language


06

Mar 2019

Pleco Tip: Word Containing (Reversed)

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:

Untitled

Note the bottom line: it’s an example of the word that was looked up, but in reverse.

More Examples

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.

26

Feb 2019

Language Power Struggles, 9 Years Later

Probably my most popular blog post ever has been the Language Power Struggles one from way back in 2010. It’s hard to believe it’s been 9 years since I wrote that, and when I recently discussed the issue with Jared in our podcast, I realized that my attitudes have changed a bit over the years.

The advice that I gave in that article still stands: that in a battle of wills where communication is not the goal of interaction, no one really wins. And if you’re interacting with Chinese people both to improve your Chinese and to have meaningful communication with other human beings, it’s best not to participate in these silly “power struggles.”

And yet I can clearly remember routinely participating in these meaningless battles of will, whether at a restaurant talking to the server, or in a store, or getting a haircut… And now I recognize that back in the beginning a big part of what drove the stubbornness to engage in the struggles was insecurity. As if by refusing to communicate with me in Chinese, the other person was insulting the Chinese level I had worked so hard to achieve. I imagine the other person may often have felt the same way. So then you’re left with two egos duking it out over language supremacy, but also not really even caring about the other person’s level.

So nowadays I’m a lot more laid back and compassionate about people insisting on using English with me. Not everything has to be about principles of efficiency or showing proper “respect.” I know, it sure took me long enough to recognize this (and it’s a bit embarrassing), but I think that at the root of it was simply a dearth of quality communication in Chinese. After starting my own company in 2010 and working with all Chinese staff all day every day in Chinese, I no longer felt a need to use Chinese in every other interaction, because I had my fill.

So, to those of you who, like me, like to ponder these sociolinguistic issues, I ask you: do you participate in language power struggles? Do they annoy you? Is your emotional reaction to them (or lack thereof) a factor of your own personality, or do you think it’s related to “having your fill” practicing Chinese? How big of a factor is linguistic insecurity?

P.S. I like the “Han Solo-Chewbacca communication” concept Jared brought up in the podcast!


22

Feb 2019

Characterplay with Buttons

Spotted in Shanghai:

Button (Characterplay)

The word is 扣子, meaning “button” (the kind you sew onto clothing). In Chinese, the kind of button you press is a totally different word, and even has the verb for “to press” as the first character: 按钮. (When you think about it, it seems kind of dumb that we use “button” for both of those things in English. Sure, you can say “push-button” in English, but it still feels to me like whoever decided to use the word “button” for the new kind that you press wasn’t super bright…)

Here’s the larger context:

Button (Context)

20

Feb 2019

Cthulhu in China

It’s always fun to discover cultural tidbits from home unexpectedly implanted in China, whether it’s Marvel superheroes, Steve Jobs, or even potatoes. So it was fun to make these two book discoveries in my local bookstore:

Snow Crash

Snow Crash: 雪崩

Snow Crash (雪崩) is a classic cyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson (尼尔·斯提芬森). 雪崩 simply means “avalanche,” so it’s a shame that this translation seems hardly nuanced. But still… it’s Snow Crash!

Cthulhu

Cthulhu Mythos: 克苏鲁神话

H. P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos (克苏鲁神话) is well-known by all American geeks, but this is the first time I’ve come across it in China. Three volumes, even! The books were shrink-wrapped, so I couldn’t see exactly what they contained without buying them.

Xi Jinping’s Stories

习近平讲故事

Finally, there’s this gem: 习近平讲故事 (Xi Jinping Tells Stories). The book was with children’s books, but a quick glance revealed that this was not a book for kids. Yes, it was stories, but it was the sort of pretty straightforward propaganda the cover suggests, intended for adults.


You Can Learn Chinese (Podcast)

12

Feb 2019

You Can Learn Chinese (Podcast)

At the end of 2013 I left ChinesePod and podcasting in general. I haven’t missed it too much. Those podcasts were a ton of work to get right, and I’m happy to tackle the problem of learning Chinese from different angles with different approaches at AllSet Learning.

In 2019, though, it looks like I’m doing a podcast again! This time it’s with my partner at Mandarin Companion, Jared Turner, and it’s called the You Can Learn Chinese podcast.

You Can Learn Chinese podcast image

This podcast is about learning Chinese; it doesn’t teach Chinese. And while it may sound like it’s for beginners, learners of all levels should get something out of it. As the name suggests, it’s also more motivational and conceptual than technical. For example, rather than talking about how to set up Pleco or Anki for optimal flashcard review sessions, we might talk about how flashcards can be a useful tool but are not a one-size-fits-all method, and you can learn Chinese without going full-on flashcard crazy.

Here are some of the things I like about this podcast:

  1. Produced and managed by Jared and not me (Yay, I’m lazy!)
  2. Lots of guests, sharing a wide range of experiences learning Chinese (some to very high levels)
  3. I get to talk about certain academic topics a bit (but no thesis writing!)
  4. It’s kind of cool to be behind the mic again, but with less work pressure

Anyway, if you’re interested at all, please check out the You Can Learn Chinese podcast and let me know what you think. It’s new and still evolving.


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.



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