language


20

Jan 2021

Robot Coffee (+ bonus pun!)

They aren’t new; there are a number of these “Robot Coffee Kiosks” (机器人咖啡亭) around Shanghai, and more have been popping up lately. Here’s what they look like:

Robot-Coffee-1

The little attached tablet is how you order and pay (AliPay or WeChat Pay, of course.)

Robot-Coffee-2

Around 15 RMB (about USD 2.31) per cup is cheap for Shanghai. I just tried it the other day, and the coffee is… not great. I tried the hazelnut latte, and while the company deserves credit for not making the coffee too sweet, they made the bizarre choice of adding way too much crushed hazelnut topping. I was literally chewing my way through half the latte. That’s a first!

I never ever see people buying coffee from these kiosks. I don’t expect them to be around much longer.

Finally, a pun that learners of Chinese can understand (that’s kind of my thing now):

Robot-Coffee-ad

The text reads:

世界机器人咖啡
The world’s “first” cup of robot coffee

So the pun there is using , meaning “drip” or “drop,” instead of . The word for “first” is, of course, 第一. The word for “drip coffee” is 滴滤咖啡 (literally, “drip-filtered coffee”).


06

Jan 2021

Flying Fonts in Chinese

I like this text art:

WechatIMG89

The text reads 迅合行. The shop sells little models and action figures for anime characters. The Chinese name for this kind of product is 手办.

Also, I should note that when I showed the name 迅合行 to Chinese native speakers, they were unsure if the character 行 in this context should be read “xíng” or “háng”. I always find that kind of thing gratifying!


02

Dec 2020

Editing MADNESS

Yes, that title is a Ren & Stimpy “Space Madness” reference:

Space Madness

(I’m proudly showing my age.)

So for the latter half of November and the beginning of December, my staff and I are doing a ton of editing, covering all 165 B2 (Upper Intermediate) grammar points (that number still may change) on the Chinese Grammar Wiki. If you’ve ever noticed that some of those grammar points need a little editing, I suggest you take another look. And yes, this book is finally coming!

I actually have a number of blog posts I’ve been meaning to write, but I guess that can wait until I get some more books out…

A new Level 2 Mandarin Companion title is coming as well.

And the You Can Learn Chinese podcasts continue, unabated…

Oh yeah, also doing this winter promotion thing for online Chinese lessons.

Busy, busy.

OK, back to editing!


20

Nov 2020

Tone of Voice in Chinese Sentences

Understanding and conveying the proper tone of voice in a Chinese sentence isn’t easy. Some languages (Japanese comes to mind) allow you to “codify” levels of politeness or formality directly into the verbs themselves. Or there are super formulaic sentence patterns for certain levels of politeness. Even in English it’s somewhat formulaic (“Please,” “Can you…?”, “Could you…?”), but less so in Chinese.

I remember talking to an AllSet Learning client years ago about this very issue years ago. She was a mother trying to raise polite children, so of course she taught them to use the word “please” for requests, which in Chinese is 请 (qǐng). So she wanted her kids to use 请 (qǐng) for their Chinese language requests. Seems simple, right? Actually, it’s not at all, because while sometimes “please” can be translated directly to 请 in a straightforward way, in many cases it’s just plain awkward in Chinese, and even super polite people just wouldn’t use the word. To be natural in Chinese, you need a much more nuanced understanding of what polite speech in Mandarin is. And that takes time.

I really enjoyed editing the example sentences for Softening the tone of questions with “ne” on the Chinese Grammar Wiki. (We’re getting ready to release the third volume: B2 / Upper Intermediate.) Here’s a sample:

Screen Shot 2020-11-20 at 9.48.08 AM
Go to the grammar point for more examples, and mouse over the English for darker, more legible English translation text.

I’m curious if any readers out there have come across any books, textbooks, resources, etc. that are especially good at helping learners understand tone of voice in Chinese. It seems to me that it’s quite an underserved facet of the journey.

Oh, and for Upper Intermediate fans of the Chinese Grammar Wiki, at AllSet we’re currently working through every single B2 grammar point (we’re almost done with the “Parts of Speech” section of the big B2 grammar point list), editing sentences, adding/fixing pinyin, improving translations, removing “stub” tags, and even rearranging entire articles and reworking explanations. If you have requests or suggestions, now is a good time!


11

Nov 2020

G-Hub High-pi

I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that actually took a close look at this sign, but there’s a lot going on here:

WechatIMG92

It reads:

G-Hub 欧洲啤酒节
一起来HIGH

Here’s what’s happening:

  • G-Hub for “German Hub”? OK…
  • Beer bubbles for the 氵 water component in and
  • In the character , the word “BEER” replaces the mouth component
  • Sudsy tops of characters and ice cubes or cheese cubes (??) inside (I want it to be cheese cubes, but I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be ice cubes, sadly)
  • The pun “HIGH啤“ which sounds like “happy” and uses the word “high” in the Chinese way to mean “excited and happy” plus the character from 啤酒

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”


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