Mandarin Monday: Sinoglot’s Kellen Parker shares some tips on learning

What follows is the second in our weekly Mandarin Monday series, that discusses Chinese learning. The series will deliver advice through interviews with long-time Mandarin learners, sharing resources and discussing learning techniques.

This week we speak to Kellen Parker, co-founder of Sinoglot, an organisation of Chinese linguistics researchers. Kellen is an American linguistics researcher who’s spent the last few years in Shanghai as a grad student, and currently resides in Seoul where he’s researching Mandarin use among Korea’s overseas Chinese population.

Lost Laowai: What was the largest driving force in spurring you to overcome the challenges and actually learn Chinese?

Kellen: Language is really interesting. I spend a lot of time thinking about it, so I may as well be putting that time to good use. That’s what pushes me to spend the time trying to constantly improve. The initial push, however, was me not wanting to be the jerk who couldn’t communicate with a single soul in the country I chose to live in.

Lost Laowai: How has the Chinese learning landscape changed since you first started learning — what’s better/worse?

Kellen: Pleco’s OCR is the first thing that comes to mind. Actually smart phones in any capacity. I didnt own one for my first three years in China. I finally bought an iPod and everything changed. There are also more specialist type resources available like Carl Gene’s site or the work of my co-contributors on Sinoglot. More learners are producing more insightful commentaries than I was aware of four years ago.

Lost Laowai: Do you believe a single method of learning works best, or would you recommend a multi-pronged attack?

Kellen: Multi-pronged, to an extent. The biggest thing has to be speaking all the time, but people shouldn’t neglect being able to read or understand more complex grammar.

Lost Laowai: What do you feel as being the most effective tool in learning Chinese?

Kellen: Contact with the language. Dictionaries and grammar primers and all that are nice but secondary. Don’t go buying a bunch of books if you’re not going to spend the time to try what you’re learning.

Lost Laowai: Where do you think a new learner should start, and is that where you started?

Kellen: I never took a proper class, and sometimes I wish I would have. It would’ve saved me a lot of time making a lot of simple mistakes.

Lost Laowai: What mistakes, if any, did you make when learning that you hope others can avoid?

Kellen: Not so much a mistake as a pronunciation issue. No one explained ü correctly. Many people explained it incorrectly. It’s not “oo” like many western learners say it and it’s not “ee” like many Koreans say it. It’s somewhere in the middle. Learn r and x and sh and learn them early.

Lost Laowai: What are some of your favourite resources (online or off) for learning Chinese?

Kellen: As mentioned above, Carl Gene’s site is good, and other sites like Chinese Hacks that give some themed post. I used to use nciku a lot for example sentences but the Qingwen iPhone dictionary by Karan Misra replaced that a while back. and are awesome for sentence construction and obscure vocabulary respectively.

For more from Kellen, and a whole host of posts about Chinese, check out Sinoglot, and follow him on Twitter. Also, check back next week for more Mandarin Monday.


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  2. Nice article. I think the advice to build a proper base is very good. Most westerners I meet in China have only a thin foundation of classroom instruction upon which they try to build their Chinese language skills. In the end, shakey foundation = unstable building. They try their best, but sometimes I feel they would be better off just going back to the basics and learning them properly rather than to continue building and adding on new words on top of their lack of understanding of the structure and grammar.

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