Native material, parsing and intensive vs. extensive
My recent post on the usefulness of ChinesePod for advanced learners has triggered some ponderings. This is where I write them down.
Have you ever had the feeling that the difficult thing in Chinese isn't the actual words, but rather being able to pick them up in natural speech? If so, you might need to work on your parsing. Parsing is the skill of separating an incoming stream of sounds into individual words. It's related to prosody (see my recent post; you can find it in the "other posts by" section to the right) in that you need to interpret the prosody of the speaker. In fact, probably the main function of prosody is to help the listener distinguish where a word begins and ends (this is why it's mentally tiring to listen to someone with bad prosody).
So how do you learn parsing? Well, in my experience, it comes through lots and lots of listening. More listening, I suspect, than ChinesePod can realistically offer. This is, I think, where native material enters the picture. Whereas CPod dialogues are great for intensive listening (that is, listening and working with the dialogue in order to understand it completely), native material is needed for extensive listening (listening to great quantities without needing to have full comprehension). I'm thinking both intensive and extensive listening are needed for a balanced meal. Intensive listening (or reading) is needed to really grasp grammar patterns and get into the language, whereas extensive listening (or reading) is needed to be exposed to all the variations of the patterns (and thus being able to generalize them) and learn parsing. I've been doing mostly intensive listening, so it's no wonder that I find the extensive listening more beneficial right now.
Now a quick topic-jump into how to work with native material.
The simplest and easiest is obviously to watch movies or TV shows with English subtitles. This can be done at any level, but I really don't think you gain much from it. You might learn a new pattern here and there, but it's too easy to just relax and enjoy the show. There are techniques to avoid this, though, like first listening, trying to guess what they say, and then looking at the subtitles, or quickly look at the subtitles first, and then try to figure out HOW what they say means that. but really, this stage is mostly useless. Use it when your skill isn't good enough to use the other methods, but you really want to watch the show.
Now, a step above this is watching through a show or movie you've already seen with English subtitles, but now watching it again with Chinese subtitles. This way, you always know approximately what's being said, but you won't remember exactly. This kind of context makes understanding it a lot easier. The main point is the Chinese subtitles. Being able to listen and read at the same time is what will really get your parsing skills going, and it makes it a lot easier to look up words you want to learn. You won't have complete comprehension at this point, but don't worry about it. You want quantity, not quality.
One step above is obviously going to be the same thing, but it's not a show you've seen before. you'll be a bit more lost for context, and it'll be more of a challenge to grasp what's going on, but the pictures will often give you quite a lot of context, still.
The step above that is watching a movie or show without subtitles. Now your parsing will have to really work. If you haven't trained it at all, this is likely to be difficult. This is putting it to the test.
Finally, we skip the images and move up to radio, where there is no context apart from what is said. This is the most difficult stage, and if you make it, you've made it. Of course, you might still have vocabulary problems, but that's another matter.
You can mix and match these levels, of course. I listen to a lot of webradio while working, even though I'm really working through the "Chinese subtitles" step. If you're like me, and have done mostly intensive listening, you might find that it seems like people start speaking much simpler Chinese. I've started to hear a lot of words in the webradio shows that I've known for a long time, but that I just didn't know were there before. I couldn't parse them. Now I'm starting to be able to. Hooray!
You can do this with reading, as well, of course. But that's a whole 'nother topic. I haven't really gotten into extensive reading yet, but once I get to China, I'll be sure to pick up some books and get crackin'.
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