I remember struggling with the unspoken “ifs” of the Chinese language. Sometimes what’s said is meant to be understood as a hypothetical, but there’s no “if” word to be found. You just have to get used to it, and it can be quite bewildering at first.
It was somewhat gratifying, then, to see my daughter struggling just a little bit with this same issue. She’s five and a half now, and fully fluent in Chinese for her age, but she’s still in the process of acquiring Chinese grammar. (See my previous post on grammar points learned by age 2.)
The context was that my daughter had done an especially good job of getting up early and getting ready for school quickly. The conversation with her mom went something like this:
You could translate the exchange like this:
Mom: If only you did this every day!
5yo: You’re being sarcastic!
This translation into English totally fails to reveal the source of the misunderstanding because I had to add in the unspoken “if,” absent from the Chinese original. The full sentence including the 如果 “if” would would have been:
Because my daughter didn’t understand that there was an unspoken “if” in the sentence, she assumed her mom was being sarcastic, since she was quite clear on the fact that she doesn’t always do a good job of getting ready for school quickly.
In actuality, the 就好了 part of the sentence wouldn’t really make sense without a 如果, so there’s essentially only one possible interpretation of the original sentence. It takes kids a while to figure out the intricacies of these grammar patterns, though!
It’s hard to succinctly explain what I mean by this title, because “character structure” and “character composition” are pretty much always used to mean “the character components that make up a character” (or, to use the more outdated term, “radicals”). But the character components would be the content. The limited number of spatial configurations in which those components routinely combine are the “character structure patterns” I’m talking about in this post.
Take a look at this:
If that’s not clear enough, let me break it down for you.
First of all, these “structural patterns” of Chinese characters are referred to as “Ideographic Description Characters” in the IT world, and each one actually has its own Unicode character! So you can copy and paste them just like other text (provided you have Unicode support), and even Google them. (Pro tip: Baidu them. Baidu Baike (Baidu’s Wikipedia) has lots of examples of each type.)
Here are those 12 Unicode characters:
⿰, ⿱, ⿲, ⿳, ⿴, ⿵, ⿶, ⿷, ⿸, ⿹, ⿺, ⿻
The patterns ⿰ and ⿱ (and sometimes a combination of those two, one embedded in the other) make up the most characters. Here are some simple examples of characters that use the more common structural patterns:
My advice is:
If you’re learning characters, learn these patterns. There aren’t that many, and they’re useful. It’s also good to dispel the notion that character components can be combined in an infinite number of ways. It’s a lot to absorb, for sure, but it’s not an infinite number of options you’re dealing with.
If you’re teaching characters, teach these patterns (or at least point them out) as you teach the character components. Everyone teaches components, but it’s nice to add a little structure to the teaching of structure. Confirm the growing, amorphous familiarity your students are acquiring, and give it a definite form.
If you’re building a website or app, include these patterns. It’s not going to be useful to look up characters in this way, but if done right, it could be a great way to explore a character set, and self-directed exploration is one of the best ways to learn.
It’s a lot of work to create a new font in Chinese. Instead of English’s 26 capital letters, 26 lower-case letters, 10 numbers and a smattering of symbols, you have literally thousands of Chinese characters you need for even a basic font. But if you just need a special font for a logo or a book cover, it makes sense to put the design work into just the Chinese characters you need. And if you look at enough Chinese book covers, you discover some cool custom fonts!
Here are some covers with custom Chinese fonts which I discovered on a recent trip to the book store (Chinese title in text below each photo):
I suppose it’s possible that not all of these are custom-designed characters (they might just be fonts I’m not aware of), but they’re still pretty cool!
I recently got this as part of an email from my Chinese bank, China Merchants Bank (CMB / 招商银行):
In case it’s not obvious, for the “cute” fangyan (方言) flavor, the normal word 那么 has been substituted with 辣么 (a non-word). The tone stays the same, but the “n” sound is swapped for an “l” sound, which is common in some fangyan/regional accents, such as the Hunan or Fujian accent.
This has been a trend lately, and you see it a lot, both on Chinese friends’ WeChat Moments as well as in advertising. Here are some others you might notice:
灰常 for 非常
童鞋 for 同学
盆友 for 朋友
先森 for 先生
菇凉 for 姑娘
歪果仁 for 外国人 (appropriately enough, this one intentionally butchers most of the original tones)
蓝瘦香菇 for 难受想哭 (this one was quite the meme for a while)
These types of usages are frequently lumped together with other forms of “netspeak” (网络语), but they do share the special feature of swapping a character (or two) to mimic a regional accent. (Have I missed any super common ones?)
These can be especially annoying for learners, because a lot of dictionaries don’t list these slangy words. It’s a great feeling when you start identifying them on your own, but to get to that point, you’re probably going to need to have more than a few conversations with speakers of non-standard Mandarin. The ad at the top of this article just goes to show that even if you try to be elitist and keep your ears “pure” with nothing but 100% standard Mandarin, the non-standard stuff will leak in through the intertubes…
There’s a word 嘎 (“ga”) in Shanghainese (and other Wu fangyan) that just means “really” or “very.” Because it’s not standard Mandarin, you don’t see it written a whole lot, but I noticed it in two different ads in Shanghai recently (and one even has pinyin!):
噶便宜 – really cheap
Also, extra points for:
最WOW – “WOW-est”
嘎实惠 – really a good deal
(And yes, if you want to try using this adverb, you are quite likely to amuse your Chinese friends.)
UPDATE: Commenter Lin and reader Danny point out something I glossed over in the original post: the first ad uses the character 噶, and the second ad uses 嘎. Both are “gā” in this context. So what’s the difference? Well, the short answer is that since this is not a standard word (both characters can be found in the authoritative 现代汉语词典 dictionary, but neither list this meaning), there is no “officially correct” character for it. In my experience, however, 嘎 is more widely used, and it’s also the one my computer’s pinyin input prompts first.
I’m not saying it never happens, but I see black women prominently featured in Chinese ads seldom enough that I notice when it happens. These ads from the Shanghai Metro are by JD.com (京东), which is a Chinese company, not just a foreign company doing business in China.
There’s also one ad with pale (half-?)Asian girl, and one with random perky white dude:
The ads all read:
That means, “it’s you that made the spring come.” Not the most inspired slogan, but easy for Chinese learners!
Anyone that has studied Chinese for a while and made it to at least the intermediate level will notice that certain English words are used. Sometimes it’s words that seem cool or trendy to use in English, like “Starbucks” or “Doctor Strange.” Other times it’s English acronyms that are just easy to keep in English rather than translating into Chinese, such as “FBI” or “NBA” or “MBA.” And still other times, it’s “false acronyms” with Chinese characteristics such as “PPT” (for Powerpoint presentations) or “APP” (for “app”).
I’m not talking about any of those. These are all fairly easy to pick up and incorporate into one’s daily conversations. I’m talking about another kind, while not difficult at all to understand, made me cringe a little at first. And now, even though I’m quite used to them, I can’t really stomach using them in my own speech. But these are words that I hear even people that don’t speak much English using.
make sense: most notably, the phrase “不make sense.” (I recall Jenny used to use this on ChinesePod occasionally, but she’s not the only Chinese person to use this English phrase in Chinese!)
man: this means “manly,” as in “很man“
fashion: this means “fashionable,” as in “很fashion“
in: used as an adjective to describe fads or trends, as in “很in“
out: used to describe what’s NOT cool, but this time as either an adjective or as a verb: “太out了” or “你out了“
OK: although sometimes this word feels just like it does in English, there’s something about the phrase “也OK” instead of “也可以” that always feels odd to me
high (often written as “嗨“): I’ve never heard this used in the “drug high” sense; it’s always in the “natural high” sense, as in “玩得很high” for “have/had a blast”
get: this seems to be a synonym for 懂, as in “只有你能get我“
down: a verb, short for “download”
Here are some examples collected from the web. Many of them seem to be from Taiwanese sources.
To be clear, this is not just regular “Chinglish,” where English gets randomly mixed in with Chinese. These are words that seem to have snuck into common usage among young people (maybe first in Taiwan?), even when those people don’t speak much English, and don’t necessarily even have an international education.
Do these usages feel weird coming out of your own mouth? Or can you use them naturally?
My love of characterplay aside, “and” has to be one of the worst English product names I’ve ever seen. It’s a faithful translation of its Chinese product name, 和 (meaning “and”), but that doesn’t make it any better.
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
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:
Find a relatively long text which had information I needed (make the reading meaningful)
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.
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:
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 (城).”
(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 马 is used, though: 馬. 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:
Happy Year of the Rooster/Cock/Chicken! Just as the English word “cock” has multiple meanings, the Chinese word 鸡 (“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:
So the original word is 点钞机, “money counting machine.” Substituting 鸡 (“chicken”) for 机 (“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.
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 呀 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 呀 (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.”
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.
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 脚 (pronounced “jiǎo,” exact same pronunciation as 角 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.
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.)
Here is 98% comprehension:
Here is 95% comprehension:
Here is 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.