Bombing the Wall of Characters

Most Chinese learners have a goal of one day being able to read a Chinese newspaper, or a novel in Chinese. And thanks to better and better tools for learning Chinese, it’s getting easier to work towards that goal progressively. However, even learners who have studied for quite a while report that they still struggle with the “wall of characters” mental block. It’s that irrational, overwhelming feeling (perhaps even a slight sense of panic) we sometimes get when confronted with a whole page of Chinese text: the dreaded “Wall of Characters.”

No doubt, this fear is partly culturally rooted. From childhood, many of us have considered Chinese characters as roughly equivalent with the concept “inscrutable.” At times our brains seem to revert to that primitive, ignorant state where that wall of characters really seems impenetrable.

Nowadays, the “wall of characters” is often online, rather than printed on paper. We have all kinds of tools to help us chip away at the wall. Relative beginners, with the right training, can quickly start blowing holes in that wall, and with a little time and patience, the wall does come crumbling down at the feet of the motivated learner, leaving nothing but glorious meaning in its place. That’s a beautiful thing.

Today, however, I’d like to introduce a tool of a different sort. One that operates on the “primitive and ignorant” level of the “wall of characters.” It’s a “bomb” in a more literal (but digital) sense of the word, a toy called fontBomb.

I’ve found that applying fontBomb to the “wall of characters” is surprisingly satisfying, in the same way that smashing glass can be satisfying, and looks cool to boot. Here’s a video I made (sorry, YouTube only):

fontBombing Chinese Wikipedia

FontBomb is easy to use and apply to any page of text. Happy bombing!

New Hardware, Changing Study Methods

Skritter Input Device Roundup (2012)

It’s striking how quickly technology is changing the way we learn Chinese. Recently I mused that it doesn’t seem to take as long to get fluent in Chinese as it used to, and one of the reasons I cited was technology. A recent Input Device Roundup update on the Skritter site calls attention to how it’s not just the software (“computers” in general), but actually the hardware that’s changing rapidly, and with it, the way we learn to write Chinese (with Skritter, anyway). Skritter’s in a unique position in that over the last few years, the service is seeing a big change in the types of hardware its users are using to interact with its service. From the humble mouse, to writing tablets, to tablet computers, Skritter’s a service that magnifies the impact of evolving hardware on learning Chinese.

Skritter Scott’s conclusion is that the iPad is now the best way to practice writing Chinese characters using Skritter. This doesn’t surprise me; last year I laid out some ideas for how really killer apps for learning Chinese characters could be created for the iPad, and lamented that no one had really attempted it yet. Well, we’re getting there!

If anyone’s seen some really interesting or innovative new apps for learning Chinese, please share. There’s so much potential…

The ChinesePod iPad App

In June we got Skritter for the iPhone (finally!), and this month we at long last get ChinesePod for the iPad (subscription required). ChinesePod has had an iPhone app for a while, and that app has gone through some rough patches over the years, but with this new iPad app release, things are starting to look a lot better. The universal app which combines the iPad and iPhone versions (following the iPad app’s general design) is already in development and coming soon.

The newly released iPad app lets you access all lesson content (including your bookmarked lessons and the massive ChinesePod lesson archive), and you can also download all audio through the app (eliminating the need for further iTunes syncs).

Some screenshots:

ChinesePod iPad app

ChinesePod iPad app

ChinesePod iPad app

It’s good to see this app out. I did a review of iPad apps for learning Chinese a while back, but the landscape is changing so rapidly that it’s already time to start completely from scratch! I’m happy that ChinesePod is joining the ranks of decent, modern iPad apps for learning Chinese.


Reminder: if you need an iPad app to help with pinyin, AllSet Learning Pinyin has you covered!

Creepy BenQ Marketing

These images are currently in the third “slide” of the BenQ USA website front page slideshow:

BenQ-USA-1

BenQ-USA-2

OK, military-themed FPS games are popular in the States. Especially with a tech-loving male audience. Fair enough.

But this is the third “slide” of the BenQ China website:

BenQ-China

So… how, exactly, is this ad trying to appeal to a Chinese audience? Hmmm.

I don’t think these were meant to be compared.

How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?

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

Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan/大山:

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

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

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

5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.

10 years to feel comfortable in the language.

David Moser:

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

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

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

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

My own experiences:

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

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

What’s the deal?

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

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

The good news

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing

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

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

Very true.

Dueling Flavors

A friend of a friend recently opened a restaurant in Shanghai called 斗味.

斗味

That’s as in 斗争 (struggle) or 决斗 (duel), and as in 味道 (scent, taste) or 口味 (flavor).

After dinner the other night, a friend was jokingly telling me that the name could be read 二十味 or 二十口未(口味). Ah, characterplay is always welcome… This particular example reminded me of Lin Danda (a timeless classic in character ambiguity).

斗味 is pretty good, and has very reasonable lunch specials, if you live way out on the west side of Shanghai. (It has a Dianping page, but is too new to have any reviews, apparently.)


Related: 味儿大

More Simple Chinese Signs

A while back I did a post on the simple characters around you. I’ve been slowly collecting some other simple signs. Here are three more.

Noodle to Noodle

面对面 (noodle shop)

In simplified Chinese, can mian either “noodle” or “face.” 面对面 means “face to face,” hence the obvious pun. (Note: in traditional Chinese, the “noodle” character is written .)

The other characters are 重庆, the city of Chongqing.

Big Big Small Small

大大小小

大大小小 can means “big and small,” and can refer to both “all ages” as well as “all sizes.” Makes sense for a clothing store!

City West Middle School

市西中学

市西中学 is sort of on the west side of the downtown Shanghai area (near Jing’an Temple, across the street from the AllSet Learning office). It’s one of the best middle schools in Shanghai. (I guess you don’t need a fancy name with obscure characters to be elite.)

Skritter for iPhone: finally!

The hard-working guys at Skritter have been working on an iPhone app for quite a while. They put up a nice launch page, made a really cool video, and then… proceeded to “keep us in suspense” for a really long time. Well, the wait is finally over! Even though I’ve been helping to test the new app prior to the official release, I waited until I got word from Skritter that the app has been officially approved before writing this review. The app is real!

Skritter iPhone app: Launch Page

I’ve mentioned before that I feel the iPad has real potential for Chinese writing practice. I’ve always liked Skritter, but when Skritter first came out, I had already put in my writing time (the old-fashioned way), and I wasn’t really interested in using a mouse or a writing tablet to practice characters. It did strike me as a cool way for a new generation of learners to write, however.

With an iPad, though, it’s different. The iPhone is a little small, in my opinion, when my writing utensils are as big and fat as my fingers. That’s why I’m more excited about Skritter on an iPad than on an iPhone, and I actually tested the app exclusively on my iPad rather than my iPhone. (To be clear, Skritter has only released an iPhone version so far, so I was just running an iPhone app at 2X on my iPad.)

How is it? Although I’m not crazy about every aspect of the design, the app got one thing very right: writing is very smooth. And for this app, writing is the right thing to get right. (I’m pretty sure that makes sense.) They could have invested more into slick iOS interface design, but they chose instead to make the actual writing functionality of the app work really well. Good call.

I’ve only got screenshots here, but the “virtual ink” feels very liquid as you write, like it’s really seeping out of your fingertips. When you hold your finger down and make slower strokes, you can see the extra ink “flowing” out and sinking into the “paper.” I like it.

Here are a few screenshots of me fluidly writing my name (and then the ink fading). Meanwhile the Skritter robot wants none of my narcissistic tomfoolery, and reminds me in blue what I’m supposed to be writing.

Skritter iPhone app: Fluid Writing Skritter iPhone app: Fluid Writing

Here’s me writing the character . (And no, the Skritter robot doesn’t like strokes to be that connected, but hey, it made a cool screenshot.)

Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安 Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安

Here’s some crazy unacceptable strokes just straight-up exploding, and then a screen for tone recall:

Skritter iPhone app: Explosion Skritter iPhone app: Tone Practice

Here’s some word lists and a settings screen:

Skritter iPhone app: Word Lists Skritter iPhone app: Settings

Finally–and this is a feature that kind of took me by surprise, because I’m a Skritter fan but not a regular user, so I was unaware of this feature before I discovered it–here’s a shot of Skritter’s Pleco integration. When you’re writing a word, you can click on the “info” button on top right, and then click on the Pleco button. That opens up Pleco, with the word already looked up. Pretty sweet! And there’s a button at the bottom of the Pleco screen which can take you right back to Skritter when you’re done.

Skritter iPhone app: Info Skritter iPhone app: Pleco Support

Bottom line: very cool app. Yes, the free app requires a Skritter subscription to support it, so it’s not the cheapest option for writing practice. (But if you’re such a cheapskate, what are you doing with an iPhone, anyway?)

You can get the app here.


P.S. It wasn’t until after I had written this review that I bothered to ask Nick of Skritter why the styles in the video and in the app I tested were so different, so only then did I learn that you can change the theme of the app. I gotta say, I like the “Dark Theme” much better. The default theme is a bit of a “Peking Opera Mask” turnoff for me. I’m all for a modern China with modern Chinese.

Here’s the difference between the two:

Skritter: Dark Theme Skritter: Traditional Theme

Skritter: Dark Theme Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安

Apparently a lot of people prefer the traditional “inky” style to the modern “flashy” style. Interesting.


P.P.S. If you’re interested in learning Chinese, though, make sure you’ve learned your pinyin first. AllSet Pinyin for the iPad can help with that.

Vancl’s “No Fear” Ad Campaign

Vancl (凡客) is a popular Chinese clothing brand that hires the likes of celebrity author/race car driver Han Han (韩寒) for its ads.

This ad featuring Li Yuchun (李宇春) is all over Shanghai right now:

Vancl Ads

On first glance, the Chinese in this ad is pretty simple, but doesn’t seem to make sense. 我爱你 means “I love you,” and 无所谓 means “don’t care.” Huh?

But look closer… It’s not 无所谓 in the ad, but 无所畏. The final character is different. So the meaning goes from “to not care” to “to have no fear.” The ad intentionally plays with you to draw you in; 无所畏 (“to have no fear”) is not a phrase you normally use in spoken language (although 无所畏 and 无畏 are not so hard to find online).

This ad featuring Han Han part of the same series:

Vancl Ads

Here you have the same 谓/畏 wordplay, this time introducing the phrase 正能量, a phrase popular among the kids which can’t be translated literally, and is used to mean something like “positive attitude.”

Learning, Not Spurning

The other day I went out with my wife, carrying my 6-month-old daughter. My daughter gets a fair amount of attention, and when we stopped to check out the DVD lady’s latest arrivals, a small crowd of Shanghainese ladies formed around us. They were quite interested in my daughter.

After all this time in Shanghai, my listening comprehension of Shanghainese has improved a lot, but I can’t say I’ve ever made a really concerted effort to learn it, and I still mishear things quite often. This was one such time.

One lady kept making the same comment over and over, which my brain sort of automatically filters through Mandarin Chinese. So what I heard, in only partly-applicable pinyin, was something like:

Hao bu xiang!

Now, (hao) means “good,” but it can also be used as an adverb to modify an adjective, taking on the meaning of “very.” I know that the normal word for “very” in Shanghainese is 老 (lao), but I figured this was another way to say it.

不像 (bu xiang), of course, means, “not resemble.” So what I was hearing this lady repeating several times to my face, referring to the baby in my arms, was, “she doesn’t look at all like him!

白相相 副

Photo by Elaine_Song

Kind of a rude thing for a stranger to say, no?

I’m not in the habit of replying to Shanghainese, though, and I know my comprehension of Shanghainese certainly isn’t perfect, so I just kept my mouth shut.

As we headed home, I asked my wife, “what were those ladies saying? ‘Hao bu xiang?‘ Were they saying my daughter doesn’t look anything like me?”

Her reply was, “no, of course not! They were saying, ‘hao baixiang,’ which basically means ‘very cute.'”

So then I felt pretty dumb. What they had said was:

Hao baixiang!

(hao) did, in fact, mean “good,” but 白相 (baixiang) is the Shanghainese equivalent of the Mandarin word , which means “to play,” and 好白相 (hao baixiang) is Shanghainese for 好玩, which means “fun,” or, in this case, “cute.”

I knew the Shanghainese word 白相; I should have understood the comments. It’s good to be reminded what it’s like to be something of a beginner, making beginner mistakes. (It’s also good to realize that other people are not being jerks at all!)


P.S. I really didn’t know how to write the Shanghainese in this post… I didn’t want to bust out IPA, and using characters doesn’t seem appropriate either, but those are the characters used by the Dict.cn Shanghainese dictionary (which I linked to thrice above), and if you click through you get both Shanghainese audio (you need to hold the cursor over the audio icon, not click) and alternate non-IPA romanization.

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