I’ve had many conversations with learners looking for an immersion experience in China. Well, Michael Hurwitz, my friend (and former AllSet Learning client) decided to round out his China experience with a month in the Sichuan countryside (outside Chengdu) doing farm work. He went through an organization called WWOOF that sets up labor-hungry foreigners with organic farms and the like.
But is a month enough? Was it a good experience? I interviewed Mike to get his take on it.
Could you explain why you felt the need to run off to the Chinese countryside for an immersion experience?
Mike: It was something I’d wanted to do for awhile, but the language element was only part of it. I was also interested in checking out a more “authentic” Chinese place than Shanghai, if that makes any sense. The lack of westerners and English speakers around was a big part of my reasoning, but I was also hoping that the stronger “Chineseness” of the 农村 [countryside] (and 农民 [rural workers], for that matter) would rub off on me a bit and that I’d understand a bit more about China, having seen a lifestyle very different than the urban one I’d been participating in.
What was the farm work like?
Mike: The work itself was nothing crazy, primarily because the farm was as much about environmental education as it was about growing stuff. I mostly planted trees and pulled weeds, with lots of other work thrown in. The farm’s owner was really flexible; for instance I sometimes have knee problems (because I’m secretly a 45-year old man) and he had no problem with me forgoing work that involved lots of crouching. Towards the end of my time there, the owner even had me translate some instruction manuals for products he’d ordered from the US into Chinese! Productive work, but not quite what I’d imagined beforehand.
How was the food?
Mike: Food was very hit or miss. I don’t eat pork, which complicated things, as one of the 阿姨s [ayis] simply couldn’t understand that, and often left me no meat alternatives, which is tough when you’re doing physical labor all day. However, the other 阿姨 [ayi] was a wizard in the kitchen and made some absolutely magnificent dishes that I still crave.
Were you able to practice a lot of Chinese? What kinds of conversations did you have? Was the location a good choice?
Mike: Definitely got a huge amount of practice. No one else on the farm spoke English, so all communication was done in Chinese. It was very productive in that it was easy to get past the normal sorts of introductory conversations and actually start talking with people about normal things grown-ups talk about.
This was very cool because so often as a foreigner you’re seen as more of a curiosity than an actual person, so you can’t really have genuine conversations, but living on the farm with the same people for an extended period helped me get past that.
The location was something of a mixed bag. While being out west meant there weren’t any English speakers, it also meant there were some very non-standard accents and a lot of older folks who just couldn’t speak Mandarin. It led to situations where I had to have younger people translate from the local dialect into Mandarin for me, which was colorful but inconvenient.
Another element was that many of the things I was doing and experiencing – farm work, new foods, new activities, etc – were things I had never had cause to talk about or learn the vocabulary for in Chinese, so there was a lot of learning on the fly there as well. It was a bit overwhelming at first but after a week or so it got a lot easier. It helped as well that the farm’s owner and his wife were Beijingers, so I could always lean on them when I needed something more 标准 [standard].
Would you recommend what you did to other learners looking for an immersion experience?
Mike: I would definitely recommend an immersion experience, but location-wise, I’d say I had mixed results. Being in a place with so many non-standard accents and weird dialects made it a less smooth experience than I’d hoped. I think volunteering somewhere with more standard Mandarin would ameliorate that though.
Would you recommend what you did as a purely cultural experience?
Mike: Most definitely. I didn’t know what to expect going into this experience but I learned a tremendous amount about farming and rural Chinese life. Most of the people I met were great and it was wonderful to see a totally different side of the Chinese experience!
One thing that many non-Chinese may not realize is that the average Chinese person doesn’t really care about dragon boat races on Dragon Boat Festival. Sure, we call it “Dragon Boat Festival” in English, but the dragon boats (龙舟) are just the easiest part of the festival’s traditions to translate. In fact, Wikipedia uses the name Duanwu Festival for its English article, reflecting the Chinese name 端午节.
The most visible tradition of Duanwu Festival for me personally has always been the zongzi (粽子), those bamboo-leaf-wrapped, stuffed glutinous rice triangle-ish things. They’re quite tasty (although you might want to be careful if you have an aversion to pork fat; some of them are a little high on fat and low on meat).
One of the traditions I just recently became aware of is the Duanwu Festival use of a plant called 艾草 (Artemisia argyi in English). It’s a strongly aromatic plant, and the idea is that you hang it by the doorway of your home to ward off bugs and disease.
Apparently this tradition is not observed by young people very much (at least in Shanghai), so I’m not sure how long this particular tradition will be around. But today I snapped some pictures of (mostly old) people loading up on 艾草 at the wet market in preparation for Duanwu Festival. (Those bundles are two for 5 RMB, which to me seems to reinforce the idea that only old people buy it.) Photos below.
Here’s what a zongzi gift set looks like:
This one, sold by a Korean bakery chain that pretends to be French (巴黎贝甜), includes 12 zongzi and retails for 158 RMB. (Normally individual zongzi sell for less than 10 RMB.)
> Searle writes in his first description of the argument: “Suppose that I’m locked in a room and … that I know no Chinese, either written or spoken”. He further supposes that he has a set of rules in English that “enable me to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols”, that is, the Chinese characters. These rules allow him to respond, in written Chinese, to questions, also written in Chinese, in such a way that the posers of the questions – who do understand Chinese – are convinced that Searle can actually understand the Chinese conversation too, even though he cannot. Similarly, he argues that if there is a computer program that allows a computer to carry on an intelligent conversation in a written language, the computer executing the program would not understand the conversation either.
> The experiment is the centerpiece of Searle’s Chinese room argument which holds that a program cannot give a computer a “mind”, “understanding” or “consciousness”, regardless of how intelligently it may make it behave. The argument is directed against the philosophical positions of functionalism and computationalism, which hold that the mind may be viewed as an information processing system operating on formal symbols.
So my first thought was: what do the Chinese call the Chinese room? The laowai room? Turns out the answer is a little more boring than that: in Chinese it’s called the 中文房间. (You might have been tempted to translate it as the 中国房间, but that doesn’t work as well, since the whole part of the argument is that there are these inscrutable symbols that can be manipulated. It’s Chinese characters that are key, not Chinese culture or nationality.)
The room is “Chinese,” of course, because of the inscrutable nature of Chinese characters. It boosts the argument if it feels like there’s no chance that the person in the room will actually learn them in the process of their Chinese room work.
I have to take umbrage at that: you can read Chinese. (If you want to.) I admit, though, that the Chinese room is not the best way to go about it.
There’s one other thought experiment mentioned which touches on China: the China brain. That one doesn’t seem to have a well-known translation (and no page on Wikipedia), but it seems at least some translators have gone with the straightforward 中国脑子. (This one refers to the people of China, and not the Chinese language itself.)
I’m very happy to report that the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters I wrote about before has met its $75k funding goal. That means that this dictionary will soon be available through Pleco, so if you were holding out, doubtful it would actually happen, doubt no longer. Congratulations to the Outlier Linguistic Solutions team!
This is an interview with Ash Henson, Outlier Linguistic Solutions’ main academic guy. Like some other people I’ve spoken with, I was a bit apprehensive about the project at first, feeling it was all way too academic and probably not a good resource for beginners. The more I talked with Ash, though, the more I was convinced this was not the case. I do believe this is going to be a great resource for learners at all levels, and I look forward to using it myself, both for my own purposes, and for my beginner-level clients.
Anyway, here are some additional questions I had about the dictionary, answered by Ash.
1. You have an article on the problem with the concept of “radicals.” Would it be fair to say that radicals are just an outdated concept which we don’t need anymore because we can look almost everything up by computer now? Is your dictionary going to include the concept of radicals at all?
Well, I’d say that radicals are only reliable as a tool to look up characters in traditional dictionaries. If you only use electronic or software dictionaries, then it’s safe to say that you can ignore them. We will actually point out the radical for each character though, so that you can look up the radical for that character if you need to look it up in a paper dictionary. The main issue with “radicals” is that there are really several unique concepts that are called “radicals”. For instance, you often hear people say “Characters are made of radicals.” While that is a reasonable conclusion to make from the name “radical”, it misrepresents how characters actually work. There are around 500 semantic components that appear in characters and a lot of them cannot be broken down into “radicals”.
2. You’ve mentioned before that the Outlier Character Dictionary will include the most up-to-date research, including even corrections of mistakes in the legendary 说文解字 (Shuowen Jiezi). Could you give a simple example or two of that?
This type of data can be found in the Expert Edition. I’ll share two examples from the demo. For 監 (jiān) “to inspect”, the 說文 says that it is composed of the semantic component 臥 (wò) “to rest” which is used to express the idea “to look down from above” and the sound component 䘓 (kàn) “thick animal blood” abridged to 血. The problem is, 監 is a character from the early Shang dynasty (roughly 1600 bce to 1046 bce), while 臥 and 䘓 don’t appear until Warring States (roughly 475 bce to 221 bce).
Image taken from the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters
Obviously, either this interpretation is anachronistic or maybe 臥 and 䘓 did exist earlier and we just haven’t found any proof. However, if you look at the earliest extant forms of 監, it’s very obvious that it’s a picture of a person looking into a container that has liquid in it. This “picture” is used to represent the idea “to inspect, examine” as this was how the ancients inspected their own faces, i.e., they used water in a container as a mirror.
Another example is 黑 hēi “black”. The 說文 says that the top part is a window and the bottom part is flame (炎 yán) and gives the meaning of 黑 as “the color of something burnt”. Note that the 說文 is explaining the Small Seal script form. The earliest forms show a person with a tattooed face. This is one of the ancient Five Punishments, where the name of the crime a person committed was tattooed onto their face.
3. After all this time, how can researchers be certain about what are mistakes in the 说文解字 (Shuowen Jiezi)?
Basically by way of tracing characters back to their earliest extant forms and seeing how characters are used in earlier scripts. Like in the 監 (jiān) example above, the 說文 says that it’s composed of 卧 and an abbreviated 䘓, but 卧 and 䘓 show up around a thousand years after 監. It’s like explaining the 1066 war in terms of the soldiers’ cell phones. Keep in mind, the author of the 說文 was a very erudite scholar, with a very broad range of knowledge, but he was limited by the information he had access to and by pre-scientific thinking. The 說文 is best understood as an insight into how Han dynasty Confucian scholars looked at the Small Seal script. Even with its problems, it still plays a very important role in this type of research.
4. You’ve told me before that a proper understanding of characters can help a learner guess the correct pronunciation of a character. This is hard to imagine, since a lot of components have a wide range of possible functions and even multiple possible pronunciations. (Examples: 干、赶、汗、旱 or 今、含、零、领、邻) How can you solve this mess?
Sound components can be really frustrating, because they generally don’t give an exact sound. In the same way semantic components give a hint as to the range of meaning a character might have, sound components generally also just give a range of sounds. English speakers might not realize this, but English spelling is very similar. That’s why the exact same spelling “minute” can be pronounced MIN-it for “60 seconds” or mahy-NOOT for “extremely small”. Actually, this second one can also be pronounced mahy-NYOOT, mi-NOOT or mi-NYOOT. As you can see, the spelling “minute” does not give an exact pronunciation, but a range of possible pronunciations.
As a native-English speaker, this isn’t a huge problem, because for the most part, we go from words we already know how to say correctly, to learning how to write them. During college we learn a lot of new, specialized words for the field of work we are training for. Most of these are learned either from reading or from hearing professors or other students use them. When I was in college, I often heard people say words incorrectly because they had only seen them in writing. This is a reflection of the fact that English spelling only gives a range of possible pronunciation rather than an exact, IPA-like pronunciation.
Making sense of sound patterns in Chinese characters is very useful, because they can be used to remember how to write characters. For instance, before I learned how sound works, whenever I had to write a character containing 艮 or 良, I would always ask myself, “Oh, man. Do I put that dot here or not?” It was very frustrating. Once I learned how sound components work, I looked up the pronunciation for 艮 (gèn) and 良 (liáng). Then I noticed that for characters pronounced “gen”, “hen”, or “ken”, it was 艮. If it was pronounced “lang”, “liang”, “nang” or “niang”, then it was 良. So, by learning about sound relations, I went from a meaningless dot-or-no-dot question, to a meaningful “What is the pronunciation of the character I want to write?” question. Though sound isn’t represented exactly in Chinese writing, there are a lot of clues we can use, especially if we know to look for them.
Now to the examples you brought up: 干、赶、汗、旱 or 今、含、零、领、邻
Let’s look at 干 (gān), 赶 (gǎn), 汗 (hàn), and 旱 (hàn) first. Notice that they all have the ending “-an” and that they all share the component 干. This is a strong clue that there is a sound relation. Also note that there is no discernible pattern with the tones. That’s because tones generally are not taken into account. Native speakers would generally use “-an” as the sound clue. However, it’s very useful to remember that “g-“, “k-” and “h-” are very closely related sounds.
As for 零 (líng), 领 (lǐng), and 邻 (lín). Notice that 令 is pronounced “lìng.” Once again, tones don’t count (not to say they aren’t important! They just aren’t represented by the sound component). Lastly, notice that the sound for 邻 ends in “-n” and not in “-ng.” In this particular case, that’s due to the simplification of 鄰 to 邻, and 粦 is pronounced “lín.”
Finally, looking at 今 (jīn) and 含 (hán), we notice that 今 and 令 above are graphically very similar, but like the 艮 (gèn) and 良 (liáng) example, we can use sound to keep 今 (jīn) and 令 (lìng) separate. Using sound patterns to understand the relation between 今 (jīn) and 含 (hán) is a little more complex. You have to understand both that “g-“, “k-” and “h-” are closely related as previously mentioned and that many “j-“, “q-“, and “x-” come from an earlier “g-“, “k-” and “h-“. In other words, two groups of closely related sounds are also somewhat related.
Why do sound series have this kind of variation? The answer to this question is fascinating, but complex. Most characters in use today find their origins thousands of years ago during the Zhou dynasty. Back then, the language was very different and very possibly had prefixes and suffixes and it was these prefixes and suffixes which cause this variation. Another reason is from regular sound changes over the last several thousand years.
5. Your dictionary is designed to provide a wealth of modern character research into characters through a modern interface. How would this be used by a beginner who sees characters as an annoying hurdle?
The key to optimal learning is obtaining the ability to use the system of Chinese characters as a tool for being able to recall character forms after long periods of time and as a tool for making intelligent guesses about characters you haven’t learned yet. Native speakers have these abilities, but they are far from perfect and they are the results of years of input. Non-native speakers learning Chinese can also get them after learning a few thousand characters.
However, as you can imagine, their instincts about characters are probably not as good as a native speaker’s. The main advantage of using our methods is that you can gain these abilities after a few hundred characters, because all of the sound and meaning connections are being pointed out explicitly for each character. And, as I showed above, if you learn our sound patterns, your feel for sound representation will be better than a native speaker’s. We also explain meaning connections in a more precise way, so your feeling for meaning representation will also be more accurate.
To those who think of characters as a nuisance, if you learn them our way, you’ll learn in a way that is both more meaningful (and therefore you’ll likely find it more interesting) and more effective, so you’ll spend less time re-learning characters. We can’t remove the pain entirely, but we can minimize it!
It doesn’t feel like the movie Big Hero 6 (called 超能陆战队 in mainland China) was hugely popular in Shanghai, but the character Baymax sure is! I see him everywhere these days. His Chinese name is 大白, literally, “big white.”
To me this name is cute, because it reminds me of 小白, a common name for a dog in China (kind of like “Fido” or “Spot”), except, well… bigger. When I ask Chinese friends, though, they don’t necessarily make the same connection.
The eagle-eyed will also spot a little characterplay going on with the word 暖男, which is a relatively new slang term. Literally “warm male,” it refers to a sensitive, considerate guy. Chinese ads often go out of their way to incorporate the latest slang as much as possible.
Since my job at AllSet Learning is to create personalized Chinese courses for clients, I’m always on the lookout for good new sources of study material. The most interesting and promising one I’ve found lately is called The Chairman’s Bao (主席日报). More than simply a collection of interesting articles in Chinese, the site describes itself as “the 1st ever online Chinese simplified newspaper dedicated to those learning Mandarin.” This is because each article has been written (simply) to conform to a specific HSK level. The lowest level on the site is currently HSK 3, the highest HSK 6+.
This is pretty awesome, considering that many learners despair of ever being able to read an actual newspaper until their overall levels are somewhere around “advanced.” I myself put off reading newspaper articles until I was almost ready for my graduate-level studies in Chinese. Some learners feel that browser extensions provide the reading help needed, but it’s still very easy to get discouraged if you’re looking up every other word in an article.
Essentially, this is a news-themed application of the graded reader idea. While the articles themselves are not long enough to be considered true extensive reading exercises, it’s still a refreshing take on the “study the news in Chinese” idea, and it makes news far more accessible to more learners than ever before.
Here are some of my observations about the service:
– It’s free! It might not remain that way, so check it out while you still can. It’s currently not even necessary to create an account to read articles and listen to audio, unless you want to save vocabulary words.
– You’ll need an account to use the built-in dictionary. The dictionary isn’t of the “mouse-over” variety, though; you actually have to select text with your cursor. This means that if you incorrectly parse a word, the dictionary is of little help. The good news, though, is that you can also use a popup dictionary extension on the site (which could also provide grammar links), and there will be no conflict with the built-in dictionary. Hopefully the built-in dictionary will improve over time. (If you use the built-in dictionary, though, you have the added advantage of being able to save words to your account on the site.)
– The articles are pretty well-chosen. While you may not be interested in everything, you can undoubtedly find some articles that interest you, and at your level.
– The articles’ audio recordings are clear, although sometimes the person reading seems less than enthusiastic. Considering that it’s provided for free, though, it’s quite good most of the time (no robot voices!).
– The site doesn’t tell you how many articles are on the site, but there are clearly a lot.
Because I had a number of questions about The Chairman’s Bao, I got in touch and actually met with one of the co-founders, Thomas Reid, who is also Chief of Staff. He was also gracious enough to do a mini-interview about the service:
John: How many total articles are on the site? Do you have a breakdown by level?
Tom: As of [May 28th], there are 254 articles that have been published on the site (HSK3: 60, HSK4: 68, HSK5: 73, HSK6/6+: 53). I’m afraid that there is no way to get these numbers on the site itself, however you can sort the articles by level and scroll down right until the first articles published from our launch in January. All articles are available to view.
John: What is your new article publication schedule? Do you have a breakdown by level?
Tom: We aim to publish 2-3 new articles a day. This was being achieved until recently when 2 of our staff left. As such we can only publish 1-2 per day. I am currently recruiting new writers and we will soon be back up to our original quota. As for the level breakdown, I try and keep it as even as possible with the number of articles being written and the days they are uploaded and published. However there are a lot of factors that can affect the timeline here, particularly the strict editing procedure. Sometimes in order to guarantee an article’s quality according to a certain level, modifications need to be made. This can slow down the time it takes for the article to be published.
John: How do you choose what articles to do, and who does it?
Tom: Myself and my partners [CEO] Matt Carter and [CMO] Sean McGibney choose the stories. We are constantly browsing news not just from within China but all over the globe to find our stories. The main focus is on China, but we will, of course, try to include major events and interesting developments from around the world.
John: How do you level your articles, and who does the work?
Tom: Once we have found the news, we add it to a shared folder and assign it an HSK level before sending it to the writers. We judge this on the content of the article. We need to look at what words must be used in order to tell the story in its most basic form. These words are a good indication of a suitable level. If they are relatively simple, then the writers can build sentences around them for low levels. More complex words will, of course, require high levels. The writers then write the articles and submit them to the site. The editors then check the articles to ensure a good style and verify the academic quality. Finally, audio is added and the article is published.
John: Do you have any cool new features planned that you can share?
Tom: We are currently designing the App for both iPhone and android. This has already started and will be finished in time for the next academic year.
I’m not going to do a full review including the vocabulary manager; I don’t use that myself. But there’s definitely a dearth of good study material out there, and it’s great to The Chairman’s Bao breaking new ground and addressing head-on one of the issues that has plagued us for so long: we want to read something interesting.