NPR has a blog called code switch now, and recently published an article called Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. I recommend you read it in full if you’re at all interested in the linguistic phenomenon of code-switching, but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll some up the five reasons listed:
1. A certain language feels more appropriate in a “primal” state
2. To fit in to a certain linguistic environment
3. To be treated “like a local”
4. To communicate in secret
5. It helps convey a concept more “native” to a certain language
Code-switching is a well-researched linguistic phenomenon, and you can go into it way deeper than the NPR article does (just check out the references of the Wikipedia article on code-switching).
But while in Beijing over the weekend, I was reminded of another aspect of code-switching: it can be annoying. Although the act of code-switching is generally accepted as “normal,” there are still limits. People can code-switch too rapid-fire, or for “the wrong reasons.” (Alas, the Wikipedia article does not comment on “when code-switching gets annoying.”)
So assuming that non-comprehension isn’t a factor, what are the circumstances under which code-switching becomes annoying? I would guess that a flagrant violation of reason #5 above would be the most annoying… switching to another language to express a thoroughly generic concept, rather than for a “culturally justified” reason. Worse yet: doing that repeatedly. This was the one that came up in my recent conversation.
I’m curious, though, what factors might also make code-switching annoying. Some thoughts:
1. Code-switching too often, and for no discernible purpose
2. Code-switching which seems to be for the purpose of showing off
I’m pretty tolerant of code-switching, though. Maybe you readers have other reasons to add?
This post is leading up to another longer post on how the Chinese write numbers. I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (一、二、三、四、etc.); I’m talking about the numbers we call Arabic numerals. In China, they can occasionally be written pretty differently from what an American like me is used to.
An example to prove the point:
I won’t post my own observations in this blog post. Feel free to contribute your own interpretations in the comments (and tell us where you’re from), and, more importantly, ask your Chinese friends to do it and post those results too.
I’ve done this little experiment with a number of people, Chinese and non-, and have gotten surprisingly varied replies (but with some identifiable patterns).
If you enjoy this kind of thing, be sure to check out Sinoglot’s classic Bowl, Plate, Plowl.
Over the past year or so the expression 你妹 (literally, “your little sister”) is pretty popular. You might guess that it’s kind of dirty, based on other common vulgar phrases involving mothers or grandmothers, and you’d be kind of right. It’s clearly not a polite phrase, but it seems to be more often used in a flippant way among friends rather than a vulgar way to start fights.
One of the means by which the phrase 你妹 is getting more exposure is through the crazy popular new game “找你妹” (literally, “Look for Your Little Sister,” although that’s not how the name is really understood). I first noticed this game a couple weeks ago while riding public transportation. I’m seeing it played on iPhones and iPads everywhere around Shanghai. It’s especially interesting to me because it looks so lame, despite being so popular. You basically scroll through a bunch of little drawings of objects, and click on the ones you’re told to find. Whee.
It looks like this:
There’s even a video on YouTube about how a kid played 找你妹 all night and went blind. (Well, I guess there are allegedly more embarrassing ways to go blind…) You can see footage of the game in action in parts of the clip:
As for the recent upsurge in usage of the phrase 你妹, it’s kind of interesting, and Baidu offers an explanation (in Chinese, of course). I’m not going to try to explain it because I’m not personally super familiar with all the nuances of its usage yet, but this is exactly the type of situation where having a group of young Chinese teachers on staff comes in super handy, so I’m going to have to get into this topic in the AllSet Learning office. (Anyone interested in it or have a link to an explanation as good or better than Baidu’s? The other explanations I could find were a bit lacking.)
The AllSet Learning Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app comes preloaded with several free “books.” Although I immensely enjoyed creating a story involving post-apocalyptic steam punk dinosaurs, in some ways those free books were the most interesting. That’s because the content of each book is a simple interview question which is then answered by 10 different Chinese college kids. They’re all studying in Shanghai, but they come from all over China. You get to hear each young person’s own voice, see their photo, and even read their actual handwriting (in characters), which is also accompanied by text. This is a lot more interesting than most textbooks the kids are using these days! Through this app, it’s my hope to show a diverse, modern side of China’s youth, different from other sources.
We’ve aimed for intermediate level learners in the past, but we would consider doing simpler or more difficult questions. The interview questions already included in the app are:
1. 你最喜欢吃什么？ (What do you most like to eat?)
2. 谈到美国，你第一个想到的是什么？ (When speaking of the USA, what’s the first thing you think of?)
3. 你认为幸福是什么？ (What do you think happiness is?)
And this is the part where I ask you, my readers, what types of questions you’d like us to ask for the next round of interviews. The questions need to be relatively short, and somewhat open-ended, but nothing requiring an essay to answer. It’s OK to get just a little bit into the human side of politics (One Child Policy, etc.), but we’re not going to do any particularly inflammatory topics, or topics that could get the interviewees in trouble.
So what questions would you like to see covered in the Chinese Picture Book Reader? Please share in the comments, or drop me an email if you like.
I saw an interesting Chinese forward called 小学生造句 (“elementary school students make sentences”). Obviously, the sentences produced are not exactly what the teacher was looking for. Here are some of the more amusing ones (some understanding of Chinese grammar may be required):
A friend in Beijing recently reported an exchange with his Chinese tutor to me that went something like this (embellished by my own imagination and translated into English):
> Friend: So today I’d like to talk about the air quality in Beijing.
> Tutor: I really don’t want to talk about that. You foreigners come to China, and all you want to talk about is how bad the air is, or how the food is unsafe. There’s really a lot more we could talk about. China is an immense country with a long history and rich culture. We don’t even have to talk about China. There’s so much more we could talk about than just complaining about the air quality here.
> Friend:I’m hiring you to help me improve my Chinese, and I want to talk about Beijing’s terrible air quality. So that’s what we’re talking about today.
> Tutor: …
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the greatest tutoring session. But just that little piece of dialog recounted by my friend contained quite a few layers of cultural expectations. (A thoroughly enjoyable exchange, from my perspective!)
Although never studying it too diligently, I’ve always suspected that the syllable “gang” plays a prominent role in Shanghainese. Then I got this forward which proves it (see image at right). Don’t spend too much time trying to make sense of the Mandarin; it’s just a silly story about 江江, 杠杠, 傻傻, and 岗岗 calling each other dumb (傻). And yes, it’s pretty contrived. But the Shanghainese version is hilarious.
If you can read Chinese, you might be amused by the image (focusing on the latter half). But you’ll definitely want to hear the audio I had my Shanghainese wife record:
Here are text transcripts (and keep in mind that the Shanghainese “transcript” doesn’t reflect any official way of representing Shanghainese in written form; it’s mostly just approximately phonetic characters chosen to exaggerate how ridiculous the Shanghainese sounds to non-speakers):
普通话版 (Mandarin version):
上海话版 (Shanghainese version):
Note: Both the Mandarin and Shanghainese texts have been edited slightly from the original image to correct for errors and inconsistencies (and in one case, to better reflect the audio version).
This is definitely a tricky one, and you’re not likely to be able to appreciate it if you’re not at least the intermediate level. So forgive me for not providing pinyin and translations for everything.
Like many jokes, this joke relies on ambiguity. Understanding the different sentences requires some understanding of semantic ambiguity, syntactic ambiguity, and lexical ambiguity.
Here’s what’s going on:
谁都看不上 can be interpreted as either “doesn’t like anyone” or “isn’t liked by anyone.” You’re not normally going to see both meanings used in one sentence!
This is a parsing issue, and revolves around the word 叫做 being a synonym for 叫: “叫做 爱” (“to be called love”) vs. “叫 做爱” (“to be called making love”). In spoken Chinese, you would definitely pause to verbally insert the “space” that I have typed above.
So 一个人 can be interpreted as both “a person” and “[to be] alone.”
You can’t really praise Chinese for having ambiguity; every language does. And what one human mind can encode, another can decode (native speaker or not!).
Finally, since SVG Hanzi doesn’t force you to use only character components as input (and Unicode character will work), I couldn’t resist these “hacks” (I’m using screenshots just in case SVG Hanzi ever goes down and to not hit the server so hard, but in each case, the image was originally output by SVG Hanzi and then captured by screenshot):
This all reminds me of the Character Description Language created for Wenlin, only simpler, and more universally accessible, since it uses a simple string of symbols to create an SVG, which all modern browsers can display.
Anyway, SVG Hanzi is a very cool tool, and I’m glad to see this. Not sure if it will ever be capable of representing really complex characters, but it’s already impressive as is!
Thanks to @magazeta for introducing me to this project.
OK, so I feel a little dirty typing out “PinYin,” but that is the name of the app. (Words can be capitalized in pinyin, but syllables within words should not be capitalized or spaced out.) I guess that’s my main linguistic complaint about PinYin Pal for iPad; it seems to confuse syllables with words. Still, it’s a pretty decent “Words with Friends” clone (read: Scrabble clone), and the incorporation of characters is done in a smart way. The relative short length of pinyin syllables (as opposed to English words) is also cleverly skirted with a purple extension tile.
Right from the get-go you can see that we had a little bit of trouble coming up with long pinyin syllables.
Then we started to successfully create longer syllables.
Finally, we were forced to figure out how to use the purple “spacer” block. (It turns into a blank orange square when you place it. You can see it near the top under “jun.” Blank tiles make you choose a letter, and then the letter appears on the tile, but with no points.)
It’s true that native Chinese speakers don’t have a huge advantage when playing this game, since you’re creating syllables rather than words. (In fact, you can’t string syllables together and create actual words, which is a little frustrating.) So in order to play, the learner just has to know what syllables are possible in Mandarin (and I hope you have the iPad Pinyin app for that), and be able to match the syllables you created to one correct character and definition. Tones are added when you choose your character, but you’re not tested on them.
Overall, the game felt less fun than Scrabble. I think it’s mainly because there are so few syllable finals in Mandarin (you can’t end a syllable in m, p, g, z, y, etc.), and this can slow the game down a bit. Still, it was fun playing this classic game in Mandarin, and the app is free! It was also fun playing such a well-known English-language game with a Chinese person who had had absolutely no exposure to Scrabble (or “Words with Friends”). So if you’re learning Chinese, check it out: PinYin Pal.
ChinesePod Jenny was telling me that she read about a story told by the CEO of C-trip (携程). C-trip was trying to make a Weibo post about “independent travel” (i.e. not travel with a tour group). In China, this kind of travel is called 自由行. 自由 means “free” (as in freedom), and 行 is an abbreviation of 旅行, which means “travel.”
Well the word for “freedom” tripped the censorship filter, and the post was rejected.
So they figured that they could alter the word 自由 by using the character 游 instead of 由. 游 is a part of 旅游, another word for “travel.” That way you get 自游行 instead of 自由行. Identical pronunciation, and the meaning still comes across pretty clearly.
The post was rejected again, for having tripped the filter.
The reason is that they had unintentionally created the word 游行, which is the Chinese word for “demonstration” (as in the protest kind).
Whether or not the facts are 100% accurate, Chinese people find this kind of story quite amusing. There’s not much you can do about the current situation but grin and bear it. One does wonder how much longer this particular charade will carry on, though…
[I don’t have a link to the original article; please share it if you have it!]
A friend pointed me to this article: Emotions For Which There Are No English Words. A nice intersection of some of my favorite topics: semantics, translation, psychology, and infographics. You’ll need to go to the site for the full infographic (it’s zoomable), but here are the Chinese words that make an appearance:
The Chinese words are:
> 心疼: The feeling somewhere between sympathy and empathy, to feel the suffering of loved ones.
Literally, “heart aches.” This one isn’t too hard to understand.
> 加油: A form of encouragement as if you are fighting along with the person, backing them up.
Literally, “add oil.” It does take a little bit of time to get used to how when you say “加油！” you’re actually putting yourself on the same team as the enouragee, somehow. (Similar deal with Japanese 頑張って.)
> 忐忑: A mixture of feeling uneasy and worried, as if you can feel your own heart beat.
(That one is also kind of famous for its characters… good ideogrammatic fun.)
> 纠结: Worried, feeling uneasy, don’t know what to do.
纠结 probably gets my vote for “newest super useful slang word that you won’t find in a textbook,” but it’s not just a word-fad that’s going away anytime soon.
I really like this next Japanese choice. It’s once of my favorite Japanese words:
> 懐かしい: Missing something. The sense of longing, being nostalgic for something, someone, or somewhere.
The weird thing about the word 懐かしい is how often it’s used as a complete sentence, usually as an exclamation. When you’re not used to the word, and you see someone confronted with something dear but forgotten from childhood, and then they bust out with “nostalgic!” it seems very odd at first. It’s like one word to say, “oh wow, that really takes me back.”
Just thinking about using 懐かしい is kind of 懐かしい for me. (I do miss Japanese!)
Since 2012, Byer Dental has not, on any platform,
published any group buying deals for dental work.
Please pass the word on! If you’re here through a group buying deal,
Byer Dental cannot provide those services.
Makes me wonder what happened. Fraudulent group buying (团购) deals online (created by the competition?), sending hordes of cheapskates in need of greater dental hygiene to Byer’s door? Or perhaps just a 2011 full of ill-advised group buying engagements in Byer’s past?
Is there no end to the evils brought on by all this wanton Groupon clonery?
At some point or another, many learners of Chinese here in China get the brilliant idea to buy Chinese children’s picture books and use them to learn Chinese. Genius, right? It’s got pictures, it’s for kids (so it’s gotta be simple), and it’s a story! What could go wrong, right?
You see, at the really low levels, China’s children’s books contain big, clear, colorful pictures, characters with pinyin, and sometimes even English. While these can be nice, they’re essentially pictorial flash cards in book form. If that’s what you’re looking for, they’re great, but they’re not stories.
As soon as you jump from “vocabulary books” to “story books,” however, something magical happens. “Magical” in the “holy crap, I’ve been studying Chinese for over two years and I can hardly read any of this book written for a 6-year-old” sense. One definitely gets the impression that these books are written not for the enjoyment of the young reader, but rather as the embodiment of the discovery that, “if we put pictures in these books, maybe we can trick even little kids into studying more characters and vocabulary in their free time.”
End results: (1) they’re way too hard for the typical Chinese learner, and (2) they’re not actually that interesting either.
One could be forgiven for thinking that maybe story books in electronic format are better. Sadly, they’re usually not. There are bilingual story books on the iPad, but most of them seem designed with the idea that either you want to read/listen to the story in English or in Chinese, but never both. As a result you have to start the whole story over if you want to switch languages. (And you may not even get pinyin, or have no option to hide it.) Not very learner-friendly.
Oh, and even on the iPad, there’s way too much of the 成语故事 (4-character idiom stories) mentality going on. In other words, “Oh, you want to learn Chinese through stories? OK, but only if the whole point is to memorize an obscure idiom. None of this time-wasting ‘using the language for your own enjoyment’ nonsense.”
But I’m writing this post not just to complain about a lack of stories. I’m writing to report that I actually did something about it. I created an app that houses interesting stories. Not “slight variation of the status quo” stories, but something radically different. I mean, one of the stories literally takes place in a post-apocalyptic steam punk world. With cyborg dinosaurs. And it was drawn and co-created by a local Chinese artist. (Ssshhh, don’t tell him that the Chinese are not known for their creativity.)
I think I did this partly to prove to myself that it could be done. (It turns out the Chinese language itself is not averse to fresh new story settings.) But also, this industry needs to break out of its 5,000-year-old mold and recognize that modern learners want more options. Sure, maybe “post-apocalyptic steam punk (with dinosaurs)” is not exactly the rallying cry of bored students of Chinese across the world, but this is a start.
So even if “post-apocalyptic steam punk (with dinosaurs)” isn’t your thing, even if “cute dogs causing chaos in the park” isn’t your thing, even if “the thoughts, voices and handwriting of modern Chinese college kids” isn’t your thing, I would at least hope that more interesting options for studying Chineseis your thing. And for that reason, I ask you to please try out the new Chinese Picture Book Reader for the iPad. (The app is free.)
“No sugar” or “sugar-free” in Chinese is 无糖. The character 无, in its simplified form (not 無), is not particularly difficult to write. It’s barely more complex than “#.” The character for “sugar,” however, is a different story: 糖. Kind of complex.
So if you’re working in a coffee shop and have to quickly mark coffee cups with a label that means “no sugar,” what are you going to use? Are you going to bother to write 无糖 over and over? Here’s what an employee at Knight Coffee writes:
So “无t” instead of “无糖.” (You can often see similar things going on if you can get a peek at the way that restaurant servers write down food orders by hand.)
Modern Chinese people grow up being equally familiar with the Latin alphabet and Chinese characters. Writing by hand is becoming less and important, and writing characters is sometimes seen as a burden. Typing on a computer can make it easier to type out complex characters (because you’re not actually writing out all the strokes anymore), and yet young Chinese people on the internet are mixing the Latin alphabet into Chinese quite liberally.
It does make you wonder how quickly we’re going to start seeing fundamental changes to the way Chinese people write. All languages change over time, although the written language often resists change much longer. But there’s a new catalyst in the equation this time: the internet.