Surprise Discovery About Learning Chinese Characters

securedownload (1)Awhile back I wrote about this trick I use to learn Chinese characters. I tend to cycle through different language learning methods, to mix it up and keep things from getting too boring. Recently I began using this trick again and I’ve noticed an increase in the number of characters I can now recognize. But this is not a “formal” learning method. It’s just one that I created out of my own instinctual seeking.

At first blush this may seem unrelated but, on another note, I have also been teaching a six year old Taiwanese girl reading and spelling in English and as a result, I have made an unexpected discovery about the way children learn to read English. While browsing the internet for downloadable English reading and spelling worksheets (that are meant for native speakers) something interesting emerged.

English words are often not phonetic, and are called “sight words.” Their spellings must be memorized. For example, words like “have,” “like,” and “because” are sight words. To teach children these words, the worksheets focus the students on identifying patterns in writing. For example, circling all the lower case p’s in a sentence, finding words that rhyme, finding words that begin or end in a certain letter, word search puzzles, unscrambling letters to make words, etc.

It dawned on me that I’m doing something similar with Chinese characters. My “trick” is to scan or “read” a text for patterns, second tone characters for example, or characters with certain shapes or radicals, and color code them with highlighters. After all, Chinese characters are like English sight words; they are not written phonetically and must be memorized along with the pronunciation. Identifying characters (by tone, or by other criteria) in a text is sort of like a word search puzzle.

I wonder if my early childhood experience of learning to read and write as a native English speaker led me, in part, to creating this method. In some ways it closely resembles what native English speaking kindergartners and first graders are doing to learn reading and spelling, but with adult material like books and magazines.

I feel this study method has incredible value for my learning, giving characters context as well as repetition of frequently used characters. To realize it’s not very different from how I learned reading and spelling in my native English is quite amusing and shocking!

I’m curious if you or anyone you know uses this trick, and where  you / they got the idea for it?

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Tagalog In Taiwan

10275984_504666069679843_4914453046523361642_nSo a couple of months or so ago I found myself becoming increasingly interested in learning Tagalog. As you know, Chinese is my primary target language, and I moved to Taiwan for language immersion. My secondary target language is Italian. Learning two distinct languages at the same time seems reasonable, but what about a third? Can I manage three languages at once?

I honestly don’t know, and I’m reluctant to proclaim Tagalog is my tertiary target language, because that just seems a little crazy. But I have been listening to the Pimsleur audio lessons, which you can still download for FREE! And I bought some books on Tagalog grammar. And I’ve been exploring Tagalog learning resources on the internet. So the evidence seems to suggest that I am, in fact, pursing Tagalog.

Well, several weeks ago a serendipitous Tagalog moment presented itself as I was enjoying some afternoon tea in a local cafe. Two women at a nearby table were speaking Tagalog! And, what was thrilling to me, was that I clearly recognized the language as Tagalog. While I couldn’t understand more than a few pronouns and yes / no, I could identify the speech as unequivocally Tagalog.

I approached the women and said good afternoon in Tagalog, and immediately asked in English if they were speaking Tagalog, just to confirm. We chatted for a bit, agreed it would be fun to meet up again, and exchanged contact information. I’m so excited to have two new native Tagalog speaking friends in Taiwan!

But despite my enthusiasm and excitement, the relationship between Taiwan and the Philippines is complicated and not always amicable.

I’ve heard many Taiwanese people make negative, racist or hostile remarks toward the Philippines, which they justify with the May 2013 incident where a Philippine Coast Guard opened fired on a boat in waters between Taiwan and the Philippines, unapologetically killing a Taiwanese fisherman. When I visited the Philippines briefly last December, quite a few Taiwanese acquaintances asked why I would want to go there in a tone of disdain.

In some ways this unfavorable attitude is paradoxical because Taiwan relies on cheap Filipino immigrate labor to work in factories, construction, fishing or domestic work like caregiving for the elderly. Quite often, these workers are college educated and have professional careers back home in the Philippines, yet choose to work in Taiwan because they can earn more money here. They are almost always fluent in English. In fact, one of the Filipino women I met in Taipei speaks fluent English, Chinese, Arabic, and Tagalog. Wow!

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Lonely Americans In Taiwan: Why Making Friends Is Harder Than We Thought

Before I came to Taiwan, I imagined living here would be a lot of fun and I would make new local friends quickly and easily. This had always been the case wherever I’ve gone, and I assumed Taiwan would be no exception. However, after arriving to Taipei I soon realized I was wrong. I wrote about this in a post called How To Make Friends In Taiwan. Fortunately for me I am a quick learner, and I began to meet Taiwanese people and get acquainted.

However, after more than a year later, I felt like nearly all of my acquaintances had still not converted to deeper friendship, and continued to lack meaningful connection and closeness. I attributed this to “cultural differences” which I explored in a post called Taiwanese People Are Superficial and Fake? A Western Perspective.

I’m still searching to unravel the mysteries of closeness and connection in Taiwanese culture. Obviously people here form strong bonds, despite my inability to. In my search to understand, I shared my feelings and experience with my Chinese tutor. He is also American, like me. But unlike me, he speaks very fluent Chinese. In the video above he shares his perspective (in Chinese! with English subtitles) about the challenges of making friends in Taiwan.

If you have any personal stories, insights, or advice for me on this topic, please share in the comments. Thank you!

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How To Learn Language In Your Sleep

learn language while sleepingAre you interested in learning a language in your sleep? Yesterday I wrote about how I’m learning Tagalog while I sleep. Try reproducing my results with the following:

  1. Download a Pimsleur language course of your choice. Preferably a language that you have not studied before. Pimsleur courses are fairly spendy, so you can experiment with the free Tagalog course first.
  2. Listen to the first lesson as you are falling asleep. Lessons are about 30 minutes long.
  3. For the next several nights, repeat, until you begin to “hear” phrases from the language in your mind. Stick to lesson one or two, until this happens.
  4. Now that your are “hearing” phrases, listen to lessons one and two while awake, in addition to bedtime listening. You can listen while doing other activities like driving, getting ready for work or school, or surfing the internet. Make it convenient and easy for yourself.
  5. Repeat the same lesson for a few nights and then go onto the next one. Mix it up and repeat earlier lessons whenever you feel like it.


  • Take your time building a foundation and don’t rush through the lessons.
  • Remember, this should be almost effortless.
  • Consistency is key.

If you participate in this language learning experiment, please check back and report your progress. I’m genuinely curious to hear about your experience with this unconventional method. Enjoy!

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How I Learn Language In My Sleep -Literally- And You Can Too

learning language while sleepingI’m learning a language while sleeping.

This may seem like an outrageous claim, but it’s true!

As you probably already know, I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese and Italian for some time now. And more recently I became interested in learning Tagalog after visiting the Philippines last December. I downloaded the free Pimsleur Tagalog Lessons but wondered when I would actually find the time to sit down and really learn the Filipino language.

Recently I started listening to the lessons at night as I was falling asleep. I didn’t have hopes of learning this way, because the soothing sounds of Tagalog functioned like a lullaby.

The next thing I knew, after just a few days, I was “hearing” Tagalog phrases running through my head, like song lyrics. I didn’t really know what they meant, but I could speak the phrases without a hitch. 

So I decided to give the Pimsleur audio a listen while in a fully conscious waking state. In doing so, I was able to attach meaning, (an English translation,) to the phrases I had learned.

Now, in addition to listening as I’m falling asleep, I usually listen again while I’m doing other things, like riding the MRT, washing dishes, or painting my nails. This keeps my Tagalog learning really low maintenance and slow. But I feel like what I’m learning is penetrating deeply and sticking. It kind of feels like cheating, learning with almost zero effort.

How or why it’s working is a mystery to me, although I would hypothesize that it has something to do with the transition period to theta brainwaves during the first stage of sleep. Despite most scientific claims that learning happens best during alpha brainwave activity, it seems there is something about this first phase of sleep that allows the brain, (at least my brain!) to absorb and retain spoken language.

I invite you to reproduce my results by learning language in your sleep. I will post instructions tomorrow, so check back and try out this unconventional method for learning languages! 

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