It’s been a year and a half since I returned from China, and I have spent nearly every day of those 18 months worrying about losing my hard-earned Chinese. I’ve tried various techniques at various times with various degrees of success – classes, flashcards, activities, movies, books – but the truth is, it’s harder when you’re not immersed in the language effortless every day.
But this quarter, I’ve been doing a lot better. Stanford offers a program called PALM (Program for Advanced Language Maintenance), which meets twice weekly for informal but structured conversation. I went last week, and we (a Chinese woman, a Polish man, and I) watched some controversial excerpts from a popular reality show and discussed them. I’m hoping to go to that about once a week, which is great for listening input and speaking opportunities. I think one of my greatest strengths in Chinese is the willingness to speak, and that’s certainly something I don’t want to lose!
I’ve also been really diligent about my flashcard reviews. Three things have been helping me with this:
First of all, as if I haven’t made this clear enough, my flashcard program (Anki) is awesome in general. The spaced-repetition system means I spend 5-10 minutes every day keeping up with my 9,000+ flashcards.
Also, I started using the website Joe’s Goals to track several things I want to do daily – get up by 9, write in my journal, do my flashcard reviews, etc. You create the list of goals, then check them off every day you complete them. It helps you along in these goals by keeping track of (and quantifying!) your diligence. Create a long chain of check marks is a powerful incentive, and looking at the webapp is a great daily reminder of what you haven’t done yet. All in all, it’s a simple but very effective tool!
Finally, having new material in my flashcard deck has made studying more fun. This goes hand-in-hand with another technique I’ve been using – reading! I bought a few Chinese books during my year there, but had enough input when I was living in China that I never even started them. I picked up 哈利波特与魔法石 (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) for my trip to Cambodia last December and made it about 20% of the way through it, but didn’t touch it again for nearly a year. I resumed reading over Christmas break, and have made it a goal for 2012 to finish an entire book in Chinese.
I’m currently halfway through the book, and would wholeheartedly recommend a similar exercise for anyone trying to maintain a reasonably-advanced language skill. The biggest disadvantage of not living in a country where the language is spoken is the relative dearth of input, but if you have reading material (or at least the internet), then you have access to input!
Harry Potter was a great choice of book, too. It’s engaging and I already know that I enjoy it. (I’ve read it several times in English, and about halfway through in Spanish as well.) This means I have a pretty good ability to learn words and phrases from context, and I also have the ability to know which words are not worth learning (which is possibly just as important).
So I’ve been learning lots of words and adding them to my flashcards, which means new material to study! The words I’m adding are an odd mix of generally useful (applaud, a match, wig, spinach, steam, tin, telescope, frog, yawn, ceiling, mildew, rib, remote-controlled, feather, tin, safety pin, slug, scar, spider, bacon, fireplace, to blow one’s nose, dolphin, eardrum, steering wheel, rearview mirror, heavy) and extremely specialized Harry Potter words. Examples of the second category include magical things,
- Hogwarts (霍格沃茨, huògéwòcí)
- sorceror’s stone (魔法石, mófǎshí)
- transfiguration (变形术, biànxíngshù)
- alchemy (炼金术, liànjīnshù)
- Muggle (麻瓜, máguā)
- goblin (妖精, yāojing)
- Quidditch (魁地奇, kuídìqí)
- flying broomstick (飞天扫帚, fēitiān sàozhou)
- wand (魔杖, mózhàng)
names of main characters,
- Harry Potter (哈利·波特, hālì·bōtè)
- Ron Weasley (罗恩·韦斯莱, luó’ēn·wéisīlái)
- Hermione (赫敏, hèmǐn)
- Draco Malfoy (德拉科·马尔福, délākē·mǎ’ěrfú)
- Voldemort (伏地魔, fúdìmó)
- Dumbledore (邓不利多, dèngbúlìduō)
- McGonagall (麦格, màigé)
- Hagrid (海格, hǎigé)
and the names of the four houses of Hogwarts.
- Gryffindor (格兰芬多, gélánfēnduō)
- Ravenclaw (拉文克劳, lāwénkèláo)
- Slytherin (斯莱特林, sīláitèlín)
- Hufflepuff (赫奇帕奇, hèqípàqí)
So, I basically just can’t wait until these words come up in conversation.