Interview by Furio

Furio of the Sapore di Cina blog recently interviewed me about the Chinese Grammar Wiki and AllSet Learning in general. He had some great questions, and I really like how the interview turned out. Check it out: Interview with John Pasden, the founder of Sinosplice and AllSet Learning [also in Italian, in Spanish].

The interview includes a number of questions I’m frequently asked these days by foreigners in China. Here’s an example from the interview:

You are married with a Chinese girl, have a daughter and opened a company in China. Do you ever think about going back to U.S.?

Of course. I’d be lying if I said I never think about it. I think about it not because I’m tired of China and want to go back, but rather because I suspect there may come a time when it just really doesn’t make any kind of sense for me (and my family) to stay. Ecological, economic, or political disasters could definitely befall China. You can’t be a responsible parent if you haven’t at least thought about a plan B.

That said, I don’t have plans to leave China anytime soon. I’m still having a great time here, loving the experience of building my own company, and sincerely hope that I can be here for quite a while.

Read the full interview.

More “more”

Photo by @biesnecker:

多 + 50%

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

(Specifically, “50% more more.”)

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.

Shanghai bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian

There’s a lot of talk in the Shanghai Catholic Church about recently deceased bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian (金鲁贤). It’s kind of a shame, because he seems like a really interesting man, but I didn’t really hear much about him while he was still alive. Probably mostly my fault, but nothing to do now but educate myself.

From the description of his recently published The Memoirs of Jin Luxian, Volume 1: Learning and Relearning 1916-1982:

Jin Luxian is considered by many to be one of China’s most controversial religious figures. Educated by the Jesuits, he joined the Society of Jesus and was ordained priest in 1945 before continuing his studies in Europe. In 1951 he made the dangerous decision to return to the newly established People’s Republic of China. He became one of the many thousands of Roman Catholics who suffered persecution. Convicted of counter-revolutionary activities and treason, he was imprisoned for 27 years and only released in 1982. His subsequent decision to accept the government’s invitation to resume his prior role as head of the Shanghai Seminary and then assume the title of Bishop of Shanghai without Vatican approval shocked many Catholics.

From Wikipedia:

Bishop Jin was ordained bishop without Vatican approval in 1985, but this was later granted by the Vatican in 2004.

The book is very new, and there are no reviews for the book on Amazon yet. Anyone read it? (It’s nowhere to be found in Amazon.cn, which I suppose is a good sign?)

Oh, and here’s a little taste of the political drama that is Catholicism in China (via the LA Times):

Jin’s first anointed successor as acting bishop, Joseph Xing Wenzhi, resigned last year for reasons still unclear, and his replacement, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, was placed under house arrest at Shanghai’s Sheshan Seminary after enraging party officials by renouncing his membership in the party-controlled Catholic association.


Further reading:

Support Phonemica!

My linguistically-inclined friends at Sinoglot have been quietly building out an amazing project called Phonemica. What’s Phonemica?

phonemica

Phonemica is a project to record spoken stories in every one of the thousands of varieties of Chinese in order to preserve both stories and language for future generations. We are a team of volunteers working within China and abroad.

Our mission: Bringing the richness of oral Chinese to a wider audience, through the words of natural storytellers, from every corner of the world where Chinese is spoken.

Phonemia is beautifully designed, has great audio content in various Chinese dialects, and has a really cool custom audio player/annotator to boot. If this interests you at all, you should really check it out.

But there’s more! Phonemica has recently launched an indiegogo campaign to continue the mission and expand the project. Support Phonemica while you still can so that Phonemica can chronicle China’s linguistic riches while it still can.

Reasons for (and against) Code-Switching

NPR has a blog called code switch now, and recently published an article called Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. I recommend you read it in full if you’re at all interested in the linguistic phenomenon of code-switching, but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll some up the five reasons listed:

switch.jpg

Photo by ROCPHOTO.CO.UK on Flickr

  1. A certain language feels more appropriate in a “primal” state

  2. To fit in to a certain linguistic environment

  3. To be treated “like a local”

  4. To communicate in secret

  5. It helps convey a concept more “native” to a certain language

Code-switching is a well-researched linguistic phenomenon, and you can go into it way deeper than the NPR article does (just check out the references of the Wikipedia article on code-switching).

But while in Beijing over the weekend, I was reminded of another aspect of code-switching: it can be annoying. Although the act of code-switching is generally accepted as “normal,” there are still limits. People can code-switch too rapid-fire, or for “the wrong reasons.” (Alas, the Wikipedia article does not comment on “when code-switching gets annoying.”)

So assuming that non-comprehension isn’t a factor, what are the circumstances under which code-switching becomes annoying? I would guess that a flagrant violation of reason #5 above would be the most annoying… switching to another language to express a thoroughly generic concept, rather than for a “culturally justified” reason. Worse yet: doing that repeatedly. This was the one that came up in my recent conversation.

I’m curious, though, what factors might also make code-switching annoying. Some thoughts:

  1. Code-switching too often, and for no discernible purpose

  2. Code-switching which seems to be for the purpose of showing off

I’m pretty tolerant of code-switching, though. Maybe you readers have other reasons to add?

Reactivation (character art)

reactivation

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:

重新发电

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

Chinese Numbers: Where 4 Meets 6

This post is leading up to another longer post on how the Chinese write numbers. I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (、etc.); I’m talking about the numbers we call Arabic numerals. In China, they can occasionally be written pretty differently from what an American like me is used to.

An example to prove the point:

6-4

I won’t post my own observations in this blog post. Feel free to contribute your own interpretations in the comments (and tell us where you’re from), and, more importantly, ask your Chinese friends to do it and post those results too.

I’ve done this little experiment with a number of people, Chinese and non-, and have gotten surprisingly varied replies (but with some identifiable patterns).


If you enjoy this kind of thing, be sure to check out Sinoglot’s classic Bowl, Plate, Plowl.

Your Little Sister Is Popular

Over the past year or so the expression 你妹 (literally, “your little sister”) is pretty popular. You might guess that it’s kind of dirty, based on other common vulgar phrases involving mothers or grandmothers, and you’d be kind of right. It’s clearly not a polite phrase, but it seems to be more often used in a flippant way among friends rather than a vulgar way to start fights.

One of the means by which the phrase 你妹 is getting more exposure is through the crazy popular new game “找你妹” (literally, “Look for Your Little Sister,” although that’s not how the name is really understood). I first noticed this game a couple weeks ago while riding public transportation. I’m seeing it played on iPhones and iPads everywhere around Shanghai. It’s especially interesting to me because it looks so lame, despite being so popular. You basically scroll through a bunch of little drawings of objects, and click on the ones you’re told to find. Whee.

It looks like this:

找你妹

找你妹

There’s even a video on YouTube about how a kid played 找你妹 all night and went blind. (Well, I guess there are allegedly more embarrassing ways to go blind…) You can see footage of the game in action in parts of the clip:

As for the recent upsurge in usage of the phrase 你妹, it’s kind of interesting, and Baidu offers an explanation (in Chinese, of course). I’m not going to try to explain it because I’m not personally super familiar with all the nuances of its usage yet, but this is exactly the type of situation where having a group of young Chinese teachers on staff comes in super handy, so I’m going to have to get into this topic in the AllSet Learning office. (Anyone interested in it or have a link to an explanation as good or better than Baidu’s? The other explanations I could find were a bit lacking.)

If You Could Ask Chinese College Kids Anything…

pbr-interview

The AllSet Learning Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app comes preloaded with several free “books.” Although I immensely enjoyed creating a story involving post-apocalyptic steam punk dinosaurs, in some ways those free books were the most interesting. That’s because the content of each book is a simple interview question which is then answered by 10 different Chinese college kids. They’re all studying in Shanghai, but they come from all over China. You get to hear each young person’s own voice, see their photo, and even read their actual handwriting (in characters), which is also accompanied by text. This is a lot more interesting than most textbooks the kids are using these days! Through this app, it’s my hope to show a diverse, modern side of China’s youth, different from other sources.

We’ve aimed for intermediate level learners in the past, but we would consider doing simpler or more difficult questions. The interview questions already included in the app are:

  1. 你最喜欢吃什么? (What do you most like to eat?)

  2. 谈到美国,你第一个想到的是什么? (When speaking of the USA, what’s the first thing you think of?)

  3. 你认为幸福是什么? (What do you think happiness is?)

And this is the part where I ask you, my readers, what types of questions you’d like us to ask for the next round of interviews. The questions need to be relatively short, and somewhat open-ended, but nothing requiring an essay to answer. It’s OK to get just a little bit into the human side of politics (One Child Policy, etc.), but we’re not going to do any particularly inflammatory topics, or topics that could get the interviewees in trouble.

So what questions would you like to see covered in the Chinese Picture Book Reader? Please share in the comments, or drop me an email if you like.

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