Clean Water in China?

Last week AllSet Learning staff took a team-building trip to the mountains of Zhejiang in Tonglu County (浙江省桐庐县). It was a nice trip, and one of the things that struck me most about the natural beauty there was the lack of litter and crystal-clear water. Anyone who has traveled much in China knows that it’s a beautiful, beautiful country, but disgracefully covered in litter in so many otherwise breath-taking tourist destinations. Not so in Tonglu!

Baiyunyuan

I was also surprised to learn that the locals there drink the water straight from the mountain streams without treating it at all. They don’t have “normal” plumbing, it’s all piped from the higher regions of the flowing mountain streams. I have to wonder: with so much of China so heinously polluted, could this water actually be safe to drink?

Baiyunyuan

Anyone else want to weigh in with some facts or links?

Baiyunyuan

The 4th Ayi: Chinese Girls’ Nightmare

We learners of Chinese typically learn that “ayi” (阿姨) means “aunt,” and then soon after also learn that it is also a polite way to address “a woman of one’s mother’s generation.” Then, pretty soon after arriving in China, we learn that it’s also what you call the lady you hire to clean your home. (The last one tends to become the most familiar for foreigners living in China.)

Today I’d like to bring up a fourth use of “ayi” which kind of circles back to the first one, but is also subtly different, and additionally extremely interesting in the way that it makes young women squirm in social discomfort. This is the use of “ayi” that you really only learn if you spend enough time around young (Chinese-speaking) children in China.

Many terms for family and relatives are used quite loosely in Chinese to show familiarity or politeness. The way it works for little kids in China is something like this:

  1. Little girls that are older than you are called “jiejie” (姐姐); little boys that are older than you are called “gege” (哥哥). Often this is a two-year-old calling a three-year-old “gege,” or even a 17-month-old calling an 18-month-old “jiejie.” That’s just how it works.

  2. Little girls that are younger than you are called “meimei” (妹妹); little boys that are younger than you are called “didi” (弟弟). Again, the age difference might be tiny; it doesn’t matter. Even for twins, the older/younger aspect of the relationship is strictly acknowledged.

  3. Here’s where it gets interesting… To a little kid, if you’re female, but are no longer a child, you’re suddenly an ayi. This often violates the “mother’s generation” rule that we learn in Chinese class… If the kid’s mom is 34, the kid is usually still going to call a 20-year-old girl “ayi” because a 20-year-old is obviously not a child. (Note: this is largely based on observations in Shanghai; use of the term may vary somewhat regionally. China is a big place!)

But this is where it gets very amusing to observe… a lot of 20-year-old girls have never really been called “ayi” before and they hate it. It feels like they’re being called OLD. In very recent memory, they may have had younger cousins calling them “jiejie,” but now this little kid is suddenly pronouncing them NOT YOUNG ANYMORE. A lot of these 20-year-old girls will correct the little kid that calls them “ayi,” telling the kid to address them “jiejie.” Most of the time the kids will have none of it, though. You can see it on their faces: “What? You’re not a little kid. You’re clearly an ayi.

So yeah, I’ve been observing my toddler calling strange young women “ayi” and watching these young women freak out. And yes, it’s pretty funny to me.

So, to sum up, the four meanings of “ayi” (阿姨):

4 Ayi

  1. “Mother’s Siter” Ayi
  2. Middle-aged “Ma’am” Ayi
  3. Housekeeper Ayi
  4. “I’m a little kid and you’re not” Ayi

If you’re in China and you’ve never noticed it before, be on the lookout for #4. It’s easy to spot, because it usually involves a young woman in her early twenties approaching and fawning over a cute little kid, then the inevitable offensive “ayi” term is used, the failed attempt at “jiejie” persuasion, and the young woman walking away pouting.

Abstracted Characters

Stylized letters and characters are interesting to me, but how abstract can you get with Chinese characters? You kinda have to retain the strokes and radicals and stuff, right? Maybe not…

Abstract Characters

The characters represented above are 小燕画院.

Although the name is readable, it might take a bit longer to decipher than most Chinese text, even for native speakers. Have you ever spotted characters that have been taken even further into the abstract?

Itchy Feet on Communication

The webcomic Itchy Feet has some great comics on learning to communicate in a foreign language. I especially like his visualization technique for representing a low level of competency in a foreign language. These are about German and French, but could be about any language, really:

blissful ignorance

This one will feel relevant to ABCs in China:

mistaken identity

Itchy Feet is also the comic that did this amusing take on various Asian scripts which went semi-viral a while ago:

creative guesswork

Baijiu Bigotry

I recently saw a link to this article on Facebook: One Billion Drinkers Can Be Wrong (China’s most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here’s why you shouldn’t drink it). So it’s a post laegely about how baijiu (白酒) cannot success outside of China because it’s a terrible, terrible liquor. (Some of the comments I read on Facebook went much further, and I’ll address that sentiment below.)

Red Bull + Baijiu

Now I’m no fan of baijiu; I’ve made this clear in the past. And when I say it’s terrible, I know it’s because I personally will never develop a taste for it, and I’m not interested in “giving it a chance.” I’ve done that. Plenty of times. (Same goes for chicken feet.) I think part of it is that I resent a certain idea that sometimes gets tossed around: if you’ve been in China this long, you should have learned to like baijiu by now. Nope, sorry. Don’t like it. Now leave me alone.

But I’ve also learned–thanks to my friend Derek Sandhaus–that it is possible for westerners to develop a taste for baijiu. I seriously doubt it’s ever going to go mainstream, but the Chinese will ensure that there’s always a market for the stuff.

The article linked to below, though, goes way beyond the idea that the Chinese like it and westerners typically don’t. It reminds me of Seinfeld’s “chopsticks bigotry” (which is actually funny, because it’s a bit more self-aware):

I’ll tell you what I like about Chinese people … They’re hanging in there with the chopsticks, aren’t they? You know they’ve seen the fork. They’re staying with the sticks. I’m impressed by that. I don’t know how they missed it. A Chinese farmer gets up, works in the field with the shovel all day… Shovel… Spoon… Come on… There it is. You’re not plowing 40 acres with a couple of pool cues….

What’s interesting about this type of opinion of baijiu is that this is a truly dividing issue. Some westerners will actually hold the opinion that “this is a vile alcohol and no one should drink it, Chinese or not.” You might hear some cross-cultural statements of the some ilk about peeing in public, or disregard for safety, but attacking another culture’s favorite alcohol? It’s just a bit bizarre.

What do you think?

Grammar at 2½: a quick update

I enjoyed writing the post about my daughter’s mastery of Chinese grammar at age two. It wasn’t scientific, but it was an interesting study for me nonetheless.

This just a quick update, because I was wondering when my daughter would start getting into the “harder,” intermediate-level B1 grammar points. Well, I’ve got an answer now.

Soft Grub

Right around the time she turned two and a half, we had soft tacos for dinner, and she busted out with this sentence:

我要把它包起来。 [I want to wrap it up.]

This short sentence is significant because it features both:

  1. The 把 sentence structure
  2. The 起来 complement

[Mind blown]

From the original “cannot use” list, the only other one she’s picked up has been personal pronouns (which she’s still getting used to). I really thought it would be a while before I heard come out of her mouth. She’s definitely not using often, but it’s already in that little brain…

Thoughts on Scott Young’s Immersion Experiment

I recently published a guest post by Scott Young, who just spent about three months in China, attempting to stay immersed in Chinese the whole time (even while traveling with his non-Chinese friend, Vat). I didn’t comment on my own interactions with Scott, though, or my thoughts on his experiment. So I’ll do that now.

Here’s a video we took in the (then) empty office next to the AllSet Learning office. We were plagued by technical problems, but Vat’s persistence got us through.

On “No English”

I was expecting that Scott would be taking a break from his “immersion” while talking to me and talk to me in English. We had exchanged emails before we met in person, and it was all in English. But no, from the get-go, Scott spoke nothing but Chinese to me. (And Vat too.) So we talked for quite a while (before and after the video), and it was all entirely in Chinese.

I part of me finds this weird. I suppose it’s because it violates the “efficiency” principle I talk about in my language power struggle post. We both knew that we could communicate absolutely effortlessly in English.

But he was a man on a mission, with a “no English” rule, and I totally respected that. In fact, It’s becoming less and less weird for me to think of Chinese as an international language. Chinese is the language of our office, and I speak to our (non-Chinese) interns mostly in Chinese as well (as long as they’re not absolute beginners).

On Studying before You Arrive

Me, Scott, Vat

Scott mentions that he had studied Chinese for 105 hours before coming to China. Vat didn’t. I’m sure there are other factors at play, but there was a noticeable difference between Scott’s and Vat’s Chinese levels. I think Scott was also putting more time into Chinese in China (Vat also had video and architecture-related interests to pursue). But the head start undoubtedly helped Scott a lot.

This is a common thread I’ve seen in a lot of success stories, though: for China, in particular, prior study seems to help immensely. I’ve heard and discussed with friends theories about having to deal with the “triple threat” of (1) unfamiliar language, (2) tones, and (3) Chinese characters leading to higher levels of frustration when tackling Chinese. In fact, it’s a good reason to delay studying characters a bit, if it means less frustration and a stronger foundation in pinyin and pronunciation.

I had three semesters of Chinese before setting foot in China. I sure struggled when I got here, but I was essentially focusing entirely on listening and pronunciation for the first couple of months. I knew pinyin, had the grammar basics down, and knew all the characters I needed for a while. I know that focus helped me tremendously.

On Preventing Friendships

In the guest post, Scott states:

What matters is that you are not speaking English to prevent: (1) Forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese….

This is key, but it seems quite harsh. Can you imagine bumping into Scott while traveling around China, trying to strike up a friendly conversation with him about areas in Yunnan he’d recommend visiting, and being totally blown off by him in Chinese? Would you be heartless enough to similarly rebuff a friendly fellow traveller? This is exactly what Scott is advocating, though: “prevent[ing] forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese.”

I know that Scott is right, though. I also know people that have followed less extreme versions of this policy in order to make the most of their time in China, although those people tended to have more than just three months, so a few conversations here and there weren’t a huge deal. And then there’s the “expat bubble” crowd, of course. Most of those people didn’t intentionally form the bubble; it just “kind of happened.”

When I first started teaching at my first job in China at Zhejiang University City College (ZUCC), my only co-workers were four Australians. I fully expected those guys would be my new friends, and I was excited to finally get to know some Aussies. But they cruelly brushed me off; they were a tight-knit group, and not at all interested in letting me in. So I was on my own, lonely, and motivated to learn Chinese. I hung out with my Chinese roommate a lot. I studied. I went out and practiced with random people. I made more Chinese friends. I learned Chinese. I was kind of lucky, really.

This is one of those personality things, though. I’d be curious to hear from readers who have tried this, whether successful or not, and what the results were.

Communication Is the Challenge

I have only vague memories of learning geometry in high school. I liked it because you got to draw stuff, and while some of my classmates hated doing proofs, I didn’t mind them so much. I saw them as sort of a puzzle, and the logic of the whole process appealed to me. I can’t say I ever really loved geometry or found it fun, however.

Euclid the Game

Fast forward to last weekend. I discovered “Euclid the Game” on Hacker News. It presents geometric challenges as a sort of game. It’s essentially the same as proofs, but rather than “prove this boring thing” it challenges you, and gives you a little toolbar with geometric “weapons” you can apply. One of the things that impressed me most is that after you demonstrate that you know how to construct a parallel or perpendicular line, or how to translate a line–with simpler tools–you gain new “shortcut buttons” for those tasks in your toolbar. Nice!

Anyway, the point of all this is that learning is a lot more fun when it’s presented as a fun challenge. How many of us had to learn geometry by memorizing axioms, and then theorems, and then drudging through joyless proofs? With this “Euclid the Game,” the challenge factor keeps you going, and the stuff you’re supposed to memorize you just kind of “pick up” because you need it to solve the challenges. And the cherry on top is that there’s more than one correct way to solve the challenges, because, hey, geometry is flexible like that.

Does any of this sound familiar? (Yes, I’m talking about language learning.)

If you treat a language as a big long list of words and grammar points, then yes, you can drudge through it just like any other horrible soul-sucking schoolwork. But in language, the real challenge should always be communication with another human being. If your language learning method doesn’t involve this crucial feature, it’s time to start questioning your methods.

Maybe geometry isn’t your thing at all, and unlike me, you could never get into “Euclid the Game.” But everyone enjoys communicating. Put down the flashcards and take up the challenge.

communication

Scott Young on Short-term Chinese Immersion

This is a guest post by blogger Scott Young. He got in touch with me before we met in China, and I was impressed by his “All Chinese All the Time” enthusiasm. In this post he shares some advice on how to create an immersion experience if you’re only in China for a short time and really serious about learning Chinese. (Oh, also the video his friend Vat made is pretty cool, too.)


In China and can’t access Vimeo? See the mini-documentary on YouKu

I think most people would agree immersion is the best way to learn a language. Unfortunately, that can often be difficult to pull off, even if you live in the country with the language you’re trying to learn. Immersion in China can be even trickier, where both difficulties with the language and the culture can be difficult barriers to surmount.

After a three-month stay in China, I’m hardly an expert on learning Chinese. However I did go from a minimal amount of prior self-study (105 hours, exactly), to passing the HSK 4 and being able to hold fairly complex conversations in Chinese after my brief stay.

At the risk of sounding immodest, I believe immersion was the key to my progress and I believe it’s the biggest component most new learners in China lack which holds them back. In this article, I want to spell out exactly what steps I took to create a sustainable immersive environment to improve my Chinese over a short stay.

Immersion from the First Day

One of the most important factors is that I aimed for an immersive environment, from the first day in China. Given I was barely able to make up a sentence and couldn’t understand anything Chinese people were saying to me, that might sound too difficult to replicate.

However, I believe it is possible to create an immersive environment from the first day, even if you aren’t enrolled in one of those fancy boarding schools which force you to speak Chinese. Second, I believe this step is one of the most important you can take for your overall rate of improvement.

A Tale of Two Languages

Chinese isn’t my first foreign language I’ve learned. That was French.

I lived in France for a year during my senior year of university. Despite four years of grade school classes, my French was nonexistent. I had always wanted to learn a foreign language, so getting an opportunity to live abroad was the perfect time to do that.

Three months into my stay in France, with roughly the same advance preparation as I had for China, I wrote a French exam that all students were required to take. I scored a D. (Which according to the school roughly translated into an “A2” by the CEFR)

I’m still mostly the same person I was four years ago. Certainly any innate talent for learning languages, if such a thing exists, would have been the same then as it is now. My motivation for learning French was at least as strong as learning Chinese. So why did I fail to do what I have done in Chinese with an “easy” language like French?

I believe the difference was immersion.

Although I was living in France to learn French, most of my friends were other foreigners who spoke English. Even the French friends I had tended to speak in English with me because we were part of an English speaking group.

By the time I had realized my mistake, it had become very hard to change course. The only way I could start an immersive environment now would have been to cut off all my non-French speaking friends and force myself to speak in an unfamiliar language with people who were used to me speaking to them in English.

After this experience, I resolved to do things differently next time. So when I came to learn Chinese, I wanted to make sure I was building an immersive environment from Day 1.

How to Build an Immersive Environment with Limited Chinese

Immersion sounds great, but it’s definitely easier said than done. I believe that managing the development of your environment while living in China can be trickier than learning Chinese, and it’s very easy to get into some bad habits (or friendships) that will hold you back.

The most direct step I took was simply not speaking in English.

The no-English rule is not possible to perfectly implement (at least for mere mortals like myself). I had to speak in English when I arrived to the landlord. I had to use English in some brief moments to coordinate with possible tutors. I had to use English with Vat, my friend who I traveled with and shot the documentary you can see at the top of this article, as he hadn’t done the same amount of prior preparation as myself.

However, even an imperfect attempt at not speaking English can still be good enough for practical purposes. What matters is that you are not speaking English to prevent:

  1. Forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese.
  2. Beginning friendships with Chinese people who want to use you to practice their English.
  3. Using a bit of initial isolation to motivate yourself to learn Chinese and make Chinese friends.

This is an intense strategy, so you might be wondering whether it’s something you can successfully execute. I’ve done this now with Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and I’m currently in the beginning phases of applying it with Korean. While it can be very intense, I want to stress that the intensity is mostly temporary.

Chinese may take a little longer to break in than a European language, but you will break through, and when you do, you’ll be in the immersive environment you need to make rapid improvements in your Chinese.

What happens if you fail? Don’t worry, pick yourself up and try again. The goal isn’t perfection, simply enough commitment to using Chinese that you get the three benefits I listed above.

Specific Strategies for Getting Over the Hump

Simply not speaking in English is rather vague, so I want to add some concrete examples of steps I found useful, both in China, and in other countries where I’ve applied this technique.

1. Make friends with your tutor and ask him or her to introduce you to new friends.

China can be a hard country to befriend strangers when your ability with the language is quite low. It wasn’t until the third month that I found myself starting to make friends randomly, as before my Chinese was too limited to have more than basic chit-chat.

My strategy in China was to actually get a couple tutors around the same age as myself (I ended up settling on two), who I could have lessons with. From the day I first met them, I mentioned that I was interested in meeting other Chinese people, so I tried to pick tutors who could introduce me to other Chinese speaking people.

That strategy is a bit slow, and it took me two weeks before I was getting introductions, but it ended up resulting in dozens of new friends, all in Chinese.

2. Get a home-base restaurant and talk to the staff.

This is a good one in China because restaurants are so cheap and numerous, but I’ve used it in all of the countries I applied this method, so I believe it is easily replicable.

Basically, find a place where you (a) like the food enough to eat there everyday and (b) the owner or staff is very friendly and chatty with you. Even if you can’t have great conversations with them yet, this can be a good first friendship in the language because you will see them often enough that there is no need for complex introductions or swapping of contact details.

3. Go to language meetups, once you’ve successfully had all-Chinese tutoring sessions.

I like language exchanges for making friends in the language. But these can be a trap in China, where everyone just practices English on the largely non-Chinese speaking foreign population.

The problem isn’t that Chinese people won’t speak in Chinese with you. Just the opposite, I’ve found most Chinese people like talking to foreigners, and are quite happy when they don’t have to use their English (even in language meetups). Most people I’ve met have been quite patient with me as I’ve stuttered out broken sentences.

The problem is that, if you haven’t successfully had a conversation with one of your tutors entirely in Chinese (or at least mostly in Chinese, where you weren’t constantly switching back to full English sentences), it is easy to get sucked into the English speaking groups.

Conclusions

You might have a job in China where you need to speak English, so fully avoiding the problems I mentioned are out of the question. However, the same steps can be applied privately to start surrounding yourself in a Chinese-speaking social circle, so that you can at least get the benefits of partial immersion.

Immersion is an intense strategy, but it’s also one you must design. Unfortunately, many first-timers believe it is guaranteed by living in the country and then lament at the difficulty of learning Chinese when they’ve made little progress despite years in China.

The intensity may be uncomfortable for the first month or two, but that’s a one-time cost. Once you reach an intermediate level of Chinese, continuing to improve by making new Chinese-speaking friends gets easier and easier. Averaged out over years, I believe immersion actually takes less effort than constant amount of Chinese study within an English-speaking bubble, it just happens to compress most of that effort in the first bit.

Scott Young is a blogger, traveler and author of Learn More, Study Less (recently published in Chinese). If you join his newsletter, you can get a free ebook detailing the strategy he uses to learn faster.

Hacking Chinese Resources

Olle at Hacking Chinese has just announced Hacking Chinese Resources, a new voting-style collection of useful tools for studying Chinese. Check it out.

The danger in a project like this is that it will be overrun by marketing agents with their own agendas, and that the content which rises to the top doesn’t actually represent the best of what’s out there. Olle looks like he’s making efforts to deal with that issue, so here’s hoping Hacking Chinese Resources does well.

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