Sep 2004

Pinyin Tooltips

A while ago Matt from Metanoiac asked me how I do my pinyin tooltips. I was too busy at the time to reply, but since maybe other people are interested in how I do it, I’ll give a public explanation here. (Warning: for those of you with no Chinese-related weblog, this is going to be a very long, boring post.)


“Tooltips” are the little text boxes that pop up when you hover your mouse on certain elements. The picture at left is an example. Internet Explorer (IE) users may be used to using the alt attribute to add tooltips to photos, but this is actually a web design no-no. Non-IE browsers do not display alt attributes as tooltips (this is not the intended purpose of alt), and anyway, alt attributes don’t work for non-photo elements like text. The correct attribute to use is the title attribute.

So you need to use the title attribute to get the tooltip, but what tag does it go inside, and how do you get the dotted underline and the question mark cursor? You need to use CSS for that.

The tag you’ll use is span. All you have to do is define a span class in your CSS. I call mine “info” because it doesn’t have to be used only for pinyin tooltips. {
   border-bottom:1px dotted #00AAFF;
   cursor: help;

This means the underline (which is actually defined as a border) is 1 pixel thick. “#00AAFF” is its color. The onmouseover cursor value is defined as “help“, which results in the question mark effect.

Then you can use it in your HTML like this:

<span class="info">text</span>


This will give the underline and cursor effect, but not the tooltip. You still need to add in the title attribute:

<span class="info" title="pinyin">text</span>


I’m guessing you want the pinyin tone marks too, though. For that, you’ll need to make sure that your page is encoded in Unicode (most people use UTF-8)*.

For the actual pinyin, I use the Pinyin to Unicode converter at The Fool’s Workshop. It’s very easy to use. Type in “zhong1wen2” and click Convert. You get “zhōngwén” back. Then you just copy and paste. Simple.

Here’s what that HTML would look like after you copy and paste:

<span class="info" title="zhōngwén">中文</span>


This does mean, however, that you’ll have to convert the pinyin for each word you want to provide pinyin for, which is a bit of a pain. But the result is nice.

Also, it’s worth noting that the tooltip is not going to look good on some old computers or computers using weird fonts for their browsers. It’s a helpful effect for a lot of people, but you probably don’t want to make it central to your design.

* By this I mean that in your webpage’s html the <head> section should include the following metatag:

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html;charset=UTF-8" />

If your webpage is encoded in Unicode and you’re using Movable Type like me, it will make your life easier if the default encoding of your edit screen is also Unicode. To do that, just edit the mt.cfg file. You need to find “PublishCharset“. For me it was on line 313 (of 457 total lines). Yours should be similar. Uncomment that line (delete the ‘#’) and change it to:

PublishCharset UTF-8

Thanks goes to John B, who originally showed me how to do this.


Aug 2004

Getting in Deeper

Recently I had a chance to tour three of Shanghai’s main universities as part of a last-ditch effort to find someone for my company ASAP. The idea was to visit schools with Chinese study programs, find the foreigners, and possibly recruit a qualified one. I chose a really hot day to do it. In one day I covered Shanghai Jiao Tong University (上海交通大学), then East China Normal University (华东师范大学), and finally Shanghai International Studies University (上海外国语大学). (Notably absent from this list is Fudan University (复旦大学), but I’ve heard really bad things aboput their Chinese studies program, and it’s not in a convenient location, so I skipped it.)

Handing out my fliers to strangers was kind of a weird feeling. I felt like some suspicious salesman trying to perpetrate a scam, or like one of the Chinese promoters on the street attempting to persuade foreigners to come to her restaurant or bar. The difference, of course, was that I was just trying to find one good person for an actually decent job. But it still felt sketchy.

All of the campuses were nicer than I expected. Quite green, with lots of space. Like most Chinese college campuses, the teaching buildings were a mixture of old structures falling into disrepair and newer, more architecturally “inspired” creations with such modern wonders as elevators.

East China Normal University struck me as the most picturesque, with its emerald green streams cutting through campus and shady tree-lined streets. However, East China Normal University also flung its foreign students into an inconvenient corner of campus, a place which aesthetics seemed to overlook.

Shanghai International Studies University seemed very modern. It was also quite small, and I didn’t find any foreign students. (I think they are actually on a different campus than the one that I went to by the Hongkou Soccer Stadium.)

East China Normal University happens to be the school at which I’m considering doing a master’s in applied linguistics. During my lunch break I had time to inquire about the possibility. It turns out there are actually two applied linguistics programs; one is under the Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language Department (对外汉语系), the other is under the Chinese Department (中文系). They recommended I look into the Chinese Department program. Even though the program in the Chinese Department will be more difficult, it has a better reputation in China. I went along with that. I was sent to talk to the Dean of the Chinese Department.

That’s when things started getting scary. The Dean talked to me about the requirements for me to enter the program. I need an HSK score of 6. I have a 7. No problem. Since I’m a foreign student, the foreign language requirement is waived. Great. There are also four entrance examinations prospective grad students need to take. (gulp!) I would only need to take two. Excellent. One was Foundations of Chinese (汉语基础). I was confused for a second. Didn’t they trust my HSK score? No, that’s different. The HSK verifies that I know Chinese. The Foundations of Chinese test verifies that I know about Chinese. Structure and features of modern Chinese grammar, Chinese phonology, special features of Chinese characters, rhetoric, etc. Oh great. I haven’t really studied that. The other test is a Writing Composition test. Uh-oh.

Naturally, these tests made me a bit apprehensive about the whole deal. I talked to the dean about it, and it seems they’re willing to cut me a little slack, but I’m still going to have to bust my ass. They want me in the program, but I’m going to have to really work. Since I don’t want to start until Fall 2005, I have time to study the necessary material on my own. These are the books I was told to pick up: Modern Chinese (现代汉语), Problems in Chinese Grammar Analysis (汉语语法分析问题), Selected Readings from the West on Linguistics (西方语言学名著选读), and Essentials of Linguistics (语言学纲要). I don’t expect much trouble from the latter two other than just absorbing the Chinese for all the linguistic jargon I mostly already know. But the first might two may pose some diffilculty for me to tackle on my own. I think it’s time to start hunting for a tutor again.

Wow, this is looking like quite a challenge. But it’s a challenge I want. So, I guess it’s time to hit those books….


Jul 2004

What Does an Alien Sound Like When it Speaks Chinese?

My company is still busy preparing a bunch of short educational cartoons. They’re supposed to air on CCTV at the end of August, I think. (I’ll let you all know.)

Anyway, I seem to have been typecast. Last time I played the voice of a slow-witted pig named “Dudu” (the Chinese think this name is cute, and even after they found out what “doo-doo” means in English, refused to change his name!). For this recent run of cartoons, the cast has been changed, and I now play the part of a different pig character named “Asta.” (I have no idea where that name came from; a lot of our characters’ names are strange, to my chagrin.)

Why do they keep sticking me with the pig role?? I guess it’s because (1) I do it well; not many of the others can alter their voices much at all, (2) he’s the only character that can feasibly have a relatively deep voice, and (3) he’s dim-witted and speaks slowly, so it’s an easier part for the foreigner to handle. Sad but true.

This time there’s also an alien in the cast. When our parts were assigned, the question arose: what should the alien’s voice sound like? That was an especially tough question for me. Chinese is not my mother tongue — how am I supposed to know what an alien would sound like in Chinese? And yet everyone turned to me, as the “voice-change expert” to come up with something good.

What we ended up doing was making the alien’s voice monotone, like a stereotypical robot’s. The obvious linguistic problem with that is how can you make a tonal language monotone and still keep it intelligible? It was actually a bit of a problem. We managed to fix it, however. None of the alien’s lines were too complex, but in order to keep monotone Chinese readily intelligible, pauses were key. Once again, I don’t know why, but they turned to me for guidance. I seemed to be better at breaking up the Chinese sentences into discrete chunks of meaning than they were*. They all agreed the alien’s lines were easier to understand after my recommended pauses were inserted.

So we have already finished the latest batch of 10 cartoons. My pig lines were a snap, and I think I’m actually getting better at it. The alien’s voice, once altered by Cool Edit Pro, actually sounds pretty cool. And it’s always a real joy (in an educational way, of course) to see native speakers screwing up Chinese lines, even on such fundamental issues as tones. (And I’m not talking about the alien’s lines, either.)

This job of mine remains very interesting.

* One reason this was especially interesting was I was just reading about this kind of thing in The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, my current read. It is really a fascinating read for anyone at all interested in language. A lot of the linguistics in it I have already studied, but it’s still not boring (except maybe for Chapter 4). It was published in 1994, but is hardly dated at all yet.


May 2004

The Name Nazi Defied

Some time ago I become known as the “Name Nazi” at ZUCC, the school in Hangzhou where I used to teach. Allow me to explain.

If you know anything at all about teaching in China, you know that Chinese students usually have English names. You also know that the names they choose are often ridiculous, bizarre, and/or funny. A few real-life examples: Fantasy (boy), No-No (girl), Snoopy (girl), Icy Cat (boy), Shiny (girl).

After grinning and bearing it for two years, I decided not to put up with these names anymore. When students I taught had ridiculous English names, I told them they had to change their name. They would often protest, saying they had used the name for years already. I would tell them, “well, you can keep it, but you can’t use it in my class. Pick a real name.” Then I would hand them a big long list of popular baby names that they could choose from.

I would try to win them over with reason. My reasons are below.

Why Choosing a Silly English Name is not a Good Idea

  1. If you ever go overseas, you will be laughed at. You’ll think it’s funny at first, but you’ll eventually realize your English name is stupid and change it. Why not sooner than later? Save yourself the grief.
  2. How people are named in a language is a part of the culture. By ignoring this process, you are completely disregarding a part of the culture. While this may not be outright offensive to native speakers, it certainly isn’t impressive. Why not take the chance to learn about the culture of the language you’re studying?
  3. Names are chosen in a certain way. We choose names from baby name books, relatives, movie stars. We do not choose names from dictionaries or take the names of cute cartoon characters. Just as Chinese people would never choose a name like 孙悟空 or 烤面包 for their babies, you shouldn’t do it in English either. It’s not impossible to create a good English name, but it’s also not an easy thing to do, and if you’re not a native speaker, you probably cannot judge what sounds good and what doesn’t.
  4. Names are a kind of vocabulary. When you hear “Mary” you know instantly that it’s a woman’s name because you learned it long ago as a woman’s name. You know it’s not a verb, or an adjective, or any noun other than a person. It’s firmly in your “name vocabulary.” The more English names you hear with frequency, the bigger your “name vocabulary” grows. This is an important part of your English development. Your classmates’ English names should all be contributing positively to your “name vocabulary,” not junking it up with ridiculous non-names.

So those are my reasons. That’s why I’m the Name Nazi. People say I take the issue too seriously, but honestly, you really do get tired of the stupid names after a few years, and my class is not playtime. I’m a serious teacher, so I expect my students to take learning English seriously in my class. And that includes names. We have fun in my classes, but not by calling each other stupid English names.

Flash forward to last week. Gwyneth Paltrow recently had a baby girl and named it Apple. Apple!!! What a dumb name! (Other people agree with me on this one.) “Apple” is one of the non-names I used to forbid during my tenure at ZUCC, and for some reason Chinese girls used to looove to choose that name. And now Gwyneth is directly attacking my efforts! Arrgh!

At my new job I continue the mission of the Name Nazi. Many of these Chinese kids get their English name in kindergarten. I’m making sure none of the teachers are assigning ridiculous names (and oh, you better believe they were). The source I use for “good names” is the Social Security Online Baby Name page. It’s great.

Speaking of names, I recently discovered a new Japanese band with a pretty cool name (keep in mind the guys who named the band are not native speakers of English). Asian Kung-Fu Generation. No, you haven’t had enough of emo, because Japan is not through with it yet! They have pretty cool retro style artwork on their CDs too. Check out this song called 君という花 (A Flower called You).


May 2004

Debating “You’re Welcome”

One of the first phrases a student of a foreign language learns is “thank you,” followed closely by “you’re welcome.” Every culture has etiquette, and these two phrases are about as basic as etiquette can get. It’s best to keep things simple for a new learner. One-to-one vocabulary correspondences are easiest to accept for memorization.

When I learned Spanish, it was gracias and de nada. When I learned Japanese it was arigatou gozaimasu and dou itashimashite. For Chinese, it was xièxie and bú kèqi.

In English, there are actually a variety of ways to express both “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” I tend to stick with “thanks” and “no problem.” It’s only natural that such variety exist in foreign languages as well, but somehow it seems to cause problems.

Soon after arriving in China, I learned that a lot of the Chinese I learned in the classroom was specific to Beijing, and that it didn’t match what I was hearing around me. I quickly discarded nǎr (“where”) for nǎli, huār (“flower”) for huā, etc. I also started saying bú yòng xiè (literally, “you don’t need to thank me”) for “you’re welcome” instead of bú kèqi.

I used bú yòng xiè almost exclusively for a long time. Then I began to realize that if Chinese people can mix it up, I should have a little more variety in my usage as well. I started using mei guanxi (literally, “it doesn’t matter”) for “you’re welcome.” Pretty soon it had completely replaced bú yòng xiè.

Then there was a short period of time when I switched back to bu keqi (literally, “don’t be polite”), the form of “you’re welcome” I had originally learned. I didn’t stick with that one for long though, because it feels more northern to me and I don’t like that.

I noticed today that I’m using méi guānxi all the time again. I think I want to switch back to bú yòng xiè, it just has the nicest feel to me.

My point is that I can’t seem to be able to “mix it up” like I originally planned. I can switch which form I use, but then I tend to use that one form all the time. Is this actually difficult?? Should I just be content with using one form all the time like I do for the most part in English?

In any case, it’s not a problem. Just one of those little linguistic issues I ponder and probably no one else cares at all about….


May 2004

Creeping Japanese

Japanese was my major in college, but I’ve barely used it in these three years (almost four) that I’ve been in China. A testament to the worthlessness of a language degree? Or of any degree? Or have I just chosen a “career path” which renders my major particularly ineffectual?

I remember in my final year at UF I won an award for outstanding Japanese major of the year (I beat out the three other people in my class), and I was presented with a copy of the Koujien (広辞苑), Japan’s authoritative Japanese-Japanese dictionary. It’s quite a beast. Anyway, at that mini ceremony, my Japanese professor said to me, “I hear you’re going to China. I hope we don’t lose you. You wouldn’t be the first one to switch over to Chinese.”

Quite some time ago I resigned myself to the fact that Japanese had, indeed, lost me. Nevertheless, I’m finding that the Japanese I learned is staying in my brain, albeit rather dormant. Every time I go back to Japan, I can be speaking fairly fluently (like I used to) after three days of immersion. It seems a shame to waste it.

And now, in Shanghai, I find Japanese slowly creeping back into my life.

My next door neighbor in Shanghai is a Japanese girl that works for JAL.

Recently someone at the office needed help deciphering a Japanese address. The Japanese simplifications of the traditional Chinese characters left her very confused, so I had to show her how to write the address. (For the character 豐, the PRC has simplified it as 丰, but the Japanese write it as 豊. For 縣, the PRC uses 县, not the Japanese 県.)

Yesterday at my favorite DVD store I found four complete seasons of Ranma 1/2 on DVD (24 DVDs). I remember getting a kick out of those in college (hey, it’s educational!). I picked them up.

Tomorrow there’s a Japanese teacher coming to the office to do a teaching technique demonstration. I’m going to be here anyway, so I’m going to stick around and watch (and possibly offer my interpretation services).

I’ve already decided that I need to get back into Japanese. I’m going to find a tutor soon. Japanese will be useful in my future, and I’m not going to let it go. Then there’s also my good friends in Japan. If I quit on Japanese, I’m pretty much quitting on my relationships with them too.


May 2004

Alcohol Vocab

I want to add more Chinese study material to Sinosplice, and the latest is a vocabulary list. Of Western alcohol. You won’t find any form of baijiu on the list, but if you ever wanted to know how to say “Guinness” or “Jim Beam” or “Sex on the Beach” in Chinese, this is for you.

It’s noteworthy that many of these names do not have a standard name (especially mixed drinks), so many variations are possible, but the names in my list have all been verified through online sources and/or in actual Chinese bars.

Some of the ones I find interesting:

  1. Sex on the Beach. The literal Chinese is “sexy beach.” I guess a faithful translation would be too racy for printing on a menu in a Chinese bar?
  2. Absolut. In Chinese, it’s just “Swedish vodka.” Boooooring. The name in English is kinda cool.
  3. Cocktail. It’s literally “chicken tail alcohol.” Of all words to translate absolutely literally (which the Chinese don’t really do so often), why this one??
  4. Draught beer. It seems that in the south it’s more often called sheng pi (生啤), whereas the north prefers to call it zha pi (扎啤). Sheng pi means “raw beer.” (It also happens to be exactly the same thing the Japanese call it: 生ビール.) I really like that. “I’ll have a beer. Make it RAW.” Badass.
  5. Smirnoff. In Chinese it means “imperial crown.” Since the Chinese name sounds nothing like the actual name, I’m guessing that’s a translation of the Russian. Cool. Learning Russian through Chinese through booze. How scholarly. [Update: That guess was wrong. See comment #14.]

Sinosplice vocabulary: Alcohol

Special thanks to Brad F and Brendan, who helped me a bit with my research.


May 2004

Dwarfism and Chinese

I have lived in China for almost four years. This means that I have missed out on a lot of new TV shows over the years. I don’t mind at all for the most part; I’m not a big fan of TV. But occasionally I do like to pick up some TV shows on DVD. Recently I was watching an episode of CSI which dealt with dwarves.

There was one scene in particular which caught my attention. Character Nick Stokes is talking to Gil Grissom and uses the term “midget.” Grissom corrects him, telling him, “it’s dwarves or little people.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, other than a faint curiosity as to why the term “midget” is considered offensive.

Later I learned the reason from the LPA Online FAQ:

> In some circles, a midget is the term used for a proportionate dwarf. However, the term has fallen into disfavor and is considered offensive by most people of short stature. The term dates back to 1865, the height of the “freak show” era, and was generally applied only to short-statured persons who were displayed for public amusement, which is why it is considered so unacceptable today.

Later, when discussing this issue with a Chinese friend, I became very curious about the corresponding Chinese terminology. In that scene in CSI three terms were given: two acceptable, and one offensive in English. “Dwarf” seems the most scientific, as the medical condition is often referred to as “dwarfism,” although “dwarf” also has its own specific role in fantasy literature. “Little people” seems to be a rather new everyday euphemism. “Midget” is offensive for the reasons listed above. So how was this scene translated in the subtitles? For the most part, I find CSI’s Chinese subtitles to be very well done.

This is what I found:

Dwarfism (the medical condition): 矮小症 (ai xiao zheng)
Dwarf: 侏儒 (zhu ru)
Midget: 侏儒 (zhu ru)
Little person: 小人 (xiao ren)

I’m no expert on Chinese medical terminology, but the translation for “dwarfism” seems pretty solid (although it identifies it as an illness, which is not necessarily the case).

The translation runs into serious difficulty when it comes to “dwarf” and “midget,” however. Note that in the above translations, they’re the exact same word! The term 侏儒 (zhu ru) in Chinese has definite negative connotations, so it seems like a good translation for “midget,” but not dwarf.

Speaking of dwarves, the Chinese term used in the translation of The Lord of the Rings is none of these. It’s 矮人 (ai ren), an old term referring to a race of people of short stature — something like “pygmy.” That translation seems like a good translation for the fantasy world.

Back to CSI. The translation of “little person,” 小人 (xiao ren), is probably the worst. It was translated word-for-word, using the Chinese characters for “little” and “person.” The thing is, in Chinese the word 小人 (xiao ren) has a meaning all its own. It means a lowly person, a mean person, a dirty rat. [In Shanghainese and some other dialects it means “child.”]

So if you use the translations above, the scene completely falls apart. Originally it was:

> NICK: Okay. So, back to the midgets.

> (GRISSOM looks sharply at NICK.)

> GRISSOM: Nick … “Dwarves” or “Little People”.

> (NICK nods at the correction.)

With these Chinese translations, the meaning becomes:

> NICK: Okay. So, back to the midgets.

> (GRISSOM looks sharply at NICK.)

> GRISSOM: Nick … “Midgets” or “Dirty Little Rats”.

> (NICK nods at the correction.)

Evidently the translator knew something was off, though, and changed the dialogue a bit to get around the linguistic problems. (The above dialogue was not actually the one in the Chinese subtitles.)

The concept of political correctness is still evolving in China. It seems at this point, though, that the little people of China are still out of luck.


Apr 2004

EFL for Chinese learners

Today at work I did some research online as part of my task to develop a pronunciation program to benefit the Chinese teachers in my company. I found some good stuff (this page being exactly what I was looking for, though I don’t find it 100% accurate), but perhaps the most interesting was a paper entitled Explicit Instruction in the Communicative Method: Pedagogical Approaches for Successfully Teaching the Sound System of a Second Language by Erika Hoyt.

The paper was written in 2001 and doesn’t cover anything especially new or revolutionary, but it was helpful in that it referenced specific issues for Chinese and Spanish speakers, two groups with which I am particularly familiar. Also, jargon is kept to a minimum, so if you have any interest at all in the wonderful world of drudgery we lovingly call “linguistics” you should be able to get through it without much trouble at all. And if you’re a EFL teacher, there’s a good chance you’ll learn something useful.

I just want to highlight a few of the issues I could relate to most.

On Requisites for Successfully Learning a Foreign Language

  • a positive and active approach to learning the target language
  • an outgoing and tolerant approach to the language and its native speakers
  • continual experimentation with and revising their Interlanguage of the target language
  • the willingness to use the target language in ‘real communication’
  • the ability to think in the second language (L2) as a different system from their first language (L1)

Having lived in China for a while, I’ve come into contact with quite a few long-term foreign residents with varying degrees of Chinese ability, ranging from extremely fluent to practically zero. Looking at the above list, I can think of various cases (of other people as well as my own learning experiences) in which progress is so incredibly limited by just one specific item. And it’s different ones for different people.

The last item came as a slight surprise, but upon a little reflection I could think of examples of that too.

On Rhythm and Stress

> Another example of L2 sound perception involves Chinese speaking ESL students who do not use any rhythmic stress in their English speech because they are transferring from their native language. Their lack of stress results in unnatural, abrupt speech and lexical confusion; syllable stress plays an essential communicative role in distinguishing between “terRIfic” and “TERrify” or the questions “What’s in the desert?” and “What’s in the dessert?” (Chen, Fan & Lin, 1996, p. 5)….

In their article about acquiring English stress, English language researchers Chi-fen Chen, Chuen-Yn Fan and Hsian-Pao Lin write that native Chinese speakers remain unaware of the difference in Chinese and English stress until they are explicitly told (Chen et al, 1996, p. 4)….

Students learning English who speak a native language with an even stress pattern, such as Chinese, benefit from contrasting stressed and unstressed sounds. One way to highlight English stress rules is to outline the qualities of a stressed unit of sound — loud, long vowel, full clarity and higher pitched — and unstressed sound — quiet, short, reduced vowel clarity and lower pitched (Chen et al, 1996, p.7). The teacher could make a chart and/or give an aural explanation of the different qualities. After understanding the difference between stressed and unstressed sounds, the students will be able to identify stress patterns. Chen suggests that students pair up and play a stress game.

The problem of rhythm and stress is one I noticed way back in 1998 when I first started tutoring a Chinese grad student (who would eventually nudge me toward Hangzhou), and one I’m still seeing at my current job. It’s something I have to attach special importance to at work, and I suspect it’s something that EFL teachers across Chinese would do well to incorporate into their lesson plans. I think it’s often neglected.

On Outside Sources for Language Learning

> Using many different sources of language input will help the students’ register flexibility in listening comprehension. Students need to know that target language has many different speakers and pronunciations beyond the way that the teacher speaks. Also, integrating different speakers of the language into the students’ learning experience will help the learners to develop an outgoing approach towards the native speakers of the language, which is one of the characteristics of successful language students.

This is so very true. My best students in China were frequently big fans of music, movies, or TV in English, and they do things like getting part-time jobs using English and writing in English blogs.

Anyway, the paper has a variety of other good stuff too. I give it points for including the “McGurk Effect” because it’s my favorite linguistic term. (Hey, it’s really cool, and it sounds funny!)

It would be great if more EFL teachers in China (外教) actually cared about their teaching. And for those that do, but don’t have the relevant educational background, it would be great if they would learn a little about linguistics. But maybe that’s asking for too much…

Related: Sinosplice’s Teaching Guide.


Apr 2004

New Blogs for Chinese Study

In the past few days I’ve gotten word of two new blogs that should be of interest to students of Chinese of at least intermediate level.

The first one is by Stian in Hangzhou, titled “In the Middle.” Stian takes digital pictures of Chinese “posters, black board writings or graffiti” and puts them online with accompanying translations. Neat idea. He tries to stay neutral about the contents, hence the name. His current entries are school notices.

[I’m also glad to see that he’s using ModBlog, which contributes to Adopt a Blog‘s aim of spreading China blogs out on as many different servers as possible.]

The other one is News in Chinese, by Roddy (of Chinese Forums fame) in Beijing. In this blog Roddy provides links to news stories in Chinese. The goal is to make the task of browsing for interesting news stories easier for the student of Chinese. I’ll be using this one.

One small concern, though. As of this afternoon, News in Chinese was blocked for me here in Shanghai. I hope it’s just a temporary quirk, as Roddy says there’s no problem connecting directly in Beijing.

Both new blogs are already in the China Blog List.

Update: News in Chinese is now viewable for me. Must have been a random temporary thing.


Apr 2004

Preferred Nomenclature

Here’s a test for your Chinese friends:


The caption says, “Where is the renxingdao?” I can’t simply translate renxingdao. That’s the whole point of this post.

I came across this problem a while ago, but I didn’t examine the question carefully until it became involved with my work. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of translation from Chinese into English. It’s not just any Chinese, but Taiwanese Chinese. This means I have to read traditional characters (which I’m happy about — it’s good practice, and not really very hard), and it also means that I have to deal with regional vocabulary variations (e.g. in Taiwan, the word 脚踏车 (jiaotache) seems to be used much more often for “bicycle” than in mainland China, where 自行车 (zixingche) is the norm).

I thought the word renxingdao might be one of those cases of different usages, but it turned out to be universally confusing, whether I was asking mainlanders or Taiwanese.

Let me cut to the chase. In my experience, if you ask a Chinese person where the renxingdao is in the above image, they’re almost equally likely to point to the crosswalk as the sidewalk.

This is kinda hard to take, because it seems like the distinction is an important one, seeing as how one of them happens to be in the middle of the road. I asked quite a few people this morning (from both sides of the strait), and I got them all embroiled in a debate as to what exactly a renxingdao is. They came up with all kinds of alternate nomenclature for both “crosswalk” as well as “sidewalk,” but came to no conclusion as to the precise meaning of renxingdao.

Ah, language issues. The translation work continues. I’m learning a lot.

NOTE: the above image is the famous Abbey Road. The image was taken from this site.


Mar 2004

Foreigners' Names in Chinese and Japanese

I recently stumbled upon a fascinating article entitled Japan and China: National Character Writ Large (via Language Log) regarding the way the Chinese and Japanese languages render foreigners’ names in their own scripts. These are all things that I’ve thought about at one time or another, but it was nice to see it all brought together so succinctly.

It’s true: when I was in Japan, I had no choice about my “Japanese name.” My name was simply my English name pronounced according to Japanese phonetic limitations. There was no discussion. In China, however, choosing a Chinese name is a big deal, and it’s sort of a necessary measure for anyone staying in China very long and dealing with Chinese people frequently.

Here’s an interesting quote from the article:

“China is a big continent and has an inclination to think that it is No. 1 and that others are uncivilized,” said Minoru Shibata, a researcher at NHK, Japan’s public broadcast network. “Therefore, they feel that giving Chinese names to foreigners is doing them a favor.”

Give the article a read.


Mar 2004

Shanghainese: a Flash soundboard

Not long ago, when trying out some soundboards (normally used for prank calls), an idea came to me. Why not make a soundboard for an educational purpose? OK, so it’s not nearly as funny, but the idea had potential. It wouldn’t leave me alone.

A few weeks ago I made a whole bunch of sound recordings. Then I learned the basics of Cool Edit Pro and edited the crap out of them. In the two weeks to follow I struggled through the process of teaching myself the Flash MX necessary to do what I wanted to do. Timelines, scenes, keyframes, buttons, mask layers, preloaders, ActionScript… I eventually got through it all. To make this “soundboard.”

What this Flash soundboard does is provide audio samplings of a collection of basic Chinese words/phrases in pairs: one in Mandarin (普通话), and one in Shanghainese (上海话). It’s really very simple. Place your cursor over the sentence you want to hear and click. You can even switch between pinyin and Chinese characters, and view my notes on the soundboard.

I expect there to be a few issues with the soundboard, particularly with the Chinese character representations of Shanghainese. The problem is that there’s no real standard, and even native Shanghai speakers do not necessarily know the original (often archaic) characters which correspond to the words they speak (if they even exist). I haven’t gotten around to picking up a better book on Shanghainese, and the stupid bookstore I need to get to closes at 6pm on weekdays.

In essence, it’s a very scholarly notion reduced to a hobby side project in soundboard form. So if you’ve got the Chinese background, just enjoy it. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, you may still enjoy hearing the difference between Mandarin and Shanghainese.

Crank up the volume.

Check out the Shanghainese soundboard.


Feb 2004

Lost in Translation: Thoughts

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

I recently saw the movie Lost in Translation. My major in college was Japanese, I have lived in Kyoto for a year, and I still have friends there (both Japanese and foreign). So I had been looking forward to this movie for some time.

I liked the way the movie used language to alienate the characters, particularly in Bill Murray’s scenes — the Suntory photo shoot, the hospital visit, and the ridiculous talk show. There are no subtitles. The effect was a little spoiled for me because in each case I actually understood what the Japanese people were saying, but this really only added to the comic effect. (Here’s a translation of the first Suntory photo shoot to give you an idea.) I imagine a lot of the “acting” was really just improv between two people who really couldn’t communicate in real life.

(Of course, when I was laughing during these scenes and my girlfriend was only smiling, she wanted to know what was so funny, and then I needed to translate from Japanese to Chinese for her, which is a hard switch for me to make if my attention is partially diverted — which it was — so sometimes my “Japanese to Chinese translations” would come out as Japanese paraphrased in more Japanese. Oops. That really confused her.)

One of the reviewers on IMDb felt that the movie was overrated, and that Coppola largely ripped off Wong Kar-Wai. Interesting claim. I don’t know how much the movie was hyped overseas; I missed all that. I do know that I enjoyed the movie, but perhaps largely due to my familiarity with Japan on a personal level. I don’t usually enjoy Wong Kar-Wai’s movies.

One thing I hate about the American media is its neverending charade of “look how wacky those Japanese are!” The American media loves to find the most bizarre aspects of Japanese society and then exploit them. Yes, cultural differences are interesting, but the overall message that the media seems to be trying to convey is they’re not like us, and that can be dangerous. Lost in Translation presents cultural differences (and, indeed, even wackiness) in a way that seems very human. It didn’t annoy me; it made me smile. (Meanwhile my girlfriend, who has been to Japan but doesn’t speak much Japanese, was saying, “Haha, the Japanese really are like that!”)

I’d like to see Hollywood come out with more movies of this “being a foreigner in a distant land” variety. It seems like other countries do it a lot more. (I guess it’s because the terrorists, aliens, and natural disasters all converge on the USA every time, so naturally, that’s where we make the movies.) No, Midnight Express and Spy Game don’t count; that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Hollywood movies that address the reality of expat life. I’m sure you could get something equally entertaining set in Germany, Thailand, Hong Kong, or even (gasp!) Mainland China.

[NOTE: I don’t pretend to be a movie expert, but that’s my take. I’d love to hear about other movies like this, or links to stories about Lost in Translation.]


Feb 2004

HSK Scorecard

OK, I realize this is really boring, but some people have been asking about it, so I guess I’ll write about it.

I did not get the HSK score I hoped for. I wanted an 8. I got a high 7. I pretty much expected a 7, because the amount of vocabulary needed to ace the HSK was just beyond my ability to build in just one semester. Well, if I wanted to do anything in my free time besides study for the HSK, that is. I regret nothing.

So the surprise came Saturday when one of my classmates came to Shanghai and brought my scoresheet and HSK certificate. The test is divided into 4 sections: Listening, Grammar, Reading, Synthesis. My scores in each category were right in the middle of the range — no “almost’s” or “not quites.” My scores, respectively, were 8, 8, 8, 6. I got a 6 in the Synthesis section! I’m not sure why, and I’m not allowed see which ones I got wrong or even the test questions.

“Synthesis” (综合) is the section where you have to write in some Chinese characters, but that part was surprisingly easy. It could also have been the “choose the word which best completes the sentence” portion. They ask some tricky ones in there. I’m not sure what happened. Maybe I was tired because it was the end of the test? Don’t know.

So my total points came out to 334. The cutoff for 8 is 337. Even if I had had 3 more points on the Synthesis section I wouldn’t have gotten an 8, though, because you can’t have the score of one category so far below the others. I would have needed a full 5 points to get the 7 in Synthesis and 8 overall.

So that’s the HSK. I’m not sure if I’ll ever take it again. Overall I’m pretty satisfied, but the nerdy student in me feels a lingering bloodlust for that damn test….


Feb 2004

Pinyin Reader

I recently received an e-mail asking me to make a textbook recommendation. I haven’t been a beginner for several years now, so I don’t know much about this kind of thing. I was hoping you readers could help.

This is the text of the e-mail I received:

Hello John,

I was hoping you could help me out.

I’ve just started to learn Mandarin (I’ve completed my first 3 hrs of lessons!) and was lucky enough to find a Native speaking Chinese tutor to help me learn the language.

She suggested that I buy a book, any book (as long as it’s not filled with technical terms or something), that is written completely in pinyin so that I can practice reading it for pronunciation purposes. Something equivalent to reading a regular Chinese book so that I can get practice pronouncing both simple and complicated words.

The problem is that she doesn’t know of any, or where to get them. I live in Montreal and a book of that nature is impossible to find. If you know of one and can send me an ISBN or Title… anything, it would be great!

Thanks in advance for your help.

Related Sinosplice Link: Chinese Language Learning Book Reviews


Feb 2004

Translating, Lantern Festival

When I was having a hard time with my job search a few months back, I briefly considered working as a translator. I even wrote to one company and got the application packet back, which required several qualifying translations. I figured it might be a little boring, but at least I’d be learning more Chinese all day long at work, right?

Fortunately I came to my senses. However good (and perhaps necessary) it is for my language development, I hate translation. Almost always. That satori was bestowed upon me in college Japanese classes by some old chaps named Natsume Soseki, Shiga Naoya, and Honda Katsuichi (Murakami Haruki being the major exception). Ugh.

But this whole translation thing has returned. When my new employers found out that my Chinese is actually pretty decent and includes reading and writing ability, they found a special job for me. You see, the company makes educational series to teach children English. Each book in each series is accompanied by an extensive teacher guide with tips on how to teach vocabulary, how to get more senses involved in the learning process, what games to use, what “homewhork” to give, etc. Obviously, since virtually all kindergarten and primary school teachers in China are Chinese, the teacher guide is 95% Chinese. However, some schools have foreigners helping teach their English classes. The problem is that the regular Chinese teachers barely know enough English to teach the material in the books, much less to explain to the foreigners how to help teach it or what games to use. The solution? Provide English versions of those teacher guides. That’s where I come in.

OK, so I am learning some vocabulary translating this stuff. The books were written for teachers, not kids. But this is a lot of material to translate! I think it’s going to take a long, long time. I welcome interruptions.

The first major interruption is next Monday. I help the Chinese teachers teach a special class on the Lantern Festival. The Chinese Lantern Festival (元宵节 – yuan xiao jie) marks the fifteenth and final day of the Spring Festival (AKA Chinese New Year). It’s traditionally celebrated by hanging a bunch of lanterns and eating some sweet rice-dough dumplings called 汤圆 (tang yuan).

The Lantern Festival was actually today. I had my tang yuan. has a brief article on it. It also has a fairly easy to read article in Chinese which explains the festival in depth. [It seems like there’s nothing but griping about the Chinese news media — and most of the complaints are certainly legit — but I think deserves some credit. It has some good stuff, despite its expected bias. The Chinese lesson on Hangzhou made me smile, and some of these autumn pictures in Huizhou are truly amazing.]

So anyway, the long vacation is officially over, so now it’s back to slaving away. Hmmm, I wonder if I should expect 5-year-olds to be able to learn the word “lantern” in just 20 minutes…


Jan 2004

Wenlin 3.0

I finally got my hands on Wenlin 3.0 for “trial purposes” recently. Brendan at has been singing its praises for some time (he even co-wrote a glowing software review), so I’ve really wanted to try it out for some time now. I’ve used NJStar and 金山词霸 (Jinshan Ciba) before, so those were my references for this kind of software.

I don’t intend to do a lengthy review examining every aspect of the software; I just want to do a quick comparison of the major differences between these three pieces of doftware.

NJStar Chinese Word Processor 4.35


NJStar also has a Asian language viewer, but it’s been rendered pretty much completely unnecessary with internationalization advancements in Windows and other operating systems. The main draw is the word processor.

I’ve always found the dictionary that comes with the NJStar word processor to be virtually useless. NJStar’s saving grace is its radical lookup method. It consists of a chart containing all possible radicals (and even some that aren’t technically official). You click on the radicals within the character that you can identify. Here’s the good part: It doesn’t matter if they’re the character’s main radical or not. With each radical you identify, the list of possible matches at the top grows shorter until you can easily pick out the character. You can also limit matches by total number of strokes.

NJStar Chinese Word Processor’s radical lookup method is the best by far of any software I have seen. Everywhere else it’s lacking, however.

[Note: Available also for Japanese.]

金山词霸 (Jinshan Ciba)

Jinshan Ciba

Jinshan Ciba is clearly meant for Chinese users. For this reason, beginners will find it frustrating. Instructions are all in simplified Chinese, and pinyin isn’t readily available (although you can double click individual characters within the program to look them up and get a pinyin reading).

Jinshan Ciba’s selling point is that it’s not merely a stand-alone dictionary, but can also work in conjunction with other software. If you have Jinshan Ciba running in the background, you can set it to display little popup translations for any words on the screen. It’s great for surfing the web, but works in various kinds of software as well. It does English-Chinese as well as Chinese-English, and if the short popup definition isn’t enough, you can take it to the main dictionary for a more extensive definition.

Jinshan Ciba is best suited to intermediate to advanced learners. It’s also most easily found on the streets of China (for less than $1). But it does have some strong points that no other software I have seen duplicates.

Wenlin 3.0


One of Wenlin’s strong suits is its pinyin support, which makes it best suited to beginning students. I found it annoying how sample sentences for entries are written entirely in pinyin (no characters), but I know this is exactly what beginning students need.

Wenlin’s dictionary is also superb. It provides character entries in multiple fonts, even with etymology. It includes stroke order for each character, as well as other useful features such as “list characters containing this character as a component,” “list words containing this character,” and “list words starting with this character.” Extras such as the “components” (which can be looked up themselves, even if they are not full characters) and Cantonese reading are really cool too. The only detraction is, once again, a slight tendency to favor pinyin over actual characters.

Once text is pasted into Wenlin, it’s great for looking up unknown words. It does what Jinshan Ciba does, only with a much better dictionary and a little more work.

In conclusion, I would go with Wenlin as my main computer dictionary, but would want NJStar if I were going to be looking up a lot of completely unfamiliar characters. Jinshan Ciba is great for casual browsing of Chinese, or if you’re running a Chinese operating system and other Chinese programs for which you may need help reading.

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