. I started the umpteenth attempt to learn Chinese this spring, and didn’t continue because life, work, and university got in the way again. I studied Turkish for two semesters at university, and have forgotten most of it again. So basically, I speak two languages fluently and have ruins of five (six if I count Chinese) other languages in my brain that need severe repairs. Still two languages missing. I did try to learn Hungarian (broke off because I’d missed two weeks in a row and didn’t have time to catch up) and Arabic (same story) in university courses.

I turn thirty next year at the end of October. My deadline is getting closer and closer, and the work has become a lot more since I made that promise to myself, not less.

In the coming two semesters (which will end before my thirtieth birthday), I’ll have to learn Sanskrit for my linguistics degree (the historical part), which will be the first dead language on my list. That makes three (German and English being the first two, since I use them daily and teach English).

I just started refreshing my French (which was the first foreign language I learned after English), count four. Once I’m back up to a decent level (not even aiming at my previous B2/C1 level, just getting back to B1 across the skills would be nice), I’m going to do the same for my Spanish. Then, to (hopefully) prevent myself from mixing those two again, I’m going to work on my Dutch before refreshing Italian. B1 across the board is the goal for those four languages. Count seven.

Since I already did Turkish up to A2.1 level, I guess going for Turkish next, up to A2 across the board, is realistic. Count eight.

Chinese is still on my bucket list, and I’m planning on taking the HSK exam next year if it is offered in Berlin again. My minimal goal is HSK 2 (which, I think, is the Chinese equivalent to CEFR A2), both the written and oral test, but I’ll shoot for HSK 3 in writing if I feel confident by the time the exam comes around. I’ll probably study Chinese here and there while also refreshing the other languages, just because I know it’ll take a hell of a lot of time to get those characters memorized. Count nine.

The last one will be Swedish, for two reasons. One, it’s been on my bucket list for a long time now. Two, it’s a Germanic language like German, English, and Dutch, and Dutch was fairly easy to learn for me because of the similarities to German and English. I’m hoping for some help from those three languages when I try to get Swedish up to A2 level by October 29, 2017. Count ten.

I haven’t yet figured out how to evaluate my language skills, though, since there are probably not enough language exam dates available to cover all those languages in the next year (plus, exams can be pretty expensive). Any recommendations of cheap or free online tests are appreciated.

The Chinese Challenge (4)

I realised it’s been a while since I updated you on my self-imposed Chinese challenge. Well, to be fair, I haven’t got around to studying much these past days, but my last vocabulary test showed 44 out of 87 words correct (character plus pinyin), and I left out the earlier chapters of my exercise book, where my quota should be close to 100% by now. I knew a total of 48 of these 87 characters, and a whopping 73 pronunciations (the pinyin).

I still have almost four weeks to go and I’ve filled in about half of my exercise book completely (it has lots of squares to practise writing the characters), and only have eight pages left that are still blank.

Fun fact: When I talked to my professor yesterday (one of my mentors for my BA paper), she was shocked by the way I’m trying to learn Chinese, and insisted that I need to read and write in Chinese in order to learn it. While I mostly agree with her, I still think this writing exercise I’m doing at the moment has its merits. I feel a lot more confident writing all those weird lines by now, for example, because my hands have learnt which lines (strokes) need to be grouped, and how, so characters are not a random mess of strokes anymore but rather words consisting of only a few groups of strokes that I use to help memorise the meaning and/or pronunciation. My mnemonic to remember “cat”, for example, is a claw (the radical for “claw”, to the left), cat grass (it contains the radical for “grass”, on the top right), and a box. The character is this:

The pronunciation, well, that’s easy: It’s mao (with the first tone, a flat, high tone).

I’ve been trying to create mnemonics for a lot of the characters, especially the more complex ones, and sometimes it works. Still working on increasing my success quota, though…

The Chinese Challenge (3)

The vocabulary test today focused on the more recent vocabulary. I still have so many gaps! So despite me knowing a total of about 100 words by now (including compounds and single characters), it feels like I’m never reaching my goal. I know, it’s stupid since I already know about 100 words more than three weeks ago, and it’s already more than a third of the total vocabulary for this challenge, but it still feels like I’m failing my own expectations. *sigh* I guess that’s why I named this blog the way I did, to remind myself to be less strict with myself.

Anyway, some of the mistakes were as small as using the wrong tone, or forgetting a small stroke somewhere. I even finally got a character right that’s been eluding me from the beginning!

Using mental images and silly little mnemonics (like “tea lifts up your spirits, so the tone of the word goes up”) really helps me to remember those words, but I can’t seem to come up with them for just every word. Not yet, at least. I’m trying to get there. But boy, memorising 3,000 characters seems daunting, and yet that’s the approximate amount of characters a Chinese speaker needs to read his daily newspaper.

So…any virtual hugs or kicks in the butt while I try to come up with some more mnemonics for words I can’t seem to remember?

The Chinese Challenge (2)

I’m halfway through my character learning book (this one, in case you were wondering; can highly recommend it), and I’ve come to one important conclusion: I have a terrible handwriting, be it the Latin alphabete or Chinese characters. Definitely not calligraphy-worthy, but I do think that most of the characters I produce are legible.

Oh, and I found out that Chinese time references (at least the ones I know so far) are kind of simple: the months are basically called “one month”, “two month”, “three month” and so on, and the days of the week are called “week one”, “week two”, … until you come to Sunday, which is called “week sun” (and “week” is a compound from the characters for “star” and “period of time”). The character which is the equivalent to “o’clock” (as in “three o’clock”) can also mean “drop”. The time of day is given in relation to “midday”: “above midday”, “middle midday”, “below midday”.

The more I learn about Chinese compounding and the logic behind it, the less confused I am about the fact that Chinese only need to know about 3,000 characters in order to read newspapers. They seem to re-use characters in a smart and often logical way to form compound words, thus creating a larger vocabulary with a small set of characters. Way to go, China!

As to my progress: The next vocabulary test shouldn’t be too far away (I just have to get my husband to do it with me) and I’m hoping for an increase in words and characters known. Definitely got some more character practise done this week.

The Chinese Challenge (1)

During our Easter holiday, I made a deal with my husband: If I know all the Chinese characters and words for HSK 1 (the first of two elementary language levels, roughly equivalent to CEFR A1) by heart by the end of May, I’ll get a small reward.

HSK 1, that means 150 words consisting of a total of 178 characters. Each character has its own meaning, of course. So that’s a total of 250 words (178 characters plus 72 words with more than one character).

So far, I know about 70 of them (with correct pronunciation and correct character). I know a few more with either the correct pronunciation or the correct character. Some of the characters are easy, some have more than 10 strokes, the most complext character for HSK 1 has a total of 15 strokes!

My longterm goal is to pass the HSK exam next year at least up to HSK 3 (which would mean knowing 600 words), and try the oral exam for elementary level (HSK 1/2).

I have exercise books for practising writing, I have two posters with the vocabulary of HSK 1 and 2 (behind me on our living room wall), I have flashcards with all words for HSK 1 and 2, and I have three different textbooks (two of them with audio CD) for roughly HSK 1 and 2 level. On top of that, I already have exam preparation books for HSK 1, 2 and 3. Somewhere, I also have a Chinese learner’s grammar, but in order to be able to work with that, I have to know more characters first.

So…who’s cheering me on? Please leave me comments if you do so that I know that there are crazy people out there rooting for me while I do my crazy Chinese challenge ^^ I will keep you updated on my progress!