I know what you’re probably thinking, but hear me out.
Believe me, my singing career was over long before it even began, but that never stopped me using Chinese music video CDs as an amazing way to overcome those initial linguistic hurdles.
Times have certainly changed. During my first years in Chongqing, there was practically no awareness or enforcement of intellectual property, so you could buy pirated (Known as 盗版’Dao-ban) editions of the latest international blockbusters and music releases everywhere, street peddlars, news agencies, stationers, you name it! All for less than a single pound sterling at the time.
Keen to make swift progress in Chinese in that early stage, I soon noticed that store owners would play music videos to attract customers’ attention, and their potential as a study resource was clear from the start.
Putting song appeal and copyright issues aside, all the music videos had karaoke style lyrics superimposed at the bottom, like subtitles in a foreign language film, except that the words were much bigger, and filled in from left to right in time with the singer, which made the words easier to follow, learn, then practise.
So I bought a few albums with a mix of famous to more obscure performers, from pop stars like Jay Chou, Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, S.H.E, and more that don’t spring to mind as I write.
Then, armed with a Nokia phone dictionary with stilus, plus a paperback dictionary for more detailed explanation and example phrases, I began choosing songs that I quite liked, yet sung at a pace beginner Chinese learners could aspire to keep up with.
Slowly, but surely, character by character, I found the pinyin (romanised version of Chinese) for each word by writing them on the phone dictionary screen, searching them out again in the paper dictionary, then writing them down in a notebook. This sounds rather painstaking, but each Chinese character is a fascinting story unto itself, the way it evolved from ancient times to modern, the intricacies involved in writing it out, the right pronunciation. I was hooked.
At the time, I wasn’t overly concerned with writing the strokes properly and in the correct order. As my vocabulary increased, Chinese friends, colleagues and eventual family members would observe my attempts to write with great interest, and corrected the considerable number of errors.
Only a few months into my stay, I had mastered a couple of songs, and even impressed some fellow teachers when they invited me to karaoke, not expecting me to roll off a few Chinese classics.
In that first year of learning Chinese from scratch, the VCDs probably helped me the most of any resource, and provided the foundations when I progressed on to Crazy English Reader.
Not that studying VCDs was always plane sailing.
A lot of Chinese pop music originates from Taiwan and Hong Kong, where the more complex traditional characters are used, and sometimes bear no resemblence to the simplified version used ubuiquitously on the mainland.
Though less of a difficulty nowadays, since smart phone dictionary apps like Hanpin and Pleco list both sets of characters, learners of simplified Chinese will find traditional ones hard to recognise. In fact, though a great many on the mainland can’t write them, the majority can usually at least recognise them, largely thanks to the same karaoke videos I’m dicussing in this post.
Other difficulties included Cantonese songs, which I soon gave up in favour of concentrating on Mandarin, as well as trying to make sense of the Sichuanese spoken daily around me.
And like a select few English language artists, a few like Jay Chou love to sing either insanely fast, or muffle the sound of their slower paced tracks, even to the extent that native speakers struggle to hear clearly.
Finally, in my eagerness to master as many songs as possible, matched with a unfamiliarity with Chinese, you may well end up rolling off some quite racy and touchy phrases at the top of your voice, and to your listeners’ amusement or slight embarassment.
Now many years following the advent of smart phones and instant web searches, you need only a fraction of the time and effort I had to invest back in the day.
No painstaking word searches looking from TV, to mobile to paper dictionary. Modern Chinese language applications have character recognition software, which uses your phone camera to scan entire pages of text into the dictionary and offer instant entry results, something I never even dreamt was possible in 2003.
As the years past, the enforcement of intellectual property laws became ever more strict. Pirated disks disappeared from the street peddlars’ wares and the shelves of news agents and bookstores. For a time, it was still possible to buy them furtively in hidden backrooms on request, but even these eventually fell victim.
No need to worry though, many of these former VCDs are now available on Youtube. Just search for karaoke and the name of your desired artist, and you will find some. Even better, you could try searching in Chinese for more choice if you know how.
Also, try changing your appstore region temporarily to China, and download the QQ Music application. Though mostly in Chinese, you can find virtually any song you could ever think of or need, and with a running lyrics option to boot. You can enter English searches into QQ Music without any fuss.
So why wait? Shrug away your inhibitions and get learning Chinese quickly and effectively using the method I have described for you, even if you must hide away from prying ears or in the shower.
In the near future, I hope to create a Mandarin language series for Chinese learners using precisely this method, and hope it brings you the same incredible and swift results it did for me.
In the meantime, here is a more recent example video from Jay Chou, 告白气球 Gao-bai-qi-qiu, love confession balloons.
告白气球 – 周杰伦
sāi nà hé pàn zuǒ àn dí kā fēi
On the left bank of the Seine River, I savour your beauty and cup marking lips, coffee in hand.
wǒ shǒu yī bēi pǐn cháng nǐ dí měi
liú xià chún yìn dí zuǐ
huā diàn méi guī míng zì xiě cuò shuí
gào bái qì qiú fēng chuī dào duì jiē
wēi xiào zài tiān shàng fēi
Who should I send the roses to?
The wind blows my confession balloon across the street, smiling in the skies above
nǐ shuō nǐ yǒu diǎn nán zhuī
You say you’re hard to get
xiǎng ràng wǒ zhī nán ér tuì
You want me to back away
lǐ wù bù xū tiāo zuì guì
I needn’t choose the most expensive gift
zhī yào xiāng xiè dí luò yè
As long as there are fallen leaves on the Champs Elysees
ō ～ yíng zào làng màn dí yuē huì
It’s good for a romantic date
bù hài pà gǎo zá yī qiē
Don’t worry about messing it all up
yōng yǒu nǐ jiù yōng yǒu quán shì jiè
If I have you, I have the whole world
亲爱的 爱上你 从那天起
親愛的 愛上你 從那天起
qīn ài dí ài shàng nǐ cóng nà tiān qǐ
Darling. from the moment I fell in love with you
tián mì dí hěn qīng yì
Things feel so sweet
亲爱的 别任性 你的眼睛
親愛的 別任性 你的眼睛
qīn ài dí bié rèn xìng nǐ dí yǎn jīng
Darling. Your eyes say ‘I do’
zài shuō wǒ yuàn yì
亲爱的 爱上你 恋爱日记
親愛的 愛上你 戀愛日記
qīn ài dí ài shàng nǐ liàn ài rì jì
Darling. Since I fell in love with you, our diary memories float like the scent of perfume.
piāo xiāng shuǐ dí huí yì
一整瓶 的梦境 全都有你
一整瓶 的夢境 全都有你
yī zhěng píng dí mèng jìng quán dū yǒu nǐ
A dreamland of you infused in a bottle
jiǎo bàn zài yī qǐ
qīn ài dí bié rèn xìng nǐ dí yǎn jīng
Darling. Stay with me. Your eyes say ‘I do’
zài shuō wǒ yuàn yì