language


17

Jan 2019

Pye, Pi, Pai

A clothing store in Shanghai:

pye

So π + = this. It doesn’t seem clever in any way, but it’s kind of interesting.


01

Jan 2019

Outlier Teaches You How to Learn Chinese Characters by Video

Way back in 2015 I recommended the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters for Pleco. It’s been a while, but the team has been busy. They’ve been continuously adding to their character dictionary, and they’ve also created a video course for self-learners that want to learn Chinese characters by the Outlier method.

You can see an example video on YouTube which outlines the “Pipeline Strategy” for learning Chinese characters.

I don’t routinely plug other products, but this is one I really believe in. These guys know what they’re doing, and they are utterly dedicated to their cause. You may notice in the video that they’re not exactly “entertainers,” but they don’t beat around the bush and they do know what they’re talking about!

They’re starting a video class next week, and if you’re looking for a way to self-study with video guidance from experts, this could be what you’ve been waiting for.

Here’s the link to sign up to the course. (It’s an affiliate link, so if you choose to sign up you’re supporting Sinosplice too.)

Make it a great 2019!


The Intermediate Chinese Grammar Wiki Book is out!

13

Dec 2018

The Intermediate Chinese Grammar Wiki Book is out!

The Intermediate Chinese Grammar Wiki Book is available:

It’s really been a ton of work editing, rewriting, and reworking all kinds of intermediate grammar points for the new book. The result, however, is both a solid book and better wiki content. If you want to support the wiki, please buy the book! (If you don’t need another stack of paper, I highly recommend the ebook. The instant search alone is really great.)

Special thanks to Chen Shishuang for all the work she did on the B1 grammar points, beginning years ago (not just one). (I bet there were times she wondered if the book was ever really coming out!)

AllSet staff Li Jiong and Ma Lihua were amazing proofreaders, and intern Jake Liu was quite a trooper as well. I also need to give a shout-out to wiki user extraordinaire Benedikt Rauh, who caught quite a few errors and emailed them in over the course of 2018.

Our designer Anneke Garcia did an awesome job on the cover. (If you need design services, I can put you in touch.)

For me, one of the best things about finishing a massive book like this is that I don’t have to work on this book anymore. (Maybe I have a tiny inkling of how George R. R. Martin feels?? Ha!) Sure, I love me some intermediate grammar, but there are so many other projects I can’t wait to dig into. 2019 is going to be a great year for AllSet Learning.

Now for some Christmas vacation…


05

Dec 2018

“Meng” Characterplay

I spotted this ad on the Shanghai Metro:

盟盟

The name of the service is 盟盟 (and apparently all the good domain names have been taken for that one). You can see how the “盟” character blends nicely into the drawing of the ship.

But no, the brand has nothing to do with ships or cruises or whatever… So while the characterplay looks like it kind of works, the picture really has nothing to do with what 盟盟 is all about: franchising (加盟) other brands.


27

Nov 2018

Fish You Talk

This restaurant, 鱼你说, has a pun for a name:

Yu Ni Shuo

I also like the stylized font!

The name is a pun on the phrase “与你说,” which means “talk with you.” is a rather formal word that can be used in place of or in many contexts.

Although the pinyin for both the name and the phrase are “yu ni shuo,” actually is second tone, while is third tone. But is third tone, which means that is read as second tone, due to the tone change rule. So actually the two sound the same.


21

Nov 2018

11-11: Blinded by Consumerism

The “Double 11” (AKA “Singles Day”) Chinese shopping holiday has been over for 10 days, but I think this is still worth sharing. This ad by Tmall remains the best (unintentional) metaphor for “blinded by consumerism” that I’ve seen:

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

Blinded by Consumerism (TMall)

The mask is in the shape of Tmall‘s logo, a cat. Tmall’s Chinese name is 天猫, which literally means “Sky Cat,” but it seems like it was chosen based on the English name (“T” for Taobao, which owns Tmall, and “mao” sounds like “mall” to Chinese ears).

TMall Cat (天猫)

It’s funny that you sometimes see the 双11 (literally, “Double 11”) manufactured holiday translated in English as “Singles Day” (formerly “Bachelor’s Day”). This day was once celebrated as such, but in a few short years, the shopping aspect has completely taken over the “holiday.” Single people feel entirely irrelevant now. But hey… who cares about human connections when you can spend money on all these great deals??


16

Nov 2018

Shanghai Wall Wisdom

Spotted on a wall in Shanghai:

Shanghai Wall Wisdom

It reads:

勿以恶小而为之,
勿以善小而不为。

Because it’s from classical Chinese, it’s written in traditional characters and also reads right to left. It’s also a pretty simple introduction to classical Chinese, so if you’re intermediate or higher, it’s worth a closer look.

Translation:

Even in small matters, do no evil.
Even in small matters, do not fail to do good.

A few notes on the classical (or harder) Chinese:

  • : “do not” for commands (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
  • : “because” (classical Chinese)
  • : a tricky grammar word usually indicating contrast (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
  • : “to do” (classical Chinese)
  • : “it” (classical Chinese)

Words like and are especially tricky because they can mean so many different things! 慢慢来… it takes time to absorb all those different usages.


15

Nov 2018

E ink for the Shanghai Bus System

I was surprised to see this new bus schedule display screen using what appears to be e ink for its display:

Shanghai Bus Stop Using E ink

I did a double-take at first, thinking it had to be paper. (Obviously, it’s a screen.)

Pretty cool! I had no idea that this technology was being applied in this way. Curious if this is just a tiny experiment, or if this kind of display is rolling out at a larger scale already. E ink totally makes sense as a way to roll out more dynamic (networked) announcement boards across the city at a lower energy cost.

One of my co-workers remarked that there’s a conspicuous lack of ad space on the display. Other similar bus stop displays have used conventional monitors to show the bus ever-changing schedule alongside video ads. This does seem like a user-friendly lower-cost option, though.


17

Oct 2018

Deciphering “skr” Slang

So there’s this word “skr” being used a lot in China these days, mainly by Chinese kids online. As with any popular internet slang, however, it has found its way into real-world marketing materials. Here’s a usage I spotted the other day in Shanghai:

sheng-skr-ren

So the part we’re focused on here is:

省skr人

Which means, essentially:

省死个人

This could be restated as:

(人)可以省很多钱

If you’re trying to make sense of “skr,” it’s usually used to replace 是个 or 死个 (normally it should be the intensifying , as in the example above). The word has its roots in Chinese hip hop, and specifically the performer 吴亦凡 [Baidu Baike link], who is pictured several times in the GIFs below (red background).

This is a screenshot from a search of WeChat’s 表情 animated GIFs showing how popular “skr” currently is:

skr-stickers

(I don’t expect this popularity will last.)


03

Oct 2018

So I made a screencast…

I’m in the middle of the 7-day Chinese National Day (国庆节) holiday, and I’m in the office getting some work done. I decided a while ago that it would be useful to make some videos (and I did make one), but I didn’t want the hassle of video editing (or managing video editing) on a regular basis. Turns out screencasts are really easy to do once you get them all set up!

So I’m doing a series of screencasts about the Chinese Grammar Wiki, and this first one explains how you can make use of keywords on the wiki for quicker and easier navigation:

If you find it useful, please share!


21

Sep 2018

When the Teacher Strikes Back

I came across this image on WeChat:

Sassy Teacher Pwns Students

The original image was written in traditional characters. Here’s a simplified Chinese transcript:

学生:老师你教的都

是没有用的东西

老师:我不许你这样

说自己

Don’t feel bad if you don’t get it at first. Some native speakers even take a second to figure out what happened.

This is a case of syntactic ambiguity. You can interpret the first statement in two ways, and it’s all because the verb , meaning “to teach,” can take two objects: who is being taught (what we think of as a “indirect object” in English) and what is being taught (what we think of as a “direct object” in English).

The other key is that in Chinese, 没有用的东西 (literally, “useless things”) can also refer to people.

So the joke is that when the student says “everything you teach is useless,” the teacher flips it around and interprets it as “everyone you teach is useless.” Then the teacher pretends to take the high road and says, “I won’t let you talk about yourself that way.”


12

Sep 2018

Shanghai Subway Ads that Teach Chinese Grammar

Sometimes it feels like the environment is actively trying to teach certain words or grammar patterns. Recently I’ve been seeing this series of ads in the Shanghai Metro every day:

JD.com Ad 1

不为朋友圈而运动

JD.com Ad 3

不为跟风而运动

JD.com Ad 5

不为赶时髦而运动

JD.com Ad 4

不为别人的眼光而运动

JD.com Ad 2

不为自拍而运动

In this case, the pattern is a negative version of 为……而……. The pattern 为……而…… indicates doing a certain action for a certain purpose (apparently the red line is just there to emphasize “NOT for this purpose”). I discovered that this pattern was not yet on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, so I immediately added it: Explaining purpose with “wei… er…”.

The ads are interesting, because they come from JD.com (京东), which presumably sells sporting clothing and equipment (the ad mentions 京东体育), but it’s not made explicit what’s for sale. Furthermore, JD.com take a stance on values which seem to go counter to what a lot of young Chinese people are doing these days, and the values they’re advocating don’t seem to clearly lead to greater sales for JD.com.

The ads roughly translate to:

  • Exercise, not for your WeChat Moments [China’s version of Instagram]
  • Exercise, not just because everyone else is
  • Exercise, not to keep up with the trends
  • Exercise, not because of what other people think
  • Exercise, not for the selfies

(As you can see, it’s also challenging to translate the 为……而…… pattern into English in a consistent way. It would be nice to use “for” in all of them, but it just doesn’t work for some of them.)


04

Sep 2018

The Value of Reading Marvel Comics in Chinese

Last month my friend Zach Franklin and I spent a half-hour in a recording studio talking about reading Marvel graphic novels as a way to practice Chinese. Not sure how often I’ll do this kind of recording, but hopefully you Chinese learners will find it interesting!

John and Zach talk Marvel Infinity


The last interview I did of Zach was all text, for the 2010 interview post The Value of a Master’s in Chinese Economics. Now you get to hear his voice and learn a bit more about how he uses his Chinese for less serious endeavors.

The book we talk about (aside from Harry Potter) is Marvel’s Infinity, or 无限 in Chinese (in Zach’s hands above).

Audio Highlights

Here are a few markers for the audio, as well as some of the Chinese mentioned in our conversation:

  • 03:00: 2000 AD, Judge Dredd and Spawn discussion
  • 03:48 : Harry Potter discussion begins
  • 04:50: 4 Privet Drive = 女贞路4号
  • 05:38: Buying James Bond 连环画 books in Xujiahui
  • 09:16: to answer this question, Spawn (再生侠) has still not been officially translated for the Chinese market
  • 10:20: Beijing 潘家园 Market, 星球大战(上、中、下)
  • 11:41: my “Vader didn’t get a lot of screen time” comment was a reference to this YouTube video
  • 12:51: Discussion of Marvel Comics in Chinese, and the experiece of tackling them for the first time
  • 15:10: Discussion of the graphic novel Infinity
  • 17:49: Why Zach is a hypocrite (when it comes to study methods)
  • 19:12: Character names in Chinese discussed: 钢铁侠 (Iron Man)、雷神托尔索尔 (Thor)、鹰眼 (Hawkeye)、黑寡妇 (Black Widow)
  • 21:09: Calling out Pleco for lack of Marvel character name vocab
  • 21:28: 灭霸 (Thanos)、黑色兄弟会 (the Black Order) / 杀戮黑曜石 (lit. “Slaughter Obsidian”)、黑矮星 (Black Dwarf / Cull Obsidian)、超巨星 (Supergiant)、亡刃将军 (Corvus Glaive)、比灵星午夜暗夜比邻星 (Proxima Midnight)、
  • 25:10: “Infinity” is not the same as “Infinity War” at all
  • 26:38: Is reading translated comics in Chinese a good idea for other learners as well??
  • 27:44: “Cultural depth” of Marvel comics and Star Wars in Chinese society
  • 29:06: The value of studying material you’re actually interested in

Images from Infinity (Chinese Version)

The front of the book has a list of all the Marvel characters’ Chinese names, and here are the sections that relate to this podcast (apologies for the quality; it’s a photo of a physical book!):

Infinity (Marvel), Avengers

Infinity (Marvel), Black Order

Here we can see the members of the Black Order more clearly:

Infinity (Marvel), Black Order

And, just for balance, here are a few shots where the Chinese used is actually really easy to read:

Infinity (Marvel), Cap & gang

Infinity (Marvel), Black Bolt & Thanos

Finally, a few cases where apparently translation was not really an option (or maybe just too much trouble):

Infinity (Marvel), Thanos

Infinity (Marvel), Thor

(Take that, 灭霸!)

If anyone has a question for Zach, please leave a comment on this blog post, and I’ll gleefully harass him until he answers!


31

Aug 2018

Flashcards: That’s not how it works!

My partner at Mandarin Companion, Jared, recently created this meme for a blog post:

Flashcards: that's not how it works!

The blog post is a learner story, and it touches on flashcards, but that’s not really the main point of the story. Still a useful read for other learners of Chinese, though.

But the meme struck me as very timely, because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about flashcards over the years. Back in my ChinesePod days, my friend John B was always quite the flashcard software (SRS) “believer,” and my co-worker JP was always against it. At the time I was somewhat neutral (probably more on the pro side), but over the years I’ve gained a lot more insight into the issues surrounding flashcard usage. One of my earlier posts, Misgivings about SRS, touches on some of the ideas, but I wrote that the same year I started AllSet Learning, and since then I’ve come into contact with many different kinds of learners and gained far deeper insight into how flashcards work for whom, and how they don’t work.

I’m still organizing my thoughts for an upcoming blog post (it’s going to be rather long), but if you have your own flashcard story to tell (for or against), please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or send me an email. Links to academic studies of flashcards are also very welcome.

I’ll end with a thought related to extensive reading, which is what Mandarin Companion is all about: Chinese graded readers. Reading is the original spaced repetition. (For many cases, it’s still superior.)


23

Aug 2018

Extreme Characterplay with Furniture

It might be hard to make out the characters used in this furniture store’s ad:

生活现场 (MEHOS)

They are: 生活现场. 生活现场 is a phrase that’s not easy to translate… if you ask a native speaker what it means, they’ll have trouble answering you without a context. It’s something like “scenes of daily life.” The characterplay kind of works, I guess… I like the the best. The is not impressive.

Anyway, the ad is for 美好家 (MEHOS), a furniture store in Shanghai.


26

Jul 2018

The Torture of Japanese via Chinese

This week my wife and I have been planning a short family vacation to Japan. We’ll be hanging out in Fukuoka for a bit in August.

I majored in Japanese long ago, spoke pretty fluently, and was even reading Japanese literature. Now, after 18 years in China, my Japanese is rusty, but I do still speak it. Reading is much harder than it used to be, because all that Chinese in my brain wants to interpret the Japanese characters I see as Chinese. The more kana mixed in with the Japanese, the easier and more natural it is for me to read kanji as Japanese.

Anyway, what I’m finding much more difficult than reading Japanese is listening to it… in Chinese. The Chinese, of course, read Japanese kanji as if they were Chinese hanzi. In some cases, the Japanese words, pronounced as Chinese, become full-fledged loanwords in Chinese. No surprise, and no big deal. You get used to hearing Tokyo (東京) pronounced as “Dōngjīng,” and Kyoto (京都) as “Jīngdū,” etc.

But what you don’t get used to is hearing everything Japanese pronounced as Chinese. While we’re planning the trip, my wife is constantly dropping the Chinese names of all kinds of random Japanese places, and that’s something my poor brain can’t handle. On the one hand, they’re Japanese places, and I speak Japanese, so I want to know the Japanese names of the places we’re talking about. But on the other hand, my wife isn’t just going to learn Japanese for this trip, and she speaks to me mostly in Chinese, so of course she’s going to use the Chinese names. So my brain has to keep trying to jump through this series of hoops:

Chinese pronunciation → Chinese hanzi → Japanese kanji → Japanese name

(Sometimes I can get as far as step 2, but rarely can I get to step 4.)

Brain melting…


12

Jul 2018

Time, Textbooks, and Podcasts

I’ve been in China 18 years now, and started working at ChinesePod over 10 years ago. I remember when we first started, we were creating lessons about simple everyday interactions which simply did not exist in any available textbook. The one that comes to mind is a Newbie lesson from 2006 called Using a Credit Card. The super useful question was:

现金还是刷卡? [Cash or credit?]

This lesson was so useful because credit cards had only fairly recently been introduced to China, or at least only in recent years become common. No textbooks taught 刷卡 (“to swipe a credit card”) because textbooks typically needed something like 10 years to catch up with development of that sort. So they weren’t even close, happy to focus on iterations of the classic “Going to the Post Office” chapter, which was rapidly becoming irrelevant in modern life.

In the years to follow, ChinesePod did lots of lessons involving 手机 (“cell phones”), and later 智能手机 (“smartphones”). I observed over time as textbooks struggled to update to even include the word 手机 at all.

The irony is that in 2018, even the lesson Using a Credit Card is now almost irrelevant itself. It’s so easy to bind your bank’s debit card to your WeChat or AliPay account, and Chinese consumers, for the most part, don’t like living on credit. So now the most important question you always hear when you buy something is:

支付宝还是微信? [AliPay or WeChat?]

WeChat AliPay

It doesn’t appear that ChinesePod has this exact Newbie lesson yet, but it should. This new trend is especially important to point out to China newbies because in this particular regard, China is actually ahead of western countries, a fact which takes a lot of visitors by surprise.

I oversaw lesson production at ChinesePod for almost 8 years, and one thing became clear about the business model: the ChinesePod users wanted new lessons continually added. There were some in the company that considered this a problem, because the archive had already grown large enough to meet almost learner’s needs. Looking back from 2018, it’s easy to see that a lot of those lessons weren’t actually targeting serious communication problems for learners. On the other hand, some regular new content is also necessary in this age of rapid technological growth, where Chinese society develops quickly in new directions that no one can anticipate. Textbooks might find keeping up impossible on a traditional publishing cycle, but even for internet companies, it’s a challenge.


26

Jun 2018

Eat Less Meat, says Huang Xuan

I spotted these pro-veggie ads in the Shanghai Metro recently:

少吃肉 (Shao chi rou_

少吃肉 [Eat less meat]

多走走 [Walk more]

少吃肉 (Shao chi rou_

少吃肉 [Eat less meat]

多福寿 [Be happier and live longer]

The obvious grammar points here are 少 + V and 多 + V (which don’t tend to come naturally to English speakers).

This is good to see, because as anyone who has lived in China should know, the (even remotely) affluent Chinese consume quite a bit of meat these days (and waste a lot of it, too).

蔬食 (shu shi)

The ads aren’t too clever, but the message is good, and there’s even a spot of characterplay in there. 蔬食 refers to a “vegetarian diet.”

The guy featured in the ad is 黄轩, an actor, and the ads are sponsored by WildAid.

Related links:


20

Jun 2018

Graded Readers and the Wall of Characters

I did another podcast! In this one I talk with my partner at Mandarin Companion, Jared Turner, about the challenges of learning to read Chinese and how graded readers can help. The podcast (62 min.) is called: Chinese Graded Readers and ER in Chinese.

We covered a range of topics related to extensive reading (ER) and learning Chinese, and even did a bit of comparing learning Chinese and Japanese. On topice I think worth mentioning is something I last mentioned in 2012:

Most Chinese learners have a goal of one day being able to read a Chinese newspaper, or a novel in Chinese. And thanks to better and better tools for learning Chinese, it’s getting easier to work towards that goal progressively. However, even learners who have studied for quite a while report that they still struggle with the “wall of characters” mental block. It’s that irrational, overwhelming feeling (perhaps even a slight sense of panic) we sometimes get when confronted with a whole page of Chinese text: the dreaded “Wall of Characters.”

No doubt, this fear is partly culturally rooted. From childhood, many of us have considered Chinese characters as roughly equivalent with the concept “inscrutable.” At times our brains seem to revert to that primitive, ignorant state where that wall of characters really seems impenetrable.

Nowadays, the “wall of characters” is often online, rather than printed on paper. We have all kinds of tools to help us chip away at the wall. Relative beginners, with the right training, can quickly start blowing holes in that wall, and with a little time and patience, the wall does come crumbling down at the feet of the motivated learner, leaving nothing but glorious meaning in its place. That’s a beautiful thing.

Chinese: The Wall of Characters

One of the things I talked about in the podcast (at around 17:50) is how Chinese graded readers also help learners to tackle “the wall.” Maybe certain tools are “blowing holes” in the wall as mentioned above, but graded readers present much smaller, realistic walls as intermediate goals. They prepare the learner for the ultimate task: being able to confidently and reliably scale that wall on a regular basis.

No matter what language you’re learning, you should give graded readers a try. They help “build fluency now” and give learners a great sense of satisfaction that learners (and Chinese learners in particular) might otherwise be forced years to get a taste of. More on this is in the podcast.


14

Jun 2018

Heads on a Plate in Kindergarten

My son’s preschool (in China, they still call it “kindergarten,” or 幼儿园) has a little case on display near the entrance to the school which shows what foods are on the menu for that day. The school uses small pieces of actual food for the display. It’s a great way to familiarize the little ones with various types of meat and vegetables, and I use it as a sort of English vocabulary review with my son, since he’s already learning the food vocabulary all in Chinese.

Well, despite having been in China for so long, I was a little shocked to see this last week:

Pigeon head on a plate at pre-school

…then this week, I saw this:

Duck head on a plate at pre-school

Some Chinese friends were a little surprised too, but at least no meat was wasted (unlike for the pork). I have to agree: it’s better that kids know from a young age where their meat comes from, rather than thinking meat just comes from a supermarket, and then being traumatized at the age of 10 to discover people are killing cute little animals just so they can eat them.

Still, I hope we don’t see a big pig head on a pike next week…



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