Tag: Chinese characters


Apr 2014

A Realistic Look at the Challenges of Reading Chinese

The following is a guest article written by a Sinosplice reader, Julian Suddaby. I have followed it with some commentary of my own.

Warning: if you’re a member of the “Chinese is super easy” faction, this article might annoy you a little, but be sure to read through to the end!

How Many Characters?

by Julian Suddaby, 2014-02-13


I asked Google “how many chinese characters do I need to learn” and the best sites I found pointed to linguist Jun Da’s website and used his data to argue that 3,500 characters should be enough for most people, being that you’ll know around 99.5% of the characters in general circulation. [1] Is that really enough?

Well, if you’ve got to that point, congratulations. It’s an achievement. But you may not want to stop accumulating characters just yet. Indeed, sad to say, at 3,500 you won’t even be able to read Jun Da’s name, being that 笪 is way down at frequency #5,231. [2] So how many, then, do you need to learn? Well, that depends on one question that you should ask yourself: what exactly do you want to read?

A Newspaper

Students often want to read Chinese newspapers. The Southern Weekly 南方周末 being a popular choice, I took the ten most popular articles over the previous thirty days and ran them through a computer program that checked them against Jun Da’s most frequent 3,500 characters. The results are fairly encouraging for the Chinese student, I think: if you knew the 3,500 you’d only encounter forty-four new characters over the course of those ten articles, and twenty-nine of those you’d only see once and so would probably just take a guess at from context and move on. But you’d possibly want to look up 甄, a pseudonymous surname given to the subject of one of the articles (and thus appearing thirty-five times); 闰, used in the name of a Zhejiang corporation which appears to have buried five hundred tons of poisonous chemicals in their backyard (seven appearances); and 驿, used in the name of a company involved in a online security breach (also seven appearances). [3]

So, while you probably shouldn’t throw out your dictionary just yet, it does seem that trying to read a newspaper won’t be a disheartening experience.

A Children’s Book

Children’s novels are another popular choice of reading material for language students. Shen Shixi is a well-regarded children’s novelist, whose Jackal and Wolf has recently been translated into English by Helen Wang. I ran an analysis on another of Shen’s novels, 《鸟奴》(lit. “Bird Slave”). This is, character-wise, much more difficult than the newspaper articles, with two hundred and one characters not in the top 3,500. Ninety of those are used more than once. As you’d expect from Shen, the “king of animal fiction”, animal-related vocabulary is one particular problem here, and you’ll probably end up very confused if you don’t look up 鹩, used two hundred and eighty-four times; 喙, used thirty-six times; and 獾, used twenty-two times. [4]

The novel is about two hundred and forty pages long, and so you should expect to find a character you don’t recognize on most pages.

A wuxia novel

Jin Yong’s novels remain firm favorites. Rather than starting with the four volumes and 1,300 pages of The Legend of the Condor Heroes 《射雕英雄传》, students might perhaps try A Deadly Secret《连城诀》, which is just four hundred pages or so. In those four hundred pages you’ll encounter two hundred and ninety-six characters not in the top 3,500.The most frequently used are from the protagonists’ names (水笙, 水岱, and 万圭), but there are plenty of new common nouns and verbs used multiple times as well. [5]

On a page-by-page basis, you should recognize more characters than in the Shen Shixi novel above. In terms of total characters, however, A Deadly Secret is more of a challenge.

A modern classic

Lu Xun’s A Call to Arms 《呐喊》, despite collecting stories he wrote at a very early stage of modern Chinese literary vernacularization, should not be much more difficult than the two novels above—at least in terms of basic character recognition. Two hundred and thirty unseen characters in total, with 闰 (remember that one from above?), 珂 (used in a name) and 锵 (a sound) taking the top three spots. [6]


Even from this very cursory analysis, it appears that if your goal is to read Chinese fiction comfortably without a dictionary, you’re going to need to recognize more than 3,500 characters. Chinese writers use characters well into the four or five thousand frequency range very regularly.

So although reaching 3,500 is worth celebrating, I wouldn’t stop trying to acquire characters just yet. Keep reading and dictionary-checking, and don’t abandon memorizing/spaced repetition if that’s something you find helpful. [7] You’ll still be coming across new characters for a long, long time…. [8]

  1. See http://lingua.mtsu.edu/chinese-computing/statistics/index.html.
  2. 笪 Dà (a surname here, but means “a coarse mat of rushes or bamboo”, with 旦 dān providing the phonetic). Here and later I’m using Wenlin as my main reference for character glosses.
  3. 甄 Zhēn (a surname here, but originally meaning “to make pottery” and thus composed of 垔 and 瓦, but with no phonetic clue), 闰 rùn (used in a name here, but means “intercalary”; the much more common 润 shares the same pronunciation), 驿 yì (used together with 站 to mean “post/courier station”; right-hand side is the phonetic, as in 译).
  4. 鹩 liáo (“wren”, with the left-hand side providing the phonetic), 喙 huì (“snout; mouth; beak”, with both 口 and 彖 radicals semantic; no phonetic clue), 獾 huān (“badger”, with the right-hand side phonetic).
  5. 笙 shēng (“reed-pipe instrument”, bottom is the phonetic), 岱 Dài (“Taishan mountain”, top is the phonetic), 圭 guī (“jade tablet”, cf. 挂 or 桂 for the pronunciation).
  6. 珂 (“a jade-like stone”, right-hand side is the phonetic), 锵 qiāng (“clang”, right-hand side is the phonetic).
  7. For the more technologically-oriented student, another option may be available: thanks to the increasing availability of texts in machine-readable formats students could run their own frequency analysis on a text they wanted to read and pre-learn characters they don’t already know. It’s a pity there don’t seem to be any easy-to-use programs or websites that offer this functionality.
  8. It should also be noted that single character recognition is only part of reading Chinese, and is not on its own a good measure of reading proficiency. That said, the relative ease of measuring character recognition and frequency may justify its limited use as a self-diagnostic and motivational tool for learners of Chinese.

The following is my response:

> Interesting! This sort of helps make a case for the importance of graded readers. (Have you seen Mandarin Companion?)

> While I know your intent is to SEEK THE TRUTH, the overall tone of the article is, unfortunately, a little discouraging for struggling learners. For me, this totally highlights the need for materials that give the learner a sense of accomplishment for having reached 300, 500, 1000 characters, rather than an incessant message saying, “STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH.”

His response:

> You’re quite right, I suppose I am a little too rigidly 实事求是 in the piece! I completely agree with you about the need to avoid the demotivating “still not good enough” feeling and message that permeates most Chinese teaching materials (how I remember my exasperation when the 高级 textbook still required fifty plus new vocabulary items per short text!). There’s really a huge need for more good reading materials with limited character/vocabulary ranges, and your graded readers look fantastic.


Mar 2014

What Makes Bad Characters Readable?

I recently stumbled upon an interesting blog post titled The persistence of comprehension, which focuses on this handwritten Chinese note:


Now before you go too crazy trying to read it, know this:

> Some time ago, Instagram user jumppingjack posted the above image of a note she left to her mum. She said that her brother secretly added extra strokes to the characters in the note. The result is interesting though: even though extra strokes were added, the note is still readable to most competent Chinese speakers.


That brother is kind of awesome. That is the kind of mischief I would have been all over as a kid, if only I had had Chinese characters at my disposal. The character substitutions are pictured at the right. (Note: not all of them are real characters.)

(Also, I totally sympathize with jumpingjack for writing the character wrong, with the two sides swapped. I have done that way too many times myself.)

Try having a Chinese friend read the note and take note what gives them the most trouble. Read the original post for the note’s original content (in electronic text) and the author’s analysis and conclusions.

Interview with Kathleen of gotCharacters.com


Mar 2014

Interview with Kathleen of gotCharacters.com

I recently discovered gotCharacters, the personal project of Kathleen Ferguson. I was impressed by the logical organization of the character components, and the clean, attractive design of the site. It was clear that a lot of work went into the site, and it’s all available for free! The following is my interview with her.

What made you decide to create a new resource for learning Chinese characters?

I came to Chinese in 2006 as an adult learner and struggled to remember even the simplest of characters and pinyin. There were few resources that suited my learning style, so early on I started developing my own mnemonics. I’m sharing them on gotCharacters.com with the hope that it will make someone else’s learning experience easier.

How is your work on gotCharacters different from that of “Chineasy” (of TED Talks fame)?

Based on ShaoLan Hsueh’s TED Talk and a quick look at the Chineasy website, I think we share the same goal: offering ways, like visual aids and other mnemonics, to make characters stick and to make learning Chinese less intimidating.

In developing gotCharacters, however, my perspective is different. English is my first language, and I’m a Chinese language learner (an adult learner at that); to me, my content represents material I would have liked to have had earlier in my learning curve. As an example, gotCharacters includes lookalikes—characters that look similar (like and , or and ). To the experienced eye the differences are clear, but for a newbie these characters can be indistinguishable (as they were for me).

How did you create all the content on gotCharacters? Do you have a team? Do you have Chinese teachers involved?

Most of the content started out as reams of handwritten notes accumulated over the years. With the benefit of time and mulling, an idea evolves and it’s sketched on a yellow pad. Then I use a variety of tools like graphics, Flash animations, audio recording, and eLearning software to develop the online content. Cecilia Lindqvist’s book China: Empire of Living Symbols and Claudia Ross’s Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar are my two bibles.


I’m a visual learner, and animating characters brought them to life for me. My first animations were in 2010; in my mind’s eye, I could visualize (person) walking, flying, and rearing back on its hind legs and neighing. Every time I would come across these characters, as part of another character or as a stand-alone, I remembered the animation and thus the character.

Some ideas take time to come to fruition. I created the “Radical View” map (www.gotCharacters.com/radical-view) in 2011 as an independent project for class. Two years later I presented a more fully formed version at a World Language Teachers conference (my topic was “Overcoming the Challenges of Learning Mandarin: An American Student’s Perspective”), and the Chinese teachers’ enthusiastic response inspired me to make a color-coded, interactive version for the website, which was launched just this month.

As far as a “team” goes, I’m it. My family is supportive of my passion for Chinese and my desire to share that with others. My first Chinese professor, Wu 老师 at Central Connecticut State University, and several Hanban and StarTalk teachers, including Wang 老师, who currently teaches Mandarin at our Newtown High School, have been strong supporters as well.

How far have you come with your Chinese studies?

I’ve come a long way since 2006 when learning everything was a struggle and remembering how to count to ten was elusive. I’ve taken four college classes and continue to self-study using podcasts, books, Chinese movies, and anything else that helps me to learn and remember Chinese.

My reading proficiency is good, and I can carry on a basic conversation with a native speaker as long as they speak slowly and deliberately. My goal is to become fluent in Chinese, and though I have a long way to go, I’m enjoying the journey a great deal.

Did some of the characters you learned at a more advanced level influence how you designed the material for beginners to learn characters?

Technology has actually had the greatest influence on how I designed the material. With the evolution and easy availability of software and web tools, I can do more today than just a few years ago to extend the functionality and versatility of the content.

What’s next? Is this a growing business, or a side project?

It is my passion and avocation (I’m doing what I love), and I hope that I can make a living with it at some point. There is much more content coming to gotCharacters, and I look forward to opportunities to collaborate with others, to develop course curriculum, and maybe someday to teach characters. My mother always told us “Your goal should be just out of your reach” so my goal is for gotCharacters.com to become for Chinese what Kahn Academy is for math.


Feb 2014

Letters Embedded in Characters

Here’s a creative use for the alphabet:

Embedded Letters

The Chinese reads:

> 笨苹果的

…or, “Stupid Apple’s English Learning Method.”

(Hopefully it’s not just hiding letters in Chinese characters.)


Nov 2013

Curtailed Freedom (in Characters)

There’s an interesting article on Pro Publica titled: How to Get Censored on China’s Twitter (“China’s Twitter,” being, of course, Weibo).

What especially caught my eye was the mention of this use of Chinese characters:


The characters involved are 自由 and 目田. The former is a real word meaning “freedom,” the letter is a nonsensical combination of two characters (“eye” + “field”), chosen for their appearance only.

I really love how creativity with characters (something I call characterplay) allows for circumvention of censorship. This case is particularly ironic, because in order to avoid automated detection you’re literally removing the top part of both characters, a nice parallel to the content removal activities going on behind the scenes at Weibo.

This situation, although more interesting, also reminded me of the word-parsing censorship problem I’ve written about before (also involving the word 自由).

Link via Sinocism.


Sep 2013

Chinese Character Picture Logo for “Yin Wei”

I definitely don’t like this logo as well as the 永久 logo, but this one is still noteworthy:


The Name

The name of the Japanese restaurant is 吟味. This is kind of a strange name to me; the only Chinese word I’m very familiar with that contains the character is 呻吟, which means “moan” or “groan.” It has numerous sound-related meanings, like “sing,” “chant,” and “recite.” , of course, means “flavor.”

In Japanese, I found an entry for 吟味 (ぎんみ) which means “testing; scrutiny; careful investigation.” I guess a name like that could be comforting in a country so beset with food safety issues?

The Pictures

I found it interesting how the mouth radical () is used in the same logo to form two very different pictures. The first one is of a table reminiscent of ancestral forms of the character 口, except upside down. The second one looks like a bowl, and although looking more modern, resembles a few of the other ancestral forms of the character 口 (and not upside down this time).

The right side of 吟 (the roof combined with the kneeling Japanese figure) to me really looks more like the character than in certain calligraphic styles.

Logos like this are interesting, but to me highlights an important point: Chinese characters are not pictures. They’re not even very much like pictures. If characters were really “like pictures,” this kind of logo wouldn’t work.

Certain Chinese characters and character components are historically pictographic in nature, yes, but you can see how even a basic pictographic element like the mouth radical (口) is actually very plastic. To me, what’s so fascinating about characters is not that they’re “like pictures,” but that they’re a ridiculously complex (and yet still viable) alternative symbolic system to alphabet-based writing systems.

I’ll write more on this subject later.


Aug 2013

The Yongjiu Bicycles Logo

I noticed this cleverly designed logo for the Shanghai brand 永久 recently, and had to take note:

永久 Logo

永久 means “permanent.” Here’s the logo with its English name, “Forever”:

Forever (永久)

Here’s a bit of evolution of the logo over the years (notice that it was once written right-to-left):

Forever (永久)

Finally, if you’re having trouble identifying the character elements in the logo, here’s a little deconstruction aid for you:

"Yongjiu" Logo Deconstruction


Jul 2013

Door Door

Here’s a Chinese door that not-so-subtly reminds you it’s a door:

This is a Door

“Door” in Chinese is written in traditional Chinese, and in simplified. Obviously, the character above is traditional.

Unfortunately, it’s not a door to a door shop or anything quite so fitting.


Jul 2013

The Foreign Feel of a Chinese Transliteration

Foreign words, like “Minnesota” or “Kobe Bryant” or “Carrefour” often get “translated” into Chinese in a way that uses the original sounds of the words and tries to represent those in Chinese (thus, using Chinese characters). This process is called transliteration, or sometimes transcription (音译, which breaks down character by character into “sound translation” in Chinese). Thus, the three examples above become “Mingnisuda” (明尼苏达), “Kebi Bulai’ente” (科比·布莱恩特), and “Jialefu” (家乐福) in Chinese.


These foreign names can be quite a pain for learners to remember, because the pronunciation is “off,” and they’re often quite long, plus the worst part: you have to remember all the tones for those “nonsense characters!”

But are they really nonsense characters? That depends. A carefully transliterated name will make some sort of sense in Chinese. This is almost always done with company and brand names, and is the case with Carrefour (家乐福) above; the three characters chosen mean “home,” “joy,” and “happiness,” respectively. For place names, though, the characters are a bit less lovingly selected. So Minnesota (明尼苏达) got: “bright,” “Buddhist nun,” “Suzhou,” “arrive.” Pretty random. Same goes for “Kobe Bryant” (科比·布莱恩特) in Chinese.

So a typical learner of Chinese wants to know: what’s my name in Chinese? And that’s where the tumble down the foreign name transliteration rabbit hole begins. You see, most English names already have standard translations in Chinese. So “John” is 约翰, “Mary” is 玛丽, “Richard” is 理查德, etc. Clearly, these are all transliterations; the sounds are approximated in Chinese, but not the meanings.

From the moment I first heard “约翰” (“John” in Chinese), I hated it. It didn’t sound like “John” at all! There wasn’t even a “zh” or a “j” sound in the whole name. (It does sound quite similar to “Johann,” though; I think I had early European missionaries to thank for the “standard” transliteration of my name.)

After examining the characters, there were two main things I didn’t like about 约翰:

1. The characters 约翰 didn’t make much sense (OK, they make a little sense, from a “Gospel of John” missionary perspective)
2. “Yuēhàn” just sounded weird to me, and unlike most Chinese names

These two features define most foreign names transliterated into Chinese. In fact, oftentimes the characters really are nonsensical; they’re chosen systematically from a fixed list of characters used in transliterations. This list even has its own Wikipedia page: Transcription into Chinese characters.

Looking over the list, I can’t help but feel that certain specific characters are more “foreign” (used especially often in foreigners’ names, and not so often in Chinese names), while others are more “Chinese” (equally likely to appear in Chinese names). For example, and are both common in Chinese names. and … not quite so much.

Thus, over time, as you hear more and more combinations of these “transliteration characters” (杰克, 汉克, 路易, etc.), you start to get a feel for when a “Chinese name” sounds foreign, especially compared to the growing list of authentic Chinese people’s names you’re compiling in your memory. In fact, a computer program could actually run through big long lists of transliterated foreign names and original Chinese names, and by comparing the character distributions in the two lists, assign “Chineseness” and “foreignness” values to each character, allowing for fairly accurate prediction of what “Chinese” names would sound the most foreign. You could probably increase accuracy by taking note of the position of the characters in a word, and certain repeated character sequences (like 斯坦).

But this is what your brain does unconsciously as you learn more and more names. This is how we develop a sense for when a Chinese name feels foreign.

The ironic part of all this for me personally is that after rejecting 约翰 as my Chinese name, I later settled on 潘吉. Both of those characters are in thetranscription table! (Ah, but 潘吉 is actually much more Chinese, even if a bit boring. So 潘吉 is my official Chinese name, although these days I usually just go by John.)

Rose's Revelation


Jun 2013

Strong is good

Here’s another one for the Chinese pun file:


So the name of the sugar is 浓好, a play on the expression 侬好, the Shanghainese version of 你好, or “hello” in Mandarin. 浓好 (the name of the sugar) literally means “strong is good,” where “strong” is the “strong coffee” kind of “strong.”

The character-savvy among you (who understand the necessity of radicals) will also notice that and share the phonetic element , and that in this case the person radical in and the water radical in carry meaning.

On the sugar packet we can also see it is from the “Hello Milk Tea Series.” It does make me wonder what else is in the series…


May 2013

More “more”

Photo by @biesnecker:

多 + 50%

The original character is, of course, (“more”).

(Specifically, “50% more more.”)


May 2013

OF COURSE Radicals

Please excuse a short rant.

Guys, you have to learn radicals if you want to learn to read Chinese characters. You have to.

I bring this up because over and over again, I run into claims of a “secret” to or a “new method” for learning Chinese: radicals. Yes, it’s a bit of information you might not know when you first take an interest in Chinese, so it’s definitely worth stating explicitly to any new learner. But it’s not a “revolutionary way” to learn Chinese. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of the Chinese written language. In fact, the Chinese themselves coud not possibly commit to memory the huge quantity of characters that literate adults know if the system did not somehow build on itself (through semantic elements and phonetic elements).

So it’s not “this great way to learn Chinese”; it’s the only way to really learn Chinese characters, unless you’re going to stop at a few dozen. Just as one does not typically learn to read English by skipping the alphabet, or begin studies in classical music by skipping musical notation, one does not tackle reading Chinese without learning about radicals.

(The latest place I ran into this “secret” was a TED talk called ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese … with ease!)

Could we use new ways of learning Chinese characters? Absolutely. But radicals, or variations of Heisig’s method are not new. Learning thousands of characters is not effortless however you slice it. But it’s totally worth it!

So yes, learn radicals. Not because they’re some new idea, but because if you’re planning to learn Chinese in all its orthographic splendor, they’re one form of ancient Chinese wisdom that you simply can’t afford to ignore.


Apr 2013

Reactivation (character art)


I’m planning a trip to the Shanghai Power Station of Art, and I couldn’t help but notice (and appreciate the cover design for a book called Reactivation. Can you read what it says on the cover?

(You’ll need at least an Intermediate level of Chinese to know the words, but even a high elementary-level student should have learned most of the characters, in theory.)

OK, to prevent anyone from getting too frustrated, here’s the Chinese:


I’m looking forward to seeing more Chinese creativity at the Power Station of Art.


Feb 2013

Creating Characters by SVG

A new project called SVG Hanzi (SVG 漢字/SVG 汉子) allows anyone to piece together an image of a character by specifying its structure and component parts. Very cool!

From the site:

> SVG Hanzi is a web service that can be used to obtain a picture of any Chinese character in SVG format.

> It is only necessary to visit a link that looks like http://svghanzi.appspot.com/[Character Code].

> Character Code here should consist of an Ideographic Description Character ⿰, ⿱, ⿲, ⿳, ⿴, ⿵, ⿶, ⿷, ⿸, ⿹, ⿺, ⿻ or △

(Those weird symbols above represent the main structural patterns of Chinese characters, such as ⿰ for 知, ⿺ for 道, etc. △ is used to denote structures like 品 or 鑫.)

In case it’s not clear, this tool allows you to construct a character by just sticking a string of symbols and characters into a URL, which is then output as an SVG image.

Some examples (click through to view the resulting SVG character output in a pumped-up font size):


Those are all actual characters, of course. I quickly realized that this tool can be used to contract the character creations I love so much (and used to do the hard way, in Photoshop):


Finally, since SVG Hanzi doesn’t force you to use only character components as input (and Unicode character will work), I couldn’t resist these “hacks” (I’m using screenshots just in case SVG Hanzi ever goes down and to not hit the server so hard, but in each case, the image was originally output by SVG Hanzi and then captured by screenshot):

Character Creation

Character Creation

Character Creation

Character Creation

Character Creation

Character Creation

This all reminds me of the Character Description Language created for Wenlin, only simpler, and more universally accessible, since it uses a simple string of symbols to create an SVG, which all modern browsers can display.

Anyway, SVG Hanzi is a very cool tool, and I’m glad to see this. Not sure if it will ever be capable of representing really complex characters, but it’s already impressive as is!

Thanks to @magazeta for introducing me to this project.


Jan 2013

Unspeakable Travel Possibilities

ChinesePod Jenny was telling me that she read about a story told by the CEO of C-trip (携程). C-trip was trying to make a Weibo post about “independent travel” (i.e. not travel with a tour group). In China, this kind of travel is called 自由行. 自由 means “free” (as in freedom), and is an abbreviation of 旅行, which means “travel.”

Well the word for “freedom” tripped the censorship filter, and the post was rejected.


So they figured that they could alter the word 自由 by using the character instead of . is a part of 旅游, another word for “travel.” That way you get 自游行 instead of 自由行. Identical pronunciation, and the meaning still comes across pretty clearly.

The post was rejected again, for having tripped the filter.

The reason is that they had unintentionally created the word 游行, which is the Chinese word for “demonstration” (as in the protest kind).

Whether or not the facts are 100% accurate, Chinese people find this kind of story quite amusing. There’s not much you can do about the current situation but grin and bear it. One does wonder how much longer this particular charade will carry on, though…

[I don’t have a link to the original article; please share it if you have it!]


Dec 2012

No Sugar, No t

“No sugar” or “sugar-free” in Chinese is 无糖. The character , in its simplified form (not ), is not particularly difficult to write. It’s barely more complex than “#.” The character for “sugar,” however, is a different story: . Kind of complex.

So if you’re working in a coffee shop and have to quickly mark coffee cups with a label that means “no sugar,” what are you going to use? Are you going to bother to write 无糖 over and over? Here’s what an employee at Knight Coffee writes:


So “无t” instead of “无糖.” (You can often see similar things going on if you can get a peek at the way that restaurant servers write down food orders by hand.)

Modern Chinese people grow up being equally familiar with the Latin alphabet and Chinese characters. Writing by hand is becoming less and important, and writing characters is sometimes seen as a burden. Typing on a computer can make it easier to type out complex characters (because you’re not actually writing out all the strokes anymore), and yet young Chinese people on the internet are mixing the Latin alphabet into Chinese quite liberally.

It does make you wonder how quickly we’re going to start seeing fundamental changes to the way Chinese people write. All languages change over time, although the written language often resists change much longer. But there’s a new catalyst in the equation this time: the internet.

Exciting times.


Oct 2012

Creative Character Signage

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of creativity centered on characters. I recently discovered these signs browsing photos on WeChat. (I’ll post the Chinese characters below the photos if you want to give yourself the challenge of reading them on your own.)


The characters on the sign above are: 时光机 (“time machine”).



The characters on the two signs above are: 锅炉房 (“boiler room”).


Sep 2012

iOS6 has your iPhone speaking Chinese

I got a great tip from my friend Will Stevenson yesterday. Apparently iOS6 not only added text-to-speech support for new languages, but also enabled the ability to recognize and read out Chinese, even when the phone is in English language mode, and even when the text is a mix of Chinese and English.

What it is

Here’s an example of “Speak” enabled for a Chinese spam text:


Here’s an example of “Speak” for a note which includes both English and Chinese (I’m not sure why there’s a choice of reading in either 中文 or English; either one does the same thing):



For text messages, iOS treats each SMS text as one big block of text, and it won’t highlight individual words as it reads them (even though it reads them all). For other types of text, though, in apps like the Notes app, it will highlight each character as it reads it out:



[Side note: here’s what the note was about. I took notice of it because it’s a fairly rare example of mixing simplified and traditional Chinese characters in print. It was done to put the (heart) back into the character for love, since the simplified version quite literally takes the “heart” () out of (traditional) “love” ().]

How to enable it

Anyway, since you’re likely here to get your iOS6 device speaking Chinese, here’s how you do it.

First, go to Settings > General > Accessibility (Accessibility is near the bottom of all the stuff in “General.” Just a little hard to find. Naturally.)

Right at the top, you’ll see an Accessibility section called “Vision.” There you’ll see an item called “Speak Selection.” Touch on that. On the next screen, turn it ON. You can also turn no “Highlight Words” here too (why not?). You probably don’t want to mess with the speaking rate. It gets way too fast pretty quickly.



Here’s the really cool thing, though. There’s a “Dialects” section. (And no, I’m not going into the “what is a dialect, really? discussion here!) In there, you can not only choose the dialect for English and other languages, but also for Chinese! At the bottom of the “Dialects” section, under 中文, you can choose mainland Mandarin (中国), Cantonese (廣東話), and Taiwanese Mandarin (台灣). Not sure why they chose two regions and a language/dialect/topolect as the choices. But anyway, fun stuff!



What it means

Why does this matter? Well, my friend Will discovered it by accident as he was going through the somewhat tedious routine of copying a text so that he could then paste it into Pleco‘s pasteboard reader. He tried playing the text, and much to his surprise, he could hear the Chinese (whereas in the past, on iOS5, the text-to-speech converter would just skip over all Chinese). In this particular example, after having the Chinese read to him, he didn’t need to look it up after all.

Because a lot of the challenge of Chinese is simply recognizing the characters for the words you already know, text-to-speech can be extremely convenient. Will’s reaction was, “now that I have this feature, I’m going to be using Pleco a lot less now!”

Interesting. Let me know if you think this new feature changes how you learn Chinese on your phone, or if it’s just no big deal to you.


Sep 2012

A Visual Case for Stroke Order

Inevitably, students of Chinese characters will ask, at some point, “why do we have to learn stroke order? What difference does it make?

It’s a good question. This is the answer:


(The message reads 好无聊. “So bored.”)

This is what Chinese characters start to look like as the strokes flow together. And it’s not just about calligraphy and an appreciation of ancient culture; I discovered the image above through Tencent’s WeChat (the iPhone app).

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