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doujiao

doing research in a foreign language

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I'm doing preliminary research for my MA thesis. My MA thesis is going to be based primarily on primary documents written in a foreign language. I've taken many years of this language. (In fact, I've completely exhausted all of my university's course offerings.) However, reading old documents in a foreign language is proving to be extremely challenging and unbelievably slow. I'm hoping it will get easier and faster over time. I'm actually working with a language tutor this summer who is helping me a ton. But it's sort of frustrating because I feel like the speed I'm able to progress at is severely limited by all the assistance I need. I'm trying to memorize new vocabulary and grammar structures as I go with the hope that I will then recognize them next time. I think this is worthwhile, but it also really slows down the process. I don't think that the solution is to wait and try again later. As I said, I'm already a MA student and I've exhausted all the language courses at my university and done well in them. If I want to make a career in this field I really need to learn how to do this. (Maybe some people just hire translators? In any case, I don't want to do that.) My language tutor tells me that the reading I'm doing is tough even for native speakers. I know I have to start somewhere. I just wish there were a book out there or something with advice on how to go about doing extensive research in a foreign language. Anyone have any experience or advice?

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I'm doing preliminary research for my MA thesis. My MA thesis is going to be based primarily on primary documents written in a foreign language. I've taken many years of this language. (In fact, I've completely exhausted all of my university's course offerings.) However, reading old documents in a foreign language is proving to be extremely challenging and unbelievably slow. I'm hoping it will get easier and faster over time. I'm actually working with a language tutor this summer who is helping me a ton. But it's sort of frustrating because I feel like the speed I'm able to progress at is severely limited by all the assistance I need. I'm trying to memorize new vocabulary and grammar structures as I go with the hope that I will then recognize them next time. I think this is worthwhile, but it also really slows down the process. I don't think that the solution is to wait and try again later. As I said, I'm already a MA student and I've exhausted all the language courses at my university and done well in them. If I want to make a career in this field I really need to learn how to do this. (Maybe some people just hire translators? In any case, I don't want to do that.) My language tutor tells me that the reading I'm doing is tough even for native speakers. I know I have to start somewhere. I just wish there were a book out there or something with advice on how to go about doing extensive research in a foreign language. Anyone have any experience or advice?

I'm assuming you're talking about Chinese history. What period have you been doing research in? What's your background in Classical Chinese? I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but a strong grasp of even the elementary Classical Chinese structures can really help your ability to read Modern Chinese.

I had a similarly frustrating experience in my last year of undergrad, when I decided to do a research project that heavily relied on Chinese language primary texts. I wasn't really prepared linguistically for the challenge, and had to look up almost every word. Fortunately one of my professors convinced me to go do an advanced language program in China, where we studied a lot of the basic constructions you can find in texts from different periods and different disciplines. I read those same texts at the end of the program, and I could easily go through them without a dictionary.

So basically, I would recommend you attend an advanced language program in China or Taiwan.

However, if that's not an option for you, then I would try to use your language tutor to your best advantage. Looking up and memorizing EVERY word or construction is not going to help you. Some of those words that you spent hours memorizing won't ever show up again, or at least not for a long time. I would have your language tutor read ahead in your materials and pick out the important and frequently used constructions. Before you read the text, study these constructions. Then, when you go to read the text, skim it first without a dictionary and see how much you can understand. Then read it once through again without a dictionary, underlining the words you don't understand. However, try to underline only the words that you can't guess the meaning. Then, use the dictionary to look up the underlined words (an electronic dictionary will save you a lot of time in this part). Read it through again. By this point, you should be able to understand what the text is saying, even if you still don't fully understand every word of every sentence. After that, I would have your language tutor look through your underlined words and pick out some of the very important ones for you to memorize.

This kind of a method should help a bit. But learning to read a language is the same as most other skills in life: you get better with practice. The more you read, the faster you'll be able to read. That's why Chinese history professors don't need to hire translators to do their research; they've just read these kinds of documents so often that they can just do it by themselves relatively easily. I know it's hard, but 加油! You can do it! Just keep working at it.

Feel free to PM me if you have any more questions or need more advice.

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To echo American in Beijing, I think the most helpful thing you can do when you're trying to deal with a foreign language is immerse yourself in it. The best option would be to take a language course in the country where that language is spoken. Not only the classes and homework but also doing everyday chores like shopping and traveling in that language are an enormous help. If you can't afford to do that, then the next best thing is an immersion camp. You can find many of those over the summer and even spending one month doing everything in that foreign language will advance you far beyond what even the most intensive university language course can hope to achieve. If you're studying a modern language, it's sometimes helpful to learn about its Proto-language; even random facts about the grammar and phonology both of the modern language and its historic predecessor can be useful to a translator and language researcher.

Having been a professional translator for several years, I also agree that memorizing everything you read is not a good way to go about learning a language. You need to be able to focus on the important words and structures in a text, not treat everything as equally important. Once you're familiar with more and more common words and structures, it should get increasingly easier to guess the meanings of words you don't know. I also find that, at least the way I learn new languages (and coincidentally, also how I study math), things take time to sink in. There is a period of time between learning something and being able to use it in which my mind is like a blank. I've learned not to force myself but rather to give myself time and sometimes even walk away from my work. Everything eventually surfaces even better than I had thought I knew; it just takes time. Again, a good dictionary will be a big help, and I like American in Beijing's suggestion of underlining the words you had to look up and have someone help you figure out which ones of those are important to know. I think it's important to keep in mind two things - first, that you can understand the meaning of a text and its relative importance to your research without understanding every word in it, and that once you decide a text is important, investing the time in deciphering every word and structure will get easier the more you do it. Practice makes perfect.

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I don't know anything about Chinese but at one point I was fluent (reading, writing, speaking) in German and got to read some interesting (and in some cases somewhat archaic) literature in that language.

I agree with the posters who are pushing immersion. That's how I learned German. (I never had a formal German grammar class.) The nice thing about learning this way is that classes generally only teach formal grammar, not colloquialisms. And it's the colloquialisms that will really trip you up in less-than-formal writings.

Of course, colloquialisms do change over time, so if you can find stuff from that time period that's been translated into English PROPERLY you can read one, then the other, then the first again. (Schiller was a lot easier for me after spending much time reading older English & German translations of the Bible side by side.)

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Thanks everyone. Actually, I spent four years living in China. I can speak modern Chinese fluently. Colloquialisms aren't a problem. I think the difficulty I'm having is at the other end of the spectrum (super formal). What I'm reading has a completely different structure from anything spoken. (I'm reading documents from the early 20th century so the language is a mixture of wenyanwen and baihua.) They also didn't use punctuation so just figuring out where sentences begin and end is an issue. I think the problem probably is that I could use some Classical Chinese instruction. (I'll take a course in that next fall.) I'm hope that I'm picking some up now. I will have my tutor tell me what words and structures are useful to memorize and which aren't--that's good advice. Thanks all.

Edited by doujiao

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Thanks everyone. Actually, I spent four years living in China. I can speak modern Chinese fluently. Colloquialisms aren't a problem. I think the difficulty I'm having is at the other end of the spectrum (super formal). What I'm reading has a completely different structure from anything spoken. (I'm reading documents from the early 20th century so the language is a mixture of wenyanwen and baihua.) They also didn't use punctuation so just figuring out where sentences begin and end is an issue. I think the problem probably is that I could use some Classical Chinese instruction. (I'll take a course in that next fall.) I'm hope that I'm picking some up now. I will have my tutor tell me what words and structures are useful to memorize and which aren't--that's good advice. Thanks all.

Hm. In that case, what I found useful [with a different classical language, but nonetheless] was to use textbooks which contained famous parables and folk tales with either a translation to [my language] or a discussion of difficult bits. As you say, classical texts are hard even for native speakers, so it stands to reason that there exist textbooks which teach them how to read ancient texts in their language. At an advanced level, I think that guided reading is a good preliminary step before actually translating similar texts on your own.

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Thanks everyone. Actually, I spent four years living in China. I can speak modern Chinese fluently. Colloquialisms aren't a problem. I think the difficulty I'm having is at the other end of the spectrum (super formal). What I'm reading has a completely different structure from anything spoken. (I'm reading documents from the early 20th century so the language is a mixture of wenyanwen and baihua.) They also didn't use punctuation so just figuring out where sentences begin and end is an issue. I think the problem probably is that I could use some Classical Chinese instruction. (I'll take a course in that next fall.) I'm hope that I'm picking some up now. I will have my tutor tell me what words and structures are useful to memorize and which aren't--that's good advice. Thanks all.

Ooooh, that sounds frightening, actually. And you're doing it all without having taken Classical Chinese? Wow! I've been taking CC for the equivalent of nearly two years, and I still think that kind of text would be the death of me.

It might help you if you start studying Classical Chinese with the help of a textbook (and your language tutor, :D !). A friend of mine is a CC professor, and he recommends this textbook:

Michael A. Fuller's "An Introduction to Literary Chinese", Harvard University Press 2004

In my CC class, however, we used Gregory Chiang's "Language of the Dragon: A Classical Chinese Reader", Cheng and Tsui Company 1999. However, I don't really like it and would only recommend it if your language tutor does not have excellent English. It's an English/Mandarin bilingual text (well, trilingual if you count CC), so it would be easier for your tutor to understand.

Also, a good CC dictionary would be helpful. For CC - Mandarin, I really like this one: 古代漢語詞典,商務印書館,南京2003 .

However, my professor friend recommends Mathews' Chinese English Dictionary. It's pretty old (from 1942), but he claims no one has succeeded in making a better one for CC - English.

Good luck!

Edited by American in Beijing

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I've done a fair amount of research in Hindi, which is probably not as hard to read as Chinese, but is in a different script and presents some challenges of vocabulary (as in, there's a ton). I found that, over time, I learned the skill of skimming in a foreign language. If you're reading criticism or some other kind of formal non-literary discourse, eventually you'll be able to get a good gist of whatever you're reading even if you don't recognize every, or even a significant portion, of the words. Don't worry, this really will happen after a while.

Also, since no one's mentioned it here, Anki (http://ichi2.net/anki/) is the best flashcard program that I know of, and probably already has a deck for classical Chinese ready-made.

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