We learners of Chinese typically learn that “ayi” (阿姨) means “aunt,” and then soon after also learn that it is also a polite way to address “a woman of one’s mother’s generation.” Then, pretty soon after arriving in China, we learn that it’s also what you call the lady you hire to clean your home. (The last one tends to become the most familiar for foreigners living in China.)
Today I’d like to bring up a fourth use of “ayi” which kind of circles back to the first one, but is also subtly different, and additionally extremely interesting in the way that it makes young women squirm in social discomfort. This is the use of “ayi” that you really only learn if you spend enough time around young (Chinese-speaking) children in China.
Many terms for family and relatives are used quite loosely in Chinese to show familiarity or politeness. The way it works for little kids in China is something like this:
1. Little girls that are older than you are called “jiejie” (姐姐); little boys that are older than you are called “gege” (哥哥). Often this is a two-year-old calling a three-year-old “gege,” or even a 17-month-old calling an 18-month-old “jiejie.” That’s just how it works.
2. Little girls that are younger than you are called “meimei” (妹妹); little boys that are younger than you are called “didi” (弟弟). Again, the age difference might be tiny; it doesn’t matter. Even for twins, the older/younger aspect of the relationship is strictly acknowledged.
3. Here’s where it gets interesting… To a little kid, if you’re female, but are no longer a child, you’re suddenly an ayi. This often violates the “mother’s generation” rule that we learn in Chinese class… If the kid’s mom is 34, the kid is usually still going to call a 20-year-old girl “ayi” because a 20-year-old is obviously not a child. (Note: this is largely based on observations in Shanghai; use of the term may vary somewhat regionally. China is a big place!)
But this is where it gets very amusing to observe… a lot of 20-year-old girls have never really been called “ayi” before and they hate it. It feels like they’re being called OLD. In very recent memory, they may have had younger cousins calling them “jiejie,” but now this little kid is suddenly pronouncing them NOT YOUNG ANYMORE. A lot of these 20-year-old girls will correct the little kid that calls them “ayi,” telling the kid to address them “jiejie.” Most of the time the kids will have none of it, though. You can see it on their faces: “What? You’re not a little kid. You’re clearly an ayi.”
So yeah, I’ve been observing my toddler calling strange young women “ayi” and watching these young women freak out. And yes, it’s pretty funny to me.
So, to sum up, the four meanings of “ayi” (阿姨):
1. “Mother’s Siter” Ayi
2. Middle-aged “Ma’am” Ayi
3. Housekeeper Ayi
4. “I’m a little kid and you’re not” Ayi
If you’re in China and you’ve never noticed it before, be on the lookout for #4. It’s easy to spot, because it usually involves a young woman in her early twenties approaching and fawning over a cute little kid, then the inevitable offensive “ayi” term is used, the failed attempt at “jiejie” persuasion, and the young woman walking away pouting.
Stylized letters and characters are interesting to me, but how abstract can you get with Chinese characters? You kinda have to retain the strokes and radicals and stuff, right? Maybe not…
The characters represented above are 小燕画院.
Although the name is readable, it might take a bit longer to decipher than most Chinese text, even for native speakers. Have you ever spotted characters that have been taken even further into the abstract?
The webcomic Itchy Feet has some great comics on learning to communicate in a foreign language. I especially like his visualization technique for representing a low level of competency in a foreign language. These are about German and French, but could be about any language, really:
This one will feel relevant to ABCs in China:
Itchy Feet is also the comic that did this amusing take on various Asian scripts which went semi-viral a while ago:
I recently saw a link to this article on Facebook: One Billion Drinkers Can Be Wrong (China’s most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here’s why you shouldn’t drink it). So it’s a post laegely about how baijiu (白酒) cannot success outside of China because it’s a terrible, terrible liquor. (Some of the comments I read on Facebook went much further, and I’ll address that sentiment below.)
Now I’m no fan of baijiu; I’ve made this clear in the past. And when I say it’s terrible, I know it’s because I personally will never develop a taste for it, and I’m not interested in “giving it a chance.” I’ve done that. Plenty of times. (Same goes for chicken feet.) I think part of it is that I resent a certain idea that sometimes gets tossed around: if you’ve been in China this long, you should have learned to like baijiu by now. Nope, sorry. Don’t like it. Now leave me alone.
But I’ve also learned–thanks to my friend Derek Sandhaus–that it is possible for westerners to develop a taste for baijiu. I seriously doubt it’s ever going to go mainstream, but the Chinese will ensure that there’s always a market for the stuff.
The article linked to below, though, goes way beyond the idea that the Chinese like it and westerners typically don’t. It reminds me of Seinfeld’s “chopsticks bigotry” (which is actually funny, because it’s a bit more self-aware):
> I’ll tell you what I like about Chinese people … They’re hanging in there with the chopsticks, aren’t they? You know they’ve seen the fork. They’re staying with the sticks. I’m impressed by that. I don’t know how they missed it. A Chinese farmer gets up, works in the field with the shovel all day… Shovel… Spoon… Come on… There it is. You’re not plowing 40 acres with a couple of pool cues….
What’s interesting about this type of opinion of baijiu is that this is a truly dividing issue. Some westerners will actually hold the opinion that “this is a vile alcohol and no one should drink it, Chinese or not.” You might hear some cross-cultural statements of the some ilk about peeing in public, or disregard for safety, but attacking another culture’s favorite alcohol? It’s just a bit bizarre.
What do you think?
I enjoyed writing the post about my daughter’s mastery of Chinese grammar at age two. It wasn’t scientific, but it was an interesting study for me nonetheless.
This just a quick update, because I was wondering when my daughter would start getting into the “harder,” intermediate-level B1 grammar points. Well, I’ve got an answer now.
Right around the time she turned two and a half, we had soft tacos for dinner, and she busted out with this sentence:
> 我要把它包起来。 [I want to wrap it up.]
This short sentence is significant because it features both:
From the original “cannot use” list, the only other one she’s picked up has been personal pronouns (which she’s still getting used to). I really thought it would be a while before I heard 把 come out of her mouth. She’s definitely not using 把 often, but it’s already in that little brain…
I recently published a guest post by Scott Young, who just spent about three months in China, attempting to stay immersed in Chinese the whole time (even while traveling with his non-Chinese friend, Vat). I didn’t comment on my own interactions with Scott, though, or my thoughts on his experiment. So I’ll do that now.
Here’s a video we took in the (then) empty office next to the AllSet Learning office. We were plagued by technical problems, but Vat’s persistence got us through.
On “No English”
I was expecting that Scott would be taking a break from his “immersion” while talking to me and talk to me in English. We had exchanged emails before we met in person, and it was all in English. But no, from the get-go, Scott spoke nothing but Chinese to me. (And Vat too.) So we talked for quite a while (before and after the video), and it was all entirely in Chinese.
I part of me finds this weird. I suppose it’s because it violates the “efficiency” principle I talk about in my language power struggle post. We both knew that we could communicate absolutely effortlessly in English.
But he was a man on a mission, with a “no English” rule, and I totally respected that. In fact, It’s becoming less and less weird for me to think of Chinese as an international language. Chinese is the language of our office, and I speak to our (non-Chinese) interns mostly in Chinese as well (as long as they’re not absolute beginners).
On Studying before You Arrive
Scott mentions that he had studied Chinese for 105 hours before coming to China. Vat didn’t. I’m sure there are other factors at play, but there was a noticeable difference between Scott’s and Vat’s Chinese levels. I think Scott was also putting more time into Chinese in China (Vat also had video and architecture-related interests to pursue). But the head start undoubtedly helped Scott a lot.
This is a common thread I’ve seen in a lot of success stories, though: for China, in particular, prior study seems to help immensely. I’ve heard and discussed with friends theories about having to deal with the “triple threat” of (1) unfamiliar language, (2) tones, and (3) Chinese characters leading to higher levels of frustration when tackling Chinese. In fact, it’s a good reason to delay studying characters a bit, if it means less frustration and a stronger foundation in pinyin and pronunciation.
I had three semesters of Chinese before setting foot in China. I sure struggled when I got here, but I was essentially focusing entirely on listening and pronunciation for the first couple of months. I knew pinyin, had the grammar basics down, and knew all the characters I needed for a while. I know that focus helped me tremendously.
On Preventing Friendships
In the guest post, Scott states:
> What matters is that you are not speaking English to prevent: (1) Forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese….
This is key, but it seems quite harsh. Can you imagine bumping into Scott while traveling around China, trying to strike up a friendly conversation with him about areas in Yunnan he’d recommend visiting, and being totally blown off by him in Chinese? Would you be heartless enough to similarly rebuff a friendly fellow traveller? This is exactly what Scott is advocating, though: “prevent[ing] forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese.”
I know that Scott is right, though. I also know people that have followed less extreme versions of this policy in order to make the most of their time in China, although those people tended to have more than just three months, so a few conversations here and there weren’t a huge deal. And then there’s the “expat bubble” crowd, of course. Most of those people didn’t intentionally form the bubble; it just “kind of happened.”
When I first started teaching at my first job in China at Zhejiang University City College (ZUCC), my only co-workers were four Australians. I fully expected those guys would be my new friends, and I was excited to finally get to know some Aussies. But they cruelly brushed me off; they were a tight-knit group, and not at all interested in letting me in. So I was on my own, lonely, and motivated to learn Chinese. I hung out with my Chinese roommate a lot. I studied. I went out and practiced with random people. I made more Chinese friends. I learned Chinese. I was kind of lucky, really.
This is one of those personality things, though. I’d be curious to hear from readers who have tried this, whether successful or not, and what the results were.
I have only vague memories of learning geometry in high school. I liked it because you got to draw stuff, and while some of my classmates hated doing proofs, I didn’t mind them so much. I saw them as sort of a puzzle, and the logic of the whole process appealed to me. I can’t say I ever really loved geometry or found it fun, however.
Fast forward to last weekend. I discovered “Euclid the Game” on Hacker News. It presents geometric challenges as a sort of game. It’s essentially the same as proofs, but rather than “prove this boring thing” it challenges you, and gives you a little toolbar with geometric “weapons” you can apply. One of the things that impressed me most is that after you demonstrate that you know how to construct a parallel or perpendicular line, or how to translate a line–with simpler tools–you gain new “shortcut buttons” for those tasks in your toolbar. Nice!
Anyway, the point of all this is that learning is a lot more fun when it’s presented as a fun challenge. How many of us had to learn geometry by memorizing axioms, and then theorems, and then drudging through joyless proofs? With this “Euclid the Game,” the challenge factor keeps you going, and the stuff you’re supposed to memorize you just kind of “pick up” because you need it to solve the challenges. And the cherry on top is that there’s more than one correct way to solve the challenges, because, hey, geometry is flexible like that.
Does any of this sound familiar? (Yes, I’m talking about language learning.)
If you treat a language as a big long list of words and grammar points, then yes, you can drudge through it just like any other horrible soul-sucking schoolwork. But in language, the real challenge should always be communication with another human being. If your language learning method doesn’t involve this crucial feature, it’s time to start questioning your methods.
Maybe geometry isn’t your thing at all, and unlike me, you could never get into “Euclid the Game.” But everyone enjoys communicating. Put down the flashcards and take up the challenge.
This is a guest post by blogger Scott Young. He got in touch with me before we met in China, and I was impressed by his “All Chinese All the Time” enthusiasm. In this post he shares some advice on how to create an immersion experience if you’re only in China for a short time and really serious about learning Chinese. (Oh, also the video his friend Vat made is pretty cool, too.)
In China and can’t access Vimeo? See the mini-documentary on YouKu
I think most people would agree immersion is the best way to learn a language. Unfortunately, that can often be difficult to pull off, even if you live in the country with the language you’re trying to learn. Immersion in China can be even trickier, where both difficulties with the language and the culture can be difficult barriers to surmount.
After a three-month stay in China, I’m hardly an expert on learning Chinese. However I did go from a minimal amount of prior self-study (105 hours, exactly), to passing the HSK 4 and being able to hold fairly complex conversations in Chinese after my brief stay.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I believe immersion was the key to my progress and I believe it’s the biggest component most new learners in China lack which holds them back. In this article, I want to spell out exactly what steps I took to create a sustainable immersive environment to improve my Chinese over a short stay.
Immersion from the First Day
One of the most important factors is that I aimed for an immersive environment, from the first day in China. Given I was barely able to make up a sentence and couldn’t understand anything Chinese people were saying to me, that might sound too difficult to replicate.
However, I believe it is possible to create an immersive environment from the first day, even if you aren’t enrolled in one of those fancy boarding schools which force you to speak Chinese. Second, I believe this step is one of the most important you can take for your overall rate of improvement.
A Tale of Two Languages
Chinese isn’t my first foreign language I’ve learned. That was French.
I lived in France for a year during my senior year of university. Despite four years of grade school classes, my French was nonexistent. I had always wanted to learn a foreign language, so getting an opportunity to live abroad was the perfect time to do that.
Three months into my stay in France, with roughly the same advance preparation as I had for China, I wrote a French exam that all students were required to take. I scored a D. (Which according to the school roughly translated into an “A2” by the CEFR)
I’m still mostly the same person I was four years ago. Certainly any innate talent for learning languages, if such a thing exists, would have been the same then as it is now. My motivation for learning French was at least as strong as learning Chinese. So why did I fail to do what I have done in Chinese with an “easy” language like French?
I believe the difference was immersion.
Although I was living in France to learn French, most of my friends were other foreigners who spoke English. Even the French friends I had tended to speak in English with me because we were part of an English speaking group.
By the time I had realized my mistake, it had become very hard to change course. The only way I could start an immersive environment now would have been to cut off all my non-French speaking friends and force myself to speak in an unfamiliar language with people who were used to me speaking to them in English.
After this experience, I resolved to do things differently next time. So when I came to learn Chinese, I wanted to make sure I was building an immersive environment from Day 1.
How to Build an Immersive Environment with Limited Chinese
Immersion sounds great, but it’s definitely easier said than done. I believe that managing the development of your environment while living in China can be trickier than learning Chinese, and it’s very easy to get into some bad habits (or friendships) that will hold you back.
The most direct step I took was simply not speaking in English.
The no-English rule is not possible to perfectly implement (at least for mere mortals like myself). I had to speak in English when I arrived to the landlord. I had to use English in some brief moments to coordinate with possible tutors. I had to use English with Vat, my friend who I traveled with and shot the documentary you can see at the top of this article, as he hadn’t done the same amount of prior preparation as myself.
However, even an imperfect attempt at not speaking English can still be good enough for practical purposes. What matters is that you are not speaking English to prevent:
- Forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese.
- Beginning friendships with Chinese people who want to use you to practice their English.
- Using a bit of initial isolation to motivate yourself to learn Chinese and make Chinese friends.
This is an intense strategy, so you might be wondering whether it’s something you can successfully execute. I’ve done this now with Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and I’m currently in the beginning phases of applying it with Korean. While it can be very intense, I want to stress that the intensity is mostly temporary.
Chinese may take a little longer to break in than a European language, but you will break through, and when you do, you’ll be in the immersive environment you need to make rapid improvements in your Chinese.
What happens if you fail? Don’t worry, pick yourself up and try again. The goal isn’t perfection, simply enough commitment to using Chinese that you get the three benefits I listed above.
Specific Strategies for Getting Over the Hump
Simply not speaking in English is rather vague, so I want to add some concrete examples of steps I found useful, both in China, and in other countries where I’ve applied this technique.
1. Make friends with your tutor and ask him or her to introduce you to new friends.
China can be a hard country to befriend strangers when your ability with the language is quite low. It wasn’t until the third month that I found myself starting to make friends randomly, as before my Chinese was too limited to have more than basic chit-chat.
My strategy in China was to actually get a couple tutors around the same age as myself (I ended up settling on two), who I could have lessons with. From the day I first met them, I mentioned that I was interested in meeting other Chinese people, so I tried to pick tutors who could introduce me to other Chinese speaking people.
That strategy is a bit slow, and it took me two weeks before I was getting introductions, but it ended up resulting in dozens of new friends, all in Chinese.
2. Get a home-base restaurant and talk to the staff.
This is a good one in China because restaurants are so cheap and numerous, but I’ve used it in all of the countries I applied this method, so I believe it is easily replicable.
Basically, find a place where you (a) like the food enough to eat there everyday and (b) the owner or staff is very friendly and chatty with you. Even if you can’t have great conversations with them yet, this can be a good first friendship in the language because you will see them often enough that there is no need for complex introductions or swapping of contact details.
3. Go to language meetups, once you’ve successfully had all-Chinese tutoring sessions.
I like language exchanges for making friends in the language. But these can be a trap in China, where everyone just practices English on the largely non-Chinese speaking foreign population.
The problem isn’t that Chinese people won’t speak in Chinese with you. Just the opposite, I’ve found most Chinese people like talking to foreigners, and are quite happy when they don’t have to use their English (even in language meetups). Most people I’ve met have been quite patient with me as I’ve stuttered out broken sentences.
The problem is that, if you haven’t successfully had a conversation with one of your tutors entirely in Chinese (or at least mostly in Chinese, where you weren’t constantly switching back to full English sentences), it is easy to get sucked into the English speaking groups.
You might have a job in China where you need to speak English, so fully avoiding the problems I mentioned are out of the question. However, the same steps can be applied privately to start surrounding yourself in a Chinese-speaking social circle, so that you can at least get the benefits of partial immersion.
Immersion is an intense strategy, but it’s also one you must design. Unfortunately, many first-timers believe it is guaranteed by living in the country and then lament at the difficulty of learning Chinese when they’ve made little progress despite years in China.
The intensity may be uncomfortable for the first month or two, but that’s a one-time cost. Once you reach an intermediate level of Chinese, continuing to improve by making new Chinese-speaking friends gets easier and easier. Averaged out over years, I believe immersion actually takes less effort than constant amount of Chinese study within an English-speaking bubble, it just happens to compress most of that effort in the first bit.
Scott Young is a blogger, traveler and author of Learn More, Study Less (recently published in Chinese). If you join his newsletter, you can get a free ebook detailing the strategy he uses to learn faster.
The danger in a project like this is that it will be overrun by marketing agents with their own agendas, and that the content which rises to the top doesn’t actually represent the best of what’s out there. Olle looks like he’s making efforts to deal with that issue, so here’s hoping Hacking Chinese Resources does well.
It’s no secret that I enjoy seeing Chinese characters with some kind of visual design twist (I sometimes call it “characterplay”), and I’m getting more and more friends and readers sharing photos with me. Keep them coming!
Here’s one shared by Matt Scranton:
So the character that means “hair” is 髪 in traditional Chinese, 发 in simplified.
Here are some others I found myself around Shanghai:
This one took me a few seconds to figure out:
A play about suddenly getting rich.
A play on the phrase 霸气十足, which means something “totally dominating.” Changing the oppressive “霸气” to “爸气” (which isn’t a real word) makes it seem friendlier (and appropriate for a Father’s Day promotion), though.
Also, you have the little hearts in 买 and 送.
I love this kid’s essay! (Most of it is fairly simple, but there are a few really hard parts. Electronic transcript and translation follow.)
And the English translation:
> Grade 4, Class #3: Jiang Xiaoqiang
> Essay: “Me in 20 Years”
> Today the weather is nice, so my wife and I take
our darling son and daughter to travel the world. Suddenly,
from the side of the road emerges a reeking, filthy-faced,
homeless old woman. My God! It’s none other than my
Chinese teacher from 20 years ago!
> This week you stand through class!
My Chinese friends are of the opinion that it’s fake and the handwriting isn’t a real third grader’s, but I was still very amused by this.
Also, if you’re trying to read this and feeling frustrated, these are the really hard parts (well beyond intermediate-level):
– 环游世界: to take a trip around the world
– 冲出: to charge out
– 浑身: from head to toe
– 恶臭: stench
– 满脸: the entire face
– 污秽: filthy
– 无家可归: homeless (lit. “no home to return to”)
– 竟然: unexpectedly (a grammar point)
A better title for this post would be “never trust a native speaker completely.” We all know instinctively that the mind of a native speaker is an essential resource for learning a language. Put enough of these native speakers together, and you can create the immersion experience which all learners crave in order to truly level up their fluency. But as for an isolated, individual native speaker… there are a few issues to keep in mind.
Below I’ve summed up the three big reasons why you can’t trust native speakers (completely), and then rounded it off with some advice:
Put simply, most native speakers don’t know their language inside and out. Sure, they can speak their native language, and maybe even write it well. But when you start asking them more “meta” questions, many native speakers will struggle to give a straightforward or meaningful answer.
The kinds of things native speakers often struggle with when queried on their native tongues:
– Why is this wrong?
– What is the difference between these two words?
– How do you express this obscure idiomatic phrase from my language in your native tongue?
A lot of times, the native speaker honestly wants to help, but they’re just not equipped to do so. Being masters at their own native tongue does not make them qualified to answer your metalinguistic questions. They may even refuse to answer your crazy learner questions (and in some cases, they may be well justified, since we learners tend to over-analyze at times).
So while it sounds strange to call a native speaker ignorant of his own language, when it comes to the “meta,” most native speakers are.
So to address the types of questions mentioned above:
– Native speakers don’t normally have to identify why something in their language is wrong. If something they say ever comes out wrong, they can fix it, based on their intuition. But they don’t ever have to say why they had to fix it. “It sounded weird” is the furthest they ever need to go down that line of thinking. (You don’t actually need to know why either, just as babies don’t need to know why. But sometimes you really want to know, and it can save time.)
– Native speakers know how to use similar words differently, but it’s not likely to be conscious. Or the differences they are conscious of (like “they’re, their, and there” in English) seem painfully obvious to even half-way diligent non-native speakers. (Having these types of questions answered well can often save you a lot of time spent on trial and error learning.)
– If the phrase from your language is obscure but this person has learned it, it’s possible that they learned it specifically because it was hard to translate. There’s a big chance they’ll fall back on a stock explanation for this that eclipses the myriad of untranslatable nuance. (This kind of question is typically not something you really need answered anyway, though.)
When it comes to the problem of ignorance, this is where language teachers have a huge leg up on the average joe. Especially experienced language teachers will have addressed the “why is this wrong” and “what’s the difference between these two words” many times, and will have gotten good at them. They might even be so good that they can give simple answers that enable you to grasp the essence and move on, instead of needlessly delving into endless minutiae.[See also: Olle’s take on this at Hacking Chinese.]
OK, some some native speakers do have some meaningful metalinguistic insight into their own language. They might be language teachers, or translators, or just people that like to reflect on the peculiarities of their native tongue. These people are super helpful, and likely even enjoy answering your questions, so they’re great to have around.
The problem can occur when these people get a little cocky and start trying to make sweeping claims about their native tongue. They’re like the over-eager cop outside his jurisdiction. Allow me to illustrate with a little story from my own English-teaching past. (Oh yes… I was the cocky bastard in this story.)
When I first started teaching Chinese English majors, I noticed they were really bad at informal spoken English. One particularly glaring example was that the only greetings that they could handle were “hello” and “how are you?” I quickly banned those two, forced them to start using “hi” and “hey,” and taught them these greetings:
– The “how greetings”: How’s it going? How are you doing?
– The “what greetings”: What’s up? What’s new? What’s going on?
When a few of my students wanted to say “how are you going?” I made quite clear that this was wrong (bad English), and they were not to say it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that Australians regularly say “how are you going?” To make matters worse, some of the students I taught were preparing to study abroad in Australia!
I meant well (and those students seriously needed to learn some new informal greetings), but I presumed to speak as the authority on the entire English language (at the ripe old age of 24, no less), as an American, without even having substantial contact with non-American English. And that was just overstepping my bounds. I was cocky.
It’s surprisingly easy to do this as a teacher, though, even if you’re pretty sure you’re not cocky at all. There will always be weird exceptions and unfamiliar dialects, as well as new expressions coming into vogue. Teachers do their best, I know, but it can be difficult to play the role of “language authority” without buying into the vastness of one’s own “enlightened native speaker” knowledge at least a little.
This is what I was alluding to at the end of the last section: it just isn’t possible to know everything about a language, even if you’re an educated native speaker. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences between similar words. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences in dialects of your native tongue. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just what words are falling out of common usage (becoming outdated), and what new words and phrases the kids are using these days. But what you can’t do is all of those things, in one lifetime (and definitely not by the age of 24).
In Linguistics 101 in college I was intrigued by the the concept of the ideolect, the idea that no single person uses the entirety of a given language, and no person uses the language they do use in exactly the same way. The entirety of a language exists as the sum of all speakers’ ideolects. It is inherently distributed (across the minds of speakers), and can never be fully centralized (except maybe by SkyNet some day?). This pretty much blew my mind.
And so linguists and language teachers will make efforts to see beyond their own ideolects, and to see the fuller picture of the language they are trying to understand. But the human brain can only hold so much, and there’s only so much time. A language is a big thing.
So… what now?
I hope I’ve convinced you that native speakers are fallible, and they cannot help but be so, when it comes to perfectly representing The Ultimate Truth about their mother tongues. But each has the most insight of anyone into his own ideolect.
No, you can’t trust a native speaker. But you can trust native speakers, as a group.
If it’s an important or tricky question, always get a second opinion. Better yet, if you’re an advanced learner, present conflicting evidence collected from multiple native speakers to those native speakers. This can produce fascinating insight for learners, and often for the native speakers themselves.
Here’s one simple experiment for Chinese learners which can reveal the multiplicity of opinions native speakers can hold: ask help from Chinese native speakers in choosing a Chinese name. For best results, ask for suggestions from multiple native speakers as well, and add those to the list. Then ask lots of different Chinese people what they think of the different Chinese names. Here’s what typically happens:
1. Some names will sound bad to almost everyone
2. Some names will sound fine to almost everyone
3. A few names will produce wildly different reactions
When I went through this process myself, years ago, I expected to find the “perfect name” that everyone agreed was awesome and perfect for me. That didn’t happen. I still remember quite clearly the dissenting opinions on the name I eventually chose (which got mostly positive feedback):
1. It sounds like a peasant’s name
2. It sounds like a monkey’s name
(I chose it anyway, because enough people thought it was a decent name, and I liked it.)
Whether you’re a learner or a metalinguistic advisor on your own native tongue, though, my advice is the same: Stay humble. Stay curious. And talk to lots of native speakers.
I’ve previously mentioned a song about the “three de“ (的, 得, 地) issue in Mandarin Chinese. Now it’s even been meme-ified using shots from a TV show:
1. First Guy: 现在还区分的、得、地的用法吗？ [Nowadays do we still distinguish between the usage of the three de‘s?] 2. Second Guy: 我家的地得扫了。 [The floor in my home needs sweeping.] 3. First Guy: ……
OK, truth be told, the second guy is cheating. While he did use all three “de” characters, he used two of them as different words from the structural particles that comprise the “three de‘s.”
The words he used:
1. 的: He used this one as an attributive, which is a kind of structural particle. This one is one of the “three de‘s”!
2. 地: As a particle, this word is pronounced “de,” and frequently comes after after adjectives-cum-adverbs, before verbs. However, here it’s pronounced “dì,” and means “ground” or “floor.” Not one of the “three de‘s.”
3. 得: As a particle, this word is pronounced “de,” and frequently comes after verbs. However, here’s it’s pronounced “děi” and means “must,” and comes before the verb 扫 (to sweep). Not one of the “three de‘s.”
So he used all three “de” characters (in a row!), but they weren’t the structural particles the first guy was talking about.
The real answer
In reality, the question which set up the joke is a good one: nowadays, do native speakers of Chinese distinguish between the “three de‘s” when writing?
The answer is yes and no. Professional writers certainly do. Teenagers texting their friends are typically pretty lazy and won’t pay much attention to the distinction (frequently over-using 的). Because so many people are typing these days, and predictive text isn’t so good at differentiating the three de‘s, lots of errors creep into common usage (in texts, on WeChat, on blogs, etc.), and everyone is used to seeing them. Some native speakers will even tell you that the distinction is unimportant.
So if you’re trying to write proper Chinese, then yes, you should pay attention to the distinction. If it’s just casual texting, no one is going to be horrified when you use the wrong de.
My daughter learned her first Chinese character at around the age of two, when she was obsessed with fire safety. That character was 火 (fire). Now, at age two and a half, she’s voluntarily learning lots more characters. The 火 as her starting point reminded me of something: there are a lot of cool words in Chinese that start with the character 火!
So here’s my list of relatively beginner-friendly nouns that start with the character 火, some literal character-by-character renderings for fun, and the English translations of the words.
I can remember that learning words like these were an enormous part of the charm of just starting to learn Chinese. “Fire mountain”? “Fire arrow” for “rocket”? Awesome. It’s nice to get away from languages that just keep recycling Greek and Latin roots and dig into a language that mostly just uses itself as its own lexical building blocks.
The following is a guest post by “Prince Roy.” If you’ve been following the blogosphere for a long, long time, you might recognize the name and remember his China blog, which was hosted on the (now defunct) Sinosplice blogging network. He also wrote the guest article Integrated Chinese (Levels 1, 2): A View From the Trenches on Sinosplice as well. In this post he’s going to share his personal experiences learning Vietnamese in preparation for being stationed there by the U.S. State Department, after having already learned Mandarin Chinese years ago to an advanced level.
When John asked me to comment on my experiences learning Vietnamese and Chinese, I was happy to oblige, because it allows me to try and wrap my head around what I’ve been through since I began studying Vietnamese last September (8 ½ months ago now). In the interests of full disclosure, I studied Chinese for a total of five years, and have spoken it now almost 25 years.
I will cut to the chase: Vietnamese is enormously more difficult than Chinese. Hands down. It’s not even close. Some of you may recall a seminal essay by David Moser: “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard”. I had the pleasure to meet David recently (his Chinese is superb, by the way), and here’s some unsolicited advice for David and anyone else who might agree with him: if you think Chinese is hard, steer far, far clear of Vietnamese. I studied both languages in a very intensive environment, but when I recall my (much greater) proficiency in Chinese after the equivalent period spent learning Vietnamese, I can only cringe in shame at my Viet inadequacy. True, this is just my own experience, but don’t take my word for it—every person I know who has studied both languages sings the same sad song—Chinese is far easier than Vietnamese in every way except, just maybe, reading. Why is this? Here are a few general thoughts:
This is the big one. It is hard to imagine two sound systems more diametrically opposed than English and Vietnamese. Every aspect of Vietnamese phonology is hard. Vietnamese has single, double and even triple vowels. Few of them are remotely similar to English, and just the slightest mispronunciation will result in an unintended vowel. This, compounded with the tones, can easily render one’s speech unintelligible or worse.
The pronunciation of a consonant can change depending on whether it occurs at the beginning or end of a word. There is a multitude of nasal and glottal sounds that don’t exist in English or Mandarin. In southern Vietnamese, the dialect I am learning, people often pronounce ‘v’ as ‘y’—to add to the confusion, ‘d’ and ‘gi’ are also pronounced as a ‘y’ sound’. The consonant pair that has given me the most difficulty is t/đ (different from the ‘d’ above). In normal speed speech, I cannot distinguish them; in the language lab only if I listen very closely. Here’s a real-life example of why this is so critical: a very common dish in Vietnam is phở bò tái—rare beef pho. But when I pronounce this in Vietnamese, my teachers say they hear ‘phở bò đái’, literally ‘cow piss pho’. Oops. Umm…waiter?
In short, I’ve found Chinese phonology presents much less difficulty than Vietnamese.
Like Chinese, Vietnamese is tonal, but the similarity ends there. The northern (Hanoi) dialect has 6 tones; the southern (Saigon) has 5. Thankfully, I’m learning the Saigon dialect, because that extra tone of the Hanoi dialect is a ‘creaky’ tone which has the effect to my ears like nails on chalkboard. I had hoped my experience with Chinese would prove beneficial—the tones in Mandarin always seemed somewhat intuitive to me, even from when I first began to study the language. Not to say I am completely error free, but tones were never problematic for me to the degree they often are for other students.
Having spoken Chinese for so many years, I plead guilty to tonal transfer, but in my own defense, tones in Vietnamese are more subtle, and for me, not nearly as intuitive. Two that give me a lot of trouble are the dấu huyền and dấu nặng tones (low-falling and low-dropping), particularly when occurring consecutively and spoken at conversational speed. Also, the dấu sắc (high-rising) tone is tough for me, because I tend to produce it like the second tone of Mandarin, which is wrong. However, tones are the least of my worries in Vietnamese; I think they will come more naturally after I arrive in Vietnam this August. And at least my teachers tell me I sound tonal when I speak, albeit with a somewhat pronounced Chinese accent.
Vietnamese, like Chinese and English, is an SVO language. But that is its only concession. Vietnamese grammar is the most difficult aspect of the language after pronunciation. Similar to Chinese, sentence particles are a very important grammatical component, but Vietnamese takes this to a stratospheric level of complexity. I also believe Chinese is more flexible than Vietnamese—in the former, once you learn a particular sentence pattern, you can pretty much plug anything into it, and while it might not be the way a native speaker would say it, they will often understand you. Not so in Vietnamese. Phrase memorization is more useful than patterns, because if you don’t say it exactly like a Vietnamese does, you will usually encounter a blank expression on the face of your listener.
Another characteristic of Vietnamese is it boasts an extraordinary number of synonyms. Chinese is rich in synonyms too, of course, but the difference is that in Chinese, you might commonly encounter two to three of them in typical popular usage. In Vietnamese, it seems people like to use all of them.
But all is not lost
Vietnamese is indeed a very rich, complex language—in fact my classmates and I have an inside joke: Tiếng Việt rất phong phú (Vietnamese is a very rich language) = Vietnamese is really, really hard. But there is an upside for those with a Chinese background when learning Vietnamese. Due to the roughly 1000-year period that Vietnam was a colony of China, Chinese had an enormous influence on the Vietnamese language. I can determine a Chinese cognate in up to 60% of the vocabulary I’ve learned to this point. Its close relationship with Chinese is both a blessing and a curse, however. A blessing, because I can often correctly guess the meaning of words when I encounter them in a text, and a curse because that close relationship makes it harder for me to take Vietnamese on its own terms—and this language, like its people, is fiercely proud and independent. I feel as though I am treading water in Vietnamese, and my facility in Chinese allows me to, just barely, keep my nostrils above the water. That’s why I’m in awe of those among my classmates who are making good progress in Vietnamese without the benefit of Chinese. It makes their achievement all the more amazing.
I’ve noticed around Shanghai that certain places of businesses sometimes put up big ads announcing they are hiring which also list specific jobs and their respective salaries. Below are three examples I’ve seen in the past few months.
1. A Restaurant
> Waitress: 2800-3300 RMB/month
> Food Server: 2800-3300 RMB/month
> Hostess: 2800-3500 RMB/month
> Shift manager: 3300-3800 RMB/month
> Food Prep: 2700-3200 RMB/month
Note: The original Chinese job titles are actually gender neutral, but I added gender into some of my translations for ease of translation. Also, 打荷 is not a word you’re going to find in your dictionary.
2. A Hair Salon
> Hair Stylist’s Assistant (5 people) 2000-3000 RMB
> Barber’s Apprentice (5 people) 1000-2000 RMB
3. A Massage Center
> Store Manager 3500-4500 RMB
> Store Manager’s Assistant 2600-3000 RMB
> Customer Service Manager 2300-2600 RMB
> Cashier 2000-2500 RMB
> Foot Bath Masseuse 3500 and up
> Trainer 4000-5000 RMB
> Masseuse 5000-8000 RMB
> Service Staff 2000-3000 RMB
> Sanitation Staff 1800-2600 RMB
Keep in mind that in China salaries are normally given as monthly pay, rather than yearly pay. (So, for example, a salary of 2000 RMB per month would be roughly 320 USD per month, or $3,840 yearly.)
I find this kind of peek into workers’ wages interesting, because China’s economy is changing fast, and not at all uniformly. As an employer in Shanghai I’m acutely aware that salaries are steadily rising, although clearly there are many industries and sectors of the workforce where the wages here are still relatively low.
Are these the real wages you get if you apply? Does pay really range from the low end to the high end of the ranges given? Sorry, I can’t help you there.
I recently wrote a guest post on Olle Linge’s excellent blog, Hacking Chinese: How to Approach Chinese Grammar. At a later date I’ll probably adapt it to more specifically relate to AllSet Learning’s work on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, but in the meantime, I made this little visual metaphor to add to what I said in that article:
I was actually originally thinking the metaphor would be like the difference between a video game that you have to read the manual or you basically can’t even play it, and the kind of game where you can easily just “jump in” and learn as you play. (Although there used to be a lot of games of the first type, nowadays most console games are actually of the second type, with built-in tutorials.) But the above visual was a lot simpler and to-the-point, and makes sense to gamers and non-gamers alike.
Feel free to copy and share the image.
In the past, I’ve speculated on how the second language acquisition process contributes to changes in the personality of the learner. Recently an article called Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities on New Republic caught my attention. It turns out it’s actually based on the same research as I quoted in my Cross-Cultural Marital Communication: Sacrifice, Identity, Choice post, but it’s still an interesting topic well worth revisiting (5 years later).
This time, rather than insights, though, I just have questions. I’m curious how my readers out there might answer the following:
1. Do you consciously try to create and/or maintain a different personality for your foreign language (FL) speaking identity?
2. If you don’t consciously try to create and/or maintain a different personality for your FL identity, how do you determine if your FL personality is any different from your native language identity?
3. If certain languages tend to influence personality in a certain way (as the New Republic article suggests), what personality traits would speaking Mandarin Chinese impart onto its non-native speakers?
Here are my own answers:
1. Yes, I did that. I could only keep it up for so long, though, before my fluency made me self-conscious about maintaining my more outgoing, chatty Chinese self. I suspect that some people might be able to keep it up, though, depending on the specific “personality modifications” and the degree to which they’re applied.
2. Even after I “corrected” my Chinese self, making it more like my English-speaking self, my two personalities aren’t going to be 100% the same, if the New Republic article is to be believed (and I believe it). Most people I know don’t have the language skills or the opportunity to make such a comparison. Maybe Jenny from ChinesePod is in a decent position to judge, but she knows me mostly from how I am at work. That leaves basically just my wife, who’s not a native speaker of English, but is still in a good position to judge. No way to get an objective assessment, though (short of participating in an official experiment)!
3. This is really hard to say. One way to judge might be to look at how expats in China relate to each other in China, compared to how they relate back home. For example, they may be less shy about asking someone how much they make (kind of a taboo in most western countries). So… speaking Chinese makes you nosier about money?? Not exactly insightful. Obviously, there are problems with the method, too. I’m especially curious what other people think about this: what personality traits would speaking Mandarin Chinese impart onto its non-native speakers?
Leave a comment and answer all three questions, if you have the time! (Insight into acquisition of any language is fine; it doesn’t have to be Chinese.)
Yesterday Project Naptha hit Hacker News. It offers a way to extract electronic text from image files through a simple Chrome browser extension. Excited to see that simplified and traditional Chinese are both supported by the extension, I immediately installed the extension and tried it out.
The results? Unfortunately, Not so great.
When it doesn’t work at all
First of all, the script needs to recognize the text in the image. This first step doesn’t always go too well, even if the text seems relatively clear to the human eye. Let’s look at some cases where the extension found nothing, despite the Chinese text being pretty legible.
In this first case, the font is non-standard. OK, fair enough. That’s to be expected.
In this next case, the text is pretty clear, but the contrast is poor.
In this final example, the text is fairly clear to the human eye, but also low-res and slanted. That probably makes it difficult for the algorithm.
When it sort of works
In many other cases, some text was identified, but not enough for the extension to be really useful for anything. Here are some images where Project Naptha could identify some text, and the “select all text” function was applied. (The blue boxes show what Project Naptha identified in the images as “text.” Sometimes they are bizarrely incorrect.)
I found the last two quite surprising, considering how clear and straightforward the text is, and also high-res.
When it actually works
Sometimes it was relatively successful in identifying the text. In these cases you must first set the language to Chinese (either simplified or traditional, depending on the text). There’s a cool effect showing you that some processing is going on. When that’s done, you can copy and paste the text.
But… it might not be exactly what you were hoping for.
This selected Chinese text yielded the following copy-paste results:
> 总统亲 ã热ﬂ地接
If it had correctly captured all the text, it would have been:
This one is better:
> 化武器况妹俩也不示弱 麝芦神功连
> 连使出 胭宙电二怪打入深深的山沟
It should have been:
Also, my sample size is too small to make any definite conclusions, but it seems like the extension works better for simplified characters than for traditional.
I don’t mean to sound overly critical. This is amazing technology here, and the fact that it launched with any support for Chinese characters at all is pretty awesome (and brave)! I’m sure the technology will improve with time, and that is going to be tremendously helpful to Chinese learners.
To put this in perspective, the development of OCR (optical character recognition) for mobile devices meant that you could point your cell phone’s camera at any characters you see, and get feedback on what the characters say (sometimes). Project Naptha means the same thing, but for your home browsing experience. For me, that’s when I do a lot more Chinese reading, so it’s even more important. Once this technology is perfected, as long as you have a tool to help you read electronic Chinese text, you’re all set!
Personally, I think this is especially great news for comics. It’s no coincidence that I tested this extension out on comic book text. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this extension develops.
OK, this would be amazing just by the fact that the following characters were written by hand, in chalk:
(I wouldn’t have believed that these weren’t somehow stenciled on somehow if I didn’t see the man writing the characters with my own eyes.)
…but how about that they’re also written upside down, by a farmer with no legs?
When I went by this spot an hour later after dinner, the chalk characters had all been rubbed out.