It’s been said that a single sharp knife is more valuable than a drawer full of dull knives. This is probably true in most fields — being really fucking good at something is more useful (and marketable) than being mediocre at many things (really, being mediocre at something isn’t marketable at all) — and it is certainly true in language learning. While sort of being able to speak a language may help make your vacation to a country where that language is spoken more enjoyable, it won’t get you very far in your professional life — but real fluency will. From All Japanese All the Time (whose author, Khatzumoto, certainly has a few very sharp knives in his kitchen):

Too many of us language learners are dabblers, dilettantes, hobbyists. Of course, it depends on one’s goals. But if we really want the maximum benefits of knowing a language, I think those max benefits only come with (native-level) fluency. If you want to be able to actually cut stuff, you need a sharp knife. You want to be able to use your languages to do (cut) ANYTHING. And fast. Understand everything from standard to regional dialects, read fast, speak fast and correctly, write fast and correctly. Otherwise you just have a collection of blunt mental; it looks good on paper, but it doesn’t do anything or it doesn’t do enough.

This is, basically, my goal for Chinese, and I have yet to reach it despite living here for almost half a decade. While my Chinese is better than a lot of, perhaps even most, Westerners living in Shanghai, it’s not nearly good enough. My ability to speak, listen, and write have holes in them large enough to drive semis through (my reading is pretty decent, but you could still drive a couple VW Rabbits through the gaps). I still occasionally find characters I don’t know. I make silly mistakes with aspect particles. It’s frustrating.

I’ve been on this plateau for a long time, in which I am able to handle my everyday needs with ease and finesse but am still not able to represent myself in Chinese like I can in English. I know the steps that I need to take to get off this plateau, but I have not yet made them.

There’s no time like the present.

January 20, 2012

Tudou is the largest online video site in China and, seemingly unfettered by the pesky IPR laws that keep full-length pirated material from lasting on Youtube for more than a few minutes, it’s loaded with TV shows and movies.

As a student of Chinese, this is a great boon. Chinese TV shows are available at any time, and can be stopped, rewound, and watched again (and again, and again…) if you missed something the first time. Since most shows in China air with accurate, burned on Chinese subtitles, you’ll have a transcript of what’s being said sitting in front of you as well. Even better, Tudou users have grouped popular shows into playlists so you don’t have to hunt around for the next episode.There are many, many more shows (and movies, and pretty much anything else you can imagine) available in Tudou’s archives.

Post: The Chinese Language and Me, by Jack Perkowski. Managing the Dragon, 30 May 2008.

First, respect where it’s due: Jack Perkowski founded Asimco, a multi-billion dollar automotive parts business, in China. When he talks about learning Chinese not being necessary for commercial success in China, he’s probably right — at very least, he’s an excellent case study in why that’s true.

Still, I get this feeling that he’s bought into the whole “Chinese is inscrutable” myth. He asks “What amount of effort would it take for me to get my Chinese up to a level where I could rely on it in business?” He’s been here since 1992 — 16 years. Relatively little sustained effort applied over the last decade and a half would most likely have sufficed.

I wonder, if he had known in 1992 where he’d be in 2008, if he would have started studying the language.

ItalianPod launched yesterday, joining ChinesePod, SpanishPod, and FrenchPod in the Praxis Language family of language products. Catherine and Marco have been a joy to work with, and their energy comes through in the podcasts (check out their first lesson, You Need a Girlfriend — it’s fantastic).

Having them around is enough to make me want to learn at least a little Italian, so I have been, working their lessons into my study. After reading this post on All Japanese All the Time and doing some research into how Rosetta Stone works (and has become successful) for work, I wanted to try incorporating images into my Anki flashcards to see how it affected recall, and decided to start with Italian.

So far I’m enjoying the addition — while it is time consuming, I think combining mediums is important when learning, and it certainly makes reviewing my flashcards more enjoyable (I crack up every time I see that poor cat). I’m adding photos to all (or at least most — some concepts just don’t lend themselves well to being represented by images) of my flashcards, and I should know in a few months whether or not it improves recall enough to offset the time it takes to create the cards (my gut says it does, though).