I’m not sure how to classify “normal” Chinese government propaganda. As a foreigner, it all seems kind of pointless, like background noise. Almost a stylistic choice, rather than some kind of effort at shaping (or just nudging) the direction in which society is developing.
Often, the propaganda is of the “values” kind, cheerily informing the population what values Chinese society holds so dear. Other times, they’re more focused on specific objectives. I guess the recent “Sweep Black, Eliminate Evil” campaign from June of this year is of that type, although for the average Shanghai resident, it didn’t really mean anything.
That’s why the recent campaign for recycling and garbage separation feels really different to me. It feels like meaningful propaganda with a tangible (and achievable) objective! I’m not sure what the locals feel about it, but to me, it feels like a rare effort at actual social progress. Here is some of the “propaganda” I spotted in a local neighborhood or two:
I recently wrote about being amazed by how many characters my daughter learned in a year of Chinese elementary school. I’ve got a lot of thoughts on that, and it’s a great way to highlight the difference between “first language acquisition” and “second language acquisition,” as well as the difference in respective study materials. But first, I just want to share just the lists of characters and words covered in the textbooks of the two semesters of first grade in China. (Otherwise, I’ll never get this stuff done!)
The following word lists come from this 语文 (Chinese language) textbook series, the standard set approved for all Chinese children by the Chinese government in 2018 (and published by 人民教育出版社):
The book on the left is for semester 1 (上册), and the book on the right is for semester 2 (下册).
In the images to follow, the characters in the 写字表 (“Character Writing List”) are all words the kids need to learn to write, even if some of them initially appear in a 识字 (“Character Recognition”) section of the textbook, and some of them first appear in other sections.
Grade 1: Semester 1 (Character List)
Grade 1: Semester 2 (Character List)
Grade 1: Semester 2 (Word List)
This isn’t a comprehensive list of all the words that could be made (or even were covered) by the characters learned in the second semester of first grade. It’s more a list of words that can be formed with the new characters learned and were covered in class. Single-character words are not included in this list. (Note: just perusing this list, you will notice that even in first grade, certain words appear that you would never teach a non-native beginner learner.)
Apologies for the iffy quality… the scanner was acting up. All the characters should be clearly legible, though.
I’ll follow up in a future post with some of my thoughts on all this. I also plan to convert these lists to nice electronic text formats (or maybe just find a place to download them), but if someone else does it first, please share!
In the meantime, beginners, do not despair! You’re not a child, and you won’t learn like one, but you can still learn Chinese. Just differently.
There’s a nice green lawn (not too small) inside my apartment complex in Shanghai. I always thought it was weird how I never seemed to see a lawn mower anywhere, but the grass was clearly routinely cut. Then I got my answer:
Yes, the entire lawn is routinely mowed by weed wacker. When you think about it, it does make sense for China, but I know I’ve seen Americans mowing lawns half this size using riding lawn mowers.
There’s a cultural trend I’ve noticed over the years living in China, and it’s recently come into sharper focus as a result of having my own children and interacting with more Chinese parents. It’s the family habit of letting the child decide the menu for meals, or, in the case of eating out, letting the child decide where to eat or what food to order for everyone. I’m not talking about an occasional thing; I’m talking about a habitual practice.
I probably first noticed this when I started dating my future wife. She lived with her parents, and would frequently communicate with her mom on the phone. I noticed that I would often hear her telling her mom what she wanted for dinner that night, and that’s what her mom would make. I thought this was kind of weird, but figured that was just her family, she was kind of a strong personality, she was good at choosing food everyone likes, etc.
Over the years I learned that this was quite common, and it starts early. Children of 4 or 5 years old frequently decide most of what’s on the menu for the evening, practically every day. In some homes, the child decides their own menu while the adults eat an entirely separate meal. It’s no wonder that so many kids in China are picky eaters!
When this started happening in my own home with my own kids, I quickly put a stop to it. “Kids don’t get to decide what’s for dinner,” I said. “They eat what they’re given.” Fortunately my mother-in-law and wife were cool with that, but they had already started falling into what seems to be the “default mode” of letting the children (usually the youngest) decide what’s for dinner in a Chinese household.
One awkward thing about comparing this aspect of Chinese and American families is that I really only have my own “American cultural experiences” to compare to, and those are not at all recent! I don’t have regular contact with many American families, so if this same habit is now super common in American families too, I wouldn’t know. I suspect that it exists as well, but is nowhere near as widespread as it is in China, where the One Child Policy has set off a cascade of new family dynamics, often resulting in spoiled sibling-less children.
Talking to other parents in Shanghai, what I usually hear is, “my kid often doesn’t want to eat, and is already so skinny. So I’d rather let him decide what to eat and eat something rather than eat nothing.” My reply to this, of course, is, “he’ll be pretty hungry and less picky the next day after he eats nothing for dinner. He won’t starve. 4-year-olds don’t go on hunger strikes.” This works in my family (I’ve let my kids go hungry when they decide they’re going to be picky eaters), but I get the definite impression that Chinese parents think this won’t work in their families (or they’re just not willing to let their kids miss a single meal).
We’re working on a new discussion course for intermediate learners at AllSet Learning focused on various topics related to raising children. It’s really a very, very rich vein for discussion, and it’s the reason this “picky eater” and “kids ordering food” topic resurfaced for me recently. If your experience (American, Chinese, or whatever) is different, please share!
Just a simple China product discovery:
In China, the word “mojito” is not pronounced “mo-hee-to” like it is in English. Rather, the Spanish “j” is approximated with the Chinese “x” sound. In Chinese, it’s written 莫希托 (mòxītuō) or 莫西托 (mòxītuō), or sometimes even 莫希多 (mòxīduō). But it’s not a big step from “xi” to “qi” in Chinese, which makes the xi/qi pun possible, using the number 7 (qī). This gives us: 莫7托 (mòqītuō), as well as the curious English name “Moji7o.”
No comment on the taste! I didn’t buy it or try it.
As an English speaker, you may be tempted to think that “where are you from?” is a super basic question. Just 4 words, right? How hard could it be? Well, for this particular question, in the particular language of Mandarin Chinese, it can be phrased more than 10 different ways.
Before I get into this, let’s be clear: I’m not trying to say Chinese is super difficult to learn, or that beginners can’t learn it. No no no no. I may personally feel that the language is kinda hard to learn, but Chinese is not bad at all when it comes to sentence structure in particular. BUT, it’s not unreasonable for beginners to assume that the question “where are you from?” is super straightforward, with just one way to express it in Chinese. And it’s that little assumption that I’m destroying here. You may have to put forward just a bit more effort on this one.
The Swappable Words
A big part of the problem is that in the question “where are you from,” pretty much every part of the sentence can be expressed in multiple ways. Let’s break it down:
- where: 哪里, 哪儿, 什么地方, 哪个国家
So the first two are the most common and should be learned first, but you will hear the others as well, so you have to learn them sooner or later
- are… from: 从……来, 来自, 是……的
There aren’t one-to-one translations, they’re roughly corresponding structure. See below for more clarity here.
- you: 你
OK, this one you don’t have to worry about much, at least!
I live in Shanghai, so I’m going to pick 哪里 and stick with it for these examples. Just keep in mind that most of the others probably work as well.
- 你从哪里来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎlǐ lái?)
- 你来自哪里？ (Nǐ láizì nǎlǐ?)
- 你是哪里人？ (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ rén?)
- 你是哪里的？ (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ de?)
- 你是（从）哪里来的？ (Nǐ shì (cóng) nǎlǐ lái de?)
The Big “Where are you from?” List
OK, now let’s put all these words and structures together and see how many sentences we can come up with!
- 你从哪里来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎli lái?)
- 你从哪儿来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎr lái?)
- 你从什么地方来？ (Nǐ cóng shénme dìfang lái?)
- 你从哪个国家来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎge guójiā lái?)
- 你来自哪里？ (Nǐ láizì nǎli?)
- 你来自哪儿？ (Nǐ láizì nǎr?)
- 你来自么地方来？ (Nǐ láizì má dìfang lái?)
- 你来自哪个国家？ (Nǐ láizì nǎge guójiā?)
- 你是哪里人？ (Nǐ shì nǎli rén?)
- 你是哪儿人？ (Nǐ shì nǎr rén?)
- 你是什么地方的人？ (Nǐ shì shénme dìfang de rén?)
- 你是哪个国家的人？ (Nǐ shì nǎge guójiā de rén?)
- 你是哪里的？ (Nǐ shì nǎli de?)
- 你是哪儿的？ (Nǐ shì nǎr de?)
- 你是什么地方的？ (Nǐ shì shénme dìfang de?)
- 你是哪个国家的？ (Nǐ shì nǎge guójiā de?)
- 你是（从）哪里来的？ (Nǐ shì (cóng) nǎli lái de?)
- 你是（从）哪儿来的？ (Nǐ shì (cóng) nǎr lái de?)
- 你是（从）什么地方来的？ (Nǐ shì (cóng) shénme dìfang lái de?)
- 你是（从）哪个国家来的？ (Nǐ shì (cóng) nǎge guójiā lái de?)
Wow, that’s kind of a lot. The good news is that there a few that are used much more often than the others. Different native speakers will have different opinions on which ones are the most common, and it’s also partially dependent on region.
The “Where are you from?” Shortlist
You’ll hear lots of these in China, but after I asked a bunch of Chinese teachers, the most common favorites were:
- 你是哪里人？ (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ rén?) — popular with southerners
- 你是哪儿人？(Nǐ shì nǎr rén?) — popular with northerners
- 你是哪个国家的？ (Nǐ shì nǎge guójiā de?)
What might be surprising is that the question which most learners start with is not in the list:
- 你从哪里来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎlǐ lái?)
- 你从哪儿来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎr lái?)
When asked, the teachers say that’s because it sounds a bit formal (same with using 来自). That doesn’t mean that a beginner shouldn’t use it, though… it’s still fine.
So I bet you want to just pick one, memorize it, and use it exclusively, right? That’s fine. You can do that.
BUT, that’s not necessarily going to help you when you talk to random strangers in China. They are going to ask you where you’re from, and that’s when the big “Wheel of ‘where are you from?’” is spun, and the gods determine your fate.
Rather than memorizing 20 “where are you from” question forms, go with your gut. If you just started chatting, and you hear a 哪里 or a 哪儿 (exception: taxi drivers!), and maybe a 国家 or a 地方 or a 的 on the end, just assume they’re asking where you’re from. This usually works.
Pro tip: Also be sure to answer in a complete sentence. Something like: “我是美国人。“. This way if you guessed wrong about what the person was asking, that person won’t be too confused by your answer.
I’m not saying you have to learn 20 ways to ask “where are you from?”
I am saying that if you are feeling frustrated because you’ve been studying for a while, but you still sometimes can’t understand the simple question “where are you from?” that there is actually a good reason, and it’s the fault of the Chinese language, not your fault.
Over time, you will get these. It’s just a little more work than memorizing one sentence.
I appreciate a good meme, and recently my partner Jared at Mandarin Companion has been on a meme roll. He started by collecting some good ones, then he moved on to posting his own on the Mandarin Companion Instagram account.
Here are a few I especially like:
There are more on the Mandarin Companion Instagram account.
Also, we’ve got a new book out at the “Breakthrough Level” (150 characters):
It’s always fun writing sci-fi. The original concept was by Jared, and we fleshed the plot out together. I oversaw our Chinese writers, and I did all the illustration design. Fun stuff!
The Chinese Grammar Wiki has been around for a while now, and we’ve released an A1-A2 Elementary book, and well as a B1 Intermediate book. But for HSK test takers, it’s always been slightly confusing trying to match up the CEFR levels (A1, A2, B1, B2) with the HSK levels.
Well, we’ve now done the extra work to make separate (parallel) lists of grammar points specifically for the HSK. It was a lot more work than I originally expected, but I think it’s going to be helpful to a lot of people.
Here’s how we explain the relationship between the levels in the book itself:
The current version of the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) dates back to 2010, and was last revised in 2012. It consists of six levels (1-6), and was designed, in part, to correspond to the six CEFR levels. European Chinese language teachers have reported that the correspondence, in practice, is somewhat different, with HSK 6 actually matching no higher than the CEFR B2-C1 level range. Furthermore, the HSK levels are used more as a standard for academic requirements (e.g. being admitted to an undergraduate or graduate program in China) rather than real-life application….
Our conclusion is that while both leveling systems clearly have their uses, it is not possible to equally accommodate both systems in one list of grammar points. That is why the Chinese Grammar Wiki has created separate listings for CEFR levels and HSK levels. We encourage test-takers of the HSK to refer to the HSK level lists, while learners focused more on real-life communication can benefit more from the CEFR levels. This book focuses on the HSK levels.
Plus, there are also new grammar points lists on the Chinese Grammar Wiki itself:
I’m in Florida on vacation with the family this July. I’ve managed to get my kids to a respectable bilingual state despite them growing up in Shanghai, but American culture is one thing my kids just don’t get a lot of, and it’s probably one of the most interesting aspects of this trip. Kids adapt to new surroundings quickly, but their reactions to new situations and unfamiliar American culture is super interesting.
Unfortunately, it’s not practical to make a big long list (I wish I had one!). One simple example is wading pools, though. My parents never got a pool installed, but the backyard is plenty big, so we can do the old backyard wading pool thing (fill it up with a hose). Such simple pleasures are utterly foreign to Shanghai kids, but still a blast! (Coming up soon: backyard water balloon fight, “Slip ‘n Slide,” and playing in the sprinkler. Classic American middle class fun!)
Anyway, the insanity part relates to a conversation with my daughter (now 7.7 years old). It went something like this:
Her: Is America insane?
Me: …. Yes.
I guess maniacal laughter is better than weeping. I mean, “chaos is a ladder,” right?
June 2019 in Shanghai was all about the 扫黑除恶 (“Sweep Black, Eliminate Evil“) campaign, but towards the end of the month, the new big topic became 垃圾分类 (literally: “garbage classification”).
So after years of (semi-successfully) trying to get everyone to stop littering and use the damn garbage cans, the decision has been made to go into full-on complex (Japanese-style?) garbage separation, even at the household level. This has resulted in a number of interesting phenomena.
The New System
Shanghaiist has details in English: Starting [in July], you’ll have to sort your own garbage or face fines in Shanghai.
Here’s the information distributed to my own home:
High-Tech Garbage Cans
Various “neighborhoods” in Shanghai started phasing in the new garbage separation policy a few months ago, but it still feels rushed. Some communities even had “high-tech garbage receptacles” installed in June. These things require a special card to even open. Then if you put the wrong garbage in the wrong can, you could get fined!
For the slightly paranoid, garbage tracking is very scary, considering how easy it would be to go through any individual’s garbage under this new system. (Or just fine people and profit.)
Garbage Separation Memes
Word is that public garbage cans on the street will soon be disappearing. Hence this “fashion statement.”
A classification system so complicated, you have to look stuff up online just to throw something away?? (There should be an app for that.)
Don’t throw garbage in the wrong can… people are watching. (Yes, this is a joke.)
Sure, it’s a good thing to be more responsible about dealing with garbage as a society, especially in a society as populous as this one. It does feel an awful lot like people are being forced to run before the can walk, though. If this doesn’t work, the result is going to be widespread littering all over the city! But still, this initiative is going to happen because it’s being pushed through by the will of the government. It’ll be interesting to see how this turns out!
My daughter has just finished first grade in a Chinese elementary school. I’ve been absolutely blown away by how many characters she has learned in her first year (that’s a topic of an upcoming post).
Just the other day, we were having a conversation (mostly in English) about what characters we thought were “hard.” It was interesting getting her perspective, because it was totally different from mine. We didn’t agree at all on which ones were “hard.”
That’s when I brought up the (non-standard) Chinese character “biáng,” a ridiculously complex character used only to write “biángbiáng 面” (a kind of noodle). Anyway, she loved it, and after writing it a few times, can now write it from memory, and it actually looks pretty good.
Please excuse the “proud dad” nature of this post… I’m actually more blown away than straight-up proud. No one even encouraged her to learn to write this character. But here’s her writing the character from memory (bad video quality… sorry):
And here’s the finished product, after she added a bit of extra text to the top and bottom:
Note: computers cannot display this Chinese character. It’s often written in pinyin, and even when it appears on menus in China, it’s either handwritten or some weird mismatched pasted-on character.
And yes, my 7-year-old’s Chinese handwriting is already better than mine. It only took one year.
Lesson learned: a lot can be learned in one year. Adults may not typically be able to learn like children, but it’s still inspiring to see what’s possible!
P.S. And no, the syllable “biang” is not even on most pinyin charts. Obscure character, obscure syllable!
If you live in China and can read some of the Chinese around you, you’ve probably noticed this phrase of late:
Literally, “sweep black, eliminate evil.” It refers to the current ongoing crackdown on “crime” and “vice.”
It is super pervasive, though. Big red banners like this are on almost every single street corner in Shanghai now (this image not from Shanghai):
And then there are signs like this everywhere as well:
Given how the city is heavily blanketed in this propaganda right now, you might be forgiven for thinking that the city was absolutely infested with crime, with drug-dealers and prostitutes on every corner. But no, that’s not the case. To the casual observer, there’s no clear reason for the severe crackdown.
If you talk to the Shanghai foreigners that hang out in bars a lot, you’ll hear that there have been many raids this month, including forced drug tests and deportations. So drug-related arrests are definitely happening, but again, that is not at all related to the average resident of Shanghai.
If you ask Chinese people about it, they typically mention that it’s a move to take out organized crime (黑社会). You also see stuff like this:
I don’t doubt that’s true, but the bizarre part about this campaign is that the “evil” being combatted seems to have absolutely nothing to do with most people. I can’t see it or feel it (I certainly have never seen mobsters shaking down fruit vendors in Shanghai). And I think that this is true for most Chinese citizens. So really, all the propaganda is just to let you know: “we are totally kicking crime’s butt right now.”
OK… it’s just one of those weird things about living in China.
I’ve been going through some literature in the field of second language acquisition, and this includes Paul Nation’s 2001 work, Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. In case you’re not familiar with him, Paul Nation is regarded as one of the world’s foremost academics in the field of vocabulary acquisition, and his books are well worth reading.
Anyway, I wanted to share what Paul Nation describes as “the four strands” of a “balanced language course.” It’s worth noting that this book was published in 2001, and Paul Nation is not introducing radical new ideas here; he’s simply gently reminding the learner about some facts that researchers in the field of second language acquisition have known for some time. And yet, what follows is probably not going to sound familiar to most of you that have ever studied a foreign language in school. It’s truly jarring just how strong the grip of traditional language teaching in our educational system still is.
The “Four Strands” given by Paul Nation in the introduction of his book are:
Comprehensible Meaning-Focused Input
Firstly there is learning from comprehensible meaning-focused input [see the input hypothesis]. This means that learners should have the opportunity to learn new language items through listening and reading activities where the main focus in on the information in what they are listening to or reading.
Language is all about conveying meaning! (This fact is surprisingly easy to forget.)
The second strand is one that has been subject to a lot of debate. This is language-focused learning, sometimes called form-focused instruction (Ellis, 1990). There is growing evidence (Long, 1988; Ellis 1990) that language learning benefits if there is an appropriate amount of usefully-focused deliberate teaching and learning of language items.
This type of learning is what we think of as the traditional “teacher teaching” approach. Obviously, there are also “good ways” and “bad ways” to go about the explicit instruction, but that’s another topic…
The third strand is meaning-focused output. Learners should have the chance to develop their knowledge of the language through speaking and writing activities where their main attention is focused on the information they are trying to convey.
Nation also makes the point that focusing on output can really bring focus and meaning to listening and reading activities, as an observant learner can “pick up” how certain information is expressed in the target language.
The fourth strand in a balanced course is fluency development. In activities which put this strand into action learners do not work with new language; instead, they become more fluent in using items they already know.
“Using items they already know!” I feel like this is blasphemy for some. And yet, yeah, you gotta practice using what you have merely studied. There is an implication here that should not go unnoticed: if you don’t ever focus on “fluency development,” then you don’t develop true fluency.
OK, this is the real kicker. If you’re a teacher, you may be thinking, “yeah, that all sounds fine.” But then how much time would you spend in your curriculum on each of the four strands? Nation mercifully gives us very clear numbers on the ideal distribution:
In a language course, the four strands should get roughly the same amount of time. This means that no more than 25% of the learning time in and out of class should be given to the direct study of language items; no less than 25% of the class time should be given to fluency development. If these strands are not equally represented, then the design of the course needs to be looked at again.
So, to be absolutely clear, this is what Paul Nation is advocating in his book:
…and this is a (somewhat optimistic) representation of what he knows to be the case in most language courses:
The status quo is not good. It doesn’t lead to true fluency.
At the book store the other day, I noticed this series of graphic novels that covers the entire Star Wars saga (Original Trilogy, Prequel Trilogy, and Sequel Trilogy: all 9 movies):
I’m not sure these comic exist in English, but I imagine they do? (Anyone know?)
The 9 movies’ names, in Chinese are:
- Prequel Trilogy
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
- Original Trilogy
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
- Sequel Trilogy
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
There are some good Star Wars-related key words in there (Jedi, Sith, Skywalker, etc.)… Only problem is that most Chinese people don’t care for Star Wars, so it’s not exactly “practical vocabulary” we’re talking about here! If this is a “Chinese market only” series, then I imagine it’s an effort by Disney at “cultural education” leading up to the final episode of the Skywalker Saga.
This is just a quick note that Mandarin Companion has released its “Breakthrough Level,” a series of graded readers requiring only 150 simple characters to read.
I’ve been developing this for over a year, and it was quite a challenge. In fact, I originally designed Mandarin Companion’s Level 1 to be 300 characters because I felt at the time that that many characters really were needed to tell a full, decent story (10,000 characters long).
So has my opinion changed? Not exactly… Mandarin Companion Level 1 and 2 stories are all adaptations of existing classic works. Although we do take some liberties with the plots as we adapt them to Chinese stories, the overall plots remain intact. In order to adapt an existing story, you need a “story toolkit” of a certain size to pull it off.
Breakthrough Level (150 characters), on the other hand, doesn’t work that way. The stories are not adaptations. They’re original stories (by Jared and me), because they have to be. The plot of each story revolves around the words that we can actually work with at this level, and at 150 characters, we have just enough to pull it off. It’s been an interesting ride!
I enjoyed this:
“Meme artist” unknown, but I found the meme on the Chinese Language subreddit.
Obligatory educator nag: the “x” and “sh” sounds in pinyin are not the same sound, even if they may sound that way to you at first. Here are a few places you can go if you’re experiencing this confusion:
The average person in China doesn’t go to a doctor’s office when they get hurt or sick; they go straight to a hospital. Then they have a pretty horrible (often all-day) ordeal ahead of them, involving paying to get a number, waiting to be seen, getting briefly looked at to determine next steps, then waiting in line to pay for tests or other services, then waiting on the results, then taking them back to the original doctor for a final diagnosis, etc. It really is a ton of time waiting in line to be seen by a person with (understandably) very little patience, only to be curtly passed off to the next term of waiting.
So when recently I visited Huashan Hospital in Shanghai (one of the better public ones), I was surprised to see these kiosks:
The big title on the wall is 智慧e疗. The 智慧 refers to “smart,” and the e疗 is a pun on 医疗, which means “medical treatment.” (Not even healthcare is above a good old “e” pun!)
The closer view displays the following words:
- 建卡 (jiàn kǎ) to create a card (and associated account)
- 挂号 (guàhào) to register (at a hospital)
- 缴费 (jiǎofèi) to pay fees
- 签到 (qiāndào) to sign in (for an appointment)
I didn’t use this kiosk, and it seems not many people did. Hopefully progress is just around the corner!
One of my clients recently shared this article and asked my thoughts: Learning Chinese: from gruesome, to good, to great.
I’d sum up the three main pieces of advice for getting Chinese to “great” as follows:
- The first is changing where you talk from, physically. (Don’t sound all high-pitched.)
- The second is changing how you breathe. (Focus on tones.)
- The third is changing the rhythm. (Mimic native speakers.)
Although the titles sound like incredibly difficult tasks to accomplish, the practical advice which follows (and I’ve summed up in parentheses above) is not at all bad.
Learn Implicitly When You Can
The daunting tasks above touch on one of the tricky things about the field of second language acquisition: separating what should be explicitly taught from what should be learned implicitly through exposure and practice. For the vast majority of learners, all three of the main points (voice, breathing, rhythm) should be acquired implicitly over time, and don’t need much active focus. (Almost all learners benefit much more from focusing on the main pronunciation issues they’re probably already aware of, and getting a good handle on those.)
Everyone is different, though, so it’s possible that some people in certain circumstances (such as actors, professional singers, etc.) will benefit from active focus on breathing techniques, for example.
I can give one example of my own personal experience with the one about “changing where you talk from, physically.” When I was working on my masters at East China Normal University (华东师范大学), one of my professors, Mao Shizhen, was an expert in phonology, as well as a voice coach for news broadcasters and the like. This was back in 2006 or 2007, and he once told me that my Chinese was quite good, but that my voice quality (I think he used the word “音色”) didn’t feel like a native Chinese person’s, and that to sound truly native, I should work on that. I later learned that I had a host of other issues I still needed to focus on to sound more native (most of which I’ve written about on Sinosplice at one point or another), so I didn’t worry about the “voice quality” issue or focus on it at all. Over time, though, my “voice quality” started sounding more and more natural due to increased fluency and practice. My Chinese may not be perfect or sound exactly like a native speaker’s, but I regularly fool people into thinking I’m a native speaker on the phone, and that’s good enough for me.
Explicit Tone Learning
An even better example to highlight the “explicit/implicit” difference is the tones of Mandarin Chinese. Most of us start out pathetically oblivious, and we really appreciate explicit instruction explaining what tones are, why they’re important, how to make them, how to practice them, etc. We want to know, and we feel that the explanation helps us, even if deep down we know that you could master tones simply by mimicking native speakers, just like a baby does. Unlike babies, adult learners can actually benefit a lot from explicit instruction. (They still need plenty of practice, though.)
Here’s the thing with tones, though: you need to learn the 4 tones (plus a neutral tone) well. You need to learn the tone change rules well. Everyone benefits greatly from tone pair practice, so you should do that as well (and that one will take a bit longer to really master).
But after you’ve hit the big three, you can stop digging deeper into the tiny intricacies of tones. Are there other, more subtle tone changes going on? Yes. Are all fourth tones created exactly equal? Actually, no. But these are questions that you can delegate to your (under-appreciated, underestimated) unconscious brain.
If you continue to strive to sound like native speakers, imitating their speech patterns as well as you can, you will get closer and closer to native as time goes on, and that includes implicitly learning aspects of the language that you didn’t even know you were learning. Have you ever asked a native speaker a question about their language, only to realize that you know more than they do about this particular aspect of their language (grammar, etymology, tone changes, etc.)? That’s because they’ve implicitly mastered the language and don’t need to be conscious of those concepts to use it fluently.
In fact, some of my proudest language learning moments have been discovering that I had mastered something without even studying it. This has included usage of certain words or grammar points, as well as tiny nitpicky details of pronunciation. Everything is fair game. Because you probably started out learning everything explicitly, it becomes a habit, and you may think that you’ll always have to do it that way. I’m happy to say that this is not the case. The better your Chinese becomes, the more you can (and should) learn implicitly, through exposure and regular practice.
So remember: you need practice, you need input. Focus on comprehension and imitating native speakers. You’ll learn a whole lot more implicitly than you think.
I’m not going to plug every single podcast “You Can Learn Chinese Podcast” we do, but then not every podcast we do has Dr. David Moser! For this one, I took over the interviewing responsibilities and had a good chat with Dr. Moser in our Shanghai studio.
We touch on a few topics I’ve covered on Sinosplice in the past:
(The jazz analogy part is new.)
And if you haven’t read this article by Dr. Moser, you should!
I spotted this new bubble milk tea shop recently:
The name is 喝嘛, which is just the verb 喝 meaning “to drink,” combined with the particle 嘛, used to “express the self-evident.” This is a command, though. How does a command “express the self-evident?”
To a native speaker, the feeling of the two usages is connected, but here the word 嘛 adds the feeling of a somewhat whiny, “come on, do it….” In fact, that phrase “come on” (used when persuading) could be translated 来嘛.
So yeah, this product name is actually saying, “come on, drink our product. You know you want to! Come on…”
What’s the deal with the hippo? Well, “hippo” in Chinese is 河马 (literally, “river horse,” which is also the meaning of the Greek roots of the English word as well). So we’ve got a pun here.