language


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!)


16

Nov 2009

Thinking to Oneself Productively

This is a follow-up to an older post of mine called Talking to Oneself Productively, and the advice this time comes from JP Villanueva. I recommend that you read the full post, but here’s the essence of it (emphasis mine):

> Some functional L2 speakers talk about switching languages like throwing a switch; when they hear a language, they start to ‘think’ in that language, sometimes at the detriment of the other languages. A lot of very highly functional L2 speakers, on the other hand, code switch between L1 and L2 when with peers; both for pragmatic reasons, but also for effect… and for fun; in other words, their switch is pretty loose. In any case, regardless of proficiency, it seems to me that the ability to switch the language of the interior monologue is the mark of a functional L2 speaker. I know plenty of ESL people who say “I mostly think in English now” even if they don’t have superior proficiency.

> So if you’re looking for a language learning tip from me, there it is; try switching your interior monologue to the target language. It will be hard at first, but you’ll make new habits, and it will be come easier, especially if you’re immersed in L2. If you’re not immersed, it won’t hurt either. At the very least, it’s communication practice, even though you’re only communicating with yourself.

> What if you don’t know enough words? Then ask someone for the words, duh. And yes, you should try to ask in the target language. L2 interior monologue might be good practice, but remember that real, target language communication feeds your language instinct, the same instinct that got you from zero to fluent in your L1 in under five years.

Obviously, this is advice that becomes useful at a later stage of development than my “Talking to Oneself Productively” advice. My advice can apply to someone still struggling to form coherent sentences, whereas JP’s “inner monologue” advice will be difficult (or at least frustrating/exhausting) to apply without some degree of fluency already under one’s belt.

Still, this is great advice for someone who can communicate (perhaps haltingly), but finds it difficult to get beyond the need to translate everything mentally. It’s easy to shrug off techniques which are purely mental, but I can tell you from my own experience that these work. They also go a long way toward explaining why some people learn languages much more effectively, even though they seem to be engaged in the exact same activities as other learners.


27

Oct 2009

Michael Love on the Pleco iPhone App

The following is an interview with Pleco founder Michael Love, regarding the Pleco iPhone app, which is now in beta testing.

John: The long wait for the iPhone app has caused much distress amongst all the Pleco fans out there. Any comments on the development process of your first Pleco iPhone app?

Michael: Well, much of the delay stems from the fact that we really only started working on the iPhone version in earnest in January ’09 – before that we were mainly working on finishing / debugging Pleco 2.0 on Windows Mobile and Palm OS. We laid out the feature map for that back in early 2006, when the iPhone was nothing but a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye, so by the time Apple released the first iPhone SDK in Spring ’08 we were already well past the point where we could seriously scale back 2.0 in order to get started on the iPhone version sooner.

aisearchdict.gif

Pleco 2.0

But as far as how the actual development has gone, the biggest time drain has been working around the things that iPhone OS doesn’t do very well. We’ve gone through the same process on Palm/WM too – we start off implementing everything in the manufacturer-recommended way only to find that there are certain areas of the OS that are too buggy / slow / inflexible and need to be replaced by our own, custom-designed alternatives.

On iPhone the two big problems were file management and text rendering. There’s no built-in mechanism on iPhone for users to load their own data files onto their devices; all they can do is install and uninstall software. So we had to add both our own web browser (for downloading data files from the web) and our own web server (for uploading data file from a computer) in order to allow people to install their own documents / flashcard lists / etc. We also had to implement a very elaborate system for downloading and installing add-on dictionaries and other data
files; for a number of reasons it wasn’t feasible to bundle all of those into the main software package, and again there was no way for users to install those directly from a desktop as they can on other mobile platforms.

And the iPhone’s text rendering system is actually quite slow and inflexible, which is rather disappointing coming from a company with as long and rich a history in the world of computer typography as Apple. The only official mechanism for drawing rich text (multiple fonts, bold, italic, etc) is to render it as a web page, which took way too long and used way too much memory to be practical for us; there also seem to be some bugs in the way Apple’s WebKit page rendering engine handles pages with a mix of Chinese and non-Chinese text. And even simple, non-rich-text input fields and the like are a big performance hog – it took the handwriting recognizer panel about 8x as long to insert a new character into Apple’s text input box as it did to actually recognize a character. So we basically ended up having to write our own versions of three different iPhone user interface controls in order to get the text rendering to work the way we wanted it too.

So a quick-and-dirty port of Pleco on iPhone could probably have been ready last spring, but getting everything working really smoothly took a lot longer.

(more…)


20

Oct 2009

Slumming it with nciku

I recently looked up the word 贫民窟 (meaning “slum”) in nciku. The definition included this example of usage:

> She decided to slum it for a couple of months.

> 她决定去贫民窟待几个月。

The Chinese sentence, translated back into English, would be:

> She decided to stay in a slum for a couple of months.

I think the translator missed something in this particular case, and the content of the sentences (as well as the order) strongly suggests that the Chinese is a (not so great) translation of the English.

So how nciku is getting its sample sentences for Chinese words? The OED is the champion of the dictionary quotation for the English language, containing tons of examples of its words’ usage “in the wild.” Dictionary sample sentences are best when taken from other sources, but those sentences should at the very least be composed in the language the dictionary serves. It seems this is not what’s happening with nciku, but maybe Collins (one of nciku’s data sources) is to blame.


06

Oct 2009

Slow Chinese

It’s the October holiday in the PRC, and I’m enjoying a slooowww 8-day vacation. Fittingly, I recently also discovered a site called Slow Chinese (via Chinese Forums), and thought I’d share it here.

slow chinese

Slow Chinese, as far as I know, is the first site to do this (and just this) for Chinese. I know that the same “slow” concept has already existed for some time for learners of German (Slow German), and that it is quite popular among that learner community. The idea, of course, is that if learners are exposed to enough slowed-down input, they will not only get better at recognizing the words they know, but will also be able to more easily pick out the words they don’t know, and the gains will gradually transfer to normal-speed input.

The linguistic question, of course, is: does this work? Is it a good idea?

First I’ll quote friend and fellow linguist JP Villanueva on what he once said about slow input:

> Listen to me: slow input does NOT help you learn language. No! NO NO NO. At best, slow input helps you learn SLOW LANGUAGE. […] Whenever you get mad at someone for “talking too fast,” you need to remind yourself that you don’t speak that language, and no amount of SLOW is going to help you understand.

> Counter-intuitive? Remember when you learned to ride a bike, and you found that it was easier to balance when you had a little speed? Remember when you first learned to drive, and you realized you had more control with a little speed?

> Same with language. Slow speech doesn’t help your memory. You don’t need every word in a sentence in sequence in order to understand what someone is saying.

> Besides, that’s not how your brain listens to your own native language, anyway. Your brain listens for semantic landmarks and then fills in the information in between. You need to learn to do that in your second language. Slow speech levels semantic landmarks, and over-emphasizes the non-content words that hold sentences together.

When it comes to Slow Chinese, there are actually two relevant questions:

1. Is slow input valuable?

2. Is slow input for news (or other media intended for native speakers) valuable?

In answer to question #1, I’d say yes. JP knows what he’s talking about, but earlier in the same post he also made a few caveats where confidence is concerned, and with good reason. There is a period when a beginner has a really tough time distinguishing the sounds of the target language. Yes, the purists are right when they say that continued, persistent exposure can overcome this obstacle, but most learners are not so hardcore. They’re emotional and easily discouraged. They want some help beyond “don’t give up,” and slowed-down input can provide that much-wanted crutch. It is a crutch, however, so if used, it should be withdrawn as soon as possible. It is most useful for learning the phonetics of the language as a beginner, in individual words and short phrases.

In answer to #2, I’d say no. If a learner is ready to take on media intended for native speakers, he should already be comfortable with the language at natural speed. If he has the vocabulary to take on the media but can’t handle the speed, it is likely because communication as a learning goal has been neglected. One can’t carry on normal conversation without comprehension of speech at a normal rate (unless one limits one’s conversation partners to slow-talkers only). So it seems to me that one would be tackling slow-speed media instead of tackling normal-speed listening comprehension and communication, which under most circumstances is a big mistake.

So my conclusion is that the learner’s time would best be spent working on simpler normal-speed input to improve listening comprehension (for Chinese, most Elementary and Intermediate ChinesePod dialogues are good for this; users can listen to the dialogue-only audio, all of which also have transcripts), and then later tackling normal-speed media.

Still, enthusiasm for learning is a valuable thing, so if Slow Chinese is what you’ve always wanted, I say go for it. (Plus, it’s free!) Just don’t forget that it’s not likely to help you out with conversational fluency, if that’s your goal.


29

Sep 2009

Can't Afford

Intermediate students of Chinese will be familiar with the following pattern:

> V + 不起 = can’t afford to V

> V + 得起 = can afford to V

This pattern is most commonly about money, the typical example being 买不起 (can’t afford to buy).

The pattern is fairly productive, so you’ll see it for lots of different verbs (and not always about money), but recently I heard a new one. A friend was saying that she was going to eat at an expensive restaurant, but someone else was getting the bill. She said she ordinarily wouldn’t be able to afford even just her own meal at that restaurant (in China, each person getting her own check is a “system” called AA), so in this case, she used: AA不起.

Heard any interesting usages lately?


24

Sep 2009

Two Perplexing Photos

I was delighted to discover churros in Beijing, and with ice cream! (Sure, why not?) But the second English name threw me for a loop: “Kyrgyzstan Things Fruit.”

Chinese Churros

I don’t know why “churros” wasn’t enough, but apparently this is another casualty of horrible character-by-character machine translation. So we have a case of:

> Foreign word → Chinese transliteration → horrible machine translation to English

> churros → 吉事果 → “Kyrgyzstan Things Fruit”

Why go all the way to machine translation when you started with a foreign word in the first place? Did someone think that the machine translation of a transliteration might help out English speakers? Why is Kyrgyzstan the default translation for ?? There are no answers here… moving on.

I thought this was a rather clever bit of signage:

Secret Code

In context, and especially next to its “opposite” icon, there’s absolutely no question what the above icon stands for. Out of context, though, it can be a bit puzzling. I showed this to a few Chinese friends (out of context, of course), and they didn’t get it on their own.

(Hint: No, it has nothing to do with any characters in WALL-E.)


10

Sep 2009

A Character-Counting Challenge

My recent post on the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project prompted Mark of Toshuo.com to decry the relative dearth of traditional characters being added to the project. To this, David on Formosa reminded Mark that there are also a large number of characters shared by the traditional and simplified character sets.

At this point I’ll interject a visual aid (gotta love them Venn diagrams!):

Simplified and Traditional Characters

All this got me thinking about the following question: If “s” represents the characters in the simplified set not shared with the traditional set, while “t” represents the characters in the traditional set not shared with the simplified set, and “u” represents the characters shared by the two sets, then what are the number of characters belonging to groups s, t, and u, respectively?

It seems like a simple enough question, but it’s actually quite tricky for a number of reasons.

First, the total number of Chinese characters in existence varies according to source, and largely depends on how many non-standard variants you want to include in your total set. You can be reasonably certain the total number is less than 50,000, but that’s still a pretty ridiculously large number, when most Chinese people regularly use less than 5000. For basic purposes of comparison, it makes sense to limit your set to a certain number of commonly used characters, but which set? One from the PRC? From Taiwan? From Hong Kong? From Unicode?

Second, you might be tempted to think that s = t, because simplified characters were “simplified from” traditional characters. This isn’t true, however, because in many cases multiple traditional forms were conflated into one simplified form. To give a very common example, traditional characters , , and are all written in simplified. So adding these three characters adds 1 to u, 2 to t, and 0 to s. There are lots of similar cases, so clearly t is going to be significantly larger than s. But by how many characters?

I’d be very interested to see a concrete answer to this question, regardless of the character limit used. I also wonder how the proportions of s, t, and u vary as the character limit is increased, and more and more low-frequency characters are included.

If you’ve got an answer, I’d love to hear from you!


08

Sep 2009

Fuzzy Pinyin

This is a screenshot from the Google Pinyin installer:

FuzzyPinyin

If you’re learning Mandarin for real, sooner or later you’re going to need to experience the rich variety in pronunciation that Greater China has to offer. This simple “fuzzy pinyin” options screen gives you an idea of what’s out there. (Speakers that can’t differentiate between z/zh, r/l, f/h, etc. typically can’t properly type the pinyin for the words that contain those sounds in standard Mandarin, so fuzzy pinyin input saves them a lot of frustration.)


03

Sep 2009

The Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project

If you’ve checked out many online Chinese dictionaries or websites on learning Chinese, you’ve seen a variety of ways to present characters’ proper stroke order. Animated GIFs are a favorite, but they often fall flat in one important respect: they display each stroke in a single frame, often leaving the direction of the stroke somewhat unclear.

This is where the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project impresses me: not only are the animated GIFs large and attractive, but they fluidly demonstrate the direction of each stroke. A nice example:

More info from the site:

> Hello, and welcome to the Commons Stroke Order Project. This project aims to create a complete set of high quality and free illustrations to clearly show the stroke order of East Asian characters (hanzi, kanji, kana, hantu, and hanja). The project was started as there was none like it in terms of quality and it seems that it is the only one working on all three schools of Han character stroke order; simplified and traditional Chinese, and Japanese.

> You are free to use the graphics we’ve made and welcomed to join us and contribute to our progress. It’s easy, you just have to follow the simple steps stated in our graphics guidelines.

At 378 total characters, the project is still far from a complete set, but it’s off to a nice start!

I do, wonder, though, what kind of stroke order information is freely available out there that could speed the process along. I’ve seen enough separate sets of animated characters to make me suspect many have been automatically generated. (Anyone have info on this?) I’m also curious how the project is going to deal with the annoying issue of variable stroke orders.

Note that there is also an Ancient Chinese Characters sister project.


25

Aug 2009

The Tyranny of the Textbook

Lately I’ve been working with Nick Kruse of Reign Design on a new project at work called OpenLanguage. Much of our discussion has centered on teachers and students, and the language-learning experience in general.

Nick related to me a story about taking the very limited Chinese he had learned in the classroom back in the States, and then traveling to China and applying it extensively. He discovered that some of the language they learned from Practical Chinese Reader, besides being outdated, was, well… not so practical.

Specifically, when Chinese people encouraged him over and over with the same sentence — “中文!” (“you speak great Chinese!”) — he didn’t understand what they were saying because he hadn’t learned two of the key words.

When he got back to the States, he had a conversation with his Chinese teacher that went something like this:

> Why didn’t you teach us [speak] and [great]?

> It wasn’t in the book.

> But those are useful words!

> We have to follow the book.

I’m happy to see the overall attitude toward language learning changing, and I’m even happier to be a small part of that change.


20

Aug 2009

Jokes from Jiong.ws

My wife recently introduced me to the humor site 一日一囧 (Jiong.ws). The videos she showed me were crude animations, each telling a single simple joke. Some were unfunny, some were Chinese translations of jokes I’d heard before, but a few very funny and worth sharing.

Of the four clips below, the first three are linguistic in nature. You’re going to need at least an intermediate level of Chinese to understand these jokes. I’ve provided a transcript for the last one, which has a lot of narration but no subtitles.

1. 太阳打电话 (The Sun Makes a Phone Call)

Priceless! This joke revolves around the words (grass) and (sun), and how they sound like the obscene and (same character and pronunciation, different usage). The funny accents make the joke work well. Of course, some experience in “overheard phone calls” in China also helps.

(more…)


18

Aug 2009

Learning Your Way to Yourself

The acquisition of any foreign language comes with struggle. Not just the burden of memorizing a new lexicon or the labor of demystifying an unfamiliar syntax, but the struggle of making oneself understood in the target language. It’s not easy!

Naturally, many mis-communications are committed as fluency is built upon a mountain of mistakes and micro-lessons learned. Language learners are not robots (yet!), however… they desire not only to communicate information, but to express themselves. They want to show their personalities, to be themselves in the target language.

Orlando Kelm, teacher of Spanish and Portuguese, observes:

> My experience is that it just kills some people to not be able to say something in a foreign language without the same intensity, passion, and flowering language as in their native language. If they can’t say it like they would in their own language, they end up not saying anything at all. Other people are OK with their more limited, simple, and brief non-native version. Basically, if you are not willing to go with the simplified version, you’ll have more difficulties in speaking the foreign language. With time and practice your simple version will develop, but not if you aren’t willing to start with whatever you can pull out of your brain in the initial phases.

Although I have nowhere near Dr. Kelm’s years of experience with language learning, I, too, have witnessed this phenomenon in many learners, and I’ve had to deal with it myself. To make matters worse, I’m not a terribly outgoing person, and I’m not a fan of small talk. These qualities are not conducive to practice in the target language!

It may be that this problem is most pronounced for those with a very strong identity. Someone who is always the life of the party may have a really hard time being that guy that’s hard to understand and that doesn’t make much sense. The quick-witted jokesters may find it especially painful to never be funny in the target language (for a very long time). These learners may feel if they can’t be themselves to the people they meet, they’d rather not meet those people.

For me, my identity didn’t get in the way so much. I enjoyed the challenge of communication in Chinese, as humbling as it was. I repeatedly put myself in situations where I needed to talk, and then I would just say anything I could think of to say. This comes naturally to the outgoing, talkative types, the people that hate silence. For some of us, though, it’s incredibly difficult! With this approach, you rarely end up talking about what you really feel like talking about (largely because everything is dumbed down to your language ability), but you actually end up talking, most of the time, which is exactly what you need as a new learner.

Essentially, what I did amounted to changing my personality in the target language. I became someone who frequently started conversations with strangers, someone who asked questions which sometimes were none of my business, someone who would keep small talk going indefinitely.

Over time, I found it easier and easier to express myself in Chinese. I could even start making simple jokes. My efforts were working, but I realized that I had donned this alter-ego which placed me in a certain developmental trajectory. It was one which, as far as I could tell, could only be fully realized by someone totally unlike me. Maybe working at becoming a brilliant story-teller, or public speaker, or comedian (xiangsheng?) — in Chinese — would be the best thing possible for my language abilities, but I realized that that just wasn’t me. As my identity reasserted itself, I began acting more like myself, but also more like a native speaker in some ways, because I had lost my sociable fearlessness.

This is a good problem to have, though, because you have choices. If you’re still struggling in those early stages, you’re faced with one fundamental choice over and over again: to talk or not to talk. For this scenario, Dr. Kelm’s advice is as good as it gets:

> Next time you are part of that beautiful sunset, turn to the person next to you and tell him/her what is in your heart, even if the actual words are just “sunset good.”


08

Aug 2009

Translation with a Conscience

Translation Party is a website built using Google Translate. The idea is to take an English sentence, translate into Japanese, then back into English, and keep going back and forth until an equilibrium is reached and the translation stabilizes.

I tried out various different sentences. Here’s what I got for “China and Japan will never get along“:

China and Japan, please get along.

I knew Google’s motto is “don’t be evil,” but I didn’t expect that to result in translations that lecture (politely). Still, pretty cool.

Anyway, I recommend you play around with Translation Party. It’s a very simple concept; would love to see it done in more language combinations (especially Chinese to English!).


06

Aug 2009

The Spaced Repetition Party

So you’re at a party. It’s not some crazy kegger, it’s just one of those social mixers you go to every once in a while to meet people. A homely guy walks up to you and introduces himself as Craig. He’s a financial consultant. He soon moves on.

Photo by Wallie-The-Frog

A few minutes later, he walks up again, and asks, “Remember me?”

“Uhhh, Craig, right?” you reply.

“Yes,” he says. “And what do I do?”

“Uhhhh,” you say intelligently as you draw a blank.

“Financial consultant!” he says snippily and walks off.

A few minutes later he’s back again. He walks up to you and looks at you. “Hey, Craig the financial consultant,” you say. He nods and moves on.

He shows up again an hour later, and then one more time before the end of the event. He’s satisfied you know who he is.


The scene described above is a fictional dramatization of how spaced repetition works. Just like you forgot unmemorable Craig’s profession only 5 minutes after meeting him, you forget most things you learn. That is, unless you’re reminded. And it turns out that there are optimal times to be reminded, and that the more you’re reminded, the less often you need to be reminded. This is the “spacing” of “spaced repetition,” and its rules been pretty well figured out.

The famous Pimsleur language learning system is based on the principle of spaced repetition. It was designed for a time when static audio recordings were cutting edge, however, and the latest adaptation of the spaced repetition principle is spaced repetition software (SRS), which has been refined quite nicely in recent years by a Polish man named Piotr Wozniak.

With SRS, you “join the party” by starting up the software. You’re presented with various “cards” or “facts” which you want to remember. Some of them, like Craig, aren’t particularly memorable, and when they come up again, you may falter. No matter; SRS is infinitely patient. The more you have trouble with a fact, the more often it shows up in your review cycles, until eventually you get it down pat and it gets spaced out to the point where you hardly ever see it again.

Sound like fun? In my experience, the idea of efficiently offloading the work of memorization to a computer program tends to appeal mainly to programmers. I was introduced to it by programmer friend John Biesnecker, who was seduced by SRS evangelist and blogger Khatzumoto (also a programmer). I’ve seen another programmer friend, Mark Wilbur, go fanatical about SRS. Meanwhile, linguists and language teachers tend to go, “meh.”

Photo by Tom Lin

Personally, while I have my misgivings about SRS (a topic for another post), I think it’s a fantastic concept. The idea that, through science, we can understand how we forget, describe it in algorithms, and then systematically counteract it through software and learned behaviors is nothing short of amazing. The problem is that most of us aren’t willing to simply plug in and “trust the machine.” We prefer to live our lives unplugged… or at least not to be ritually spoon-fed our knowledge.

Like any innovative new form of technology, SRS has its early adopters. Those people swear by SRS, daily executing their spaced “reps” with the leading software: SuperMemo, Mnemosyne, and Anki. At the same time, though, something bigger is happening. Behind the scenes, SRS methods are infiltrating other learning software, such as Pleco (a popular Chinese dictionary). Although perhaps not completely obvious, SRS methods are a cornerstone of innovative Chinese character writing service Skritter. Cerego, the company behind another learning system earning lots of praise, Smart.fm, describes itself thusly:

> Based on years of applied research, Cerego has built adaptive, web-based applications that accelerate knowledge acquisition. Cerego’s patented core learning engine is driven by algorithms that generate optimal learning schedules for discrete chunks of declarative learning content, called “items”. This intelligent scheduling is achieved by gathering metadata on individual user performance and modeling memory decay patterns at the granular level of every item.

Guess what? It’s SRS.

The fact is, the average person doesn’t need to learn to change his habits to adapt SRS. As various companies and developers realize the value that SRS integration offers any kind of learning system, they’re integrating it into their existing products and services. It’s starting to appear in more and more products we already use. In the next few years, you can expect the slower ones to join the party as well. SRS is coming to you.


04

Aug 2009

Making Family Vocab Personal

Learning Chinese family relationship words is a huge headache. It’s way too complicated and tends to come far too early in a typical Chinese course. Really, who wants to memorize the word for “father’s older brother’s wife” before you can even handle a basic conversation?

The reason Chinese family relationship terms are so complicated is because they can take into account (1) relative age, (2) mother’s or father’s side, and (3) blood relative or relative by marriage. In English, on the other hand, if I say someone is my uncle, none of those factors are addressed. The man could be my mother’s or father’s brother, or maybe brother-in-law, and there’s nothing about relative ages at all.

So for these reasons, learning a bunch of different terms to make all these relationships 100% clear feels entirely unnecessary to a lot of students. To be honest, it is unnecessary for them. Unless lots of their conversations in Chinese are going to revolve around family members, it’s just not that important.

I realized this fairly early in my studies. I had learned the family terms well enough to know which were male and which were female, but I didn’t bother with all the other distinctions. And guess what? It didn’t really matter.

There are a few times when it does matter, though. One is when you marry into a Chinese family and you have to know who all these people are. But that’s when a major new factor emerges: you’re no longer memorizing vocabulary, you’re memorizing real people and their titles. It’s the difference between a human face and a bunch of lines and circles on a chart, and your memory appreciates it.

Similarly, when I returned to the States with my in-laws this summer, I knew I’d have to be introducing them to various people from my parents’ side of the family. Rather than digging out the old Chinese family relationships chart, I went through the relatives I knew would be there and gave them Chinese names. For example, my Uncle Marty is my mom’s younger brother, so he’s Marty 舅舅, and his wife is Kathy 舅妈. My Uncle Jim is my dad’s older brother, so he’s Jim 伯伯, and his wife is Dot 伯母. Learning the terms by assigning them to real people makes them easier to remember and ensures that they’re actually useful to you.

When you think about it, it’s how kids learn these words in the first place. In fact, they learn to associate the titles with real people long before they even understand the relationships the titles refer to. Later on, they learn the relationships, and then learn to relate the relationships to other people.

To take it even further, here’s an example of a real conversation I had with my wife recently:

> Me: So my mom’s little brother is my…

> Her: Jiujiu (舅舅).

> Me: Right, jiujiu. So I can call him Marty Jiujiu.

> Her: Right.

> Me: So then my dad’s older brother Jim is my…

> Her: Bobo (伯伯).

> Me: OK, Jim Bobo. And then my dad’s older sister?

> Her: Uhhh… I forgot. My dad doesn’t have an older sister.

This isn’t the first time I’ve run into this kind of “vocab lapse” with native speakers. With a whole generation of only children, more and more personal links are missing, and the nomenclature system just doesn’t carry the weight it once did. You can decry the decline of family values and Confucian ideals all you want, but for the average Chinese student it means this: you don’t have to worry too much about Chinese family relationship titles until it becomes personal. And that’s also when the titles become memory manageable.


01

Aug 2009

Small Personal Victories in Language Acquisition

Inspiration pt3 by Stephen Poff

Tae Kim recently had a great blog post titled Memorable Moments in Language Acquisition. It’s a great idea, both examining the various emotional victories that are part of the language acquisition process, and also celebrating them for their great personal worth to the individual learner.

I’ve taken the idea and added to it. It’s similar in some ways to the The 5 Stages to Learning Chinese I wrote here on Sinosplice years ago, but it’s the personal nature of each “memorable moment” that really resonates.

Tae’s original list had 8 items; I’ve removed 3 and added 13 of my own. I’ve tried to present them in the order they would be most likely to occur for an individual learner. Here they are:

18 Small Personal Victories

1. You dream in the target language. [Tae]

2. You send an email, SMS, or IM in your target language for the first time, and are understood.

3. You make a joke in the target language, and it gets a laugh.

4. You befriend someone entirely in the target language.

5. You start using the body language of the target language culture unconsciously. [Tae]

6. You learn something new in your target language.

7. You understand why certain words just don’t translate from the target language into English.

8. You hear someone talking about you in the target language and understand it. (Chances are, it wasn’t malicious, either.)

9. You make a phone call in your target language for a specific purpose and accomplish it.

10. You use a web service in your target language.

11. You no longer remember what the target language sounded like to you when you couldn’t understand it. [Tae]

12. You read a book in your target language.

13. You talk to yourself in the target language (and it doesn’t feel weird).

14. You feel that onomatopoeia in the target language start to sound like the sounds they’re supposed to represent. [Tae]

15. You watch a movie in your target language and realize you didn’t really need the English subtitles.

16. You watch a movie in your target language without subtitles and you have no real problems.

17. You make a phone call in your target language and the person on the other end doesn’t realize you’re not a native speaker.

18. You can’t remember what language a conversation was in. [Tae]

Do you have any to add?


22

Jun 2009

How to Pronounce nciku

The online Chinese dictionary everyone is using these days is nciku. Newbies and veterans alike all seem to dig it. The quality of the dictionary entries is a refreshing change from the deluge of unimpressive CEDICT clones. One common difficulty among nciku users of all levels, however, is that they can’t figure out how the hell to pronounce the name! Is it N-C-I-K-U, each letter pronounced like its name, or maybe N-C-I-koo, or something like In-see-koo? Just how do you really pronounce nciku, anyway??

By clicking on 简体 (or 繁體) in the footer to switch to the Chinese version of the site, you can see the nciku’s Chinese name: n词酷. So this should answer the original question: the “n” is pronounced like the name of the letter N, and the “ciku” part is pinyin cíkù.

nciku-name

But why?? What’s up with the name? Well, I have to say, it’s a pretty horrible name if your target market is foreigners. No one knows how to pronounce it when they see it. The name does make sense from a Chinese perspective, though.

First, the n. That’s the mathematical n, as in an unspecified number that could be really high. It might seem strange to bring mathematical variables into everyday conversation, but in modern Chinese it happens on a regular basis. In Mandarin when you do something n (n times), you did it so many times you don’t even know how many. Like we say “a million” in English, or, perhaps more appropriate in its ambiguity, “a zillion.” Rather than n, you can also say n, which also means a zillion times, but sounds quite similar to the beginning of the name n词酷.

词酷 is a concocted homophone for 词库, a somewhat technical word meaning “lexicon” or “word bank.” You can talk about a lexicon in terms of all the words of an entire language, or in terms of an individual’s own vocabulary.

So why for ? Well, is the popular transliteration for “cool,” and the character , appearing in such words as 数据库 (database), 语料库 (linguistic corpus), 车库 (garage), 仓库 (warehouse), quite frankly, isn’t very cool.

So there you have it: n词酷, a zillion word banks (but cool).


16

Jun 2009

10 Vegetables China Taught Me to Love

I’ve always been good about eating my vegetables, but coming to China was a total game-changer for me, vegetable-wise. Here were veggies I’d long since written off as “nasty,” forcing me to reevaluate them in their new oriental guise. And reevaluate I did! In the end, I found myself growing to love the Chinese version of many of the vegetables I thought I didn’t like. (It’s probably more than just the effect of MSG.)

Of course, then there are also the ones I’d never heard of or seen before coming to China. One of them even made it all the way to #1 on my list. Definitely noteworthy!

The pictures below all come from Flickr, and each photo was taken by someone other than me. Please click through to see the photo on Flickr, and comment there if you would like to praise the photographers. Anyway, in reverse order, here are the top ten vegetables China taught me to love:

10. Cauliflower (花菜)

This one was always disgusting to me in the US, unless it was drowned in cheese. Good old Chinese MSG and spices seems to take care of the issue, though!

(more…)



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