Who’s using HelloChinese?

My friend and former co-worker from ChinesePod, Vera, is working at a new app-focused startup in Beijing. The app is called HelloChinese, and it is heavily inspired by Duolingo. The first Chinese learning app to do its own version of Duolingo for Chinese was ChineseSkill, and now that app has got competition. (Meanwhile, Duolingo is taking its sweet time coming out with a Chinese course.)

I’m preparing to start re-examining all the best apps out there for learning Chinese and do an update to my 2011 post on apps for Chinese study. I’d also like to do a post directly comparing HelloChinese and ChineseSkill, but I thought I’d ask my readers what they thought first. Also, if you’re willing to share your own experience with the two apps as input for the upcoming blog post, please do get in touch!

If you haven’t heard of or tried the HelloChinese app yet, obviously it’s not too late. It’s free, and available for both iOS and Android.

HelloChinese app for learning Chinese

Tone Corrections from a 3-year-old

红灯笼

When my daughter was still learning to talk, she used to occasionally make tone mistakes, and this amused everybody. Now she’s almost 4, attending a Chinese pre-school, and her tones are pretty perfect.

The other day I was taking to her about a picture that featured a Chinese lantern (pictured at right). I was speaking in English, but for some reason I also brought up the Chinese word: 灯笼 (dēnglong). I pronounced it “dēnglóng.” Although those are the correct tones for those characters, I slipped up, because for this word, the second character should be read as a neutral tone: “dēnglong.”

She immediately pounced on my mistake. This is the first time she’s corrected me in a tone error, and she was delighted. (I’m sure I have many more years of this to look forward to…)

So then she was all, “ha ha, you said ‘dēnlóng’ instead of ‘dēnlong’…” and I noticed a mistake on her part. Instead of saying “dēng,” she was actually saying “dēn” (final -n instead of final -ng). I pointed this out, and she was, of course, incredulous that she, too, could be wrong. Looks like we’ll need to spend some time training that “thick Shanghai accent” out of her!

My daughter has also commented to me on how people from different countries pronounce English in different ways… I’m looking forward to having more linguistic conversations with my bilingual kid!

The Case for Zhuyin

Zhuyin (also called “bopomofo”) is a system for writing Chinese phonetically, instead of using, say, pinyin. It’s pretty much exclusively used in Taiwan, but it’s quite popular among a minority of Chinese learners. The first time I saw it, I thought it looked like “bizarro kana,” as some of the symbols are similar to those used in Japanese. Some symbols also look like Chinese character components. It looks like this:

注音教學_01

注音教學_10

注音教學_11

注音教學_12

Mark of toshuo.com recently released a program called Zhuyin King (注音大王), which is still in its early stages, but aims to provide all the support one needs to fully master zhuyin.

When Mark made a post on Reddit, he was challenged with the question: why in the world would you learn zhuyin instead of pinyin? (A fair question.)

The best answer Mark gave was this one:

When reading books annotated with pinyin, it’s very easy for the familiar Latin alphabet to draw your eye, even when you don’t need it. With zhuyin, westerners often tend to stay focused on the characters until they hit one they truly need help with… and then they look at the zhuyin beside it.

This is a big problem with a lot of Chinese learning materials: pinyin is featured too prominently, making it virtually impossible to ignore even if you really do want to focus on the characters before “cheating.” Zhuyin allegedly solves this problem.

Still, if you’re studying (or planning to study) Chinese in mainland China, no one uses anything but pinyin. So you have to wonder: who should be interested in zhuyin?

My answer:

  1. Anyone planning to study or work in Taiwan (not mainland China) should learn zhuyin
  2. Anyone that already knows some Chinese but plans to move to Taiwan for more than a month or two should learn zhuyin

It’s not that no one uses pinyin in Taiwan (more and more people do), or that you can’t get by without it (you certainly can); it’s that only if you learn zhuyin can you have the “no cheating” advantage listed above. (Mark estimates that the number of learners of Chinese is “about 15% for foreign students and most of them are either learning in [Taiwan] or 2nd generation [Chinese].”

If you’re just interested in browsing the zhuyin symbols, check out AllSet Learning’s pinyin chart. Click on “Show more Settings” and you can choose to display zhuyin for every pinyin syllable:

Pinyin + Zhuyin


Related Links:

A Graffiti Theory on Love

I feel like this message is not something you’d see in American graffiti:

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It reads:

爱情最终目的是婚姻

Àiqíng zuìzhōng mùdì shì hūnyīn

The ultimate goal of love is marriage

Hmmmm, not hard to guess the story behind that one.

The same graffiti “artist” seems to have left this as well:

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幸好 is a word meaning “fortunately”, but the final character ( on ?) appears to not exist? The character comes close.

Fishing for Cancer Sticks, Chinese-style

I think we’re all familiar with the “claw crane” arcade game, whereby players are suckered into spending lots of coins trying to pluck a stuffed animal or plastic-encapsulated toy out of an enclosed box using a (very hard to control) mechanical crane.

What I’m not familiar with is seeing boxes of cigarettes as prizes (with a fairy Hello Kitty on the machine, no less). I saw this in a backstreet in Shanghai the other day:

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The two main domestic cigarette brands in the box are 利群 (Liqun) and 红双喜 (Double Happiness). It’s a bottled green tea box and a instant noodle (红烧牛肉面) box propping up the fun prizes.

Bill Bishop: Trust between Obama and Xi is a Fantasy

I enjoyed this little piece of political philosophizing from Bill Bishop’s Sinocism Newsletter, so I thought I’d share:

I have a bit of headache wading through the mass of competing OpEds about the Xi visit and US-China relations. One thing I do not understand is people talking about the need for trust in the US-China relationship. I am sorry to be so cynical (then again the name of this newsletter rhymes with cynicism) but Chinese politicians do not trust each other, US politicians do not trust each other, the Communist Party has made it very clear it sees itself in an ideological struggle with the “Western values” represented by America, so how can any sentient person really expect there to be trust between the two governments?

Or is it just a diplo-speak nicety people think needs to be parroted, even though everyone realizes it is a bit of a fantasy?

US President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping

The last article I read on the topic called the two world leaders frenemies. (I’m pretty sure such a designation would preclude trust?)

P.S. Bill Bishop recently left China, but Sinocism lives on. Even when based in Washington, D.C., a better source for China reading is not likely to come along any time soon.

How I Learned Chinese (part 4)

It seems to have become a tradition of mine to drag this series out over years and years, but this part should be the last one I need to write for quite some time. Just a quick sum up:

  • Part 1 (2007): How I got started in Chinese in college
  • Part 2 (2007): How I coped with no one understanding me after arriving in China, and how I got to a decent (intermediate) level of Chinese
  • Part 3 (2012): How I updated my goals to help me power through the “intermediate plateau”

This post is more of a look at how I learned, rather than specifically what I did. I’d also like to look more closely at the relationship between study and practice. This balance is essential to any learner’s long-term progress, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Learning Timeline

First, a quick timeline of my experiences:

  • 1998-1999 (STUDY): Started Chinese classes at UF. “Practice” consisted of meeting a language partner once a week, but it barely made a difference.
  • 2000 (PRACTICE): Arrived in China and started using my busted Chinese. Was dismayed to discover my Chinese was decidedly not awesome.
  • 2001 (STUDY): Found a professional tutor who was able to help me fix my major pronunciation issues. This, in turn, led to much more efficient practice.
  • 2001-2003 (PRACTICE): Lots of speaking practice with people around me (details here), some self-study on the side, but the major emphasis was practice.
  • 2003 (STUDY): One-semester HSK course helped me identify some holes in my self-studied Chinese, especially in more formal Chinese.
  • 2004 (PRACTICE): My first job in Shanghai was English-related, but I still got to use Chinese for most of my work. I learned a lot.
  • 2004-2005 (STUDY): Prepped for grad school, using a tutor.
  • 2005-2007 (STUDY/PRACTICE): Masters program in applied linguistics in Chinese. Heavy components of both practice (everything was in Chinese) and study (there was plenty of vocabulary and sophisticated grammar to learn).
  • 2006-2013 (PRACTICE): Working at ChinesePod was tons of great practice, but I also learned a great deal, even if I was never directly “studying.”
  • 2010-present (PRACTICE): Building AllSet Learning, learning to run a business, managing Chinese employees, was all done in Chinese. More great practice. And learning all day long.

The Role of Study

Especially in the beginning, you need a helping hand to learn Chinese. It’s very hard to start “practicing” without some kind of structured study. Many learners turn to schools for this, and tutors are another option (both have pros and cons), but it’s hard to argue that some kind of formal study is not helpful for most people.

The key is that study alone will rarely lead to real fluency. At some point (preferably in the elementary stages), you need to be given ample opportunities to speak Chinese in a natural way. Hopefully this is motivating and fun, and not something scary. If the end goal is spoken fluency, you have to start practicing speaking. Exorcise those demons of bad Chinese!

Study itself has many forms, however, and I’ve found that many learners appreciate school lessons in the early stages, whereas 1-on-1 tutoring becomes much more useful once there’s a good foundation, and concrete goals for how Chinese can be applied start to take shape. So for me, the “schooling” was OK as my first three semesters’ foundation and then as HSK prep. Tutoring helped me fix the very specific pronunciation problems I was still having when I first arrived in China (I really needed individualized attention for that). Later, again, tutoring made the most sense once I had the concrete goal of getting into grad school and needed help learning some specific material. (I also had to spend a lot of time managing my tutor, though… There was no AllSet Learning back then!)

I remember very clearly, sitting in my Chinese syntax class in grad school, listening to the professor detail some finer points on the relationships between certain Chinese prepositions and verbs, and thinking, “these are the ultimate advanced Chinese lessons. The meta-lessons that even native speakers are clueless on.” So there was always a strong aspect of “study” within the “practice” of grad school in Chinese. Once I started working, though, “practice” really became the main focus, and “study” was relegated to an ongoing “as needed” self-directed activity.

The Role of Practice

My real “practice” started when I arrived in China. It was the reality check I needed, but also a source of motivation. To quote part 2:

OK, so I already knew when I arrived that my pronunciation wasn’t great. I knew I got tones wrong sometimes. I knew I had been fudging Mandarin’s “x” and “q” consonants for two years. But I wasn’t prepared for the end result: people frequently just plain didn’t understand me. At all.

At first I tried to downplay it with “that guy was just not used to talking to foreigners” or “it must be my Beijing-centric pronunciation.” That attitude didn’t really help me. I got through the denial stage pretty quickly and ended up with a firm conviction: the problem is me. I then gathered all my resolve and launched into a relentless campaign of self-criticism.

That was kind of rough. It would have been nice if I had been prepared for actual communication in Chinese in progressive stages. I got through the initial shock, though.

The early years of practice in China were both the hardest and the most fun. They were the hardest for me because I had to force myself to talk to strangers regularly, and often my non-comprehension made those conversations quite awkward. Oh yes, I dealt with a lot of awkwardness. But my psyche was protected, in part, by this weird “I can’t believe I’m in China talking to people in Chinese” euphoria that imparted a certain delusion of unreality. And so in many ways, it all felt like a weird, fun dream.

The “delusion of unreality” slowly wears off as you get to the Intermediate stage, however. Most things Chinese people say in Chinese are no longer “funny” or “crazy” because you’re used to Chinese culture, and you’re used to the way people speak. To give a simple example, you stop thinking, “it’s so weird that Chinese people are always asking me if I’ve eaten” every time and you start thinking of it as a normal greeting. You stop “hearing Chinese” and you start just listening to people. And just talking back.

It’s at this point that the practical application type of “practice” becomes really important. For me, it was my initial training job in Shanghai first. Then it was the work of my Chinese language masters program: following the lectures, completing the readings, writing papers, etc. Then it was directing ChinesePod lesson development. And then it was my work at AllSet Learning (and later Mandarin Companion).

Bob and Weave

It’s all about a Mix

If you look at my timeline, you’ll see a lot of vacillating between “study” and “practice.” You’ll see long periods of “practice” broken up by mostly shorter periods of intense “study.” And you’ll notice that the “study” is heavily concentrated in the beginning, whereas “practice” is heavily concentrated in the later stages.

Hopefully you never have a total lack of practice in the beginning (even if it’s just with a teacher), but practice should really ramp up over time until it’s just “application” (using Chinese for normal communication or work or whatever). Similarly, your “study” looms large in the beginning, but should never go away completely (even advanced learners pick up new vocabulary all the time), as it shrinks down in overall prominence.

It’s not that I concocted this; it’s not a method. It’s a very natural process, and I’m merely reflecting on how these principles played out in my own experience. Through my work at AllSet Learning, I often help frustrated learners, and a study/practice imbalance is one of the major sources of frustration. Some learners have unrealistic expectations about how far traditional “study” can take them, fluency-wise. Others have been immersed in “practice” for far too long and are not even sure how to go about addressing the gaps caused by years of neglecting “study.” I admit that it’s partly just luck, but somehow I managed to strike the right balance over the years.

I can’t say I learned Chinese the fastest or to some mind-blowing level, but I achieved my goals and have the skills to apply it in my career. I’ll never stop studying Chinese (“活到老学到老,” as the Chinese say), but especially due to the strong “practice” components of the past 10 years, I do feel confident in saying “I’ve learned Chinese.” (Just not all of it!)

Update on Work at AllSet

I don’t blog as often as I once did, mostly because I’m so busy at work. (Also, having two kids now doesn’t give me lots of extra free time.) Sometimes I get asked about what AllSet Learning is doing. I’ve even been criticized for not writing about it enough here!

So here’s a little Q&A to fill in readers…

Q: Is AllSet Learning still providing 1-on-1 Chinese lessons in Shanghai?

Yes, of course! We normally do not advertise; we rely mainly on word of mouth (which has been quite kind to us over the years). We’ve got lots of satisfied customers at all levels, each studying a personalized curriculum. If you’re in Shanghai, definitely get in touch. (If you’re not in Shanghai, it might be worth getting in touch too.)

Q: But you’re also doing other things?

Yes, working day in and day out with individual learners helps me stay in touch with learners’ needs and keeps me sensitive to where the gaps still are. Then we release products to fill those gaps when we have time to develop them. So we’ve got the Chinese Grammar Wiki, Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, iOS Pinyin chart and Picture Book Reader, and Pronunciation Packs, plus the books we developed for Mandarin Companion.

communication

Q: And you still have time for new clients?

Yes, in fact, we’re currently gearing up to start new clients post-summer, so if you’ve been deliberating, now is a good time, while there’s still room. Summer is typically our low season, so we spend more time on product development, then get busier again with client duties in the fall.

Q: So were you developing anything new this summer?

Definitely! We’ve had a very busy summer. Aside from the new Mandarin Companion Level 2 book, we’ve got quite a few things almost done, which we’re currently polishing and will be announcing soon. (If you’re curious about these, sign up for the newsletter to the latest news.)

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Q: Aren’t you also involved in the Outlier Chinese Dictionary workbook?

Yes indeed! I’ve already started meeting and discussing with Ash, and that project will start soon as well. I’m very excited about this, because it’s something I’ve sensed a need for among my clients. Unlike some language issues, characters are not something I want to tackle on my own, so it’s very satisfying to be part of a larger effort at helping making characters more accessible to learners.

That’s about it for now! If you’re curious about anything AllSet Learning is doing, please get in touch.

Can Chinese Names and English Names Co-exist?

I recent saw this question on Quora and liked the following answer by Raj Bhuptani:

Do Americans prefer that Chinese people use their original Chinese name or an English name?

I think either name is fine, but personally something that annoys me is when a Chinese person gives his Chinese name to his Chinese friends and his English name to his non-Chinese friends. The reason for using an English name should be that you prefer the English name, not that you think your Chinese name is too hard for an American to pronounce. In addition to feeling a bit patronizing (“My name is Mingyuan, but you can call me William”), using different names with different friends can lead to confusion when you have both Chinese and non-Chinese friends (in college, more than once have I had an epiphany along the lines of “Ohhhh! Lucy and Lu Xi are the same person?!”)

I totally agree with this answer, but I also understand that Chinese people with a name like “Xu Juan” or the like basically have no hope of Americans pronouncing their name correctly, so it’s kind of a dilemma.

I personally arrived in China eager to use a Chinese name (I chose 潘吉), but over the years started to feel it was a little silly, and just reverted to my English name. In my case, “John” is quite easy for Chinese speakers, and now, pretty much only my in-laws call me by my Chinese name (which is fine).

It’s safe to say, though, that most Chinese names are harder for English speakers than most English names are for Chinese speakers.

Solution: The world needs to learn Chinese! (ha… OK, maybe just pinyin?)

McDonalds Getting its Pun on

I spotted a punny McDonalds ad in the subway yesterday that might not be obvious to a lot of learners:

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The ad presupposes knowledge of the word 充电宝, which is a pretty recent word, and isn’t in a lot of dictionaries yet. 充电 means “to recharge” (electricity, but sometimes metaphorically as well). means “treasure” and is also used in the common word for “baby” (宝宝), but here it just means “thing.” 充电器 already means “charger” (for electronics), but the difference here is that a 充电宝 is a battery that can be carried with you and used to recharge you smartphone. These portable chargers seem to be way more popular in China than the battery-extending cases (Mophie and the like) I’ve seen a number of Americans use.

chongdian-bao

OK, so back to the pun. It’s focused on the “bǎo” part of 充电宝 (portable charger). It uses the character , meaning “full”. It creates the sense that a meal at McDonalds is a “recharging fill” (not “full recharge”).

Anyway, you get the idea.

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