Classes in Brief

I’ve been getting a lot of “how are your classes going?”-type questions lately. I’ve been delaying answering the questions because I wanted to be able to give a more comprehensive answer, but I just found out today that at least one of my classes for this semester won’t begin until October 26th, so I guess I might as well talk about my impressions thus far.

I’ve only had three different classes to date. I will eventually have at least four, and likely five, but the details are still being worked out. The classes I’ve already started are:

  • Survey of China (中国概况). This one is just for foreign grad students, it seems. The funny thing is they also make Taiwanese grad students take it. At first I thought it was a little bit silly to force foreigners to take a class like this (after all, any foreigner whose Chinese is good enough to handle grad school in Chinese likely has a pretty decent understanding of China), but later I realized it was a kindness. First, it’s easy. Really easy. It would be stupid to want my first semester in Chinese grad school to be full of difficult classes. All you have to do for this class is attend the three hours a week and write one 1.5-page paper for the entire semester. No exams. Second, it is offered to partially compensate for the credits that foreigners lose out on by not having to take classes in English or Chinese political theory. So far this class is not too exciting, but there’s a different teacher with a different topic every week. In the first two weeks of classes we’ve covered “painting and calligraphy” and “Chinese minorities.”
  • Lectures for Grad Students (not sure about the Chinese name). It’s a lot like the Survey of China class, only the topics are a little more advanced and there are a lot more students (most of whom are Chinese). The grading policy and excitement level are pretty much the same as Survey of China too.
  • Selected Readings by Western Linguists (西方语言学家原著选读). This class is pretty cool, but difficult for me. Although I really like the teacher, she seems to have extremely low expectations of me. I think that will serve to motivate me to do especially well in class even more than if she were especially demanding of me. Anyway, I like the content, but it’s pretty rough reading it in Chinese. I’d like to be able to read English translations (or English originals) to complement the Chinese ones, but it’s proving harder than I expected to track down those papers. It’s really hard to read this abstract theoretical mumbo jumbo in Chinese — I suspect it would be hard for me in English. The linguists (or in some cases, “language theorists/philosophers”) we’re covering are Humboldt, Saussure, Bloomfield, Wittgenstein, Chomsky, and Gumperz.

    So far I’m really enjoying learning about Humboldt. The guy’s ideas were way ahead of his time. The basic ideas behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Chomsky’s universal grammar were discussed by Humboldt, and he didn’t take either to such an extreme. Too bad he was so obsessed with blabbing on and on about geist and other funny German words that are a bit of a translation pain.

    Humboldt was German, but Wittgenstein was Austrian (and Saussure was Swiss). Still, my teacher has promised us some interesting insights into the thinking processes of Germans versus Americans down the road. Knowing my teacher, I suspect America is going to take a bit of a beating, but I’m still looking forward to the discussion…

    This class also has no exams, but I’m required to make a class presentation on one of the linguists. I chose Chomsky. Syntactic Structures (in English!!!) has already been shipped.

The fourth class, which my advisor arranged for me, is in corpus linguistics (语料库语言学). I freaked out a little at first when he told me the Chinese name, because I had no idea what it was. Then I freaked out more because when I looked it up, I wasn’t familiar with it in English either! After a little research on corpus linguistics, however, I’m pretty sure that it will be quite interesting and well worth studying. That’s the class that starts October 26th.

I may take a fifth class with the Chinese as a Foreign/Second Language (对外汉语) department. I have no idea when that would be starting.

My Friday class has been canceled due to the upcoming holiday, which means today is my last day of class before vacation


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Chomsky huh? An oral presentation on Noam should be interesting. I think you can go a lot of directions with that. I do like him a lot more as a linguist than as a social commentator. You and I should have fun discussing him in the future at four in the morning your time, or maybe you’ll stop doing that when classes become more serious. At any rate, thanks for the update.

  2. huh? Didn’t you have Survey of China (中国概况) before?
    I have it this year. (本科二年级)
    Are you using the red book too?

  3. Aline,

    Although I’m working on my master’s in China, I never studied 本科 (undergrad degree) in China. So no, I never took that class in China. I never had it in the States, either, because my major was not Chinese. So actually, maybe it’s something I really should take. There’s no book for the class.

  4. John, as someone who is self-employed and a frequent visitor to the University of Queensland, I’d be more than happ to have a go at locating some English copies of the linguistics papers you mentioned. Applied linguistics fascinates me as computer scientist so I’d probably enjoy the papers too. 🙂

  5. Sapir-Whorf?? bleh. Hasn’t that hypothesis already been shot down by most modern linguists?

  6. Sounds like Chomsky & Corpus might have opposing views. Maybe that’ll add a bit of spice to your Chomsky presentation.
    The transformational grammar class that I took was one of the most interesting courses that I had.

  7. John, you’d probably want to read most of these articles in original. The translation that I’ve read in the past are pretty bad. Also the research that goes on in China seems to be not as up to the date. (Except possibly literature dealing with Chinese linguistics) Is there a way for you to access the research abstract databases? (for instance, for biomedical stuff you have PubMed, MedLine, etc…I’m not too familiar with the lingustic literature.)

    good luck

  8. While I’ve been reading your posts for quite a while, I didn’t realize until now that you were a linguist, despite all the posts about language and such. Anyways, I do enjoy reading about that sort of thing, and wanted to share the first place I heard of corpus linguistics:

    Language Log

    Most entries are about English, but touches on non-English languages (often “exotic” ones with very different syntaxes) popular culture, etc., and often has examples of using Google for corpus-style research into current phrase evolution and usage (Mmm…donuts!). Plus, it’s entertaining.

  9. Eden,

    Yeah, most modern linguists think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has some valid points, but is taken too far.

  10. NRG,

    Wow, that’s an offer I can’t refuse. Thanks! I will be in touch.

  11. Andy,

    Yes, I agree, Language Log is an excellent blog! I used to read it regularly (even got a mention on it once for my Shanghainese soundboard), but haven’t been reading it lately. Thanks for reminding me.

  12. i’m not sure i get what corpus linguistics is b/c the link defines it in linguistic lingo. would an example be something like “nauseous,” where everyone seems to say, “i feel nauseous,” when what they mean is “i feel nauseated” (nauseous = inducing nausea; nauseated = having feelings of nausea), so now it’s getting to not really be wrong anymore? i’m fascinated, but not very enlightened, i’m afraid.

  13. I was in the Foreign Language Bookstore on Fuzhou Lu yesterday. In the center left of the second floor there is a bookcase with local printings of linguistic texts. There is a whole new series. There were full-length textbooks on phonology, transformational grammar, corpus linguistics and so on. There must have been 20-30 textbooks. As someone with a linguistics background, I can say that it looked like really good stuff. And it’s new–I didn’t see these last time around. Prices all around RMB 20.

  14. […] Blogger is Blocked Today, I received an email from John at sinosplice. He’s been living and blogging in China for a few years and is now a grad student, studying linguistics at 华师大 in Shanghai. Very cool! Unfortunately, he had some bad news for me. Blogger is blocked in China, and therefore it’s a pain for people in China to see my site. Many Taiwan bloggers wouldn’t really care about whether or not their sites were accessible from China, but I do. […]

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