On Delayed Language Acquisition

JP recently finished studying Chinese at the Monterey Institute, and he said something that caught my attention:

Ok, how’s my Chinese now? It’s better than when I started. I’ve certainly seen a lot of vocab and patterns. A few of them are in my daily speech now. I’m not terribly worried that I haven’t internalized more of those yet… it’s not my first rodeo. I know that some of that stuff will start coming out of my mouth in the months to come.

I actually discovered this phenomenon when I got back from France in 1993. My French had improved tremendously from the immersion experience, and I had plenty of new frenchy habits. But I was a little disappointed that my French wasn’t even better. I would go to French class in Seattle and make a lot of the same mistakes I had made before. Oh well, I thought, I didn’t get fluent, but at least it was fun.

Fast forward to a year later, and I was totally able to speak French. So apparently the growth came after I had returned, after the immersion experience was long over.

Of course there’s a big catch. You have to keep talking, keep practicing, keep trying to improve. That’s certainly no problem for JP, but some learners may think that all the magic happens in one special context at one special time, and once extracted from that special environment, all the learning stops. Not so!

The jury is still out an exactly how closely related first and second language acquisition are, but clearly the two are related. One of the things that gives me great pleasure is watching my (not-yet-two-year-old) daughter soak up new words, earnestly taking them all in, but refusing to repeat them. And then, days or weeks later, she’ll suddenly bust out with those words in the appropriate context, much to the amazement of her audience.

No, it’s not a deliberate show. Her brain needs time to properly “digest” what she’s ingested in order to put it to use.

For me personally, some of the most interesting phenomena relate to Chinese grammar. There are certain higher-level grammar patterns that you can learn, and know, and understand in context, but then just never use yourself in normal conversation. Why bother with something like 之所以……是因为 when you can just use the regular cause-effect pattern? Or why bother extracting the object and with a 把 sentence and moving it around when you can get by with a regular SOV sentence?

Pork Chops Are Marinating

Mmmm, nuance. (photo by Merelymel13)

The answer, of course, is that all this stuff adds nuance. But you filter out nuance when you’re not ready for it. Then you marinate in nuance for a while before you’re ready to fully embrace it yourself. Then one day the nuance just pops out of you, expressing just what you meant, and you didn’t even know you had it in you.

To get to that point, you just have to keep accepting that input while continually giving yourself opportunities to communicate.

Text Message Fraud (a sample)

Chinese way

Photo by .sl. on Flickr

There’s a fair amount of text message (SMS) fraud going on in China, and if you have cell phone number here, you’re likely to receive this type of text at some point. As a foreigner, though, if you have trouble reading the text, you may get too caught up in trying to decipher what it says and forget to ask yourself, “could this be a scam?

So here’s an example of a fraudulent text message I received just the other day:

我是房东,我换号码了, [This is the landlord. I've changed my number.]

你记一下,以后找我就打这个。 [Please write it down. In the future, you can reach me at this number.]

另外,这次租金请打我爱人卡上, [Also, this time please pay the rent to my spouse's account.]

工行 621226.240200.6159780 [ICBC 621226-240200-6159780]

李敏,谢谢 [Li Min. Thanks!]

A few notes on what makes this text a little bit crafty:

  1. The landlord’s changed his/her number. That’s why you don’t recognize the number. And you’re welcome to contact him/her at the number! Seems legit.

  2. Oh, but now you have to send money. And the reason you don’t recognize the account is because it’s the landlord’s spouse’s account.

  3. Here’s the kicker. The spouse’s name is Li Min (李敏). This is a deliberately gender neutral name (although it’s more likely to be a female name). The words for “landlord” (房东) and “spouse” (爱人) are also gender neutral. So whether your actual landlord is male or female, the message still works.

  4. The spouse’s surname, Li (), is not a coincidence. It’s #1 in the list of common Chinese surnames.

Don’t fall for this stuff, guys. I receive messages like this once or twice a month. They tend to follow a very similar pattern to the one above.

China, the Country of the Blind

Old man in alley

Photo by Iris River on Flickr

I recently read H.G. Wells’ short story The Country of the Blind, and it immediately struck me how relevant this story is to western visitors of China in modern times. If you’re a China observer, and an observer of how westerners interact with China, it’s definitely worth a read.

If you’re too busy to read a short story (and it’s not overly sci-fi, for those of you not into the genre), you might check out the plot synopsis on Wikipedia.

Here’s an excerpt to give you a taste:

“Why did you not come when I called you?” said the blind man. “Must you be led like a child? Cannot you hear the path as you walk?”

Nunez laughed. “I can see it,” he said.

“There is no such word as see,” said the blind man, after a pause. “Cease this folly and follow the sound of my feet.”

Nunez followed, a little annoyed.

“My time will come,” he said.

“You’ll learn,” the blind man answered. “There is much to learn in the world.”

“Has no one told you, ‘In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King?'”

“What is blind?” asked the blind man, carelessly, over his shoulder.

Four days passed and the fifth found the King of the Blind still incognito, as a clumsy and useless stranger among his subjects.

It was, he found, much more difficult to proclaim himself than he had supposed, and in the meantime, while he meditated his coup d’etat, he did what he was told and learnt the manners and customs of the Country of the Blind. He found working and going about at night a particularly irksome thing, and he decided that that should be the first thing he would change.

There really is a lot there to appreciate. Read the original.

On a related note, Kaiser Kuo has recently stated:

On my podcast not long ago, Evan Osnos suggested that the best way to understand China today is to read Mark Twain—specifically “The Gilded Age” and “Life on the Mississippi.” Paul Mozur from the WSJ did just that and concurs. I’m now reading “The Gilded Age.” Yep.

Evan Osnos also recommends The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells for the same reasons.

Coke’s Creative Campaign Can’t Hold Off the Tablet Wars

This big ad space in Zhongshan Park displayed massive iPad ads for the longest time, after which it was covered by Microsoft Surface ads. Just briefly, it was home to this Coke ad:


The ad reads:

型男 室友 老兄 神对手 一起分享可口可乐 (Enjoy Coca-Cola with stylish guys, roomies, old buddies, and arch-rivals.)

Coke is doing something creative with its labels this summer, using Chinese internet slang instead of the name 可口可乐 (Coca-Cola). Read more about this campaign here and here.

I noticed that as of this week, the ad space has been reclaimed by the Surface again.

13 Euphemisms for Sex in Chinese

We all know that Chinese can be a little challenging to learn, and one of the reasons is cultural. Certain topics are not talked about openly by most Chinese, or at least not directly. Enter the euphemism, those delightful ways of subtly referring to a taboo topic without outright naming it (and befuddling all foreigners in the process!).

Below is a list of Chinese euphemisms (委婉语) for sex. These are all somewhat subtle, but they vary quite a bit in how modern or tactful they are. Just to be clear, if you use the words 做爱 (“make love”) or (“sex, sexuality”) or 性交 (“sexual intercourse”), you’re not being subtle, and dropping those words in polite company is likely to cause some embarrassment.

OK, so here’s the list:


  1. sex: This one needs no expanation, except that since it’s an English word, rather than a Chinese word, it loses a lot of its taboo flavor in Chinese (thus it’s counted as a euphemism when it’s really just a translation).

  2. 那个: Literally, “that.” You know… that.

    Example: 他们有没有……那个过?

  3. ML: Stands for “Make Love.” So once euphemized by translation, and then euphemized once again by abbreviation. I asked native speakers if there is a “ZA.” You know… for 做爱. Of course there isn’t. (And at first, before the clarification, native speakers were even confused about what in the world I could be talking about. “ZA”? Zā?) This one is often used online.

    Example: ML的时候

  4. happy: You may know this word as an innocuous English adjective, but in Chinese it can sometimes be a verb.

    Example: 他们今天可能要happy一下。

  5. 睡觉: This one is pretty easy to just translate, since the euphemism is directly analogous to the English “sleep with someone.” Just remember to use in Chinese: ……(somebody) 睡觉.

    Example: 她不会跟你睡觉。

  6. 爱爱: So you know how in Chinese verbs can reduplicate, like saying 看看 for “take a (quick) look”? Well, in this particular euphemism, the same little grammar trick is used for the verb . Only it’s pretty unambiguous in Chinese. Cute, huh?

    Example: 他们今天可能要爱爱。

  7. 嘿咻: This one is a little hard to explain if you’ve never heard it, but it’s the sound someone makes when engaged in some kind of hard labor. The kind where you’re breathing hard. So it’s essentially an onomatopoeia turned into a verb.

    Example: 在车里“嘿咻” [source]

  8. 办事: This one is slightly problematic because 办事 is a little bit hard to nail down even in the non-euphemistic sense. It’s kind of like “get some work done,” or “handle some (official) business.” Perhaps the most (unintentionally) appropriate translation in this particular case is “handle affairs.”

    Example: 男人、女人“办事”时喜欢开灯和不开灯的理由 [source]

  9. 发生关系: I love how spontaneous this one sounds. 发生 means “happen” or “occur,” and 关系 means “relations” or “relationship.” So sometimes “relationships happen.” The interesting thing is that this one is actually fairly formal; it can be used as an almost classy euphemism without the need for any additional chuckling or winking.

    Example: 为什么男女发生关系后一切都变了? [source]

  10. 床上运动: “Exercise in bed.” Need I say more? Often used as a noun phrase.

    Example: 床上运动一周几次才正常? [source]

  11. 上床: “Get in bed.” Again, this one isn’t too hard for an English speaker to decode. As with 睡觉, the pattern is ……(somebody) 上床.

    Example: 她不会跟你上床。

  12. 房事: Literally, “room affair.” I’ve actually never heard this one myself, but I’m assured that it is definitely used, and sometimes even by doctors. It can also be used as a verb.

    Example: 怀孕后多久不能房事,为什么? [source]

  13. 云雨: Ah, “clouds and rain.” (Yeah, you know what I’m talking about!) This one is definitely the most poetic of the bunch. To me, it smacks of “the birds and the bees,” only classier.

    I’ve got no examples for this one. My searches turn up a whole bunch of Chinese people asking how 云雨 came to mean 做爱 in ancient Chinese. It’s not normally used in spoken Chinese.

So that’s enough euphemisms for now! Next euphemism post: Chinese euphemisms for death.

Thoughts on Summer Blockbuster “Pacific Rim” in China

Last night I went to see the movie Pacific Rim at Shanghai’s newest, biggest mall, Global Harbor. My hopes were not super high, but I ended up really enjoying the film. I had totally forgotten that it was directed by Guillermo del Toro; I think it was suddenly seeing Ron Perlman’s face in the movie amongst all the other relatively unknown actors that reminded me. Anyway, very fun movie.

Pacific Rim Locandina

A few things struck me about seeing the film in China:

  1. The Chinese mech dies first. This is kind of a shame, not because they’re Chinese, but because their badass red, four-armed robot with buzz-saws for hands looked awesome, and I would have liked to watch it do a little more damage in battle. This didn’t really seem to bother the audience, though; the Chinese mech pilots weren’t even really characters in the movie… easy come, easy go.

  2. The human characters in the movie use the Japanese term kaiju (怪獣) for the giant monsters they’re fighting. This was kind of interesting. The (simplified) Chinese is 怪兽. (Another common word for “monster” in Chinese is 怪物.)

  3. The Hong Kong Chinese are experts at dicing up the kaiju (giant monster) corpses and selling the parts on the black market (as “medicine”?). There is discussion of the going rates for ground kaiju bones and various kaiju organs. This struck me as both a funny stereotype as well as somewhat insightful.

What do you think? Racist? Or would the biological matter derived from monsters from another dimension totally be worked into the black market, extreme fringes of TCM relatively quickly?

Tracking the Evolution of the Slang Word “Diaosi”

The Chinese slang word 屌丝 (meaning approximately “loser”) has become pretty popular in recent years, thanks to the internet. Of course it’s got its own Baidu Baiku entry (in Chinese), and you can find it in the ChinaSmack glossary (in English) too.

But there are a few weird things about this term. First, sources don’t always agree whether 屌丝 is pronounced “diǎosī” (3-1) or “diàosī” (4-1). [My personal sources usually assure me it's 3-1.] Second, isn’t a vulgar slang term for “penis”?

Rather than delving into these issues myself, I’d like to direct you to an article on a new blog called Civil China which, as one of its first articles, takes a look at how the term has surged in popularity in recent years, and even how connotations shifted from mostly negative to not-so-negative. The article is Diaosi: Evolution of a Chinese Meme.

The post includes some very interesting textual analysis of the use of the term 屌丝 on Weibo over the past year and a half. (Complete with fancy data visualizations!)

Analysis of the term "diaosi"

For those of you actually trying to learn vocabulary (and possibly too lazy to read the whole thing), don’t miss this conclusion about the meaning of the word 屌丝:

Although “diaosi” is often translated as “loser” in English, our analysis points to a distinction between a Chinese “diaosi” and a “loser”: losers are responsible for their own lack of success, while diaosi are made by larger social conditions. No wonder then, that “loser” remains an indisputably negative term, personal in its injury, while “diaosi” is a true meme: dynamic, complex, and current, cultural rather than personal.

Help with the Chinese Usage Dictionary

Yale University has a great Chinese Usage Dictionary with 85 entries. Only problem is that it uses the deprecated HTML practice of frames, and the links in the left sidebar are not right. You actually can get to the articles by hovering over the links, noting the HTML file it points to, and then editing the URL in your browser, but that’s a bit tedious.

To make access easier, AllSet Learning has added an index page for Yale’s Chinese Usage Dictionary, and at the same time, added a few relevant Chinese Grammar Wiki links as well. Check it out!

The Chinese Usage Dictionary isn’t a full dictionary in the sense of Pleco or MDBG, and it doesn’t stick strictly to vocabulary or grammar, alternating between the two. But if you like comparisons of similar words with examples of correct and incorrect usage, or want some exercises, then definitely give it a look.

Door Door

Here’s a Chinese door that not-so-subtly reminds you it’s a door:

This is a Door

“Door” in Chinese is written in traditional Chinese, and in simplified. Obviously, the character above is traditional.

Unfortunately, it’s not a door to a door shop or anything quite so fitting.

A More Complete iOS Solution to the China GPS Offset Problem

This is a guest post by a friend, [unnamed for now]. It goes quite in-depth into China’s GPS issue, which I’ve complained about here before. The hope is that, armed with the following information, non-Chinese developers will be able to get around the issue more quickly and more effectively. Note that while the information below was applied to iOS app development, it isn’t strictly iOS-specific.

Description of the Problem

One problem that often comes up when people stay in China for an extended period of time is that they find their GPS devices don’t work. Sure your iPhone or Android phone will report your own location just fine, but try using a route tracking feature when you’re jogging or if you use an app showing other people’s GPS locations like Find My Friends, you’ll likely see they’re standing in a river or some place 500 meters away even if they’re standing right next to you.

This is the mysterious China GPS offset problem. This has been covered in a few posts [in Chinese] here, here, and here. Basically the Chinese government strictly controls mapping data within China. It’s illegal to map or create GPS traces within China without authorization. There have been stories of a few foreigners who created hiking trails near sensitive buildings w/ GPS devices being arrested due to relevant local laws.

For popular map apps such as Google Maps or Apple Maps on iOS, the user’s own location will be correct. This is because licensed companies that register with the government will be given the corrected algorithm to adjust the user’s position. Google Maps, Bing and others allow you to search for a location based on the GPS coordinates, but no local Chinese map providers such as Baidu Maps allow you to.

If you had taken a photo near the Forbidden City, load the photo into iPhoto or Picasa and look at where it is on the map you’ll see the location is just a bit off, 300-500 meters and typically about a block or two away. Not far enough to be extremely inaccurate but incorrect enough to annoy and not place you in the proper position.

Baidu Maps offset example

Fig 1. Example of proper position at Xujiahui and the offset location to the northwest

Two GPS standards

The most common GPS standard used internationally is based on a coordinate system called WGS-84. The globe is an imperfect sphere and any mapping from 3D to 2D introduces some compromises. People who get really into it will note that as you get further away from the equator, the way GPS coordinates for latitude and longitude change aren’t the same even if you’re traveling the same distance. However this is the GPS we’ve come to know and is used globally.

China uses a standard called GCJ-02 which is based off an older Soviet system of coordinates introduced in the 1940’s. It’s converting from WGS-84 to GCJ-02 that we’d like to accomplish. Chinese programmers refer to this coordinate system as the 火星坐标系统 or “Mars coordinate system” (as in you’re mapping from Earth with WGS-84 to Mars in GCJ-02).

Preliminary tries to correct the problem

Static offset

The first tries in the English-language world to correct for this China offset problem noticed that in local areas like within the city of Shanghai or Beijing, the difference was relatively fixed. That is, if you just subtract a few degrees from the latitude and add a few for longitude, you can correct the position. They quickly realized that the translation was non-linear, though, changing from city to city.

Collecting data points

Approaching this problem myself, I found out that as long as I was within China’s IP range, I would see the iOS simulator report my simulated location correctly, but if I dropped a pin on the same GPS coordinates it would be off. I created a simple app that let you drag the pin back to your real location and after scraping Wikipedia’s list of cities in China, had 657 data points.


Fig 2. 657 points taken from list of official cities in China from Wikipedia

Using Excel’s LINEST function you can split the data up into groups and actually get a pretty decent correction that works across the whole country although it will still be off by a few meters. Enough to put you across the street from where you really were or down a few stores.

google data

Fig 3. Example of Google data point set with offsets

It turns out if you search in Chinese, several people sell massive data sets of tens of thousands of points within China with their corresponding offset. Apparently people have run into this need before. On Taobao you can find sets from 400 RMB to 900 RMB.

datasets for sale 3

Fig 4. Example of data set for sale on Taobao

Hints at already solved code

A few English language posts stated that Chinese Android coders had already released the proper algorithm in open source. After several searches in Chinese, finding relevant posts was easy. But the actual ones that solve the problem took more hunting until I found the personal website of Rover Tang and a post on a popular tech site called XCoder.cn.

Solution found and explained

Keeping it brief, the originally released code was a C file that took into account all sorts of height, GPS time and date etc. even though they were unused. This could be found several places online. A refactored and cleaner version of the code is available in C# on EvilTransform.cs.

It’s basically a complicated transform using equations describing an ellipsoid (what the Earth is) from one system of coordinates to another. Once you throw in GPS in WGS-84 you get the same ones back in GCJ-02.

You’ll note that the code interprets that anything within China needs this conversion, anything outside of China, doesn’t. And that China is defined as anything between Latitude 0.83 to 56 and Longitude 72 to 138. I think there’s a few countries caught in that rectangle that might object.

So what now?

So now any web or mobile app developers who need to record GPS paths, post GPS locations, or anything else on top of a map can now have the proper locations. It was a huge relief to me to finally find a solution that works anywhere in China so we can all go back to creating apps that work.


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