What to Expect with Chinese Grammar

I’ve spent a nice chunk of my career on Chinese grammar, whether it’s explaining grammar structures in ChinesePod podcasts, working on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, or helping individual AllSet Learning clients. And two things that have become clearer and clearer to me are:

  1. There are certain things that all learners struggle with at different stages of acquisition of Mandarin Chinese (this is consistent with the SLA concept of “order of acquisition”)

  2. Most learners have no idea what to expect when it comes to the grammatical challenges that they’ll be up against (which can often make learners feel stupid for “just not getting it” immediately, not realizing that they’re struggling with something that all learners of Chinese struggle with)

To make a comparison with Spanish, most learners know from the beginning that they’re going to have to learn a bunch of verb conjugations for different tenses, gradually increasing in complexity over time. And beyond that, the subjunctive awaits. [Cue scary Spanish music]

OK, but what about Chinese? Many learners start with the patently false notion that “Chinese doesn’t really have grammar” or that “Chinese grammar is basically the same as English.” So they’re in for a fun little surprise there. This misconception doesn’t stand up long.

Chinese Grammar Hurdles

But beyond that, what is a learner to expect? The good news is that although different from English grammar, Chinese grammar isn’t horribly difficult. There are a few difficult points that deserve special attention, though, and I’ve created a new page on Sinosplice to point them out: Chinese Grammar Hurdles. The page is a rather simple list, but each point links to pages on the Chinese Grammar Wiki which have in-depth explanation (or will soon).

A few additional notes for beginners:

  • Chinese word order isn’t the same as English word order. Sure, you can think of examples in which the word order is exactly the same. “I love you” = 我爱你, etc. But don’t expect that to hold true quite so neatly as you start adding in times, places, adverbs, etc.
  • Particles are something new. Some of them, like and , aren’t too difficult to get the hang of. Others, like , will actually take a long time to get a handle on. But that’s OK… you learn the different uses of over time, and eventually it starts to gel, even if the accumulated understanding is not easily verbalized.
  • Measure words are also something new, but they don’t need much attention at first. This is because you can actually get by for quite a while using the general-purpose measure word . So if your Chinese teacher is totally drilling you on all kinds of measure words when you just started studying Chinese, something is wrong. Learn the mechanics with , but focus on language more central to basic communication before focusing on expanding your measure word vocabulary.

Good luck in your studies of Chinese grammar! Although some things feel weird and arbitrary (as with any foreign language), Chinese grammar also has a strong thread of logic running through it that you’ll start to appreciate the deeper you get. For many learners, it’s a source of great satisfaction. Hopefully knowing what to expect with Chinese grammar will help you stick with it for the long haul.

CIEE Conference: Tech and Chinese

Over the weekend I joined the CIEE Conference in Shanghai. It struck me as a mini-ACTFL (but in town!), focused on study abroad. I was part of a panel discussion on “Effective Use of the New Digital Chinese Language Technology,” chaired by David Moser and also joined by Brendan O’Kane.

To sum up our initial points (and apologies if I get any of these wrong), what we said was:

  • David Moser: Chinese used to be a huge pain because looking up words was so difficult, but now, thanks to technology a lot of the pain is gone
  • Me: Technology is not inherently useful, but there is now great potential for a new, student-led way of learning enabled by technology
  • Brendan O’Kane: both the level of students entering Chinese translation classes and the quality of Chinese reference materials are going up, but there are still some fundamental reading/parsing issues that need special attention

After we made our points, the discussion turned to a bunch of learning resource name-dropping, including FluentU, Shooter, and the Chinese Grammar Wiki.

Fielding questions from teachers and program directors, some of the issues that struck me were:

  1. It’s not at all clear what resources are most useful to teachers (even ones like Pleco that have been around for quite a while and have a good name in the space) and which ones they can use
  2. Even if teachers are willing to use new tools to find interesting, up-to-date material for their students, they don’t feel well-equipped to do so in anything resembling a systematic manner
  3. What technology is here to stay, and what is just a passing fad? It’s hard to say. I don’t blame some of the teachers for wanting to just wait until the dust settles.

There are so many opportunities for innovation in this space right now…

Avoiding Meat in China (video)

Annie and the Shanghai Veggie Club have created a new video alerting vegetarians to some of the challenges you’ll face trying to eat vegetarian in China. It includes the language you’ll need to ask for what you really want:

(Yes, I know, for a vegan-friendly club, you’d expect a video with less cheese!)

The video is on YouTube, Youku, and Tudou.

Animal House for Studying Chinese

We’ve been doing some video clip dubbing experiments for fun on the AllSet Learning YouTube page. We started with Downton Abbey, and did Dracula for Halloween. That one was a bit on the discouraging side (although what can you really expect from Dracula?), so we decided to do a much more upbeat one. The result is this classic clip from Animal House dubbed to be about learning Chinese.

Our intern Jack has been doing a good job and having a good time with this little experiment. He’s the “student” in the Dracula clip, and he conceived the Animal House clip (although our AllSet Learning teachers recorded that one). Good job, Jack!

Are clips like this useful as study material? Probably not, but if they give you a smile and get you listening to a bit more Chinese, they’re worth it. For sure, the ones learning the most are Jack the intern and our teachers. It gets them thinking about the limitations of certain forms of media, tradeoffs in production resources, and creativity applied to pedagogy. It’s a worthwhile investment for us as a company. (BTW, we post all our new videos to our Facebook page as well.)

Anyway, happy Friday! 中文!中文!中文!中文!中文!

Learning a language is like…

There are lots of metaphors floating around for language learning. Fortunately most of them accurately stress the need for time, exposure, and deliberate practice. Here are a few them:

“Learning a language is like…”

  • Learning a language is like learning a musical instrument. “Commitment is way more important than natural talent, which simply doesn’t exist for getting the basics and even a pretty good idea of both music and languages. It’s actually just an excuse used by those who both can’t and don’t really want to put real work in.”
  • Learning a language is like losing weight. “You know how to do it, really. There are billions of dollars spent every year on products that claim to make weight loss and language learning fast, easy, and painless. But they’re all variations on the same theme. To lose weight, diet and exercise. To learn a language, study and practice. There aren’t any shortcuts.”
  • Learning a language is like learning to dance. “Yes, learners who do not like to perform (such as in role plays) and are reserved, quiet, and not eager to interact with others are disadvantaged when it comes to language learning.”
  • Learning a language is like learning a sport. “…One of the great lessons of my childhood was that no one has the right to be naturally good at anything. More there’s a particular pleasure that comes from becoming good at something which you kind of naturally sucked at.”
  • Learning a language is like running a marathon. “You don’t wake up one day and think: ‘Dude, I’m totally going to run the marathon of Los Angeles today.’ No, running a marathon or any significant distance requires practice and a healthy lifestyle.”
  • Learning a language is like peeing. “You always pee less than you drank: input and passive vocab will always outstrip output and active vocab. Input precedes and exceeds output. Never expect to drink a liter and pee out a liter.”
  • Learning a language is like playing Soul Calibur. “The same goes for input – that is, blocking against incoming strings of attacks. At first it seemed chaotic, and I didn’t know whether the blows would be high, low, or come from the side. Soon the chaos become patterns; now at the beginning of an attack I know exactly what is coming. I can anticipate the incoming chunk of actions, and only need to consciously react to the minor details – just like French.”

Oh yes, and living in China is like an RPG. Other metaphors are welcome! Leave a comment.

Sapore di Cina for Chinese Learners

I’d like to call attention to a relatively new blog on learning Chinese by Furio from Italy. It’s called Sapore di Cina (“Flavor of China” in Italian), and the author has a lot of good ideas (in English). A lot of his recommendations are the types of things I tell learners as well, so if you like Sinosplice’s entries on learning Chinese, there’s a good chance you’ll like Furio’s blog.

The blog post that first got my attention was Learn Chinese online: 27 excellent free resources. It’s a good list, and since any list of this sort doesn’t stay up to date for long, it’s good to check it out now. I was happy to see the Chinese Grammar Wiki in Furio’s list of resources.

Recently Furio published ChinesePod Review – An alternative way to learn Chinese. I won’t deny that it’s a complimentary review of ChinesePod in general (and me in particular), but one of the good things about this review is the Furio calls attention to some of the more effective (and economical) ways to get the most out of ChinesePod.

I’ve added Sapore di Cina to my on short list of Chinese resources on Sinosplice. Check it out!

Halloween Vocab Challenges

I’ve always found it a bit tricky at first to talk about holidays in Chinese. The Chinese holidays involve these things that we just don’t have, so it’s not a matter of translation, it’s a matter learning what these things are and what they’re called. 红包, 粽子, 对联, 扫墓, etc. Fortunately, that’s a pretty interesting learning process most of the time (especially if you’re learning the stuff hands-on in China), so all is well and good there.

And then there’s explaining the western holidays to the Chinese. Sure, the Chinese already know a lot about western holidays, so frequently all you have to do is fill in a few of the gaps. The fun part of figuring out where the gaps are, and what misperceptions there are. I’ve always enjoyed this too.

AllSet Learning bottled poison

Halloween (万圣节) seems to bring a few of its own challenges, however. The concept is easy for the Chinese to get: it’s a 鬼节 (a “ghost festival”). It’s the trivial things that tend to pose challenges here. How would you say the following in Chinese?

  • What are you going to be for Halloween?
  • Don’t forget to wear a costume.
  • Why didn’t you dress up?

The concept of “Halloween costume” does not seem to have standard translations, and you can get different answers from different people. I’ve been down this road before, and it can get a little confusing. The key is to focus on the verb for “dress up” rather than on the noun “costume.” Here is some of the language I hear Halloween-happy Chinese young people using:

  • 你要穿什么? This one is a little vague, because it just asks “what are you going to wear,” which might apply to any party.
  • 你要扮什么? This one gets more into the costume/disguise theme, sort of like asking, “what are you going to dress up as?”
  • 别忘了装扮自己。 Here we see the verb 装扮, which is probably the most appropriate verb for dressing up for some role, although it seems a little overly specific for everyday usage. But it literally means, “don’t forget to disguise yourself.”

The in 装扮 (“to disguise oneself”) is not the same one as in the phrase 怎么办; it’s the from 打扮, which is most often used to mean “make oneself up” or “deck oneself out” (for a night on the town). Or you fans of role-play might also know it as the from 扮演, meaning “to play a role.” (Indeed, the formal Chinese translation for “role-playing game” is even 角色扮演游戏.)

One thing is for sure: Halloween parties are a great occasion to learn obscure vocabulary! I leave you with a last question (in 2 flavors), which very well might come in handy if the Halloween parties you attend are anything like the ones I’ve attended in China:

  • 你扮的是什么? “What are you dressed up as?”
  • 你这是什么装扮? “What are you supposed to be?”

Chinese Grammar Survey – Respondents Needed!

One of my teachers at AllSet Learning is doing his masters thesis on online resources for learning Chinese, and naturally, he was intrigued by what we’ve built so far at the Chinese Grammar Wiki. So he decided to research the topic and help us out at the same time by doing a learner questionnaire.

Sinosplice readers, we could really use your help! It should only take a few minutes. The questions are easy.

  • If you’ve never used the Chinese Grammar Wiki, we’d still love you to complete the survey.
  • If you have used the Chinese Grammar Wiki, we’d especially love you to complete the survey.

Thanks so much, everyone, for your time. We’re building a massive online resource, and this kind of feedback is very valuable.

Oct. 29 UPDATE: We’ve gotten all the responses we needed. Thanks very much to everyone who answered the survey.

Creative Character Signage

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of creativity centered on characters. I recently discovered these signs browsing photos on WeChat. (I’ll post the Chinese characters below the photos if you want to give yourself the challenge of reading them on your own.)

IMG_0808

The characters on the sign above are: 时光机 (“time machine”).

IMG_0807

IMG_0809

The characters on the two signs above are: 锅炉房 (“boiler room”).

Pascal’s Triangle and Chinese

This is one of those blog posts where I take two seemingly very different topics and connect them to China or Chinese. This time it’s about Pascal’s Triangle, one of my favorite mathematical concepts. In case you’re unfamiliar with Pascal’s Triangle, here are some images from Wikimedia Commons that nicely illustrate the principle:

Pascal's Triangle calculations

Pascal's Triangle rows 0-16

Here’s the China connection (via Wikipedia):

The set of numbers that form Pascal’s triangle were known before Pascal. However, Pascal developed many uses of it and was the first one to organize all the information together in his treatise, Traité du triangle arithmétique (1653). The numbers originally arose from Hindu studies of combinatorics and binomial numbers and the Greeks’ study of figurate numbers.

[…]

In 13th century, Yang Hui [杨辉] (1238–1298) presented the arithmetic triangle that is the same as Pascal’s triangle. Pascal’s triangle is called Yang Hui’s triangle in China. The “Yang Hui’s triangle” was known in China in the early 11th century by the Chinese mathematician Jia Xian [贾宪] (1010–1070).

Yang Hui’s diagram contains some interesting-looking numbers. Check it out:

Yanghui triangle

Compare that to Pascal’s triangle above. What’s up with these Chinese numbers? You can follow the upper-right to lower-left diagonal (one row in) to follow the numbers 1-8. You get this:

  1. [no Unicode symbol for this one; it’s just 亖 + 一 (vertical)]
  2. [no Unicode symbol for this one; it’s just ᅵ + 三 (horizontal)]

You can gather that 10 is 으 [a symbol I borrowed from Korean Hangul for the purposes of this post], which also looks like “10” turned sideways. 20, though, is 〇二 [except with the 〇 sitting on top of the 二], and so on.

I’ve written before on Chinese number character variants, but these are different from those. The numbers look similar to Suzhou numerals and Shang oracle numerals, but are still a bit different from both. I’m curious if anyone out there know more about these numbers? The diagram supposedly dates to 1303 (more info on Wikimedia Commons).


There’s another personal connection between me and Pascal’s Triangle. As part of my research for AllSet Learning, I make use of basic set theory and higher-level Venn diagrams. Considering that in a Venn diagram, by definition, all possible logical relations between sets must be represented, it can get quite tricky to draw these things when you delve into Venn diagrams with higher numbers of sets (more than 3). But how do you know how many overlapping regions there are in the Venn diagrams as the numbers of sets increase? Pascal’s triangle.

(BTW, some of the research we’re doing now at AllSet Learning could make use of interns with a foundation in statistics, mathematics, or computer science. If that’s you, get in touch! More on AllSet Learning’s interns here.)

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