2011 Update for Sinosplice

The Sinosplice blog has recently undergone a few minor upgrades, including:

  1. Vastly improved search. (It was terrible before. I myself used to use Google to find content on my own site.)
  2. Social sharing icons. (I tried to avoid this for quite a while, but it’s a trend that won’t be ignored! My reward for waiting was being able to include G+ easily.)
  3. Automated related post info. (I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time. Scroll down on a post or page to see related posts, NYTimes-style.)
  4. iPhone optimization for cell phone viewing.
  5. Tiny style tweaks.

Please let me know if anything doesn’t sem to be working right for you. You may need to clear your cache and/or reload the page a few times.

Thanks to Ryan from Dao by Design for once again doing a great job and being so easy to work with.

United Verses

My friend Tom (mentioned once before here) has put together a really cool event which he’s calling “United Verses” (译站 in Chinese). The concept is basically a bilingual poetry reading event. Each Chinese poet will read his poems in Chinese, and then an English-speaking partner poet will read English translations of them. That English-speaking poet will later read his own poems, and his partner poet will read the Chinese translations.

United Verses (译站)

This is a really cool cross-cultural activity, and I applaud Tom for putting it together. It took a lot of work to coordinate translators behind the scenes, because the poets themselves aren’t usually the translators. Additional translators are needed, both native Chinese speakers and native English speakers.

I participated as a translator myself (as did one of my AllSet Learning clients), and I found it a really interesting and rewarding experience. Not only do you get to discuss the meaning behind the poem with the original poet, but then you also get to discuss your translation into English with an English-speaking poet. This isn’t just basic off-the-cuff translation, and the resulting translations are quite solid.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to be at the event myself, because I’ll be out of town. I leave you with a photo of “my poet,” 叶青, a very interesting Shanghainese man, pictured here in his study.

Ye Qing (叶青), poet

Finally, the event details in plain text:

United Verses (译站)

July 23rd, Saturday 7pm (event starts around 8pm, but seats are limited)

at Anar: 129 Xingfu Lu, near Fahuazhen Lu (幸福路129号,近法华镇路)

I miss Best Buy

The other day I went to Chinese electronics retail giant Suning (苏宁) to pick up a new USB drive. I’ve never been impressed by either Suning or Gome (国美), but my most recent visit made me wonder if with Best Buy’s recent closing, they’ve just kicked back and completely stopped trying altogether.

I was looking at Sandisk’s USB drives, eyeing the 8 GB one, and then I noticed an equally compact 16 GB version. I asked the price, which wasn’t listed. The exact same model 16 GB drive was quite a bit more than twice the price of the 8 GB model. Hoping against hope, I asked if this wasn’t a little strange (check here for an example of normal pricing on Amazon), and that if she might have gotten the price wrong. I forget what the salesperson said, exactly, but the message was clear: “I think you’re confusing me with someone who gives a damn.”

Take a number

Anyway, I decided to go with the 8 GB version, but I forgot that I wasn’t at Best Buy anymore. I couldn’t take my selection to checkout, I had to take a special number to the far side of the store to make my payment in a carefully hidden location. But the amusing thing was that my order number was not printed out, or even handwritten on a standard form. No, it was scrawled on a random scrap of paper. Classy.

Cashier

Anyway, I found the cashier in a desolate corner of the store and made my payment. (Apparently the number wasn’t made up, at least.) I located the original salesperson, wondering where my purchase was. She had cast it aside on a random shelf under some earphones. She retrieved it for me. I asked for a bag. Sorry, no bags.

So, walking towards the exit with my unbagged purchase, I wondered how I looked any different from a shoplifter just making off with an item plucked from the shelves. Many Chinese stores that use the “cashier all the way across the store and nowhere near the exit” system have a guard at the exit who checks for a receipt. At Suning, there were no guards, no employees in sight. Just a big wide swath of apathy pointing the way out.

Yeah, I must admit that I miss Best Buy. I still think “service” is a good idea.

Z-ZH Wordplay

I’m wondering if this ad would be as likely to be used in northern China:

招租!找主!

The text of the ad is:

招租找主

The pinyin for the ad is:

Zhāozū! Zhǎo zhǔ!

If you ignore both tones and the z/zh distinction (which a lot of southerners–especially elder southerners–do frequently), you get this:

Zao zu! Zao zu!

The meaning of the ad is something like, “For rent! Seeking the right person!” (“,” often meaning “host” or “owner” is a bit tricky to translate, because normally someone in a position to rent is not a “主,” but in this case that’s who it refers to: the appropriate party to do the renting.)

Transformers and… Milk?

With the movie Transformers 3 now out, Transformers are popping up in Chinese media more too. The other day I snapped these pictures of an ad campaign involving 舒化 milk. (Sorry the photos are blurry… I have yet to figure out the best way to consistently get clear photos of back-lit subway ads with my cell phone.)

IMG_0047

IMG_0048

IMG_0046

OK, kids like Transformers, kids drink milk. Still, badass robots drinking milk? It seems kinda off. (Stop messing with my childhood memories!)

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.

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