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.
This image has been on posters all around Shanghai’s Jing’an District this past summer:
Each character is related to traffic:
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 家) 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 家. 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 家, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
I know my tones suck; why won’t you correct me more?
I really don’t think I need to be able to hand-write 2000 characters…
If you’re my Chinese teacher, why do you ask me to call you “Sunny” instead of something Chinese?
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.
How do you turn a forest into a grave? Check out this innovative ad I spotted on the Shanghai Metro:
The (altered) character is 森, meaning “forest.” The text below it reads:
If the trees all disappear, forests will turn into graves.
To understand the message, you have to know that the character 森, meaning “forest,” is made up of three 木, which each mean “tree.” And 木 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.
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 假 (fake) and 真 (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:
“Fake hair, real me”
“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:
I was super busy this month finishing up Mandarin Companion‘s new Level 2 Chinese graded reader adaptation of Great Expectations, but it’s now up in ebook format in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2. These two parts, put together, probably make up the absolute longest cohesive low-level Chinese reading experience you can find. We’re talking about a story almost 30,000 characters long. (For reference, our longest Level 1 story was only about 12,000 characters long.)
Combined with finalizing the standards for the new higher level graded readers, that amounted to a loooong editing process. I’ll talk about that another day.
For now, I am just enjoying Florida’s smog-free winter weather while I deal with 2 jet lagged little ones. (Of course I was still able to get away to see the new Star Wars movie.)
I saw The Martian (火星救援) in Shanghai over the weekend. I had read the book, and I was looking forward to seeing the movie on the big screen. Overall, I found that it was a decent adaptation of the novel, and I enjoyed it. China seems to be enjoying it too! There were two things that caught my attention, watching with a Chinese audience, however:
“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”
I was looking forward to seeing how this line (seen in the trailer above at about 01:30) was rendered in Mandarin:
> “So, in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
(The part I was most interested in was the later half, where the word “science” is used as a verb, and in a crudely amusing way.)
Here’s the Chinese translation:
I would translate that back into English as:
> “I gotta fucking find a way to survive.”
The movie’s translation is not horrible; it captures the meaning and the tone of the original, but it seems more grim and determined than humorous, because it sacrifices the science! Oh well.
Accidental China Pandering Still Counts
The other thing that amused me was the Chinese audience’s reaction to the way China fit into the plot. [SPOILER ALERT!] Chinese audiences aren’t dumb, and they know when they’re being pandered to by Hollywood. In this case, the Chinese Space Agency’s involvement in the rescue of Mark Watney was actually a part of the plot in the original book; it wasn’t inserted by Hollywood in a bid to ensure box office success in China.
But the way the scene was done, cutting to China out of nowhere, just felt so similar to the infamous Iron Man 3 scene (with the Chinese doctor and the Fan Bingbing nurse cameo), that as soon as the audience realized that China was about to save the day, they all laughed. They laughed! They weren’t proud or appreciative, it was just an, “oh puh-leeeze, here we go again…” reaction.
I’m pretty sure that’s not the Chinese reaction the producers were going for; hopefully Hollywood gets better at this!
AllSet Learning is doing some teacher testing, and we could use the help of a few learners. So if you’re looking for about an hour of free Chinese practice talking to several different teachers, it’s your lucky day. Our office is in the Jing’an area.
– Activity dates are Monday, Nov. 23rd, 3pm…OR…Thursday, Nov. 26th, 7pm
– Location is at the AllSet Learning office in Shanghai (map here)
– Sorry, no Skype! This has to be in person
– Your level should be in the A2-B1 range, which means elementary to intermediate (OK with most basic communication, but perfect by no means.)
– You have to be OK with us recording the session for private analysis (we will never make the recording public)
– We will provide materials and give you a litle time to prep (it’s not going to be just the same boring taxi driver conversations you’re used to)
– Email me, and we’ll coordinate beforehand, so I can choose material you actually want to discuss
It should be a fun way to get some free practice in. Please email me if you’re interested!
I remember the first time I had the great idea to use Chinese children’s books as study material. I had been in China for about a year, and having exhausted my old textbook, I was starved for more interesting material. I came upon a book store, and, realizing how cheap books in China were, had the revelation that I should start learning from Chinese children’s books. It was so perfect, and so obvious… why hadn’t I done this earlier?!
Then reality came crashing in. There was a very good reason why I everyone wasn’t already doing it already: Chinese children’s books are meant for native speaker Chinese kids, and as such, they generally don’t make good material for foreign language learners. But why??
Before I talk about my conclusions as to why, let me just share a few examples from my local book store. This is no scientific survey, but I did my best to select from a number of different publishers and different types of children’s books. The pages I photographed are more or less random. I’m adding a few comments about the suitability of these stories for a high A2 (elementary) or low B1 (intermediate) learner.
– Note the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character… both annoying for a learner of Chinese.
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 果然、蹲、急忙、吩咐、目露凶光、黄灿灿、铜钱、打火匣、看守、披
– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 南辕北辙、中原、楚国、却、驾车、满不在乎、盘缠、摇摇头、糊涂、方向
– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is a more written, formal style than most elementary learners are going to be ready for.
– Notable difficult words: 恰巧、沼泽、女妖、魔鬼、祖母、参观、酒厂、老妖婆、地狱、一尊、石像、整天、烂泥、妖怪、谈论
– The density of hard words in this book is really high, based on this page
– Again, the failure to break the characters into words, and the pinyin over every character…
– The tone is less formal here, and the words used feel more oriented to kids, but a lot of the words are the type that native speaker kids could understand in the context of a story but would not use themselves; these are the words that would really trip up a lot of foreign language learners.
– You can see that on this page the character 天 is being taught, and yet there are much, much more difficult characters on this page. This highlights the fact that the book is meant to be read to the child; the child is not meant to read it.
– Notable difficult words: 懒、踢、脚、穿、接住、并、蹦、跳、突然、轰隆、一道、裂痕、瞬间、掉
I Go to Kindergarten
– This is my favorite of the bunch; I actually bought this book for my daughter as psychological prep before she started kindergarten.
– The characters are not too hard, but no pinyin! Finally…
– The tone is informal, and this is the kind of language that Chinese parents would expect their children to fully comprehend, in context.
– Somewhat difficult words: 嗨、全班、春游、别提、运动鞋、背着、排好队伍
– No pinyin here, and this one is definitely higher difficulty level.
– Difficulty-wise, a high B1 (approaching upper intermediate) learner could probably tackle this, if sufficiently motivated.
– Notable difficult words: 技术、拯救、反派、威胁、社会、消灭、责任、邪恶、存在、身影、而、则、视……为……、心腹之患、试图、保护、善良、顺利、或者、完成
Most Chinese children’s books are too hard for Chinese learners. It’ll be a frustrating slog to read many books (especially those chosen at random), and all the pinyin is likely to be less helpful than you think. There are some good ones suitable for foreign learners out there, but those are the exception rather than the rule. Randomly choosing children’s books for reading practice is not recommended.
I’ve thought about this issue for quite some time already, and my conclusion is that when the average Chinese parent reads a book to her child, the goal is more education-oriented than pleasure-oriented. I know a lot of American parents that work very hard to instill a love of reading in their children, so enjoyment is extremely important. Chinese parents, however, are under a mountain of pressure to get their kids into the best schools in an environment of intense competition. Of course they hope their children like to read, but it’s kind of beside the point. The real goal is to help their children pick up characters and vocabulary as quickly as possible.
If the goal is acquiring characters and vocabulary, it makes sense that the language introduced in these Chinese children’s books is going to be more advanced than one would expect. The children are native speakers, already fluent in Mandarin, and the story provides a clear context. Therefore, why not drop a few extra difficult words and characters on every page? It’s for the kids’ own good!
But wait… there’s HOPE!
There is hope for learners that really want something to read. (Little disclaimer: the following is going to be partly self-promotional, because this is one of the major problems in the Chinese learning industry that I’ve devoted my career to solving.) If there is enough interest among my readership, I’ll consider compiling a list of Chinese books by Chinese publishers suitable for learners (kind of like the kindergarten book above). For now, I’ll focus on several resources that are available to those outside of China.
Oscar & Newton Go to the Park is a print bilingual picture book by AllSet Learning, adapted from its original app form. The language is practical and informal, perfect for A2 adult learners as well as children. It’s now available on Amazon.
The Chairman’s Bao is a website that takes news stories and simplifies them into simpler, shorter articles. See my longer review here. This is great for intermediate learners that want to start working toward reading actual news. Includes audio.
Mandarin Companion creates graded readers (short novels without pinyin or translation) meant for learners of a high elementary or low intermediate level. We’ve got five Level 1 books out, and feedback is great. Our next two Level 2 books are coming out any day now. Books are currently available on the international Amazon website, but not the Chinese one.
Chinese Breeze is the original Chinese graded reader brand. It has cheaper books and more titles out, at levels ranging from high elementary to intermediate. If you’re going for quantity, look here. Books are currently available on both the international Amazon website, and the Chinese one.
If you have any other reading material to add, please leave a comment and share!