The Simple Characters Around You

In my work at AllSet Learning I’ve had a number of clients trying to get from an elementary to an intermediate speaking level, and at the same time finally deciding to tackle the Chinese characters they’ve been avoiding for so long. My advice is usually some variation of, “if you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, you need to bite the bullet and start learning characters.” (Most learners already know this, but somehow they need it told to them unequivocally.)

Fortunately for my clients, they all live in Shanghai, so they’re always surrounded by Chinese characters. If you’ve long been intimidated by Chinese characters, it’s surprisingly easy to block them all out and not really even see them in your daily life. Once the journey to learn Chinese characters has begun in earnest, however, it’s time to take the blinders off. And simply by paying attention to the characters around you, you start to notice a lot.

Sure, especially in the beginning, you don’t recognize most characters you see. But the more you look, the more you recognize. One of my clients told me excitedly,

I learned the character a long time ago so I could find the women’s room, but I never learned the character for “man.” Then, the other day, I saw the character on a door, and I actually was able to read the character I had just learned. It suddenly had meaning!

One small step on the road to learning characters, but a giant leap in terms of achievement. That first “reading moment” really is a significant milestone in the long road ahead. No, characters themselves aren’t “magical,” but there is definitely a bit of a “character high” in those early days of discovery.

Anyway, eager to support learners of Chinese characters, I’ve been on the lookout lately for super easy signs. Two especially stood out:

小大人
小大人 (“Little Adults”)

Restaurant: 饭店
饭店 (“restaurant”)

Do the characters around you help you in your studies? I’m convinced that one of the reasons that Chinese living abroad so frequently forget how to write (relatively common) characters is that they no longer have those constant passive reminders built into their environments. In my own studies here in China, I’ve learned characters from my surroundings many, many times. The characters around you may not be often mentioned as key to the immersion experience, but they sure do help.

Remember: start with the simple ones. They exist.

ChinaJoy: a Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity

By “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” I mean now that I have had the opportunity to go, I will never again go in this lifetime. Once is definitely enough. Still, I’m surprised that very few foreigners have ever heard of ChinaJoy, because it’s so huge here in Shanghai. Not until I went myself did I realize how huge it really is.

ChinaJoy: the end of the line for tickets

I’m pretty sure the line to buy tickets to ChinaJoy was the longest line I’ve ever been in, spanning the length of the enormous new Shanghai International Conference Center in Pudong, near Longyang Road Subway Station. Fortunately, it was also the fastest moving. The line to buy tickets was so long you had to take quite a walk to even find the end of it, and the organizers felt the need to hire a guy that holds a sign marking the end of the line. No joke.

ChinaJoy filled four enormous conference halls, most of which were jam-packed with people. I can’t remember a time I’ve been at an event in Shanghai with so many people, but so few foreigners. Of the thousands of people I must have seen, I saw less than 10 foreigners in my two-hour visit. And let me tell you, it was an exhausting two hours, milling through dense crowds in a just-barely-air-conditioned building.

ChinaJoy

So what is the draw? It’s supposed to be a “digital entertainment expo,” video games being the main draw, but the practice of companies hiring models to represent their products has become a huge part of the appeal. So you can still see lots of video games (I saw live tournaments of DotA and Starcraft (1) displayed on huge screens), and play certain ones at some of the booths, but there’s also a ton of photographing of cosplay models going on everywhere. Oh, and let’s not forget the silly dances on stage.

ChinaJoy: Lame dance

ChinaJoy is still going on this weekend. If you’re interested in the gaming part, I definitely don’t recommend it. Even if you’re mainly interested in the models, I still don’t recommend it. (Shanghaiist has photos, as does Flickr.)

Finally, I leave you with a few more random photos:

ChinaJoy: No, that's not Mario...
Super Mario Galaxy clone?

ChinaJoy: Sakura Japanese
A Japanese school decided to try the “model marketing” thing at ChinaJoy…

Randy and the Half-Life of Irregular Verbs

Last night I met up with Randy Alexander of Sinoglot, Yuwen, and Echoes of Manchu for dinner and imported beers. We had a great chat, with topics ranging from English and Chinese linguistics, to sci-fi and (evil genius) Joel Martinsen, to the Sinoglot crew and how they tricked Randy into learning Manchu.

We started talking about some of our favorite linguistics articles, on Language Log or elsewhere, and I brought up the one about the half-life of irregular verbs in English. I wanted to send Randy a link, but I was dismayed to discover that the original article by Harvard University mathematician Erez Lieberman is now behind a pay wall. All you can find are articles linking to what was once a freely accessible article.

But I dug some more (we’re still quite a few years away from regularizing to “digged,” I’m guessing), and I eventually found what looks like a freely available copy of the original article, Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language, courtesy of our friends at NIH. Unfortunately, what’s still missing is the great chart the original paper included, which ordered irregular verbs by frequency and gave time estimates (in years) for the regularization of each. (There is an unordered list in text file format linked to in the article, though.)

What does this have to do with Chinese? I’d love to see similar studies for modern Mandarin. Sure, there are no conjugations for Chinese verbs, so it wouldn’t be about the regularization of irregular verbs. But it could be about variable pronunciations of certain words (like 角色, or 说服), or selection of characters (is it or ?). A good chunk of Chinese academia is still obsessed with standardization and what is “correct,” so you don’t see many objective studies, but that attitude won’t last forever. Chinese corpus linguistics is relatively young, but it’s making great strides, and I really look forward to seeing this kind of research in the future.

What research of this type would you like to see?

Cantonese Dubbing Queen

I understand very little Cantonese, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve done enough dubbing work to know it isn’t easy, and this woman is just amazing. Keep watching… it only gets better and better.

(Via Kaixin Wang.)

China Blog Death and Relevance

I enjoyed Kaiser Kuo’s recent Sinica podcast on Popup Chinese featuring Jeremy Goldkorn of Danwei.org and Will Moss of Imagethief. They started off with the provocative statement that “the English language China blog is dead,” and went into some analysis of how things are different now than they were. Their analysis seemed pretty spot-on to me.

This is an issue I’ve been thinking about for a long time: how the “China blogosphere” has changed, how I still fit in, and how it’s still enjoyable or worthwhile. I think when I first arrived in China and was doing various English teaching jobs while I furiously studied Chinese in my free time, aside from intangibles like Chinese learning and friendships, my blog and website was the most important, lasting thing I created. It’s what led to a job at ChinesePod in 2006, the point at which I officially embarked upon what would become my career. Blogging, for me, had to take a backseat, and it has to this day. The “top ideas” on my mind were less and less often blog topics as work usurped my focus.

I’ve revisited this same topic as I’ve considered whether or not to put more time or effort into the China Blog List. There are just so many blogs out there now that organizing them really does seem too big a task for one tiny directory. It’s a task that needs to be crowd-sourced or done through social media somehow, if it even needs to be done at all. That site still has potential (and good Google rank for “China blog” and “China blogs”), but the concept needs to be rethunk. In the meantime, it’s just no longer relevant.

I was pleased to hear those guys mention my blog in their podcast as one of the ones that’s been around the longest, but as the list of blogs went on and on, I had to think, how do these guys have the time to read so many blogs? Like Will Moss said in the podcast, I’ve found that the decreasing signal-to-noise ratio has just led to less overall blog reading.


This afternoon I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk at Glamour Bar hosted by history professor Jeffery Wasserstrom of China Beat as he discussed various issues with the New Yorker’s China correspondent Evan Osnos. The topic was writing and blogging, and they kicked off the discussion by mentioning Sinica’s take on the issue. Both writers had begun blogging relatively recently, so Evan referred to them as “post-modern, or, perhaps, ‘post-mortem’ bloggers.” Both Wasserstrom and Osnos were optimistic about the role of blogging. Evan was particularly happy about the recent proliferation of translation bridge blogs like China Geeks.

One of the more interesting questions thrown out by the crowd was basically, “yeah, you both write well about China, but how much do you guys (or anyone) really understand China?” Both men were humble in acknowledging the limits of their knowledge, but I liked Dr. Wasserstrom’s response that despite the smallness of what we can know, the view from outside offers a different perspective which contributes in an important way toward the full picture. This closely parallels the view I take on language learning: the native speaker perspective should be combined with the learner perspective to reach a fuller picture of the language more relevant to the learner.


I was amused to find Sinosplice included recently in a list of Shanghai-related resources on National Geographic:

A China-focused blog that includes Mandarin speaking tips and apolitical, largely irreverent (and in some cases irrelevant) observations about Shanghai and the rest of the country, among other tidbits.

“Irreverent and irrelevant.” Heh, I can live with that. I have to say, though, that this blog is only occasionally relevant to Shanghai.

But relevance is always an issue on my mind. The new business is getting quite busy, and while I have less free time than ever, it’s a rich source of new observations and blogging material about Shanghai and learning Chinese. I won’t keep those bottled up. The search for relevance is not fruitless.

Tooltip Plugin Color Feedback, Please

So the pinyin tooltip WordPress plugin I mentioned before is slowly but surely coming along. We’re alpha testing now, and discovering weird discrepancies between versions of WordPress. Hopefully those won’t be too hard to fix.

One of the options supported by the plugin is choice of tooltip background. Sinosplice currently uses plain white, but the script it’s based on uses a nice blue color. Here are some of the options I’ve put together (note: tooltip boxes and text are not actual sizes or proportions):

If you’re interested in using this tooltip, is there any default color you’d definitely want? If so, please let me know. As things stand now, I think I’ll go with the first four below (dropping the black one).

The Pharmacy Count

While at the pharmacy the other day with my friend Chris, we came upon what seemed like a typical example of Engrish:

Count

Funny, we thought… “the count” instead of “the counter.”

Only as we were leaving did we notice the guy behind the counter:

The Pharmacy Count


The Sesame Street character “the Count” is known for his rather clever name. Even a kid can get the pun. How does his Chinese name fare in terms of cleverness? Not too well, I’m afraid. According to this site, his Chinese name is simply 伯爵, a translation of only one of the meanings of the Count’s name, meaning “count” or “earl.”

What would a more clever translation of the Count’s name be? All I can think of is maybe something related to 叔叔 (“uncle”) and 数数 (“to count up”), but once you change the tones it doesn’t really work. (Not to mention that he very clearly looks like a count, not an “uncle.”)

Fei Cheng Wu Rao: what’s the appeal?

Fei Cheng Wu Rao Logo

OK, I admit it. This Chinese TV show called 非诚勿扰 (English name: If You Are the One) has ensnared me. It’s just silly dating game television, but I find it interesting for a bunch of reasons. Here is the basic premise of the show, explained by Hello Nanjing:

The basic concept of the show is that 24 girls will stand in a line, each atop a podium with a light hanging over their head. Facing them is one boy, who will at first secretly choose one of the girls to be his date. Then, he reveals some basic information about himself, after which each of the girls will decide whether he is ‘date-worthy’ or not.

If a girl doesn’t like him, she will turn the light above her head off. If all 24 lights go off, the boy loses. If some lights remain on after the boy’s introduction, the boy may choose two or three of the girls for ‘future communication’. He also has the option in this case to choose a girl who turned her light off.

Finally, with three girls left, the boy will ask another round of questions, after which he will make his final choice. If the girl accepts, they may walk towards each other, join hands, and head off into the sunset for a future date and possible romance.

The name of the show, 非诚勿扰 (as well as the English name), is the same as a rather boring movie by Feng Xiaogang (the article quoted above mistakenly included a shot of the cast of that movie). It’s taken from a line used in personal ads, which literally means, “if you’re not sincere, don’t disturb me” but would be translated more along the lines of “serious inquiries only please” in English language personals.

Fei Cheng Wu Rao

OK, so what’s so good about this show? It’s hard to say, but here are my guesses:

  • It’s interesting to see which guys get shot down immediately by the 24 female candidates, and which can make it to the very end. (I evidently still have a lot to learn about the psyche of Chinese women.)

  • The background music, which is always the same and used in every show, is hilariously cheesy, and yet so appropriate.

  • The concept is so simple that it’s easy to follow the show, but there is enough interesting language used that I feel like I still learn useful words and phrases.

  • The host, 孟非, and his “psychological analyst,” 乐嘉 make for an entertaining, bald-headed duo. They don’t feel like typical moron TV show hosts.

Le Jia on Fei Cheng Wu Rao

乐嘉 (Le Jia)

  • 乐嘉 in particular is entertaining. He invented a personality analysis system based on colors which my wife had to use for her job (and I’ve been hearing about for years). At first you think, “who is this smiley, smug little bald man?” but then you really start to like him. And he totally casts a spell over all the female contestants, many of whom thank him specifically, all teary-eyed, when they finally leave the show. This guy is interesting!

  • Although the show is filmed in Nanjing, participants come from all over China, which means you get to hear a wide variety of accents.

  • The show has attracted the attention of the media censors for its reflection of shameless materialism, and even had some kind of pornography scandal.

  • There’s no dancing, cross-talk, acrobatics, or skits, and very little singing.

  • It could be staged, or at least quite fake, but the show has captivated China’s younger generation; in some small way, this is modern China. And it wants to be noticed.

Anyway, if you’ve never heard of the show or never bothered to watch, I recommend you give it a chance.

Churchill and Hitler: Evil Supervillains?

Yesterday in the bookstore I noticed these two books, titled 丘吉尔 (Churchill) and 希特勒 (Hitler):

Churchill and Hitler

Now am I crazy, or do these two historical figures both look really evil, perhaps Churchill even more so than Hitler??

Apparently this was just a bad choice of photo (and color) in the cover design, though; if you click through to either Churchill’s or Hitler’s Amazon.cn pages, you see lots of other books in the series. Only Mussolini looks as evil as these two.

According to the introduction on Amazon, the book about Churchill is not an explanation of how he was actually Britain’s greatest supervillain. That’s a relief.

Joris Ivens Week

I just got a tip from an AllSet Learning client that there will be some special screenings of the films of Joris Ivens at the Expo’s Dutch pavilion this weekend (July 9~10). So maybe after checking out the new Shanghai Apple Store we can go get a dose of real culture. (Wow, that sure sounded snobby. I own a Mac!)

Here is the description:

Joris Ivens

Joris Ivens

During the weekend of 9 and 10 July at the World Expo in Shanhai, Joris Ivens will be honored in a true “Joris Ivens weekend.” On Friday evening and Saturday afternoon and evening 13 films by Joris Ivens are screened. The films are grouped around six themes: Introduction / Stories in China / Against Facism / Avant-garde / China / Poetry and Cinema. Mrs Loridan-Ivens and the European Foundation Joris Ivens will be present to introduce the films. The theatre space at the Dutch Culture Centre will also host a small exhibition of photographs of Joris Ivens and Mrs Marceline Loridan-Ivens.

One of the films is The 400 Million (in 1938), showing Mr. Zhou-Enlai and Mr. Zu De [ed. Zhu De?] with music of The March of the Volunteers (which later became the National Anthem of the People’s Republic of China). Don’t miss the unique opportunity of viewing the Chinese culture and the turbulent 20th century through the camera of Ivens.

Sounds interesting. You can reserve tickets on the Joris Ivens site.

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