language


12

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:


08

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!).


01

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.


27

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:

WooChinese

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.


19

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


04

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…)


17

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.


08

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.

VCR

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.


31

Aug 2010

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

2G-Hero-3GS

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.


27

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.


17

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.


10

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 ChineseTesting.cn, 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?


05

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
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.


27

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.)


17

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:

Count

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.”)


06

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.

木

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.


23

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.


27

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.

坏小孩
Creative Chinese Character Art

(more…)


A Chinese Take on the Baseball Metaphor for Sex and Dating

25

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

Translation:

  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!


21

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.



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