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.


Aug 2010

Back to the iPhone (it’s all about Chinese!)


I got a first generation (2G) iPhone in 2008. Then I switched to an Android in 2009. As of this past weekend, I’m back on an iPhone (3GS). Why? I’ll spare you most of the geekery… it’s largely related to Chinese.

The HTC Hero was a pretty solid early Android device. The new smartphones running Android 2.2 are way better now, though. I’m aware of this. It wasn’t just about upgrading hardware and getting the latest OS.

I don’t really care that the iPhone has more apps, snazzier apps, and more games. Unfortunately, with the app advantage the iPhone pulled off another important victory: better apps for learning Chinese. As a learning consultancy, AllSet Learning also recommends various tools for learning Chinese. Well, I’ve got to admit: the iPhone is now the best tool out there for learning Chinese. For myself and for my clients, it’s the phone I need to be using.

Here are the most important factors in my decision to switch back to the iPhone from Android:

iPhone Pros

– The iPhone has quite a few dictionaries available for the student of Chinese. The free ones are decent, but if you’re willing to shell out a little money, you can buy some very good dictionaries. Popular choices include Pleco, Cambridge English-Chinese (not free), iCED, Qingwen, and DianHua.

– Switching between input methods in the iPhone is instant and easy (especially if you only enable English and one Chinese input method). This is something I do so often that even a slight advantage starts to really matter.

– If you’re interested in handwriting recognition for Chinese (and this is a great learning tool in itself), Apple’s solid version of that is built into the OS.

– The ChinesePod app for the iPhone is better than the one for the Android. (This is a trend that’s not particular to ChinesePod.)

– Ummm, have you seen Pleco OCR?

Android Cons

– No good dictionaries. I don’t even know what everyone uses. Hanping? Honestly, until I heard about Hanping (which, although serviceable, is a very basic CC-CEDICT dictionary), I was just using the mobile version of nciku.

– Switching input methods is a bit slow and annoying. It’s tolerable… for a while. But if you do a lot of switching, it gets to you. (Or you might stay in pinyin mode all the time, which also slows you down, since it has no predictive text functionality.)

– It’s getting Pleco someday, but who knows when?

OK, but nothing is totally one-sided… There are a few other points I should mention.

iPhone Cons

– Google Maps is still messed up in Shanghai on the iPhone. What’s up with this? It always places you some 300-500 meters northwest of where you really are. Apple blames Google. (Google Maps works just fine on Android devices in Shanghai.) This is seriously annoying.

Android Pros

– Google Maps just works.

– Recharging with a regular USB cord is so, so nice. (When you forget your cord, you can even borrow a friend’s digital camera USB cable.)

An iPhone 4 that’s usable in Shanghai is still super expensive, which is a major reason why I got a 3GS. The iPhone 3GS and the high-end Android devices are comparably priced. I was tempted to check out one of the Android phones, but I can’t ignore those iPhone advantages. I’m fickle, though… we’ll see how things develop over the next year.


Aug 2010

Jukuu is interesting

Sinosplice reader Matthew recently introduced me to Jukuu, a database of sample sentences. The Chinese name, 句酷, is a pun on the word 句库, meaning “sentence base,” in the naming tradition of nciku). There are some really interesting things going on on Jukuu. Here’s a screenshot from the results for a search for “get”:

Jukuu search results for "get"

I enjoyed some of those random sentences. Some things worth noting:

– The sample sentences in the screenshot above are all taken from About Face 3, a well-known book on goal-directed design, which has been published in multiple languages.
– Jukuu offers not only multiple translations (grouped by part of speech), but also the distribution of those various parts of speech in its database (that’s what the pie graph at the right represents).
– Jukuu also offers other word forms (词形) for “get” (in this case, “gets,” “getting,” “got,” “gotten,” and even “getable”).
– If you click on one of the translations in the top right, the resulting page shows you sentences with just that translation of “get” (for example, this one for 得到).
– You can get similar results without going the “exact translation route” by just searching for multiple words, in a mix of English and Chinese. (The sentences aren’t censored, either. Have fun with that!)
– If you go to the “get” results page, further down the right column, you also see links for “adjectives frequently preceding this word,” “verbs frequently preceding this word,” “prepositions frequently preceding this word,” and “nouns frequently following this word.”

This kind of thing is a linguist’s dream, and can only be accomplished by corpus analysis with part of speech tagging, which is a ton of work. It’s really cool to see a resource like this publicly available online.


Aug 2010

The New Pleco OCR Is Amazing

There has been a bit of a buzz lately among the techy students of Chinese in Shanghai, and it’s all about the new functionality coming to the Pleco iPhone app. From the site:

> We’ve just announced an incredibly cool new feature for the next version of Pleco, 2.2; an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) that lets you point your iPhone’s camera at Chinese characters to look them up “live” (similar to an “augmented reality” system): demo video is here (or here if you can’t access YouTube).

Watch the video. Seriously. This is big.

Basically what the new app allows you to do is to add “popup definitions” to any Chinese you’re reading–even a book. It’s instantaneous. It uses the iPhone camera, but it’s not like taking a photo at all. (It’s more like using 3D goggles… Magical 3D goggles that provide pinyin readings and definitions for Chinese words.)

The technology behind this app is not terribly new… optical character recognition for Chinese characters has been getting steadily better over the years. But no smartphone app has done this well yet, and it’s a bit stunning to see Pleco performing so admirably right out of the gate.

Oh, and more good news from Pleco:

> Also, we’re finally working on an Android version of Pleco, and have just signed a license for our first Classical Chinese dictionary….

Awesome. Congratulations to Michael Love and the rest of the Pleco team.


Aug 2010

Info on the New HSK in Shanghai

I’ve been asked quite a bit lately about the new HSK, so I thought I’d share some of the information I’ve gathered. (You can also refer to, which seems to be an official source of information affiliated with the Hanban.)

The new HSK has been designed to meet the “western need” for assessing students’ practical communication skills in Mandarin Chinese. (Meanwhile the Japanese and Koreans will continue their frenzied test-taking with the old HSK, which has developed into quite a sizable business.)

The new HSK was administered publicly for the first time this year on March 14, 2010. If you want to take the new HSK in Shanghai this year, you can register for the October 17, 2010 or December 5, 2010 HSK examinations through Tongji University’s testing center (phone: 6598-0701). Not sure what the deadline is.

The new test is split into six levels for the written portion, each of which has its own structure and price:

– Level 1: 40-minute test of listening and reading comprehension (150 RMB)
– Level 2: 55-minute test of listening and reading comprehension (250 RMB)
– Level 3: 90-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (350 RMB)
– Level 4: 105-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (450 RMB)
– Level 5: 125-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (550 RMB)
– Level 6: 140-minute test of listening, reading comprehension, and writing (650 RMB)

The spoken segment of the exam will cost you another 300 RMB, and takes 21 minutes. The sections include:

1. Listen and repeat
2. Describe pictures
3. Answer questions

You can choose to take just the written or just the spoken portions of the test.

Oh, and just for reference, the old HSK costs 250 RMB for the intermediate version, 330 RMB for the advanced.

Hmmm, looks like the new HSK might just be a nice little source of profit for the Hanban. It’s also selling new syllabi, one for each level of the written test, and one for the spoken test [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, spoken].

So… does anyone care about the new HSK?


Aug 2010

The Simple Characters Around You

In my work at AllSet Learning I’ve had a number of clients trying to get from an elementary to an intermediate speaking level, and at the same time finally deciding to tackle the Chinese characters they’ve been avoiding for so long. My advice is usually some variation of, “if you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, you need to bite the bullet and start learning characters.” (Most learners already know this, but somehow they need it told to them unequivocally.)

Fortunately for my clients, they all live in Shanghai, so they’re always surrounded by Chinese characters. If you’ve long been intimidated by Chinese characters, it’s surprisingly easy to block them all out and not really even see them in your daily life. Once the journey to learn Chinese characters has begun in earnest, however, it’s time to take the blinders off. And simply by paying attention to the characters around you, you start to notice a lot.

Sure, especially in the beginning, you don’t recognize most characters you see. But the more you look, the more you recognize. One of my clients told me excitedly,

> I learned the character a long time ago so I could find the women’s room, but I never learned the character for “man.” Then, the other day, I saw the character on a door, and I actually was able to read the character I had just learned. It suddenly had meaning!

One small step on the road to learning characters, but a giant leap in terms of achievement. That first “reading moment” really is a significant milestone in the long road ahead. No, characters themselves aren’t “magical,” but there is definitely a bit of a “character high” in those early days of discovery.

Anyway, eager to support learners of Chinese characters, I’ve been on the lookout lately for super easy signs. Two especially stood out:

小大人 (“Little Adults”)

Restaurant: 饭店
饭店 (“restaurant”)

Do the characters around you help you in your studies? I’m convinced that one of the reasons that Chinese living abroad so frequently forget how to write (relatively common) characters is that they no longer have those constant passive reminders built into their environments. In my own studies here in China, I’ve learned characters from my surroundings many, many times. The characters around you may not be often mentioned as key to the immersion experience, but they sure do help.

Remember: start with the simple ones. They exist.


Jul 2010

Cantonese Dubbing Queen

I understand very little Cantonese, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve done enough dubbing work to know it isn’t easy, and this woman is just amazing. Keep watching… it only gets better and better.

(Via Kaixin Wang.)


Jul 2010

The Pharmacy Count

While at the pharmacy the other day with my friend Chris, we came upon what seemed like a typical example of Engrish:


Funny, we thought… “the count” instead of “the counter.”

Only as we were leaving did we notice the guy behind the counter:

The Pharmacy Count

The Sesame Street character “the Count” is known for his rather clever name. Even a kid can get the pun. How does his Chinese name fare in terms of cleverness? Not too well, I’m afraid. According to this site, his Chinese name is simply 伯爵, a translation of only one of the meanings of the Count’s name, meaning “count” or “earl.”

What would a more clever translation of the Count’s name be? All I can think of is maybe something related to 叔叔 (“uncle”) and 数数 (“to count up”), but once you change the tones it doesn’t really work. (Not to mention that he very clearly looks like a count, not an “uncle.”)


Jul 2010

Chinese Characters: not so magical

Mark over at Pinyin News had a great rant the other day reacting to a New York Times article which exoticized Chinese characters.

It’s funny, when you first learn anything about Chinese characters, you learn that they’re a “writing system.” Fair enough, seems simple, right? But you don’t have to study long before you’re bombarded with all kinds of ideas about how the characters are the language, or the characters are the essence of the culture, or the language could not exist without the characters.

And Mark is, of course, completely right to say that it’s all nonsense. He declares this so vehemently and at such length that the ordinary person might start getting suspicious, but it’s all true.


photo credit: DigitalFreak

Language is a fundamental part of the human condition. Writing is a technology. It’s an important technology, with a tremendous influence on culture and human civilization, but it’s still a technology. As Wikipedia puts it, “writing is the representation of language in a textual medium.” In human history, this representation always follows the representation we call speaking. Theoretically it shouldn’t have to; that’s just the way it works in practice. (If you don’t like it, turn to sci-fi.)

Could Chinese exist without characters? Yes. It existed for a long time before characters came along. I’m not advocating the abolition of characters; I think that will work its way out naturally in good time (accelerated by the internet). Mark feels quite strongly about this issue, though, which you can tell by reading the original article.

One of the comments in response to Mark’s post caught my attention:

> Nongandwong said,
July 2, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

> Wonderful post, pity lots of people will have read about magical Chinese from that NYT article.

> What they should have done is get her to try and explain the etymology of the character and how it relates to the meaning. This was the character that made me give up looking for character etymologies because the explanation made less sense than just memorising the strokes!

I had to laugh out loud when I saw this comment, because I had exactly the same experience myself. For me, the process went like this:

1. Try to learn characters by rote, as instructed by teachers. Hate it. Feel strongly that there must be a better way.

2. Discover Heisig’s method. Enjoy that breath of fresh air. But then start to doubt a little.

3. Try to abandon Heisig’s method in favor of learning actual character etymologies. Fail miserably, again and again and again (but starting with ).

4. Return to Heisig, but with a healthy longing for actual etymologies (except when they’re a hopeless, ridiculous goose chase).

For those of you that are wondering, the etymology of goes something like this (courtesy of Wenlin):

> 你 (nǐ): From 亻(人 rén) ‘person’ and 尔 ěr ‘you’.

> Etymologically 你 nǐ is a “colloquial variation” of 尔(爾) ěr; the two sounds nǐ and ěr both derive from ancient nzie (–Karlgren).

OK, so now all we need is something for “尔(爾) ěr” that makes sense, and we’re done, right?

> Which came first, 尔 or 爾?

> Wieger cites this explanation for 尔:

> “从入丨八, 会意。八者气之分也。”

> Then 爾 came from 尔 (phonetic), 巾 ( = 两 a balance) and 爻爻 weights on both sides, to give the meaning “symmetry, harmony of proportions”.

> Karlgren (1923) says of the form 爾, “…original sense and hence explanation of character uncertain”, and considers 尔 an abbreviation.

> The pronunciation was once something like nzie. This produced both ěr and nǐ, the latter written 你 nǐ, which is the modern word for ‘you’. Now 尔 is only used in a few adverbs and archaic expressions, and in foreign loan words.

Riiiight… This is the word for “you,” also the first character in the basic Chinese word for “hi” (你好), which is likely the first word you’ll ever learn. I guess it does make rote memorization look pretty good.


Jun 2010

Misgivings about SRS

Earlier this year the Global Times did an article on using SRS (spaced repetition software) technology to “Learn Chinese in a flash.” The journalist interviewed both me and Dr. Orlando Kelm about the issue, but most of what we said didn’t actually make it into the article. I’m going to use the content of that exchange to finally address my misgivings about SRS.

My SRS misgivings are grouped into three main points below, and I’ve added in some of Dr. Kelm’s input, with his permission.

SRS is a way to enhance your language studies, not a substitution for them

Back in the good old days, we students used to take our vocabulary lists and make flashcards out of them. As we amassed stacks and stacks of these flashcards, it was hard to systematically review them properly, and to keep track of which stacks of cards had which vocabulary. SRS completely solves this problem with a tidy little review algorithm and a feedback mechanism which you interact with as you review your vocabulary. This is great. Those of us who were too lazy to create stacks and stacks of flashcards can now feel vindicated; we will never have to, because technology has saved us from all that arduous flashcard management.

The problem, however, is that SRS is sometimes over-emphasized to the point that it almost seems like a “language acquisition method.” Especially for the analytical-minded, it can be easy to get lost in the efficiency of the review system and all the pretty stats, forgetting that memorization of vocabulary is only one part of language acquisition. If the SRS-obsessed student is not getting plenty of natural target language input and speaking practice, he’ll end up the linguistic equivalent of the guy at the gym with bulging upper body musculature but pencil legs.

Dr. Kelm warns against the “one method for everything” approach as well:

It seems like every time we discover something that is good in one area (e.g., SRS that helps in aiding rote memorization) the tendency is to try to apply it in every other area (e.g., speaking a foreign language). I have seen the same thing with lots of second language theories. For example TPR (total physical response) is a theory where people are supposed to physically use their senses while learning a language (actually open a door when saying “I open the door”, actually taste the food when they say “I am eating a banana). Great, TPR may be OK in some instances, but then people try to apply TPR to every aspect of language learning. It just gets crazy after a while. To me the same issue comes up with SRS. Just because it is good for rote memorization, doesn’t mean that it will be good for all aspects of language learning.

Dr. Kelm reminds us about what else is important that is outside the realm of SRS :

The biggest issue here, as related some of the limitations of SRS, is that of input vs intake, schema theory, and scripts. A gigantic part of language learning is related to CONTEXT. I’m sure there are times when you can recall the exact moment when you heard a new phrase in Chinese, learned a new word, or did something in another language.

For example, last month when I was in China a seller came up to our car and asked my guide if he wanted to buy something. All he said to the seller was “mai bu qi” (I can’t afford that). For me it was the perfect moment because I saw how a native speaker reacts to the sellers. Where I would have just said “bu yao” or “bu yong“, there was something cool about hearing “mai bu qi“. The phrase stuck in my mind and I’ll be able to use it from here on out. This is a great example of how context affects our learning. The more we can create context for learners, the better we retain the foreign language. Note that this is not related to frequency of occurrence or frequency of review (principles of SRS), but more to the impact of the moment. SRS doesn’t necessarily take this feature into account.

Second, language learning also happens in chunks and people learn these chunks in scripts that we follow. For example, if you go to a fast food restaurant to make an order, at some point the cashier will say “Is that for here or to go?” You know the pattern, you expect this question to come up, and so you are prepared to answer it. Even if you don’t hear the question exactly, you can still guess at what was said. It’s part of the “script” that we all follow when ordering fast food. When language learning relates to these chunks and scripts, it helps to make things stick. Note again that this is not related to the frequency of occurrence and isn’t where SRS will shine. (I should probably add that ChinesePod does a really good job of creating short dialogs that help provide this context and simulate these scripts. They recycle vocabulary in various contexts well.)

SRS and the DIY factor

Creating flashcards is a meaningful activity in itself. The act of creating the cards, with each word carefully scrawled by the student (and maybe even a picture or two!) contributes to the learning. Anyone who has ever used flashcards can tell you there’s a big difference between making your own and buying pre-made flashcards.

Ideally, the words and sentences added to your SRS come from your own experience, or from the material you are personally interested in studying. This makes the learning more personal and the results more satisfying. Many students, however, are reviewing ready-made vocabulary lists, pre-loaded into the SRS. This type of review isn’t worthless, but because the learner’s degree of involvement is so much lower, each word’s “memory imprint” is much fainter. It’s also much easier to simply toss aside and forget a digital “stack” of flashcards that took 3 seconds to download, compared to a personalized list one has invested time and effort into.

Using SRS well is a skill

This is the part that no one really expects, because it’s nice to think that technology has solved our problems. The truth is that using SRS effectively is an entirely new skill. I mentioned already that ready-made decks are less likely to be effective, but even an active learner carefully looking up new words and adding them to SRS (with some context) can easily go wrong.

I’ll give you a personal example. I was reading a Lu Xun story, and it contained a fair amount of vocabulary with which I was unfamiliar. After looking up the new words, I dutifully copied them into Anki (my SRS client of choice). There was a fair amount of vocabulary just from that Lu Xun story. Over time, I found that the Lu Xun vocabulary just wasn’t sticking. The words were semi-archaic, and I had virtually no chance of running into them in my modern daily life in Shanghai. I found they were useful only for reading Lu Xun (or possibly other Chinese literature of that era), and yet I wasn’t spending a lot of time reading that literature. The vocabulary was effectively “clogging up” my SRS review sessions as I had to repeatedly review those words, which meant I had less time to spend on review of more useful vocabulary, and I was rapidly losing motivation to use SRS altogether. When I found myself going a week or more without doing any review at all, I eventually realized that I had effectively killed my review sessions and needed an “Anki Reset.”

Including too much obscure “recognition only” material is not the only pitfall; other typical mistakes include lack of sufficient context, overly long sentence examples, and insufficient consideration of what is actually useful in one’s active vocabulary. It’s the memorization of vocabulary which one is able to actually use in conversation that is the most satisfying, after all. Failure to accomplish this essentially amounts to “vocabulary hoarding,” not proficiency in the target language.

Since using SRS properly is a skill which must be practiced, it demands time in itself. Learning to use SRS well and getting into the the habit of using it will take time, which could otherwise be devoted to listening or speaking practice. Is it worth it? For some, the answer is an unabashed yes, yes, a thousands times YES! but for many students the answer is not so clear-cut.


May 2010

Creative Chinese Character Art

In a recent post, Deconstructing the Chinese Character Creativity of Japan, I highlighted some creative work with Chinese characters by Japanese artists. What I didn’t say at the time was, “I wish the Chinese themselves would do more stuff like this.” Well, they are, and just recently I saw some great examples of it, first sent in by reader, and then later on Kaixin Wang (China’s Facebook).

I’m not going to deconstruct them like last time, because these are just way too complex. Just keep in mind that the squares and circles framing many of them are not actually a part of the characters like they were in the Japanese designs.

Creative Chinese Character Art


A Chinese Take on the Baseball Metaphor for Sex and Dating


May 2010

A Chinese Take on the Baseball Metaphor for Sex and Dating

Most Americans are familiar with the “base system” baseball metaphor for physical intimacy. If you’re not familiar with it, you might check out this XKCD comic for the complicated version, or this excerpt from baseball metaphors for sex from Wikipedia:

  1. First base is commonly understood to be any form of mouth to mouth kissing, especially open lip (“French”) kissing.
  2. Second base refers to tactile stimulation of the genitals over clothes, or of the female breasts.
  3. Third base refers to groping naked genitals (handjob or fingering), or oral sex.
  4. Home run (or rounding the bases, scoring a run, hitting a home run, scoring, going all the way, coming home, etc.) is the act of penetrative intercourse.

For the visual-oriented among us, here’s a graphic (adapted from XKCD’s complex version):

The base system (USA)

I can understand that a country little love for baseball might be confused by this metaphor system. Apparently even Europeans are confused by it. However, some people in China have picked it up, but in the process changed the system (reference link removed due to malware at destination website]):

  1. “一垒”代表拉手,
  2. “二垒”代表拥抱,
  3. “三垒”代表亲亲,
  4. “本垒”代表XX


  1. “First base” represents holding hands,
  2. “Second base” represents hugging,
  3. “Third base” represents kissing,
  4. “Home” represents _____

Clearly, this is a whole ‘nother ballgame the Chinese are playing, and their playing field looks like this when superimposed onto the American field:

The base system (China)

So much for “rounding the bases!”

Thanks to Marco from EnglishPod for bringing this interesting cultural difference to my attention!


May 2010

Orlando Kelm on Language Power Struggles

To follow up my recent massive post on Language Power Struggles, I’d like to highlight the responses of Dr. Orlando Kelm, a professor of linguistics, teacher of many years, and learner of multiple languages. Dr. Kelm’s experience is largely with Portuguese and Spanish, but he’s also studied Japanese and Chinese, among other languages.

Dr. Kelm’s three main points were:

1. Chinese perception of use of English: There is something interesting about Chinese adoption of Putonghua as a lingua franca, despite all of the regional dialects and local languages. As related to use of English, it’s almost as if people accept their local language for personal interactions and Putonghua for official interactions. From there it is a small leap to English for professional interactions. Recently when in Beijing I visited a multinational engineering company, German-owned even, but the official language at work was English. It was amazing to see rooms full of Chinese engineers, most who had never been out of China, all using English to talk to each other at work. It certainly strengthened my understanding of the way English was perceived as a professional tool, no different in some ways from switching among c++, php, html, or java.

2. Our skewed view: My guess is that the type of person who is interested in this blog represents a minority. No doubt, most of the world probably confronts mono-lingual English speakers who assume and demand English for all communication. Our frustration with people who want to speak English with us is most likely counterbalanced with a frustrated world that feels obligated to speak English, even when they feel inadequate in doing so.

3. John asked if my experience in Latin America (with Spanish and Portuguese) was similar to his in China with Chinese. The short answer is no, not really. Indeed I have run across people who insist on practicing English with me, and from a professional end English is everywhere, but the aggressive power struggle seems less in Latin America. My guess as to why… well, first I believe that Latin Americans think that English speakers who do not speak Spanish are just unmotivated or lazy, people who could learn it if they really wanted to. On the other hand, Chinese think of their language as “more difficult”. Deep down they must think that it’s easier for them to learn English than it is for ‘us’ to learn Chinese. Add that to the items mentioned by all of these blog comments, and we see that despite John’s cool proficiency charts, language proficiency is only part of choosing which language is used.

Really interesting answers. Thanks, Dr. Kelm! (For more of Dr. Kelm’s observations, please visit his blog.)

Thank you also to all the readers that pitched in and shared your own observations. You’re certainly correct in that there are way more factors at play than I brought up in the original post. It’s been enlightening bringing it all together from so many different perspectives.

Language Power Struggles


May 2010

Language Power Struggles

The idea of the “linguistic power struggle” is one I’ve been dealing with and thinking about for a long time. I’ve made some attempts to find scholarly research on the subject, looking into discourse analysis (which is often concerned with power), expectancy violations theory, and communication accommodation theory, but so far I’ve turned up very little (even outside of Wikipedia!). Thus the discussion which follows will be mostly descriptive and anecdotal, but will raise more questions than it answers.

First, a typical example of the language power struggle. The dialog below is taken from a ChinesePod lesson aptly titled Language Power Struggle. I directed the creation of this fictional dialog two years ago, drawing on my own real experiences and those of other friends in China. The content in square brackets [like this] is a translation of the original Chinese. Note that the Chinese person speaks mostly English, while the American speaks only Chinese.

American: [Hello, can I sit here?]

Chinese: Sure, nice to meet you.

American: [I’m also really glad to meet you.]

Chinese: Your Chinese is very good.

American: [Not at all!]

Chinese: How long have you been to China?

American: [I’ve been in China for more than two years. I’m studying Chinese.]

Chinese: Oh, you are learning Chinese?

American: [I want to work in China, so I need to learn Chinese.]

Chinese: Oh. I think Chinese is very difficult for you. How do you feel this bar?

American: [It’s not bad. It’s just that nobody will speak Chinese with me, so I’m a little disappointed.]

Chinese: Ha ha! You are very serious!

American: [Because I want to practice more, so that I can learn Chinese more quickly.]

Chinese: I want to practice English. In Chinese, we say “[learn from each other]”, you know?

American: [I know. But in China we should be speaking Chinese.]

Chinese: I like talking English with you.

American: [Heh heh, then you should go to America. I came to China just to learn Chinese.]

Chinese: I want to go to America. Let’s be friends. Can you give me your mobile number?

American: [Sorry, I’ve got to go.]

The root of the conflict is quite clear: the American guy wants to speak Chinese, while the Chinese guy wants to speak English. There are quite a few issues contained within this small dialog, though. Below I’ll get into more details.



May 2010

The Challenges Chinese Teachers Face in the USA

The worldwide boom in Chinese study has resulted in a greater demand for Chinese teachers. China is the natural supply, and thus the Chinese government is working hard to train teachers and send them abroad to teach. I’ve heard from numerous sources (including people in the Hanban, an organization which oversees the governments efforts at teaching the world Chinese) that schools are often disappointed with the Chinese teachers sent to them. American schools feel that while the teachers may know about the Chinese language, they are much too traditional in their teaching styles. They just don’t connect with American students very well.

It was interesting, then, to get the other side of the story. ChinaGeeks recently wrote about Teaching Chinese (and China) in the United States, and linked to a great New York Times article: Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America. C. Custer makes some great observations, and his article is well worth a read.

Reading the NYTimes article, Ms. Zheng’s disappointment and frustration is palpable. Clearly, culture is a huge issue; the challenges faced cannot be explained away by outdated teaching methodologies.

> Still, Ms. Zheng said she believed that teachers got little respect in America.

> “This country doesn’t value teachers, and that upsets me,” she said. “Teachers don’t earn much, and this country worships making money. In China, teachers don’t earn a lot either, but it’s a very honorable career.”

And yes, there are also a few ironies in this article that anyone familiar with China will appreciate.


Apr 2010

Deconstructing the Chinese Character Creativity of Japan

Pink Tentacle recently did a post showcasing Japanese town logos which make prominent use of kanji (Chinese characters in the Japanese written language). These designs totally blew my mind. I love seeing creative manipulation of Chinese characters, so this stuff was pure gold.

Be warned, though; some of these are a bit hard to make out if (1) you don’t know what character(s) you’re supposed to be looking at, and (2) you don’t have significant experience with Chinese characters. Below I’ll explain a few of the designs to make them a bit more accessible.

I’ll start easy. This one is cool because it’s not hard to make out, and it has an easily recognized source of inspiration:


This next one is actually two characters, but both are fairly easy to recognize (they’re just a bit chubbier than usual), and they have the added benefit of resembling a Japanese robot! Nice.


Two characters again (八 returns!), but this time a decidedly asymmetrical character is forced into a symmetrical design, with interesting results.


Now we’re getting a little crazy. This very stylized logo turns a line into a circle and a box into a triangle. It takes a bit of mind-bending to see it.

西 (nishi)

This one is probably my favorite (overlooking any similarity to the logos of past fascist regimes).

茨 (ibara)

So it turns out learning character components can have interesting applications after all. Be sure to check out all the other logos on Pink Tentacle. There are plenty more good ones.


Apr 2010

New Online Chinese Resources Links

I figured it was about time I set up a page with links to the Chinese learning resources I personally find most valuable and regularly use. So it’s up: Online Chinese Resources.

A few notes:

– I work for ChinesePod and think it’s great, so yeah, I’m going to recommend it. This should not be a big surprise. I’m aware of quite a few podcast alternatives, and I’ve listened to a few, but I have very limited actual experience with them.

– The list is not exhaustive; there are plenty of monstrous ones out there, and the problem is that they’re all way too long. This one is pretty short, and based on my own experience, which is what makes it useful.

– I am open to suggestions, but I won’t add anything until I’ve had a chance to check it out and spend enough time with it to decide it’s a must-have resource.

I’ll be updating the list pretty regularly, but I intend to keep it brief.


Apr 2010

The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon’s Chinese

A few weeks ago, a series of clips from The Big Bang Theory, Season 1, Episode 17 became popular on various Chinese sites. In the episode, brainy theoretical physicist Sheldon says he has decided to learn Mandarin because:

> I believe the Szechuan Palace has been passing off orange chicken as tangerine chicken, and I intend to confront them.

Here’s the clip (on Tudou):

To someone who knows no Chinese, this episode works fine. However, native speakers of Mandarin will have trouble following a lot of what Sheldon is trying to say. Although most of the first scene would be easy to follow, a combination of inaccurate pronunciation and bizarre word choices in later scenes make the subtitles a necessity for even native speakers of Mandarin. (I forced my wife to watch this clip with the subtitles covered up, and she could only understand a few of the lines, even listening multiple times. You can also find more than one “what the heck is he saying??” conversations on the Chinese internet, like this one.) The Chinese clip adds Chinese subtitles, but some of them are inaccurate. The play-by-play is below.


Page 19 of 32« First...10...1718192021...30...Last »