I got a first generation (2G) iPhone in 2008. Then I switched to an Android in 2009. As of this past weekend, I’m back on an iPhone (3GS). Why? I’ll spare you most of the geekery… it’s largely related to Chinese.
The HTC Hero was a pretty solid early Android device. The new smartphones running Android 2.2 are way better now, though. I’m aware of this. It wasn’t just about upgrading hardware and getting the latest OS.
I don’t really care that the iPhone has more apps, snazzier apps, and more games. Unfortunately, with the app advantage the iPhone pulled off another important victory: better apps for learning Chinese. As a learning consultancy, AllSet Learning also recommends various tools for learning Chinese. Well, I’ve got to admit: the iPhone is now the best tool out there for learning Chinese. For myself and for my clients, it’s the phone I need to be using.
Here are the most important factors in my decision to switch back to the iPhone from Android:
– The iPhone has quite a few dictionaries available for the student of Chinese. The free ones are decent, but if you’re willing to shell out a little money, you can buy some very good dictionaries. Popular choices include Pleco, Cambridge English-Chinese (not free), iCED, Qingwen, and DianHua.
– Switching between input methods in the iPhone is instant and easy (especially if you only enable English and one Chinese input method). This is something I do so often that even a slight advantage starts to really matter.
– If you’re interested in handwriting recognition for Chinese (and this is a great learning tool in itself), Apple’s solid version of that is built into the OS.
– The ChinesePod app for the iPhone is better than the one for the Android. (This is a trend that’s not particular to ChinesePod.)
– No good dictionaries. I don’t even know what everyone uses. Hanping? Honestly, until I heard about Hanping (which, although serviceable, is a very basic CC-CEDICT dictionary), I was just using the mobile version of nciku.
– Switching input methods is a bit slow and annoying. It’s tolerable… for a while. But if you do a lot of switching, it gets to you. (Or you might stay in pinyin mode all the time, which also slows you down, since it has no predictive text functionality.)
– It’s getting Pleco someday, but who knows when?
OK, but nothing is totally one-sided… There are a few other points I should mention.
– Google Maps is still messed up in Shanghai on the iPhone. What’s up with this? It always places you some 300-500 meters northwest of where you really are. Apple blames Google. (Google Maps works just fine on Android devices in Shanghai.) This is seriously annoying.
– Google Maps just works.
– Recharging with a regular USB cord is so, so nice. (When you forget your cord, you can even borrow a friend’s digital camera USB cable.)
An iPhone 4 that’s usable in Shanghai is still super expensive, which is a major reason why I got a 3GS. The iPhone 3GS and the high-end Android devices are comparably priced. I was tempted to check out one of the Android phones, but I can’t ignore those iPhone advantages. I’m fickle, though… we’ll see how things develop over the next year.
Sinosplice reader Matthew recently introduced me to Jukuu, a database of sample sentences. The Chinese name, 句酷, is a pun on the word 句库, meaning “sentence base,” in the naming tradition of nciku). There are some really interesting things going on on Jukuu. Here’s a screenshot from the results for a search for “get”:
I enjoyed some of those random sentences. Some things worth noting:
– The sample sentences in the screenshot above are all taken from About Face 3, a well-known book on goal-directed design, which has been published in multiple languages.
– Jukuu offers not only multiple translations (grouped by part of speech), but also the distribution of those various parts of speech in its database (that’s what the pie graph at the right represents).
– Jukuu also offers other word forms (词形) for “get” (in this case, “gets,” “getting,” “got,” “gotten,” and even “getable”).
– If you click on one of the translations in the top right, the resulting page shows you sentences with just that translation of “get” (for example, this one for 得到).
– You can get similar results without going the “exact translation route” by just searching for multiple words, in a mix of English and Chinese. (The sentences aren’t censored, either. Have fun with that!)
– If you go to the “get” results page, further down the right column, you also see links for “adjectives frequently preceding this word,” “verbs frequently preceding this word,” “prepositions frequently preceding this word,” and “nouns frequently following this word.”
This kind of thing is a linguist’s dream, and can only be accomplished by corpus analysis with part of speech tagging, which is a ton of work. It’s really cool to see a resource like this publicly available online.
CEO Hank Horkoff over at ChinesePod has been drinking a lot of tea lately. He calls what he’s doing the Taobao Tea Trail. He’s bought a lot of Chinese tea on Taobao, and he’s sampling it all, learning as he goes. He explains:
> Armed with the Chinese-language 茶叶地图 [“tea leaf map”] and 百度百科 [“Baidu Encyclopedia”] I am sampling my way through the spectrum of Chinese teas – more than 85 in all, one a week. I am using Taobao to order the tea leaves and then posting a bit of information, photos and a link to the Taobao merchant here on this blog.
He’s got lots of quality photos, and even Google maps showing what parts of China the different teas come from. If you’re interested in tea, his project is definitely worth a look. (And if you come to the ChinesePod office, you might just be able to sample them yourself!)
There has been a bit of a buzz lately among the techy students of Chinese in Shanghai, and it’s all about the new functionality coming to the Pleco iPhone app. From the site:
> We’ve just announced an incredibly cool new feature for the next version of Pleco, 2.2; an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) that lets you point your iPhone’s camera at Chinese characters to look them up “live” (similar to an “augmented reality” system): demo video is here (or here if you can’t access YouTube).
Watch the video. Seriously. This is big.
Basically what the new app allows you to do is to add “popup definitions” to any Chinese you’re reading–even a book. It’s instantaneous. It uses the iPhone camera, but it’s not like taking a photo at all. (It’s more like using 3D goggles… Magical 3D goggles that provide pinyin readings and definitions for Chinese words.)
The technology behind this app is not terribly new… optical character recognition for Chinese characters has been getting steadily better over the years. But no smartphone app has done this well yet, and it’s a bit stunning to see Pleco performing so admirably right out of the gate.
Oh, and more good news from Pleco:
> Also, we’re finally working on an Android version of Pleco, and have just signed a license for our first Classical Chinese dictionary….
Awesome. Congratulations to Michael Love and the rest of the Pleco team.
It appears to be my 10 year Chinaversary. Thanks to all of you that have congratulated me. It feels very weird, because:
1. Everyone knows exactly how long I’ve been in China because of a nerdy little PHP script I put on my blog a while ago (and refuse to take down)
2. I’ve been in China 10 years (China!)
3. I’ve been in China almost a third of my whole life
4. I’ve been in China longer than some of the Chinese kids I see on the street (and their Chinese language skills will soon be overtaking mine, if they haven’t already)
The script actually rounds up when it calculates how long I’ve been in China. (OK, here’s where it gets super nerdy: mouse over the number on the site to get a more precise calculation.) I originally estimated my arrival in China to be August 20th, 2000, but I just dug through some of my dusty digital archives, and I found some old journal entries. I kept an electronic journal in text files before I ever started a blog. (Ah, those are quite amusing.) Anyway, it appears that my arrival was actually closer to August 8th (how auspicious!), although the first entry is dated August 12th, 2000.
So to celebrate my 10th year anniversary, I’ll post a few snippets from my very first observations of “the real China,” posted by a clueless American 22-year-old who could just barely speak a little Chinese…
> Andrew met me at the airport in Shanghai. His driver picked me up. Andrew’s house is REALLY nice… He said it’s like $5000/month, but his dad’s company pays for it all. It’s sort of a gated community outside of Shanghai. They have Chinese security guards at almost every corner of is neighborhood, and a free bus that goes to and from town on the hour. So, basically I spent my time in Shanghai hanging out with Andrew and his friends. We ate REALLY SPICY Sichuan food one night (I really felt it the next morning), had quite a bit to drink, and socialized with some Chinese girls in a bar. It was nice to get an introduction of China from Andrew. I also got a nice little electronic dictionary. It was meant for a Chinese person, but it’s still quite useful.
> The ticket to Hangzhou was only 29RMB (less than $3!) for a 2 hour ride, and some nice middle-aged lady talked to me the whole time despite my broken Chinese. She knew very little English, but that didn’t stop her from talking to me.
> Hangzhou is a nice enough city, but I’d definitely call it a city, not a town. It’s bigger than I expected — bigger than Tampa. The Chinese insist on calling it medium-sized, I guess because it doesn’t fit into the silly elite “big” category which includes only huge cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Anyway, it doesn’t have a subway system — only buses and taxis — but it’s big.
> The Chinese are less curious about me than I expected. After being such a spectacle in Japan, I receive relatively little notice here, even though I’ve seen only a few foreigners here in all my jaunts through the city so far. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing — I guess it just means I have to be more active in my interactions. That’s OK with me, I guess… I hope they don’t prove to be completely UNinterested in me, though, because that could be problematical for me and my hopes here.
> [Editor’s note: in a later entry I write: First, let me correct what I said earlier about Chinese people not being curious. I was wrong. They’re very curious. For some reason, though, they seem less curious when I’m with a Chinese person than when I’m alone. These days I’m getting plenty of “hello!”‘s and stares. So I guess all is well in Asia after all. hehe]
> Besides its size, I do feel a little misinformed about Hangzhou in a few other ways. It’s supposed to be such a beautiful city… I wouldn’t call it an UGLY city (although it does have its ugly points), but the beauty of it just doesn’t strike me so much. The famed West Lake is nice, but again, not dazzling. The famous Hangzhou women (the most beautiful in all of China) haven’t exactly wowed me either, although there are some pretty women here. Maybe they hide their finest. So what it comes down to, I guess, is that I think I’m just in a pretty ordinary Chinese city instead of some rare jewel of a city that I had been led to expect.
> There’s been a fair amount of frustration so far… Small frustration at unfulfilled expectations, but greater ones of the linguistic variety. Frustration because when people talk to me in Chinese, I understand some, but don’t get what they mean. Frustration because when I don’t understand them, they talk to me in English. Frustration because they talk to me in English without even trying Chinese. Frustration because if they would just speak a little slower, I really might get it. Frustration because my vocabulary is really so small. Frustration because all that stuff I learned at UF and then forgot was really, really useful stuff! Frustration because my pronunciation — even for things I’m sure of — is bad.
> But these are the frustrations of a student who JUST arrived in China. I know I have to give myself more time.
I’ve been asked quite a bit lately about the new HSK, so I thought I’d share some of the information I’ve gathered. (You can also refer to ChineseTesting.cn, which seems to be an official source of information affiliated with the Hanban.)
The new HSK has been designed to meet the “western need” for assessing students’ practical communication skills in Mandarin Chinese. (Meanwhile the Japanese and Koreans will continue their frenzied test-taking with the old HSK, which has developed into quite a sizable business.)
The new HSK was administered publicly for the first time this year on March 14, 2010. If you want to take the new HSK in Shanghai this year, you can register for the October 17, 2010 or December 5, 2010 HSK examinations through Tongji University’s testing center (phone: 6598-0701). Not sure what the deadline is.
The new test is split into six levels for the written portion, each of which has its own structure and price:
– Level 1: 40-minute test of listening and reading comprehension (150 RMB)
– Level 2: 55-minute test of listening and reading comprehension (250 RMB)
– Level 3: 90-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (350 RMB)
– Level 4: 105-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (450 RMB)
– Level 5: 125-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (550 RMB)
– Level 6: 140-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (650 RMB)
The spoken segment of the exam will cost you another 300 RMB, and takes 21 minutes. The sections include:
1. Listen and repeat
2. Describe pictures
3. Answer questions
You can choose to take just the written or just the spoken portions of the test.
Oh, and just for reference, the old HSK costs 250 RMB for the intermediate version, 330 RMB for the advanced.
Hmmm, looks like the new HSK might just be a nice little source of profit for the Hanban. It’s also selling new syllabi, one for each level of the written test, and one for the spoken test [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, spoken].
In my work at AllSet Learning I’ve had a number of clients trying to get from an elementary to an intermediate speaking level, and at the same time finally deciding to tackle the Chinese characters they’ve been avoiding for so long. My advice is usually some variation of, “if you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, you need to bite the bullet and start learning characters.” (Most learners already know this, but somehow they need it told to them unequivocally.)
Fortunately for my clients, they all live in Shanghai, so they’re always surrounded by Chinese characters. If you’ve long been intimidated by Chinese characters, it’s surprisingly easy to block them all out and not really even see them in your daily life. Once the journey to learn Chinese characters has begun in earnest, however, it’s time to take the blinders off. And simply by paying attention to the characters around you, you start to notice a lot.
Sure, especially in the beginning, you don’t recognize most characters you see. But the more you look, the more you recognize. One of my clients told me excitedly,
> I learned the character 女 a long time ago so I could find the women’s room, but I never learned the character for “man.” Then, the other day, I saw the character 男 on a door, and I actually was able to read the character I had just learned. It suddenly had meaning!
One small step on the road to learning characters, but a giant leap in terms of achievement. That first “reading moment” really is a significant milestone in the long road ahead. No, characters themselves aren’t “magical,” but there is definitely a bit of a “character high” in those early days of discovery.
Anyway, eager to support learners of Chinese characters, I’ve been on the lookout lately for super easy signs. Two especially stood out:
小大人 (“Little Adults”)
Do the characters around you help you in your studies? I’m convinced that one of the reasons that Chinese living abroad so frequently forget how to write (relatively common) characters is that they no longer have those constant passive reminders built into their environments. In my own studies here in China, I’ve learned characters from my surroundings many, many times. The characters around you may not be often mentioned as key to the immersion experience, but they sure do help.