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12

Nov 2010

Why Learning Chinese Is Hard

I can’t agree with anyone who says that learning Chinese isn’t hard, because it’s got to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sure, it’s been extremely rewarding, but I personally found it quite hard. Hopefully you’re not someone who chooses to learn a language based solely on how difficult it is perceived to be. But as someone who has chosen to learn a language for the wrong reasons before, and who also once shied away from Chinese, daunted by those terrifying tones, I can tell you that it is definitely difficult enough to scare off the casual dabbler. But what exactly is difficult about learning Chinese?

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. When I say “difficult,” what do I mean? Here’s a definition from the Oxford Dictionary of English:

> needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand

So when we talk about difficult, we shouldn’t confuse this with time-consuming. John Biesnecker recently wrote a great post explaining why the time-consuming nature of studying Chinese does not make it difficult, followed by extensive, patient clarifications in the comments.

But John also says:

> …learning Chinese is a long, drawn out series of really easy things — learn a character, learn a word, listen to a song, talk to someone, watch a movie, write an email, 等等. Not a single one of them is hard. Not one.

While I agree with most of John’s premise, I can’t agree that nothing about learning Chinese is hard. I found learning Chinese very difficult in the beginning. Although difficulty is subjective, I think there’s an important part of the equation missing here. First, two examples from my own life.

Putting in Time vs. Acquiring a Skill

When I was in high school I played a video game called Final Fantasy II. It was an RPG for the Super NES which can be beaten with the characters in your party at around level 40. Nerdy kid that I was, I loved that game so much that I continued playing it long after I had beaten it, until all my characters were up to level 99. You might call that feat silly or sad, but it was essentially a very long (but somehow enjoyable??) slog to reach increasingly higher level-up points. It was a ridiculous time investment. But one thing it certainly wasn’t is difficult.

Another example from my awkward teen years. My cousin Kevin introduced me to juggling. He insisted that anyone could learn it in one day, if they just stuck to it. After trying a few times, this seemed hard to believe. Juggling just three balls for even 10 tosses was deceptively difficult. But for some reason I dug in and kept at it. After 30 minutes I could do those 10 tosses. After an hour, I was starting to look like I could juggle three balls.

Does it seem wrong to say learning to juggle is difficult? It honestly takes less than an hour if the learner keeps at it. I’ve tried to teach quite a few people to juggle, and the conversation usually goes like this:

> Learner: Wow, you can juggle?

> Me: Yeah. It’s not very hard. You can learn in 30 minutes if you try.

> Learner: Really? Let me try.

> [I demonstrate the basics and hand over the balls. The learner takes a few tries, quickly dropping the balls.]

> Learner: This is harder than it looks!

> Me: Yeah, but if you keep at it for 30 minutes, you’ll be able to juggle.

> [5 minutes pass.]

> Learner: This is too hard! See ya.

So why is juggling hard, even though 30 minutes is enough to get the basics down? It’s because it requires the mastery of a new skill, which, our brain reasons, “shouldn’t be too hard.” The logic of the task is quite simple. Throw ball. Catch ball. Repeat. The brain grasps the concept immediately. But the hands do not comply. The skill is too foreign.

The Jazzy Juggler

photo by Jeff Kubina

In essence, it’s “hard” because it’s frustrating. Actual performance does not live up to one’s reasonable expectations for one’s performance, and this is a blow to one’s ego. It’s emotional, not rational. What’s worse, if this simple task cannot be accomplished as easily as estimated, how can you be sure you’re ever going to get the hang of it?

This is the crux of the difficulty of learning juggling, Chinese, and many other worthwhile skills: the sheer frustration of the endeavor, and the ever-present fear that one is attempting the impossible. It takes a lot of effort to acquire an entirely new skill. Many people simply get discouraged and quit. “It’s too hard.”

The Hard Part

When I say that learning Chinese is hard, I don’t mean everything about it is difficult. For me, the hard part about learning Chinese, without a doubt, has been mastering the tones. The worst part was arriving in China after a year and a half of formal Mandarin study to make the horrifying discovery that no one in China understood my Chinese. I’m not one to give up easily, however, and I eventually made it. In my experience, tones are the single most frustrating thing about learning Mandarin Chinese.

Why? Well, to begin with you can’t even distinguish the tones. It seems impossible. Then, once you start to be able to distinguish them, you can’t reproduce them on your own. It seems impossible. Then, once you can produce individual tones in isolation on your own, it all falls apart when you try to string tones together. It seems impossible. Then, once you can start to string tones together with some semblance of accuracy, adding in sentence intonation screws everything up. It seems impossible.

See a pattern? Mastering tones is a long, frustrating process. I think there comes a point in almost every learner’s experience (me included!) where they say something like this:

> What’s wrong with these people? I said everything perfectly. I know all my tones were right. But they always act like they can’t understand me!

This is pure frustration. It happens to every learner.

Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Sometimes acquiring Mandarin’s tones seems perilously close to this definition!

The Good News

The good news is that although Chinese has a steep learning curve, the worst part, by far, is right at the beginning. You have no choice but to tackle the tones right off the bat, and they’re just hard. But once you get a handle on them, the worst is behind you. (This is, however, where John Biesnecker’s “time-consuming does not mean difficult” argument kicks in, and you still have a long road ahead with the characters and vocabulary acquisition.)

I essentially expressed this point a while back when I compared the difficulty of learning Chinese and Japanese:

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

Because the hardest part is right at the beginning, I think advanced learners can sometimes forget how difficult and frustrating it was. But it’s a key issue I face on an almost daily basis in my work at AllSet Learning. For beginners, the learning curve can be a bit brutal.

You’re not afraid of a challenge, are you?

Mastering tones may be difficult, and memorizing all those characters may be time-consuming, but learning Chinese is definitely worth it. Difficulty is a subjective thing, so there may be those with an uncanny knack for acquiring tones (or perhaps indefatigable, saintly patience) who honestly don’t find it difficult (or frustrating). I’m willing to bet that some learners simply have a penchant for blocking out distant painful memories, and there may even be a few out there with devious plans to trick you into falling in love with Chinese. It is, after all, one of the world’s most fascinating languages.


There have been a number of excellent articles already written on this topic. I’ve linked to some of them below. Please note that David Moser’s article is tongue-in-cheek. Brendan’s conclusion is spot on, and I think Ben Ross’s views are also very close to my own.

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard by David Moser
…so, you want to learn Chinese? by Brendan O’Kane
Journey Across the Great Hump of China: Debunking the Myth that Chinese is the World’s Most Difficult Language by Ben Ross
How Hard Is Chinese to Learn, Really? by Albert Wolfe
Learning Chinese: How Difficult is It? by Truett Black
Learning Chinese isn’t hard by John Biesnecker


Relevant Sinosplice content:

The Process of Learning Tones
Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills
Chinese Pronunciation
Tone-related blog posts


10

Nov 2010

China Mobile GPRS Settings for the iPhone

I switched back to the iPhone lately, but since I don’t want to leave my China Mobile number, I’m stuck with the slow GPRS (Edge) cellular data connection. Anyway, somehow I always seem to have trouble finding the proper cellular data info to get everything working, and I thought I’d share it just in case anyone needs it.

First go to Settings > General > Network > Cellular Data Network and then input this data:

China Mobile iPhone GPRS Settings

> APN: cmnet

> Username: user

> Password: cmnet

You don’t need to worry about the rest. Make sure that on the Settings > General > Network screen you have “Cellular Data” set to “ON.”

Obviously, you need to have already activated the cellular data service through China Mobile first for this to work.


08

Nov 2010

Those Census-Confounding Chinese Tones

Recently Micah retweeted a short Chinese comedy routine [original] that was clever enough to be shared a bit more. The setup is that a census-taker asks a resident how many are in his household. Confusion ensues:

> “请问您家里是几口人?” [May I ask how many are in your household?]

> “是一口人。” [It’s one person.]

> “十一口?” [Eleven?]

> “不是十一口,而是一口人。” [Not eleven, but 1 person.]

> “二十一口?” [21?]

> “不是二十一口,其实一口人。” [Not 21. Actually, one person.]

> “七十一口?不会吧?” [71? For real?]

> “不是七十一口,就是一口人!” [Not 71. It’s just one person!]

> “九十一口?” [91?]

> “对,就是一口人。” [Right, just one person.]

OK, maybe I should have warned those of you that don’t read Chinese: the translation makes no sense in English, because the confusion is all based on tone-related misunderstandings:

– 是一 (shì yī) misunderstood as 十一 (shíyī)
– 而是一 (ér shì yī) misunderstood as 二十一 (èrshíyī)
– 其实一 (qíshí yī) misunderstood as 七十一 (qīshíyī)
– 就是一 (jiù shì yī) misunderstood as 九十一 (jiǔshíyī)

Although most of the misunderstandings above shouldn’t happen if both speakers are using standard Mandarin, I’ve witnessed quite a few cases where dialect influences tones, which, in turn, can lead to miscommunications. Personally, I find it a little comforting to know that even native speakers experience tone-related confusion, even if it’s not all that common (or comical!).


04

Nov 2010

Google Suggest Venn Diagrams for Chinese, Japanese, and English

I was recently introduced to the awesome Google Suggest Venn Diagram Generator by Micah. Some interesting suggested searches by Google were crossed with a Venn diagram by some creative soul, and then the process was automated on the web by request. The result is a unique way to visualize and compare the data indexed by Google.

Here’s an example of what the diagram generator produces:

google-venn_people-girls-americans

So we can see from this graph that according to Google, lots of people are asking (or telling) why both people and girls are mean, why girls and Americans are dumb, and why people, girls, and Americans are all stupid.

I decided to try some queries of my own. I chose the terms “Chinese,” “Japanese,” and “English” as my recurring comparisons, and then added a little color to the results. Here are some of the more interesting ones:

how does _____ …

google-venn_how-does

Yikes, “how does Chinese water torture work“? Gotta love the intellectual curiosity. I like the “how does English sound to foreigners” question though.

learn _____ …

google-venn_learn

Apparently there’s a whole lot of learning going on in the DC area. It’s no surprise that people want to learn online for free, but it’s interesting that Chinese is the only language of the three that people expect to learn in 5 minutes. (Tip: it might take slightly longer than that.)

_____ grammar …

google-venn_grammar

Ah, good old . (I’m kind of surprised it trumped , though.)

awesome _____ …

google-venn_awesome

stupid _____ …

google-venn_stupid

Why is _____ so damn…

google-venn_so-damn-hard

Ah, yes. But we expected that.


01

Nov 2010

Fox Intercultural Consulting’s Clever Logo

I love logos that play with Chinese characters, and so I really like Fox Intercultural Consulting‘s logo. Here it is (with breakdown):

Fox Consulting Services Logo

I never noticed that looks so much like the word “Fox”! Nice discovery. (Those of you that like to nitpick will notice some discrepancies, though.)

But then, isn’t it kind of weird to use a character that means “salty” for one’s company logo? It turns out that the character has quite a history, and can mean a lot more than just “salty.”

From Wenlin:

> The character , from 戌 (xū) ‘destroy’ and 口 (kǒu) ‘mouth’, originally meant ‘bite’.

>> “戌 to hurt 口 with the mouth” –Karlgren.

> Then 咸 was borrowed for a word meaning ‘all, entirely’ (now rare), which happened to be pronounced the same. 咸 xián is also the name of the hexagram ䷞, variously translated as ‘Influence’ (Legge), ‘Wooing’ (Wilhelm), and ‘Cutting’ (Kerson Huang).

> The full form for xián ‘salty’ is 鹹, composed of 鹵 (lǔ) ‘salt’ and 咸 xián phonetic. 鹹 is simplified to 咸 by dropping 鹵, so now 咸 most commonly occurs as the simple form for xián ‘salty’.

More on hexagram ䷞ from Wikipedia:

> Hexagram 31 is named 咸 (xián), “Conjoining”. Other variations include “influence (wooing)” and “feelings”. Its inner trigram is ☶ (艮 gèn) bound = (山) mountain, and its outer trigram is ☱ (兌 duì) open = (澤) swamp.

So not only does represent one of the hexagrams from the I Ching, but its meaning is actually pretty relevant to Fox Intercultural Consulting’s business. Not too shabby!


With this post I’ve started using the tag “characterplay,” and also tagged previous relevant entries. Characterplay is a lot like wordplay, except that characterplay is entirely visual, whereas wordplay often relies on homophones which, when spelled out, are often quite distinct.


27

Oct 2010

WooChinese Does Q&A

My friend John Biesnecker has been working hard on a new site called WooChinese. He’s been covering a lot of topics related to learning Chinese, and has been specifically addressing some of the big questions that absolute beginners to the language typically have. Here are some samples from the “Questions Newbies Ask” series:

WooChinese

QNA #1: Do I really need to learn to read Chinese?

QNA #2: Do tones really matter?

QNA #3: Should I learn traditional Chinese or simplified Chinese characters?

QNA #4: Do I need to learn to write Chinese characters?

Last week he asked me for some help on the question, “what is the best textbook?” Honestly, that’s a really hard question and it is affected by so many factors, so the default answer is the always-annoying, “it depends.” This is the kind of thing I tackle in a very personalized way through AllSet Learning.

Still, it’s nice to have a relatively straightforward answer (even in imperfect starting point is better than a never-ending search for perfection), so I gave my answer here:

QNA #9: What’s the best textbook for learning Chinese?

Be sure to check out WooChinese. Lots of good stuff over there.


25

Oct 2010

Learners as Experts

Hank recently turned me onto Kirsten Winkler’s blog, which is full of thought-provoking material for modern educators. One article I especially enjoyed recently was Leaving the Stage: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age. It totally resonated with both my experience at ChinesePod as well as what I’m doing now at AllSet Learning.

Some choice quotes:

> The impact of digital learners on twenty-first century learning environments—including the traditional classroom—highlights the changing role of teachers who, in teaching digital natives, discover that the learners appear to have taken control of the learning process.

> In responding to these changes, what is expected of teachers? Will they simply pursue the traditional model—ignoring their learners’ overnight forays on the web—and assume that time and patience will restore the conventional roles of teacher and student? Perhaps they attempt to master the new technologies themselves, believing they can (or should) equal or even surpass their students’ expertise in navigating online learning environments. Or will teachers and learners together negotiate other possibilities for teaching learners in the digital age?

> […]

> In the past decade, however, the introduction of personal digital devices and a range of new web-based search tools and social media have woven a bold new thread into the discussion of “expertise” in the classroom: namely, the appearance of digital-native students who imagine that their ability to conduct extensive online searches, grab and store what they find, and rapidly share the information with each other qualifies them as experts, too.

At ChinesePod, we produce a lot of lessons, and at the forefront of the academic oversight is the question, “is this material appropriate for this level?” It’s a decision that never goes away, and even after 5 years, it’s not easy. After 5 years, though, experience does help a lot.

I certainly can’t deny that user input at ChinesePod has been enormously instructive in helping us shape the service. Especially when certain requests are made en masse, the way forward can be very clear. When a minority requests changes that will affect everyone, however, we have to be a lot more careful about acting or not acting on them.

Anyway, it was good seeing this article, which points out a change I’m already witnessing, and also highlights a new source of friction. Friction is good, though. Sometimes it leads to blisters, but it also leads to those smooth shiny spots.


19

Oct 2010

Carl Gene is on a Roll

I recently came across Carl Gene’s blog, which he describes as “My Journey from Translation Student to Working Professional.” This is a great example of learning by teaching and sharing. Not only is this a great resource for students of Chinese, but I’m sure Carl is benefiting tremendously from the work he’s doing to research and organize this information.

Here are some of the examples of the entries Carl has been writing:

20 Actually Useful Chengyu (成语)

23 Actually Useful Proverbs (谚语)

10 Chinese Love Idioms

31 Words For Idiot In Chinese

12 “Untranslatable” Words In Chinese

When your goal is to be a professional translator, it’s important to pay attention to the nuances of different words, and it looks like Carl is off to a good start. If you’re just starting out and trying to learn basic Chinese, this probably won’t be the best approach to start with, but definitely at least check out Carl’s blog.


Related Sinosplice Content:

My Chengyu Top Ten

Sinosplice Chinese Vocabulary Lists

Translator Interview Series


18

Oct 2010

Busy Moving AllSet Learning Office

I’ve been very busy this past week with AllSet Learning. The growth of the business has necessitated a new full(er)-time assistant whom I’ve been busy training, and at the same time, our host office, Xindanwei, has just moved. That means the AllSet Learning office is now located in Shanghai’s trendy French concession area. If you’ve been delaying your visit because our previous location was not cool enough for you, your wait is over. The new address is:

> No. 50 Yongjia Road
> Shanghai, China

> 中国上海市永嘉路50号

Here’s a shot of the new location:

nEO_IMG_IMG_0566

I put a few more shots on the AllSet Learning News blog.

Anyway, I’m returning to blogging as usual on Sinosplice this week!


Get Sinosplice Tooltips from the WordPress Plugin Directory

08

Oct 2010

Get Sinosplice Tooltips from the WordPress Plugin Directory

The Sinosplice Tooltips WordPress Plugin is now downloadable from the public WordPress Plugin Directory. I’m not sure why it doesn’t yet show up in searches (either on through WordPress site, or through the WP admin plugin section), but you can still download and install it. I’d like to thank Andy Warmack, the developer, for his time and dedication to making this plugin happen and helping me to provide it for free.

And now a little bit of clarification on what the plugin does, for those that are interested.

What the plugin does:

– Adds the CSS and javascript to create attractive tooltips for Chinese like this: 中文
– Adds a quicktag to the HTML mode of the WordPress post editor, allowing you to add tooltip content as easily as you add a link
– Provides settings so that you can control the color and content (to a limited degree) of the tooltip
– Adds tooltip data into your post HTML in a standards-compliant way that degrades gracefully if the necessary javascript or CSS is not supported

What the plugin doesn’t do:

– Automate the addition of pinyin to Chinese words (it’s all manual at this point, for full control)
– Draw on any kind of dictionary data
– Convert numerical pinyin (pin1yin1) to tone mark pinyin (pīnyīn); I recommend my friend Mark’s Pinyin Input Firefox Extension for that, which works fine with the WordPress HTML editor

Download away! If you install the plugin and decide to keep using it, please leave me a comment so that I can see how it looks on other sites. Thanks!


04

Oct 2010

Taxi: a Semantic Gloss in English of a Chinese Character

Take a look at this Shanghai subway advertisement for plane tickets on Taobao. Pay attention to the main Chinese words in the ad.

Taobao Plane Tickets Ad

If you’re anything like me (and a few of the Chinese people I asked), you tried to read the Chinese before paying attention the English “taxi,” but started feeling something was strange around the “飞的” part. What’s going on here?

Well, in Mandarin Chinese, the character 的 is most commonly used as a structural particle, connecting different parts of speech together or doing other structural things. In this capacity, it is pronounced “de.” However, the character 的 has a number of other readings as well.

Aside from its purely grammatical function, 的 also appears in the loanword for “taxi,” which is 的士 (díshì) in Mandarin, a secondhand borrowing from the Cantonese “dik1si2” (a loanword from English). In Mandarin Chinese 的 can also represent the meaning “taxi” by itself. When it does this, it’s pronounced “dī.” So you can say “take a taxi” using the phrase 打车 or 打的 (“dǎ dī” and not “dǎ de”).

Anyway, in this ad, the 飞的 part should be read “fēi dī” and not “fēi de,” because it stands for “flying taxi” rather than “one that flies.” That means the sentence is:

> 打个飞的去旅行

So while you might, at first glance, be tempted to read it as, “take something that flies to go traveling” (which is grammatical, albeit a bit awkward), the correct translation is, “take a flying taxi to go traveling.” This is indicated by the “TAXI” above the 的, which tells us the character means taxi (not structural info), and therefore should be pronounced “dī.”

The interesting parts:

1. This was so potentially confusing that a gloss had to be given to a Chinese audience
2. The gloss given was an English word, indicating not the reading of the character, but the meaning of the character

When you think of a gloss for Asian languages, you tend to think of something like this (taken from the Wikipedia page on ruby characters):

Ruby Characters

I think the ad above is the first time I’ve ever seen a semantic gloss in a foreign language, intended for native speakers of the glossed language. Pretty cool! (I’m not sure it’s effective advertising, though…)


28

Sep 2010

Ruined by Popularity

I remember when a big new Carrefour supermarket opened down the street from my Shanghai apartment I was quite happy about it at first. The convenience! Everything I needed, including a few imports, and for reasonable prices, right down the street.

Carrefour

Photo by Ek Chin Tan

As it turns out, that Carrefour was too popular. It was absolutely packed, all the time. I never wanted to go into that madhouse. Eventually I learned that there were certain times when it wasn’t too bad, but that pretty much ruins the convenience factor, right?

The same is true for China’s 7-day holidays. Never mind that the whole “7 days off” thing is a sham for a second — what can you do in 7 days in China? Well, a whole lot, actually. The only problem is that so can much of the rest of the country.

After a few years of experimentation, many of us, both foreign and Chinese, try to get out of China for these 7-day holidays (if affordable tickets can be found), or to lay low and take it easy. An uneventful vacation is better than a crowded, stressful one.

It does make me wonder, though, how well this whole “excessive popularity ruins things when your population is so big” idea is sinking in, and where the problem is going to strike next. (Cars and parking seems like a safe bet.)

Happy National Day Holiday (October 1-7)! I’ll be here in Shanghai.


24

Sep 2010

Tooltip Plugin Done (but not quite public)

It took way longer than I planned, but the pinyin plugin is finally done. It works, and I’m already using the beta release on Sinosplice.com now for the tooltips. Here are some samples of what you’ll be able to do when it’s done:

中文
日本語
ひらがな
संस्कृता वाक्
Español

I went with the yellow style for Sinosplice, but there are 5 styles to choose from (the same five I asked for feedback on before).

The official release is coming soon. I’ll post a link when it’s out.


22

Sep 2010

Electric Voices and Stinky Tofu

Magnus of MandMX.com has been busy lately. You may be familiar with his Shanghainese podcast or his bilingual comics (he even did one about Sinosplice once). Anyway, now he’s come out with a book of his English/Chinese comics. It’s called Electric Voices and Stinky Tofu (a reference to the Chinese words 电话 and 臭豆腐).

Magnus was kind enough to give me an advance copy of this book to share my thoughts. I like that the book is bilingual, and that it’s focused entirely on the “foreigner in China experience.” This makes it unique. We foreigners in China all have our photos, our little private whining sessions, our blogs about life in China… but this book takes a lot of those recurring themes and distills them into one convenient collection.

The book isn’t all about being funny… some of it is too true to be funny. And I daresay that most people that have never been to China won’t understand a lot of it. In some ways it’s almost like a reference book of inside jokes. I like that.

Congrats to Magnus on making this book happen. You can order it on his site.


17

Sep 2010

In Defense of Hanping (and Android)

Commenter Mark feels I was a bit unfair to Android phones as a Chinese study tool in my recent post, Back to the iPhone (it’s all about Chinese!).

Mark says:

> Have you tried Hanping Pro? It has far more features than the free version. Also, Hanping in super-fast on Android 2.2. [Note: that link doesn’t work in the PRC]

Mark goes on:

> I think the biggest problem here for John is that he’s comparing free Android apps with paid iPhone apps. Also, the iOS app market is about 1 year more mature than the Android market. Android is catching up fast and I would expect the quality and breadth of apps to catch up over the next year.

> Living in China, you don’t see paid apps in the Android Market. Those are generally much better quality than the free apps – especially in niche areas like Chinese learning.

> If you have an Android device and are living in China then all you need to do is put a US/UK/DE etc sim card in your phone (doesn’t have to be active and can connect to Market over wifi) and then you can see/buy whatever paid apps you want. Once you are done, swap back in your Chinese sim card (i.e. you only need to change the sim card when purchasing paid apps, not using them). This is of course a PITA, but its useful to know until Google comes up with a proper long-term solution.

Mark’s right. It’s not that I’m willing to buy iPhone apps and not Android apps, it’s that I can buy iPhone apps in China, but not Android apps (and I’ve tried). I’m not willing to somehow acquire an overseas SIM card just to buy apps. Sorry.

So it’s true… I might not have come to the same conclusion if I weren’t living in China.

> OCR? Google are rumoured to be bringing out an update to Google Goggles soon which will include multi-lingual OCR support (including Chinese). Use it from within any app (SMS, email, dictionary, flashcard etc) so no need for cumbersome copy/paste like you would need to on the iPhone.

> The vastly superior support on Android for inter-app communication is a big advantage over iOS’s “pasteboard” approach and this is very useful in language-learning where you are often juggling multiple apps. Currently, not too many apps take full advantage of this inter-app functionality but this will improve as the Android Market apps mature.

Like I said, I’m fickle. When Android phones become better than the iPhone, I’ll switch back. In the meantime, I’m just waiting for the competition (inlcuding over OCR) to heat up more. This is a very good thing.


10

Sep 2010

Shanghai Street Stories Photography + Beer

Although the site is currently moving so you can’t see it, Shanghai Street Stories is an amazing blog featuring photographs of everyday life in Shanghai, each accompanied by a short story. [Update: you can see the blog here.]

Until the new site is up, you can’t easily see the photos online, but if you’re in Shanghai, you can see them in person at the author’s exhibit tomorrow. Details:

> Demolish, Construct, Repeat: Building the Shanghai Dream

> Southern Barbarian in Pudong celebrates the street photography of Sue Anne Tay, a Shanghai-based photographer, focused on the city’s disappearing neighborhoods. Her show contrasts the migrant workers who are building the new Shanghai with the locals whose lives are changing forever, as the city changes. The exhibit will run for a month.

> Launch party: Sept 11, Sat. 3pm to 6pm. SB will have a complimentary wonderful spread of Yunan snacks, beer and wine. Do note that SB has a formidable beer selection!

> Venue: Southern Barbarian (Lujiazui) 南蛮子
B1/F, DBS Building, 1318 Lujiazui Huan Lu, near Dongyuan Lu
陆家嘴环路1318号B1楼, 近东园路
Directions by metro: Take Exit 1 of Lujiazui Metro, cross the road and walk past the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium toward the DBS Building.

[Restaurant map]

> Interview: Sue Anne Tay at Southern Barbarian

> Event flyers: Smart Shanghai, CityWeekend

“Do note that SB has a formidable beer selection!” That’s an understatement.


08

Sep 2010

Reclaiming the Word “VCR”

I’ve already admitted before that I watch the Chinese dating show 非诚勿扰. Well, I’m still watching it, and the cultural and linguistic observations are starting to pile up. Today, though, I just wanted to mention one of the ones that strikes me as particularly odd.

VCR

Photo by Matthew Mittelstadt

In the program, as each male contestant is introduced, several video clips are shown. These videos reveal more about the man’s career and outlook on life, about his attitudes toward love and marriage, etc. Pretty much without exception, each of these short videos is referred to as a “VCR.”

Yes, “VCR.” It’s not a word we use as much anymore, but we still know it to mean “video cassette recorder.” Then what’s going on here? Chinese has a perfectly serviceable word for video: 视频. “Video clip” is 视频片断. Not only that, but the English word “video” is not uncommon among the younger generation. So why add this extra word, VCR, into the mix? Could “VCR” stand for something else in this context?

A search turned up this question and answer:

> 非诚勿扰里面的VCR的全称是什么? [What is “VCR” on Fei Cheng Wu Rao short for?]

> 电视上经常说VCR,.但偶不知道全称是什么,有知道的告诉一声1 [On TV they frequently say “VCR,” but I don’t know what the full term is. Can someone tell me?1]

> VCR是Video Cassette Recorder的缩写 盒式磁带录像机 [VCR is an acronym for Video Cassette Recorder]

> 但是在电视上的总以节目里面 例如某主持人说:“让我们先看一段VCR”这里的VCR的意思是指一个视频片断 [But in the program on TV, like when the host says, “let’s watch a VCR,” the word “VCR” refers to a video clip.]

Anonymous Q&A on the internet doesn’t exactly amount to conclusive evidence, but I’m pretty sure this is what most Chinese watchers of the show will surmise.

Furthermore, when I do a Baidu Images search for VCR, I get more confirmation that the word seems to be used this way (and only one picture on the first page of results which is what I consider to be a “VCR”). Could “VCR” be the next word for “video” in Chinese?

Too weird.


04

Sep 2010

MeatPop!

If I were still doing Junk Food Reviews, this would definitely go in one. (But I’m not, so fortunately I don’t have to actually eat this scary-looking thing.)

MeatPop


31

Aug 2010

Back to the iPhone (it’s all about Chinese!)

2G-Hero-3GS

I got a first generation (2G) iPhone in 2008. Then I switched to an Android in 2009. As of this past weekend, I’m back on an iPhone (3GS). Why? I’ll spare you most of the geekery… it’s largely related to Chinese.

The HTC Hero was a pretty solid early Android device. The new smartphones running Android 2.2 are way better now, though. I’m aware of this. It wasn’t just about upgrading hardware and getting the latest OS.

I don’t really care that the iPhone has more apps, snazzier apps, and more games. Unfortunately, with the app advantage the iPhone pulled off another important victory: better apps for learning Chinese. As a learning consultancy, AllSet Learning also recommends various tools for learning Chinese. Well, I’ve got to admit: the iPhone is now the best tool out there for learning Chinese. For myself and for my clients, it’s the phone I need to be using.

Here are the most important factors in my decision to switch back to the iPhone from Android:

iPhone Pros

– The iPhone has quite a few dictionaries available for the student of Chinese. The free ones are decent, but if you’re willing to shell out a little money, you can buy some very good dictionaries. Popular choices include Pleco, Cambridge English-Chinese (not free), iCED, Qingwen, and DianHua.

– Switching between input methods in the iPhone is instant and easy (especially if you only enable English and one Chinese input method). This is something I do so often that even a slight advantage starts to really matter.

– If you’re interested in handwriting recognition for Chinese (and this is a great learning tool in itself), Apple’s solid version of that is built into the OS.

– The ChinesePod app for the iPhone is better than the one for the Android. (This is a trend that’s not particular to ChinesePod.)

– Ummm, have you seen Pleco OCR?

Android Cons

– No good dictionaries. I don’t even know what everyone uses. Hanping? Honestly, until I heard about Hanping (which, although serviceable, is a very basic CC-CEDICT dictionary), I was just using the mobile version of nciku.

– Switching input methods is a bit slow and annoying. It’s tolerable… for a while. But if you do a lot of switching, it gets to you. (Or you might stay in pinyin mode all the time, which also slows you down, since it has no predictive text functionality.)

– It’s getting Pleco someday, but who knows when?

OK, but nothing is totally one-sided… There are a few other points I should mention.

iPhone Cons

– Google Maps is still messed up in Shanghai on the iPhone. What’s up with this? It always places you some 300-500 meters northwest of where you really are. Apple blames Google. (Google Maps works just fine on Android devices in Shanghai.) This is seriously annoying.

Android Pros

– Google Maps just works.

– Recharging with a regular USB cord is so, so nice. (When you forget your cord, you can even borrow a friend’s digital camera USB cable.)

An iPhone 4 that’s usable in Shanghai is still super expensive, which is a major reason why I got a 3GS. The iPhone 3GS and the high-end Android devices are comparably priced. I was tempted to check out one of the Android phones, but I can’t ignore those iPhone advantages. I’m fickle, though… we’ll see how things develop over the next year.


27

Aug 2010

Jukuu is interesting

Sinosplice reader Matthew recently introduced me to Jukuu, a database of sample sentences. The Chinese name, 句酷, is a pun on the word 句库, meaning “sentence base,” in the naming tradition of nciku). There are some really interesting things going on on Jukuu. Here’s a screenshot from the results for a search for “get”:

Jukuu search results for "get"

I enjoyed some of those random sentences. Some things worth noting:

– The sample sentences in the screenshot above are all taken from About Face 3, a well-known book on goal-directed design, which has been published in multiple languages.
– Jukuu offers not only multiple translations (grouped by part of speech), but also the distribution of those various parts of speech in its database (that’s what the pie graph at the right represents).
– Jukuu also offers other word forms (词形) for “get” (in this case, “gets,” “getting,” “got,” “gotten,” and even “getable”).
– If you click on one of the translations in the top right, the resulting page shows you sentences with just that translation of “get” (for example, this one for 得到).
– You can get similar results without going the “exact translation route” by just searching for multiple words, in a mix of English and Chinese. (The sentences aren’t censored, either. Have fun with that!)
– If you go to the “get” results page, further down the right column, you also see links for “adjectives frequently preceding this word,” “verbs frequently preceding this word,” “prepositions frequently preceding this word,” and “nouns frequently following this word.”

This kind of thing is a linguist’s dream, and can only be accomplished by corpus analysis with part of speech tagging, which is a ton of work. It’s really cool to see a resource like this publicly available online.