Fans of free language-learning app Duolingo have been waiting for a Mandarin Chinese course ever since Duolingo launched, way back in 2012. In the meantime, many languages with much less demand have been added, including Greek, Hungarian, Esperanto, and even High Valyrian. Could it be that tackling Chinese took a bit more thought then other languages (some find it challenging)?
In the meantime, a few Chinese companies have stepped in to fill the gap. The first was ChineseSkill, which unabashedly mimicked Duolingo’s method with its own app. It proved quite popular.
A few years later, HelloChinese came along, bringing various new features and innovations to the method. Then ChineseSkill and HelloChinese became engaged in a feature war which, one could argue, greatly benefited the users of the apps. HelloChinese (led by my former ChinesePod co-worker Vera) gained quite a following in the process, proving that a spunky little startup can totally take on a well-funded traditional company.
And now Duolingo has finally decided to join the game. It makes me wonder what will happen to the other two apps. Will they immediately fade into obscurity? Will they innovate more furiously, only to be copied by Duolingo? Will they evolve into something else entirely? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, it’s a good time to be a user of Duolingo-like apps if you’re trying to learn Chinese.
I haven’t tried out the Duolingo Chinese course myself yet (or any Duolingo course, for that matter, since testing out the platform with French, years ago). I’m not a huge fan of the method, although I recognize it has value, particularly for building vocabulary in an addictive way. It’s just not a “complete method,” as it may want you to believe. But hey, it’s definitely high quality, and free.
Has anyone out there started the Mandarin Chinese course? What do you think?
Update: Duolingo does indeed seem to have updated its platform to cover the challenges of learning tones and learning Chinese characters. See Duolingo’s blog post on the Chinese course for more details.
I want to share a WeChat account I’ve found interesting called 罗辑思维 (a little play on what sounds like “Logical Thinking,” since the host’s surname is Luo). It’s not a podcast about formal logic; the topic is all kinds of useful ideas and thoughts on modern society, with a healthy sprinkling of issues related to entrepreneurship. It’s well-suited to advanced learners, and it has the following key advantages:
- Every audio post is only 60 seconds long (called 罗胖60秒). No “listening marathons” here.
- Every audio post has a nicely organized transcript (numbered points!) just below it.
- Yes, there is some salesy content, but the main topics are still interesting and the sales messages are short and easy to ignore.
- 罗胖‘s voice is clear and he is easy to listen to.
- His material is a good example of Chinese content marketing, if you’re into that sort of thing.
It’s so hard to find material this is both interesting (to non-Chinese) and short, and this is one of the best resources I’ve found. (Please let me know what you think of it in the comments!)
I personally find all 8 of his most recent topics quite interesting, so here they are (no filtering needed):
Here are a few screenshots of those:
To find the WeChat account, just search for “罗辑思维” on WeChat. [Note: you’ll still find it if you search for “逻辑思维.”] There are also videos on YouTube and Youku.
罗胖‘s real name is 罗振宇. You can read more about him on his Baidu Baike page.
What good material have you found on WeChat?
Spotted this sign on 老外街 (“Laowai Street”) on Hongmei Road (虹梅路).
First of all, “xu” in pinyin is how you spell the word for “SHHH” (the “shushing” sound) in Chinese. It even has a character: 嘘.
Second, the translation “don’t be too noisy still get happy” is understandable, I guess, but let’s look at the original Chinese:
So 声音小一点 refers to one’s voice being a little quieter. The “if” part and the “you” subject are implied.
The 一样 means “the same,” but here it’s more naturally translated as “equally” or “just as.”
The “HIGH” in Chinese is not (usually) some kind of drug-induced state, but rather the “natural high” of just getting all excited and having a blast. There could be some drinking involved (think karaoke), but the emphasis is on the fun had.
The interesting thing here is that the word “HIGH” in Chinese is translated as “happy” in the English version. In fact, a co-worker of mine told me that she used to assume that the Chinese word “high” (sometimes written as “嗨“) was derived from the English word “happy” (a direct translation of 开心), rather than the English word “high.” (Who knows!)
And finally, the 起来 is the “expressing initiation” direction complement form. It has a 得 before it to turn the –起来 direction complement into a potential complement. In effect, “have fun” becomes “can have fun.”
I’d use this translation:
Being a little quieter,
you can still have
just as much fun.
Not as much fun, though, right? (XU!)
Nov. 13, 2017 Update: a friend wanted more explanation of the complement thing, so here it is, copied over from Facebook comments:
Question: The example in the Chinese Grammar Wiki makes sense: 早上 五点 出发 ， 孩子们 起 得 来 吗 ？… but that is 起得来 not 起起来！
Answer: In that example, 起 is a verb, and 来 is the direction complement. You insert 得 between the two to make it into a potential complement, adding the meaning of “can.” 起得来 = can get up.
The same is true for HIGH, only the complement is 起来 (in this case, 起 is not the verb). So that’s how you get HIGH得起来. (This one is harder to translate literally, though… “can get high” would be literal, but misleading (no drugs!).) “Can have a blast” is closer to the meaning, but you lose more of the V+起来 literal translation. “Can get happy” maybe, if you don’t mind a little Chinglish!)
In the blog entry, I linked to one grammar point on uses of 起来, and another on potential complements. It’s the combination of the two that you need to understand to fully get this. It’s a little tricky!
I’ve worked with some great interns over the years at the AllSet Learning office in Shanghai, and we’re currently looking for another one.
If you’re looking for an internship where you can actually use Chinese and learn more Chinese, this is the one. We have a Chinese-only rule for interns at our office, and your co-workers include actual professional Chinese teachers. It doesn’t get much better than this if you really want to learn some Chinese!
We have immediate openings, and internship length is flexible. Shoot me an email if you’re interested!
“I see” is a children’s dance studio in Shanghai. Here’s the logo:
Can you read the Chinese name? Hint: the first character is not just 火. (It’ll be much easier if you’re already familiar with the Chinese names of some popular fairytales. Or even if you’re familiar with the Chinese names of Disney animated classics.)
In this case, we’re dealing with the name 灰姑娘, literally, “ashes girl,” which is the Chinese name for “Cinderella.”
Confession time! I think it wasn’t until I learned the Chinese name for Cinderella that I even realized that the “Cinder” part of “Cinderella” was a reference to ashes rather than being kind of like a cross between “Cindy” and “Stella” with a random “er” thrown in for style.
According to Wikipedia, the “cinder” part “has to do with the fact that servants… were usually soiled with ash at that time, because of their cleaning work and also because they had to live in cold basements so they usually tried to get warm by sitting close to the fireplace.”
Anyway, it might be easy to miss that the dancer in the logo next to the 火 character is part of the larger character 灰.
Here’s the full text in the image:
In New York in the 80’s, the Ramones were clearly upset that somebody put something in their drink. Why then, 30 years later in Shanghai, does Budweiser expect us to get excited about it?
These ads are currently in Shanghai Metro’s Jing’an Temple Station:
Here’s a closeup of that first ad:
I posted these photos to my WeChat Moments with the caption “WTF?” I only got about 10 comments, but the response from Chinese friends and non-Chinese friends was quite different.
Chinese friends: Ha ha, cool!
Non-Chinese friends: Are you kidding me?! Not cool!
This is a great example of cultural differences playing out in the world of marketing. I wonder if Budweiser HQ is going to react to this.
This list of issues comes from a Quora post about “the dark side of Chinese culture.” (Each point goes into a little detail on the original post; I’m just listing the points and the Chinese synopsis provided for each.) This list may come across as a bit extreme in its criticisms, but there is some truth to each claim.
- Child abuse [referring largely to psychological abuse]. 打是亲，骂是爱
- Disrespect for individualism, due to the “big family” culture. 大家庭绑架个人自由
- Parents push their kids too hard. 望子成龙，望女成凤
- Mammonism. 拜金主义
- Social Darwinism. 成者为王，败者为寇
- Banqueting alcohol-enforcement culture. 强迫劝酒文化
- Lack of sympathy. 事不关己，高高挂起
- Sinocentrism. 中国中心主义
This list is a double-edged sword for non-Chinese learners of the language. On the one hand, Chinese people can be quite sensitive to perceived criticism from foreigners. Just reading out this whole list with an innocent “this is interesting, don’t you think?” is unlikely to get a neutral response because the list as a whole feels prettying damning of Chinese culture.
On the other hand, tons of Chinese people are concerned about these issues themselves (usually presented in less extreme ways), and presenting some of these issues individually and delicately could lead to some enlightening discussions.
One way to “test the waters” with a friend is to just present the viewpoint (just one of those Chinese sentences, individually) without any of your own commentary, and ask a friend what they think. If the friend gets immediately defensive, just nod in acceptance and consider the conversation over (no need for rebuttal). More likely you’ll get a tempered response, which leaves room for discussion. In this situation, I find a good strategy is to play “devil’s advocate” and argue the totally unnuanced, pro-China propaganda stance. (It’s not hard to play a convincing wide-eyed, naive foreigner.) Since very few Chinese people swallow propaganda whole, you are likely to get a sincere elaboration in response (“其实……“).
Perhaps learning to exercise a little cultural sensitivity while discussing real issues which touch on the “dark side” of Chinese culture is the way to avoid turning to the “dark side” of Chinese learning?
This parking payment system is in place under Sinan Mansions (思南公馆) in Shanghai:
Basically, your license plate gets scanned on the way in, and on the way out you just scan the QR code, input your license plate number, and pay with WeChat or AliPay. The gate opens automatically on your way out.
You have to remember to scan the QR code, but these are posted all around the parking garage, and it’s way more convenient then finding a little cashier’s office or paying at a booth at the gate.
This same parking garage has “eCars” for rent.
I first visited Australia in June 2003. I traveled with my friend Wilson, who was also my co-worker at ZUCC in Hangzhou. I remember it was tough saving up for that trip on my meager English teaching salary, and while we had enough funds to visit Brisbane, Gold Coast, Byron Bay, and Cairns, we didn’t have enough to go scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. We had enough to go snorkeling, though, and I’m sure glad we did, because it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is vanishing (or at least drastically changing) as the reef bleaches.
Here’s a shot from that trip:
Now I’m returning to Australia, 14 years later, with my wife and two kids. I can’t wait for my kids to experience this:
One thing I’ve noticed, living in Shanghai, is that there are an unusually large number of Australians in China that hail from Brisbane. (They’re like the Wenzhounese of Australia!) Now I’ve got a decent number of friends in the Brisbane area, including Matt S, Matt C, Ben J, and Fr. Warren. Although we’re not there yet, what I’ve seen of Aussie hospitality is quite impressive already.
As we approach China’s National Day (国庆节) holiday, it can be difficult to find a decent vacation spot that isn’t absolutely flooded with Chinese tourists. Forget anywhere cool in China; it’s mobbed. Forget convenient international destinations (Thailand, Japan); also mobbed. As far away as Australia is, certain areas of Australia will also be mobbed, so we’ll be having a relaxing time in slightly lower-profile Brisbane.
Anyway, happy birthday, PRC. I’m off to Australia…
I’m used to seeing English words mixed in with Chinese advertising copy, and even product names, but this name took me by surprise:
“茶π“?! Why in the world…?
I showed this to some Chinese friends, asking them why anyone would put π in the name of a bottled tea drink. No one had an answer.
I speculated that maybe the “π” was being used as a pun on 派, meaning “faction” or “clique”? They didn’t really like that theory, but they had nothing better to offer.
In my foolish optimism, I searched online for the answer, and discovered it in this article:
What is “Tea Pi,” you ask?
Nongfu Spring‘s official answer: a combination of tea and fruit flavors, infinitely unrepeating π, which is also our infinitely unrepeating youth!
Uhhh… there’s nothing I can say to that!
Translation: kids these days like random stuff.
I get a lot of questions from absolute beginners about Chinese word order. “I heard it’s almost the same as English. Is it??”
It’s not an easy question to answer, but the short answer is: “fairly similar for simple sentences.” And what does “fairly similar” mean exactly? Well, I recently made this video to answer that question!
You could almost make a list of sentence patterns, starting with the simple three-word “SVO” sentences (e.g. “I love you”), and see the Chinese and English word order slowly diverge as you add in more and more complexity. That goes a bit beyond the scope of that simple video, though.
TL;DR: similar, but you still need to study it a little!
P.S. IF you’re wondering where I got that awesome t-shirt, it’s from here.
Psychologists at the University of Chicago made some intriguing findings relating to how language learners make ethical decisions. The researchers posed a classic ethics dilemma to the non-native speakers: would you push a person to his death to save 5 others from dying?
Studies from around the world suggest that using a foreign language makes people more utilitarian. Speaking a foreign language slows you down and requires that you concentrate to understand. Scientists have hypothesized that the result is a more deliberative frame of mind that makes the utilitarian benefit of saving five lives outweigh the aversion to pushing a man to his death.
Super interesting! (And fortunately most of us are not learning foreign languages to be placed in roles where we preside over innocent citizens’ lives.)
This immediately made me think of the classroom language teacher who might frequently do foreign language discussions on ethical issues. One could do this for years, thinking all of your students were heartless bastards and the world is doomed, without even realizing this effect was at play. Theoretically.
Anyway, check out the full article on the study.
It’s hard to believe I’ve been working on converting the Chinese Grammar Wiki ebook into a print book for almost a year, but the work is finally done! You can buy the new print version on Amazon. It’s a hefty 2.2 pounds, and has 400 pages. And that’s just beginner and elementary (A1-A2)!
My staff and I were so happy to finally launch the print book that we promptly threw a party over it.
It was going to be a thick book no matter what, so I made sure we didn’t skimp on font size (the Chinese and pinyin fonts are a decent size), line height, or margins. The margins are quite generous. This is a book that you can take some serious notes in, if you are that type of learner.
One of the greatest things about this book, for me, is that the Chinese Grammar Wiki is still there, online and free, continuously updated. Students love it. But for anyone who can afford to support this ongoing project of ours, having an offline version (ebook or print) can be seriously useful.
Special thanks to the always inspiring Dr. David Moser for writing the Foreword, and my tireless content editor Chen Shishuang.
All friends of the Chinese Grammar Wiki: please help spread the word! We’re already working hard on the next book (I’d say it’s 75% done), and we need the support.
I have always felt that Jing’an Temple (静安寺) in Shanghai was a cool landmark, a gleaming Buddhist temple sitting right in Shanghai’s city center. Sure, it seems to be more of a tourist spot than an actual spiritual center, but the temple definitely imparts a certain flavor to the area.
Now the newly opened Raffles City Changning mall (长宁来福士广场) near Zhongshan Park (yes, right near the other massive mall in Zhongshan Park) has a similar landmark of its own: the Bell Tower. It used to be a church called St. Mary’s. Now it’s… I’m not sure what. (Still looks quite churchy, though.)
Her’s what the plaque reads:
此时 此地 | 钟楼
Time and Place | Bell Tower
The Bell Tower was completed in 1926. The tallest structure in St. Mary’s Hall, it stood in clear sight from far. Outside, its presence granted a sense of bearing of time and place. Inside, St. Mary’s students came for prayers and direction. Today, it continues to inspire as a venue for fashion, culture, and entertainment.
Saw this Game of Thrones / Chinese culture mash-up gem last night on a Chinese friend’s WeChat “Moments” stream. Too good not to share! Apparently a Chinese Photoshop artist created these, and I’d like credit this person, but I’m still trying to figure out who it is!
Too bad they’re not high-quality images… it seems they were intended for a smallish smartphone screen.
P.S. If anyone knows the original artist, please let me know, and I’ll credit his/her ASAP!
2017-08-17 Update: The Photoshop artist is Weibo user 青红造了个白. He/she has tons of other similar works. Thanks to Danielle Li and Rachel for the info!
I found this sign interesting, both for the characterplay with the 南, as well as for the interesting font design (which, unfortunately, also makes it a bit harder for learners to read):
The top reads 江南 (Jiangnan), which is the Chinese equivalent of “Gangnam” (yes, as in “Style”).
The bottom hard-to-read part says 偶巴尔坛, a transliteration of the Korean word “Obaltan” (오발탄), which apparently is the best Korean movie ever made? (I’m a bit out of my depth on this one.) Anyway, don’t feel bad for not knowing what 偶巴尔坛 is as a Chinese learner!
I never imagined that collaborating with a musician to create a fun song for learning Chinese grammar would result in a love song to stinky tofu (臭豆腐), of all foods! But that is indeed what happened last week. Check out the result, from Chinese Buddy:
It’s a fun song, and there are two kids in my house (and even an adult or two) that can’t stop humming it. From a grammatical perspective, the use of the verb 要 with various objects is highlighted.
My input into the Chinese learning part of the song was:
- Include 要, 不要, and 要不要 as well as a variety of objects
- Try not to let the melody of the song “warp” the tones of the important words too much (especially “yào”)
- Keep the tones as clear as possible, including the tone change for 不要 (bù yào → bú yào)
- Include some “spoken” audio in the song
Yep, four checks! If you’re a beginner working on basic sentence patterns, I hope you find this song helpful. As for the stinky tofu… well, I’ll leave that up to your own judgment.
Do also check out Chinese Buddy on YouTube. There are a bunch of songs (mostly oriented at children), and the styles of the songs range quite a bit, so don’t judge the music on just one or two songs. Probably my second favorite song would the the Tones Song. (Yeah, I have a thing for tones, and also ukulele music, maybe?)
July has been a super busy month for me, largely because of all the work that’s gone into getting the forthcoming Chinese Grammar Wiki BOOK out in print form, but also because of a host of other projects, both work-related and personal. So while I can’t say that all of that stuff is done (yet), I can share a little bit about what I’ve been busy with.
I probably would have managed a few more posts in July if not for getting hacked yet again, by some stupid malware script that found an old WordPress plugin exploit. Static site generators are looking more and more attractive…
I joined a gym! And not just any gym, but one that specializes in personal trainer services. It’s not cheap, but I signed up both because I need to get in shape and have been wanting to see what a personal trainer can do, but also because this kind of service is so analogous in so many ways to the personalized Chinese training service that AllSet Learning provides. This experience is offering lots of interesting insights, and I’ll be sharing more on this. (Curious if anyone else has made similar connections between body fitness and language training, on a very personal level?)
My daughter is five and a half, and her English reading is coming along, but now she’s also learning pinyin at the same time. How confusing is that? Turns out, not very. The concept “these same letters make different sounds in Chinese” is not super hard for a kid to get, it seems.
Much to my surprise, I also have a few small video projects in the works. The first one will be shared here very soon.
Everybody needs some down time, right? In between episodes of Game of Thrones, I’ve been immensely enjoying Horizon Zero Dawn. What an amazing game.
This is a sign from the streets of Shanghai:
The original character is 省, which has several meanings, but here is “save” in the sense of “be economical” and “not waste.” Note that in the unmodified original character, the bottom part is 目 and not 口. Wenlin explains 省 like this:
From 少 (shǎo) ‘little’ over 目 (mù) ‘eye’. To 目 watch carefully, to use 少 little, economize.
The drips under the first two in the image are actually characters, which read:
Build an economizing society
(I apologize for the poor translation; nothing is coming to mind for a better way to render this in English at the moment!)
I’d never seen an all-harmonica band before yesterday, and seeing one turn up in my own neck of the woods in Shanghai (Jing’an Park) was a special treat.
Yep, they had the appropriate performing license, and were playing in the park’s “street busker” area.
I wish I could tell you what they were playing, but sadly, it escapes me. Lively kind of “Old Susannah” vibe. (Not Chinese classics!)
Word of the day: 口琴, harmonica.