Mar 2011

Big Taste, as in “Spicy”

Diced Spicy Chicken chong qing style

Spicy, by roboppo

The other night I was enjoying a simple meal by myself in a dongbei (northeast China) restaurant. I overheard an exchange between two women and the restaurant owner. It went something like this:

> [after ordering]

> Woman: 上次点的菜太淡了,我们要味儿大一点的。 Last time our food was too bland. We want the taste to be “bigger.”

> Server: 好的。 OK.

> [the dishes are served, the women try them]

> Woman: 服务员,我们刚才说过了,我们要味儿大一点的。 Server, we just told you: we want the taste “bigger.”

> Server: 你这个“味儿大”啥意思?是说咸点,还是什么? What do you mean, “bigger?” Saltier, or what?

> Woman: 就是味儿大一点。辣点。 Bigger taste. Spicier.

> Server: 哦,你要辣一点的。我以为“味儿大”的意思就是味道浓一点。 Oh, you wanted it spicier! I thought “big taste” just meant stronger flavor.

> Woman: 不,是辣的意思。 No, it means spicy.

> Server: 那,你本来就应该说“辣点”。 Then you should have just said “spicy” in the first place…

> [The server takes the dish away to make it spicier, grumbling a bit.]

I was intrigued by this exchange for several reasons. First, neither party was from the Shanghai region, so the miscommunication couldn’t be blamed on the north-south divide that you typically see in Shanghai (like the baozi / mantou distinction). Second, the women were using an expression which, although simple, I had never heard either, and I couldn’t find listed in any of the dictionaries in Pleco (I was looking it up while eavesdropping on their conversation). And third, any time groups of Chinese people have trouble communicating, it’s interesting to me for linguistic reasons, as well as somewhat comforting, as a student who has experienced his own fair share of frustrating communication difficulties.

Also, since the word 味儿 can refer to odor as well as taste, in the absence of clear context, a more likely interpretation of 味儿大 is “strong-smelling,” or, quite possibly, “stinky.”

Three Gorges Dam, Yichang, China

Yichang, by DigitalGlobe-Imagery

Anyway, after I finished my meal, I decided to go over and ask the women about the 味儿大 expression they used, where they were from, etc. They were extremely cooperative. It turns out they’re from Yichang (宜昌). I recorded the conversation, edited it down a little, and have included it for your amusement.


X is the Unknown


Mar 2011

X is the Unknown

Do you remember “solving for x” in math class? When you first started algebra (or was it pre-algebra?), you had to learn a whole new set of methods which, when applied, could magically reveal the values of the unknown variables.

So when you saw this:

2x = 8

4x + y = 17

z(3x – 2y) = 30

…before long you could handily solve for x. And once you had x, you could solve for y. Then z was a piece of cake too.

The Algebra Connection

Chinese pronunciation is similar. We native speakers of English of English have to learn to produce some new sounds in order to become fluent speakers of Chinese. Although the pinyin “r” sound is formidable, what I’m talking about today are the sounds linguists call “alveolo-palatals“: the three Mandarin consonant sounds pinyin represents as “x,” “q,” and “j.”

So how are the sounds of Mandarin like algebra? Well, just as the in the above algebra example one would first solve for x, then solve for y, and finally solve for z, learning those “alveolo-palatals” involves a similar chain effect. Once you’ve solved for “x” (I’m talking the pinyin x here), “q” and “j” both become relatively simple. “X” is definitely the one you want to start with, though, for many reasons. X is the unknown. First solve for “x,” and “q” and “j” are within your grasp.

Why X?

There are a number of reasons to start with “x.” First of all, it’s a prominent feature of the Chinese word almost everyone learns right after “nihao” (你好). Yes, the word is “xiexie” (谢谢), the Chinese word for “thank you.”

Second, the “x” consonant contains the basic feature you need to build on to learn “q” and then “j.” Just as solving for x in the algebra equations above allows you to solve for y with a simple operation, the same is true for pinyin “x” and then “q.” Allow me to explain.

The True Nature of X, Q, and J

If you’ve studied phonetics at all, you learn IPA (the international phonetic alphabet). The main idea behind IPA is that as nearly as possible, every unique sound is represented by a unique symbol. So one good way to know if a sound in a foreign language is really equivalent to a sound in English is to check their respective IPA notations.

In English, for example, the “sh” sound isn’t actually an “s” sound plus an “h” sound. We just write it as “sh.” In reality, it’s a sound different from all the other sounds in the English language. It gets its own IPA symbol: ʃ. Makes sense, right? Now, a lot of new learners to Chinese think that pinyin “x” is the same as English’s “sh.” If that were true, the IPA symbols for the two sounds would be the same. But they’re not.

IPA for x, q, j

If there is any doubt that the pinyin “x,” “q,” and “j” sounds are foreign for speakers of English, you can look up the IPA for the sounds of Mandarin Chinese. Don’t freak out, now. The alien symbols representing pinyin’s “x,” “j,” and “q,” are, respectively, ɕ, tɕʰ, and tɕ.

Now take a look at those three consonant sounds again: ɕ, tɕʰ, tɕ. The common element is ɕ. That’s the “x” sound. This sound does not exist in English; “x” is the unknown. But the addition of the other sounds, which are not foreign to English speakers, will result in the “q” and “j” sounds.

So, once again, master that “x” sound, and you can unlock the other two. It’s practically “buy one get two free,” but you definitely have to pay for the “x,” and you may need to struggle a bit. [More info on producing this sound here.]

It’s worth it, though. Before long you’ll leave “syeh-syeh” behind and utter “xièxie” perfectly. Just solve for “x” first.



Feb 2011

МОЛОКО’s Gay Chinese Characters

Recently I was browsing Flickr photos and came across one that looked familiar:

New Chinese Character - Brokeback Mountain

To my surprise, I was given credit for the original idea in the photo caption.

I looked at some of МОЛОКО’s other photos and discovered some “gay character creations”:

由МОЛОКО(Zing Wong)發明的疊字(Gay's Chinese character,一種同志用字)

由МОЛОКО(Zing Wong)發明的疊字(Gay's Chinese character,一種同志用字)

Some of these innocent-looking characters are pretty explicit if you go to the photos’ Flickr pages (click on the images) and mouse over the characters.

In case you’re not familiar, the “funny-looking symbols” next to the Chinese characters are zhuyin (注音).


Feb 2011

Wenlin 4.0 Review


I’ve been given a copy of Wenlin 4.0 for Mac by the Wenlin Institute for an honest review. It’s no secret that I’ve been a fan of Wenlin for a long time, so I’m really happy to see an update to this wonderful piece of software which most of us almost dared not hope would ever issue another update. But the day has finally come! The new version offers some very welcome updates, but one major disappointment as well.



Feb 2011

Fat, and also Beautiful

The first part of the name of this shop qualifies for the “really simple signs” file:

Fat and also Beautiful

The name of the store reads 胖也美服饰, literally, “fat also beautiful apparel.” This is the equivalent of a plus sizes store in the US (although, looking at the official 胖也美 website, the Chinese 胖 isn’t quite as big as the American “plus”).

To make it even clearer exactly what they’re selling, the 胖也美 website also uses the phrase 胖人服饰, which could be literally translated as “fat people apparel.”

This is one of those cases where culture makes a huge difference in translation.


Feb 2011

CNY Confusion Ahead (but also CNY Sexiness)

Chinese New Year (CNY) is this week, and it’s bound to cause confusion. This is because we’ve basically got three systems for numbering days overlapping, and quite close together:

1. The days of the week are referred to by numbers, starting with Monday (AKA “One-day”), then Tuesday (AKA “Two-day”), etc. In Chinese they’re 星期一星期二星期三星期四星期五星期六星期天.

2. For most of the year, dates are also referred to using the Western system. So starting Tuesday (today), it’s the first (1号). (Which is also Two-day.)

3. Since it’s CNY, everyone switches over to the lunar system for just a week or so. Day one of the lunar month (初一) is Thursday (which is Four-day, and also the third).

Sound confusing?? No, not at all. I’m a big fan of Chinese New Year.

But just to make everything clearer, you might want to check out this PDF calendar (Warning: traditional characters!). Some key vocab:

大年三十: Chinese New Year’s Eve
春节: Chinese New Year
初一: the first of the lunar month (never used more than around CNY)
初二: the second of the lunar month
初三: the third of the lunar month (see a pattern here?)

OK, now for the sexy part. 2011 is the year of the rabbit. (Really, I’m going somewhere with this; be patient!) I did a little searching for images on the Chinese internet and found this creative graphic:


Also, somewhat to my surprise, my innocent 兔年 (“year of the rabbit”) search turned up some rather sexy pics. The year of the rabbit only comes around once every 12 years, so I’m pretty sure it’s the first time this particular sexied-up CNY theme has appeared in mainland China (it’s referred to as 兔年美女):


And while not all of the Playboy bunny-esque photos floating around online now are actually specifically meant for Chinese New Year, the one above is, as evidenced by the golden thing in the model’s hands, which is a 金元宝 (a gold ingot, an ancient form of money which usually makes appearances in CNY decorations).

Anyway, Happy Chinese New Year.


Jan 2011

Three-Penis Liquor: the Perfect Gift

On my recent trip home, I brought a few bottles of this stuff to give to some friends:

Special 3-Penis Liquor!

Back Label of 3-Penis Liquor

The name of this unremarkable-looking “rice wine” is 张裕特质三鞭酒. The part to pay atention to here is “三鞭“. That means “three penis.” We’re talking various types of animal penis here, brewed in the liquor to impart vitality to the drinker. If you read the back, you can find out which three it is: 海狗鞭 (seal penis), 鹿鞭 (deer penis), and 广狗鞭 (Cantonese dog penis).

If you live in China, the character is worth learning to recognize. It shows up a bit more often than you’d expect. “Special” liquor, “special” hot pot, Chinese medicine, etc.

The 3-penis liquor in the picture isn’t expensive, and I got it at Carrefour. When you take it home from China as a gift, remember to ask your friends to try it first, then tell them specifically what kind of special liquor it is. It’s a gift they won’t soon forget.


Jan 2011

Stages in Learning, Adapting


image from todaywasawesome

I’m a pretty analytical guy. Ever since high school, when I was introduced to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I liked the idea that we all go through the same psychological stages of development, which can be diagnosed and predicted. The Kübler-Ross “5 Stages of Grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), popularized by various movies and TV shows, also appealed to me. When studying linguistics, I learned a bit about how babies’ brains develop, as well as how certain cognitive abilities appear first, and others later. I also learned about Krashen’s Natural Order Hypothesis, which states that learners of a language can expect to master most features of a language in a predictable order, one which is “natural.” This all fascinated me.

Sure, I know that there are criticisms of Krashen’s theories, and that it’s pretty damn difficult to come up with generalities that are true enough to be meaningful. I have still felt drawn to these ideas over the years, and proposed a few similar thoughts of my own, including The 5 Stages to Learning Chinese (not entirely serious), The Process of Learning Tones (serious, if unresearched), and even touched on these ideas in my master’s thesis on foreigner’s acquisition of Mandarin tones (pretty serious). Is this useful? Yes, I think so. And I’m more and more convinced of it as I work with this stuff firsthand through AllSet.

The “natural order” propositions I’m more skeptical of are the cultural ones. The one I’m most familiar with is the Stages of Culture Shock idea (and its sequel, the Stages of Reverse Culture Shock). I’m not surprised to see a disclaimer like this preceding the stages on the Wikipedia page:

> The shock of moving to a foreign country often consists of distinct phases, though not everyone passes through these phases and not everyone is in the new culture long enough to pass through all five. There are no fixed symptoms ascribed to culture shock as each person is affected differently.

OK, everyone’s different, and every culture’s different. I get that. Your mileage may vary. Fair enough. I’m just not sure if this is useful to anyone. (Is it?)

But what if you reduced the number of variables to something more manageable? Might the validity of the generalization be improved then?

This idea came to me because over time I seem to be moving through a series of progressive “mini culture shock” stages in my trips back to the United States, and from what I’ve observed among friends and on other blogs, my experiences are pretty typical of Americans who have spent a considerable amount of time in China. These stages are spread out over a period of years, and I only notice the differences on separate trips, usually spaced at least one year apart.

Anyway, I’m just going to throw these out there. I went back through some of my old entries (2002, 2004, 2006, 2008), and there’s partial support there. But I’m curious if any readers that have been living in China a while have experienced something similar:

Stages of Cultural Response to the United States on Periodic Visits from China:

1. So Many White and Black People! (This one is typical of Americans who have lived in small-town China for a while. They can also get this reaction just from visiting Shanghai or Beijing.)

2. Americans are so fat! (This is really cliché, but it’s real. I wrote my own post on this, long ago.)

3. American air is so clean! (Pretty obvious, but perhaps less so than American obesity…)

4. America is so diverse! (I remember feeling this very acutely a few years back. It was a source of renewed pride and appreciation for my home culture.)

5. American culture is so bizarre/lame! (This is when the cultural disconnect really starts to kick in. The stars de jour, the songs, and the TV shows, are almost all unfamiliar now. It wouldn’t seem weird at all if it weren’t so unfamiliar.)

6. American food is so sweet! (I know a lot of people experience this sooner than I do, but I’m a fan of the sweets. I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m getting older, or if it’s the Chinese diet changing my tastes, but on my last visit, the sweetness everywhere was hard to take.)

Honestly, I’m not sure if there’s much universality here (especially in terms of sequence). The only one I feel strongly about is the “Americans are so fat!” stage early on. Are there any other identifiable patterns here?


Dec 2010

Tones in Chinese Songs

I’ve been asked a number of times: if Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, what happens when you sing in Mandarin? Well, the answer is the melody takes over and the tones are ignored. Pretty simple.

However, it may not quite end there. I recently discovered a paper called “Tone and Melody in Cantonese” which asserts that Cantonese tones are set to music in a somewhat different way:

> For Chinese, modern songs in Mandarin and Cantonese exhibit very different behaviour with respect to the extent to which the melodies affect the lexical tones. In modern Mandarin songs, the melodies dominate, so that the original tones on the lyrics seem to be completely ignored. In Cantonese songs, however, the melodies typically take the lexical tones into consideration and attempt to preserve their pitch contours and relative pitch heights.

Here’s a graphical representation of Cantonese tones, with and without music:


And here’s an example of Mandarin:


I can’t say I’m fully convinced by the pitch contour graphic that the Cantonese songs “take the lexical tones into consideration,” but it’s an interesting argument. This would suggest that studying songs would be more beneficial to acquisition of tones for the student of Cantonese than for the student of Mandarin.

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, Professor Marjorie K. M. Chan has lots of articles available on her website’s Publications page.


Dec 2010

Rubik’s Cube with Chinese Characters

Check out this crazy rubik’s cube, refitted with Chinese characters, print-block style:

Shaun Chung Chinese Characters Type Cube

The only thing is, if you actually use ink with this thing to print characters, and then you twist it around, you’re going to end up with ink all over your hands all the time. Minor design issue, though. Cool concept!

Shaun Chung Chinese Characters Type Cube

The three-character combinations are designed to match lines from the 三字经 (Three Character Classic). Nice!

Thanks to Gaijintendo for pointing me to this. Photos from Makezine.

Update: Reader Pierre has pointed me to the blog entry by the creator of the Movable Type Cube.


Nov 2010

Two Wishes for Chinese Language Instruction

A while back Albert of Laowai Chinese visited Shanghai. We met up for lunch and had a good chat about our experiences in China learning Chinese. He asked me an interesting question: what did I think was the biggest problem with the field of Chinese language instruction?

I told him that in general, I felt that there was way too much teaching adult foreign learners as if they were Chinese children, and I felt that more (non-Chinese) learner perspectives were needed to improve the situation. (This is one of ChinesePod‘s major strengths.)

He was looking for more specific answers, though. When pressed, I gave him these two areas:

  1. Tones should be taught systematically, long-term. Way too many programs cover the tones in the first few weeks, followed by a few tone change rules, and then basically leave the students to sort the rest out. It’s not enough, and it’s irresponsible. Most students are going to need a good 1-2 years to really get a handle on the tones, so why aren’t educational institutions doing more to guide students through those frustrating times?

    As I’ve said before, tones were the single most difficult part of learning Chinese for me, and I know it’s true for many other students as well. More needs to be done. We make this a major focus at AllSet Learning, but most schools really drop the ball on this one.

  2. Mandarin Chinese needs a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin. There are corpora for Mandarin, but the ones that are public are not spoken Mandarin, and the corpora of spoken Mandarin are kept private and jealously guarded.

    Why does Mandarin need a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Chinese? Because without it, we’re all just taking stabs in the dark as to what “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary is. Yes it is possible to objectively determine what language is high-frequency, but this requires (1) collecting lots of naturally-occurring speech samples in audio form, (2) transcribing it all. Then a proper corpus can be assembled, from which accurate, objective word counts and word frequencies can be derived.

    Once that’s done, we could finally have more of a clue as to what the “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary really is. This method isn’t perfect, but it’s a big step forward from relying on native speaker intuition. And no, the new data obtained are not going to match the HSK word list you’ve got, or the Jun Da list either.

    It would also be great to see a proper large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin, balanced for regional variation. That would turn up all sorts of interesting facts, like proportion of 哪儿 to 哪里 across all regions represented, and virtually any other speech variation you can think of. (Personally, I suspect that a lot of the Beijing-hua taught in many textbooks could be reconsidered on the grounds that it simply doesn’t represent the Mandarin spoken across mainland China.)

What do you think are the biggest problems with Chinese language instruction today?


Nov 2010

Tone Purgatory and Accent Exorcism

Legendary animator Chuck Jones is said to have offered budding young artists this piece of advice, in one form or another:

We all have at least 10,000 bad drawings inside of us. The sooner we get them out and onto paper, the sooner we’ll get to the good ones buried deep within.

Chuck apparently didn’t make up this quote; although the exact number varies, the advice is frequently heard in interviews with any Chouinard or CalArts graduate. This little gem has been going around for a while.

I like this idea. It’s not that you’re lacking a skill, it’s that you just need to purge all those crappy drawings inside. It’s a whole lot easier to just get rid of junk than to build something entirely new from scratch, isn’t it? You can almost imagine a “crappy drawing” count somewhere going down over time, as those amateur doodles run out and a real artist bursts forth.

This is an idea that learners of Chinese could use. It’s not that you need to “learn tones,” it’s that you have 10,000 bad tones inside you that need to get out before you can hope to be fluent. It’s a veritable exorcism of that “crazy-tones laowai accent.”

Accent Exorcism

And until you expel those bad tones, they torture you a bit. It’s not enough to lock yourself up in a room and recite your textbook. Oh no, you have to get out there and talk to real people and screw up, and get those blank stares and giggles. And that does burn a little.

Until you get all those bad tones out, you’re in a sort of tone purgatory. In case you’re not familiar, purgatory is a state in which in imperfect soul is cleansed before it can continue on to heaven. Over the ages, it has frequently been depicted as purifying flames.

Every bad tone is an accent impurity, but all you can do is exorcise them slowly, one by one, by practicing your Chinese. Getting tones wrong is frustrating, and can feel like torture at times, but heaven awaits… (Heaven is, by the way, “talking to Chinese people.” Hmmm, slight exaggeration?)

Tone Purgatory

So you may be in tone purgatory, but so what? You can conduct the accent exorcism on your own. You know what to expect. All you have to do is get out there and start talking.


Nov 2010

Why Learning Chinese Is Hard

I can’t agree with anyone who says that learning Chinese isn’t hard, because it’s got to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sure, it’s been extremely rewarding, but I personally found it quite hard. Hopefully you’re not someone who chooses to learn a language based solely on how difficult it is perceived to be. But as someone who has chosen to learn a language for the wrong reasons before, and who also once shied away from Chinese, daunted by those terrifying tones, I can tell you that it is definitely difficult enough to scare off the casual dabbler. But what exactly is difficult about learning Chinese?

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. When I say “difficult,” what do I mean? Here’s a definition from the Oxford Dictionary of English:

needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand

So when we talk about difficult, we shouldn’t confuse this with time-consuming. John Biesnecker recently wrote a great post explaining why the time-consuming nature of studying Chinese does not make it difficult, followed by extensive, patient clarifications in the comments.

But John also says:

…learning Chinese is a long, drawn out series of really easy things — learn a character, learn a word, listen to a song, talk to someone, watch a movie, write an email, 等等. Not a single one of them is hard. Not one.

While I agree with most of John’s premise, I can’t agree that nothing about learning Chinese is hard. I found learning Chinese very difficult in the beginning. Although difficulty is subjective, I think there’s an important part of the equation missing here. First, two examples from my own life.

Putting in Time vs. Acquiring a Skill

When I was in high school I played a video game called Final Fantasy II. It was an RPG for the Super NES which can be beaten with the characters in your party at around level 40. Nerdy kid that I was, I loved that game so much that I continued playing it long after I had beaten it, until all my characters were up to level 99. You might call that feat silly or sad, but it was essentially a very long (but somehow enjoyable??) slog to reach increasingly higher level-up points. It was a ridiculous time investment. But one thing it certainly wasn’t is difficult.

Another example from my awkward teen years. My cousin Kevin introduced me to juggling. He insisted that anyone could learn it in one day, if they just stuck to it. After trying a few times, this seemed hard to believe. Juggling just three balls for even 10 tosses was deceptively difficult. But for some reason I dug in and kept at it. After 30 minutes I could do those 10 tosses. After an hour, I was starting to look like I could juggle three balls.

Does it seem wrong to say learning to juggle is difficult? It honestly takes less than an hour if the learner keeps at it. I’ve tried to teach quite a few people to juggle, and the conversation usually goes like this:

Learner: Wow, you can juggle?

Me: Yeah. It’s not very hard. You can learn in 30 minutes if you try.

Learner: Really? Let me try.

[I demonstrate the basics and hand over the balls. The learner takes a few tries, quickly dropping the balls.]

Learner: This is harder than it looks!

Me: Yeah, but if you keep at it for 30 minutes, you’ll be able to juggle.

[5 minutes pass.]

Learner: This is too hard! See ya.

So why is juggling hard, even though 30 minutes is enough to get the basics down? It’s because it requires the mastery of a new skill, which, our brain reasons, “shouldn’t be too hard.” The logic of the task is quite simple. Throw ball. Catch ball. Repeat. The brain grasps the concept immediately. But the hands do not comply. The skill is too foreign.

The Jazzy Jugglerphoto by Jeff Kubina

In essence, it’s “hard” because it’s frustrating. Actual performance does not live up to one’s reasonable expectations for one’s performance, and this is a blow to one’s ego. It’s emotional, not rational. What’s worse, if this simple task cannot be accomplished as easily as estimated, how can you be sure you’re ever going to get the hang of it?

This is the crux of the difficulty of learning juggling, Chinese, and many other worthwhile skills: the sheer frustration of the endeavor, and the ever-present fear that one is attempting the impossible. It takes a lot of effort to acquire an entirely new skill. Many people simply get discouraged and quit. “It’s too hard.”

The Hard Part

When I say that learning Chinese is hard, I don’t mean everything about it is difficult. For me, the hard part about learning Chinese, without a doubt, has been mastering the tones. The worst part was arriving in China after a year and a half of formal Mandarin study to make the horrifying discovery that no one in China understood my Chinese. I’m not one to give up easily, however, and I eventually made it. In my experience, tones are the single most frustrating thing about learning Mandarin Chinese.

Why? Well, to begin with you can’t even distinguish the tones. It seems impossible. Then, once you start to be able to distinguish them, you can’t reproduce them on your own. It seems impossible. Then, once you can produce individual tones in isolation on your own, it all falls apart when you try to string tones together. It seems impossible. Then, once you can start to string tones together with some semblance of accuracy, adding in sentence intonation screws everything up. It seems impossible.

See a pattern? Mastering tones is a long, frustrating process. I think there comes a point in almost every learner’s experience (me included!) where they say something like this:

What’s wrong with these people? I said everything perfectly. I know all my tones were right. But they always act like they can’t understand me!

This is pure frustration. It happens to every learner.

Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Sometimes acquiring Mandarin’s tones seems perilously close to this definition!

The Good News

The good news is that although Chinese has a steep learning curve, the worst part, by far, is right at the beginning. You have no choice but to tackle the tones right off the bat, and they’re just hard. But once you get a handle on them, the worst is behind you. (This is, however, where John Biesnecker’s “time-consuming does not mean difficult” argument kicks in, and you still have a long road ahead with the characters and vocabulary acquisition.)

I essentially expressed this point a while back when I compared the difficulty of learning Chinese and Japanese:

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

Because the hardest part is right at the beginning, I think advanced learners can sometimes forget how difficult and frustrating it was. But it’s a key issue I face on an almost daily basis in my work at AllSet Learning. For beginners, the learning curve can be a bit brutal.

You’re not afraid of a challenge, are you?

Mastering tones may be difficult, and memorizing all those characters may be time-consuming, but learning Chinese is definitely worth it. Difficulty is a subjective thing, so there may be those with an uncanny knack for acquiring tones (or perhaps indefatigable, saintly patience) who honestly don’t find it difficult (or frustrating). I’m willing to bet that some learners simply have a penchant for blocking out distant painful memories, and there may even be a few out there with devious plans to trick you into falling in love with Chinese. It is, after all, one of the world’s most fascinating languages.

There have been a number of excellent articles already written on this topic. I’ve linked to some of them below. Please note that David Moser’s article is tongue-in-cheek. Brendan’s conclusion is spot on, and I think Ben Ross’s views are also very close to my own.

Relevant Sinosplice content:


Nov 2010

Those Census-Confounding Chinese Tones

Recently Micah retweeted a short Chinese comedy routine [original] that was clever enough to be shared a bit more. The setup is that a census-taker asks a resident how many are in his household. Confusion ensues:

> “请问您家里是几口人?” [May I ask how many are in your household?]

> “是一口人。” [It’s one person.]

> “十一口?” [Eleven?]

> “不是十一口,而是一口人。” [Not eleven, but 1 person.]

> “二十一口?” [21?]

> “不是二十一口,其实一口人。” [Not 21. Actually, one person.]

> “七十一口?不会吧?” [71? For real?]

> “不是七十一口,就是一口人!” [Not 71. It’s just one person!]

> “九十一口?” [91?]

> “对,就是一口人。” [Right, just one person.]

OK, maybe I should have warned those of you that don’t read Chinese: the translation makes no sense in English, because the confusion is all based on tone-related misunderstandings:

– 是一 (shì yī) misunderstood as 十一 (shíyī)
– 而是一 (ér shì yī) misunderstood as 二十一 (èrshíyī)
– 其实一 (qíshí yī) misunderstood as 七十一 (qīshíyī)
– 就是一 (jiù shì yī) misunderstood as 九十一 (jiǔshíyī)

Although most of the misunderstandings above shouldn’t happen if both speakers are using standard Mandarin, I’ve witnessed quite a few cases where dialect influences tones, which, in turn, can lead to miscommunications. Personally, I find it a little comforting to know that even native speakers experience tone-related confusion, even if it’s not all that common (or comical!).


Nov 2010

Fox Intercultural Consulting’s Clever Logo

I love logos that play with Chinese characters, and so I really like Fox Intercultural Consulting‘s logo. Here it is (with breakdown):

Fox Consulting Services Logo

I never noticed that looks so much like the word “Fox”! Nice discovery. (Those of you that like to nitpick will notice some discrepancies, though.)

But then, isn’t it kind of weird to use a character that means “salty” for one’s company logo? It turns out that the character has quite a history, and can mean a lot more than just “salty.”

From Wenlin:

> The character , from 戌 (xū) ‘destroy’ and 口 (kǒu) ‘mouth’, originally meant ‘bite’.

>> “戌 to hurt 口 with the mouth” –Karlgren.

> Then 咸 was borrowed for a word meaning ‘all, entirely’ (now rare), which happened to be pronounced the same. 咸 xián is also the name of the hexagram ䷞, variously translated as ‘Influence’ (Legge), ‘Wooing’ (Wilhelm), and ‘Cutting’ (Kerson Huang).

> The full form for xián ‘salty’ is 鹹, composed of 鹵 (lǔ) ‘salt’ and 咸 xián phonetic. 鹹 is simplified to 咸 by dropping 鹵, so now 咸 most commonly occurs as the simple form for xián ‘salty’.

More on hexagram ䷞ from Wikipedia:

> Hexagram 31 is named 咸 (xián), “Conjoining”. Other variations include “influence (wooing)” and “feelings”. Its inner trigram is ☶ (艮 gèn) bound = (山) mountain, and its outer trigram is ☱ (兌 duì) open = (澤) swamp.

So not only does represent one of the hexagrams from the I Ching, but its meaning is actually pretty relevant to Fox Intercultural Consulting’s business. Not too shabby!

With this post I’ve started using the tag “characterplay,” and also tagged previous relevant entries. Characterplay is a lot like wordplay, except that characterplay is entirely visual, whereas wordplay often relies on homophones which, when spelled out, are often quite distinct.


Oct 2010

WooChinese Does Q&A

My friend John Biesnecker has been working hard on a new site called WooChinese. He’s been covering a lot of topics related to learning Chinese, and has been specifically addressing some of the big questions that absolute beginners to the language typically have. Here are some samples from the “Questions Newbies Ask” series:


QNA #1: Do I really need to learn to read Chinese?

QNA #2: Do tones really matter?

QNA #3: Should I learn traditional Chinese or simplified Chinese characters?

QNA #4: Do I need to learn to write Chinese characters?

Last week he asked me for some help on the question, “what is the best textbook?” Honestly, that’s a really hard question and it is affected by so many factors, so the default answer is the always-annoying, “it depends.” This is the kind of thing I tackle in a very personalized way through AllSet Learning.

Still, it’s nice to have a relatively straightforward answer (even in imperfect starting point is better than a never-ending search for perfection), so I gave my answer here:

QNA #9: What’s the best textbook for learning Chinese?

Be sure to check out WooChinese. Lots of good stuff over there.


Oct 2010

Carl Gene is on a Roll

I recently came across Carl Gene’s blog, which he describes as “My Journey from Translation Student to Working Professional.” This is a great example of learning by teaching and sharing. Not only is this a great resource for students of Chinese, but I’m sure Carl is benefiting tremendously from the work he’s doing to research and organize this information.

Here are some of the examples of the entries Carl has been writing:

20 Actually Useful Chengyu (成语)

23 Actually Useful Proverbs (谚语)

10 Chinese Love Idioms

31 Words For Idiot In Chinese

12 “Untranslatable” Words In Chinese

When your goal is to be a professional translator, it’s important to pay attention to the nuances of different words, and it looks like Carl is off to a good start. If you’re just starting out and trying to learn basic Chinese, this probably won’t be the best approach to start with, but definitely at least check out Carl’s blog.

Related Sinosplice Content:

My Chengyu Top Ten

Sinosplice Chinese Vocabulary Lists

Translator Interview Series


Oct 2010

Taxi: a Semantic Gloss in English of a Chinese Character

Take a look at this Shanghai subway advertisement for plane tickets on Taobao. Pay attention to the main Chinese words in the ad.

Taobao Plane Tickets Ad

If you’re anything like me (and a few of the Chinese people I asked), you tried to read the Chinese before paying attention the English “taxi,” but started feeling something was strange around the “飞的” part. What’s going on here?

Well, in Mandarin Chinese, the character 的 is most commonly used as a structural particle, connecting different parts of speech together or doing other structural things. In this capacity, it is pronounced “de.” However, the character 的 has a number of other readings as well.

Aside from its purely grammatical function, 的 also appears in the loanword for “taxi,” which is 的士 (díshì) in Mandarin, a secondhand borrowing from the Cantonese “dik1si2” (a loanword from English). In Mandarin Chinese 的 can also represent the meaning “taxi” by itself. When it does this, it’s pronounced “dī.” So you can say “take a taxi” using the phrase 打车 or 打的 (“dǎ dī” and not “dǎ de”).

Anyway, in this ad, the 飞的 part should be read “fēi dī” and not “fēi de,” because it stands for “flying taxi” rather than “one that flies.” That means the sentence is:

> 打个飞的去旅行

So while you might, at first glance, be tempted to read it as, “take something that flies to go traveling” (which is grammatical, albeit a bit awkward), the correct translation is, “take a flying taxi to go traveling.” This is indicated by the “TAXI” above the 的, which tells us the character means taxi (not structural info), and therefore should be pronounced “dī.”

The interesting parts:

1. This was so potentially confusing that a gloss had to be given to a Chinese audience
2. The gloss given was an English word, indicating not the reading of the character, but the meaning of the character

When you think of a gloss for Asian languages, you tend to think of something like this (taken from the Wikipedia page on ruby characters):

Ruby Characters

I think the ad above is the first time I’ve ever seen a semantic gloss in a foreign language, intended for native speakers of the glossed language. Pretty cool! (I’m not sure it’s effective advertising, though…)


Sep 2010

In Defense of Hanping (and Android)

Commenter Mark feels I was a bit unfair to Android phones as a Chinese study tool in my recent post, Back to the iPhone (it’s all about Chinese!).

Mark says:

> Have you tried Hanping Pro? It has far more features than the free version. Also, Hanping in super-fast on Android 2.2. [Note: that link doesn’t work in the PRC]

Mark goes on:

> I think the biggest problem here for John is that he’s comparing free Android apps with paid iPhone apps. Also, the iOS app market is about 1 year more mature than the Android market. Android is catching up fast and I would expect the quality and breadth of apps to catch up over the next year.

> Living in China, you don’t see paid apps in the Android Market. Those are generally much better quality than the free apps – especially in niche areas like Chinese learning.

> If you have an Android device and are living in China then all you need to do is put a US/UK/DE etc sim card in your phone (doesn’t have to be active and can connect to Market over wifi) and then you can see/buy whatever paid apps you want. Once you are done, swap back in your Chinese sim card (i.e. you only need to change the sim card when purchasing paid apps, not using them). This is of course a PITA, but its useful to know until Google comes up with a proper long-term solution.

Mark’s right. It’s not that I’m willing to buy iPhone apps and not Android apps, it’s that I can buy iPhone apps in China, but not Android apps (and I’ve tried). I’m not willing to somehow acquire an overseas SIM card just to buy apps. Sorry.

So it’s true… I might not have come to the same conclusion if I weren’t living in China.

> OCR? Google are rumoured to be bringing out an update to Google Goggles soon which will include multi-lingual OCR support (including Chinese). Use it from within any app (SMS, email, dictionary, flashcard etc) so no need for cumbersome copy/paste like you would need to on the iPhone.

> The vastly superior support on Android for inter-app communication is a big advantage over iOS’s “pasteboard” approach and this is very useful in language-learning where you are often juggling multiple apps. Currently, not too many apps take full advantage of this inter-app functionality but this will improve as the Android Market apps mature.

Like I said, I’m fickle. When Android phones become better than the iPhone, I’ll switch back. In the meantime, I’m just waiting for the competition (inlcuding over OCR) to heat up more. This is a very good thing.


Sep 2010

Reclaiming the Word “VCR”

I’ve already admitted before that I watch the Chinese dating show 非诚勿扰. Well, I’m still watching it, and the cultural and linguistic observations are starting to pile up. Today, though, I just wanted to mention one of the ones that strikes me as particularly odd.


Photo by Matthew Mittelstadt

In the program, as each male contestant is introduced, several video clips are shown. These videos reveal more about the man’s career and outlook on life, about his attitudes toward love and marriage, etc. Pretty much without exception, each of these short videos is referred to as a “VCR.”

Yes, “VCR.” It’s not a word we use as much anymore, but we still know it to mean “video cassette recorder.” Then what’s going on here? Chinese has a perfectly serviceable word for video: 视频. “Video clip” is 视频片断. Not only that, but the English word “video” is not uncommon among the younger generation. So why add this extra word, VCR, into the mix? Could “VCR” stand for something else in this context?

A search turned up this question and answer:

> 非诚勿扰里面的VCR的全称是什么? [What is “VCR” on Fei Cheng Wu Rao short for?]

> 电视上经常说VCR,.但偶不知道全称是什么,有知道的告诉一声1 [On TV they frequently say “VCR,” but I don’t know what the full term is. Can someone tell me?1]

> VCR是Video Cassette Recorder的缩写 盒式磁带录像机 [VCR is an acronym for Video Cassette Recorder]

> 但是在电视上的总以节目里面 例如某主持人说:“让我们先看一段VCR”这里的VCR的意思是指一个视频片断 [But in the program on TV, like when the host says, “let’s watch a VCR,” the word “VCR” refers to a video clip.]

Anonymous Q&A on the internet doesn’t exactly amount to conclusive evidence, but I’m pretty sure this is what most Chinese watchers of the show will surmise.

Furthermore, when I do a Baidu Images search for VCR, I get more confirmation that the word seems to be used this way (and only one picture on the first page of results which is what I consider to be a “VCR”). Could “VCR” be the next word for “video” in Chinese?

Too weird.

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