Tag: AllSet Learning

If You Could Ask Chinese College Kids Anything…


Apr 2013

If You Could Ask Chinese College Kids Anything…


The AllSet Learning Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app comes preloaded with several free “books.” Although I immensely enjoyed creating a story involving post-apocalyptic steam punk dinosaurs, in some ways those free books were the most interesting. That’s because the content of each book is a simple interview question which is then answered by 10 different Chinese college kids. They’re all studying in Shanghai, but they come from all over China. You get to hear each young person’s own voice, see their photo, and even read their actual handwriting (in characters), which is also accompanied by text. This is a lot more interesting than most textbooks the kids are using these days! Through this app, it’s my hope to show a diverse, modern side of China’s youth, different from other sources.

We’ve aimed for intermediate level learners in the past, but we would consider doing simpler or more difficult questions. The interview questions already included in the app are:

1. 你最喜欢吃什么? (What do you most like to eat?)

2. 谈到美国,你第一个想到的是什么? (When speaking of the USA, what’s the first thing you think of?)

3. 你认为幸福是什么? (What do you think happiness is?)

And this is the part where I ask you, my readers, what types of questions you’d like us to ask for the next round of interviews. The questions need to be relatively short, and somewhat open-ended, but nothing requiring an essay to answer. It’s OK to get just a little bit into the human side of politics (One Child Policy, etc.), but we’re not going to do any particularly inflammatory topics, or topics that could get the interviewees in trouble.

So what questions would you like to see covered in the Chinese Picture Book Reader? Please share in the comments, or drop me an email if you like.


Feb 2013

First Look at Google Glass and Chinese

I’m pretty into geeky tech stuff, so I’m excited about Google Glass. On the new promo site, though, I noticed this strange photo:

Google Glass for Buying Vegetables in Chinese

My first thought was, “where can you buy vegetables in Chinese by the pound?” Must be in Chinatown in the U.S.

I showed this to my wife, and her immediate reaction was, “they wrote the in 豆苗 wrong.”

If you’re using Google Glass to buy vegetables in Chinese in Chinatown in the U.S., I’d imagine you’re setting yourself up for quite a language power struggle. Much better to use Google Glass to record your interactions as you learn Chinese by using it (and possibly while getting realtime help from Google Glass).

Wow, I would love for AllSet Learning to be a part of an initiative like that! We’ll see how long it takes us to get our hands on Google Glass and onto the streets of Shanghai…


Feb 2013

The Chinese Grammar Wiki Is Kicking Ass

Yes, not often are such bold words warranted when discussing online resources for grammar, but in this particular case, it’s pretty much required.

The AllSet Learning News blog has the full story, but here’s the key takeaway on all the progress the Chinese Grammar Wiki has made over the past year:

  • Increased total article count from 500 to over 1200.
  • Added English translations for all A1 (beginner) and A2 (elementary) level grammar points.
  • Added pinyin to the introductions of many articles.
  • Overhauled search engine for greater accuracy and depth.
  • Added a “grammar box” to the top right of all grammar point pages, featuring level, similar grammar points, and keywords.
  • Added keyword pages (example: ) and keyword index.
  • Set up disambiguation pages for toneless pinyin (example: “hao“).
  • Broke long grammar point lists down into themed sections.
  • Began adding crucial comparison pages, in which two similar grammar points are compared (example: 不 and 没).
  • Began collecting grammar points in earnest for the forthcoming C1 (advanced) list.

Also, there’s now a Twitter account specifically for Chinese grammar-related questions and requests: @ChineseGrammar.

If you haven’t looked recently, it’s definitely time to check out this resource again. It’s not going away, and it’s really gaining momentum.


Dec 2012

Looking Back on 2012

Wow, this year December has turned out to be very low on posts. I’ve been trying to update twice a week, but I didn’t pull it off this month. I was in Florida visiting family for more than half the month, and blogging just didn’t happen.

While not blogging, I’ve been thinking a bit about how this 2012 went. I came up with two main conclusions.

It was a good year for AllSet Learning.

Again, I have to thank the exceptional bunch of people that have entrusted us to help them learn Chinese here in Shanghai. Our clients are our investors, and thanks to them, we’re going strong.

In 2012 AllSet Learning launched the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which has more than doubled in number of articles while quality of articles rises across the board (more on this later). We also released the AllSet Learning Pinyin iPad app in the first half of the year and the Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app in the second half. Both are doing well, and I’m just so pleased to be making my designs a reality.

We’ve also had some more awesome interns, a trend which looks to be continuing into 2013. (Thanks, guys!)

It was a bad year for staying in China.

I’ve remained silent on the news buzz about Mark Kitto et al because I don’t really think it’s that much of a story. But the disturbing thing about it all is that this year a surprisingly large proportion of my close friends in Shanghai have either left or announced plans to leave.

It’s not that I expected everyone to stay in Shanghai forever. I always tell people that I’ll be in China as long as it makes sense, and due to the particular career path I’ve chosen, it makes sense for me to stay around longer than perhaps a lot of my friends that have taken up residency here. But it still seems a little strange that so many friends would decide to leave all around the time. I suspect that the “10 year mark” has something to do with it. We humans do tend to attach importance to that number.

The latest to leave Shanghai is Brad Ferguson, of the website BradF.com, which has long since ceased to be his domain, but it’s how I originally got in touch with Brad. He helped me move into my first apartment in Shanghai the first time we met, which I think was a pretty good sign that he was a decent guy.

Brad did one thing before leaving which I thought was quite interesting. He got a Chinese character tattoo. Seems like most of the time the ones getting Chinese character tattoos are white people that have never set foot in Asia, and oftentimes end up inking questionable symbols on their bodies. Brad, however, got a pretty cool Chinese poem tattooed on his arm:

Brad's Tattoo

Not sure exactly about the meaning of a white guy getting such a tattoo on his arm as he leaves China, but it makes me think.

Why Chinese Needs Post-Apocalyptic Steam Punk (with Dinosaurs)


Dec 2012

Why Chinese Needs Post-Apocalyptic Steam Punk (with Dinosaurs)

At some point or another, many learners of Chinese here in China get the brilliant idea to buy Chinese children’s picture books and use them to learn Chinese. Genius, right? It’s got pictures, it’s for kids (so it’s gotta be simple), and it’s a story! What could go wrong, right?

You see, at the really low levels, China’s children’s books contain big, clear, colorful pictures, characters with pinyin, and sometimes even English. While these can be nice, they’re essentially pictorial flash cards in book form. If that’s what you’re looking for, they’re great, but they’re not stories.

As soon as you jump from “vocabulary books” to “story books,” however, something magical happens. “Magical” in the “holy crap, I’ve been studying Chinese for over two years and I can hardly read any of this book written for a 6-year-old” sense. One definitely gets the impression that these books are written not for the enjoyment of the young reader, but rather as the embodiment of the discovery that, “if we put pictures in these books, maybe we can trick even little kids into studying more characters and vocabulary in their free time.”

End results: (1) they’re way too hard for the typical Chinese learner, and (2) they’re not actually that interesting either.

One could be forgiven for thinking that maybe story books in electronic format are better. Sadly, they’re usually not. There are bilingual story books on the iPad, but most of them seem designed with the idea that either you want to read/listen to the story in English or in Chinese, but never both. As a result you have to start the whole story over if you want to switch languages. (And you may not even get pinyin, or have no option to hide it.) Not very learner-friendly.

Oh, and even on the iPad, there’s way too much of the 成语故事 (4-character idiom stories) mentality going on. In other words, “Oh, you want to learn Chinese through stories? OK, but only if the whole point is to memorize an obscure idiom. None of this time-wasting ‘using the language for your own enjoyment’ nonsense.

But I’m writing this post not just to complain about a lack of stories. I’m writing to report that I actually did something about it. I created an app that houses interesting stories. Not “slight variation of the status quo” stories, but something radically different. I mean, one of the stories literally takes place in a post-apocalyptic steam punk world. With cyborg dinosaurs. And it was drawn and co-created by a local Chinese artist. (Ssshhh, don’t tell him that the Chinese are not known for their creativity.)

I think I did this partly to prove to myself that it could be done. (It turns out the Chinese language itself is not averse to fresh new story settings.) But also, this industry needs to break out of its 5,000-year-old mold and recognize that modern learners want more options. Sure, maybe “post-apocalyptic steam punk (with dinosaurs)” is not exactly the rallying cry of bored students of Chinese across the world, but this is a start.

So even if “post-apocalyptic steam punk (with dinosaurs)” isn’t your thing, even if “cute dogs causing chaos in the park” isn’t your thing, even if “the thoughts, voices and handwriting of modern Chinese college kids” isn’t your thing, I would at least hope that more interesting options for studying Chinese is your thing. And for that reason, I ask you to please try out the new Chinese Picture Book Reader for the iPad. (The app is free.)

Thanks, everybody!


Nov 2012

What to Expect with Chinese Grammar

I’ve spent a nice chunk of my career on Chinese grammar, whether it’s explaining grammar structures in ChinesePod podcasts, working on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, or helping individual AllSet Learning clients. And two things that have become clearer and clearer to me are:

1. There are certain things that all learners struggle with at different stages of acquisition of Mandarin Chinese (this is consistent with the SLA concept of “order of acquisition”)

2. Most learners have no idea what to expect when it comes to the grammatical challenges that they’ll be up against (which can often make learners feel stupid for “just not getting it” immediately, not realizing that they’re struggling with something that all learners of Chinese struggle with)

To make a comparison with Spanish, most learners know from the beginning that they’re going to have to learn a bunch of verb conjugations for different tenses, gradually increasing in complexity over time. And beyond that, the subjunctive awaits. [Cue scary Spanish music]

OK, but what about Chinese? Many learners start with the patently false notion that “Chinese doesn’t really have grammar” or that “Chinese grammar is basically the same as English.” So they’re in for a fun little surprise there. This misconception doesn’t stand up long.

Chinese Grammar Hurdles

But beyond that, what is a learner to expect? The good news is that although different from English grammar, Chinese grammar isn’t horribly difficult. There are a few difficult points that deserve special attention, though, and I’ve created a new page on Sinosplice to point them out: Chinese Grammar Hurdles. The page is a rather simple list, but each point links to pages on the Chinese Grammar Wiki which have in-depth explanation (or will soon).

A few additional notes for beginners:

* Chinese word order isn’t the same as English word order. Sure, you can think of examples in which the word order is exactly the same. “I love you” = 我爱你, etc. But don’t expect that to hold true quite so neatly as you start adding in times, places, adverbs, etc.
* Particles are something new. Some of them, like and , aren’t too difficult to get the hang of. Others, like , will actually take a long time to get a handle on. But that’s OK… you learn the different uses of over time, and eventually it starts to gel, even if the accumulated understanding is not easily verbalized.
* Measure words are also something new, but they don’t need much attention at first. This is because you can actually get by for quite a while using the general-purpose measure word . So if your Chinese teacher is totally drilling you on all kinds of measure words when you just started studying Chinese, something is wrong. Learn the mechanics with , but focus on language more central to basic communication before focusing on expanding your measure word vocabulary.

Good luck in your studies of Chinese grammar! Although some things feel weird and arbitrary (as with any foreign language), Chinese grammar also has a strong thread of logic running through it that you’ll start to appreciate the deeper you get. For many learners, it’s a source of great satisfaction. Hopefully knowing what to expect with Chinese grammar will help you stick with it for the long haul.


Nov 2012

Animal House for Studying Chinese

We’ve been doing some video clip dubbing experiments for fun on the AllSet Learning YouTube page. We started with Downton Abbey, and did Dracula for Halloween. That one was a bit on the discouraging side (although what can you really expect from Dracula?), so we decided to do a much more upbeat one. The result is this classic clip from Animal House dubbed to be about learning Chinese.

Our intern Jack has been doing a good job and having a good time with this little experiment. He’s the “student” in the Dracula clip, and he conceived the Animal House clip (although our AllSet Learning teachers recorded that one). Good job, Jack!

Are clips like this useful as study material? Probably not, but if they give you a smile and get you listening to a bit more Chinese, they’re worth it. For sure, the ones learning the most are Jack the intern and our teachers. It gets them thinking about the limitations of certain forms of media, tradeoffs in production resources, and creativity applied to pedagogy. It’s a worthwhile investment for us as a company. (BTW, we post all our new videos to our Facebook page as well.)

Anyway, happy Friday! 中文!中文!中文!中文!中文!


Oct 2012

Chinese Grammar Survey – Respondents Needed!

One of my teachers at AllSet Learning is doing his masters thesis on online resources for learning Chinese, and naturally, he was intrigued by what we’ve built so far at the Chinese Grammar Wiki. So he decided to research the topic and help us out at the same time by doing a learner questionnaire.

Sinosplice readers, we could really use your help! It should only take a few minutes. The questions are easy.

– If you’ve never used the Chinese Grammar Wiki, we’d still love you to complete the survey.
– If you have used the Chinese Grammar Wiki, we’d especially love you to complete the survey.

Thanks so much, everyone, for your time. We’re building a massive online resource, and this kind of feedback is very valuable.

Oct. 29 UPDATE: We’ve gotten all the responses we needed. Thanks very much to everyone who answered the survey.


Oct 2012

Pascal’s Triangle and Chinese

This is one of those blog posts where I take two seemingly very different topics and connect them to China or Chinese. This time it’s about Pascal’s Triangle, one of my favorite mathematical concepts. In case you’re unfamiliar with Pascal’s Triangle, here are some images from Wikimedia Commons that nicely illustrate the principle:

Pascal's Triangle calculations

Pascal's Triangle rows 0-16

Here’s the China connection (via Wikipedia):

> The set of numbers that form Pascal’s triangle were known before Pascal. However, Pascal developed many uses of it and was the first one to organize all the information together in his treatise, Traité du triangle arithmétique (1653). The numbers originally arose from Hindu studies of combinatorics and binomial numbers and the Greeks’ study of figurate numbers.

> […]

> In 13th century, Yang Hui [杨辉] (1238–1298) presented the arithmetic triangle that is the same as Pascal’s triangle. Pascal’s triangle is called Yang Hui’s triangle in China. The “Yang Hui’s triangle” was known in China in the early 11th century by the Chinese mathematician Jia Xian [贾宪] (1010–1070).

Yang Hui’s diagram contains some interesting-looking numbers. Check it out:

Yanghui triangle

Compare that to Pascal’s triangle above. What’s up with these Chinese numbers? You can follow the upper-right to lower-left diagonal (one row in) to follow the numbers 1-8. You get this:

1. 一
2. 二
3. 三
4. 亖
5. [no Unicode symbol for this one; it’s just 亖 + 一 (vertical)] 6. ᅡ
7. ᅣ
8. [no Unicode symbol for this one; it’s just ᅵ + 三 (horizontal)]

You can gather that 10 is 으 [a symbol I borrowed from Korean Hangul for the purposes of this post], which also looks like “10” turned sideways. 20, though, is 〇二 [except with the 〇 sitting on top of the 二], and so on.

I’ve written before on Chinese number character variants, but these are different from those. The numbers look similar to Suzhou numerals and Shang oracle numerals, but are still a bit different from both. I’m curious if anyone out there know more about these numbers? The diagram supposedly dates to 1303 (more info on Wikimedia Commons).

There’s another personal connection between me and Pascal’s Triangle. As part of my research for AllSet Learning, I make use of basic set theory and higher-level Venn diagrams. Considering that in a Venn diagram, by definition, all possible logical relations between sets must be represented, it can get quite tricky to draw these things when you delve into Venn diagrams with higher numbers of sets (more than 3). But how do you know how many overlapping regions there are in the Venn diagrams as the numbers of sets increase? Pascal’s triangle.

(BTW, some of the research we’re doing now at AllSet Learning could make use of interns with a foundation in statistics, mathematics, or computer science. If that’s you, get in touch! More on AllSet Learning’s interns here.)


Sep 2012

AllSet Learning Pinyin App in Video

I’ve been quite busy with AllSet Learning lately and haven’t been updating Sinosplice (oh, the blogger guilt!), but here’s a little video we did lately to provide an easy preview for the AllSet Learning Pinyin ipad app:

The app is doing great! Thanks very much to everyone who’s downloaded it, recommended it to friends, and purchased the optional addons.

If you don’t have the app, you can get AllSet Learning Pinyin here.


Jul 2012

AllSet Learning Pinyin Chart: now with Gwoyeu Romatzyh!

Yesterday we released version 1.6 of the AllSet Learning Pinyin iPad app. We’ve been getting lots of good feedback on the app (thank you everyone, for the support!), and this latest release is just a small taste of some new functionality coming to this app.

The major thing we added this time that all users can enjoy is the “play all 4 tones in a row” button. It works really well in conjunction with the audio overlay window (not sure what to call that thing semi-transparent rounded-corner box that pops up when you adjust volume on an iPad or play audio in this app). So not only are you hearing the tones, but you’re also seeing the pinyin text in big letters right in front of your face as it plays. The key point is that because the text is big, the tone marks are also clearly visible. (This can be a problem with some software.)

Aside from that, we also added four new romanizations to the chart as addons (click the links below to learn more about each):

  1. Yale Romanization
  2. Gwoyeu Romatzyh
  3. Tongyong Pinyin
  4. MPS2 Romanization

The latter two are of interest mainly to Taiwan-focused sinologists. The first one is of interest to sinologists that like to poke around in musty old texts (the same types that are interested in Wade-Giles). The second one, however, is rather special.

Zhao Yuanren

Gwoyeu Romatzyh was invented by Chao Yuen Ren (赵元任), as legendary a linguistic badass as any that has ever existed. I won’t dwell on him in this article, but one of his accomplishments is inventing his own romanization method (Gwoyeu Romatzyh) which uses alternate spellings to indicate tones rather than tone marks or numbers. The idea was that tones should be an integral part of each Chinese syllable, not merely something tacked onto the end as an afterthought, and that binding tone to the spelling of each syllable is a way to enforce that.

Unfortunately, Gwoyeu Romatzyh (AKA “GR”) is a bit confusing. You can’t have regular alternate spelling conventions without running into conflicts, which forces a certain amount of irregularity, and well… it gets a little messy. It was definitely an interesting experiment, nevertheless.

While I would never considera using GR for any practical purpose, I do find that having GR on the AllSet Learning Pinyin chart breathes new life into the system for me, specifically as I play through the four tones of various syllables and watch the text update accordingly. Patterns start to emerge. Check out the following video, where I first play the syllable “shang” in pinyin (all 4 tones), then switch over to GR and repeat it, and then go through a whole slew of syllables in all 4 tones.

If you have an iPad, please be sure to check out version 1.6 of the AllSet Learning Pinyin app. Note that GR is available as an addon in the “Addons” section.


Jun 2012

How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?

To answer this question, I’ll start by quoting from a Quora page, where two heavyweights gave excellent answers:

Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan/大山:

> When I started learning Chinese, I was horrified to hear that it would take me 10 years to become fluent. 27 years later I’m still working at it. Due to my work on television, some Chinese language learners may consider me a role model of sorts, but every day I’m reminded of what I don’t know and how much more there is to learn.

> “Fluent” is a relative concept. I would summarize:

> 2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job (because 2 years is enough to bullshit your way through a situation in front of non-speakers).

> 5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.

> 10 years to feel comfortable in the language.

David Moser:

> The old saying I heard when I first started learning Chinese was, “Learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility”. At the time I assumed that the point of this aphorism was that after five years you will have mastered humility along with Chinese. After I put in my five years, however, I realized the sad truth: I had mastered humility, alright, but my Chinese still had a long way to go. And still does.

> As the the above answers indicate, the notion of “fluent” is very vague and goal-dependent. Needless to say, the Chinese writing system does more than any other aspect to hamper mastery, to the extent that adult speakers must address the daunting problems of the script in order to function in the language. As an instructive metric, however, we can turn to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey for some rough estimates of the relative difficulty. They divide languages into different difficulty groups. Group I includes the “usual” languages a student might study, such as French and Italian. They estimate “Hours of instruction required for a student with average language aptitude to reach level-2 proficiency” (never mind what level-2 means) to be 480 hours. A further level is characterized as “Speaking proficiency level expected of a student with superior language aptitude after 720 hours of instruction”, which is “Level 3”, which apparently is their highest level of non-native fluency. Chinese is grouped into Category IV, along with Japanese. The number of hours needed to reach level two is 1320 (about 3 times as much as required for French), and the highest expected level for a superior student after 720 hours is only 1+, i.e. an advanced beginner. These are old statistics, but the proportional differences are bound to be similar today.

> My own experience, in a nutshell: French language students after 4 years are hanging out in Paris bistros, reading everything from Voltaire to Le Monde with relative ease, and having arguments about existentialism and debt ceilings. Chinese language students after four years still can’t read novels or newspapers, can have only simple conversations about food, and cannot yet function in the culture as mature adults. And this even goes for many graduate students with 6-7 or 8 years of Chinese. Exceptions abound, of course, but in general the gap between mastery of Chinese vs. the European languages is enormous. To a great extent the stumbling block is simply the non-phonetic and perversely memory-intensive writing system, but other cultural factors are at work as well.

(David Moser is the guy who once explained why learning Chinese is so damn hard.)

My own experiences:

I’m not going to go into the complex issues already covered above (and I should also note that my Chinese is nowhere near as good as Mark Rowswell’s), but Mark’s numbers seem fairly realistic to me.

Because I began my study of Chinese in the States, then moved to China and started practicing on my own pretty hardcore, I’d say I hit Mark’s “basic fluency” milestone at around 4 years of study. “Feeling comfortable” probably came after about 8 years, but I think my standard for “comfortable” is also lower than Mark’s. (I seriously doubt I am as comfortable now as Mark was after 10 years!)

What’s the deal?

It always pisses some people off when you say that learning Chinese is hard, or that it takes a really long time. In fact, it tends to inspire certain learners to go out of their way to prove that the opposite is true: Chinese is not hard, and doesn’t take long to learn. That’s fine; somewhere between the extreme views the truth can be found. But I’ve always found it important to have a realistic view of what you’re getting into, and getting someone like Mark Rowswell’s take on the question is certainly interesting!

It seems that some people are afraid that many people will be “scared off” if Chinese is too often represented as “difficult,” and that those that attain some mastery and then tell others that it wasn’t easy are simply jealously guarding their own perceived “specialness.” Personally, I started learning Chinese precisely because I viewed it as a serious challenge, and didn’t fall in love with it until much later. I’ve heard many times that Malay is really easy to learn, but that’s never made me want to learn it.

The good news

The good news is that I truly believe that learning Chinese is getting easier, or that students are learning it faster than they used to. I’ve been observing this trend on my own anecdotally over the years as I meet ChinesePod visitors, as I meet new arrivals to China, as I take on new AllSet Learning clients, and as I work with new interns. The “Total Newb on Arrival” is getting rarer, tones are getting better, and some people are even showing up in China for the first time already able to hold a conversation. Nice!

I’ve compared notes with Chinese teachers abroad, and some teachers are making the same observations. One teacher told me that universities are having to restructure their Chinese courses because the original courses were not demanding enough, or didn’t go far enough. What’s going on here?

I think a combination of the following factors are playing a part:

– Kids are starting to learn Chinese sooner
– Chinese learning materials are getting better
– Technology is making learning characters (and pronunciation) less laborious
– Competition is naturally raising the bar
– Increased awareness about the Chinese language and culture make the whole prospect less intimidating overall

This is all very good news! And if this is a long-running trend that has been accelerating in recent years, it could also mean that while Mark Rowswell’s and David Moser’s accounts are totally truthful, it won’t be as time-consuming for you as it was for them because the difficulty (or time involved) to learn Chinese is depreciating, without us even having to do anything!

One more thing

Oh, and let me also quote Charles Laughlin from the Quora thread, who replied:

> Who cares how long it takes? Just do it! If you really want to learn Chinese, you will devote yourself to it however long it takes.

Very true.


Jun 2012

More Simple Chinese Signs

A while back I did a post on the simple characters around you. I’ve been slowly collecting some other simple signs. Here are three more.

Noodle to Noodle

面对面 (noodle shop)

In simplified Chinese, can mian either “noodle” or “face.” 面对面 means “face to face,” hence the obvious pun. (Note: in traditional Chinese, the “noodle” character is written .)

The other characters are 重庆, the city of Chongqing.

Big Big Small Small


大大小小 can means “big and small,” and can refer to both “all ages” as well as “all sizes.” Makes sense for a clothing store!

City West Middle School


市西中学 is sort of on the west side of the downtown Shanghai area (near Jing’an Temple, across the street from the AllSet Learning office). It’s one of the best middle schools in Shanghai. (I guess you don’t need a fancy name with obscure characters to be elite.)


May 2012

Back to Jing’an (thoughts)

When I first moved to Shanghai, I lived in the Jing’an Temple area, behind the Portman Ritz Carlton Hotel on Nanjing Road. It was a cool place to start out my Shanghai experience, and I enjoyed my time there (even if there weren’t many good eating options nearby). I discovered the joys of Shanghai morning walks to work there, and the whole “familiar strangers” thing was interesting. Later, though, I moved to the Zhongshan Park area, where I’ve been living for about 7 years now.

Jingan Temple in Late Morning

photo by Neil Noland

Well, now that the AllSet Learning office has established its new office in the Jing’an Temple area, I’m spending a lot more time here, and really liking it. I can’t realistically walk to work every day anymore, but this area sure is nice to wander around in. I’ve also got new neighbors now, and it’s good to be able to more frequently see friends that live in this area. (If you live/work in the Jing’an Temple area and want to meet up and do lunch or something, get in touch!)

The move has been keeping me busy (and away from this blog), together with hiring new employees. Building my own team of passionate staff has been a really great experience, though. They say that when you start a new business, it never turns out how you expected, and while my business plan is going more or less as planned, the aspects that turn out to be the most challenging and rewarding have been surprising. Hiring, training, and building long-term relationships with Chinese staff have definitely been at the top of both the “challenging” and “rewarding” lists.

In 2007 I wrote two posts about “how I learned Chinese”: Part 1 and Part 2. I always intended to write a part 3, because I definitely feel that I’m still learning Chinese very actively after all this time, but have not yet written it because it was never clear in my mind what the next stage was, where it began, and where it ended (or will end).

It’s now clear to me that “Part 3” was grad school in China plus work at ChinesePod, and “Part 4,” a huge new challenge, is starting and running a business in Chinese. A kind commenter, after reading through this blog’s whole 10 year archive, has recently reminded me that I’ve written very few personal articles on Sinosplice lately, and that it sort of feels like something is missing now. Well, I’m planning on writing some thoughts on these experiences soon; and hopefully my readers will find them interesting or helpful in some way.

In the meantime, friends in Jing’an should hit me up… (and I’ll be getting caught up on my email soon!)

A New iPad App for Learning Pinyin


Apr 2012

A New iPad App for Learning Pinyin

I’m very happy to finally announce that AllSet Learning has just released its first iOS app for the iPad, called AllSet Learning Pinyin. It’s a simple app, designed to take the typical pinyin chart we all start learning Chinese with and adapt it to the iPad. So that means supporting multiple orientations, as well as zooming and panning. And, of course, tapping for audio.

Last year AllSet Learning’s clients started buying up iPads at surprising rates, and all the beginners had the same request: I want a pinyin chart designed for my iPad. So that’s what we built.

More screenshots available on the product page

The app is free, and comes with not only audio for all pinyin syllables in all four tones, but also support for non-pinyin phonetic representations. So you can switch from pinyin to IPA, and even to other systems like Wade-Giles and zhuyin if you purchase the (very inexpensive) addons.

More addons for the app are coming. In the meantime, please try it out, tell your friends about it, and rate it in the App Store. Thanks!

Related Links:

AllSet Learning Pinyin on the App Store
AllSet Learning Pinyin on the AllSet Learning website


Feb 2012

Unmixing Chinese and Japanese fonts on the iPad and Mac OS

Recently an AllSet Learning client came to me with an interesting problem: he was seeing strange, slightly “off” variations of characters in his ChinesePod lesson, “Adjusting the Temperature.” Once upon a time I studied Japanese, so I could recognize the characters he was seeing as Japanese variants:

What he saw:
ChinesePod fonts (with Japanese characteristics)

What he expected to see:
ChinesePod fonts (fully simplified Chinese)

[If you really care about the tiny discrepancy, you may need to click through and enlarge the screenshot to see the difference. I’m not going to focus on including text here, because that’s exactly the nature of the problem: the text is subject to change based on your system’s font availability.]

The really strange thing was that he was experiencing the exact same issue on both his 2010 MacBook and on his iPad 2. In troubleshooting this problem, I discovered that my client was running both an older version of iOS (4.x) as well as an older version of Mac OS (Leopard). I was experiencing neither on my 2008 MacBook (running Snow Leopard) or on my iPad 2 (iOS 5.x). But his system had all the required fonts, and switching browsers from Safari to others did nothing to solve the problem. So I concluded it was simply a system configuration problem.

Fixing the issue on the iPad

Here’s the fix. On the iPad, go into Settings > General > International (you might need to scroll down for that last one). You might see something like this:

iPad Language Settings (2)

Note that in the order pictured above, Japanese (日本語) is above simplified Chinese (简体中文) in the list. This is crucial! That means that if English fonts are not found for the characters on a given page, the system is going to match characters to Japanese fonts next.

So to fix this issue, Chinese should be above Japanese. The thing is, there’s no obvious way to change the order. The only way I found to do it is to switch the system language to Chinese, then switch back to English. [Warning: your entire iOS system interface will switch to Chinese when you do this; make sure you can read the Chinese, or you know where the menu position for this settings page is before you switch!]

(Hint, hint!)

Switching to Chinese makes the Chinese jump to the top of the list, then switching back to English makes English jump back above that, leaving Japanese below Chinese.

You should see something like this when you’re done:

iPad Language Settings (1)

Fixing the issue on Mac OS X

The exact some issue applies to Mac OS X system preferences. Go to: System Preferences… > Language & Text > Language.

Mac OS System Preferences

This time, though, there’s an easier way to rearrange the order. Simply click and drag:

Mac OS Language Settings

Notice the little message on the right about when the changes will take effect.

Does this really matter?

In the grand scheme of things, not really. It’s actually good to have some tolerance for font variations. But the detail-oriented may find this particular issue quite maddening. It’s good to have a simple way to fix it.

So why didn’t I have the issue, and he did? Well, I had at some point tried switching the system language to Chinese, on both my MacBook and on my iPad, but I later switched them back to English. So without even trying to, I had taught my system to prefer Chinese over Japanese. The problem appears when English is the only language ever used, and the system doesn’t know what to give preference to. In my client’s case, you would think that adding a Chinese input method might clue in the system, but apparently Apple isn’t quite that on the ball yet.


Feb 2012

Ideas for Moms’ Trips to Shanghai

I’ve been away from blogging recently as my parents were here visiting their new granddaughter. It was only their second trip to Shanghai, and before they got here I spent some time wracking my brains for good things to do. There are tons of things to do in this city, but so very few of them are obvious. The best ideas always seem to occur to me too late.

Mary Ann, an AllSet Learning client of mine who is a mother herself, had recently compiled a list of mom-friendly activities for her own mother-in-law’s visit, and she kindly shared it with me, along with her comments. I thought some readers might find it useful, so here it is, with her persmission:

Urban Planning Museum. I find it interesting, and I think most people who like cities are usually into it. The top floor now shows a short movie which shows a 360 panoramic view of Shanghai from Hongqiao to Pudong. I haven’t seen it but my kids and visitors have and everyone has liked it!
– “Ghost Market.” That Antique market on early mornings on Saturdays and Sundays near Yuan gardens. I find it fascinating that so many people come to Shanghai from the countryside to sell ceramic shards. I like to watch the background social scene but picking through some of the stuff is fun too.
Old China Reading Room on Shaoxing Lu. Restful place to browse books and drink tea (nice Austrian cakes at Vienna Cafe nearby)
Glasses Market above the Railway Station. Since your parents aren’t shoppers, the one market that they might be able to get something at and take part in Shanghai commerce madness is the Glasses Market. They should bring a prescription with them from the U.S. and get some glasses made. People with glasses can always use a spare and much much cheaper than in Europe, I’m assuming the same in the U.S. My friend’s ophthalmologist sends all her patients to Bright Eyes Optical (stall 4056). I have taken people to get glasses done there and they were all were happy afterwards. Speak to Linda; she speaks English (in case your parents go on their own).
Historic houses on/around Sinan Lu. Visit the ones converted into museums.
Walking Tour. Yes, I’m insisting on this! And no, you can’t walk them around with an app instead! All parents like this sort of thing. Of course skip the cheesy ones but do go for the historian-led ones, or at least the ones led by guides with more street cred. The highly recommended guy who does the tours of the Jewish Heritage sites is an Israeli journalist/historian who runs shanghai-jews.com.
Hang out at a Tea House. You probably know of a good one. [Actually, not really!]
Foot Massage or other treatment at Xiao Nan Guo (Hongmei Lu). Have you been here? I’ve only eaten there a few times. The spa part of it has all spa typical treatments available PLUS there’s entertainment, which I think is daily. I think it would be great to take them to a foot massage while watching a show of russian dancers. Why, they may ask? Well… why not? Sounds kooky but that’s the point. Anyway, supposed to be pretty affordable so it could be something to do.
Propaganda Poster Museum.
– I accidentally came across a place in the Old town where they sell books by weight… quite amusing. Have you seen this? Isn’t one of your parents a librarian? Might be worth a bit of a hoot if in the area…
Spin Ceramics on Kangding Lu. Something for themselves or for a gift. Do you know this place? Fab stuff at great prices.

Sadly, my parents only got to do the first thing on this awesome list, but they did have a great time (despite Shanghai’s inhospitable winter weather). Hopefully someone else will find it useful.

Another client recommended Shanghai Pathways for tours, but we ended up just not having time for so many activities.

If you’ve done any of these things or have anything else to add, please leave a comment!

Related Posts:

China Lite (2011)
Micah and John on Touring Shanghai (2008)

A New Resource for Chinese Grammar


Jan 2012

A New Resource for Chinese Grammar

It’s hard to believe I’ve been working on this project for a whole year, and also thinking about it, in some form or another, ever since founding AllSet Learning. Today, I’m quite happy to finally release the AllSet Learning Grammar Wiki.

What is it? Well, in a nutshell, it’s a mini-Wikipedia devoted entirely to Chinese grammar. Think comprehensive, think interlinked, think referenced. I’ve felt for a while that Chinese grammar has needed its own champion online, and since forming AllSet Learning, I’ve finally got both the need and the means to make it happen and keep it going.

I won’t say too much here; there’s a blog post on the AllSet Learning blog introducing the features and concepts behind the Grammar Wiki. Obviously, you can also just go straight to the wiki and check it out.

There’s not yet any public forum on the AllSet Learning websites, so if you’ve got feedback, feel free to leave it in the comments here. Please do read the AllSet Learning blog post first, though, as it may answer some of your questions. I’d also like to reiterate that the Grammar Wiki is not finished, and I’m not sure it ever will be, but with 500 articles and a good juicy set of grammar points it’s now at a point where it’s clearly useful to learners, so it’s time for it to emerge from its cave and be exposed to the rest of the world.

Finally, I’d like to thank the AllSet Learning interns who, over the past year, have helped make the Chinese Grammar Wiki a reality: Lucas, Greg, Hugh, and Jonathan. You guys were an immense help. Thank you also to all bloggers and friends who help spread the word by linking to the Chinese Grammar Wiki. Please help spread the word!

That’s all for now… Happy Chinese New Year!


Dec 2011

Chinese Lyrics (with Pinyin) for Christmas Songs

Christmas songs in Chinese

Sinosplice’s Christmas Songs in Chinese have been popular every year around this time for a while now, and one of the most common comments let has been, “can you provide the lyrics in pinyin?” Well, it’s actually quite a lot of work to assemble all the (correct) lyrics, which is why I hadn’t done it before. This year, however, I decided to leverage some of AllSet Learning‘s resources and finally make it happen. (They may not be perfect though, as some songs were manually transcribed, and the audio was a little unclear. So if you catch any errors, please leave a comment, and we’ll update ASAP.)

So for the MP3 audio, go to the original Christmas Songs in Chinese post. For the lyrics (simplified characters and pinyin), download here:

Christmas Songs in Chinese lyrics (1.2 MB ZIP file containing PDFs)

Note: Some of these songs (especially the religious ones) do not have easy lyrics! Think twice before you try to use some of these songs as study material.

Merry Christmas!


Aug 2011

Shanghai Internships for Learning Chinese

Today marks the end of the summer internships at AllSet Learning. We had our first intern, Donna, last summer. That was when the company was just starting out. Since we now have quite a few more clients and a whole team of teachers, there were a lot more interesting tasks for this summer’s interns, Lucas and Hugh. And their internships were pretty cool, directly related to learning Chinese.

Some of the things the AllSet Learning interns got to do:

Lucas and Hugh

– Take demo lessons to help evaluate different teachers’ teaching methods
– Play with “Chinese character building blocks” (a children’s educational toy set), experimenting with Chinese character constructions
– Provide feedback on various types of learning materials, from comics to Communist Party doctrine to iPad apps
– Help research and compile Chinese grammar information
– Test the effect of regular tone pair drills
– Participate in game-like components of teacher training sessions
– Play Settlers of Catan (and explain it in Chinese)
– Eat 东北菜 (pictured above)

One of the things I personally gained from having the interns around the office was a reminder of the very specific early challenges learners of Chinese face. But I also saw firsthand how the new generation of learners is coming to China much better prepared and knowledgeable. One of my interns, Hugh, even has an excellent blog on learning Chinese called East Asia Student. I’ve mentioned it before, but the days of coming to China clueless and expecting to have opportunities thrown at you really are winding down (or at least moving to China’s smaller cities).

Anyway, if you’re a bright young mind looking for an internship that offers the opportunity to learn Chinese, we’ve got them at AllSet Learning.

And finally, a sincere thank you to Lucas and Hugh for their hard work this summer. You guys were great!

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