Far and Near, Black Eyes, and Gu Cheng

Fishermen 漁夫

Photo by Melinda ^..^

Former AllSet Learning intern Parry recently shared this Chinese poem with me. It amazed me with its simplicity. This is a poem that even an elementary learner can get.

The poem [via Baidu Baike]:

远和近

你,
一会看我,
一会看云。
我觉得,
你看我时很远,
你看云时很近。

——顾城

Here it is in pinyin:

Yuǎn hé Jìn

Nǐ,
yīhuī kàn wǒ,
yīhuī kàn yún.
Wǒ juéde,
nǐ kàn wǒ shí hěn yuǎn,
nǐ kàn yún shí hěn jìn.

——Gù Chéng

And in English translation [also via Baidu Baike]:

Far and Near

You,
you look at me one moment
and at clouds the next.
I feel
when you’re looking at me, you’re far away,
but when you’re looking at the clouds, how could we be nearer!

translated by Gordon T. Osing and De-An Wu Swihart.

The only potentially challenging aspects for a learner (armed with a dictionary tool) are:

  1. Use of 一会 (also written as 一会儿), meaning “for a moment,” which is often pronounced “yíhuì” or “yíhuìer” (make sure that you know your tone change rules!)
  2. Use of 时 (shí), a more formal equivalent of 的时候 (de shíhou)

I’m going to have to look into Gu Cheng more. He also has this great 2-line poem (taken from the Wikipedia article just linked to), which is basically at the intermediate level:

黑夜给了我黑色的眼睛
我却用它寻找光明

Pinyin:

Hēiyè gěi le wǒ hēisè de yǎnjing
Wǒ què yòng tā xúnzhǎo guāngmíng

English translation:

The dark night gave me black eyes,
I use them nonetheless seeking for the light.

There are a few words in there that would definitely need to be looked up by an intermediate learner, but the only challenging grammatical point is the use of 却 (què).

It’s so great to have material like this accessible to learners.

“C” is for “Women”

Here’s a little puzzle for you. Why is this women’s restroom labeled with the letter “C”?

"C" is for "Women"

Here’s another clue: the men’s room is labeled with the letter “W”.

It took me a few minutes to work this out, but eventually I solved it. It’s like this:

  1. Men’s and women’s rooms in China, when the traditional “” for “men” and “” for “women” are abandoned for a more international feel, are often labeled simply with a letter “M” for “men” and a letter “W” for “women”.
  2. Someone noticed this, but only remembered the “W” (and not what it stood for).
  3. That same person knew that restrooms in China are often called “WC” (there’s even a hand gesture for it), and assumed that that’s where the “W” came from.
  4. The letters “W” and “C” were arbitrarily assigned to the men’s and women’s rooms.

It makes me wonder if all the international quirkiness around us in China has a similarly comprehensible explanation.

Roofies, Counterfeit Money, and Firearms

I’m used to seeing ads for fake IDs everywhere in China (sometimes as a stamp, sometimes just written in permanent black marker, nothing more than the word 办证 and a phone number), but I was surprised by this ad. I encountered it in a public restroom near Mogan Shan (莫干山):

Illegal Stuff

The ad is the black stamp on the “step closer to the urinal” PSA, and it’s selling three things:

  • 迷药 (something like roofies)
  • 假币 (counterfeit money)
  • 枪支 (firearms)

All of these, obviously, are highly illegal in China. I’m not sure how such a brazen method of advertising illegal goods can be pulled off (even outside the big city).

May Day Word Play

Today is May 1st, China’s International Workers’ Day holiday. Yesterday I saw this amusing little joke, posted by a former student, “Monica.” The humor is based on transliteration. First the joke, then I’ll follow up with a translation and explanation.

小时侯上学,把“English”读为
“应给利息”的同学当了银行行长,
读为“阴沟里洗”的成了小菜贩子,
读为“因果联系”的成了哲学家,
读为“硬改历史”的成了政治家,
读为“英国里去”的成了海外华侨。
而我,不小心读成了“应该累死”,
结果成了一名光荣的劳动者……工作辛苦了,
提前祝大家五一节快乐!

Translation:

When I was in primary school, the kids that pronounced the word “English”
as “yīng gěi lìxī” became bankers,
as “yīngōu lǐ xǐ” became vegetable vendors,
as “yīn-guǒ liánxì” became philosophers,
as “yìng gǎi lìshǐ” became politicians,
as “Yīngguó lǐ qù” became overseas Chinese.
As for me, I accidentally pronounced it “yīnggāi lèisǐ,” and as a result became a glorious laborer…. You’ve all been working hard; I wish you an early May 1st Labor Day!

For this to make sense, you have to read each individual character that makes up each transliteration (phonetic approximations of the word “English”). Here’s a quick gloss:

Washing Vegetables

Photo by IamNotUnique

  • 应给利息: “should, give, interest”
  • 阴沟里洗: “sewer, in, wash”
  • 因果联系: “cause-effect, connection”
  • 硬改历史: “hard/insist on, change, history”
  • 英国里去: “England, in, go”
  • 应该累死: “should, dead-tired”

(The “washing in the sewer” one refers to washing vegetables in less-than-clean water, rather than bathing, I think.)

Chinese people with limited English ability really do pronounce the word “English” as something like “ying-ge-li-xi,” which makes the joke all the better.


A note to learners: please remember that pinyin “x” should not be pronounced like English “sh.”

Holla as “Ni Hao”

I was amused by this translation of 你好 (“hello”) as “holla“:

Holla = 你好?

I’ve been annoyed in the past by how 你好 is almost exclusively translated as “hello” when “hi” or “hey” would serve better in many contexts. In fact, long ago, when I taught English in Hangzhou, I forced my students to stop using “hello” all the time and start using “hi” and “hey” to be more natural in informal situations.

Still, “holla??” Seems like a translator was bored and trying to amuse himself.

Although this does raise another interesting question: how would one most faithfully translate “holla” into Chinese (dialect allowed)?

Chinese Gothic

There are tons of gated communities on the outskirts of Shanghai, each offering its own brand of opulence, and frequently with a western aesthetic. One example of this is 马德里洋房, or “Madrid Western Houses.” I can barely make out the English name in the image below, but I think maybe it reads “Palacio de Madrid”? Considering that most Chinese don’t read Spanish, this name is pushing for new heights in pretentiousness.

Rather than apartments, or 公寓 (where most Chinese live), this community offers stand-alone houses with small yards. These are generally referred to as 别墅 in Chinese (a word frequently translated as “villa” in English, but which is often used in Chinese marketing speak to make clear that these are not apartments).

What’s interesting about 马德里洋房 is the Chinese font it uses in its name, which is based on a medieval gothic style:

马德里洋房: Chinese Gothic

Sorry the image quality isn’t too good; this is the best I could dig up. Has anyone out there seen any other medieval gothic Chinese?

What Linguistic Diversity Feels Like

We often think of “linguistic diversity” referring to the existence of minority languages in an area. But it can also refer to the varying dialects of a region, which in China would include topolects, AKA 方言. When you throw various forms of language together in a single geographical area, they don’t stay distinct; they bleed into each other in interesting ways.

Here are a few anecdotes about that, and what we’re potentially losing when a large region’s language becomes one shade of plain vanilla.

Beijing to Hangzhou

I learned the basics of Mandarin in Hangzhou, where not so many people speak “standard Chinese.” I had to constantly check dictionaries to make sure I was learning the proper pronunciation of new words, because the pinyin sounds “ch/sh/zh” were always being pronounced as “c/s/z”, as southern Chinese tend to do. This was annoying it times, but it didn’t bother me too much, because it was simply the way things were.

Fast forward a few years. I witnessed students of Mandarin visiting Hangzhou from Beijing, absolutely livid because no one in Hangzhou spoke “proper Chinese,” and they couldn’t understand anything. They were used to extremely standard Mandarin, with a bit of Beijing dialect for flavor, but not this.

The whole thing was amusing to me, because not only could I easily understand what they could not, but when I visited Beijing, the locals were so easy to understand that it was surreal, as if every word that came out of every Beijinger’s mouth was a recording from a textbook dialog.

(Note: Americans, when visiting the UK for the first time, may have a similar experience to these students of Chinese in Beijing.)

Fading Tolerance for the Nonstandard

When we had our second baby, we hired a yuesao (post-natal caregiver, 月嫂). We call her Zhang Ayi. Zhang Ayi is great, but she’s from Jiangsu, and she has an accent that can be hard for me to understand.

At first I was thinking, “my Chinese must be worse than I thought,” because after all these years in China, a little accent shouldn’t throw me off too much. It made me feel better, then, to know that my wife (a Shanghai native) also has trouble understanding Zhang Ayi, and fairly often. Zhang Ayi manages to speak in a way that sounds standard, but you just can’t understand it. (As a non-native speaker, it really makes me doubt my listening comprehension!) It’s a different flavor of “nonstandard” than I’m used to, but it affects even a native speaker’s comprehension.

The interesting thing is that my wife’s parents (one from Shanghai, one from Hubei) have no trouble understanding anything Zhang Ayi says. Their generation grew up in a China with wildly heterogenous Mandarin spoken (remember Mao’s Mandarin?), and they just have a much, much higher tolerance for strong accents. This tolerance is fading fast in the younger generations.

阿啦馄饨

Mute Shanghainese

It’s been widely reported that Shanghainese (上海话) is dying. A lot of Shanghainese parents are taking great pains to use Shanghainese with their children to make sure that this cultural heritage does not die out.

The problem is that a dialect/topolect is not merely a family issue; it’s a community issue. And what’s happening with these families is that their children do indeed comprehend Shanghainese, and can usually say a few words and phrases, but they essentially do not speak it. Only standard Chinese is allowed in schools, and that makes it “weird” for Shanghainese kids to talk to each other in anything other than standard Chinese. Shanghainese does not feel necessary or useful to the children.

What’s even worse, even if a Shanghainese parent goes the extra mile and insists that only Shanghainese is spoken in the home, raising her own child to be 100% fluent in Shanghainese, her child will likely be the member of a society where no one else of his generation actually speaks Shanghainese. And one fluent speaker can’t keep Shanghainese going.

The Chinese Pronunciation Wiki

For years, I’ve had a few sections on Sinosplice for pronunciation:

(Notably absent: tone change rules)

I’ve also blogged about pronunciation many times, but I didn’t feel like a blog is the best way to organize all this information, and these days I’m putting most of my time into growing AllSet Learning rather than reorganizing Sinosplice.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki has turned out to be a hugely successful experiment, and in about three years has become the internet’s favorite reference for Chinese grammar issues online. Our work is by no means finished there; the Chinese Grammar Wiki continues to grow.

Chinese Pronunciation Wiki Screen Shot

But it’s now time to bring a bunch of scattered information together in the same way we did for grammar, but this time for pronunciation. We’ve started the Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, and it’s still in its early days, but the foundation is strong.

One of the key concepts behind the site which I believe is missing in many current courses and resources with regards to pronunciation is a clear idea of what to focus on, when. Remember: mastery of Chinese pronunciation is a long-term endeavor. Take it step by step.

We’re doing a soft launch of the site this week, and will do a more public launch next week. I’d love to get some early feedback.

A few notes on what we’ve got so far:

  • We aim to keep beginner explanations simple, without resorting to linguistic jargon. Full linguistic description for those who want it is part of the longer-term plan.
  • Many pages still need to be fleshed out, but for now, the pinyin chart, pinyin quick start guide, tone change rules, and erhua pages are already quite useful
  • I’m interested to hear what higher-level learners and native speakers think about our page on Chinese accents (which can be quite a hurdle for learners)
  • Images/illustrations are coming
  • I have tons of ideas for higher-level pronunciation topics, but we have to cover the basics first

Thank you for your support of the Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, everybody! There will be more news and an official announcement next week.

I’m in an Abusive Relationship with Shanghai

Sometimes I feel like I’m in an abusive relationship with Shanghai.

Sure, I love Shanghai, but there are times I wonder if we should be together. Like the times in the winter when I walk outside and I can smell the air (it smells kind of like gunpowder). Or this past winter, when I got a cold that lasted for two months (my worst colds usually last about a week), and my whole family got sick repeatedly (still not better yet).

But then the weather gets nice, and the sky turns blue again, and it’s easy to forget those offenses, or at least put them out of my mind. I remember what made me love Shanghai in the first place, and almost start to believe that cities can change. At least I can be happy now… spring is here. Best to just enjoy it while I can.

Pudong on a Nice Day

Being Bilingual Changes Children’s Perception

I recently read a fascinating article called How bilingualism affects children’s beliefs, which details some findings from researchers in developmental psychology at Concordia University in Montreal.

The idea behind the experiment is to see what qualities kids see as innate. Is the language that a person speaks innate, or is it learned? Is the sound that an animal makes innate, or is it learned?

Awed

The implications could be quite profound. I quote the final four paragraphs here:

“Both monolinguals and second language learners showed some errors in their thinking, but each group made different kinds of mistakes. Monolinguals were more likely to think that everything is innate, while bilinguals were more likely to think that everything is learned,” says Byers-Heinlein.

“Children’s systematic errors are really interesting to psychologists, because they help us understand the process of development. Our results provide a striking demonstration that everyday experience in one domain — language learning — can alter children’s beliefs about a wide range of domains, reducing children’s essentialist biases.”

The study has important social implications because adults who hold stronger essentialist beliefs are more likely to endorse stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes.

“Our finding that bilingualism reduces essentialist beliefs raises the possibility that early second language education could be used to promote the acceptance of human social and physical diversity,” says Byers-Heinlein.

I’ve often wondered what would happen to racism in the world if every child born was interracial. The next best thing? If every child is multilingual.

I hope more research is done in this field.

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