My daughter has just finished first grade in a Chinese elementary school. I’ve been absolutely blown away by how many characters she has learned in her first year (that’s a topic of an upcoming post).
Just the other day, we were having a conversation (mostly in English) about what characters we thought were “hard.” It was interesting getting her perspective, because it was totally different from mine. We didn’t agree at all on which ones were “hard.”
That’s when I brought up the (non-standard) Chinese character “biáng,” a ridiculously complex character used only to write “biángbiáng 面” (a kind of noodle). Anyway, she loved it, and after writing it a few times, can now write it from memory, and it actually looks pretty good.
Please excuse the “proud dad” nature of this post… I’m actually more blown away than straight-up proud. No one even encouraged her to learn to write this character. But here’s her writing the character from memory (bad video quality… sorry):
And here’s the finished product, after she added a bit of extra text to the top and bottom:
Note: computers cannot display this Chinese character. It’s often written in pinyin, and even when it appears on menus in China, it’s either handwritten or some weird mismatched pasted-on character.
And yes, my 7-year-old’s Chinese handwriting is already better than mine. It only took one year.
If you live in China and can read some of the Chinese around you, you’ve probably noticed this phrase of late:
Literally, “sweep black, eliminate evil.” It refers to the current ongoing crackdown on “crime” and “vice.”
It is super pervasive, though. Big red banners like this are on almost every single street corner in Shanghai now (this image not from Shanghai):
And then there are signs like this everywhere as well:
Given how the city is heavily blanketed in this propaganda right now, you might be forgiven for thinking that the city was absolutely infested with crime, with drug-dealers and prostitutes on every corner. But no, that’s not the case. To the casual observer, there’s no clear reason for the severe crackdown.
If you talk to the Shanghai foreigners that hang out in bars a lot, you’ll hear that there have been many raids this month, including forced drug tests and deportations. So drug-related arrests are definitely happening, but again, that is not at all related to the average resident of Shanghai.
If you ask Chinese people about it, they typically mention that it’s a move to take out organized crime (黑社会). You also see stuff like this:
I don’t doubt that’s true, but the bizarre part about this campaign is that the “evil” being combatted seems to have absolutely nothing to do with most people. I can’t see it or feel it (I certainly have never seen mobsters shaking down fruit vendors in Shanghai). And I think that this is true for most Chinese citizens. So really, all the propaganda is just to let you know: “we are totally kicking crime’s butt right now.”
OK… it’s just one of those weird things about living in China.
I’ve been going through some literature in the field of second language acquisition, and this includes Paul Nation’s 2001 work, Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. In case you’re not familiar with him, Paul Nation is regarded as one of the world’s foremost academics in the field of vocabulary acquisition, and his books are well worth reading.
Anyway, I wanted to share what Paul Nation describes as “the four strands” of a “balanced language course.” It’s worth noting that this book was published in 2001, and Paul Nation is not introducing radical new ideas here; he’s simply gently reminding the learner about some facts that researchers in the field of second language acquisition have known for some time. And yet, what follows is probably not going to sound familiar to most of you that have ever studied a foreign language in school. It’s truly jarring just how strong the grip of traditional language teaching in our educational system still is.
The “Four Strands” given by Paul Nation in the introduction of his book are:
Comprehensible Meaning-Focused Input
Firstly there is learning from comprehensible meaning-focused input [see the input hypothesis]. This means that learners should have the opportunity to learn new language items through listening and reading activities where the main focus in on the information in what they are listening to or reading.
Language is all about conveying meaning! (This fact is surprisingly easy to forget.)
The second strand is one that has been subject to a lot of debate. This is language-focused learning, sometimes called form-focused instruction (Ellis, 1990). There is growing evidence (Long, 1988; Ellis 1990) that language learning benefits if there is an appropriate amount of usefully-focused deliberate teaching and learning of language items.
This type of learning is what we think of as the traditional “teacher teaching” approach. Obviously, there are also “good ways” and “bad ways” to go about the explicit instruction, but that’s another topic…
The third strand is meaning-focused output. Learners should have the chance to develop their knowledge of the language through speaking and writing activities where their main attention is focused on the information they are trying to convey.
Nation also makes the point that focusing on output can really bring focus and meaning to listening and reading activities, as an observant learner can “pick up” how certain information is expressed in the target language.
The fourth strand in a balanced course is fluency development. In activities which put this strand into action learners do not work with new language; instead, they become more fluent in using items they already know.
“Using items they already know!” I feel like this is blasphemy for some. And yet, yeah, you gotta practice using what you have merely studied. There is an implication here that should not go unnoticed: if you don’t ever focus on “fluency development,” then you don’tdevelop true fluency.
OK, this is the real kicker. If you’re a teacher, you may be thinking, “yeah, that all sounds fine.” But then how much time would you spend in your curriculum on each of the four strands? Nation mercifully gives us very clear numbers on the ideal distribution:
In a language course, the four strands should get roughly the same amount of time. This means that no more than 25% of the learning time in and out of class should be given to the direct study of language items; no less than 25% of the class time should be given to fluency development. If these strands are not equally represented, then the design of the course needs to be looked at again.
So, to be absolutely clear, this is what Paul Nation is advocating in his book:
…and this is a (somewhat optimistic) representation of what he knows to be the case in most language courses:
The status quo is not good. It doesn’t lead to true fluency.
At the book store the other day, I noticed this series of graphic novels that covers the entire Star Wars saga (Original Trilogy, Prequel Trilogy, and Sequel Trilogy: all 9 movies):
I’m not sure these comic exist in English, but I imagine they do? (Anyone know?)
The 9 movies’ names, in Chinese are:
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
There are some good Star Wars-related key words in there (Jedi, Sith, Skywalker, etc.)… Only problem is that most Chinese people don’t care for Star Wars, so it’s not exactly “practical vocabulary” we’re talking about here! If this is a “Chinese market only” series, then I imagine it’s an effort by Disney at “cultural education” leading up to the final episode of the Skywalker Saga.
I’ve been developing this for over a year, and it was quite a challenge. In fact, I originally designed Mandarin Companion’s Level 1 to be 300 characters because I felt at the time that that many characters really were needed to tell a full, decent story (10,000 characters long).
So has my opinion changed? Not exactly… Mandarin Companion Level 1 and 2 stories are all adaptations of existing classic works. Although we do take some liberties with the plots as we adapt them to Chinese stories, the overall plots remain intact. In order to adapt an existing story, you need a “story toolkit” of a certain size to pull it off.
Breakthrough Level (150 characters), on the other hand, doesn’t work that way. The stories are not adaptations. They’re original stories (by Jared and me), because they have to be. The plot of each story revolves around the words that we can actually work with at this level, and at 150 characters, we have just enough to pull it off. It’s been an interesting ride!
Obligatory educator nag:the “x” and “sh” sounds in pinyin are not the same sound, even if they may sound that way to you at first. Here are a few places you can go if you’re experiencing this confusion:
The average person in China doesn’t go to a doctor’s office when they get hurt or sick; they go straight to a hospital. Then they have a pretty horrible (often all-day) ordeal ahead of them, involving paying to get a number, waiting to be seen, getting briefly looked at to determine next steps, then waiting in line to pay for tests or other services, then waiting on the results, then taking them back to the original doctor for a final diagnosis, etc. It really is a ton of time waiting in line to be seen by a person with (understandably) very little patience, only to be curtly passed off to the next term of waiting.
So when recently I visited Huashan Hospital in Shanghai (one of the better public ones), I was surprised to see these kiosks:
The big title on the wall is 智慧e疗. The 智慧 refers to “smart,” and the e疗 is a pun on 医疗, which means “medical treatment.” (Not even healthcare is above a good old “e” pun!)
The closer view displays the following words:
建卡 (jiàn kǎ) to create a card (and associated account)
挂号 (guàhào) to register (at a hospital)
缴费 (jiǎofèi) to pay fees
签到 (qiāndào) to sign in (for an appointment)
I didn’t use this kiosk, and it seems not many people did. Hopefully progress is just around the corner!
I’d sum up the three main pieces of advice for getting Chinese to “great” as follows:
The first is changing where you talk from, physically. (Don’t sound all high-pitched.)
The second is changing how you breathe. (Focus on tones.)
The third is changing the rhythm. (Mimic native speakers.)
Although the titles sound like incredibly difficult tasks to accomplish, the practical advice which follows (and I’ve summed up in parentheses above) is not at all bad.
Learn Implicitly When You Can
The daunting tasks above touch on one of the tricky things about the field of second language acquisition: separating what should be explicitly taught from what should be learned implicitly through exposure and practice. For the vast majority of learners, all three of the main points (voice, breathing, rhythm) should be acquired implicitly over time, and don’t need much active focus. (Almost all learners benefit much more from focusing on the main pronunciation issues they’re probably already aware of, and getting a good handle on those.)
Everyone is different, though, so it’s possible that some people in certain circumstances (such as actors, professional singers, etc.) will benefit from active focus on breathing techniques, for example.
I can give one example of my own personal experience with the one about “changing where you talk from, physically.” When I was working on my masters at East China Normal University (华东师范大学), one of my professors, Mao Shizhen, was an expert in phonology, as well as a voice coach for news broadcasters and the like. This was back in 2006 or 2007, and he once told me that my Chinese was quite good, but that my voice quality (I think he used the word “音色”) didn’t feel like a native Chinese person’s, and that to sound truly native, I should work on that. I later learned that I had a host of other issues I still needed to focus on to sound more native (most of which I’ve written about on Sinosplice at one point or another), so I didn’t worry about the “voice quality” issue or focus on it at all. Over time, though, my “voice quality” started sounding more and more natural due to increased fluency and practice. My Chinese may not be perfect or sound exactly like a native speaker’s, but I regularly fool people into thinking I’m a native speaker on the phone, and that’s good enough for me.
Explicit Tone Learning
An even better example to highlight the “explicit/implicit” difference is the tones of Mandarin Chinese. Most of us start out pathetically oblivious, and we really appreciate explicit instruction explaining what tones are, why they’re important, how to make them, how to practice them, etc. We want to know, and we feel that the explanation helps us, even if deep down we know that you could master tones simply by mimicking native speakers, just like a baby does. Unlike babies, adult learners can actually benefit a lot from explicit instruction. (They still need plenty of practice, though.)
Here’s the thing with tones, though: you need to learn the 4 tones (plus a neutral tone) well. You need to learn the tone change rules well. Everyone benefits greatly from tone pair practice, so you should do that as well (and that one will take a bit longer to really master).
But after you’ve hit the big three, you can stop digging deeper into the tiny intricacies of tones. Are there other, more subtle tone changes going on? Yes. Are all fourth tones created exactly equal? Actually, no. But these are questions that you can delegate to your (under-appreciated, underestimated) unconscious brain.
If you continue to strive to sound like native speakers, imitating their speech patterns as well as you can, you will get closer and closer to native as time goes on, and that includes implicitly learning aspects of the language that you didn’t even know you were learning. Have you ever asked a native speaker a question about their language, only to realize that you know more than they do about this particular aspect of their language (grammar, etymology, tone changes, etc.)? That’s because they’ve implicitly mastered the language and don’t need to be conscious of those concepts to use it fluently.
In fact, some of my proudest language learning moments have been discovering that I had mastered something without even studying it. This has included usage of certain words or grammar points, as well as tiny nitpicky details of pronunciation. Everything is fair game. Because you probably started out learning everything explicitly, it becomes a habit, and you may think that you’ll always have to do it that way. I’m happy to say that this is not the case. The better your Chinese becomes, the more you can (and should) learn implicitly, through exposure and regular practice.
So remember: you need practice, you need input. Focus on comprehension and imitating native speakers. You’ll learn a whole lot more implicitly than you think.
I’m not going to plug every single podcast “You Can Learn Chinese Podcast” we do, but then not every podcast we do has Dr. David Moser! For this one, I took over the interviewing responsibilities and had a good chat with Dr. Moser in our Shanghai studio.
We touch on a few topics I’ve covered on Sinosplice in the past:
The name is 喝嘛, which is just the verb 喝 meaning “to drink,” combined with the particle 嘛, used to “express the self-evident.” This is a command, though. How does a command “express the self-evident?”
To a native speaker, the feeling of the two usages is connected, but here the word 嘛 adds the feeling of a somewhat whiny, “come on, do it….” In fact, that phrase “come on” (used when persuading) could be translated 来嘛.
So yeah, this product name is actually saying, “come on, drink our product. You know you want to! Come on…”
What’s the deal with the hippo? Well, “hippo” in Chinese is 河马 (literally, “river horse,” which is also the meaning of the Greek roots of the English word as well). So we’ve got a pun here.
This picture was taken from my office building (18th floor):
It’s a crew of delivery guys which have become an extremely common site in big Chinese cities. The yellow uniforms belong to 美团 (Meituan), while the chief competitor, 饿了么 (Ele.me) decks its delivery guys out in light blue.
I’m no expert, but I would assume they do these daily morning meetings as the only time these “co-workers” are even together in the same place. The rest of the day they’re on and off their scooters all over the city, speeding from restaurant, to home, to restaurant, to home….
I was struck by the use of the word 怕 on this package:
Literally, “afraid of being dropped” and “afraid of being crushed.” I’m more used to seeing 易碎 on boxes: literally “easily broken” or “fragile.” This struck me as interesting because neither the box nor its contents actually fears anything. It doesn’t feel like an anthropomorphic usage, so it’s got to be an abstraction of the human “fear” emotion.
When I thought about it some more and talked about it with some AllSet Learning teachers, I realized it’s not just a matter of the two kinds of fear “human fear” and “abstracted fear”; there’s actually a whole range of usage with this 怕:
怕冷 (pà lěng) to be sensitive to the cold (lit. “to be afraid of cold”)
怕热 (pà rè) to be sensitive to heat (lit. “to be afraid of heat”)
怕辣 (pà là) to be sensitive to spiciness (lit. “to fear spicy”)
怕生 (pà shēng) to be afraid of strangers (lit. “fear the unfamiliar”)
怕黑 (pà hēi) to be afraid of the dark
怕死 (pà sǐ) to be afraid of death
怕高 (pà gāo) to be afraid of heights
怕人 (pà rén) to be shy around people (usu. describing a child), to be afraid of people (usu. describing an animal)
怕水 (pà shuǐ) to be afraid of water (usu. because one cannot swim)
Are they just degrees of the same emotion? Or are they totally different usages? It can be difficult to separate shades of meaning, especially for native speakers. This is what the field of semantics deals with.
To me, learning how other languages construct words and phrases in both familiar and utterly unfamiliar ways is one of the major joys of learning a language.
This ad is hanging in Shanghai’s “Cloud 9” (龙之梦) shopping mall:
First of all the repeating character is 鹅, which means “goose.” In the circular logo, you can see a little characterplay going on with the goose head.
Above that, you have “鹅，鹅，鹅” which, of course, reads “goose, goose, goose.” This is a famous first line of a classical Chinese poem. It’s famous because it’s so simple, so a lot of kids memorize it as one of their first (if not the first) classical poems committed to memory.
Pleco is a really powerful dictionary app, and it has a lot of features many people don’t even know about, such as the Clipboard Reader. This one is simply a part of dictionary entries that many people have never noticed.
Check out this entry, paying attention to the top and the bottom:
Note the bottom line: it’s an example of the word that was looked up, but in reverse.
I’m not going to give too many (and I’ll explain why below), but here are some relatively common examples of what I’m talking about which intermediate learners may encounter:
适合 / 合适
互相 / 相互
犯罪 / 罪犯
代替 / 替代
(Mouse over the above words for pinyin.)
Why “Words Containing (Reverse)” Is Useful
This feature is really useful because we learners so often find ourselves misremembering new words by reversing the two characters in the new words that we learn (and most words in Mandarin are two characters). Many learners I’ve spoken with think that it’s a unique problem specific to them, but no, I can assure you: this happens to most, if not all, of us. It doesn’t mean you’re dyslexic or weird; it just means you’re normal.
The reason it’s important to identify words that are also another word in reverse is that it can prevent you from going crazy. This is because most often the reverse of a word you’ve learned is just plain wrong, but not always. Yes, I can remember several times when I’ve learned a word–let’s call it “AB”–and then I hear the word “BA” used in the same way. So then I think, “Oh, I misremembered it. It’s not ‘AB.’ It’s actually ‘BA’.” And then I once again hear “AB” used in the same way as “BA,” but there has enough time in between the two that my memory of what happened before is fuzzy. So then I think, “Oh, I misremembered it. It’s actually ‘AB’.” Rinse and repeat. That cycle of confusion can go on for a very long time.
How to Use It Correctly
So to protect your own sanity, it’s good to identify the words that are another word when you reverse the characters. (Sometimes they mean the same thing, and sometimes they totally don’t.)
Note that I’m not saying you should study a list of these words. That would just create more confusion, and a lot of the words won’t even be useful to you. It’s just good to learn that there is a “reverse word” for the words you already know or have just learned (and you can use Pleco to check that). If the “reverse word” is useful or common, that you might want to learn it. It’s it’s not, then it’s enough to just be vaguely aware that it exists (and you can always check Pleco again if your memory gets fuzzy).
The only problem with the Pleco feature is that if you look up a word in the dictionary, the “Dict” tabbed section is selected by default. You need to choose the “Words” section and also scroll to the bottom to find the “Words Containing (Reversed)” list.