Curtailed Freedom (in Characters)

There’s an interesting article on Pro Publica titled: How to Get Censored on China’s Twitter (“China’s Twitter,” being, of course, Weibo).

What especially caught my eye was the mention of this use of Chinese characters:

ziyou-mutian

The characters involved are 自由 and 目田. The former is a real word meaning “freedom,” the letter is a nonsensical combination of two characters (“eye” + “field”), chosen for their appearance only.

I really love how creativity with characters (something I call characterplay) allows for circumvention of censorship. This case is particularly ironic, because in order to avoid automated detection you’re literally removing the top part of both characters, a nice parallel to the content removal activities going on behind the scenes at Weibo.

This situation, although more interesting, also reminded me of the word-parsing censorship problem I’ve written about before (also involving the word 自由).

Link via Sinocism.

Foot Massage Confessions

Spa foot massage

Photo by bodhana mallorca

In a recent ChinesePod lesson on foot baths, I made this comment:

I think I find this form of Chinese “relaxation” painful about 90% of the time, but that other 10% is quite nice!

This prompted this reply from RJ:

My experience as well. Compared to “foot massage”, water-boarding is a sport. They scrape the sensitive bottoms of your feet with a very dull knife, so as not to draw blood. All the while they are thinking: die laowai, die. Had I been a CIA operative under interrogation, I would have cracked. The gal that took me, my host, seemed to be having a great time however. The deluxe 1.5 hour package also came with a happy ending. They packed my legs in a warm “herbal paste” that felt a lot like hot drain cleaner. They also wrap it up in several layers of cloth and tie knots so you can not escape. I was so relieved to see that there was still skin on my legs when they finally removed the restraints. I had to drink an extra beer at dinner just to get rid of the residual pain. How I managed to smile for an hour and a half I dont know, but I could just imagine the whole crew laughing and slapping their thighs after we left. “We got another one, die laowai die”! :-)

User podster replied with:

Ah yes, the Chinese foot torture. That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Oh, sorry, it’s just “enhanced interrogation.” I got some chemical goo that probably doubles as rust remover at the shipyard smeared on my legs during one of these therapeutic treatments. As the searing pain began to set in, they asked me “烫吗?” ["Too hot?"] I wonder how to ask in Chinese exactly how much pain is “normal.”

I really do wonder if our western feet are built differently (wimpier), or what. Exaggeration aside, this kind of experience seems to be par for the course when it comes to foot baths/massages.

Steam Setup: Simplified and Traditional

Here’s one for my British friends:

Steam Setup: Simplified vs. Traditional

Via Micah.

How to bridge the gap to real Chinese

Olle at Hacking Chinese just put up a new post called Asking the experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese. In it, he asks quite a few language learners/experts the question:

“How do you bridge the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion?”

My answer:

The truth is that no materials–textbooks, podcasts, videos, whatever–are entirely appropriate for any individual learner. That’s why it’s essential that the active learner adapt all materials to his own specific needs. Obviously, a good teacher is a tremendous help in doing this, and any good Chinese lesson with a teacher will involve bridging the gap between the language introduced in the study material and the language the learner can actually put to use.

At AllSet Learning we spend a lot of time selecting the study materials most appropriate for a given learner. That way, there’s less “bridging” that needs to be done by teachers, fewer additional vocabulary words that need to be introduced, fewer outdated or irrelevant terms to be filtered out, etc. More time in the lessons can be spent practicing applying the material to real-life situations.

For the independent learner (especially in a foreign language context), this issue of selecting materials is a huge challenge, and it probably involves a lot of time sorting through potential material. Recognizing that most textbooks are pretty outdated (how many textbooks currently in use never cover the words 手机 or 网络?) is a good start. The big question is then whether or not the material is truly useful for you, the learner. Usually HSK word lists and chengyu stories are not the most useful material. Neither are blindly selected frequency lists. What material is going to get you talking to Chinese people the fastest, about the things you care about, adding to your motivation to keep improving? That’s the right material to study.

Definitely check out some of the answers if this topic interests you at all; there’s a lot of them, with lots of good points.

A lot of the answers are what you might expect, but I especially liked the response by Roddy of Chinese-Forums.com:

I think I’d warn against a mindset of “I’m immersed, therefore I’m learning.” We all know people who’ve spent years in what should be a perfect language learning environment, yet somehow fail to make much progress. What do they fail to do?

First I think is a failure to pay attention and absorb. What do people actually say and do in the situations you’re in? Sit near the counter in a fast food place and listen to how people order food, or how the cashiers shout the orders back to the cooks. Stand near the doors on the bus and listen to how people buy their tickets or ask the conductor how to get to wherever. Note how your colleagues greet each other and how age or status affects that. Adopt that language.

It’s kind of remarkable how people can fail to do this. I was in McDonalds once eating with another foreigner, who was complaining about how they never seemed to understand his order for fries and he always had to point at the menu. Somehow he’d never noticed everyone else was asking for 薯条 [french fries], not the 土豆丝 [shredded potato] he was requesting.

Again, there’s lots more in Olle’s original post.

The Chengyu Bias

Chengyu (成语) are the (usually) four-character idioms that any intermediate learner of Chinese knows about. By the time you get to the intermediate level of Chinese, you’ve heard lots about how many of them there are, and how richly imbued with Chinese culture they are, and how they’re wonderful little stories packed into four short characters. Oh, and there are literally thousands of them, so you better start memorizing.

But wait… why?? Why do intermediate learners of Chinese need to start memorizing chengyu so early when, as far as they can tell, they’re relatively rare in daily life? Is it more important to learn a list of four-character idioms than to get better at ordering food in Chinese? Or to talk about basic economics? Or to discuss modern social issues? Or even to finally get a decent grasp of the ever-elusive particle ? Those tasks all involve the use of relatively high frequency vocabulary and require no chengyu. So why the chengyu urgency?

Jason's Chinese Project Presentation

The Bias

Many students of Chinese are told by their Chinese teachers that chengyu are important. They take this advice to heart and dutifully start learning. They may enjoy the stories behind them, or they may not, but these students inevitably realize that they hardly ever come across these chengyu they’re learning in actual conversation or even readings.

The fact is that teaching Chinese to foreigners on any large scale is a relatively new thing, and as such, some kinks are still being worked out. Early efforts at teaching foreigners involved a lot of transference of educational methods used on Chinese children. Memorization of Tang dynasty poems, writing out each new character hundreds of times, and memorizing lists of chengyu long before they’re actually useful are time-honored traditions when it comes to teaching Chinese kids their native language. That doesn’t mean these methods are effective for non-Chinese adults learning Chinese, especially when basic communication is the goal.

The Four-Character Fetish

Despite their questionable usefulness, chengyu get a lot of attention. From an English-speaking perspective, so much fuss over chengyu seems a little strange. Maybe it would help to draw some analogies to English.

Some chengyu are relatively straightforward to understand, and the meaning can be guessed. These are sort of like many English idioms. Think “raining cats and dogs” or “a dime a dozen” or “barking up the wrong tree.” They’re interesting to language nerds, and kind of make sense. They can be fun, but they’re no substitute for basic vocabulary. Fortunately, they’re also pretty easy to understand once your Chinese is at a low advanced level.

Other chengyu are more cryptic because they involve words and word order from classical Chinese, and/or refer to specific stories from ancient China. These are the ones you typically cannot guess the meaning of, and if you don’t know them, you’re absolutely clueless as to what they mean. These are the ones that truly separate the men from the boys in terms of Chinese literacy, and educated Chinese often stump each other with obscure chengyu of this type. It would be more appropriate to compare these with Latin sayings common in highbrow English, like “carpe diem” or “et tu, Brute” or “quid pro quo.”

In short, this second type especially, when overused, comes across as a bit pretentious. This connection of chengyu to an elite education is no small part of the appeal, either to native speakers or to learners of Chinese as a foreign language.

No Special Treatment

In Chinese, chengyu are generally considered individual words. This may seem a little strange, and the definition of a Chinese “word” is a bit amorphous to begin with, but bear with me here. Chengyu sometimes serve as mini sentences, sometimes work as verbs or adjectives, but essentially function like four-character words. Sure, they often have a rich history and pack quite a semantic punch in a small package, but they’re still essentially words.

Since they’re words, it’s easily to apply standard linguistic analysis to them. Corpus analysis can tell us how common any given chengyu is, what types of texts it’s likely to appear in, whether it’s a high-frequency word, etc. And the thing is, chengyu are not high-frequency words, especially when taken individually. Some are definitely higher frequency than others, but compared with ordinary words, they’re essentially all low-frequency.

Now obviously I’m not trying to say that low-frequency words are worthless or not worth learning. But why should low-frequency words be prioritized over medium-frequency words simply because they’ve got the chengyu label? When you start focusing on chengyu as an intermediate learner, that’s exactly what you’re doing. As an intermediate learner, there’s still a ton of good useful medium-frequency words to get familiar with. Why should chengyu get preferential treatment? When you need the word for “ambulance” or “stock market” or “allergy,” having memorized a few dozen chengyu (that you’ve probably never used) are little consolation.

So learners, don’t avoid chengyu, but don’t learn chengyu just because they’re chengyu. Don’t give chengyu special treatment when you could be improving your ability to communicate in Chinese. Just think of chengyu as the low frequency words they are, and when you start to encounter them naturally, learn them. When the time comes, you’ll recognize their usefulness in context and will see them more than once. As an intermediate learner, you’ll occasionally come across high-frequency chengyu (I have my own chengyu top ten), but certainly not by the boatload.

The Caveat

If you really love chengyu, then I’m sure my advice won’t shake your passion. And learning a few can certainly be interesting.


Thanks to @saporedicina for motivating me to finally put this post up. See also Olle of Hacking Chinese’s post (we definitely see eye to eye): Learning the right chengyu the right way.

Credit Sinocism When Credit Is Due

I’m often to busy to give the info-packed Sinocism newsletters my full attention, but when I do, I often find really great stuff. I’ve also noticed a trend on Facebook and Twitter. It goes something like this:

  1. Sinocism newsletter comes out, with a link to especially interesting story “X”
  2. Sinocism readers click through to the story on “X,” love it, share it via Twitter and/or Facebook
  3. The Sinocism readers who share “X” get Likes, retweets, comments

You see the net effect here? Sinocism is serving as an invaluable information hub, but it’s not getting credit for the major role it’s playing in the dissemination of China-related news. And the worst part is that the Sinocism readers aren’t doing it on purpose; they’re just using their social media like they always do, but the way the system is set up, Sinocism gets no credit.

I’m pretty sure I saw an example of this last week. There was a great article about Chinese surnames‘ geographical distribution in China that got a fair amount of attention: Mapping China’s Surnames 制图 “老百姓”. I admit, I tweeted it too, the “bad” way. I then saw lots of people I know on Twitter and Facebook sharing it, no credit. I strongly suspect Sinocism set off the rash of shares (but wasn’t credited).

There are two solutions, as I see it:

  1. Sinocism needs to build its social media presence. Ugh, I feel a little slimy just using the phrase, and I can understand if Bill Bishop would much prefer to keep the endeavor as a blog and newsletter. (Sinocism does have its own (private) Twitter account and Facebook page, but neither are used or promoted much.)
  2. Sinocism readers make an effort to credit the articles they discover through Sinocism when they share them on social media. (For example, you could add “via @sinocism” to tweets, or maybe even “#sinocism“.)

Here’s an example of #2:

Comments welcome! I’ve also asked Bill Bishop for comment. Please also support the Sinocism China Newsletter however you can; it’s a great service.

Apps, Graded Readers, Wiki, Duolingo

Time for a personal update on some of the stuff I’ve been working on….

Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app

Over the weekend AllSet Learning’s Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app (v1.3) was finally approved! I am repeatedly surprised by how much time and effort the creation and maintenance of an iOS app takes. Although the app itself looks great, this is clearly not the best way for developers… it really makes me yearn for HTML5 apps.

That said, I’m really happy with what we’ve done! Sinosplice readers actually contributed ideas for this app’s new content, some of which is free, and some of which is paid. We probably should have added a bit less all at once to this release, but there’s still some more coming. Details about the release are on the AllSet Learning blog post: Chinese Picture Book Reader 1.3.

I’m also putting a lot of time into my (sort of) new Chinese graded reader project, but I’m saving more details on that for a future update.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki continues to grow. We’re adding more sample sentences and more translations across the whole thing, and while it’s already quite extensive in its coverage, it’s also beefing up across the board.

One thing I’ve gotten into personally (for fun, but also research) is Duolingo. I’m trying it out as a purely iPhone experience, and I chose French because I know very little about it, and I know that pronunciation is a challenge. Man, I’ve got some opinions. That’s a future post too, though.

I’m staying super busy, but I have a big long list of blog topics that will see publication on Sinosplice sooner or later. Because I’m spending so much time working on my own projects, it can be hard to not want to blog about them all the time too, but that would get annoying to some of my readers. If anyone has specific questions about what I’m working on, though, let me know, and the answers might just become blog posts.

If you’re interested in updates about all these Chinese-related projects I’m working on at AllSet, please do sign up for the newsletter. We won’t annoy you, and we’ll keep you updated!

The Shaping of a Bilingual Child’s Reality

My daughter is almost 2 years old now, and as she talks more and more, not only is it a blast to see that this little crying pink thing has grown into a real human, but I’ve also got front row seats to the amazing phenomenon of first language acquisition. If you’ve never seen a kid acquire language from scratch, or have never seen it happen bilingually, there are bound to be a few surprises. It’s kind of messy, and sometimes it feels like a wonder that it even works.

The other night my daughter displayed what you might call “neat presentation” of linguistic mastery. She asked for some water by saying “please water.” I gave her some of mine, and I could tell by her expression that it was colder than she expected. “It’s cold, huh?” I asked her. She nodded her head, repeating, “cold.” “It’s cold water,” I said. She nodded, repeating, “cold water, cold water.” Then she looked at her mom, and exclaimed with joy, “冰水冰水!” (cold water, cold water). Wow, she’s already becoming a little translation machine! It’s not usually quite so orderly as all that, though.

Then there’s the “little boy” and “little girl” case, which ties in nicely with the concept of linguistic relativity. I recently realized that my daughter didn’t know the words “boy” or “girl,” and didn’t know the Chinese for them either. This seemed a little strange to me, because I know that during the day her Chinese grandmother takes her outside a lot, and she plays with other kids. Shouldn’t she at least know the Chinese for 男孩 (boy) or 女孩 (girl) or 小孩 (child), if not the English?

Well, it turns out that no, she shouldn’t know those words, because she rarely hears them. What she was learning was actually a bit more complicated than all that. Every time she encountered another baby that was male and younger than her, she was instructed to call him 弟弟, the Chinese word that literally means “little brother.” For girls younger than her, it’s 妹妹 (“little sister”). For little boys older than her, it’s 哥哥 (“big brother”), and for little girls older than her, it’s 姐姐 (“big sister”). This is fairly typical for Chinese kids.

Reality Check

Photo by Feldore

Of course, she doesn’t know the word for “man” or “woman,” either. She calls all women 阿姨 (that is, any female that’s not obviously still a child, much to the dismay of the 20-year-old young ladies she encounters), which traditionally means “auntie,” and all adult males 叔叔.

She especially enjoys identifying every 阿姨 (“auntie”) she sees, whether it be a woman on the street, a female mannequin in a store, or even a drawing of a woman in an ad.

Meanwhile, I’m lamely trying to remind her that there are English words for all these people, starting with “boy” and “girl,” and maybe it’s my imagination, but could it be she’s having a hard time accepting the words I offer because they don’t match her existing mental map?

More exposure is all she needs, of course… I certainly won’t make it any more complicated than that; I’ll just keep throwing natural English at her (I don’t speak to her in Chinese). But it’s certainly fun to watch her deft little brain running through these semantic mazes. With continued exposure, she’ll make it through, no matter what Chinese (or English) throws at her.

We All Scream for Bling-qilin

The Chinese word for “ice cream” is 冰淇淋 (bingqilin). [Somewhat annoyingly, it also has an alternate form: 冰激凌 (bingjiling), but we're ignoring that one for the purposes of this pun.]

So from “bīngqílín” (冰淇淋) we get this:

bling淇淋

Honestly, though, they could really be trying a little harder on the bling.

Via friend and ex-co-worker Jason, who’s new doing cool things at FluentU from Taiwan.

Classical Chinese through Chinese Texts

I have to give a quick recommendation to the readers out there that have been toying with the idea of learning a little classical Chinese: Chinese Texts. It’s actually more fun than you might expect.

Via Sinoscism, which offers this introduction:

This course is intended for people who would like to learn how to read classical Chinese philosophy and history as expeditiously as possible. The professor is a specialist in early Chinese history. He is not a linguist, and offers no more discussion of grammatical particles and structures than is strictly necessary.

This may be true, but I find many of the grammatical explanations rather linguisticky. I don’t mind (and I’m sure they could be a lot more abstruse). I like how supplementary grammar examples given are short, to the point, and interesting.

Here’s an example:

而 ér

This is one of the most common words in classical Chinese. It links phrases, not nouns. “And” or “but” is often a satisfactory translation. However, often the phrase preceding 而 is subordinate, so it should be translated as a participle indicating modification. Thus, in the first sentence of the Mencius, the King of Liáng says 不遠千里而來 “[You] came, not considering a thousand miles too far.” In such cases the first phrase describes a condition or background to the second, as in the English sentence “Peter, fully knowing the danger, entered the room.” In other cases the two phrases are co-ordinate, and the second phrase simply narrates what follows (from) the first.

This is also one of those little bits of classical Chinese that will help sophisticate your modern Chinese. We cover 而 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki in a number of patterns.

Another great example of classical Chinese common in written Chinese:

以 yĭ

This character was originally a verb meaning “to take, to take up, to grab onto.” Thus “X 以 noun verb” would mean “X takes or grasps the noun and verbs,” hence “X uses noun to verb.” Thus 以口言 “speaks with the mouth (口 kŏu),” or 以心知 “knows with the heart/mind (心 xīn).”

以 also precedes verbs, in which case it usually acts as a conjunction meaning “in order to.” Thus 出門以見日 “to go out the door in order to see (見 jiàn) the sun,” 溫古以習之 “to review ancient times in order to become familiar with them.”

One of the most common uses of 以 is in the phrase 以為 “to take and make, take and use as, take and regard as.” This phrase can also be divided to form 以 A 為 B, “to take A and make it into B, use it as B, regard it as B.” As the translations suggest, this action can be either physical—to take some object or substance and make it into something—or mental—to regard something as being something else. Thus 以木為門 “to take wood (木 mù) and make a gate,” 王以天下為家 “The king regards the whole world (天下 tiān xià) as his household (家 jiā),” 孔子以國為小 “Confucius considered the state to be small (小 xiăo),” 吾以為子不知之 “I thought that you didn’t know it.” This use of 以為, both as a unit and as separate words, is still common in modern Chinese.

(You can find 以 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki as well, of course.)

I’m just starting this online course (my education in classical Chinese is still spotty and very incomplete), but it came highly recommended by a friend, and what I’ve read so far I’ve enjoyed a lot.

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