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iPad Apps for Chinese Study (2011)

05

May 2011

iPad Apps for Chinese Study (2011)

We recently purchased an iPad 2 for AllSet Learning, and quickly set about looking for useful apps for learning Chinese. It didn’t take long for me to realize a basic truth about having an iPad: once you have an iPad, you want to run iPad apps on it, not iPhone apps. And the there are way more iPhone apps out there for learning Chinese than there are iPad apps. The purpose of this post is to call attention to the decent iPad apps out there.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

I realize this post isn’t going to stay current for very long, and that’s OK. Rapid innovation is one of the things that drew me to the iOS platform in the first place. For now, though, I have my top picks for iPad apps for learning Chinese. One thing I should make clear in advance, though: many of these apps are not explicitly for learning Chinese; they’re simply apps in Chinese (good sources of more input).

Pleco

Yes, I think I’ve mentioned before that I love Pleco. It’s a great dictionary app. It also supports the iPad, while many other iPhone dictionaries don’t. I won’t say too much about Pleco here.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

QQ Live HD

I must admit that I’m not a fan of the QQ IM client. But this app is great. It doesn’t require any kind of QQ login or account; it’s just a simple app for streaming Chinese movies and TV shows, and it’s fast (in Shanghai, anyway). I’ve already watched several movies on it, and while I won’t recommend any of those movies, the app does its job just fine.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

Zaker

This one is an obvious Flipboard clone, but it’s a really good Flipboard clone. It’s one of those really good clones that tries to one-up the original. And, of course, it’s got tons of Chinese content ready to be added for magazine-style consumption, whether it’s Chinese news, Chinese blogs, or Weibo. It supports copy-paste, too, so you can pop over to the Pleco Pasteboard Reader when you need to.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

Chinagram

I’ve reviewed this one before already: Chinagram for iPad.

Radio Chinese Plus+

This app is quite simple. It only offers three Mandarin stations and three Cantonese stations (6 total), but it works just fine.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

雷人图片2011

This is just a big collection of silly photos from the internet. Some are funny; many are just bizarre.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

一日一囧四格漫画

A collection of poorly drawn comics of the 冷笑话 (dumb joke) tradition. This app, like the last one, demonstrates how simple an iPad app can be.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

My Chinese Library, Pinyin Trainer, and Chinese Number Trainer

I’m grouping all these apps together because they’re all by one company, called TrainChinese. While these apps aren’t revolutionary, they’re of good quality and exist in iPad versions. Sadly, not many apps for learning Chinese have met that simple requirement. They all seem to have free versions which are somewhat limited, trying to get you to pay. I recommend the pinyin trainer and number trainer to beginners.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

My list of really noteworthy iPad apps for learners of Chinese ends there. There are a few others worth pointing out, though… The four others pictured but not covered are: 枫林书院精选 (an ebook reader that comes with a number of titles), 中国新闻周刊 (China Newsweek), iLearn Chinese Characters Lite, and Kids Mandarin.

These are the apps in the “Good…not HD” folder (I wish they had iPad versions):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “词典” folder (iPad apps include: iCED, KTdict, eFlashChinese):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “阅读” folder (iPad apps include: 格林童话集, 中文杂志, 宋词三十首, 三毛全集, 给力书城, 拇指索引圣经, 爱阅读, 让笑话飞, 小姐日记):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “新闻” folder (none are iPad apps):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “故事” folder (iPad apps include: Chinese Stories (really bad), Heroes of Three Kingdoms, The Greatest Daddy (English and Chinese), 一千零一夜选, nciku Peter Rabbit):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “其它” folder (none are iPad apps):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

I know I haven’t been exhaustive in my search for good iPad apps; I’d love to hear recommendations!


Language Power Struggles

18

May 2010

Language Power Struggles

The idea of the “linguistic power struggle” is one I’ve been dealing with and thinking about for a long time. I’ve made some attempts to find scholarly research on the subject, looking into discourse analysis (which is often concerned with power), expectancy violations theory, and communication accommodation theory, but so far I’ve turned up very little (even outside of Wikipedia!). Thus the discussion which follows will be mostly descriptive and anecdotal, but will raise more questions than it answers.

First, a typical example of the language power struggle. The dialog below is taken from a ChinesePod lesson aptly titled Language Power Struggle. I directed the creation of this fictional dialog two years ago, drawing on my own real experiences and those of other friends in China. The content in square brackets [like this] is a translation of the original Chinese. Note that the Chinese person speaks mostly English, while the American speaks only Chinese.

> American: [Hello, can I sit here?]

> Chinese: Sure, nice to meet you.

> American: [I’m also really glad to meet you.]

> Chinese: Your Chinese is very good.

> American: [Not at all!]

> Chinese: How long have you been to China?

> American: [I’ve been in China for more than two years. I’m studying Chinese.]

> Chinese: Oh, you are learning Chinese?

> American: [I want to work in China, so I need to learn Chinese.]

> Chinese: Oh. I think Chinese is very difficult for you. How do you feel this bar?

> American: [It’s not bad. It’s just that nobody will speak Chinese with me, so I’m a little disappointed.]

> Chinese: Ha ha! You are very serious!

> American: [Because I want to practice more, so that I can learn Chinese more quickly.]

> Chinese: I want to practice English. In Chinese, we say “[learn from each other]”, you know?

> American: [I know. But in China we should be speaking Chinese.]

> Chinese: I like talking English with you.

> American: [Heh heh, then you should go to America. I came to China just to learn Chinese.]

> Chinese: I want to go to America. Let’s be friends. Can you give me your mobile number?

> American: [Sorry, I’ve got to go.]

The root of the conflict is quite clear: the American guy wants to speak Chinese, while the Chinese guy wants to speak English. There are quite a few issues contained within this small dialog, though. Below I’ll get into more details.

(more…)


Toward Better Tones in Natural Speech

10

Dec 2008

Toward Better Tones in Natural Speech

At ACTFL 2008 one of the presentations on TCFL that I found most interesting was one called “An Alternative Way to Teach Mandarin Tones in Speaking” by Dr. Rongrong Liao of the Defense Language Institute.

The problem, as Dr. Liao presented it, is that many learners can reach a relatively high level of fluency in Mandarin Chinese, have excellent tonal accuracy for individual words, yet still make a large number of very unnatural tonal errors in natural speech. This is a common enough problem that educators really need to be looking for ways to address it.

The message of the presentation was, in essence:

1. We’re giving students of Chinese the wrong picture of tones (third tone in particular)
2. Tones are not of equal importance in natural speech
3. Funny-sounding speech can be corrected most efficiently by focusing on certain key tones

Now I’ll break these different points down one by one.

We’re giving students the wrong picture of tones

The way students first learn tones is in isolation. You apply tones to individual syllables. The idealized tone contours of those tones in isolation look like the chart below.

Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

The thing is, in natural connected speech, tones don’t behave quite that way. Yes, there’s tone sandhi (tones in sequence affect each other in regular ways), but it’s more than just that. Third tone in particular has a habit of dipping but then not rising the way it should. (This phenomenon is known as the “half-third tone.”) So then is the not rising in natural speech the exception, or is the perfect rise in an isolated tone the real exception?

Dr. Liao suggests that it’s more useful to teach that the third tone is low rather than dipping. This could help with third tone problems in connected speech. The “model” third tone with a rising tail could then be treated as the exception to the rule.

The symmetry-loving perfectionist in me actually likes this a lot. This way you end up with two pairs of almost diametrically opposed tones (yes, we’re fudging a bit): high vs. low (1 vs. 3), and rising vs. falling (2 vs. 4). Dr. Liao also notes here that learners tend to confuse tone 1 and 4 with each other much more than with the other two, and tone 2 and 3 much more than with the other two. Very interesting.

This really struck a chord with me, as it matches nicely with my own observations. Taking all this into account and putting the actual tone contours aside for a moment, I put together my own experimental “idealized perceptual tone diagram”:

Perceptual Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

I have no idea if a representation like this could actually be useful to any students. Before you freak out by such a concept, though, let’s move on to the next point…

Tones are not of equal importance in connected speech

When Dr. Liao started talking about this, I had an immediate flashback to something my friend Alf said after studying Chinese in China for about half a year:

> Tones are such bullshit. When Chinese people talk really fast, they don’t really use them. So I’m just going to ignore them and talk really fast like Chinese people, and I’ll be fine.

Ah, the “tones aren’t important” fallacy. Most students of Chinese have heard such sacrilege more than once in their long years of study, I’m sure. The thing is, like any good lie, there’s actually some truth to it.

Dr. Liao pointed out that in natural speech, some tones in a “frame” are “weakened” or “reduced” and lose many of their “idealized” properties. That is to say, if you look at their tone contours (remember how to do that with Praat?) in the sentence, they don’t all resemble the perfect angles in the classic chart we all know so well.

Here’s an example of what native speaker tone contours look like in speech [source]:

Tones in Connected Speech

You’ll notice that the tones of some words are clearly recognizable, while others are less so. What’s going on? Well, in natural Chinese sentences, certain words in each phrase are stressed. Stressed words will have a tone contour which most closely follows the idealized form, whereas the other tones are shortened, kind of run together, and generally goof off.

Funny-sounding speech can be corrected most efficiently by focusing on certain key tones

Here’s where Alf’s idea comes into play. Dr. Liao recommends that instead of correcting every mispronounced tone in a sentence (and there might be many), instructors should focus on the stressed words. When the tone(s) in a stressed word is mispronounced, the sentence will frequently sound quite bad to native ears, but when the stressed word is pronounced correctly, the other tones will often fall in line.

This is a cool idea, because if it works, it means (1) teachers can stop worrying about so many wrong tones, and (2) students can quit freaking about every tone.

Sounds good to me. It’s complex enough!


Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

25

Jun 2008

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

I’ve been asked many times: Which is harder to learn, Chinese or Japanese? Well, the latest time finally inspired me to make this graphic. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, but some notes will follow anyway.

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

In case you couldn’t figure out from the graph, both are difficult, but in different ways. Both have insane writing systems and lots of cultural background to learn, so those basically cancel each other out. Any language requires lots of vocabulary memorization. Japanese has loads of loanwords from English, but really learning to use the loanwords like a native speaker instead of a crutch is not so easy to do, so I left that factor out as well. For me, the major points of comparison come down to just pronunciation and grammar.

Japanese pronunciation is quite easy at first. Some people have problems with the “tsu” sound, or difficulty pronouncing vowels in succession, as in “mae.” Honestly, though, Japanese pronunciation poses little challenge to the English speaker. The absolute beginner can memorize a few sentences, try to use them 20 minutes later, and be understood. The real difficulty with Japanese is in trying to sound like a native speaker. Getting pitch accent and sentence intonation to a native-like level is no easy task (and I have not done it yet!).

Chinese pronunciation, is, of course, maddeningly difficult from the get-go. It can be so hard to make yourself understood when your sentence is only three syllables long. Yes, I know. I’ve been there. If you keep at it, though, things get waaayyy easier. And in the later stages, accent isn’t as big a deal in Chinese. There are so many wildly different accents in China alone that once you get your tones under control and can string a coherent sentence together, Chinese people will often assume you’re a native speaker in telephone conversations.

Chinese grammar starts out fairly simple for English speakers. Some find it so simplistic that they say things like, “Chinese has no grammar.” This is not true, of course, and there are a few difficult points to master (like , which probably occupies a good chunk of the red area in the middle of the grammar graph), but overall, the grammar is not too rough. If you want true mastery of the language, however, you will also eventually have to study 古文 (ancient Chinese), and that’s quite a bit more work.

Japanese grammar starts out seeming like some bizarre alien code. However, through hard work and determination, the persistent can eventually crack it. Once you get over the grammar hump, and verb conjugations, causative-passive,  and , and keigo are no longer a big deal, you’re in a pretty comfortable place. But it sure is rough at first.

Just to be clear, this is all based on my personal experiences as a very acquisition-conscious language learner, not on scientific research. Please feel free to add your own experiences with these two languages in the comments.


Living in China is like an RPG

13

Jan 2006

Living in China is like an RPG

dice

nerdy RPG dice

For a foreigner, living in China can be like a (classic, non-computer) RPG. Let me count the ways…

1. It offers an escape from an ordinary, monotonous existence

2. It appeals to nerds

3. There’s more than a reasonable amount of dice rolling going on (Chinese bars)

4. Money is counted in “pieces” ()

5. The fast way to do things is “on horseback” (马上)

6. Dragons are real (恐龙, lit. “terrible dragons”)

7. Players usually enter the game with special abilities (e.g. English, foreigner charm)

8. It’s really fun at first, but can get old pretty fast

9. It takes place in a magical world where people believe in mystical concepts like qi and fengshui

10. The people take legends very seriously (even 5,000 year old ones)

11. The word “peasant” doesn’t seem out of place

12. There are plenty of barmaids in the taverns and women of ill repute on the streets

13. The background story: a legendary kingdom has fallen under the control of a powerful, malevolent force, and heroes are nowhere to be found…