Tag: David Moser


Nov 2012

CIEE Conference: Tech and Chinese

Over the weekend I joined the CIEE Conference in Shanghai. It struck me as a mini-ACTFL (but in town!), focused on study abroad. I was part of a panel discussion on “Effective Use of the New Digital Chinese Language Technology,” chaired by David Moser and also joined by Brendan O’Kane.

To sum up our initial points (and apologies if I get any of these wrong), what we said was:

David Moser: Chinese used to be a huge pain because looking up words was so difficult, but now, thanks to technology a lot of the pain is gone
Me: Technology is not inherently useful, but there is now great potential for a new, student-led way of learning enabled by technology
Brendan O’Kane: both the level of students entering Chinese translation classes and the quality of Chinese reference materials are going up, but there are still some fundamental reading/parsing issues that need special attention

After we made our points, the discussion turned to a bunch of learning resource name-dropping, including FluentU, Shooter, and the Chinese Grammar Wiki.

Fielding questions from teachers and program directors, some of the issues that struck me were:

1. It’s not at all clear what resources are most useful to teachers (even ones like Pleco that have been around for quite a while and have a good name in the space) and which ones they can use
2. Even if teachers are willing to use new tools to find interesting, up-to-date material for their students, they don’t feel well-equipped to do so in anything resembling a systematic manner
3. What technology is here to stay, and what is just a passing fad? It’s hard to say. I don’t blame some of the teachers for wanting to just wait until the dust settles.

There are so many opportunities for innovation in this space right now…


Jun 2012

How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?

To answer this question, I’ll start by quoting from a Quora page, where two heavyweights gave excellent answers:

Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan/大山:

> When I started learning Chinese, I was horrified to hear that it would take me 10 years to become fluent. 27 years later I’m still working at it. Due to my work on television, some Chinese language learners may consider me a role model of sorts, but every day I’m reminded of what I don’t know and how much more there is to learn.

> “Fluent” is a relative concept. I would summarize:

> 2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job (because 2 years is enough to bullshit your way through a situation in front of non-speakers).

> 5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.

> 10 years to feel comfortable in the language.

David Moser:

> The old saying I heard when I first started learning Chinese was, “Learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility”. At the time I assumed that the point of this aphorism was that after five years you will have mastered humility along with Chinese. After I put in my five years, however, I realized the sad truth: I had mastered humility, alright, but my Chinese still had a long way to go. And still does.

> As the the above answers indicate, the notion of “fluent” is very vague and goal-dependent. Needless to say, the Chinese writing system does more than any other aspect to hamper mastery, to the extent that adult speakers must address the daunting problems of the script in order to function in the language. As an instructive metric, however, we can turn to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey for some rough estimates of the relative difficulty. They divide languages into different difficulty groups. Group I includes the “usual” languages a student might study, such as French and Italian. They estimate “Hours of instruction required for a student with average language aptitude to reach level-2 proficiency” (never mind what level-2 means) to be 480 hours. A further level is characterized as “Speaking proficiency level expected of a student with superior language aptitude after 720 hours of instruction”, which is “Level 3”, which apparently is their highest level of non-native fluency. Chinese is grouped into Category IV, along with Japanese. The number of hours needed to reach level two is 1320 (about 3 times as much as required for French), and the highest expected level for a superior student after 720 hours is only 1+, i.e. an advanced beginner. These are old statistics, but the proportional differences are bound to be similar today.

> My own experience, in a nutshell: French language students after 4 years are hanging out in Paris bistros, reading everything from Voltaire to Le Monde with relative ease, and having arguments about existentialism and debt ceilings. Chinese language students after four years still can’t read novels or newspapers, can have only simple conversations about food, and cannot yet function in the culture as mature adults. And this even goes for many graduate students with 6-7 or 8 years of Chinese. Exceptions abound, of course, but in general the gap between mastery of Chinese vs. the European languages is enormous. To a great extent the stumbling block is simply the non-phonetic and perversely memory-intensive writing system, but other cultural factors are at work as well.

(David Moser is the guy who once explained why learning Chinese is so damn hard.)

My own experiences:

I’m not going to go into the complex issues already covered above (and I should also note that my Chinese is nowhere near as good as Mark Rowswell’s), but Mark’s numbers seem fairly realistic to me.

Because I began my study of Chinese in the States, then moved to China and started practicing on my own pretty hardcore, I’d say I hit Mark’s “basic fluency” milestone at around 4 years of study. “Feeling comfortable” probably came after about 8 years, but I think my standard for “comfortable” is also lower than Mark’s. (I seriously doubt I am as comfortable now as Mark was after 10 years!)

What’s the deal?

It always pisses some people off when you say that learning Chinese is hard, or that it takes a really long time. In fact, it tends to inspire certain learners to go out of their way to prove that the opposite is true: Chinese is not hard, and doesn’t take long to learn. That’s fine; somewhere between the extreme views the truth can be found. But I’ve always found it important to have a realistic view of what you’re getting into, and getting someone like Mark Rowswell’s take on the question is certainly interesting!

It seems that some people are afraid that many people will be “scared off” if Chinese is too often represented as “difficult,” and that those that attain some mastery and then tell others that it wasn’t easy are simply jealously guarding their own perceived “specialness.” Personally, I started learning Chinese precisely because I viewed it as a serious challenge, and didn’t fall in love with it until much later. I’ve heard many times that Malay is really easy to learn, but that’s never made me want to learn it.

The good news

The good news is that I truly believe that learning Chinese is getting easier, or that students are learning it faster than they used to. I’ve been observing this trend on my own anecdotally over the years as I meet ChinesePod visitors, as I meet new arrivals to China, as I take on new AllSet Learning clients, and as I work with new interns. The “Total Newb on Arrival” is getting rarer, tones are getting better, and some people are even showing up in China for the first time already able to hold a conversation. Nice!

I’ve compared notes with Chinese teachers abroad, and some teachers are making the same observations. One teacher told me that universities are having to restructure their Chinese courses because the original courses were not demanding enough, or didn’t go far enough. What’s going on here?

I think a combination of the following factors are playing a part:

– Kids are starting to learn Chinese sooner
– Chinese learning materials are getting better
– Technology is making learning characters (and pronunciation) less laborious
– Competition is naturally raising the bar
– Increased awareness about the Chinese language and culture make the whole prospect less intimidating overall

This is all very good news! And if this is a long-running trend that has been accelerating in recent years, it could also mean that while Mark Rowswell’s and David Moser’s accounts are totally truthful, it won’t be as time-consuming for you as it was for them because the difficulty (or time involved) to learn Chinese is depreciating, without us even having to do anything!

One more thing

Oh, and let me also quote Charles Laughlin from the Quora thread, who replied:

> Who cares how long it takes? Just do it! If you really want to learn Chinese, you will devote yourself to it however long it takes.

Very true.


Sep 2009

Weekend in Beijing

Light posting lately… I just got back from a weekend in Beijing. No sightseeing, no business… just hanging out, taking it easy, and seeing a few friends. Got together with Pepe, Brendan, Joel, Syz, Dave Lancashire, Roddy, and David Moser. And also happened to bump into Rob of Black and White Cat.

My wife and I spent most of our time on Bei Luogu Xiang (北锣鼓巷) or Nan Luogu Xiang (南锣鼓巷). We stayed in a nice little 四合院 hotel in the area called 吉庆堂. Thanks to Brendan, we ended up at a bar called Amilal both nights, which was a pleasant 20-minute walk from our hotel.

We had a good time, and my Shanghainese wife is liking Beijing more every time we go.


Apr 2009

Shanghainese Stand-up Comedian Zhou Libo

Zhou Libo

Zhou Libo: Xiaokan 30 Nian

I haven’t noticed any online English language mentions of Shanghai comedian Zhou Libo (周立波) yet, but he clearly deserves a bit more attention. His DVD, 笑侃三十年, has been selling like hotcakes in DVD shops across Shanghai for weeks, and I hear his upcoming live performances are selling out.

You could say his act is “comedy with Shanghainese characteristics” because 笑侃三十年 is Zhou’s humorous take on the changes Shanghai has experienced in the past 30 years. For many Shanghainese, the act is equal parts nostalgia and comedy. (Well, maybe not equal… my wife was laughing so hard she was crying at certain parts, and she’s not old enough to be nostalgic about everything he was talking about. Her parents loved the act too, though.)

Of course, the most obvious “Shanghainese characteristic” of Zhou’s act is the language it’s delivered in. Being mostly in Shanghainese, Zhou Libo’s humor remains somewhat inaccessible to both foreigners and most Chinese alike. Sure, there are video clips online with Chinese subtitles, but when he starts with the Shanghainese wordplay, subtitles are of little use.

Chinese media comentator David Moser has lamented the death of xiangsheng as an art form in China. So what’s filling the void? To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Zhou Libo phenomenon is that he seems to be a part of a larger development: as two-man “Chinese stand-up” xiangsheng is waning, a new brand of home-grown Chinese solo stand-up comedy may be emerging. Furthermore, it seems to be happening through quirky regional acts like Xiao Shenyang from northeast China (the act linked to can only be described as stand-up comedy), and Zhou Libo, whose act is so “regional” that it can only be directly appreciated by the Shanghainese.

I’m certainly no expert on stand-up comedy, but I’m interested in seeing where this is going. Perhaps sites like Danwei will do some more in-depth reporting on the phenomenon, even if a Shanghainese act is of little interest to Beijingers.