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!


Dec 2009

Zhou Libo's New Book: Hui Cidian


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.



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 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!


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


Nov 2009

Updates and Links


– 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.


– Google recently released a pinyin conversion tool on Google Translate, but it’s super primitive. Mark at 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.


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!)


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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?


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.)


Sep 2009

A Character-Counting Challenge

My recent post on the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project prompted Mark of 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!


Sep 2009

Fuzzy Pinyin

This is a screenshot from the Google Pinyin installer:


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.)


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.


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.


Aug 2009

Jokes from

My wife recently introduced me to the humor site 一日一囧 ( 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.



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.”


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!).


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,, 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.

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