It Doesn’t Hurt to Learn Something

It doesn’t hurt to learn something.”

I heard myself saying this phrase to my students recently.  I had just told them they were going to learn something new, and as usual they all acted like they were going to die.

It doesn’t hurt to learn.  It hurts to not learn; or it hurts to half-learn.  It hurts to learn “the hard way.”  I have made it my business to package content into modules that are easy to learn, but my students are not usually into it.

Anyway, I heard myself saying, “It doesn’t hurt to learn something,” and I thought, dang, that should be a fortune cookie or a t-shirt or something.  And then I thought that I should learn something. Here’s what I’m learning…

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Zhuyin fuhao 注音符號 (a.k.a. ㄅㄆㄇㄈ “bopomofo”).

This is the “traditional” system of describing Mandarin phonemes.  In the 1950s the PRC adapted Pinyin Romanization, and stopped using注音符號.  It’s still used in textbooks in Taiwan, where mainland reforms are never popular, as a rule.  I doubt that I’ll have to use注音符號 ever, but since it doesn’t hurt to learn something (and it didn’t) why not, right?

I downloaded a few quizzey-quiz apps onto my phone, and then switched my Pleco dictionary to show me pronunciation in注音符號 rather than Pinyin.  I’m not an expert at it yet, but I can now either read it outright, or guess right the vast majority of the time.  When I’m not sure, I hit the audio button.

Fantizi 繁體字 (a.k.a. “traditional characters” )

Up till now, I’ve been studying the “Simplified Characters” set, the writing reforms undertaken in the 50s by the PRC; they took about 200 characters and eliminated some strokes that seemed superfluous.  The traditional characters, they say, are a) harder to read, b) tedious to write, c) only used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and Chinatowns.

Well, I’ve spent plenty of time in Chinatowns, and now I’m going to Taiwan, so I told myself “it doesn’t hurt to learn something,” and switched my Pleco dictionary to the traditional characters setting (it still shows me both), and my Skritter to both traditional and simplified.  At first, the traditional characters seemed so crazy and ridiculous that they made me laugh out loud.  I quickly started making connections between traditional and simplified versions, and I’m starting to see why Chinese speakers from the mainland and diaspora alike say things like “traditional characters are more beautiful” and “they make more sense; you can see the meanings.”  I’m still wading through them, slowly, but I’m already recognizing the characters in readings and music videos, and I’m kind of annoyed I didn’t start sooner.

Morse Code 莫爾斯電碼

Ok this has nothing to do with Chinese.  I know it’s going obsolete, but I’ve always had a minor fascination with the minimal aspects of this system.  I never cared much for alternate alphabets (i.e., Klingon, Elvish, etc.) but I always thought it was cool that you could send messages with a single tone or a flash of light.  I’m pretty sure my sister and I learned Morse code when we were little, reading it off of her walkie-talkies.  Some of that knowledge remained into our adult lives; one time someone attempted to beep out “SOS” on a door buzzer, and my sister and I looked at each other and said “that was SMS, actually.”

Then I saw this video about Gmail Tap:

I actually do have as a goal to be able to text one-handed, the way we did in the old days with the alpha-numeric keypad.  I knew this was meant as a joke, but a trip to the app store yielded the exact IME, available for free.

They say that Morse code was something that people learned in a day, so I found a cool poster, downloaded a quizzy app, and when I felt strong enough, I switched my cell phone interface to the Morse code IME.  I’m still not super fast at it, and I haven’t learned numbers, punctuation, or the letters X, Y, and Z yet, but I’m getting better.  Every time the Morse code buttons pop up, I think, “guh, I should change that back to swipe,” but then I give the Morse code a try, and I’m surprised every time by how much I already know.

What’s with all the quizzy apps?

JP, you say, knowingly, what’s with all they quizzy apps?  Don’t they all smack of flashcarditarianism?  Don’t you find that horribly hypocritical?

I’m glad you asked.  No, I am not hypocritical.  I am still firmly and unequivocally against using flashcards for vocabulary acquisition.

I will say what I’ve always said: flashcard and flashcard-like quizzy quizzes train memory recall; linguistic knowledge is not memory recall.  If your goal is to speak a language, you’re better off practicing your conversation than drilling yourself with flashcards.  If your goal is to read a language, your time is better spent reading.

However, if your goal is to recall items, e.g., for a quiz, then by all means practice quizzing, and you’ll become really good at recalling those items for the purposes of quizzing.

What I was quizzing myself on was not vocabulary words which number in the thousands, but scripts and codes, which are finite.  Once I can recall those items, I put them into use immediately; i.e., switching my Pleco to bopomofo; switching my phone to Morse code IME.

As for my Skritter habit, I use a writing tablet.  Yes, it’s still SRS and flashcardy, but I’m using it with visual, audio, and most of all kinetic input.  So since I want to learn writing, and I’m actually physically practicing writing, I give myself a pass on that.  Also, I’m quick to switch to paper once I think I own a character.  When it comes to literacy in this language, there is really no substitute for ink and paper.

But just to reiterate, I still think flashcards, regardless of SRS or the bells and whistles of Rosetta Stone, are a gigantic waste of time when it comes to vocabulary and language acquisition.  No question about that.

One thought on “It Doesn’t Hurt to Learn Something

  1. Not all flashcards are created equal. If you’d like to try Maurice Hazan’s QTalk system of deeply intuitive visual mnemonics (Q-Cards) to enable your students’ speaking in complete, correct sentences, we’d love to get your feedback.


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