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.]
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….
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:
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!
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. China.org.cn 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 China.org.cn 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…
I finally got my hands on Wenlin 3.0 for “trial purposes” recently. Brendan at Bokane.org 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 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.
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.
I will take the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi — Chinese Proficiency Examination) this coming Sunday, December 21st. Taking the HSK was part of my plan all along to study Chinese full-time this semester. Thus, in addition to my 20 hours of Chinese classes per week, I’ve also been taking 4 hours of optional HSK prep courses (well, usually).
Throughout this semester I’ve been faced with a question of study method: should I take my classes the “Chinese way” or the “American way?” The “Chinese way” means going to lots of classes but doing comparatively little outside work. Most “learning” is accomplished in the classroom. The “American way” means the student exerts much more effort on his own time than in the classroom, effectively making the student largely responsible for his own learning instead of the teacher.
For obvious reasons, I prefer the “American way.” I would have liked to have studied my butt off at home and totally conquered each and every lesson in my textbooks. But that didn’t turn out to be too practical. With my own English classes to teach and an active social life, 20 classes kept me pretty busy, and I even (guiltily) skipped a fair amount of them. So I had to grudgingly accept the “Chinese way.”
The result was that I didn’t pick up as much additional vocabulary as I would have liked. Now that I’m really hitting the HSK prep books, I’m discovering that vocabulary is precisely what I should have been hitting hard all along. Listening comprehension, reading comprehension, character fill-in-the-blank — in each case my problems result from a deficient vocabulary, not in grammar, speed, or character recall. I need to read more Chinese, more often. I’m shooting for level 8 — the highest score in the intermediate range — on my first sitting of the HSK, so I can’t have too many mistakes.
One of my few comforts is that other students tell me that the “red book” (中国汉语水平考试应试指南，北京语言文化大学出版社) we use is more difficult than the actual HSK.
There are some strange topics chosen for the reading comprehension passages: Evolutionary reasons for the scarcity of black flowers in nature, Health risks associated with contact lenses, Astronomists’ current theories on ‘killer stars,’ an Overview of the history of Hong Kong’s subway system, Pig breeding issues around the world, etc.*
I actually prefer the more scientific ones. You can infer most of the really difficult words, and you can employ a lot of common sense. What’s the main reason that killer stars swallow up other stars? Even if you can’t read everything in the text, you know it’s gonna be gravity if you have any background at all in astronomy.
What’s the point of this post? If there is any, it’s basically just to tell those of you who intend to take the HSK that you need to be hitting vocabulary hard. The Chinese designed this test. They are the original examination masters, and there’s nothing they love more than making poor youngsters squander their vigor on rote memorization of vocabulary. If you want to take the HSK, you have to comply with these sadists’ designs.
* The HSK lumps Beginner and Intermediate levels together all on one test. That means if you’re a beginner who can only hope for a very modest score, you’re still going to be subjected to texts filled with the likes of the topics listed above. The idea is that you’ll get the easiest questions right, and your score will reflect your ability. Still seems like a cop-out to me.
Irrelevant sidenote: Richard’s “Interview with a 1989 demonstrator in China” on Living in China is an absolute must-read. It’s very readable for those of you that know what happened in 1989, but don’t necessarily know a lot about it.
I have a Chinese teacher whose last name is Wang. All her students call her “Wang Laoshi” (laoshi means “teacher”), according to Chinese custom. She teaches my HSK prep class. Since the class only meets once a week for two hours, I see less of her than most of my other teachers, but I feel like I know her much better than the others. For one thing, I’ve known her longer. She tutored me for about half a year during my first year in China. For another, she seems much more straightforward about her feelings than a lot of Chinese people I meet.
Last week she shared with the HSK class a problem she’s been having with another class. She says her current intermediate level Chinese class is simply not willing to talk. At all. When she asks the class if someone can make a sentence using the new word, the whole class just stares down at their books, not daring to make eye contact. She waits patiently and encourages them, to no avail. If she asks a single person, she gets the same response. Trying to get just one sentence out of them is like pulling teeth. Even when she simply asks the class if they understand, she can’t get an answer. The only time the students show definite signs of life is when she writes on the chalkboard. They all magically spring into action, jotting everything down neatly in their notebooks. They seem to prefer it when she simply talks and writes, but that’s really boring for her, and not the most effective teaching method, either.
Wang Laoshi said that in the past she lost her temper and berated the students for their overly passive attitudes, which seemed to help the situation for a while. This semester, however, almost all her students are girls, and she doesn’t want to upset them.
So what’s with this class? Well, for one thing, they’re almost all Korean. Wang Laoshi asked the Korean students in the HSK prep class why they thought her intermediate level students were so incorrigibly passive. The Korean students reponded that it was because of their culture — the traditional Confucian style of education.
Wang Laoshi didn’t buy that. She said that Chinese students weren’t like that. That really made me smile, because I don’t think Wang Laoshi knows how passive Chinese students can be in an English class taught by a foreigner. Still, though, the way she described her students made them more inactive than any Chinese students I’ve ever taught.
Wang Laoshi’s observations on international students of Chinese were thus:
Students from Western countries are much more active in the classroom. Wang Laoshi prefers there to be at least a few students from Europe or the Americas to liven up the atmosphere.
Students from Western countries want to spend classtime mastering a few grammar patterns so that they can feel confident about their usage.
Asian students want to cover as many grammar patterns as possible in class, and review them on their own.
Another thing I think Wang Laoshi doesn’t realize is that a lot of Chinese teachers don’t encourage class participation so much. I think some of the other Chinese teachers wouldn’t be so bothered by the lifelessness of her students. It just disappoints me that an excellent teacher like Wang Laoshi is wasted on such undeserving grammar sponges.
So sometime in September, when the teaching semester started, I also started studying Chinese full-time at Zhejiang University of Technology (ZUT). After talking with the administration, I was placed directly into the advanced class without having to take the placement test. Before classes started I was a little apprehensive about that decision, but I needn’t have been.
There are only four students in the advanced class. There’s a Korean guy, a Korean girl, a girl from Kyrgyzstan, and me. Everyone is in their twenties, and we all get along fine. All conversation between us, both inside and outside class, is in Chinese (with the exception of the two Koreans).
I have five classes: Intensive Reading, Reading and Writing, Conversation Topics, Survey of Chinese Society, and HSK Prep. I like my classes, and I think they’re just what I’m looking for: extensive and intensive reading practice, and extreme vocabulary acquisition. What’s a little disappointing about my classes is that, the HSK prep aside, all the classes pretty much follow the same format: (1) discuss new vocabulary, (2) read the text, (3) go over any difficult parts in the text, (4) answer the reading comprehension questions, (5) practice the vocabulary and grammar patterns highlighted by the book for that selection.
It’s a pretty typical way of examining a text, and I suppose there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it, but was it naive of me to expect four different classes to have four different class structures? The above pattern seems best fitted to Intensive Reading. So far there have only been two minor writing assignments for the Reading and Writing class. I really like my Conversation Topics teacher, but I was hoping she’d do activities to get us to talk more. Since we’re all advanced, we could really do some fun stuff. But we don’t. The teacher of Survey of Chinese Society is a learned guy with a Ph.D. in ancient Chinese lit. He’s gotten into some different material in the form of poetry and history of the Chinese writing system, but I wish he’d do it more.
The reason I’m so critical of my classes, of course, is that I’m also a teacher of a foreign language. I’ve taken theory courses on how to teach, I’ve been teaching for over five years, I’ve written a little guide on teaching English in China, and I’ve written a book on the topic which will soon be published (but no more details until it is!). So I have certain expectations of my Chinese counterparts. Unfortunately, those counterparts were products of the same educational system which begot the listless Chinese learners I’m faced with in my own classroom. It’s not that these teachers are not enthusiastic or good at what they do — it’s that their methods largely come from a system where the students are all passive note-copying machines.
So what do I do about it? Well, I’m still trying to figure out the best way to suggest some more communication-oriented classroom activities to my Conversation Topics teacher, but I will. I might just take some of my own Spoken English classroom activities and translate them into Chinese and let her take a look. I’m going to be bring in some materials for my Survey of Chinese Society teacher to discuss with us. He’s got a Ph.D. in ancient lit, so next week I’m going to ask him some questions about the Chinese in The Art of War (孙子兵法). He already said it’s OK. I’m going to be writing for my Reading and Writing class, whether or not it’s assigned. (How can she complain about having to correct one student’s compositions, only once a week?) I’m going to be trying hard to stay awake in my Intensive Reading class. One thing that I’ve learned is that even if you already know something that’s being explained, you can benefit a lot by listening carefully to the way it’s explained in Chinese. And, of course, I’m going to show these teachers with all my questions in class just what it means to have an active American in the classroom.
For clarification, I’d just like to note that I’m only studying Chinese formally for one semester, and I paid for it with my own hard-earned RMB, so I intend to get the most out of it. That explains my attitude. Also, what’s both encouraging and annoying is that even though I ask the most questions, it seems that everyone else is really eager to hear the answers as well. So I’m either asking the questions my classmates didn’t think to ask but nevertheless want to know the answers to, or I’m asking the questions that my classmates were too timid to ask. Either way, I feel confident that I’m not the “annoying student who asks too many questions.”
Finally, I’d like to say that I think I made the right decision to study at ZUT instead of the more prestigious Zhejiang University. The number one reason is convenience. I am a 20-minute (harrowing) bike ride away from ZUT, but about an hour away from Zhejiang University, either by bike or by bus. Furthermore, I like my teachers, I like my classmates, I like my class size, and I think these classes are accomplishing my goals of increasing my vocabulary, making me a better reader, and equipping me to kick ass on the HSK which is coming up in mid-December.
[Note: I’m still looking for a job in Shanghai. All leads are greatly appreciated.]
That pronunciation guide I made turned out to be a big pain for me. It has gone through multiple revisions, but I think it’s pretty done now. The latest revisions included adding “pinyin clarifiers” in red which may very well only make it all more confusing. Oh well. I also changed the tone of my “condemnation” of pinyin to satisfy the pinyin fanatics out there who can’t bear to see the word “inconsistent” associated with pinyin (OK, that’s a joke — calm down).
I hope it’s more accurate, more balanced now. The “Background” section was never even supposed to be the important part, so those of you who haven’t done so already long ago can forget about it now. The people who were paying the most attention to it probably don’t need it anyway. The following is an e-mail I got from a learner who found my pages via Google.
> I have recently begun learning Mandarin. I knew there was a difference in pronunciation between j & zh, x & sh, q & ch, but I was very frustrated in my attempts to find a clear explanation of the difference. You’re website is like cool water in a desert! Marvelous!
> Thank you very much for putting so much effort into setting the record straight! Now, at last, I can get my pronunciation close enough that my tutor can help me fine tune it.
> Great job John! God bless you!
That’s exactly what I made the pronunciation pages for. They’re working. I am content. Thank you everyone. I exit now to sleep, and to later arise and report another day on my Chinese studies which have been consuming so much of my time of late…
I noticed recently that there’s a lot of bad information out there on the web about the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese. So I created this new section on Sinosplice to address the issue. It’s quite long, and I think it’s quite thorough and accurate. This is for the people that are having trouble mastering the harder consonant sounds of Mandarin like q, x, and j.
Please let me know what you think or if you find it helpful.
I’m not sure, maybe this is a common practice. But just in case it isn’t, I’d like to offer a tip to you happy web surfers out there, and an extra special tip to those of you studying Chinese.
Every one knows about Google now. “Google” is pretty much a verb in common usage already. I urge you to use the Google Toolbar if you don’t already. It’s so useful — I get annoyed now when I’m on someone else’s computer and I actually have to go to the Google site to use Google. I just use Google that much. Then there’s Google Images, which is your key to a vast lode of virtually untapped digital imagery ore. Sure, you can use those pictures for your own unscrupulous Photoshop purposes or whatever (I sure have)… But what people don’t realize is that Google Images is also a reference resource.
I’ll give an example. Suppose you want to know what a Pekinese looks like. You know it’s a kind of dog, but you want to know exactly what it looks like. If you looked it up in a dictionary, you’d get a nice (possibly vague) description, but what you really would want is a picture. An encyclopedia might provide that, but it might not, plus looking something up in an encyclopedia is a big pain in this modern age. All you have to do is pop “pekinese” into Google Images, and voila! you have a whole smattering of visual testimony, all provided unwittingly by people across the web.
But none of that is revolutionary. What I find Google especially useful for is checking up on Chinese words [sorry, you’ll need Chinese input capability for this]. There are a lot of Chinese words that are in common practice but have not made it into dictionaries. Proper nouns are not usually in dictionaries anyway. So what do you do in a case like that? Google them. Take a guess at the characters. If you’re wrong, you’ll know by the search results.
I’ll give an example. You want to search for information on Jay Chou in Chinese. You know his Chinese name is Zhou Jielun, but you’re not sure which “lun” the last character is. Google all your guesses. Chances are, the one which turns up the greatest number of results is the right one. In the case of Zhou Jielun, it clearly is.
This works great for famous people’s names, place names, new slang, etc., and it sure beats any traditional dictionary method I know. The only problem is that you’re choosing the “correct” answer by following the herd. When the herd is 1.3 billion strong, though, in the name of convenience… why not?
Instead of wisely sleeping, I decided to beef up the Language section of Sinosplice tonight. I’ve been meaning to do it for a while, and I don’t think I’m going to have as much free time as I do now much longer. Anyway, this is just the beginning of some of the plans I have.
If you’re just starting to learn Chinese, this stuff is for you!