WooChinese Does Q&A

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

WooChinese

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

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

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

Learners as Experts

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

Some choice quotes:

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

Carl Gene is on a Roll

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

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

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


Related Sinosplice Content:

Busy Moving AllSet Learning Office

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

No. 50 Yongjia Road
Shanghai, China

中国上海市永嘉路50号

Here’s a shot of the new location:

nEO_IMG_IMG_0566

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

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

Get Sinosplice Tooltips from the WordPress Plugin Directory

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

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

What the plugin does:

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

What the plugin doesn’t do:

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

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

Taxi: a Semantic Gloss in English of a Chinese Character

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

Taobao Plane Tickets Ad

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

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

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

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

打个飞的去旅行

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

The interesting parts:

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

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

Ruby Characters

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

Ruined by Popularity

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

Carrefour

Photo by Ek Chin Tan

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

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

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

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

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

Tooltip Plugin Done (but not quite public)

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

  • 中文
  • 日本語
  • ひらがな
  • संस्कृता वाक्
  • Español

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

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

Electric Voices and Stinky Tofu

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

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

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

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

In Defense of Hanping (and Android)

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

Mark says:

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

Mark goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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