language


29

Mar 2009

The Many Paths to Translation Work

I succumbed to the lure of translation work just as I was about to start grad school in 2005. Although I had long avoided “real translation work,” I figured if my Chinese was good enough to get into grad school in China, then I should be able to handle a few translation jobs. The truth is, even after 4+ years of living in China studying the language, I was terrified of putting my language skills to such a tangible, transparent trial, subject to judgment and criticism. Well… all the more reason to give it a shot, right?

So I did. I tried translation for a while, and it went smoothly enough, but I realized I hated it. Most of the jobs I got made me feel like a machine. (Perhaps this was because I expected the kind of work I was doing to be replaced by a Google service in the near future, my hours of mental anguish reduced to the click of a button.) Still, there were things I enjoyed translating… bad subtitles, maybe, or an interesting name. But those are the kinds of translations I could only do strictly for fun.

These days I rarely stray too far from translation, because my academic work at ChinesePod is inherently tied to translation for pedagogical purposes. It really is a whole new game, and one whose challenges I find rewarding. Fortunately, translation nowadays is accomplished with a slew of digital tools, ranging from online dictionaries and databases to desktop reference tools (I’m looking at you, Wenlin!). It seems like the translator’s biggest headache these days is non-digital source text.

Despite all the technological advances, the issues a translator faces are, at their core, very human, and so human minds are obviously our best weapon for this task. What’s not obvious is where these translators are coming from. Proper translation from Chinese to English requires a native speaker of English, but the translators I meet aren’t typically the graduates of some kind of translation academy, and the translators out there now precede the new wave of China-focused graduates. They’re a mixed lot with completely different backgrounds, and they share a peculiar passion for translation that I certainly was never able to muster.

Translator Interview Series

This is why I did a series of interviews with translators in China that I know personally. I asked what I was curious about, and received a surprisingly diverse set of answers. Over the next five days I’ll be publishing one new interview every day. As I publish new interviews, the links will appear below, making this page an index for the series.

The interview lineup:

1. Brendan O’Kane (Bokane.org writer, freelance translator)
2. Peter Braden (ChinesePod translator and host)
3. Joel Martinsen (Danwei.org contributor/translator)
4. John Biesnecker (blogger, freelance translator, Qingxi Labs founder)
5. Ben Ross (barber shop anthropologist, translator/interpreter)
6. Megan Shank (blogger and freelance translator and journalist)

Specifically, I ask them about what kind of training/preparation they had to become translators, the role of technology in their trade, and the challenges and joys that translation work brings. Whether you aspire to become a translator, or you just have an interest in language, be sure to catch what these guys have to say on the topic.

[Apr. 8 Update: An interview with Megan Shank, originally planned for this interview, has been added to the lineup.]

26

Mar 2009

Beatles Songs with Chinese Characteristics

My coworker Pete has just started using Twitter under the name @pearltowerpete, and he’s begun a great series of Chinese puns involving Beatles song titles. Here’s what he’s got so far:

– Hey Zhu De
– The Long and Winding March
– So you say you want a Cultural Revolution
– Twist and Denounce
– Here Comes the Sun Yat-sen

More are sure to follow. Pete is ChinesePod‘s translator. (The funny hashtags (e.g. #cpod5) relate to ChinesePod’s new Activity Stream Twitter integration.)


19

Mar 2009

Korean Update

I while back I announced I was studying Korean, and since then I’ve had quite a few inquiries as to how it’s going. So let me make an official update: it’s not going. Yeah, that whole Korean study didn’t last too long.

Why not? Well, it turns out my reasons for studying Korean weren’t very good in the first place. A quick recap of why I decided to study Korean:

1. Korean looks cool.
2. Korean writing is phonetic.
3. I’ve already got a good foundation in 2 of 3 major East Asian languages down (might as well go for the East Asian Linguistic Trilogy).
4. It’s easy to do in China.

Just in case these reasons don’t strike you as entirely stupid, I’ll add a few incisive questions into the mix:

1. Do you need to learn Korean? Not at all.

2. Do you have plans to go to Korea? No, not really. Been there once, and it was nice, but I’m not itching to go back.

3. Do you have a love of Korean culture? TV dramas, maybe? No, not really.

4. Do you have many Korean friends that you could practice with? No.

5. Is learning Korean related to any other long-term goals you might have? No, not at all.

Hmmm, OK, I think that’s probably enough. So I basically had no compelling reason to learn Korean, and I gave it a shot anyway. It lasted 2-3 months, I learned a bit about the language, and it was fun. No regrets.

But I did learn a thing or two about motivation for language learning. Having a need or a use for the language you’re learning is important. This doesn’t mean that you should choose only super practical languages (Spanish, anyone?), but it does mean that trying to pick up a random language just because it’s kind of interesting probably won’t work. You need stronger motivation.

Aside from motivation, you need occasion to practice the new language. The opportunities for practice and the motivation for learning feed on each other. When you have both, they nurture each other. When you’re missing one, the other easily withers.

As it turns out, I had neither for Korean. I have both for Shanghai sign language, and it’s going really well. I’ll be writing more about that soon.


03

Mar 2009

Flawed Plan

From Twitter, ajatt says:

> Another problem with going to the country to learn the language is that by design, just as your skill is peaking, it’s time to leave.

I can attest to that. It’s one of the big reasons I never left China.

I once did have a plan to stay in various countries for relatively short periods of time, just long enough to gain fluency. It does make me wonder… who is heartless enough to leapfrog across the globe, mastering one language after another, gaining precious insight into those cultures, only to leave each one behind?


23

Feb 2009

Cross-Cultural Marital Communication: Sacrifice, Identity, Choice

Commenter 維特利 recently made this observation:

From reading different blogs I see that there are two kind of situations in mixed families in China:

  1. American husbands speak Chinese with their Chinese wives and therefore wives aren’t fluent in English.
  2. Chinese wives speak English with their American husbands and therefore American husbands aren’t fluent in Chinese.

It looks like that real bilingual families are not easy to find:-)

The comment rings true, and it’s something I always suspected was partly due to language-learning motivation of one of the parties. In my case, I preferred not to date Chinese girls that wanted to speak to me in English because I was in China to practice Chinese, and at least this way I could be sure I wasn’t being used. (I wasn’t just using, of course… I did fall in love.) Still, this explanation isn’t terribly compelling. Not every cross-cultural relationship is sparked by a burning desire to learn a language.

A study by Ingrid Piller called Language choice in bilingual, cross-cultural interpersonal communication examined the languages used by German- and English-speaking cross-cultural couples and made some interesting observations.

In the following excerpt from the study, Deborah speaks English and her husband speaks German:

Deborah: […] well, my husband and I decided to speak English together, and I guess mainly that has to do with the fact, that, when I first arrived here in Germany two years ago his English was considerably better then my German, and in order for us to communicate, even on a basic level, it was- it was necessary for us to speak English. And I think we’ve just kept that up, because it became a habit, and also I think it’s sort of a, … a way for him to offer some sort of sacrifice to ME. because I had to give up, all my things, my culture, my language, my family, and my friends, to move to Germany. and he had everything here around him. And I guess the only thing he COULD offer me was his language. […] it- it’s STRANGE for us when we speak German with each other. because we met in the States, he was teaching German at the university where I had studied. and I had already graduated but he was giving me private lessons. and that’s how we became friends, and we just spoke English together THEN. and we have always spoken English together, and it just seems strange that- that once I came here, that we should then speak German. […]

It’s interesting that Deborah sees her husband speaking English as a sacrifice, because I think both my wife and I see our communication in Chinese rather than English as an opportunity sacrifice for her which was necessary not just because I was enthusiastic about learning Chinese, but also because it’s more important for me to be fluent in Chinese in China than it is for her to be fluent in English in China.

The excerpt above was followed by this analysis (bold mine):

Deborah finds it strange to use the majority language with her husband because that is not what they did when they first met. The fact that couples find it difficult to change from the language of their first meeting to another one can probably be explained with the close relationship between language and identity. In a number of studies in the 1960s, Ervin(-Tripp) (1964; 1968) found that language choice is much more than only the choice to the medium. Rather, content is affected, too. In a number of experiments, that have unfortunately not been replicated since, she demonstrated that in Thematic Apperception Tests (TAT) the content of picture descriptions changed with the language (English or French) a person used. When she asked English-Japanese bilingual women to do a sentence completion test, she got the same dramatic results: the sentence completion changed from one language to the other. Her most famous example is probably that of a woman completing the stimulus “When my wishes conflict with my family…” with “It is a time of great unhappiness” in Japanese, and with “I do what I want” in English (Ervin-Tripp 1968: 203). Likewise, Koven (1998) shows in her study of the narratives of French-Portuguese bilinguals that the self is performed differently in these languages. She argues that these differing performances point to contrasting experiences and positional identities in the two linguistic communities. So, there is evidence that bilinguals say different things in different languages, which makes it quite obvious why intercultural couples stick to the language of their first meeting: they might lose the sense of knowing each other, the sense of connectedness and the rapport derived from knowing what the other will say in advance if they switched.

Very interesting (and a little scary).

Yet I’d still like my wife to know the English-speaking me better, and I would hope that someday not too distant the Chinese-speaking me can converse with a bit more sophistication. Meanwhile, the English-speaking her is shy, but shows a lot of promise.

People change. Identities evolve. Maybe it’s not the norm, but I imagine marital language relationships can develop too.


16

Feb 2009

Comic Reduplication Meets Historical Reduplication

Reduplication, in linguistics, is a morphological process by which the root or stem of a word, or part of it, is repeated” (Wikipedia). You see reduplication in Chinese a lot, with verbs (看看, 试试), nouns (妈妈, 狗狗), and even adjectives (红红的, 漂漂亮亮).

You get reduplication is Japanese too (some of the coolest examples are mimetic), in words such as 時々 or 様々. As you can see, rather than writing the character twice, the Japanese use a cool little iteration mark: 々. Now if the Japanese learned to write from the Chinese, why don’t the Chinese use the same iteration mark?

According to Wikipedia, the Chinese sometimes use 々, but you don’t see it in print. This is true; what the Chinese use (only when writing shorthand) actually looks something like ㄣ. Ostensibly, because you never see 々 in print in China (or it never even existed in neat, printed form), it comes out a bit sloppily as ㄣ in Chinese handwritten form.

I recently read a cutesy Taiwanese comic called 兔出没,注意!!! Rabbits Caution about the lives of two rabbits named 呵呵 and 可乐 and their owners. In the comic, the author took a rather “mathematical” approach to reduplication. Look for 宝宝 and 玩玩 in this one:

bao-bao-wan-wan

Look for 看看 and 谢谢 in this one (and don’t be confused by the in 回家):

kan-kan-xiexie

In this frame, even “bye-bye” gets the treatment:

bye-bye

JinwenShisongding-edit

While cute, I figured this representation of reduplication was not likely original. I was quite surprised, however, to see an almost identical representation on Wikipedia dating back to 900 B.C.! The quote:

The bronzeware script on the bronze pot of the Zhou Dynasty, shown right, ends with “子寶用”, where the small 二 (two) is used as iteration marks to mean “子子孫孫寶用”.

Well, as they say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and history repeats itself. The weird thing is that 2 and 々 even sort of look alike, in the way that 々 and ㄣ do. 2 is 々 without the first stroke, and ㄣ is 々 without the last stroke. Meanwhile, the ancient Chinese iteration mark 二 bears a striking resemblance to the modern “ditto mark” used in modern English! (I’ll leave those for the orthographical conspiracy theorists among you to chew on.)


11

Feb 2009

Mark's New Pinyin Input Firefox Extension

My friend Mark has created a FireFox addon. It does one thing and it does it well: it converts onscreen text from numeral pinyin to pretty pinyin with tone marks.  (It doesn’t convert characters to pinyin or any of that jazz.)

I find this very useful. If it sounds good to you, try out the Pinyin Input Firefox Extension.


05

Feb 2009

Where Futurama and Queen Meet

Despite the fantastical title, this is a blog post about translating into Chinese. Bear with me here.

Although she recognizes its importance, my wife has never been very enthusiastic about studying English, so over the years I’ve tried various ways of encouraging her to study. One of the earliest ideas I had was the TV show Friends. Tons of young Chinese people love it as study material, and ever since my teaching years in Hangzhou, I’ve always felt it’s great for that. (I’m not one of those Friends-bashers.) My wife, however, hated it. She thought it was dumb.

Futurama

Eventually, we found the English TV show that she liked. To my surprise, it was Futurama. Now don’t get me wrong… I love the Simpsons, and I love Futurama, but I really didn’t expect my wife to like it. But she really, really did. (She continues to surprise me on a regular basis.)

So we found the English language TV show she wanted to watch, but she still wanted Chinese subtitles. And so the great “Hunt for Futurama-with-Chinese-Subtitles” began.

This turned out to be way more difficult than I imagined. We asked a lot of shops for a long time, and in the end we only ever found Season 1 with subtitles. In the process, however, I became familiar with Futurama’s Chinese names.

Yes, that’s names, because it has a few. It seems like the most popular one is 飞出个未来. Taken literally, it doesn’t make much sense… something like “fly out a future.” I guess it sort of jives with Futurama’s opening sequence, but what the name is actually doing is approximating the sound of the English word “future” with the Chinese word 飞出. Kinda clever, if crafty transliteration is your bag, but certainly no masterpiece of translation.

The translation I like better is the one I first learned: 未来狂想曲. The first part, 未来, means “future.” OK, fine. But here’s where the interesting part comes. The next three characters are supposed to somehow represent “-rama” in Chinese. Considering that I’m not even sure how to explain what that means in English, I really feel that “-rama” is not easy to translate into Chinese, especially considering that this time the transliteration copout was not used.

The second part, 狂想曲, if broken down into three characters, literally means something like “crazy imagination tune.” It’s a real word that means “rhapsody” (in the musical sense). According to wikipedia:

> A rhapsody in music is a one-movement work that is episodic yet integrated, free-flowing in structure, featuring a range of highly contrasted moods, colour and tonality. An air of spontaneous inspiration and a sense of improvisation make it freer in form than a set of variations.

I think that description matches “-rama” and the feel of Futurama quite well, actually.

Still, if you’re a non-musician like myself, when you hear the word “rhapsody,” there’s a good chance you make this association:

Sure enough, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is 波西米亚狂想曲 in Chinese. I even found a website that translates all the lyrics of the song into Chinese. Just go to this 波西米亚狂想曲 page and watch the text to the right of the video as it plays. The translation isn’t 100% accurate (the translator also wimped out on “Scaramouche”), but it’s pretty decent. And more than a little awesome.

Bohemian Rhapsody in Chinese

Sadly, the 未来狂想曲 translation of Futurama is seldom used, and has even been co-opted by a TV show called The Future is Wild. Ah, well. Easy come, easy go… doesn’t really matter to me.


31

Jan 2009

Character Check!

On the historic eve of Obama’s inauguration, I just happened to run into these two signs, both on Tongren Lu (铜仁路).

男厕 黛

Notice anything strange? (And for extra points, do you know where I saw these? If you’re a foreigner living in Shanghai, there’s a good chance you’ve seen them.)


07

Jan 2009

Context Is Everything

I was at a dinner, listening to the conversation of some Chinese acquaintances. At one table, two young women sat side by side. In the context of their conversation, one of the women said, pointing to the other:

> 女的男的

The grammar of this sentence is so simple that any first semester student of Chinese can figure it out. But without the proper context, they’re probably going to conclude that one of the women was actually a transvestite: I’m female. She’s male. (She wasn’t a transvestite, and no one listening found her statement strange in the slightest.)

The two women were talking about their newborn children, when one of their friends asked what sexes the babies were. So and were easily understood to mean “my baby is” and “her baby is.” This is totally fine in Chinese.

(You also get lots of statements like this when people are ordering food… I’m beef noodles. You’re dumplings, right?)

Context is everything.


29

Dec 2008

Recasting in Language Learning

If you’re a language teacher, you’re probably quite familiar with the concept of recasting, even if you don’t know the name. And if you’re a language learner, being aware of recasting can help you learn faster. So what is recasting?

Fukuya and Zhang define a recast as “implicit corrective feedback.” Another definition of “recast” given by Han Ye in a presentation at the ACTFL 2008 conference was “a native speaker’s corrective reformulation of a student’s utterance.”

It’s not very complicated in practice. Here’s a simple example:

> Student: I want read.

> Teacher: Oh, you want to read?

In the above example, the English teacher communicates with the student (using a question to confirm what the student had said), while at the same time making a correction (adding “to”). The teacher may or may not choose to emphasize the correction.

Here’s a slightly more subtle example:

> Student: I want read.

> Teacher: What do you want to read?

In this example, while you could identify a correction in the teacher’s question, the focus is more on communication and less on correcting the mistake.

Recasts don’t have to be questions, and they can be focused on pronunciation, on grammar, on vocabulary… but they always carry with them some degree of ambiguity, because recasts are not overt corrections, and some degree of repetition is a natural part of normal speech. Will the student pick up on the correction, or will the conversation just keep moving along? (Does it even matter what the student consciously notices his mistakes?)

I believe that much of my own success in acquiring Chinese has been due to (1) getting lots of practice with native speakers, and (2) being receptive to recasts.

Here’s a typical example of an exchange that might occur (in Chinese), with a string of letters representing the focal language point:

> Learner: Abcde.

> Native speaker: What?

> Learner: Abcde.

> Native speaker: Ohhh… AbcDe!

> Learner: Yes, Abcde.

The native speaker’s second utterance above was a recast, but as we see in the last line of the exchange, the learner didn’t get it. Yes, the recast was almost imperceptibly different from what the learner said originally, but recasts tend to be that way (from the learner’s perspective)… especially when they involve tones. As a learner, when you become more sensitive to recasts, you’ll hear them all the time.

Think about it… some people will pay big bucks to a teacher in order to obtain explicit corrective feedback. In actuality, though, if that person is in a second language environment, he is probably getting corrective feedback all the time in the form of recasts and not even knowing it. Recasts are great because they don’t impede the flow of information and they’re usually not an embarrassing form of correction. They’re also great because you don’t get them if you don’t get out there and talk to native speakers. They’re a positive side effect of speaking practice. As a learner, recasts are your friend.


At ACTFL 2008, Han Ye of the University of Florida presented the findings of an experiment on tonal recasting. The experiment sought to compare the effect of recasts on Chinese heritage learners with the effect of recasts on non-heritage learners. The recasts were all for tone-related errors.

Interestingly, the study found that the uptake rate for non-heritage learners was 51%, but only 28% for heritage learners.

I found this interesting for a number of reasons. The Chinese heritage learners were likely much more confident in their ability to communicate, and probably less self-conscious about their Chinese. The non-heritage learners are more receptive to feedback, but do they communicate as well?

It is likely that the role of recasts is most important in the early stages of learning a language. Our own parents used recasting on us plenty when we were children still learning our mother tongues, but eventually, either they stop doing it or we stop paying attention.

There are a lot of factors at play here, not the least of which are individual learning styles and learner personality. Recasting research continues.

I’m just one of those people that likes to pay attention to recasts.


14

Dec 2008

Black English and Chinese

I was helping a Chinese friend with her English, and was very interested to read the following dialogue in her book. (I have preserved the grammar and punctuation of the original, but I didn’t feel like writing “[sic]” everywhere.)

The dialogue:

> A: Your English is not like American English.

> B: Oh, I see. What I speak is true American English, but it is not standard American English.

> A: What kind of English is it?

> B: It is Black English.

> A: What is Black English?

> B: Black English is as perfect as Standard American English, and in sounds it is equally distinctive.

> A: Can you tell me the difference between Black English and Standard American English?

> B: Black English is similar to Chinese in a way.

> A: Is it like Chinese?

> B: Yes. For example, a Chinese said, “我有5分钱”, there is no -s behind “钱”; an English or an American said, “I have five cents.” After “cent” there is -s; the Black English is “I have five cent”, no -s after “cent”. Another example, a Chinese said, “花红”, an American said, “the flower is red”, but the Black English is “The flower red”.

> A: Oh, I see.

The textbook is called 衣食住行生活英语900句. If I remember correctly, this was Dialogue 1 of five in a chapter called “Learning a Language.”

What a bizarre topic to cover in a book supposedly focused on “useful English.” You only have so much content you can cover in the book, and only a small fraction of that is devoted to talking about language, but you kick off the chapter with a discussion of (morpho-)syntactic similarities between AAVE and Mandarin Chinese??

I’m well beyond being outraged about inferior English textbooks, though. In this case, I have to admit that it’s kind of cool from a cultural standpoint. I’d imagine that the average Chinese person is seldom exposed to such egalitarian linguistic concepts.


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!


04

Dec 2008

English Essay Templates

You’ve probably heard that tests are a big deal in China, and thus test prep is big business. This applies even to such “un-gameable” forms of tests as free response essay questions. But how do you game the free response portion of an English test?

Well, you memorize a number of essay templates, then just fit your essay answer into one of the templates. All you have to do is plug in a few relevant words and phrases, and with any luck, they’ll all be included in the essay topic.

Curious what these templates might look like? I give you two examples below, taken from an MBA prep course in Shanghai (mistakes preserved):

> Essay Template 1: 优缺点类

> At present, there is no doubt that 主题 plays an increasingly indispensable role in 领域/运用范围. We are all aware that, like everything else, 主题 has both favorable and unfavorable aspects. Generally speaking, the advantages can be listed as follows. First of all, (优点1)… makes people’s everyday life more convenient. In addition, (优点2)… connects its users with the outside world. Most importantly, with a…, (优点3) people’s life will be greatly enriched.

> Nevertheless, it is a pity that every medal has two sides and the disadvantages of 主题 can’t be ignored. To begin with, there will be a danger of (缺点1) spending too much time on it therefore ignoring what you should concentrate on. To make matters worse, (缺点2)主题 is most likely to add to your daily expenses. Worst of all, (缺点3)主题 may plunge you into an unexpected trouble.

> As is known to all, 主题 is neither good nor bad itself. Its effects on people depends, to a large extent, on how 主题 is used. Now that the disadvantages have been put out, they will be paid attention to and eliminated to some degree.

> Essay Template 2: 意义影响类

> We are very glad and excited that our dream of 主题 will come true/ have come true after a long waiting. People throughout the country have been celebrating the coming of 主题 in various ways and they are eager to participate in or experience in … person.

> There is no doubt that 主题 will benefit China and Chinese people in more than one aspect. First of all, 主题 will expose China and Chinese to more domestic and foreign visitors, thus promoting the mutual understanding and friendship between people from different regions and cultures. More importantly, by interacting with people from different regions and cultures, people can learn from each other. Finally, 主题 will undoubtedly promote the development of the national and local economy.

> Now that 主题 is significant to our country and the people, everybody involved should make his effort to contribute something to 主题. With everyone’s involvement and participation, 主题 will be a great success and is bound to benefit the country and the people involved.

Somehow those “generic” topics don’t seem totally generic, do they? The templates above definitely used “topics with Chinese characteristics,” and they should certainly come to no surprise to anyone who’s lived in China in the past year.

Can you imagine grading hundreds of these essays that mostly use the same templates? That would drive me insane.

For those of you that find some morbid amusement in these essay templates like I do, here’s one site that hosts more of them online. There are some slight differences in wording between the ones I have in front of me and that site, but they clearly came from the same source.


30

Nov 2008

Back from ACTFL (2008)

I had a great time interacting with other teachers at ACTFL 2008. Yes, what we do at Praxis Language is quite different from what the teachers in the trenches do, but it’s important to connect with them, to hear about how the classroom is changing, how the students are changing, and maybe even about how we might converge in some areas.

I sat in on some particularly interesting talks on CFL (Chinese as a Foreign Language). Only half a year after I finished my own thesis, I felt I really needed to be reminded of the wide world of academic pursuits… some of the research was quite fascinating. I’m planning to revisit some of the topics here in my blog in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I’d just like to draw my readers’ attention to a cool product I ran into at ACTFL: Skritter [China-friendly link]. It’s a really well-executed online system for practicing character writing, and it has built-in support for Integrated Chinese. Check it out.


23

Oct 2008

IPA for Chinese Children

Teaching children English is important in countries all over the world. China is no different. Here are some scans from a little book designed to help teach Chinese children the alphabet:

File0009File0010File0011

And once they’re done with that, why not teach them the international phonetic alphabet (IPA) as well?

File0012File0013File0014

Yikes!


21

Oct 2008

Getting by and Enjoying It

A little story from much-loved ChinesePod user AuntySue:

> In hospital I ran into a few Cantonese speaking patients and visitors, who in some cases spoke no English. With the luxury of ample time, I was able to say things I don’t really know how to say, by finding inventive ways to use the few words I did remember. For example, instead of asking if she’d mind opening my water bottle top because my hands were too weak and the cap is tight etc etc, I simply asked “please, can you?” and held the bottle at the top. Worked like a charm. But I’d spent half an hour agonising over the words before accepting that a simpler method was not “cheating” but rather “communicating”.

> When learning a language I too often make it hard for myself by fixating on the words I don’t know rather than finding more uses for the words I do know. Lesson learned. I got my water, the “it’s a talking dog!” look, and a new friend.

Dr. Orlando Kelm, a man of impressive linguistic ability, recently made some related observations:

> My general impression is that people would enjoy foreign languages more if they didn’t have the added pressure of feeling like they are supposed to be equivalent to native speakers. You will notice that our educational system promotes this viewpoint too. We generally teach foreign languages as if learners are somehow going to be total experts some day. (Why else would we spend weeks teaching third semester college students about all of the adjective clauses that trigger the subjunctive in Spanish?) My general impression, however, is that the majority of our learners do not need to speak like undercover spies. They would be just as happy having a great time talking about sushi with Japanese friends in Japanese.

Hear, hear!

I often wonder how good I want my Chinese to be. I have lots of room to expand my vocabulary and improve my ability to express myself, but there are two big questions: (1) do I really need to? and (2) do I really want to?

I’ve gotta say, an unrelenting drive for perfection isn’t exactly the most persuasive linguistic motivation, and the longer I live, the more practical I become. The truth is, I’m not a terribly talkative person, and I’m already pretty comfortable in Chinese. I don’t want to be a Chinese spy (ha!), and I really don’t want to memorize the damn chengyu dictionary. I’d rather get my Spanish and Japanese back to levels where I’m more comfortable and able to enjoy the experience of speaking.

Yes, I think I’ll do that.


13

Oct 2008

Syntactic Anguish of the Verb-Object-Modifier Variety

你中文说得很好! You speak Chinese very well.

This is a compliment paid nearly every person with the guts to try out his spoken Mandarin skills in China. All you gotta do is try.

But the simple sentence above contains a grammar pattern which students of Mandarin Chinese take quite some time getting the hang of. Translating word for word, a beginner student will take this English sentence:

You speak Chinese very well.

…and render it as this sentence:

×中文

Unfortunately, in Mandarin Chinese this sentence is ungrammatical. This pattern, fine in English, is all broken in Chinese:

×Noun + Verb + Object + [Modifier of Verb]

There are two solutions to this brokenness in Chinese:

#1 Repeat the Verb

That object between the verb and its modifier breaks a sacred connection. You can’t do it. But while you can’t break the connection, you can simply duplicate the verb:

中文

Noun + (Verb + Object) + (Verb + [Modifier of Verb])

Voila! Connection preserved. You just have to get used to duplicating the verb, which, to a speaker of English, seems mighty unnecessary.

#2 Move the Object

As mentioned above, you can’t break the sacred verb-modifier connection. So why not move the object? This totally works, and it’s usually moved to right after the subject:

中文

Noun + Object + (Verb + [Modifier of Verb])

This is just really awkward for a beginner student. Why do you have to put the object before the verb? It seems really weird. Well, you don’t have to. You can also duplicate the verb. But that feels awkward too.

This pattern is so common, however, that it cannot be ignored. The more input the student gets, the more he sees that (a) Chinese people just don’t say it the way I really, really want to say it, and (b) Chinese people use these other two sentence patterns instead. It seems to me that given the choice between the two awkwardnesses, this is how the linguistic drama tends to unfold over time:

  1. Broken sentences following the forbidden pattern
  2. Experimentation with the verb duplication workaround
  3. Attempts to use the verb duplication workaround exclusively
  4. Reluctant acceptance of the object-movement workaround
  5. Relative verb-object-modifier harmony

These are just my own observations, but apparently the verb duplication seems easier, while the object moving is actually more common in the casual Chinese of native speakers (although both are common).

How about you? Are you in the midst of this syntactic anguish? Do you remember being there once?


09

Sep 2008

Shanghainese Does Saint Seiya

Remember that Indian music video subtitled with hilarious similar-sounding English lyrics? Well, here’s something along the same lines, only with Japanese and Shanghainese.

The video is the theme song for a Japanese anime series called Saint Seiya (圣斗士星矢 in Chinese — apparently it’s well-known among the Chinese). This case is a little different, because the song was actually re-recorded with (ridiculous) Shanghainese lyrics. (In a karaoke parlor, from the sound of it.) And there are subtitles for us Shanghainese-impaired! The kind subtitler put the Shanghainese “transliteration hanzi” on the top line, and the Mandarin translation on the bottom line.

Here’s a quick and dirty translation of the lyrics:

> No hot water for washing my feet

> Today I’ll go to bed without washing them

> The water for washing my face is still heating up

> Going to bed without washing my feet – so dirty

> No hot water for washing my feet

> Mom says the bills are too high

> She says wash your face first, then use that water to soak your feet

> Water for your feet and water for your face

> They’re both heated with the gas burner

> Why don’t salaries go up? The cost of water, electricity, and gas have

> Oh my God

> Heat it, heat it*

> If you don’t heat it, the price’ll be higher next year

> Heat it, heat it

> Wash you feet, then go for the spa, oh yeah

> Heat it, heat it

> Heat it from now til the end of the month

> Heat it, heat it

> Why not heat it?

> My mom is paying the bill

Lots of great cultural context here:

– Water in Shanghai has traditionally been heated with gas heaters (although electric ones are also common now)
– Traditional Shanghainese good old-fashioned thrifty living
– Washing one’s face and feet traditionally has been a common substitute for taking a shower

Here’s the original Japanese theme song.

The Shanghainese version of the video was recommended to me by a local friend who said the Shanghainese lyrics sounded like the Japanese. I don’t really hear the resemblance, but it’s good wacky fun nonetheless.

*Any resemblance to Beat It is unintended.


07

Sep 2008

Denison Witmer for English

Some selected lyrics from Denison Witmer‘s song “Are you a Dreamer?“:

> Dream, are you a dreamer?

> Are you a dreamer?

> Do you dream?

> Sleep, are you a sleeper?

> Are you a sleeper?

> Do you sleep?

> […]

> Love, are you my lover?

> Are you my lover?

> Do you love me?

> Save, are you a savior?

> Are you a savior?

> Will you save?

As a linguist with experience teaching English, my reaction was, this song could be good material for teaching simple derivational morphology and question forms.

(Of course, on a personal level, my reaction was, I need to listen to some punk to balance out this Denison Witmer stuff…)



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