Monthly Archives: September 2014


Sep 2014

Missing Elevator Buttons

I recently read China Simplified’s book, Language Gymnastics. It’s a great entertaining introduction to the Chinese language which combines Chinese and foreign perspectives. The book included this passage in chapter 4, which is aptly titled “Sorry, There Is No Chapter Four“:

> Enter a Hong Kong residential tower elevator and you’ll often discover buttons for floors labeled 3A, 12A and 15B–no doubt alternative universes guarded by daemons and fairies. Other times the 1st floor is renamed the “ground floor” (following British conventions) and the 2nd floor is counted as the 1st floor, so then the 3rd becomes the 2nd and abracadabra! — the dreaded 4th floor becomes the less deadly 3rd floor right before our very eyes. Problem solved.

> Whenever a lift whizzes past the imaginary gaps between the 3rd and 5th floors or the double gap between the 12th and 15th floors, I’m taken by cleverness of it all. A property agent can show her clients a breathtaking flat on the “16th floor” without admitting it’s only 13 floors up. Sweet–higher rent and nobody dies. So depending on your perspective, apartment 4D at 1441 West 14th Street is either a deathtrap or the bargain of a lifetime. I say drop that cash and grab that key.

Chinese number superstitions are real, and not just in Hong Kong. I happened to encounter this elevator in Shanghai:

Elevator Buttons

Yeah, quite a few numbers missing there. In this case, skipping so many floors also means that the penthouse becomes “18,” a number desirable for the “8.”


Sep 2014

Baidu Images Does Chinese Comics

I’m kind of used to Baidu copying almost every initiative that Google comes out with, so it’s always interesting to see what Baidu does that’s consciously different from Google’s way. One such thing is Baidu Images. You’re probably used to Google’s search-centric approach. While you can search for images on Baidu too, Baidu takes a much more curated, discovery-based approach to the home page.

Check out this screenshot:

Baidu Images Home Page

Oh, also there are lots of pictures of pretty girls. No matter what you search for. Apparently that’s just a Baidu thing.

But also, there’s this 动漫” section now (indicated by the red arrow at the top). If you click on that, you get some kind of manga/anime directory at the top (I didn’t really look at this much):

动漫 section

But then if you keep scrolling down, you get an endless collection of Chinese comics! This is kind of cool. Here’s just a tiny selection:

Chinese comics

But if you go to the 动漫 section of Baidu Images, you can scroll down forever. That’s a lot of comics!


Sep 2014

Coloring without Rules

I recently gave a talk to some Chinese teachers about IB and AP Chinese programs in the US. In my research for the talk, I did quite a bit of reminiscing about my own 4 years in the Hillsborough High School IB Program. I had all but forgotten about “CAS hours,” and I seriously can’t remember at all what my “Extended Essay” was on. But one thing I totally haven’t forgotten about was “Theory of Knowledge.” That class was seriously cool!

It’s also a nice talking point for Chinese teachers, who are always eager to hear about how western schools systems foster creativity and independent, critical thinking. Theory of Knowledge fits in nicely there.

But the truth is that Theory of Knowledge would be far too little, too late if that’s all our school systems did to try to encourage independent, critical thinking. And it’s not exactly “creative” either. Those aspects of our western educations begin far earlier, even before we start school.

I was reminded of this the other day when I tried to buy a coloring book for my daughter. I had only two criteria: (1) it had to have lots of nice pictures to color (no text), and (2) it had to be cheap. Criterion #2 was the easy one. I had no idea I was apparently asking for way too much with #1. Take a look at what I found in the book store I went to:

Chinese Coloring Book

Chinese Coloring Book

Chinese Coloring Book

Chinese Coloring Book

Chinese Coloring Book

Chinese Coloring Book

Chinese Coloring Book

Chinese Coloring Book

Do you see a trend? In each book, the child is shown exactly how to color the picture. There’s a right way and a wrong way. (Oh, and also, you generally can’t just color without having new vocabulary forced on you.) I checked every single coloring book candidate in the children’s book section, and they were all like this. Not a single one just had blank pictures without “models” to follow. (Those models, by the way, waste a lot of space and paper, which could be more pictures to color.)

As if that weren’t enough, take a closer look at this picture:

Chinese Coloring Book

At the top, that reads:

> 涂色提示:涂色时,注意蜻蜓的身体要分成一个部分一个部分地涂。


> Coloring reminder: When coloring, be sure to use different colors for the different parts of the dragonfly’s body.

Why can’t a 3-to-4-year-old just color the dragonfly all one color? Well, because dragonflies are never a solid color in nature, of course!

Dragonfly dragonfly Dragonfly

Oh, wait.

What’s even more heartbreaking is what’s at the bottom of that same page:

> 学生姓名:__________ 家长评分:___________


> Student’s Name:__________ Parent’s Score:___________

That’s right. If you’re going to color a dragonfly, you have to put your name on it and claim responsibility for your crayon crimes, and then stand judgment for the objectively right or wrong colors you have committed to that paper.

I can imagine the harsh frowny faces the publishers would give a child that artistically attacked one of their pictures, American-style, and ended up with something like this:

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

To be fair, the kind of coloring book I was looking for does exist in China. In fact, I’ve bought one before at our local Carrefour supermarket. I was expecting higher quality and more variety at an actual book store, but instead, all I could find was this prescriptivist nonsense.

This is only a post about coloring books. I really wish this were the biggest problem with the Chinese educational system.

Duotone Doggy

I suspect a coloring catastrophe of this magnitude could get you permanently banned from Chinese kindergartens.


Sep 2014

A Pun for Mooncake Day

Today is Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in China, so here’s a little moon pun for you:

moon puns

The first line is where the pun resides. It reads:

> 月圆月期待 [moon round moon looking forward (to it)]

This is pretty nonsensical because the character for moon, “” has replaced the identical-sounding character . Most intmermediate learners will recognize this character as being part of the 越……越…… pattern.

So the meaning is:

> 越圆越期待 [The rounder it is, the more you look forward to it]

Still seems kind of nonsensical to me (in this context, anyway), but it’s just a lame pun for a billboard.

The brand an product is:

> 元祖雪月饼 [Ganso “Snow” Mooncakes]

Happy Mooncake Day!


Sep 2014

Confidence and Tones

It was in the summer of 2012 during a talk with all-star intern Parry that I first discovered that confidence-based learning was a thing. The concept had occurred to me before, but it really gelled when I saw this graph:

Confidence Knowledge Quadrants

Confidence-based learning applies to any kind of learning, but I think it applies especially well to mastering the tones of Chinese. Let’s take a quick walk through the four quadrants of the graph above…

1. Uninformed. So this is your typical beginner. You don’t know much, and you know that you don’t know much. It’s hard to say much of anything, and tones are only a part of the problem. Obviously, study and practice are needed.

2. Misinformed. In this case, the learner has learned a lot of Chinese, but has either not had sufficient practice, or has gotten bad feedback, leading him to believe that his tones are much better than they actually are. Part of the problem may be Chinese speakers’ tendency to overpraise any ability to speak at all. If no corrective feedback is ever given, how will the learner know his tones are still in need of work? This is the “unjustified confidence” I’ve talked about before in my post Laowai Delusions of Fluency. It helps to stay humble, and honest feedback is essential.

3. Doubt. If you’ve learned to be humble, and worked hard at improving your tones, they may be pretty good. But you may still lack confidence. You may speak quietly, or try to rush through words you’re not 100% sure of the tones for. This is actually a pretty good place to be, because you have the knowledge, and you just need some extra practice and corrective feedback. You’re probably used to not getting any feedback, which results in the doubt.

4. Mastery. You may not be perfect, but you know you’re pretty good, and you can speak with confidence. You know your tones, and you can pronounce them correctly. This doesn’t happen in a short amount of time; it comes as a result of extended practice with good feedback.

You need to KNOW the Tones

A friend once asked me what the correct tones were for a certain word. I told her: “3-2” (or something like that).

She then looked at me and asked, “how can you just do that? How do you know the tones for so many words?”

“I memorized them,” I said.

This is not the answer she wanted; she hoped there was some trick or pattern she could learn. There is another option of course: to learn like a child. Children, immersed in the language environment don’t “memorize” tones per se; they hear them so many times that there’s only one “natural” answer. This isn’t realistic for most adult learners, though, who frequently have to go from dictionary lookup to written or spoken communication. You have to know the tones of the vocabulary you know, and then you have to be able to correctly pronounce those tones.

This knowledge of tones corresponds to the “knowledge” axis of the graph above.

You need to be able to PRODUCE the Tones

Confidence in tonal production comes from the knowledge that you can consistently and correctly pronounce the tones correctly. This starts with being able to produce the tones of single syllables correctly, and then later progress to being able to produce tone pairs correctly, and eventually extends to longer phrases and whole sentences. But you need to practice, and you need good feedback. You need to know when you’re right and when you’re wrong in order to progress and gain that confidence. (See also The Process of Learning Tones here on Sinosplice.)

The way that we build confidence in tonal production at AllSet Learning is through regular pronunciation practice with a teacher (almost every lesson, for about 10 minutes). This is important well into the intermediate level. We have developed our own exercises for this, which are available online as Pronunciation Packs.

At this point in history, I don’t recommend computer feedback to work an tonal production. Perhaps some tonal feedback is better than none, but human perception is a weird thing, and computers do “logical” things which seem extremely strange to humans sometimes. Right now, only humans can reliably tell us how good tones sound to humans. Maybe someday that will change.

So build up your knowledge of tones, and get some good practice with corrective feedback to build your confidence. Mastery awaits.