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.)

Help with Absentee Ballot Mailing

The U.S. Consulate in Shanghai is helping U.S. citizens mail their ballots back to meet the state deadlines:

Returning your ballot by mail. Place your voted ballot in a U.S. postage-paid envelope containing the address of your local election officials. Drop it off at the Consulate and we’ll send it back home for you without the need to pay international postage. If you can’t visit the Consulate in person, ask a friend or colleague drop it off for you. If it’s easier for you to use China’s postal system, be sure to affix sufficient international postage, and allow sufficient time for international mail delivery. If time is tight, you may want to use a private courier service (e.g., FedEx, UPS, or DHL) to meet your state’s ballot receipt deadline.

You can submit your ballot to us to be delivered by diplomatic pouch at the entrance to the consular section at the 8th Floor, Westgate Mall, 1038 Nanjing West Road, between the hours of 8:30am and 5pm on weekdays. Your ballot must be sealed in the security envelope and mailing envelope. However, since it takes up to three weeks to send mail to the U.S. via our diplomatic pouch, we recommend you drop off your ballot of no later than next Tuesday, October 16. After that time, we recommend you use an express private courier service such as the ones mentioned above to ensure your ballot arrives on time.

Nice!

Email source: “Message for U.S. Citizens: Completing and Returning Absentee Ballots” from ShanghaiACS@state.gov

Unfun Map Games

I recently updated the Explore Shanghai app on my iPhone and was saddened to see this:

Maps Shift

Take note of this part:

If you find that street maps are shifted after upgrading to iOS6, check the settings in the Help tab. Choose “Enable shift” if you use AutoNavi-powered maps for China-purchased devices, choose “Disable shift” if you use TomTom-powered maps for international-purchased devices.

Huh? What’s going on here?

I’m no expert on this issue, but essentially, the Chinese government is paranoid about the use of GPS, and screws with it. This affects Google Maps, it affects camera GPS, and it even affects runners’ watches. It’s been going on for years. Chinese companies with government approval (like TomTom) can get their services/devices working properly, but foreign devices which try to rely on good old-fashioned “satellite positioning” and maps lose out, and have to build in a “shift correction” feature if they want their apps’ GPS positioning to work properly.

This has been an annoying issue in China for years. I’m wondering if there is some kind of central resource for help on this issue, similar to this site for blocked websites in China. Anyone?

It’s really sad to see the government continuing this charade in all its forms. It doesn’t work. When developers don’t solve the issue directly, there are workarounds to the map issue for pretty much any device, if you really dig. It’s just a huge pain in the GPS.

Diaoyu Islands with Cake and Murakami

This is an “apolitical” blog, so I won’t say much. But I was highly amused to see this cake for sale in Chengdu while I was there over the holiday:

"Nationalist" cake

One of my favorite authors is the Japanese master of magical realism, Haruki Murakami (村上春树 in Chinese), and I liked what he had to say on the issue:

“When a territorial issue ceases to be a practical matter and enters the realm of ‘national emotions’, it creates a dangerous situation with no exit.

“It is like cheap liquor. Cheap liquor gets you drunk after only a few shots and makes you hysterical.

“It makes you speak loudly and act rudely… But after your drunken rampage you are left with nothing but an awful headache the next morning.

“We must be careful about politicians and polemicists who lavish us with this cheap liquor and fan this kind of rampage,” he wrote.

Quote via China Digital Times.

Morphing Mooncake Madness

As Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (中秋节) approaches (this year it’s September 30th), there is a lot of mooncake buying going on in Shanghai. It’s still a tradition to buy mooncakes (月饼), and although some people like them, a lot of the mooncake purchases are for clients, employees, etc. But exactly what the mooncakes are is changing quite a bit, and some of the new forms (like Haagen Dazs’s) have a bit more hope of appealing to younger palates. The traditional recipes are getting cast by the wayside more and more, it seems, as modern corporations muscle in on the holiday market.

Over the past month, I’ve taken various snapshots of the current state of mooncake commercialism.

Just to be clear, we can see the type of traditional mooncake that young Chinese people don’t like much anymore in this Christine ad:

Mooncake Madness

Mooncake Madness

The demand is still fairly strong, and there have been mooncake lines going around Shanghai’s Jing’an Temple for at least a month. But you’ll notice that most of the people buying them are middle-aged or older.

Mooncake Madness

Mooncake Madness

Mooncake Madness

Here’s a Hong Kong mooncake trying to do a more modern take:

Hong Kong Moon Cakes

Haagen Dazs seems to be championing the idea, “if people are going to keep buying mooncakes, let’s give them tasty, pricey alternatives.” And it’s the most visible “traditional mooncake alternative” this year:

Mooncake Madness

Mooncake Madness

I’m really expecting traditional mooncakes to become something of a rarity over the next 20 years.

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