language


14

Apr 2010

The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon’s Chinese

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

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

Here’s the clip (on Tudou):

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

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06

Apr 2010

Crazy Heart’s Fallin’ and Flyin’: a Chinese Translation

疯狂的心

I saw Crazy Heart the other day, and to my surprise, I rather liked it. While I can certainly understand my wife’s view that it was “boring” and that “nothing really happens” in it, I found it enjoyable.

Perhaps what I enjoyed the most was seeing Jeff Bridges (who will always be “the dude” in the Big Lebowski to me) and Colin Farrell play American country singers and actually sing their own songs. I was impressed. Colin Farrell is Irish!

Not only that, but several days later I’m finding that a few of those songs are still stuck in my head. I tried to find them online, but it’s a bit difficult. I turned to a Youku video of the entire movie. The Jeff Bridges / Colin Farrell “Fallin’ and Flyin'” duet begins at 47:30 in that video. Watching this scene for the second time, I paid much more attention to the Chinese translation of the lyrics (provided in full at the end of this post), and found a few interesting points.

The opening few lines were done very nicely, both in terms of reproduction of the parallel construction, as well as in rhythm. These lines match the rhythm of the song perfectly, meaning they could even be sung in translation.

> I was goin’ where I shouldn’t go
我去不该去的地

> Seein’ who I shouldn’t see
看到不该看的人

> Doin’ what I shouldn’t do
做了不该做的事

> And bein’ who I shouldn’t be
成了不该成的人

It’s always interesting to see translations of the verb “to be,” as in “bein’ who I shouldn’t be,” and this one was done well.

Unfortunately, after this the Chinese translation breaks the rhythm and gets way too long for the English:

> A little voice told me it’s all wrong
有个微弱的声音对我说 这一切都不对

> Another voice told me it’s all right
另个声音对我说 这一切没关系

What initially caught my attention, though, was the translation of the main chorus:

Fallin' and Flyin' duet

> It’s funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’
奇怪奇怪 有那么一瞬

> For a little while
感觉堕落好似飞翔

Translating this Chinese translation back into English, it would be something like:

> It’s strange, it’s strange… just for an instant
[Being] fallen felt like flying

The use of the Chinese word 堕落 makes sense; it’s commonly used in phrases like “fallen angel” (堕落天使). The problem is that it means “fallen” and not “falling”; it emphasizes some kind of degeneration or “Fall from grace” rather than a physical fall. So whereas “fallin’ feels like flyin'” can be understood on both the literal level (like skydiving, maybe) as well as a figurative level, this Chinese translation chucks the literal interpretation out the window. I wonder whether both meanings were just too difficult to translate into Chinese, or if perhaps the translator heard “fallen” rather than “fallin’.”

Also, there’s the use of 一瞬, which means “an instant.” “For a little while” is certainly not an “instant”… especially when this song represents the main character’s own life, and he’s been “falling” for decades, perhaps.

The translations of these lines made me smile:

> Never see it comin’ till it’s gone
失去后才知道珍惜

> It all happens for a reason, even when it’s wrong
就算错事也有因

> Especially when it’s wrong
尤其是错事

The “never see it comin’ till it’s gone” sounds very country, very American, and rather cliché to me, and yet “失去后才知道珍惜” sounds so typically Chinese, the kind of line you hear in countless Chinese love songs. And yet, it’s a pretty accurate translation. Well done.

I was also amused by the use of 错事 for “when it’s wrong.” The Chinese language likes to bring in 事 when it can. It works.

Overall, the translation is pretty solid. With a little more work, I think it could even be sung. I’d be interested in hearing other thoughts on this translation into Chinese (尤其想知道中国朋友的看法!).


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05

Apr 2010

Chinese Character Creations for Modern Times

You’ll have to be following Chinese internet memes to get all of these, but there are some clever ones:

Created Characters - Chinese Internet Memes
Source

The character creations are fusings of various characters. They are:

> Row 1, left: 亚克西

> Row 1, right: 贵国

> Row 2, left: 代表

> Row 2, right: 屁民

> Row 3, left: 党中央

> Row 3, right: 五毛

I won’t comment on the meanings of these internet memes because I’m not very familiar with all of them, and anyway, this is an apolitical blog. 🙂


Previous character creations on Sinosplice: Character Creations, Chinese Characters for Christmas


25

Mar 2010

Anki Reset (sometimes it’s necessary)

I’ve written before about SRS. I stated that I had my “misgivings” (a post still unwritten), but that I think it’s a good technology which will eventually become more pervasive. In the meantime it’s very DIY. It’s hard for most of us to like, and it’s easy to get it wrong.

Yes, it’s easy to get wrong. Khatzumoto frequently tells us about some of the mistakes he’s made and how to avoid them, and John Biesnecker has some tips as well. I’d like to share one of mine.

The mistake I made was big enough to destroy my enthusiasm for SRS and Anki (a great program). In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way forward, short of abandoning SRS as method, is a total Anki reset. Deleting all your SRS data is something you don’t ordinarily want to do (it builds on itself and evolves over time), but in my case I have no choice.

I made two major mistakes:

Mistake #1: Adding word lists

Yeah, this is kind of a newbie mistake, but I wanted to learn lots of obscure country names, so I just entered them all in. Only problem is I never talk or write about those countries in Chinese. I don’t even like politics or geography. I was entering data into Anki, which was dutifully passing it on into a “memory black hole.” And then I kept having to review those names over and over again, and then forgetting them.

Lesson learned: Don’t enter language you’re pretty sure you’ll never need.

Mistake #2: Adding all unfamiliar words in my readings

Around the time I was getting more enthusiastic about Anki, I was also reading a lot more Chinese literature as part of an effort to sophisticate my Chinese. So I added a bunch of semi-archaic vocabulary from Lu Xun stories. Mistake!

The problem was that these were words I would basically only see in writing, and many of them were fairly easy to figure out in context. Driven to totally master that vocabulary, I was trying to force into my active vocabulary quite a few items which really had no business being there. They would have been perfectly fine just chilling in my passive vocabulary, and simply continuing to read more would reinforce them enough.

Lesson learned: Don’t enter language you’re pretty sure you’ll never need.

What I’m doing now

So after learning my lessons, I’ve wiped my Anki data clean. Now the data I enter is vocabulary I can imagine myself actually using. This does wonders for my motivation to use Anki, becomes reinforcing these fun and useful terms puts me that much closer to better speaking ability. Rather than (potentially) improving my reading speed, I’m working on enhancing my human interactions. That is way more motivating.


18

Mar 2010

Chinese Characters Spliced into English Text

Kanjilish screenshot

There’s a Firefox add-on called Characterizer (originally Kanjilish, for Japanese) which replaces parts of words with Chinese characters. My initial reaction was that it was just gimmick without much real value, but I’m starting to wonder.

In the screenshot above, the characters are for Japanese; for simplified Chinese they would probably appear as:

> 读ead 练ractice 学earn

Unfortunately the add-on only works for older versions of Firefox, so I can’t try it out. The concept, as stated by the author, is:

> As a busy professional, I don’t always have time to practice Japanese as much as I like. I developed this add-on so that I could keep kanji characters fresh in my mind, even when I wasn’t reading Japanese.

So the idea is to semi-passively reinforce characters already learned. Makes sense.

One part that intrigues me about the add-on, though, is the missing letter. Every time your brain encounters a word with its first letter replaced by a Chinese character, for just that split second, it kind of freaks out, but then recovers gracefully. I feel that my brain, however, is definitely focused on decoding the proper English word, treating the mildly horrific character-letter hybrid as a sort of captchaesque nuisance blocking its way to comprehension. The characters are just mentally swept away by this process.

Actually, I find the whole mental process very much like the now-famous message below:

> Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a tatol mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.

What I really wonder, though, is: what effect would prolonged exposure to character-letter hybrids have on someone who has never studied the characters? Would they eventually start to form associations between words and characters?

The process needn’t be exactly like Characterizer does it. Here’s an alternate example by syllable:

– 北ei京ing

– 上hang海ai

– 香ong港ong

– 台ai湾an

– 西i安n

– 杭ang州hou

The longer ones definitely seem to work better. If you don’t read Chinese, how many of the place names above can you read?

Here’s another list (version 1):

– 姚ao 明ing

– 章hang 子i怡i

– 巩ong 俐i

– 张hang 艺i谋ou

– 葛e 优ou

– 周hou 立i波o

– 大a 山han

– 毛ao 向iang辉ui

Same list (version 2):

– 姚ao Ming

– 章hang Ziyi

– 巩ong Li

– 张hang Yimou

– 葛e You

– 周hou Libo

– 大a Shan

– 毛ao Xianghui

How did you fare in the two lists above? Was version 1 a lot harder? How about 2- versus 3-character names? The names are roughly in “fame order.” Did it get harder as you went along?

You could take the concept in a lot of directions. Definitely worth exploring some more.


15

Mar 2010

Chinese Radio on the Internet: a Platform-Agnostic Option at Last!

In theory, watching Chinese TV seems like a great way to expose oneself to more Mandarin. But somehow I can’t bear to watch most TV programs in China. It’s not that I’m immune to the charms of all forms of Chinese media, though. Strangely, I’ve found that I tend to encounter the most interesting Chinese programs while riding in a taxi late at night. It’s those call-in advice radio shows that taxi drivers like so much. I love those shows!

What’s so great about the call-in shows? Here are some of the reasons I like them:

1. They don’t come across as rehearsed, and if they’re not 100% real, the interactions sure seem spontaneous to me.
2. The callers are from all over China, so there’s a great variety of accents.
3. The language (of the callers, at least) is unpretentious and real.
4. As callers discuss their personal problems, you get some nice snapshots of various Chinese social issues.
5. Many of them are actually very easy to follow; tuning in feels like much less of a listening comprehension exercise than other programs.

Naturally, I don’t want to actually listen to these shows on the radio at their scheduled times, I want to listen to them online when I want to listen to them. So quite a while ago I started hunting for ways to tune into Chinese radio stations online. There are more than a few, but there are serious inconveniences associated with each. The types of shows I wanted were hard to find, and most stations required either Windows Media Player, IE6, or RealPlayer. No good!

Recently, however, I discovered a Chinese website that has gotten it right. It’s radio.BBTV.cn, 上海网络广播电台 (Shanghai Internet Broadcasting Station), an effort of SMG. So what’s so great about this site? Allow me to gush a bit…

SMG BBTV Radio Online: Home Page

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09

Mar 2010

Project A Update

I recently asked my readers to email me if they were interested in participating in a project focused on learning Chinese in Shanghai. The response was quite good, and I’d like to thank all of you that generously offered to participate.

I’m actually a bit reluctant to deactivate the email address, because the responses are still trickling in. Some of the details of the project are taking longer than expected to crystallize, however, so it’s not yet time to start. You’ll be hearing from me soon.

This means that there’s still time to email me if you’d like to participate. Once again, the project will start with an online survey, then will happen later this month (or possibly early April) at a physical location in Shanghai. (So yes, you must be in Shanghai to participate.)

Here’s the email address again:

project-a@www.sinosplice.com

Thanks, everyone, for your support! I’ll be posting future updates when the time comes.


04

Mar 2010

Creative English with Chinese Characteristics

Just in case you missed these English language Chinese coinages, here’s a sample:

> Smilence 笑而不语

> vi. When you are expecting some answers from your Chinese audience, you may just get a mysterious smile and their silence only.

> 动词 当你期望从中国听众那里获得一些回答的时候,你只得到了神秘的微笑和他们的沉默。

The rest of the list is here, but here’s a taste of what you’ll find:

– Democrazy
– Togayther
– Freedamn
– Shitizen
– Divoice
– Animale
– Amerryca
– Innernet
– Yakshit
– Departyment
– Suihide
– Don’train
– Corpspend
– Jokarlist
– Vegeteal
– Sexretary
– Canclensor
– Carass
– Harmany

Smilence is definitely the best one. It’s interesting how some of them don’t work very well from the perspective of a native speaker of English, while others are pure gold.

Via China Digital Times.


25

Feb 2010

Experiments in Learning Chinese in Shanghai

Working on lesson content at ChinesePod keeps me busy as always, but recently I’ve also started a project on the side. While ChinesePod is great for distributing excellent lesson content to an unlimited audience, I’m also very interested in individual learner experiences in Shanghai.

There are so many fascinating linguistic dramas going on here… crises of confidence, language “power struggles,” accent ambushes, tone trip-ups, etc. I also think that, for many reasons, it’s especially difficult to learn Chinese in Shanghai. I’d like to study these phenomena, up close and in detail.

If you’re interested in participating in my project, please email me here:

project-a@www.sinosplice.com

The project will begin with a survey, but will later include real-life Chinese practice (for research). I’m particularly interested in learners from the elementary to intermediate range.

I will deactivate the above email address after several weeks, so please email me soon if you’d like to help. Thanks a lot!


Update: Thanks for all the emails so far! I’ll be replying to you all soon.


23

Feb 2010

Why China for Grad School?

I chose to earn my master’s in applied linguistics here in Shanghai, through a Chinese-language program at East China Normal University (华东师范大学). While I’m certainly not the only foreigner to ever do this, I get a lot of inquiries about it, as more and more non-Chinese focus on China. Although I’ve written a bit about different aspects of grad school in China in the past, I find it difficult to offer a very useful comparison simply because I’ve never attended any graduate courses in my home country of the United States; I’ve only ever done it in China. Still, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on one big question: why would an American choose to do graduate studies in China?

Why not?

The question implies that there are good reasons not to pursue higher education in China. Indeed there are, so I’d like to get them out in the open right away. I obviously can’t cover the issues for every school and every program in China, but these are the big ones I personally encountered:

You have to have the Chinese level for it. Remember, this whole post is about earning a degree all in Chinese, not through an English language program. To be fair, it’s not as hard as you might imagine; most Chinese programs welcome foreigners with the minimum Chinese language skills to handle the curriculum. The entrance test you’ll be given is not the same one the Chinese students must take, and the selection criteria tend to be far more lenient. Still, you’re going to need an HSK score of 6 or better, and you’re going to need to be able to write Chinese (yes, by hand) if you want to get into one of these programs.

Inferior instruction. Ouch. Yes, I said it. In many cases, you’re simply not going to be getting a great education (by international standards) at a Chinese university. Many programs are not up to date on the latest theory in the field. Do your research.

No strong emphasis on originality. When it comes time for term papers, teachers actually stress: don’t download your paper from the internet. Yes, they have to say it.

Much less wilingness to experiment. As a master’s student at ECNU, I was repeatedly discouraged from doing an experiment, urged instead to rehash some grammatical topic from a slightly different angle (keep in mind the field is applied linguistics). I gather from anecdotal evidence that in many fields, the academics most interested in research go abroad (and often don’t come back).

Less academic freedom. Your advisor makes a huge difference. I know of multiple cases where an advisor would not allow his student to pursue her own academic interests because the advisor didn’t know enough about that topic to be helpful (or perhaps the advisor wanted the student to research something else for his own reasons). Students often have no choice of advisors, which can sometimes mean that a student has very limited input on his own thesis topic.

The “extended undergrad” experience. It’s a tough time to be a young Chinese graduate. The job market is not good. As a result, many undergraduates are continuing on to grad school to delay their job search and to try to improve their qualifications for the jobs they do eventually compete for. The result is an overall dilution of the academic passion and initiative you might expect in a graduate program.

Boring teacher-centric teaching model. In my case, in four semesters of courses, only two placed any emphasis on discussion. (Those were my two favorites.) For most classes, the professor simply stood at the front of the class and lectured.

Then why China?

Aside from reduced cost, there is one main reason a westerner might choose to go to grad school in China over a western country: because one’s object of study is inherently Chinese. This includes Chinese history, Chinese art, Chinese language, etc.

A reader once wrote me for advice on graduate level studies, saying:

> I want to do field research on speech patterns of Chinese-Mongolian bilingual speakers in Inner Mongolia, specifically how their exposure to Chinese affects their command and use of Mongolian.

In this case, it appears studying at a Chinese university makes sense, although she shouldn’t rule out the possibility of completing coursework in the States, but going to China for the field research. But she’ll have to dig for programs like that.

In my case, because I intended to stay in China long-term, it made sense to study in China both for career reasons and for Chinese study reasons. This does not mean that I found the master’s degree a “perfect match” however. I was fortunate enough to have a great advisor, but I really struggled to stay motivated when encountering some of the issues above. And although I was in a good location to conduct the experiment I wanted to do, I received little to no guidance in its execution. There were definitely times when I wondered if doing the degree in China was worth it.

By going through it, I did gain a deeper understanding into Chinese academia, even if what I experienced as a foreigner was “Chinese academia lite.” We did take the same courses, have the same professors, and get forced to attend the same student meetings. One question I cannot yet answer, however, is if those insights are worth some of the other aspects of my education which I sacrificed.

As I mentioned above, I can only speak from my own limited experience, but I would love to hear from those of you that can add to the picture.


11

Feb 2010

The Sinoglot China Blogs

There’s a new China language blog in town, backed a whole group of linguistically minded writers. Sinoglot is not only a group blog, it’s also host to some other very interesting individual linguistic blogs:

Sinoglot: language in China, eclectically.
Beijing Sounds: Beijing sounds, mostly language, through foreign ears.
The Annals of Wu: voices from the Yangzi delta.
Echoes of Manchu: information & discussion the Manchu language.
Yǔwén: Mandarin acquisition by Chinese children.
Naxi Script Resource Centre: information on Naxi writing and language.
Nothing Undone: an experiment in learning literary (read: classical) Chinese.
xiao er jing: life & language among China’s Muslims.

The Sinoglot group blog is young, but if these guys can keep it up, they’ll have a mini China-centric amateur Language Log thing going. They’re writing good stuff. Here are some of my favorite posts so far:

Squeezing in for a bite of shit [some great -focused Chinese expressions] – Contractions and Logographic Writing [I also love characters like 甭, 甮, 覅, 嫑, 㬟, 孬, and 嘦] – English spelling vs Hanzi [some nice parallels here] – Scripts and banned words [good character component practice!]

Definitely a blog to watch. Note that the group blog is not merely an aggregator of the individual blogs; the group blog and the individual blogs have separate content.


02

Feb 2010

The 3-2 Tone Swap Error

This post identifies a type of tonal production error which many students of Mandarin Chinese make, not only in the beginner and elementary stages, but often well into the intermediate stage. While neither years of personal observation nor the multiple appearances in the audio data for my master’s thesis experiment constitute definitive evidence, it’s my belief that the phenomenon is real, and examining it can yield useful results for both students and teachers of Mandarin Chinese. I’m dubbing the error the “3-2 Tone Swap.”

The Error

Note that the term “error” is used in the error analysis sense, meaning that it is committed systematically, and is not merely a random mistake (which even native speakers make from time to time).

The error occurs, in two-syllable words, when the tonal pattern is 3-2. Many students will pronounce the 3-2 tone pattern incorrectly as 2-3. Some typical examples:

– 美国 (Correct: Měiguó, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: Méiguǒ)
– 法国 (Correct: Fǎguó, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: Fáguǒ)
– 五十 (Correct: wǔshí, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: wúshǐ)
– 可怜 (Correct: kělián, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: kéliǎn)

Personal History

I remember quite clearly when I discovered myself committing the 3-2 Tone Swap error. I had learned the word 可怜 (kělián) in Hangzhou from a friend. But I noticed that although I had “learned” the word, every time I tried to use it, my friend would correct my pronunciation. “No, it’s ‘kělián,’ not ‘kéliǎn.'” This was extremely frustrating for me, because I thought I had learned the word, and I was pronouncing it wrong even when I knew that the tones were 3-2. At the time I dismissed it as just a “problem word” that I would get eventually.

Around this time I became super-vigilant about my tones. I realized that although I was communicating pretty well, I was still making a lot of tone mistakes. Part of this new awareness came when I realized that native speakers were correcting me all the time using recasts, but I had previously been oblivious to it.

A typical conversation went like this:

> Native Chinese speaker: 你是哪个国家的? [Which country are you from?]

> Me: 美国。 [The USA.]

> Native Chinese speaker: 哦,美国,是吗? [Oh, the USA, huh?]

> Me: 对。 [Right.]

After having this same exchange about a million times, I had started to assume that it was just a natural conversational pattern in Chinese to have your country repeated back to you for verification. Yeah, it seems a little strange and inefficient, but there are stranger features of the Chinese language.

What I eventually came to realize, however, was that when I gave my answer, 美国, I was routinely mispronouncing it as *”Méiguǒ” (3-2 Tone Swap error), and then the other person was both (1) confirming the information and (2) modeling it for me in his response, which included the correct form “Měiguó” (a classic recast).

When I finally realized this, it sort of blew my mind. I had thought my tones were already pretty good, but I had been pronouncing the name of my own country wrong all this time?? Learning Mandarin Chinese is, if nothing else, an exercise in humility. There was nothing to do but hunker down and try to reform my pronunciation. While I found it easier to focus on high-frequency words like 美国, it quickly became apparent to me that the 3-2 tone swap issue was rampant in my pronunciation.

Research

Although the 3-2 Tone Swap phenomenon cropped up in my own experiment on tonal pairs for my masters thesis, it was not the focus of my own research. If anyone knows of specific research done on this phenomenon, I would love to hear about it.

The data in my own experiment showed some interesting patterns. While errors in 3-2 tonal pairs were clearly more common than in the other two tonal pairs I examined (1-1 and 2-4), there were some inconsistencies. Namely:

1. Errors were notably less frequent for numbers (e.g. 50, “wǔshí”)
2. Errors were less frequent for one’s own country (e.g. “Měiguó”, “Fǎguó”)

While all subjects illustrated the first trend, the second was particularly well demonstarted by an intermediate-level French subject, who routinely pronounced “Fǎguó” [France] correctly, despite the existence of a 3-2 tonal pair, but then also routinely pronounced “Měiguó” [The United States] incorrectly as *”Méiguǒ” (the 3-2 Tone Swap).

What this suggests is that although some tonal pairs seem to take longer to master, the mastery is not categorical. In other words, you don’t suddenly “get” the pronunciation pattern and then just switch over to correct 3-2 pronunciation for all words where it occurs. Acquisition of the 3-2 tonal pair appears to be occur more on a word-by-word basis, making it largely a matter of practice, practice, practice (which also explains the better performance with numbers). This mirrors my own experiences.

Questions

Tonal mastery is a long process for most students, with the 3-2 tone pair appearing to be one of the last patterns to acquire. Why?

I suspect that there is a relationship between the 3-2 Tone Swap error and the 3-3 tone sandhi (in which 3-3 tonal pairs are systematically converted to 2-3). The learners that exhibit the 3-2 Tone Swap error typically do very well with their 3-3 sandhi. Could learners be internalizing but then overextending the 3-3 tone sandhi rule to include not only 3-3 pairs, but also 3-2 pairs? It’s certainly possible.

Again, if anyone knows of any research into the above phenomena, I would appreciate links or more information!


04

Jan 2010

Chinese for English Pronunciation (Shanghai World Expo Edition)

This certainly isn’t the first time that Chinese characters have been used as a guide for pronunciation of English words, but it’s the most recent example I’ve seen, related to Shanghai’s World Expo. Here’s the “世博双语指南” (World Expo Bilingual Guide):

Shanghai World Expo English

And here’s a text transcription of the content:

> 欢迎光临
welcome to our store! (维尔抗姆突奥窝思道)

> 早上好!下午好!晚上好!
Good morning! (古的猫宁)
Good afternoon! (古的阿夫特怒)
Good evening! (古的衣服宁)

> 有什么需要帮助您的吗?
Can I help you? (坎埃海尔扑油?)

> 对不起,我只能讲简单的英语。
I’m sorry, I can only speak a little English.
(俺么搔瑞,埃坎翁累思鼻科额累偷英格历史)

> 请您稍等!
Just a moment, please. (杰丝特哞闷特,普立斯!)

> 我叫我同事来帮助您!
I’ll find our colleague for help.
(埃伟哦凡的阿窝考立个否海尔扑!)

> 再见!
Bye Bye! (白白!)

And just in case all those “nonsense characters” were too much for you, here are some randomly selected pinyin transliterations. See if you can figure out the English original:

– Āi wěio fánde āwō kǎolìgè fǒu hǎiěrpū!
– Gǔde āfūtènù
– Wéiěrkàngmǔ tū àowō sīdào
– Ǎnme sāoruì, āi kǎn wēnglèi sībíkē é lèitōu Yīnggèlìshǐ.
– Kǎn āi hǎiěrpū yóu?

Fun stuff.


23

Dec 2009

Classic Chinese Christmas Song Links

Every year around Christmastime, my “Christmas Songs in Chinese” blog post from 2006 gets a lot of action. I’ve been seeing a lot of requests there for lyrics, and I tried to help out with that, but I found the Chinese versions of these Christmas songs’ lyrics surprisingly difficult to track down. If anyone can offer links to those lyrics, it would be appreciated by many.

Anyway, you may enjoy these Sinosplice Christmas music posts from the archive:

Christmas Songs in Chinese (13 MP3s)

Ding Ding Dong (hilarious Hakka version MP3)

Christmas Classics in Cantonese (the song link is still good, but the Flash links below are mostly dead now)

The Christmas Story in Chinese (#005 and #006 in the New Testament)

Chinese Santa
Photo by Pakueye on Flickr

Merry Christmas!


21

Dec 2009

Zhou Libo's New Book: Hui Cidian

周立波:诙词典

Taking advantage of his current popularity, Shanghainese stand-up comedian Zhou Libo (周立波) has swiftly published a book on Shanghainese expressions called 诙词典 (something like “Comedic Dictionary”).

The book isn’t exactly a dictionary, but it groups a whole bunch of Shanghainese expressions by common themes or elements, then explains them entry by entry in Mandarin, followed by a usage example from Zhou Libo’s stand-up acts for each entry.

“Shanghainese” Characters

What’s interesting (and a bit annoying) is that Shanghainese sentences are written out in Chinese characters, and then followed by a Mandarin translation in parentheses. Here’s an example of such a sentence:

> “伊迪句闲话结棍,讲得来我闷脱了。(他这句话厉害,说得我一下子说不出话来了)”

> [Translation: “That remark of his was scathing. I had no comeback for that.”]

The book is peppered with sentences like this, and as a learner, I have some issues with them:

1. If you read the Shanghainese sentences according to their Mandarin readings, they sound ridiculous and make no sense (a lot of the time) in either Mandarin or Shanghainese.

2. Unless you’re Shanghainese, you will have no clue as to how to pronounce the Shanghainese words in the sentences properly (so what’s the point?).

3. I find myself really wondering how the editors chose the characters they used to represent the Shanghainese words.

To point #3 above, I know there are cases where the “correct character” can be “deduced” due to Shanghainese’s similarities to Mandarin. To use the example above, the Shanghainese “闷脱” can be rendered in Mandarin as “闷掉.” Then why 脱 instead of 掉? Well, 掉 has a different pronunciation in Shanghainese, and it’s not used in the same way as it is in Mandarin. The 脱 in “闷脱,” however, in Shanghainese is the same 脱 as in “脱衣服” in Mandarin (which is “脱衣裳” in Shanghainese). It seems like this game of “chasing the characters” from Mandarin to Shanghainese might be ultimately circular in some cases, but I can’t really judge.

The other point is that some of Shanghainese’s basic function words, pronouns, and other common words don’t correspond to Mandarin’s at all, and the characters used certainly seem like standard transliterations. An example from the sentence above would be the Shanghainese “迪” standing in for Mandarin’s “这,” or (not from above), the Shanghainese “格” for Mandarin’s “的.”

So how do you know which characters are “deductions” (these are kind of cool and can point to interesting historical changes in language), and which ones are mere transliterations? Well, research would help. I don’t have much time these days for such an endeavor, but I do know some Shanghainese professors of Chinese at East China Normal University who could point me to the right resources.

Shanghainese Romanization

Lack of a standard romanization system is a problem that has plagued students of Shanghainese forever. Some favor IPA, but most find it a bit too cryptic. The problem is there is still no clearly superior solution that has become standard.

Zhou Libo’s book doesn’t make any headway in the romanization department. Headwords are given a “Shanghainese pronunciation” using a sort of “modified pinyin” with no tones. This is definitely more helpful than nothing, but it’s another reason why this book doesn’t make much of a learner’s resource for Shanghainese. Where the romanization diverges from pinyin, you’re not sure how to pronounce it (“sö” anyone?), and where it matches pinyin, it’s often not really the same as pinyin.

(more…)


19

Dec 2009

Pleco for iPhone is out!

Pleco for iPhone (beta)

After reviewing the beta version, interviewing Michael Love on the app, and commenting on beta testing progress, I’d be remiss not to note that the Pleco Chinese Dictionary iPhone app is out. And the really great news is that the basic app is free!

A quick intro from the Pleco product information page:

> Go to itunes.com/apps/PlecoChineseDictionary to instantly download the free basic version of Pleco for iPhone / iPod Touch; you can add on more advanced features / dictionaries from right inside of the app, but the basic version is an excellent little dictionary in its own right (and includes the same wonderful search engine as our more advanced software).

If you own an iPhone and you’re studying Chinese, get this app!


08

Dec 2009

A Message to Mandarin

One of ChinesePod’s more active and positive users, simonpettersson, recently wrote an amusing Open letter to the Chinese language. Here’s how it starts out:

> You’re afraid, aren’t you, Mandarin? You’re starting to feel it; the cold sweat trickling down your back. You heard I kicked English’s ass already at 12, and you witnessed first hand what I did to French. French is my b*tch now. And I’m coming for you, Mandarin.

> I know you fancy yourself the biggest, meanest language in town. I know you beat the snot out of most anyone who comes to take you on. Hell, you even gave me a sound asswhooping once that caused me to give you space for quite some time. But I’m not like the others. I’m not giving up, and with every day I grow stronger. You ain’t never met anyone like me, Mandarin. And you’re starting to realize it.

The rest of it is on ChinesePod.

I loved this post, and not just because of the “I don’t care if it’s supposed to be difficult” attitude. Simon does a good job of reminding us that learning a language is not just a weekend’s endeavor, and to keep up the fight, you have to play the mental game. You have to psych yourself up. Talking a little trash does some good.

It also reminds me that I’ve got to keep working hard too if I want to someday be able to deliver the kind of merciless asswhooping that Simon describes.

Here’s to asswhoopings!


Related: Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard


22

Nov 2009

Updates and Links

Updates:

– Since my GFW Android Market rant, it looks like the Android Market may no longer be blocked. I’ve been able to access it again for the past few days on my HTC Hero here in Shanghai. Not sure if this will last, but it’s certainly a welcome development!
Pleco for iPhone (beta) just went into Beta 4 testing. Michael Love says this will probably be the last round of testing (but wow, that team does an amazingly thorough job!), so that means it will likely be submitted to Apple for review very soon.

Links:

– Google recently released a pinyin conversion tool on Google Translate, but it’s super primitive. Mark at Pinyin.info details all the ways it sucks (via Dave), but they all boil down to this: the tool simply romanizes characters, without regard for proper spacing, proper punctuation, or multiple character readings that can only be determined with data-informed word segmentation. (Boo, Google! You can do waaayyy better!)
– Google also added a cool-looking new Google Translate Toolkit (via Micah), which looks like the beginnings of competition for translation software like TRADOS (the preferred tool of translator Pete).
– An over-the-top rant on the importance of reading Chinese (via Micah) serves as a good reminder to those of us who might be satisfied with our functional speaking ability and too lazy to improve our literacy (this is definitely me at times!).
– Speaking of reading material, ChinaSMACK recently reminded me that even when you’re too lazy to tackle 老子 or modern thinkers, there’s still less challenging but interesting material to read in Chinese, and reading something is certainly better than nothing.
– Finally, most of us have used character-by-character literal translation as a mnemonic for memorizing certain Chinese vocabulary, but now there’s a blog dedicated to just that, called “those crazy chinese.” “Sweet pee disease,” “hairy hairy balls,” “ear shit”… check it out.


19

Nov 2009

Aspect, not Tense

You often hear people saying that Chinese has simple grammar, and the most often cited reason is that “Chinese has no tenses.” It’s true that Chinese verbs do not have tenses, but Chinese grammar does have a formal system for marking aspect. What is aspect? Most English speakers don’t even know.

I’ll quote from the Wikipedia entry on aspect:

In linguistics, the grammatical aspect (sometimes called viewpoint aspect) of a verb defines the temporal flow (or lack thereof) in the described event or state. In English, for example, the present tense sentences “I swim” and “I am swimming” differ in aspect (the first sentence is in what is called the habitual aspect, and the second is in what is called the progressive, or continuous, aspect). The related concept of tense or the temporal situation indicated by an utterance, is typically distinguished from aspect.

So if the temporal situation (tense) of a verb is typically distinguished from aspect, shouldn’t we English-speakers be more familiar with it?

It turns out the situation is a bit muddled in English. From the same article:

Aspect is a somewhat difficult concept to grasp for the speakers of most modern Germanic languages, because they tend to conflate the concept of aspect with the concept of tense. Although English largely separates tense and aspect formally, its aspects (neutral, progressive, perfect and progressive perfect) do not correspond very closely to the distinction of perfective vs. imperfective that is common in most other languages. Furthermore, the separation of tense and aspect in English is not maintained rigidly. One instance of this is the alternation, in some forms of English, between sentences such as “Have you eaten yet?” and “Did you eat yet?”. Another is in the past perfect (“I had eaten”), which sometimes represents the combination of past tense and perfect aspect (“I was full because I had already eaten”), but sometimes simply represents a past action which is anterior to another past action (“A little while after I had eaten, my friend arrived”). (The latter situation is often represented in other languages by a simple perfective tense. Formal Spanish and French use a past anterior tense in cases such as this.)

OK, it’s starting to become clearer why English-speakers aren’t familiar with aspect. But what’s this business about “English largely separates tense and aspect formally”?

According to one prevalent account, the English tense system has only two basic tenses, present and past. No primitive future tense exists in English; the futurity of an event is expressed through the use of the auxiliary verbs “will” and “shall”, by use of a present form, as in “tomorrow we go to Newark”, or by some other means. Present and past, in contrast, can be expressed using direct modifications of the verb, which may be modified further by the progressive aspect (also called the continuous aspect), the perfect aspect, or both. These two aspects are also referred to as BE + ING[6] and HAVE +EN,[7] respectively.

Wikipedia also brings up how Mandarin Chinese fits in with regard to aspect:

Aspect, as discussed here, is a formal property of a language. Some languages distinguish different aspects through overt inflections or words that serve as aspect markers, while others have no overt marking of aspect. […] Mandarin Chinese has the aspect markers -le, -zhe, and -guo to mark the perfective, durative, and experiential aspects,[3] and also marks aspect with adverbs….

If you study modern Chinese grammar, you’ll learn that Mandarin has three aspectual particles (时态助词): , , and . It would be nice if that were all there was to it, but the Chinese situation, similar to the English one, is a bit muddled. That’s about as clear as it gets.

In the case of , the word has a split personality and sometimes acts as an aspectual particle, sometimes as a modal particle (语气词), and sometimes both. There is endless fun to be had studying (I know; I took several syntax classes in grad school).

, on the other hand, is sometimes relieved of its aspectual duties by the adverbs or (or 正在). But then there are some that say that would prefer to draw fine distinctions between these usages as well.

It’s funny to think that Chinese grammar is still in its “Wild West” stage. Linguists are still debating all kinds of fundamental issues of grammar, both within China and without. While you can say with conviction that “Chinese has aspect, not tense,” you can’t say a whole lot more than that. For learners who want to “know the rules,” this can be more than a little frustrating. The good news is that, like all languages, it rewards the persistent. The Kool-aid tastes downright weird at first, but if you just keep drinking it, it starts to taste right.

(If, however, you’re really interested in this whole aspect thing, I recommend you check out Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, which is about as close as you can get to “classic” in this turbulent field. It has over 50 pages devoted to aspect, with plenty of examples, but be warned: no Chinese characters!)



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