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.

Spring 2014 Characterplay

It’s no secret that I enjoy seeing Chinese characters with some kind of visual design twist (I sometimes call it “characterplay”), and I’m getting more and more friends and readers sharing photos with me. Keep them coming!

基本髪

Here’s one shared by Matt Scranton:

Jiben-Fa

So the character that means “hair” is in traditional Chinese, in simplified.

Here are some others I found myself around Shanghai:

外星人也要吃的饼

外星人也喜欢的饼

心情

This one took me a few seconds to figure out:

Notesy Name

飞来橫财

A play about suddenly getting rich.

飞来橫财

爸气十足

A play on the phrase 霸气十足, which means something “totally dominating.” Changing the oppressive “霸气” to “爸气” (which isn’t a real word) makes it seem friendlier (and appropriate for a Father’s Day promotion), though.

Father's Day

Also, you have the little hearts in and .

Me in 20 Years: a Chinese Kid’s Essay

I love this kid’s essay! (Most of it is fairly simple, but there are a few really hard parts. Electronic transcript and translation follow.)

child essay

四年级3班:蒋小强

作文:《二十年后的我》

今天天气不错,我和老婆带着我们
一对可爱的儿女环游世界。突然,路
边冲出一个浑身恶臭、满脸污秽、无家
可归的老太太。天啊!她竟然是我
二十年前的语文老师!

这个星期你站着上课!

And the English translation:

Grade 4, Class #3: Jiang Xiaoqiang

Essay: “Me in 20 Years”

Today the weather is nice, so my wife and I take
our darling son and daughter to travel the world. Suddenly,
from the side of the road emerges a reeking, filthy-faced,
homeless old woman. My God! It’s none other than my
Chinese teacher from 20 years ago!

This week you stand through class!

My Chinese friends are of the opinion that it’s fake and the handwriting isn’t a real third grader’s, but I was still very amused by this.

Also, if you’re trying to read this and feeling frustrated, these are the really hard parts (well beyond intermediate-level):

  • 环游世界: to take a trip around the world
  • 冲出: to charge out
  • 浑身: from head to toe
  • 恶臭: stench
  • 满脸: the entire face
  • 污秽: filthy
  • 无家可归: homeless (lit. “no home to return to”)
  • 竟然: unexpectedly (a grammar point)

Never Trust a Native Speaker

A better title for this post would be “never trust a native speaker completely.” We all know instinctively that the mind of a native speaker is an essential resource for learning a language. Put enough of these native speakers together, and you can create the immersion experience which all learners crave in order to truly level up their fluency. But as for an isolated, individual native speaker… there are a few issues to keep in mind.

Below I’ve summed up the three big reasons why you can’t trust native speakers (completely), and then rounded it off with some advice:

#1: Ignorance

Put simply, most native speakers don’t know their language inside and out. Sure, they can speak their native language, and maybe even write it well. But when you start asking them more “meta” questions, many native speakers will struggle to give a straightforward or meaningful answer.

The kinds of things native speakers often struggle with when queried on their native tongues:

  • Why is this wrong?
  • What is the difference between these two words?
  • How do you express this obscure idiomatic phrase from my language in your native tongue?

A lot of times, the native speaker honestly wants to help, but they’re just not equipped to do so. Being masters at their own native tongue does not make them qualified to answer your metalinguistic questions. They may even refuse to answer your crazy learner questions (and in some cases, they may be well justified, since we learners tend to over-analyze at times).

So while it sounds strange to call a native speaker ignorant of his own language, when it comes to the “meta,” most native speakers are.

So to address the types of questions mentioned above:

  • Native speakers don’t normally have to identify why something in their language is wrong. If something they say ever comes out wrong, they can fix it, based on their intuition. But they don’t ever have to say why they had to fix it. “It sounded weird” is the furthest they ever need to go down that line of thinking. (You don’t actually need to know why either, just as babies don’t need to know why. But sometimes you really want to know, and it can save time.)
  • Native speakers know how to use similar words differently, but it’s not likely to be conscious. Or the differences they are conscious of (like “they’re, their, and there” in English) seem painfully obvious to even half-way diligent non-native speakers. (Having these types of questions answered well can often save you a lot of time spent on trial and error learning.)
  • If the phrase from your language is obscure but this person has learned it, it’s possible that they learned it specifically because it was hard to translate. There’s a big chance they’ll fall back on a stock explanation for this that eclipses the myriad of untranslatable nuance. (This kind of question is typically not something you really need answered anyway, though.)

When it comes to the problem of ignorance, this is where language teachers have a huge leg up on the average joe. Especially experienced language teachers will have addressed the “why is this wrong” and “what’s the difference between these two words” many times, and will have gotten good at them. They might even be so good that they can give simple answers that enable you to grasp the essence and move on, instead of needlessly delving into endless minutiae.

[See also: Olle's take on this at Hacking Chinese.]

#2: Cockiness

OK, some some native speakers do have some meaningful metalinguistic insight into their own language. They might be language teachers, or translators, or just people that like to reflect on the peculiarities of their native tongue. These people are super helpful, and likely even enjoy answering your questions, so they’re great to have around.

The problem can occur when these people get a little cocky and start trying to make sweeping claims about their native tongue. They’re like the over-eager cop outside his jurisdiction. Allow me to illustrate with a little story from my own English-teaching past. (Oh yes… I was the cocky bastard in this story.)

fac-24

Learning English from a cocky teacher

When I first started teaching Chinese English majors, I noticed they were really bad at informal spoken English. One particularly glaring example was that the only greetings that they could handle were “hello” and “how are you?” I quickly banned those two, forced them to start using “hi” and “hey,” and taught them these greetings:

  • The “how greetings”: How’s it going? How are you doing?
  • The “what greetings”: What’s up? What’s new? What’s going on?

When a few of my students wanted to say “how are you going?” I made quite clear that this was wrong (bad English), and they were not to say it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that Australians regularly say “how are you going?” To make matters worse, some of the students I taught were preparing to study abroad in Australia!

I meant well (and those students seriously needed to learn some new informal greetings), but I presumed to speak as the authority on the entire English language (at the ripe old age of 24, no less), as an American, without even having substantial contact with non-American English. And that was just overstepping my bounds. I was cocky.

It’s surprisingly easy to do this as a teacher, though, even if you’re pretty sure you’re not cocky at all. There will always be weird exceptions and unfamiliar dialects, as well as new expressions coming into vogue. Teachers do their best, I know, but it can be difficult to play the role of “language authority” without buying into the vastness of one’s own “enlightened native speaker” knowledge at least a little.

#3: Impossibility

This is what I was alluding to at the end of the last section: it just isn’t possible to know everything about a language, even if you’re an educated native speaker. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences between similar words. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences in dialects of your native tongue. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just what words are falling out of common usage (becoming outdated), and what new words and phrases the kids are using these days. But what you can’t do is all of those things, in one lifetime (and definitely not by the age of 24).

In Linguistics 101 in college I was intrigued by the the concept of the ideolect, the idea that no single person uses the entirety of a given language, and no person uses the language they do use in exactly the same way. The entirety of a language exists as the sum of all speakers’ ideolects. It is inherently distributed (across the minds of speakers), and can never be fully centralized (except maybe by SkyNet some day?). This pretty much blew my mind.

And so linguists and language teachers will make efforts to see beyond their own ideolects, and to see the fuller picture of the language they are trying to understand. But the human brain can only hold so much, and there’s only so much time. A language is a big thing.

So… what now?

I hope I’ve convinced you that native speakers are fallible, and they cannot help but be so, when it comes to perfectly representing The Ultimate Truth about their mother tongues. But each has the most insight of anyone into his own ideolect.

No, you can’t trust a native speaker. But you can trust native speakers, as a group.

If it’s an important or tricky question, always get a second opinion. Better yet, if you’re an advanced learner, present conflicting evidence collected from multiple native speakers to those native speakers. This can produce fascinating insight for learners, and often for the native speakers themselves.

Here’s one simple experiment for Chinese learners which can reveal the multiplicity of opinions native speakers can hold: ask help from Chinese native speakers in choosing a Chinese name. For best results, ask for suggestions from multiple native speakers as well, and add those to the list. Then ask lots of different Chinese people what they think of the different Chinese names. Here’s what typically happens:

  1. Some names will sound bad to almost everyone
  2. Some names will sound fine to almost everyone
  3. A few names will produce wildly different reactions

When I went through this process myself, years ago, I expected to find the “perfect name” that everyone agreed was awesome and perfect for me. That didn’t happen. I still remember quite clearly the dissenting opinions on the name I eventually chose (which got mostly positive feedback):

  1. It sounds like a peasant’s name
  2. It sounds like a monkey’s name

(I chose it anyway, because enough people thought it was a decent name, and I liked it.)

Whether you’re a learner or a metalinguistic advisor on your own native tongue, though, my advice is the same: Stay humble. Stay curious. And talk to lots of native speakers.

The 3 “de” in Popular Culture

I’ve previously mentioned a song about the “three de (, , ) issue in Mandarin Chinese. Now it’s even been meme-ified using shots from a TV show:

Three De's

  1. First Guy: 现在还区分的、得、地的用法吗? [Nowadays do we still distinguish between the usage of the three de's?]
  2. Second Guy: 我家的地得扫了。 [The floor in my home needs sweeping.]
  3. First Guy: ……

The Joke

OK, truth be told, the second guy is cheating. While he did use all three “decharacters, he used two of them as different words from the structural particles that comprise the “three de‘s.”

The words he used:

  1. : He used this one as an attributive, which is a kind of structural particle. This one is one of the “three de‘s”!
  2. : As a particle, this word is pronounced “de,” and frequently comes after after adjectives-cum-adverbs, before verbs. However, here it’s pronounced “dì,” and means “ground” or “floor.” Not one of the “three de‘s.”
  3. : As a particle, this word is pronounced “de,” and frequently comes after verbs. However, here’s it’s pronounced “děi” and means “must,” and comes before the verb (to sweep). Not one of the “three de‘s.”

So he used all three “de” characters (in a row!), but they weren’t the structural particles the first guy was talking about.

The real answer

In reality, the question which set up the joke is a good one: nowadays, do native speakers of Chinese distinguish between the “three de‘s” when writing?

The answer is yes and no. Professional writers certainly do. Teenagers texting their friends are typically pretty lazy and won’t pay much attention to the distinction (frequently over-using ). Because so many people are typing these days, and predictive text isn’t so good at differentiating the three de‘s, lots of errors creep into common usage (in texts, on WeChat, on blogs, etc.), and everyone is used to seeing them. Some native speakers will even tell you that the distinction is unimportant.

So if you’re trying to write proper Chinese, then yes, you should pay attention to the distinction. If it’s just casual texting, no one is going to be horrified when you use the wrong de.

Fire Vocabulary

火-red

Image via Wikimedia Commons

My daughter learned her first Chinese character at around the age of two, when she was obsessed with fire safety. That character was (fire). Now, at age two and a half, she’s voluntarily learning lots more characters. The as her starting point reminded me of something: there are a lot of cool words in Chinese that start with the character !

So here’s my list of relatively beginner-friendly nouns that start with the character , some literal character-by-character renderings for fun, and the English translations of the words.

Chinese Pinyin Literal English
火车 huǒchē fire car train
火鸡 huǒjī fire chicken turkey
火腿 huǒtuǐ fire leg ham
火山 huǒshān fire mountain volcano
火星 Huǒxīng fire star Mars
火球 huǒqiú fire ball fireball
火花 huǒhuā fire flower spark
火药 huǒyào fire medicine gunpowder
火箭 huǒjiàn fire arrow rocket

I can remember that learning words like these were an enormous part of the charm of just starting to learn Chinese. “Fire mountain”? “Fire arrow” for “rocket”? Awesome. It’s nice to get away from languages that just keep recycling Greek and Latin roots and dig into a language that mostly just uses itself as its own lexical building blocks.

Mandarin Chinese versus Vietnamese

The following is a guest post by “Prince Roy.” If you’ve been following the blogosphere for a long, long time, you might recognize the name and remember his China blog, which was hosted on the (now defunct) Sinosplice blogging network. He also wrote the guest article Integrated Chinese (Levels 1, 2): A View From the Trenches on Sinosplice as well. In this post he’s going to share his personal experiences learning Vietnamese in preparation for being stationed there by the U.S. State Department, after having already learned Mandarin Chinese years ago to an advanced level.


When John asked me to comment on my experiences learning Vietnamese and Chinese, I was happy to oblige, because it allows me to try and wrap my head around what I’ve been through since I began studying Vietnamese last September (8 ½ months ago now). In the interests of full disclosure, I studied Chinese for a total of five years, and have spoken it now almost 25 years.

I will cut to the chase: Vietnamese is enormously more difficult than Chinese. Hands down. It’s not even close. Some of you may recall a seminal essay by David Moser: “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard”. I had the pleasure to meet David recently (his Chinese is superb, by the way), and here’s some unsolicited advice for David and anyone else who might agree with him: if you think Chinese is hard, steer far, far clear of Vietnamese. I studied both languages in a very intensive environment, but when I recall my (much greater) proficiency in Chinese after the equivalent period spent learning Vietnamese, I can only cringe in shame at my Viet inadequacy. True, this is just my own experience, but don’t take my word for it—every person I know who has studied both languages sings the same sad song—Chinese is far easier than Vietnamese in every way except, just maybe, reading. Why is this? Here are a few general thoughts:

Pronunciation

This is the big one. It is hard to imagine two sound systems more diametrically opposed than English and Vietnamese. Every aspect of Vietnamese phonology is hard. Vietnamese has single, double and even triple vowels. Few of them are remotely similar to English, and just the slightest mispronunciation will result in an unintended vowel. This, compounded with the tones, can easily render one’s speech unintelligible or worse.

The pronunciation of a consonant can change depending on whether it occurs at the beginning or end of a word. There is a multitude of nasal and glottal sounds that don’t exist in English or Mandarin. In southern Vietnamese, the dialect I am learning, people often pronounce ‘v’ as ‘y’—to add to the confusion, ‘d’ and ‘gi’ are also pronounced as a ‘y’ sound’. The consonant pair that has given me the most difficulty is t/đ (different from the ‘d’ above). In normal speed speech, I cannot distinguish them; in the language lab only if I listen very closely. Here’s a real-life example of why this is so critical: a very common dish in Vietnam is phở bò tái—rare beef pho. But when I pronounce this in Vietnamese, my teachers say they hear ‘phở bò đái’, literally ‘cow piss pho’. Oops. Umm…waiter?

In short, I’ve found Chinese phonology presents much less difficulty than Vietnamese.

Tones

Vietnamese Tones

Image from Wikipedia

Like Chinese, Vietnamese is tonal, but the similarity ends there. The northern (Hanoi) dialect has 6 tones; the southern (Saigon) has 5. Thankfully, I’m learning the Saigon dialect, because that extra tone of the Hanoi dialect is a ‘creaky’ tone which has the effect to my ears like nails on chalkboard. I had hoped my experience with Chinese would prove beneficial—the tones in Mandarin always seemed somewhat intuitive to me, even from when I first began to study the language. Not to say I am completely error free, but tones were never problematic for me to the degree they often are for other students.

Having spoken Chinese for so many years, I plead guilty to tonal transfer, but in my own defense, tones in Vietnamese are more subtle, and for me, not nearly as intuitive. Two that give me a lot of trouble are the dấu huyền and dấu nặng tones (low-falling and low-dropping), particularly when occurring consecutively and spoken at conversational speed. Also, the dấu sắc (high-rising) tone is tough for me, because I tend to produce it like the second tone of Mandarin, which is wrong. However, tones are the least of my worries in Vietnamese; I think they will come more naturally after I arrive in Vietnam this August. And at least my teachers tell me I sound tonal when I speak, albeit with a somewhat pronounced Chinese accent.

Grammar, etc.

Vietnamese, like Chinese and English, is an SVO language. But that is its only concession. Vietnamese grammar is the most difficult aspect of the language after pronunciation. Similar to Chinese, sentence particles are a very important grammatical component, but Vietnamese takes this to a stratospheric level of complexity. I also believe Chinese is more flexible than Vietnamese—in the former, once you learn a particular sentence pattern, you can pretty much plug anything into it, and while it might not be the way a native speaker would say it, they will often understand you. Not so in Vietnamese. Phrase memorization is more useful than patterns, because if you don’t say it exactly like a Vietnamese does, you will usually encounter a blank expression on the face of your listener.

Another characteristic of Vietnamese is it boasts an extraordinary number of synonyms. Chinese is rich in synonyms too, of course, but the difference is that in Chinese, you might commonly encounter two to three of them in typical popular usage. In Vietnamese, it seems people like to use all of them.

But all is not lost

Vietnamese is indeed a very rich, complex language—in fact my classmates and I have an inside joke: Tiếng Việt rất phong phú (Vietnamese is a very rich language) = Vietnamese is really, really hard. But there is an upside for those with a Chinese background when learning Vietnamese. Due to the roughly 1000-year period that Vietnam was a colony of China, Chinese had an enormous influence on the Vietnamese language. I can determine a Chinese cognate in up to 60% of the vocabulary I’ve learned to this point. Its close relationship with Chinese is both a blessing and a curse, however. A blessing, because I can often correctly guess the meaning of words when I encounter them in a text, and a curse because that close relationship makes it harder for me to take Vietnamese on its own terms—and this language, like its people, is fiercely proud and independent. I feel as though I am treading water in Vietnamese, and my facility in Chinese allows me to, just barely, keep my nostrils above the water. That’s why I’m in awe of those among my classmates who are making good progress in Vietnamese without the benefit of Chinese. It makes their achievement all the more amazing.

Salaries Posted Publicly in Job Ads

I’ve noticed around Shanghai that certain places of businesses sometimes put up big ads announcing they are hiring which also list specific jobs and their respective salaries. Below are three examples I’ve seen in the past few months.

1. A Restaurant

Restaurant Employees Needed

Positions:

Waitress: 2800-3300 RMB/month

Food Server: 2800-3300 RMB/month

Hostess: 2800-3500 RMB/month

Shift manager: 3300-3800 RMB/month

Food Prep: 2700-3200 RMB/month

Note: The original Chinese job titles are actually gender neutral, but I added gender into some of my translations for ease of translation. Also, 打荷 is not a word you’re going to find in your dictionary.

2. A Hair Salon

Hair Salon Employees Needed

Positions:

Hair Stylist’s Assistant (5 people) 2000-3000 RMB

Barber’s Apprentice (5 people) 1000-2000 RMB

3. A Massage Center

Foot Massage Employees Needed

Positions:

Store Manager 3500-4500 RMB

Store Manager’s Assistant 2600-3000 RMB

Customer Service Manager 2300-2600 RMB

Cashier 2000-2500 RMB

Foot Bath Masseuse 3500 and up

Trainer 4000-5000 RMB

Masseuse 5000-8000 RMB

Service Staff 2000-3000 RMB

Sanitation Staff 1800-2600 RMB

Keep in mind that in China salaries are normally given as monthly pay, rather than yearly pay. (So, for example, a salary of 2000 RMB per month would be roughly 320 USD per month, or $3,840 yearly.)

I find this kind of peek into workers’ wages interesting, because China’s economy is changing fast, and not at all uniformly. As an employer in Shanghai I’m acutely aware that salaries are steadily rising, although clearly there are many industries and sectors of the workforce where the wages here are still relatively low.

Are these the real wages you get if you apply? Does pay really range from the low end to the high end of the ranges given? Sorry, I can’t help you there.

Chinese Grammar: just jump in!

I recently wrote a guest post on Olle Linge’s excellent blog, Hacking Chinese: How to Approach Chinese Grammar. At a later date I’ll probably adapt it to more specifically relate to AllSet Learning’s work on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, but in the meantime, I made this little visual metaphor to add to what I said in that article:

Chinese grammar: video game controller metaphor

I was actually originally thinking the metaphor would be like the difference between a video game that you have to read the manual or you basically can’t even play it, and the kind of game where you can easily just “jump in” and learn as you play. (Although there used to be a lot of games of the first type, nowadays most console games are actually of the second type, with built-in tutorials.) But the above visual was a lot simpler and to-the-point, and makes sense to gamers and non-gamers alike.

Feel free to copy and share the image.

Multilingual, Multi-Personality

Dining out in Chinatown

Photo by London Transport Museum

In the past, I’ve speculated on how the second language acquisition process contributes to changes in the personality of the learner. Recently an article called Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities on New Republic caught my attention. It turns out it’s actually based on the same research as I quoted in my Cross-Cultural Marital Communication: Sacrifice, Identity, Choice post, but it’s still an interesting topic well worth revisiting (5 years later).

Questions

This time, rather than insights, though, I just have questions. I’m curious how my readers out there might answer the following:

  1. Do you consciously try to create and/or maintain a different personality for your foreign language (FL) speaking identity?

  2. If you don’t consciously try to create and/or maintain a different personality for your FL identity, how do you determine if your FL personality is any different from your native language identity?

  3. If certain languages tend to influence personality in a certain way (as the New Republic article suggests), what personality traits would speaking Mandarin Chinese impart onto its non-native speakers?

Answers

Here are my own answers:

  1. Yes, I did that. I could only keep it up for so long, though, before my fluency made me self-conscious about maintaining my more outgoing, chatty Chinese self. I suspect that some people might be able to keep it up, though, depending on the specific “personality modifications” and the degree to which they’re applied.

  2. Even after I “corrected” my Chinese self, making it more like my English-speaking self, my two personalities aren’t going to be 100% the same, if the New Republic article is to be believed (and I believe it). Most people I know don’t have the language skills or the opportunity to make such a comparison. Maybe Jenny from ChinesePod is in a decent position to judge, but she knows me mostly from how I am at work. That leaves basically just my wife, who’s not a native speaker of English, but is still in a good position to judge. No way to get an objective assessment, though (short of participating in an official experiment)!

  3. This is really hard to say. One way to judge might be to look at how expats in China relate to each other in China, compared to how they relate back home. For example, they may be less shy about asking someone how much they make (kind of a taboo in most western countries). So… speaking Chinese makes you nosier about money?? Not exactly insightful. Obviously, there are problems with the method, too. I’m especially curious what other people think about this: what personality traits would speaking Mandarin Chinese impart onto its non-native speakers?

Leave a comment and answer all three questions, if you have the time! (Insight into acquisition of any language is fine; it doesn’t have to be Chinese.)

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