Please speak Mandarin (or laugh at me)

Please speak putonghua t-shirt

“Please speak putonghua”

Quite a while ago I made a shirt which had 请讲普通话 (“Please speak (standard) Mandarin”) on the front, and started selling it on the Sinosplice store (through CafePress). The idea is that if you challenge the people around you to talk to you in Chinese, they probably will. It wasn’t until my last visit to the States in February that I was able to pick up my own “Please speak Mandarin” t-shirt, and not until the weather warmed up recently that I was actually able to see the effect.

The first time I used it was in a cafe, where the waiter insisted on talking to me in English, even though I initiated in Chinese. It was a classic language power struggle. I pointed to my shirt and asked him to 请讲普通话, which was incredibly awkward for me to do. He then got it, but clearly found it extremely difficult to not use English with a foreigner.

Later in the day, I caught several girls reading my shirt, laughing, and pointing it out to their friends. They didn’t talk to me.

So, it’s only been Day 1 of the experiment, but so far empirical evidence suggests that this shirt may be amusing to Chinese girls. (My wife, on the other hand, found it a little embarrassing.)


Related: Other Sinosplice original t-shirts

Learning to Write Chinese Characters on the iPad

One of the reasons I rushed to get an iPad for my own company is that the iPad is the leading tablet computer device, and tablet computers, with their relatively large touch-driven screens, seem uniquely poised to offer a great learning experience for a new generation of learners. Now that the iPad has been out for a year, developers have had some time to dig into iOS and create some cool apps for learning to write Chinese characters.

The only problem is that they haven’t yet. It’s not that they haven’t done anything, it’s just that no major player with a lot of resources has put a lot of effort into creating a superior app just for teaching writing. Significant effort has gone into Pleco‘s iOS handwriting recognition and OCR function, but neither of these teaches writing.

Before I go into my reviews of the handful of Chinese writing apps I found, I should first pose a question: what should an app that teaches Chinese characters do? This is a question that at times seems neglected by app creators. It’s easier to focus on what can be done with an app, rather than what needs to be done for real learning.

To effectively teach the writing of Chinese characters in a comprehensive way, an app would need to do the following:

  1. Introduce the basic strokes, emphasizing the direction in which each is written and the shape of each.
  2. Introduce the building blocks of Chinese characters, calling attention to how they function is a part of a whole.
  3. Introduce the various structural types exhibited by Chinese characters, and the order in which characters’ various component parts should be written.
  4. Introduce new characters in a progressive way, building on what has come before, while still trying to stick to useful characters as much as possible.
  5. Provide practice writing the characters and give feedback.

This issue goes way beyond the scope of this blog post, but the point is that most of the apps out there now stick mainly to #5. Because most of the apps are largely about practicing writing, I’m going to talk mostly about the concepts of tracing and feedback. Now onto the reviews…


iPad Apps for Writing

Word Tracer

Price: $4.99

Feature Description
Tracing Yes (it’s in the name!)
Feedback Yes, a green star tells you where to start writing when you go off track. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
Free-form writing No; tracing only

iPad Apps for Writing

Word Tracer is a very polished app. It’s attractive and was clearly crafted with care. The issue of stroke direction takes center stage in this app, as a star in a green circle tells you where to start, and a series of numbers in little circles show you which way to make the strokes.

iPad Apps for Writing

While the app is not a course in characters (which would need to go through numbers 1-4 I outlined above), it does offer a nice collection of characters to choose from, ranging from a frequency list to common phrases. I missed this feature at first, and it definitely adds a lot.

iPad Apps for Writing

Overall, the app shows a lot of attention to detail. It wasn’t created to be a writing course, so it’s mainly a polished “writing practice app,” and its name very clearly states what this app is all about: tracing. It can’t help you with recalling characters without any prompt and writing them out.

On the plus side, I actually met with the main developer in Shanghai, and he seems quite open to suggestions for improvement, and has plans to make the app better. (Full disclosure: the developer let me try out this app for free.)

If you’ve already learned how to write characters and are looking for a mechanical way to practice writing on your iPad, this app is not a bad choice.

trainchinese Chinese Writer

Price: Free (for the basic app)

Feature Description
Tracing Yes, in game form
Feedback Yes, a big red “X” tells you when you make a mistake but gives you no immediate clue where you went wrong. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
Free-form writing No; tracing only

I really like that this app tries to be a game. It’s not the most fun game in the world, but I’ve seen more than one learner really get into it. The timed aspect also adds another dimension which makes the “trace the strokes” mechanic a bit less monotonous (at least for a while). I also like the options in the beginning (although that screen with its crazy animated background is a little busy).

iPad Apps for Writing

The way the game works is that characters slowly drop for the top of the screen. You tap them once to zoom in, then quickly trace over them to “destroy” them. That’s it. If you can write a character especially fast, you are praised with a “很快” (“very fast”). If you’re too slow or keep getting the strokes wrong, the character eventually drops off the bottom of the screen, and that’s one strike against you.

iPad Apps for Writing iPad Apps for Writing

One of the best things about the app is that at the end, after you’ve gotten your 5 wrong characters and the game is over, the game shows you which characters you got right and which you got wrong, and then you can review the correct stroke order for the ones you got wrong. The app is never especially clear about the direction of strokes, however.

iPad Apps for Writing iPad Apps for Writing

In the end, it’s tracing only, and the characters are chosen at random. The app is solid, though, and it’s free. Not bad for basic mechanical writing practice.

Chinese Writer for iPad

Price: Free (tutorial only; additional account required for other functionality)

Feature Description
Tracing No
Feedback Yes, the correct stroke flashes on the screen when you make a mistake. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
Free-form writing No

Chinese Writer sets itself apart in that it is not a tracing app. It’s slightly confusing at first, because (1) the app button is labeled “ChinesePad,” and (2) it seems like you have to sign up for a Popup Chinese account to use the app, since neither the simplified or traditional “practice mode” seem to do anything. Apparently only the “tutorial mode” is available if you don’t have a subscription (that button works).

iPad Apps for Writing

As you write each stroke, the app shows your stroke in red, but it doesn’t actually save it on the screen; it either accepts it as “correct” and replaces it with a print-style version of the stroke, or it rejects it and erases it, flashing the correct stroke in the correct place to prompt you.

iPad Apps for Writing

In theory, the app is fine, sort of a simpler version of the Skritter system. It can be confusing, though, rejecting seemingly perfect strokes, and rejecting quite imperfect ones.

The app is free, and will be updated in time, according to Dave Lancashire, the developer. When asked if it will stay free, his reply was, “I can’t see changing the price, although you should tell people it will be $99.99 next week so GET IT NOW!”

Chinesegram

Price: $4.99

Feature Description
Tracing Yes (optional)
Feedback No automated feedback, just a layer of numbers to indicate where strokes should start
Free-form writing Yes

Chinagram is not free and contains a very limited number of characters, but in many ways, it’s my favorite of these apps. While it doesn’t teach strokes or radicals, it does show the evolution of the characters through various scripts over time, and offers graphics to help clarify the pictographic characters.

Chinagram

I also like how the app offers very free-form writing practice. There’s no computer program to tell you you’re right or wrong. There’s simply a faint guide which can be switched on or off, and some little guide numbers to help with stroke order, which are not tied to the tracing guide, and can also be independently turned on or off. This simple combination of options makes for a quite satisfying range of writing practice possibilities.

Chinagram

Chinagram

With Chinagram, it does kind of feel like you’re paying for design and pretty graphics, but let’s face it: characters are graphic. Chinagram offers an attractive and appealing, although somewhat limited, introduction to the writing of Chinese characters. I’d still want more instruction on how to write characters than this app offers, but it definitely goes farther than the three above.

(See also my original review of Chinagram.)

Chinese Handwriting Input + Notes

Price: Free (comes with the iPad)

Feature Description
Tracing No
Feedback Indirectly, because if you’re too far off in your stroke order, the character you’re trying to write won’t appear
Free-form writing Yes

One of the things that struck me while reviewing these iPad apps is that (1) many of them assume some previous study of characters, and (2) if you’ve previously studied characters, there’s probably nothing better than just writing. And the iPad let’s you do that out of the box. All you need to do is enable Chinese handwriting input:

iPad apps for learning to write Chinese

Once you’ve got that working, go into the “Notes” app (or anything that lets you write text, really), and just try to write something. You’ll learn a lot just by the act of writing the characters stroke by stroke, and identifying the one you want from the resulting list of characters. If you get a character totally wrong, chances are, it won’t be in the list. Try again.

iPad apps for learning to write Chinese iPad apps for learning to write Chinese

(In the example above on the right, the correct character “写” meaning “to write” is written in a way that is clearly recognizable, but does not appear in the list of resulting characters because the stroke order/direction used was totally wrong.)

This really is not a bad option for practicing writing, especially if you have someone you can write to.

My conclusion: these apps are worth checking out, but better writing apps for Chinese are still needed!


I have a student intern at AllSet named Lucas, who kindly gave me his own feedback on the four apps above. Lucas has studied Chinese for three years in college, and is currently studying Chinese in Shanghai for the summer. I asked him to rank the four apps, and make some comments about each. Here are his independent picks, #1 being his favorite:

  1. Chinesegram: “Seeing the picture and comparing the scripts and evolution helps me remember them better.”

  2. Word Tracer: “Helpful for learning stroke order, but a bit over-sensitive, which can be frustrating.”

  3. trainchinese Chinese Writer: “Kinda funny, I guess, but I don’t like the time pressure.”

  4. Chinese Writer for iPad: “It’s too sensitive; it kept making me redraw the strokes.”


Related: iPad Apps for Chinese Study (2011)

The Naked Wedding

Naked Wedding (裸婚)

The Chinese neologism 裸婚 (literally, “naked wedding”) came up in an AllSet Learning client’s lesson, and I think it’s an interesting word with social implications, worth taking a look at.

The word has its own page on the Chinese wiki Hudong: 裸婚. The brief explanation is:

“裸婚”指的是不买房、不买车、不办婚礼、不买婚戒,直接登记结婚的一种节俭的结婚方式。自古以来,婚姻一直都被人们看做是人生的头等大事,而婚礼的隆重与否直接体现了整个家族的地位。然而,近年来“裸婚”风渐渐盛行,成为“80后”最新潮的结婚方式。

And the English translation:

“Naked wedding” refers to not buying a house, not buying a car, not having a wedding ceremony, not buying wedding rings, and just directly registering legally for marriage as a way to save money. Since ancient times, marriage has always been seen as a major event in a person’s life, the pomp of the ceremony directly reflecting a family’s social status. The gradual popularization of the “naked wedding,” however, has emerged as a new wedding trend for the post-80’s generation.

Industrialization and commercialization in a society are inevitably followed by a generation that rejects the new materialistic forms of social status, right? Here’s another sign that the forces for such a social change are building in China…

Writing Apps Wanted

I’m getting ready to do a review of iPad apps that teach writing Chinese characters. I’ve got a few to review already, but I’m very open to additional suggestions. It’s hard to find everything in the App Store.

If you’re a developer with a paid app that teaches Chinese writing, your chances of getting reviewed are much higher if you email me a promo code. :)

Have a good weekend!

June 24th UPDATE: Thank you for the replies I’ve gotten by comments and by email. This week has been busy, but the post will come out next week.

On Reducing TMD Syntactic Ambiguity

TMD

One of our teachers at AllSet Learning introduced a hilarious Chinese article to me on the grammatical usage of the phrase 他妈的 (often abbreviated as “TMD”). The most appropriate translation of 他妈的 in English is usually “fucking” (in the emphatic sense), so if that offends you, stop reading now.

The origin of this article is unclear to me, but it dates back to at least 2009 (here’s a copy). Anyway, I found the article both funny and instructional, so I’ve translated it below. This is the kind of thing that has tons of translation options, though, so suggestions for more skillful translations are always welcome!


The grammatically correct use of “TMD” (“fucking”)

In this article, I will offer some simple explanations and examples regarding this expression.

  1. Consider the following sentence:

    今年的考题跟课后题一样

    This year’s test questions were the same as the exercise questions.

    There’s ambiguity here: are we saying that that the questions on the test were really the same as the exercise questions, or are we just metaphorically stating that the test questions simply resembled the exercise questions? At this time, “fucking” becomes useful. We can insert “fucking” into this sentence to make the distinction:

    今年的考题跟课后题他妈的一样

    “This year’s test questions were the fucking same as the exercise questions.” (indicating identical to the exercise questions)

    今年的考题跟他妈的课后题一样

    “This year’s test questions were the same as the fucking exercise questions.” (suggesting that the test questions were too simple)

  2. There are many similar cases, for example:

    [Translator’s note: I don’t think there’s any way to preserve this ambiguity in English translation, so I’m forced to translate it twice in English.]

    这个解释不清楚

    “This explanation is unclear.” / “This cannot be explained clearly.”

    There are two meanings here: that the explanation itself is not lucid, or that the matter is difficult to explain. However, once we add “fucking,” the ambiguity immediately disappears:

    这个解释他妈的不清楚

    “This explanation is fucking unclear.” (the explanation itself is not helpful)

    这个他妈的解释不清楚

    “This cannot be fucking explained clearly.” (the issue is difficult to explain)

  3. Another example:

    没有一次看完

    “Didn’t finish reading it once.” / “Didn’t finish reading it all at once.”

    This sentence has two meanings: did not finish reading it a single time, or didn’t finish reading it all at once. If we insert “fucking” in different positions, the ambiguity can also be removed:

    没有他妈的一次看完

    “Didn’t fucking finish reading it all at once” (didn’t finish reading it all in one go)

    没有一次他妈的看完

    “Didn’t finish reading it fucking once”

    (simply has not ever finished reading it)

Therefore, our fucking conclusion is that we should advocate the fucking inclusion of “fucking,” which can fucking assist in the clarity of fucking sentence structure, reduce fucking syntactic ambiguity, and make possible obstacle-free fucking communication.

Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar

Edited by Qin Xue Herzberg & Larry Herzberg (Stone Bridge Press, 2011)

Review by: John Pasden

I quite enjoyed this book on Chinese grammar, but the student would do well to be clear on exactly what this book is and what it is not. Right on the cover are two huge clues:

A quick study handbook with over 75 key constructions for reference and practice

A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors

In case it’s not obvious, this book is not the place to start learning Chinese grammar. Sure, it’s packed full of great information and important side notes, but it’s going to be most valuable as a reference material, such as a handbook for a student who’s studied Mandarin for a year, then plans to go to China, but doesn’t want to take his old textbooks.

Read the rest of this entry »

China Lite

As someone who’s taken up residence in China long-term, I’ve had quite a few visitors over the years. One of the things I’ve learned is that you have to do a little “visitor profiling” if you want your guest to have a good time. Two of my own personal “case studies”:

  1. My sister Grace visited me in Hangzhou in 2001. I hadn’t been in China long, and had spent a lot more time studying Chinese than trying to get comfortable. I fed Grace the 5 RMB local cafeteria food I was used to eating. When we went from Hangzhou to Beijing, I screwed up on the sleeper “ticket upgrade,” so it was 17 hours on the train in hard seats. In Beijing, we went everywhere on foot, by subway, or by bus. Poor Grace didn’t adapt too well to Chinese food; I think she might have had western food a few times, but she also shed quite a few pounds during her two weeks in China.

  2. My parents visited China in 2007. We toured West Lake in Hangzhou, and went on a Bund cruise in Shanghai. We flew to Beijing and saw the sights there, assisted by a driver. We took the cable car up to the top of the Great Wall. We sampled the local food everywhere, while also getting some western food when it felt “necessary.” My parents had a very pleasant stay (but probably didn’t lose any weight).

Fortunately, by the time my parents had visited, I was a bit more compassionate about the needs of my less hardcore visitors (and had had a chance to practice this “kinder, gentler version of China” when my other sister Amy visited in 2004). Grace actually had a really good attitude about the whole ordeal, though. She felt that she had had a taste of “the real China,” and referred to what my sister Amy had experienced as “China Lite.”

China Lite

I’m not trying to be a China snob here; this “China Lite” concept is useful. With my parents planning another visit, I’m working on perfecting the China Lite experience (without resorting to a tour group, if possible). While the whole “Real China” vs. “China Lite” thing is more of a continuum than a black or white issue, I’ve found it useful to compare the two.

Real China China Lite
Stay in hostels, crash at friends’ places, or even do some kind of homestay Stay in nice hotels or service apartments
All Chinese food, and the more street food the better Chinese food is fine as long as it’s not too weird; some western food (even KFC) is needed to buffer all that Chinese food
Baijiu (that Chinese white grain alcohol) isn’t so bad… Tsingtao is exotic enough when it comes to alcohol
As much Chinese language as possible; gotta put that phrasebook to use and communicate with the locals English if possible; translations if not
Travel by bus, train, and bike (with the people) is great Airplane preferred for long trips; other forms of transportation need to provide appropriate personal space
Pack your own TP, and study the proper squatting position in advance Never stray too far from a western-style toilet
China is big, and you don’t have much time to soak it all in, so pack that itinerary tight! China is tiring; plan the itinerary carefully and leave sufficient down time
Consider the whole trip to be “off the grid” or at least “off the beaten path” with just the occasional internet cafe Plan for internet needs, and provide a cell phone for your visitors if possible (the cost of the SIM card and phone service is negligible in China)

Got any tips to add the the list?

Some visitors are looking for “the real China,” where others are hoping to enjoy “China Lite.” They’re both here, but it’s best to be clear on what your visitors are after.


Other takes on “China Lite”:

Pleco for Android + More Dictionaries!

Pleco-Android

Pleco has announced its long-awaited Android version (screenshots here)! This is interesting to me, because one of the major reasons I switched from an Android phone back to an iPhone was Pleco. I haven’t seen the Android version in action, but looking at the screenshots, it would seem that the iPhone is getting more Love.

From the Pleco Android beta announcement:

This is an experimental release of our Android software; we’re making it available now for the sake of people who don’t want to wait any longer for the finished version, but there are quite a few bugs / ugly interfaces, the documentation is almost nonexistent (though you can get a pretty good idea of how it works from the iPhone version documentation), and there are also a few major features missing, so if you’re not very computer-savvy we’d recommend waiting for the finished version to be ready before downloading it, or at least waiting a few weeks to see what the feedback from other testers looks like in our discussion forums.

In general, though, we’re very pleased with how our Android software turned out and with how much functionality we have been able to get into this first release. OCR (see below) is working beautifully on Android (both live and still, though currently only in “Lookup Words” mode), as are full-screen handwriting recognition, audio pronunciation, stroke order, and all of our add-on dictionaries. We’ve even gotten a significant portion of our document reader module working; there are no bookmarks or web browser yet, and it’ll choke if you try to load the complete text of 红楼梦, but for short-story-sized text files and snippets of text copied in from the clipboard it works quite well.

Meanwhile, the iPhone and iPad versions forge boldly ahead as well. I’m looking forward to the upcoming UI redesign. This part of the announcement was interesting:

Central to this is a new feature we’re calling “merged multi-dictionary search”; basically, instead of typing in a word and having to flip between different dictionaries to see which matches they come up with, you’ll get all of the results from every dictionary in a single, sorted, duplicates-merged list, providing better information and doing it in a simpler way. That particular feature is actually likely to show up in an experimental form (off-by-default option) in a minor update we’ll be putting out in a few weeks; we want to make sure it’s working really well before we put it at the center of our product.

When I heard that Michael Love was looking for more dictionaries to license for Pleco, my initial reaction was, “why do you need more dictionaries? Add more dictionaries and it’s just too much hassle to navigate through them all.” And that’s a problem that this new “merged multi-dictionary search” would solve. I’m very interested to see what that ends up looking like, and how it affects the user experience.

So what are the new dictionaries being added to Pleco?

  1. “the Oxford Concise English & Chinese Dictionary (now known as the Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary)”
  2. “the Classical-Chinese-to-Modern-Chinese dictionary”
  3. “the Traditional Chinese Medicine dictionary”
  4. “the expanded edition of the Tuttle Chinese-English dictionary, and its companion English-Chinese title”
  5. “a really nice multifunction Chengyu dictionary (detailed explanations, usage notes, antonyms/synonyms, etc)”
  6. “a lovely little Chinese-Chinese student dictionary”
  7. “another Chinese-Chinese student dictionary that would be our first title ever to be oriented around non-mainland users (i.e., the original print version is in traditional characters)”

Wow. And Pleco is still searching for a decent Cantonese dictionary and a character etymology dictionary to license.

12 Angry (Chinese) Men

12-Angry-Men

As a result of a rather whimsical decision made by my wife, I found myself at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre for the first time last Saturday, attending a Chinese language version of the classic play Twelve Angry Men. I enjoyed it way more than I expected to.

To begin with, I was surprised by how “Chinese” the story seemed. The part about there being no air conditioning and the fan not working, and one of the guys wanting to be done with jury duty in time for a ball game (it was baseball originally, I believe), and the murder weapon being a knife rather than a gun–all just seemed to work well in the setting of Chinese society. It wasn’t until towards the end, when one of the characters started talking about how the jury’s deliberation was their duty as part of a “democratic society” and that “democracy made their country great” that the illusion sort of fell apart.

This isn’t to say that I think that modern day China is equivalent to the 1954 America in which the original story was set, but it’s interesting to me that it worked so well in this case.

I should also mention that the legal system of mainland China doesn’t make use of juries, so the “illusion” that it could be a mainland Chinese story was never very convincing to begin with. It did make for a good show, though.

I brushed up a little on my legal vocab before the play (ChinesePod has a fair amount), but it turned out that I didn’t need a whole lot. Some of the more difficult key vocabulary from the play:

  • 贫民窟: slum
  • 陪审团: jury
  • 陪审员: juror
  • 证词: testimony
  • 合理的怀疑: reasonable doubt

Finally, a note on the title. This version of the play was simply titled 12个人 (12 People), but the previous movie version was called 十二怒汉 (12 Enraged Men). The classic version of that film is on Tudou under that title.

Puns on the Streets of Shanghai

Recently I just happened to catch this wordplay on the streets of Shanghai around me:

不一YOUNG

年轻就是不一YOUNG / 不一样. (After reading this pun, go here.)

最高G密

最高G密 / 最高机密 (“top secret”); G = = chicken. 鸡米 is a name for little chicken nuggets (often fried).

新视界

新视界 / 新世界

New World

Not a pun; just illustrating that 新世界 is a common phrase too. This hotel is just around the corner from the eye hospital above.

碧雪公寓

碧云公寓 (traditional characters are used in the photo): not a pun either; this just amused me because we foreigners have a habit of mixing up our tones. This apartment complex could easily become “Contraception Apartment” (避孕公寓) pronounced by a careless foreigner.

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