language


28

Oct 2020

Ad or Vocab List?

I was kind of amused by how much this ad comes across as a vocab list:

WechatIMG91

Here is that vocab list:

  • 坐公交 (zuò gōngjiāo) to take public transportation
    Note: this usually means a public bus
  • 乘地铁 (chéng dìtiě) to ride the subway
    Note: the verb is also fine
  • 骑单车 (qí dānchē) to ride a (single-gear) bicycle
    Note: nowadays this word often refers to a bike-sharing service
  • 买火车票 (mǎi huǒchēpiào) to buy train tickets
  • 打车 (dǎchē) to call a car (taxi or ride-sharing service)
    Note: because of the rise of ride-sharing services in general (and Didi in particular), the word 打的 is far less common these days, most people using 打车 or 叫车

The point of this ad is that no matter what form of transportation you choose, all can be accomplished within AliPay (支付宝).


13

Oct 2020

Known Rivers by Aaliyah Bilal

My friend Aaliyah has created a video series called Known Rivers about the experiences of Black people in China throughout history. It’s created for a Chinese audience, but there are English subtitles. Check it out! Good original stuff.

I first met Aaliyah not long after she first came to China, and her Chinese has improved a lot! From an educator’s perspective, this is a great example of a learner getting to a level where she can use her Chinese to do something interesting and creative to connect with a Chinese audience.

“Known Rivers” is a reference to the poem by Langston Hughes.


29

Sep 2020

How NOT to Learn Vocabulary

I’ve been meaning to write a longer blog post on this topic for a while, a sort of distillation of common mistakes witnessed over the years. Because it can be hard to find time for a proper long-form blog post, I figured I should probably just start with a simple list and expand on it later.

NOT-to-do-list

So, here you have it: common mistakes you want to avoid while learning vocabulary:

  1. Don’t add lots of “kind of interesting” words to your flashcards. You know the ones I mean… the “maybe I’ll use this someday” variety. These add up, and they will choke your vocabulary review sessions. Stick to what’s immediately useful: the words you can use in your speech immediately, or the words you frequently come across when reading but keep forgetting.
  2. Don’t neglect practice. Vocabulary review is a good thing, but if all you’re doing is keeping a whole bunch of words in a “sort of familiar” state which doesn’t quite make it to the “I can use this word the next time I need it” state, what are you really doing? Are you collecting, or are you trying to get fluent? Value your vocabulary.
  3. Don’t study new words in isolation; study new words in collocations and sentences (especially if you’re studying on your own). This is not just because sentences give you a clue as to how a word is used. It also gives you a clue as to how useful a word is. If a word is sort of “iffy” already, by looking at the collocations and example sentences, you should be able to spot red flags (hey, all these sentences are super formal!) or spot the most useful ways a word can be used (hey, this is exactly the object I want to use this verb for!).
  4. Don’t study big long lists all at once. This is one thing that I think both learners and teachers struggle with, but if you try to tackle too many words at once, none of them are going to stick very well. This isn’t to say that vocabulary lists are useless. The point here is that you’re better off picking 3-5 words from a longer list and really getting a handle on those first, rather than covering 10 and forgetting them all the next day.
  5. Don’t study new similar words at the same time. Studying the difference between similar words is a big part of mastering any language, especially when you get to the intermediate stage or beyond. But you’re not doing yourself any favors by simultaneously trying to learn two or more words with the same English meaning and slightly different uses in the target language. You’ll just get confused. The better way is to choose just the one you most need first, and master it as it is used by native speakers. Later, learn another one of those similar words and master it as it is used naturally too. After you’ve got familiarity and working knowledge with both words, you’ll naturally start wondering what the difference in usage between the two words is (if your brain hasn’t sort of worked it out on your own already). This is the right time to address that.

These aren’t the only things NOT to do, of course, but I see these as the big ones that come up again and again. (See also: More Effort Means More Learning.)

An important concept here is ROI (return on investment): What will get me the best results for the time I invest studying and practicing?


23

Sep 2020

Cucumber Snakes and Tofu Boxes

These days I often default to the same foods I habitually consume, so it’s easy to forget the rich variety that’s out there in restaurants of Shanghai. These two dishes are not super crazy or anything; they were on the menu at a mid-tier restaurant at a mall in Shanghai. They were just kind of fun for an ordinary roast duck restaurant.

Cucumber Snake

If this cucumber dish doesn’t look especially like a snake to you, let me assure you it does when the server picks up the cucumber by the “head” with tongs, holds it up in the air over the plate, and then proceeds to cut it into short chunks with a pair of kitchen scissors. (Sorry, I didn’t capture that part.)

cucumber-snake

Tofu Boxes

OK, I have to admit… this one was super disappointing. The tofu, while not stinky, was just very bland, and the meat sauce and shrimp inside the “boxes” did little to change that. I like the concept, though!

tofu-boxes

I need to remember to get out to new places more and enjoy the show…


15

Sep 2020

Punning Pronouns for Finance

I’ve been seeing these ads in Shanghai recently:

财富在这「理」

The key line is this one:

财富在这「理」

Here you have a pun on the word 这里 (“here”), substituting for . They sound very similar.

财富在这「理」

So the punned sentence sounds like it’s saying “wealth is here” (a basic sentence), but if you read the characters, it’s saying, “wealth is managed here,” using 在 to specify location. This is because can mean “manage,” as in the phrase “理财” (“to manage wealth,” or “wealth management”).

But here’s another thing you might not know: in informal Chinese, can stand in for 这里 or 这儿. (Same for and 那里/那儿, but not so much .)

财富在这「理」

That’s sort of an intermediate grammar point, and not super common. If you’re still working on basic question words, be sure to check out the Chinese Grammar Wiki’s article: Placement of Question Words.


08

Sep 2020

Fake Lu Xun Quotes on a Truck

So I was strolling down the street in Shanghai, and passed this big crane truck parked on the sidewalk:

Lu Xun-quoting Truck

Then also noticed that it had this “Lu Xun quote” on it (which is kinda unusual for a truck):

Lu Xun-quoting Truck

In Chinese text, that would be:

原本是可以赚钱的后来做的人多了,也就不赚钱了慢慢的变成为人民服务了。

*鲁迅 (not really)

In English, that would be:

Originally it made money, but then too many people started doing it. It slowly changed from making money to serving the people.

Pretty unusual quote for the side of a truck, right? Some kind of weird brag about service attitude and not caring about money?

Well, that’s not really a real Lu Xun quote. There’s a similar Lu Xun quote that goes like this:

希望是本无所谓有,无所谓无的。这正如地上的路;其实地上本没有路,走的人多了,也便成了路。

Translated to English (and somewhat simplified):

Hope is like a path in the countryside. Originally, there is nothing, but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears.

Lu Xun

Oh, and also the quote on the truck uses “de” wrong (“慢慢的” should be the adverbial “慢慢地”).

Yeah, Shanghai has some mean streets… fake Lu Xun quotes and bad grammar, right there on the sidewalk. Look out!


26

Aug 2020

20 Years

So as of August 20th (last week), I’ve been living in China for 20 years. Twenty years!

It’s not an accomplishment in itself, but it does feel like something of a milestone. As someone who likes to impart meaning to certain events like this, I’ve been struggling with this idea: what does it mean?

Well, at the end of the day, it means I’ve been in China for 20 years. That’s pretty much it. Yes, I’ve had time to do some stuff here… learn some Chinese, earn a degree, get married, start a company, have a few kids… In theory I could have done all that in less than 10 years, though.

20-years

I was originally thinking that I might have a party or celebration of some kind. This has not been the best year for parties, but even so, things are normal enough in August that I could. The thing is, most of the friends I’ve made in China are no longer here, or at least no longer in Shanghai.

Part of me wants to just kick the can forward to 22 years, because at that point, I will have spent half my life here in China. But even so, the same questions remain.

I do have one answer, though: No, I am not manually updating the “years in China” count on my homepage. It’s a PHP script. (Mouse over the number for a thrilling surprise!)


12

Aug 2020

Characterception

Spotted near Zhongshan Park in Shanghai:

characterception

Big text:

广告招商 (guǎnggào zhāoshāng) advertisers wanted

Characterceptioned text:

虚位以待 (xū wèi yǐ dài) spots currently available

But what’s perhaps most interesting (infuriating?) about this ad is the way that this text is read…

  1. First down the left column, then down the right (广告, 招商)
  2. Then left to right across the top, then left to right across the bottom (虚位, 以待)

Have you ever noticed how hard it can be to figure out how to interpret 4 characters in a 2×2 grid? If you don’t already know the phrases used, this kind of text layout is super hard to read. That’s because there are three possible ways to read the 4 characters:

  1. Left to right, across the top (modern horizontal)
  2. Top to bottom, left to right (modern vertical)
  3. Top to bottom, right to left (classical vertical)

This example is particularly egregious, though, since it mixes two orientations, and the phrase “广告招商” could also be understood as “招商广告”.

P.S. This ad wouldn’t work in traditional Chinese, because 广 (guǎng) in traditional is 廣 (guǎng). No big loss, though!


05

Aug 2020

Boring Bangongshi is up to 40 Strips!

If you’re an intermediate learner, hopefully you’ve heard of Boring 办公室 (Boring Bàngōngshì), the office-themed intermediate-level Chinese comic strip. We’ve been low-key churning out new comic strips non-stop over at AllSet Learning.

If you like to doing your reading in larger chunks, you can now find all of Season 01 (20 strips) and all of Season 02 (20 strips) linked to from the Boring 办公室 main archive page:

And yes, these are all online for free.

Season 03 starts next week.


28

Jul 2020

Doing and Sitting

My friend Brad is the father of young bilingual kids in the US. He recently shared this conversation he overheard between his son and a Chinese friend. I found it super cute.

Adult: 你最喜欢跟家人做什么? (Nǐ zuì xǐhuan gēn jiārén zuò shénme?)
Child: 椅子。 (Yǐzi.)

English translation:

Adult: What do you most like doing with your family?
Child: Chair.

SOLD: Toddler dining chair

Obviously, this exchange doesn’t translate well into English, to put it lightly! But even a beginner can get why the child misinterpreted the question.

The key to understanding this exchange is knowing that 做 (zuò), the verb meaning “to do,” sounds identical to the verb 坐 (zuò), which means “to sit.” Add into this that many verbs in Chinese don’t require an additional preposition like their English counterparts (for example, we’d say “sit on” rather than just “sit”), and the child’s answer starts to make a lot of sense.

So how do we adults differentiate between the two meanings of “zuò,” anyway? Well, obviously context is key, but the sentence patterns and word combinations we habitually use tend to point quite clearly to one or the other meaning. As a learner, it’s important to get lots of input to build up a “bank” of these common collocations, and eventually, the potential confusion all but disappears.


14

Jul 2020

The Leading Fresh Pun

I keep seeing this ad for dumplings (水饺), so I finally took a pic:

Fresh Pun

Here’s the part with the pun, conveniently indicated with quotation marks:

Fresh Pun

汤汁水饺的领“鲜”者

The pun uses the word 领先, meaning “to be in the lead” (ahead of the competition). Adding turns 领先 into 领先者, meaning the “leaders” in the field. In this ad, the 先 (xiān), meaning “first,” is replaced with 鲜 (xiān), meaning “fresh.”

So they’re claiming to be the leaders in freshness when it comes to broth-filled dumplings.


09

Jul 2020

Shanghai Down to “Half Mask”

Riding the elevator of my office building the other day, I suddenly noticed that only half of the people in the elevator had face masks on. I was the only foreigner in the elevator. There were 4 with none on at all (including me), 4 with masks fully on, and one with a mask on, but pulled down to under his chin. This is quite different from only two weeks ago.

Looking around on the street, I see a similar trend… Since face masks are required for riding the subway, you see a lot of mask-wearers on the street coming to and from Shanghai Metro stations. But when you get away from those spots, it’s much closer to half-half. In addition, people are much more likely to be wearing their masks in the morning than in the afternoon, and least likely after dark.

Shanghai: Half Masks
Shanghai residents, July 2020

I’ve been observing who, exactly, is not wearing the masks, and I can’t really see any obvious trend… male/female, young/old, married/single, Chinese/foreigner… The 50/50 trend I seem to be seeing cuts across all the demographics. (I even see old people pushing babies in strollers not wearing masks.)

Obviously, these are just my own observations. I’m fairly observant, but I’m also not keeping records or running stats. But it is nice to see that things slowly returning to closer to “normal,” and it’s very interesting how long many segments of the population are clinging to the masks, long after it seems really necessary (especially compared with what’s going on in the US).

Stay healthy, everyone! 2020 is half over…


30

Jun 2020

Shout-out to Terry Waltz

We recently had Dr. Terry Waltz as a guest on the You Can Learn Chinese podcast, and it struck me that I’ve barely mentioned her books on my blog before. It’s time for a bit of a spotlight!

I met Terry in 2016 at ACTFL in Boston. We had a great conversation about comprehensible input and Chinese graded readers. (I was there representing Mandarin Companion.)

Untitled

Terry is all about improving literacy in Chinese (At the expense of handwriting characters, if need be), and has authored multiple books for early learners. She has pioneered a technique called cold character reading. She is truly a free thinker and an innovator, and the field has benefited greatly from her contributions.

Jared led the conversation in our podcast:


24

Jun 2020

Happy Dragon Boat Festival

Thursday, June 25th, 2020 is 端午节 (Duānwǔ Jié), the Chinese holiday normally referred to as Dragon Boat Festival in English.

dragon-boats

The Chinese name simply refers to the lunar calendar date of the festival, however. Not everyone in China goes and watches dragon boat races on this day… It’s much more common to just eat zongzi (粽子).

zongzi

I like this zongzi-themed design:

duanwu-mountains

I’ve also noticed a few bizarre, entirely off-theme ads during this holiday. Here are a few:

laura
robot-in-a-boat
ciy-in-a-boat

端午节快乐 (Duānwǔjié kuàilè)!


17

Jun 2020

The Melon Pit

Nothing too special about this photo… Summer’s here!

Melon Pit

“Melon” in Chinese is 瓜 (guā). In this picture we have:

  • 西瓜 (xīguā) watermelon, lit. “west melon”
  • 甜瓜 (tiánguā) muskmelon, lit. “sweet melon”

12

Jun 2020

Why Discuss Black Lives Matter in Chinese?

This week I worked with former AllSet Learning intern Amani Core to create a resource to help learners of Chinese discuss issues of racial discrimination, social injustice, and effecting positive change. You can find what we created at: Discussing Black Lives Matter in Chinese.

One question this prompted among a few readers was an incredulous WHY? Some readers didn’t see any connection between the Black Lives Matter movement and learning Chinese. I hope it’s obvious that there’s a very clear connection if the learner happens to be a Black American, and Black learners need Chinese language resources relevant to their lives too. But for now I’ll assume this is a white American sincerely asking, “why do I need to learn to discuss this topic in order to talk to Chinese people?

Once your level in any language is sufficiently high, you’re going to want to be able to have at least some level of discussion on most topics. Quantum physics, watercolor paintings, the life cycle of a frog… it’s all fair game. You don’t need to be able to hold a lecture on the topic to be able to at least follow what the discussion is and say a few words.

But this topic is different. Black Lives Matter, racial inequality, social injustice… these topics go beyond just “something I should learn a for key words for at some point.”

The reason is because if you’re American (or even Canadian, European, Australian, etc.), Chinese people are going to ask you about this. Random Chinese people (drivers, hair cutters, old people in the park, etc.) as well as friends. They’re going to ask you because they’re curious, realize their knowledge of the matter is limited, and hope you can offer some insight. Sometimes the way the question is asked can be quite revealing. I’ve been asked about racism in America in all kinds of ways, including:

  • You Americans sure are racist, huh?
  • Why are Americans so racist?
  • Why do Americans look down on black people?
  • Black people in the USA sure have it hard, huh?

No white Americans I know aren’t going to want to just say, “yeah, we’re racist” and leave it at that. They’re going to want to offer at least a tiny bit of nuance beyond “it’s complicated,” even if their Chinese is not amazing. It’s a difficult conversation to have even in English, so it’s certainly not easy to talk about the realities of race in America in Chinese. But because Chinese people come from such a very different cultural context, and the average person really knows very little about this topic, there’s also less pressure.

So if you’re American (or find yourself talking about the US a fair amount) and are studying Chinese with the intent to talk to Chinese people in Chinese, I recommend you become a bit more familiar with this topic, starting at the intermediate level.

Our original blog post contains links to just three vocabulary lists at the B1 (intermediate) level, as images as well as a PDF, but there’s more to come. Vocabulary is only one part of language acquisition, after all.

For more advanced students and teachers, you’ll want to check out the online Google spreadsheet, which includes way more vocab. It will give you an idea of how we plan to expand this resource.

Please get in touch if you have constructive ideas, and check out Discussing Black Lives Matter in Chinese.


09

Jun 2020

The Price of Eggs in China

The Price of Eggs in Shanghai, China

That price is for one 斤 (jīn), which is 500 grams (the vendor says that’s 8 eggs).

So that’s 5.8 RMB per kg, or 2.7 RMB per pound.

2.7 RMB, at the current exchange rate, is US$0.38 (per pound).

Even if you’re not buying the cheapest eggs, you can typically buy eggs in Shanghai for less than 1 RMB (US$0.14) per egg.

2020-06-19 Edit: Sorry, people, my original eggs prices were off. Thanks to readers for calling it to my attention.


The real reason I took this photo, though, is as a reminder to learners that your written Chinese characters don’t have to be amazing works of beauty to get the job done.

Since I hardly write by hand these days, my own Chinese handwriting is pretty ugly too, but I don’t sweat it.


03

Jun 2020

The Value of a Language Learning Homestay Experience

On our latest episode of the You Can Learn Chinese podcast, one topic Jared and I talked about was homestays for language learning. Jared hasn’t done a homestay, but he has hosted students in the U.S.

I did a two-semester homestay in Kyoto, Japan when I studied abroad from 1997 to 1998. I credit it for a big chunk of the boost my Japanese got that year. It was exhausting, but I became pretty fluent in that time. Even more impressive, 20 years later I hardly use Japanese in my daily life, but I’ve managed to hang onto that basic fluency. Occasional trips to Japan (and a little erratic studying) have been enough to keep it up.

Perhaps the best part is that when I go back to Japan, my homestay parents still treat me like family. Here’s us, reunited just last year:

Kyoto Homestay parents (2019)

How Long of a Homestay?

Clearly, the length of a homestay is important. One day or even one week isn’t going to make a huge difference in your language acquisition, even if it’s an interesting (and educational) cultural experience.

Unfortunately I have mostly just anecdotal evidence to base this on, but it seems like you need at least a month to really “get into” the homestay experience and make noticeable progress. At least three months seems ideal.

Another significant factor is that the homestay will likely be more interesting and less stressful if you’ve already been studying the target language for at least a year or so. Total beginners may not have a productive experience in a homestay.

But what does the actual research say about this?

The Research

The research is strangely inconclusive and unhelpful! Admittedly, there are a lot of confounding variables here…

  • Some homestay families are just not that committed or “into it”
  • Some homestay learners are super shy, or suffering badly from culture shock
  • Some study abroad programs may be so full of classes that the homestay is little more than a place to eat and a place to sleep
  • There are a million distractions as a student studying abroad, many of which could displace some of the value of the homestay itself

Still, there is research!

From The short-term homestay as a context for language learning: Three case studies of high school students and host families (Rivers, 2008):

…in quantitative studies of college-aged students abroad, the putative home stay advantage has been notoriously difficult to prove, perhaps in part because these students are interpreted by all parties (including themselves) as relatively independent young adults whose goals need not align with those of their hosts…. Our findings suggest that relatively advanced initial proficiency offers many advantages for interaction with hosts, but that students with modest initial proficiency can also develop warm and cordial relationships in the homestay if all parties are so predisposed.

From The Effect of Study Abroad Homestay Placements: Participant Perspectives and Oral Proficiency Gains (Di Silvio, Donovan, and Malone, 2014):

Although the study abroad homestay context is commonly considered the ideal environment for language learning, host‐student interactions may be limited…. Students and families were generally positive about the homestay, with significant variation based on language. A significant relationship was found between students’ oral proficiency gains and their being glad to have lived with a host family. Significant correlations were also found between students’ language learning satisfaction and their satisfaction with the homestay.

More recent research seems to be more positive. Obviously, this is not the year for study abroad, but if you’re considering making a homestay a part of your study abroad experience, my advice is to just do it.

Listen to the Podcast

If you’re interested specifically in the 5-minute homestay discussion, go to 36:20~41:36.

I’d love to hear other perspectives on homestay experiences, specifically how long your homestay was, and how helpful you think it was in improving your fluency. Please leave a comment!


28

May 2020

Biang Check

I’ve noted before that my daughter (now 8yo) was a fan of the character “biang” (an unofficial character used to write the name of a kind of noodle in northwestern China). We’ve also pointed out to her that it’s frequently not printed out (just as it’s not in the text of this article) because computers can’t handle it. But it’s been a while since we thought or talked about the character “biang.”

Then recently my wife spotted this use of “biang” in the wild and shared it with our daughter:

biangbiang-1

Her immediate response was, “they wrote it wrong. It’s missing a 立刀旁 ().”

Aaaand, she was right:

biangbiang-2

We’ve created a monster!

P.S. Technically, there’s probably no true “standard of correctness” for this character, but the one she originally learned (same as the image above, but using simplified components 长 and 马) seems to be the most widely accepted version.


26

May 2020

Wan Hui, the Anhui Character Party

The name of this restaurant is Wan Hui: 皖荟. It’s a pun on the word 晚会, which is sort of like “evening party” (or dinner).

wan-hui-1

stands for Anhui Province, and is also one of the “8 great” types of Chinese cuisine. here calls to mind the word 荟萃, a flowery word for “assembly.”

This restaurant in Shanghai’s Changning Raffles City ( 长宁来福士广场) is not mind-blowing, but it’s still pretty special. Cool atmosphere.

I like these character fragment decorations on the walls:

wan-hui-2

The dry ice and purple lights are a cool contrast to the traditional Anhui-style walls:

wan-hui-3

As for the food, ummm, it’s OK, I guess? I’m not much of a 吃货 (foodie).



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