Feb 2017

Subvocalization While Reading Chinese

According to Wikipedia, subvocalization refers to “the internal speech typically made when reading.” It’s that “voice in your head” (you) pronouncing every word mentally. Subvocalization is normal, and is not generally considered a problem, unless you’re trying to learn to speed read. In that case. subvocalization is generally regarded as something that slows a reader down.

I found this section of Wikipedia quite interesting:

Advocates of speed reading generally claim that subvocalization places extra burden on the cognitive resources, thus, slowing the reading down. Speed reading courses often prescribe lengthy practices to eliminate subvocalizing when reading… [but] for competent readers, subvocalizing to some extent even at scanning rates is normal.

Typically, subvocalizing is an inherent part of reading and understanding a word. Micro-muscle tests suggest that full and permanent elimination of subvocalizing is impossible. This may originate in the way people learn to read by associating the sight of words with their spoken sounds…. At the slower reading rates (100-300 words per minute), subvocalizing may improve comprehension.

The Case of Chinese

OK, but now what about for Chinese? Chinese characters are not as directly tied to a phonetic system (like an alphabet), right? Plus Chinese kids learn characters by writing them over and over rather than by reading them aloud, right?

Well, not really. Here’s what research has to say (I added bold to certain parts):

Reading English and reading Chinese have more in common than has been appreciated when it comes to phonological processes. The text experiments suggest that readers in both systems rely on phonological processes during the comprehension of written text. The lexical experiments show differences just where it is expected: Evidence for early (“prelexical”) phonology in English but not in Chinese, but evidence for still-early (“lexical”) phonology in Chinese. The time course of activation appears to be slightly different in the two cases. Thus, the similarity between Chinese and English readers is shown not in their dependence on a visual route, but in their use of phonology as quickly as allowed by the writing system.

So it’s not that Chinese readers don’t subvocalize; it just kicks in later, because it takes for time for readers to amass the knowledge of written Chinese needed. Interesting!

Obviously, you can dive a lot deeper into the research on subvocalization, reading comprehension, and cognitive differences between writing systems. (Please feel free to share links to relevant studies in the comments.) For my purposes, though, one important point is clear: there’s no need to exoticize reading Chinese any more than necessary. Yes, learning a bunch of characters is a hurdle, but you don’t really need to worry too much beyond that.

Subvocalizing in Chinese

First of all, we should remember that subvocalization is not “bad,” and it’s not something that native Chinese readers don’t do (some kind of “laowai problem”). But that doesn’t mean that there’s no danger of over-reliance on subvocalization when learning to read Chinese.

I personally have experienced what I consider a serious impediment to my reading fluency. I found that when I would read Chinese a text, I was reading it aloud very deliberately in my head (subvocalizing). The problem was that I had obsessed over correct tones for so long that I just couldn’t stop. This slowed me down even more than normal subvocalization would be expected to do. So even when I was just reading for purely informational purposes, my brain was insisting that I had to pronounce every tone of every word (in my head) exactly right. I knew this was slowing me down a lot, but I couldn’t stop! The “tone police” in my head were out of control.

I did eventually get over this bad habit, and the result was much more rapid reading speed, as well as the ability to truly scan a text for meaning quickly. How did I do it?

Two Cures for Subvocalization

Canadian Tradition

My solution was “the firehose.” I forced myself to read a lot. I read long Chinese texts for which I knew the words, but wasn’t sure of the tones for all the words. In some cases, I may not have even been sure of all the exact readings of all the characters in those words. But I could still comprehend the general meaning of the texts, which was all I needed.

So the steps were:

  1. Find a relatively long text which had information I needed (make the reading meaningful)
  2. Don’t allow myself to look up words (no popup pinyin plugin allowed!)
  3. Force myself to read at a high speed, disallowing my brain from obsessing over uncertain readings

This worked, but I had to do it a lot, and to be honest, it was a little painful. Unlearning a habit is not easy, and if I’m not careful, I still find my brain dutifully reading aloud every single tone in my mind. But with just a little willpower, I can keep subvocalization in check when I need to, and greatly increase my reading speed.

The second solution is extensive reading. It’s a gentler version of the method described above. The idea is that if you know that you already know all the words (with correct tones) in a text, then forcing yourself to read it without focusing on the correct tones should be easier. No anxiety. You can let go and just read.

But here’s the key: you can’t just read a text first to identify all the words you don’t know, add the pinyin, and consider them “learned.” That’s not going to allow you to let go of subvocalization for unfamiliar texts. So you need to find reading material which is unfamiliar, and yet entirely composed of familiar words. This is what graded readers can help with.

Share Your Subvocalization Battle Tales

I’d be very interested to hear about any readers’ struggles with subvocalization when learning to read Chinese. Actually, any foreign language… it’s all relevant.


Feb 2017

Crazy Circus Chinese Characters

I’m always on the lookout for interesting, creative use of Chinese characters, and that includes cool and weird Chinese fonts. Well, the characters at the bottom of this poster really caught me by surprise, because I didn’t even realize they were characters at first:

Crazy Circus City

If you’re struggling to make anything out, note that English at the bottom right: “Crazy Circus City.” Big clue.

OK, here’s what it reads:


Literally, “crazy (疯狂) circus (马戏) city ().”

(Don’t worry if you still find it hard to read even after you know what it says, and even if you know the characters. It’s really hard to read!)

For some reason the traditional form of is used, though: . My Chinese teacher back in college always told me that mixing simplified and traditional characters was a big no-no. It’s just too… crazy.

If the whole thing had been in traditional characters, it would have read:



Feb 2017

Happy Year of the Rooster

Happy Year of the Rooster/Cock/Chicken! Just as the English word “cock” has multiple meanings, the Chinese word (“chicken”) does as well. By itself, it can mean “prostitute,” but the same sound “jī” is also part of the Chinese word for, well, “cock.” I guess I’m friends with a bunch of upstanding Chinese folk, because I didn’t see the many puns I feel I could have for this year’s barrage of Chinese New Year greetings.

Here’s one tame pun I did see this year:

点钞机 / 点钞鸡

So the original word is 点钞机, “money counting machine.” Substituting (“chicken”) for (“machine”) doesn’t change the sound at all, but 点钞鸡 falls right in line with the Chinese proclivity for wishing financial success in the New Year. And you can totally imagine a money counting rooster.


Jan 2017

Happy New Year Teeth

Chinese New Year is just around the corner, and I bring you this pun/characterplay combo. Unfortunately, neither is particularly clever, but at least it’s not hard to understand!


The large text of the ad reads:


This basically just means “happy New Year,” but the on the end is a modal particle you hear a lot in Shanghai. It adds a tone of playfulness, possibly childishness.

The pun is on 好牙, which refers to “good teeth.” (The two-character word for “tooth” or “teeth” is 牙齿). And since it’s an ad for dental services, the pun on good teeth is quite appropriate.

But do you see where the 口 component of (the modal particle) is actually a tooth? That’s the characterplay aspect. But the weird thing is that if you take away the 口, what’s left actually does literally mean “tooth.”

Anyway, 新年好!


Jan 2017

SmartShanghai Interview

SmartShanghai article (Jan 2017)

I just recently did an interview with SmartShanghai: [10-Year Club]: John Pasden of Sinosplice and AllSet Learning. It also has a tagline: A trip down memory lane with long-time Shanghai-based language specialist John Pasden. Dude speaks Chinese with the intensity of 1000 exploding Da Shans. That “exploding Da Shans” line cracks me up for many reasons.

Long-time readers of this blog will probably appreciate this answer I gave:

SmSh: I know you get this a lot — speaking specifically to your job, what are some tips for people trying to learn Chinese?

JP: You have to get out of your comfort zone. I know a lot of people that get out of their work “expat bubble” and talk to Chinese friends, but they’re only talking to Chinese people with pretty decent English. Not enough discomfort! Try talking to your ayi about her kids, or ask the fruit stand guy how much he pays for rent, or try to convince the guard in your apartment complex to stop smoking. You may think your Chinese isn’t good enough, but you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Look up a few words or phrases in Pleco, and give it a shot. Those are the conversations that will NOT be comfortable at first. You will likely fail hard at some of them, but those people are not going to switch to English, and they’re likely to have more patience for your bad Chinese than you do. And if they laugh, just assume that it’s because you made their day by even trying to talk to them in Chinese.

The whole interview is on SmartShanghai.


Dec 2016

The more you read…

I like these subway ads for the QQ阅读 app:




The ads have been running for months already. The app is QQ阅读, an ebook reader app. 阅读 in Chinese can mean “to read” or “reading.”

The main line in the ad is:


The more you read, the more you understand yourself.

It’s a great usage of the 越……越…… (the more… the more…) grammar structure. But, in case you didn’t notice… it’s also a pun. It’s an ad for QQ阅读 (Yuèdú), and it starts with 越读 (Yuè dú).

This is one of the least cringeworthy ads I’ve seen in Chinese marketing, I must say! (No, I haven’t tried the app.)


Nov 2016

Naughty Beer

Thanks to reader Lucas, who lives in 张家港 (north of Suzhou), for sharing this image:

Naughty Beer

The pun is pretty simple:

  • 啤酒 (píjiǔ) beer
  • 顽皮 (wánpí) naughty

So the was swapped for the (they sound identical), and “naughty beer” was born!


Oct 2016

Investigations of a Bilingual 4-year-old’s Riddle

My daughter is almost 5, and she has a penchant for “riddles.” At first, these started out super simple, such as, “what animal can fly?” or “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” Over time, they started to get more and more complex, morphing into questions such as, “what animal can fly but isn’t a bird?” or “what animals swim in the ocean but aren’t fish?” or “name three animals that live in the ocean but have no eyes.” These games are good linguistic exercises, reinforcing the vocabulary my daughter is picking up in the books we read her. In most cases, she can even do these riddles bilingually, and she enjoys quizzing her mom in Chinese on the ones I give her in English that she is able to answer.

Occasionally I’ve asked her to give me a riddle, and it’s usually something super simple, similar to the afore-mentioned “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” one. Fair enough… I don’t expect the riddle of the Sphinx from a 4-year-old. But the other day she asked me this one:

What has 5 legs and lives in the sky?

Pretty certain that no animal has 5 legs, I figured she got the number wrong, and was counting a tail as a leg or something. So I guessed “dragon” and “pegasus” and the like, but she said those were wrong, and she knows a tail isn’t a leg. I was stumped!


The answer to the riddle is “a star.” (She’s most familiar with the 5-pointed star, which she’s always getting in sticker form.)

I was kind of blown away by this, because it’s a pretty cleverly crafted riddle. Trying not to be too quick to declare my daughter a genius, though, I gave some thought to what might be going on in her bilingual mind.

In Chinese, a 5-pointed star is called a “五角星,” literally, “5-corner-star.” But here’s the thing… “foot” in Chinese is (pronounced “jiǎo,” exact same pronunciation as above), and it’s a word sometimes used to represent the whole leg. She hasn’t officially started learning Chinese characters yet, and she definitely isn’t aware of how the two Chinese words are written. So in her mind, is it all the same “jiǎo”? Is a Chinese five-pointed star a “five-legged star” to her?

I tried to investigate this question, but my daughter didn’t have much patience for my line of linguistic questioning (a trait she probably inherited from her mother). In the end, I got her to answer like so:

Me: Do you know what the 五角 in 五角星 means?

Her: It means “five legs.”

Her: [thinks for a minute]

Her: …or “5 corners.”

I’m not sure if she thought of that second meaning when she was devising her riddle, and neither is she. Language acquisition is a largely unconscious process, and that’s especially true for kids. She hasn’t come up with any similarly clever riddles since. We’ll see what happens.


Oct 2016

Verbing for the Summer

Summer is over, but I can’t help sharing this 一下 / 一夏 pun:


It reads:


The “喝一夏” part is punning on a very common use of 一下 after a verb, whereas the “冰一夏” part is punning on the same usage in a less typical way.

An uninspired translation would be, “have a drink and cool off.” (Sorry, I have no inspired translation!)


Oct 2016

Simulating 80% Comprehension in Chinese

A while back I wrote about What 80% Comprehension Feels Like, and I quoted the English examples used in Marcos Benevides’ excellent presentation which simulate 80% comprehension in English by including made-up English-like vocabulary words.

I’ve been thinking about that presentation a lot, both about the impact of such a demonstration, as well as about how it could be accomplished in Chinese. I ended up creating my own examples in Chinese. I’ll go ahead and share that first, and follow up with some discussion of the considerations involved.

(Before you attempt to read the following, please note that if your Chinese is not at least at an intermediate level, the following exercise is not going to work. Like its English-language counterpart, these examples are most effective with native speakers.)

Chinese Samples

Here is 98% comprehension:

Chinese: 98% comprehension

Here is 95% comprehension:

Chinese: 95% comprehension

Here is 80% comprehension:

Chinese: 80% comprehension


The tricky thing about reading Chinese is that it’s not just a matter of vocabulary and grammar; there’s an issue not present in English: the issue of Chinese characters. When a learner reads a difficult Chinese text, all three of these components tend to play a part in the difficulty: vocabulary, grammar, and characters.

But for the example to work for both learners and native speakers alike, there needs to be a way to guarantee that parts of the text were incomprehensible, as accomplished with made-up words in English. How can one do this in Chinese?

How I did it

First of all, to maximize the chances that the “intelligible” parts of the Chinese sample text are also readable by learners, I used as simple a text as I could: a Level 1 Mandarin Companion graded reader. For these examples, it was The Secret Garden.

Then, I had to be sure I chose the more difficult content words to swap out, and that I got all instances of them in each sample. Obviously, I had to count the words to make sure I got the desired percentage right. But equally important, to make my samples representative of real-life 98%, 95%, and 80% comprehension experiences, the words chosen should “cloud” reading comprehension to the appropriate degree, no more, no less.

But here’s the tricky part: how to represent characters the reader doesn’t know. The obvious way would be to create my own characters that don’t really exist. I enjoy doing this, but it’s time consuming, and to make it look truly credible it would have to not stand out at all when mixed in with the other characters. Too much work.

So I turned to the Unihan database of Chinese characters. Over the years, more and more obscure characters have been added to this set of characters, and I found a list of the most recent additions. (Most recently added should mean most obscure, but I chose Extension D from this page because it was both recent and a small download.)

A quick check confirmed that these characters were indeed obscure, but many of them didn’t look like simplified Chinese characters, or were just too weird, so I had to choose carefully. After making my choices, I also had to check to make sure that educated Chinese adults didn’t recognize the characters (guessing doesn’t count).

After that, I selectively swapped out characters in the samples. (My 80% comprehension text sample is the shortest, because I was running out of “good” obscure characters, and I didn’t want to have to find more!)

One interesting side effect of using such obscure characters in my texts was that most software couldn’t render them. Whatever fonts they used just didn’t include those bizarre characters. Only Wenlin, with its custom font designed to render all kinds of obscure characters, could display them all. So I had to do screenshots of Wenlin’s interface.

How to use this


I used these passages as part of a presentation on extensive reading at LanguageCon in September. I got the effect I wanted: Chinese members of the audience giggled (embarrassedly?) at the characters they didn’t know, especially when they got to the 80% comprehension example.

Chinese learners smiled wryly: there wasn’t much amusing about a fake recreation of the challenge they face on a daily basis, trying to read Chinese.

More than anything, I hoped that the Chinese audience could empathize with the learners of Chinese. Most Chinese people never know what it feels like to have to learn so many foreign characters as a part of a foreign language learning experience. Through these examples, though, they can get an inkling.

Actually, maybe they were chuckling in relief… at least they’ve got that challenge behind them.

The AllSet Learning blog also has a similar Chinese language article on this topic: 80%没有你想的那么多.


Oct 2016

Traffic Characterplay

This image has been on posters all around Shanghai’s Jing’an District this past summer:


Each character is related to traffic:

  • : yield
  • : car
  • : slow
  • : stop

Actually, each character is merely “decorated” in the traffic theme. It’s not true “characterplay” in the sense that characters are constructed or represented in some non-standard way for artistic effect. I’ll take it, though!


Sep 2016

Pleco’s Hidden Gem: the Clipboard Reader

Pretty much everyone knows that Pleco is the best Chinese dictionary app. It’s the best free Chinese dictionary app, and it’s got the best paid add-on Chinese dictionaries. The add-on bundles, while not super cheap, are a good investment for any serious student embarking on the long-term journey of Chinese study.

But why do so few people know about the clipboard reader? It’s free! From Pleco’s (iPhone) documentation:

Most of Pleco’s document reading functions are part of our paid “Document Reader” add-on, which you can purchase from the Add-ons screen. The one exception to this is the “Clipboard Reader” function, which is available even in our free app.

Note: this feature is apparently called the “Clip Reader” in the Android app, but it’s also free.

So what is it? Well, if you’re looking up a word, use the Pleco dictionary. If you have a chunk of text and can’t even begin to read the Chinese, use something like Google Translate. But if you are getting a handle on Chinese characters, the clipboard reader is what you want. Simply copy the text message or article out of WeChat, or your mobile browser, or whatever. Then open up the clipboard reader, and it’s automatically pasted in. Tap words to see definitions in a popup.

Using the Pleco Clipboard Reader

Using the Pleco Clipboard Reader

Using the Pleco Clipboard Reader

Using the Pleco Clipboard Reader

I’ve seen people paste whole sentences into Pleco’s dictionary function, and Pleco does a pretty good job of parsing sentences into words and showing the definition for each word. But that’s not really what the dictionary lookup is for. It’s much better for your learning if you first read what you can (without help), and then tap on the words you don’t know to get the pinyin and English.

You might also notice that you can also adjust the bounds of the word you’ve tapped on, in case Pleco gets it wrong. You can also use the arrows at the bottom of the screen (which don’t change position) if you’re going to be looking up almost every word.

Thanks to Mike Love of Pleco for continuing development of such a great tool all these years, and for making such great features free. Enjoy!


Aug 2016

Practicing Chinese as a Camp Counselor

This is an interview with Nick Lenczewski, who served as a camp counselor at Concordia Village this summer. Although Nick is already a practicing interpreter in Minnesota, he doesn’t have many opportunities to practice Chinese in a fun environment, or to share in the enjoyment of the endeavor. In the interview below, I ask Nick for some details on what exactly he did, and what he got out of it.

John: Could you explain what the Concordia Language Village is? Who is it for?

Nick: The goal of Concordia Language Villages is to create global citizens. They do this through immersion language camps in many languages including Mandarin, Japanese, German, Swedish, Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, and more. Programs are available to kids ages 2-18 and adults ages 18 and up. During the summer there are 4-week, 2-week, and 1-week long sessions. There are also weekend programs available for adults and kids during the academic year. The language villages are located in northern Minnesota, USA at different sites around Bemidji, Minnesota.

Students have a schedule which consists of classes in their target language, meals, activities like swimming, biking, or other cultural activities such as mahjong for the Mandarin camp. Everything is done in the target language and students are surrounded by several dozen counselors speaking the language to them throughout the day during their classes, at meal times, and in between. Every night there is an evening activity which is usually a game of some kind that involves speaking the language and usually learning the culture of the language. Each night there is a campfire. There is lots of singing done throughout the day every day.

Concordia Langauge Villages - International Day

John: What do you mean by “create global citizens?”

Nick: A global citizen is someone who is fluent in more than one language and understands and appreciates cultural diversity. A global citizen should express empathy for their neighbors in the village and be globally minded.

John: What was your role at the Concordia Language Village this summer?

Nick: I worked as a counselor at the Mandarin camp, which is called 森林湖 (Senlin Hu). (All language camps are called “forest lake” in their target language.) My main duties were working as a small group Mandarin teacher and as an activity teacher. Most of the 40 counselors had the same duties. I taught a class of 6-8 students ages 6 to 14 for my first two weeks at the camp. Their Mandarin level was the lowest of all groups and I usually had at least a few students with no Mandarin background. The students were there for one week each. After this I taught a mahjong activity class. For this class I taught it with another teacher since there were fewer students last two weeks of camp than the first two weeks. We had 8 students each time we held the activity class. I think it ended up being one of the most popular activity classes. The kids really liked mahjong. All of these classes were taught in Mandarin, though with the students with no language background I did speak some English with them some of the time.

Besides my duties as a teacher I slept in the same cabin along with three other counselors with students, and sat at a table (AKA ) with students during their meals. Some of the activities are done during the camp are done as a cabin and some are done as a . In these instances I would be in charge of this group of students. Activities could include putting on a play, playing some games in a competition with other , or cleaning the 大楼 (building) toilets. In addition to the duties of a normal camp counselor, my job was to speak Mandarin with them.

John: Do you think the summer program is true immersion? What are the pros and cons?

Nick: Although we speak mostly in Mandarin with students, there are times when it is permissible to speak English. These times include anything involving safety announcements. In the evenings before bed each cabin has a meeting or 木屋会 (muwu hui), where everyone shares their highs and lows of the day. If it is too difficult to express something in Mandarin it is okay to speak in English. Besides speaking in Mandarin, the goal of the 木屋会 is to share what has been troubling you and what has been going well for you and not necessarily to practice Mandarin. This is done mainly to help students emotionally.

Concordia Langauge Villages - Cantonese Class

If immersion is having Mandarin spoken 100% of the time, then the camps would not be considered true immersion. At the same time, for Mandarin learners I think it is an awesome opportunity learn Mandarin. Some of these students had no Mandarin background before coming to the camp and within 4 weeks were speaking passable Mandarin. They were better than some of the foreign English teachers in China I knew who’d been studying for months.

In some ways I think total immersion like in China might not be as good as having an 90% immersion environment like this at Concordia when first beginning to learn Mandarin. It can be daunting to be in a true immersion environment and try to figure out a new language with no English assistance. However, at Concordia Language Villages English is used sometimes in order to help students learn.

A con of this system is having really little kids in the camp (below age 10). Simply by being at camp and away from home camp can be an emotionally challenging experience for many students (I myself was extremely homesick the first time I went to camp when I was 11). Learning a language on top of this is extremely difficult, definitely not the ideal state of mind for language learning. If you are not mentally calm it is very hard to learn a new language.

John: What are the pros and cons of being a counselor?

Nick: The biggest pro of being a counselor was meeting all of the other counselors. They were super cool, from all over the US, China, and world, and loved Mandarin, music, travel, and people. Bonding with them through classes, orientation, and the little free time we had, was easily the best part about the camp in my opinion. The friendships made with some of the students was also great.

Concordia Langauge Villages - Counselors Supper

Being a camp counselor is also a good opportunity to improve your own Mandarin. Many of the counselors I met had never been to China or only once for a short amount of time, but they still had great Mandarin. I think they owe this in part to being a counselor at camp over the years. Many of them had been a counselor for multiple years. I’m also an author and for me this was a great opportunity to promote my book.

A major con is that the pay being quite low. Even with room and board it is still pretty low, just over $1,000 for 4 weeks. Another con is that there is almost no free time. From the time students wake up at 8 am to the time the go to sleep (somewhere between 10 and 11 pm, typically), you always need to be on and ready to help in some way. This includes Saturday and Sunday as well since we also had activities and things for students to do on these days.

John: Describe the kids that are there. Why are they there, and what do their attitudes tend to be?

Nick: The students came mostly from all over the US but there were also students from UK, Singapore, Japan, and I imagine other countries as well. These students had all different levels of motivation. Some had great Mandarin and others didn’t know anything. Some students were eager to learn Mandarin while others were there more for the camp experience regardless of the language immersion aspect. I expect some students were there because their parents wanted them there, while others were there because they wanted to be. Many students had been to the camp multiple times, some at least 5 times.

One activity we did every day was called 中国通 (Zhongguo Tong) where students were given a special name tag and had to speak only in Mandarin the entire day. If a counselor heard them speaking English, they would take it away and thus they would not receive a 中国通 bead for that day (the beads are a way of rewarding students). Those students who really wanted to be at camp were able to get a dozen or more of these beads over the four weeks they were there by speaking lots of Mandarin and no English, while those who weren’t as keen on speaking Mandarin at camp were only able to get a few. They did this not by speaking Mandarin, but by not speaking any English and speaking a little Mandarin.

John: Can you share a story or two about special “learning moments” you witnessed or were part of?

Nick: During my time as a counselor I was placed in a cabin with the male students, ages 13-16 who were with the camp for 4 weeks. Two of these students had never learned Mandarin before so I was curious to see how much they would be able to learn in 4 weeks. Each night during our 木屋会 everyone shared one high and one low from the day. In the beginning these two students needed to speak in English since they had no Mandarin abilities. But by the end of the second week they were able to tell us their highs and lows. Highs often consisted of having a good meal, making a new friend, or finishing a test. Lows included the hot, humid weather, the mosquitos, or their homework load. I was amazed at how quickly they progressed in just a few weeks.

One evening activity we did was called 三国 (“three kingdoms”). Students formed three separate countries with their own special cultural taboos, greetings, languages, and exchange rituals. The object of the activity was to send out people to a different country to collect their sacred item (pool noodle, badminton racket, basketball). But in order to collect the item, one needed to figure out the culture of the other group by successfully greeting them, blending in with their culture, and completing their ritual of exchange, all without messing up. There was therefore a lot of trial and error. One group’s culture revolved around dancing, another around being anti-social, and the third around worshiping a burping deity.

At the end of the activity at our evening campfire we talked about what it was like for the students. We also spoke in English since we wanted everyone to be able to freely discuss what happened. Based on the amount of student engagement this was the most successful evening activity we did in the 4 weeks I was at camp. As counselors we asked students what it felt like to try to understand a new culture, we asked them to consider the biases they had about a culture before interacting with them. One student said it was hard to blend in with one culture because they did not accept people who smiled and she smiled a lot. Another said it was difficult to blend in with the dancing culture because he couldn’t dance well.

Concordia Langauge Villages - Campfire

Some students talked about the prejudices that they had towards each other at the beginning of camp but that they were able to overcome differences and become friends. The experience taught everyone about how to be accepting of others, not only those of other cultures, but also those within the same city or state.

John: So what is your takeaway from the experience? Do you recommend becoming a Chinese camp counselor to others?

Nick: If you are looking to improve your Mandarin I think being a counselor at the language village is a good opportunity. For someone like me who has been studying Mandarin for 9 years and has worked as a translator and interpreter for several years in China and USA, it was not necessarily as big of a help. I didn’t make that much of an effort to improve my vocabulary by using new words in conversation with other counselors, but I did learn a few dozen words passively, mostly words like 篝火 (camp fire), 防蚊液 (mosquito repellant), and 防晒霜 (sunscreen).

For me, as a counselor, the real value of Concordia Language Villages was meeting the other counselors, all of whom all love languages, traveling, music, performing, or living abroad. In addition to bonding with the other Mandarin counselors, there was a week-long orientation at the beginning of the summer camp where counselors of all language camps were able to meet and prepare for camp. Meeting all the people from other camps (Italians, Russians, Japanese, Spanish), listening to their music, and trying to connect with them made me want to learn their languages, experience their cultures, and see their countries. In my opinion, learning a language is not a goal, and instead a means. The goal is to connect with and understand another person; the language is the means to do this. Learning their language shows you care about them, and caring about someone is the building block for having a good interaction with them. Life is all about love and there is a whole lot of it at Concordia Language Villages.

Concordia Langauge Villages - Last Day at SLH

This interview was not intended to be an ad or direct endorsement for Concordia Language Villages, but I had heard of the immersion camps at Middlebury, and I had no idea there were others in places like Minnesota. Then when I met Nick and discovered he was going to be a counselor at one, I jumped on the opportunity to learn more about them.

If you have questions for Nick, please leave a comment on Sinosplice or get in touch with him through his website.


Aug 2016

What 80% Comprehension Feels Like

Extensive Reading - How Easy Is Easy? (Marco Benevides)

If you’re learning a foreign language and you don’t know what extensive reading is, it’s time to learn. This presentation deck by Marco Benevides is a great place to start: Extensive Reading – How easy is easy? (Excerpts below from: Extensive Reading: Benefits and Implementation. Benevides, Marcos. J. F. Oberlin University, Tokyo. Presented at IATEFL 2015 in Manchester.)

One of the major principles of extensive reading is that if a learner can comprehend material at 98% comprehension, she will acquire new words in context, in a painless, enjoyable way. But what is 98% comprehension? Humans are actually really bad at gauging this, partly because schools rarely teach this way. 98% comprehension means that only 1 in 50 words is unknown. But still, it’s hard to have a feeling for exactly what that’s like.

This is where Marco Benevides’s presentation is so genius. Here is 98%:

You live and work in Tokyo. Tokyo is a big city. More than 13 million people live around you. You are never borgle, but you are always lonely. Every morning, you get up and take the train to work. Every night, you take the train again to go home. The train is always crowded. When people ask about your work, you tell them, “I move papers around.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true. You don’t like your work. Tonight you are returning home. It’s late at night. No one is shnooling. Sometimes you don’t see a shnool all day. You are tired. You are so tired…

(And in case you’re not a native speaker of English or don’t quite get it, yes, there are nonsense words in there. Those represent the uncomprehended 2%.)

Here’s 95%, which represents a departure from extensive reading, because it requires more effort, and tends to be slower and less enjoyable:

In the morning, you start again. You shower, get dressed, and walk pocklent. You move slowly, half- awake. Then, suddenly, you stop. Something is different. The streets are fossit. Really fossit. There are no people. No cars. Nothing. “Where is dowargle?” you ask yourself. Suddenly, there is a loud quapen—a police car. It speeds by and almost hits you. It crashes into a store across the street! Then, another police car farfoofles. The police officer sees you. “Off the street!” he shouts. “Go home, lock your door!” “What? Why?” you shout back. But it’s too late. He is gone.

Finally, let’s skip to the oh-so-frustrating 80% comprehension level:

“Bingle for help!” you shout. “This loopity is dying!” You put your fingers on her neck. Nothing. Her flid is not weafling. You take out your joople and bingle 119, the emergency number in Japan. There’s no answer! Then you muchy that you have a new befourn assengle. It’s from your gutring, Evie. She hunwres at Tokyo University. You play the assengle. “…if you get this…” Evie says. “…I can’t vickarn now… the important passit is…” Suddenly, she looks around, dingle. “Oh no, they’re here! Cripett… the frib! Wasple them ON THE FRIB!…” BEEP! the assengle parantles. Then you gratoon something behind you…


I run into this number “80%” quite a lot in my work. Maybe it’s because of the 80/20 rule; I don’t know. But what I do know is that many learners think 80% comprehension in a conversation or in a business meeting is enough to follow. In reality, 80% is extremely frustrating because you can get so much of the conversation, but you’re still fairly clueless about a lot of the meat of the discussion. Generally speaking, you’ll know the topic, but fully understand virtually none of the details discussed. Pretty maddening.

This isn’t actually bad news… It doesn’t change the numbers of hours of focused practice needed to become fluent in a language. In fact, it goes a long way toward explaining that intermediate plateau, as you slog from an average of 60% comprehension or so to closer to 90%. That’s why you’re learning so much but don’t feel the breakthrough. It’s also why it’s so important to have a good teacher, and materials at your level.


Aug 2016

Chinese Characters with Disney Characteristics

I noticed this poster in the Shanghai Metro:


You gotta love Disney’s attention to detail. If you look at the characters carefully, you’ll see that elements of the iconic “Disney” typography have been incorporated into the Chinese characters:


(Oh, and nope, I’m still not planning any new trips to Shanghai Disneyland!)

What I wish my Chinese teacher knew


Jul 2016

What I wish my Chinese teacher knew

One of the things we do at AllSet Learning in Shanghai is to continually train our teachers. Of course it’s not that our teachers have no training; in fact, many of them have masters degrees and many years of teaching experience. The issue is that many of the academic degrees and classroom teaching experience attained in China draw on an outdated teaching tradition, largely a variation of how the Chinese educational system teaches Chinese children.


Add to that the fact that our service is based on deep personalization for individual learners, each with her own goals, needs, interests, and quirks, and you pretty much have an endless bounty of teaching issues to discuss and improve upon.

As a result, we’ve been sharing some of our ideals, methods, and tips with our teachers in Chinese on WeChat. Then we also post a lot of the same material to our own blog. Some articles come from old Sinosplice posts (like this one), sharing the foreign learner perspective with Chinese teachers (like this one), while others share more specific teaching tips. (We have a number of articles of this type which haven’t yet been ported from WeChat.)

The point of this post is to ask the question: What do you wish your Chinese teacher knew? I’d be happy to make it into a topic that we address in Chinese in a constructive way, and share online.

Obviously, we’re not talking about politics or cultural differences. It’s issues like:

  1. I know my tones suck; why won’t you correct me more?
  2. I really don’t think I need to be able to hand-write 2000 characters…
  3. If you’re my Chinese teacher, why do you ask me to call you “Sunny” instead of something Chinese?
  4. This textbook doesn’t even have the word for “cell phone” in it… why can’t we update?

Please share your ideas in the comments, or on Facebook, or whatever. All constructive feedback welcome! This is about working to improve the situation, not simply whining.


Jul 2016

Punny Clothing Shop

This is a clothing store in Shanghai’s Jing’an Metro Station:


The name of the shop is 布言布语 (Bù Yán Bù Yǔ). The pun involves the character , which in this case, is a substitute for .

The original expression is: 不言不语, which means “to not say a single word.”

The pun gives us 布言布语 (the pronunciation matches exactly), riffing on words like 布料 (“cloth”) which use the character.

Truth be told, 布言布语 is not a vey clever name. Sure, it has the pun, but 不言不语 has nothing to do with clothing. Still, somebody thought it was good enough for a clothing shop name.

Other Chinese brands have similarly used a language theme in their names. The first one that comes to mind for me is “BreadTalk,” which is 面包新语 in Chinese.


Jun 2016

Of Forests and Graves

How do you turn a forest into a grave? Check out this innovative ad I spotted on the Shanghai Metro:


The (altered) character is , meaning “forest.” The text below it reads:


In English:

If the trees all disappear, forests will turn into graves.

To understand the message, you have to know that the character , meaning “forest,” is made up of three , which each mean “tree.” And does indeed look like a little cross when you take away the two diagonal strokes.

Part of what makes this interesting to me is that crosses are, of course, not a feature of Chinese graveyards at all. Here’s a picture of a Chinese cemetary:


Still, innovative ad that drives the point home. Well done.


Jun 2016

Rebecca Wigs: Fake Hair, Real Me

There’s a brand of high-quality wigs in China called Rebecca. The Chinese tagline for these wigs is:



The simple slogan (great for beginners!) sets up a nice contrast between the words (fake) and (real). It doesn’t translate well into English, though, because the word for “wig” in Chinese is 假发, quite literally, “fake hair.” So here are your two most obvious direct translation candidates:

  1. “Fake hair, real me”
  2. “Wig, real me”

Pretty bad. The wigs themselves look pretty gorgeous, though, and Rebecca hired Chinese superstar babe 范冰冰 (Fan Bingbing) is their model:



The Rebecca wigs also occasionally stray into the “slightly less than practical,” apparently: