You know “the Chinese font“? The one that just screams Oriental, because it looks like it’s made out of bamboo pieces (?), mystically arranged by a wispy-bearded kung fu master?
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me remind you:
Well, the above font is one that, in my experience, you’ll be hard-pressed to find in mainland China, especially in Chinese. (Anyone out there have a different experience?) Most typed Chinese here is in one of about 4 fonts, and “Oriental” isn’t one of them. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose; the Chinese just have no reason to parody themselves.
There’s a place on the way to the AllSet office in Shanghai that actually uses the “Oriental” font, though, in Chinese. This is a rare find. Here it is:
That’s a dry cleaner’s window. The “Oriental font” is in the middle. It says, 八折价, which means “80% of the original price.”
One of the reasons I rushed to get an iPad for my own company is that the iPad is the leading tablet computer device, and tablet computers, with their relatively large touch-driven screens, seem uniquely poised to offer a great learning experience for a new generation of learners. Now that the iPad has been out for a year, developers have had some time to dig into iOS and create some cool apps for learning to write Chinese characters.
The only problem is that they haven’t yet. It’s not that they haven’t done anything, it’s just that no major player with a lot of resources has put a lot of effort into creating a superior app just for teaching writing. Significant effort has gone into Pleco‘s iOS handwriting recognition and OCR function, but neither of these teaches writing.
Before I go into my reviews of the handful of Chinese writing apps I found, I should first pose a question: what should an app that teaches Chinese characters do? This is a question that at times seems neglected by app creators. It’s easier to focus on what can be done with an app, rather than what needs to be done for real learning.
To effectively teach the writing of Chinese characters in a comprehensive way, an app would need to do the following:
1. Introduce the basic strokes, emphasizing the direction in which each is written and the shape of each.
2. Introduce the building blocks of Chinese characters, calling attention to how they function is a part of a whole.
3. Introduce the various structural types exhibited by Chinese characters, and the order in which characters’ various component parts should be written.
4. Introduce new characters in a progressive way, building on what has come before, while still trying to stick to useful characters as much as possible.
5. Provide practice writing the characters and give feedback.
This issue goes way beyond the scope of this blog post, but the point is that most of the apps out there now stick mainly to #5. Because most of the apps are largely about practicing writing, I’m going to talk mostly about the concepts of tracing and feedback. Now onto the reviews…
Yes, a green star tells you where to start writing when you go off track. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
No; tracing only
Word Tracer is a very polished app. It’s attractive and was clearly crafted with care. The issue of stroke direction takes center stage in this app, as a star in a green circle tells you where to start, and a series of numbers in little circles show you which way to make the strokes.
While the app is not a course in characters (which would need to go through numbers 1-4 I outlined above), it does offer a nice collection of characters to choose from, ranging from a frequency list to common phrases. I missed this feature at first, and it definitely adds a lot.
Overall, the app shows a lot of attention to detail. It wasn’t created to be a writing course, so it’s mainly a polished “writing practice app,” and its name very clearly states what this app is all about: tracing. It can’t help you with recalling characters without any prompt and writing them out.
On the plus side, I actually met with the main developer in Shanghai, and he seems quite open to suggestions for improvement, and has plans to make the app better. (Full disclosure: the developer let me try out this app for free.)
If you’ve already learned how to write characters and are looking for a mechanical way to practice writing on your iPad, this app is not a bad choice.
Yes, a big red “X” tells you when you make a mistake but gives you no immediate clue where you went wrong. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
No; tracing only
I really like that this app tries to be a game. It’s not the most fun game in the world, but I’ve seen more than one learner really get into it. The timed aspect also adds another dimension which makes the “trace the strokes” mechanic a bit less monotonous (at least for a while). I also like the options in the beginning (although that screen with its crazy animated background is a little busy).
The way the game works is that characters slowly drop for the top of the screen. You tap them once to zoom in, then quickly trace over them to “destroy” them. That’s it. If you can write a character especially fast, you are praised with a “很快” (“very fast”). If you’re too slow or keep getting the strokes wrong, the character eventually drops off the bottom of the screen, and that’s one strike against you.
One of the best things about the app is that at the end, after you’ve gotten your 5 wrong characters and the game is over, the game shows you which characters you got right and which you got wrong, and then you can review the correct stroke order for the ones you got wrong. The app is never especially clear about the direction of strokes, however.
In the end, it’s tracing only, and the characters are chosen at random. The app is solid, though, and it’s free. Not bad for basic mechanical writing practice.
Price: Free (tutorial only; additional account required for other functionality)
Yes, the correct stroke flashes on the screen when you make a mistake. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
Chinese Writer sets itself apart in that it is not a tracing app. It’s slightly confusing at first, because (1) the app button is labeled “ChinesePad,” and (2) it seems like you have to sign up for a Popup Chinese account to use the app, since neither the simplified or traditional “practice mode” seem to do anything. Apparently only the “tutorial mode” is available if you don’t have a subscription (that button works).
As you write each stroke, the app shows your stroke in red, but it doesn’t actually save it on the screen; it either accepts it as “correct” and replaces it with a print-style version of the stroke, or it rejects it and erases it, flashing the correct stroke in the correct place to prompt you.
In theory, the app is fine, sort of a simpler version of the Skritter system. It can be confusing, though, rejecting seemingly perfect strokes, and rejecting quite imperfect ones.
The app is free, and will be updated in time, according to Dave Lancashire, the developer. When asked if it will stay free, his reply was, “I can’t see changing the price, although you should tell people it will be $99.99 next week so GET IT NOW!”
No automated feedback, just a layer of numbers to indicate where strokes should start
Chinagram is not free and contains a very limited number of characters, but in many ways, it’s my favorite of these apps. While it doesn’t teach strokes or radicals, it does show the evolution of the characters through various scripts over time, and offers graphics to help clarify the pictographic characters.
I also like how the app offers very free-form writing practice. There’s no computer program to tell you you’re right or wrong. There’s simply a faint guide which can be switched on or off, and some little guide numbers to help with stroke order, which are not tied to the tracing guide, and can also be independently turned on or off. This simple combination of options makes for a quite satisfying range of writing practice possibilities.
With Chinagram, it does kind of feel like you’re paying for design and pretty graphics, but let’s face it: characters are graphic. Chinagram offers an attractive and appealing, although somewhat limited, introduction to the writing of Chinese characters. I’d still want more instruction on how to write characters than this app offers, but it definitely goes farther than the three above.
Indirectly, because if you’re too far off in your stroke order, the character you’re trying to write won’t appear
One of the things that struck me while reviewing these iPad apps is that (1) many of them assume some previous study of characters, and (2) if you’ve previously studied characters, there’s probably nothing better than just writing. And the iPad let’s you do that out of the box. All you need to do is enable Chinese handwriting input:
Once you’ve got that working, go into the “Notes” app (or anything that lets you write text, really), and just try to write something. You’ll learn a lot just by the act of writing the characters stroke by stroke, and identifying the one you want from the resulting list of characters. If you get a character totally wrong, chances are, it won’t be in the list. Try again.
(In the example above on the right, the correct character “写” meaning “to write” is written in a way that is clearly recognizable, but does not appear in the list of resulting characters because the stroke order/direction used was totally wrong.)
This really is not a bad option for practicing writing, especially if you have someone you can write to.
My conclusion: these apps are worth checking out, but better writing apps for Chinese are still needed!
I have a student intern at AllSet named Lucas, who kindly gave me his own feedback on the four apps above. Lucas has studied Chinese for three years in college, and is currently studying Chinese in Shanghai for the summer. I asked him to rank the four apps, and make some comments about each. Here are his independent picks, #1 being his favorite:
1. Chinesegram: “Seeing the picture and comparing the scripts and evolution helps me remember them better.”
2. Word Tracer: “Helpful for learning stroke order, but a bit over-sensitive, which can be frustrating.”
> “Naked wedding” refers to not buying a house, not buying a car, not having a wedding ceremony, not buying wedding rings, and just directly registering legally for marriage as a way to save money. Since ancient times, marriage has always been seen as a major event in a person’s life, the pomp of the ceremony directly reflecting a family’s social status. The gradual popularization of the “naked wedding,” however, has emerged as a new wedding trend for the post-80’s generation.
Industrialization and commercialization in a society are inevitably followed by a generation that rejects the new materialistic forms of social status, right? Here’s another sign that the forces for such a social change are building in China…
One of our teachers at AllSet Learning introduced a hilarious Chinese article to me on the grammatical usage of the phrase 他妈的 (often abbreviated as “TMD”). The most appropriate translation of 他妈的 in English is usually “fucking” (in the emphatic sense), so if that offends you, stop reading now.
The origin of this article is unclear to me, but it dates back to at least 2009 (here’s a copy). Anyway, I found the article both funny and instructional, so I’ve translated it below. This is the kind of thing that has tons of translation options, though, so suggestions for more skillful translations are always welcome!
The grammatically correct use of “TMD” (“fucking”)
In this article, I will offer some simple explanations and examples regarding this expression.
Consider the following sentence:
This year’s test questions were the same as the exercise questions.
There’s ambiguity here: are we saying that that the questions on the test were really the same as the exercise questions, or are we just metaphorically stating that the test questions simply resembled the exercise questions? At this time, “fucking” becomes useful. We can insert “fucking” into this sentence to make the distinction:
“This year’s test questions were the fucking same as the exercise questions.” (indicating identical to the exercise questions)
“This year’s test questions were the same as the fucking exercise questions.” (suggesting that the test questions were too simple)
There are many similar cases, for example:
[Translator’s note: I don’t think there’s any way to preserve this ambiguity in English translation, so I’m forced to translate it twice in English.]
“This explanation is unclear.” / “This cannot be explained clearly.”
There are two meanings here: that the explanation itself is not lucid, or that the matter is difficult to explain. However, once we add “fucking,” the ambiguity immediately disappears:
“This explanation is fucking unclear.” (the explanation itself is not helpful)
“This cannot be fucking explained clearly.” (the issue is difficult to explain)
“Didn’t finish reading it once.” / “Didn’t finish reading it all at once.”
This sentence has two meanings: did not finish reading it a single time, or didn’t finish reading it all at once. If we insert “fucking” in different positions, the ambiguity can also be removed:
“Didn’t fucking finish reading it all at once” (didn’t finish reading it all in one go)
“Didn’t finish reading it fucking once”
(simply has not ever finished reading it)
Therefore, our fucking conclusion is that we should advocate the fucking inclusion of “fucking,” which can fucking assist in the clarity of fucking sentence structure, reduce fucking syntactic ambiguity, and make possible obstacle-free fucking communication.
We recently purchased an iPad 2 for AllSet Learning, and quickly set about looking for useful apps for learning Chinese. It didn’t take long for me to realize a basic truth about having an iPad: once you have an iPad, you want to run iPad apps on it, not iPhone apps. And the there are way more iPhone apps out there for learning Chinese than there are iPad apps. The purpose of this post is to call attention to the decent iPad apps out there.
I realize this post isn’t going to stay current for very long, and that’s OK. Rapid innovation is one of the things that drew me to the iOS platform in the first place. For now, though, I have my top picks for iPad apps for learning Chinese. One thing I should make clear in advance, though: many of these apps are not explicitly for learning Chinese; they’re simply apps in Chinese (good sources of more input).
I must admit that I’m not a fan of the QQ IM client. But this app is great. It doesn’t require any kind of QQ login or account; it’s just a simple app for streaming Chinese movies and TV shows, and it’s fast (in Shanghai, anyway). I’ve already watched several movies on it, and while I won’t recommend any of those movies, the app does its job just fine.
This one is an obvious Flipboard clone, but it’s a really good Flipboard clone. It’s one of those really good clones that tries to one-up the original. And, of course, it’s got tons of Chinese content ready to be added for magazine-style consumption, whether it’s Chinese news, Chinese blogs, or Weibo. It supports copy-paste, too, so you can pop over to the Pleco Pasteboard Reader when you need to.
I’m grouping all these apps together because they’re all by one company, called TrainChinese. While these apps aren’t revolutionary, they’re of good quality and exist in iPad versions. Sadly, not many apps for learning Chinese have met that simple requirement. They all seem to have free versions which are somewhat limited, trying to get you to pay. I recommend the pinyin trainer and number trainer to beginners.
My list of really noteworthy iPad apps for learners of Chinese ends there. There are a few others worth pointing out, though… The four others pictured but not covered are: 枫林书院精选 (an ebook reader that comes with a number of titles), 中国新闻周刊 (China Newsweek), iLearn Chinese Characters Lite, and Kids Mandarin.
These are the apps in the “Good…not HD” folder (I wish they had iPad versions):
These are the apps in the “词典” folder (iPad apps include: iCED, KTdict, eFlashChinese):
I subscribe to SmartShanghai‘s email newsletter, less because I try to attend all the latest events in this city, and more because the man who writes it, “Da Admiral,” is pretty hilarious.
His latest newsletter, focused on “un-learning Chinese” definitely caught my attention:
> Whenever I’m stopped on the streets, the thing I get more than anything is, “Oh Admiral, Admiral… you’re so knowledgeable and good looking and insightful about Shanghai life and society — I bet you speak perfect Mandarin!”
> My friends, I’ll let you in on a little secret:
> The opposite couldn’t be more true! I don’t speak Chinese for shit!
> And then it occurred to me… Why don’t I take my eight-years-plus experience in not speaking Chinese and share it with others? For money?
> As a sort of compliment to “Mandarin Garden” or whatever it is, I’m calling it “Da Admiral’s Mandarin Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland” and we’re accepting students at all skill levels, whether you want us to rip perfect fluency in Chinese from your brain, or even if you’re looking for something a little more part-time –maybe you’d just like to reduce your vocab a bit and un-learn a few key Chinese phrases — we can help.
> Here’s the pitch:
> “Through the sweat off his brow and sheer determination, Da Admiral has maintained a near perfect and unassailable wall of incommunicability with 99% of Chinese society. Dude is still pointing at shit on the menus like a nutsack who just got off the plane, like, yesterday.
> And now he’s willing to share his secrets with you.
> For a small enrolment fee, you’ll have access to our proven tools of whittling down knowledge of Chinese to basically nil. Whether you want to take a special, personal, one-on-one, 24 hour intensive course — basically this involves about seven pounds of weed and the Complete Filmography of Nicolas Cage — or are looking to un-learn Chinese in a group setting with our special “Dog Bloopers and Various Shit on the Internet” group classes, we’ll have you not speaking Chinese in no time.”
> Are you a Mandarin un-learner on the go? Subscribe to our special Un-ChinesePod, which is basically just me screaming nonsensical phrases in made-up French to you, intermixed with the latest news on the Batman sequel. Mind-numbing stuff. Just try to retain knowledge after a few of these.
> What I’m saying here is nothing about my time in Shanghai has been more rewarding — more spiritually fulfilling — than not learning Chinese, and I feel it’s a duty at this point to share my non-knowledge with others for money.
> I’m an educator at heart. I care about my students. They’re like my family for money. And when we’re in cabs together and I see them struggling with that last — “Zho-gw-ai” or “Yoh-gw-ai” or “Ting” or whatever the fuck it is, I don’t know, you know what I mean — I feel like my job is done.
> My job is done… and a tear comes to my eye.
I’m obligated to point out here: if you’re looking for a really good one-on-one “Mandarin Un-Un-Learning” experience in Shanghai, there’s AllSet Learning. And of course, the best Un-Un-ChinesePod is ChinesePod.
This Sinosplice silence has gone on for too long! Time for a personal post.
Leading up to Christmas, I was preparing to make a trip back to the USA. This time that involved not only the usual gift-buying, but also getting a good lead in the recordings at ChinesePod, and also making sure that all of my AllSet Learning clients are properly taken care of the whole time as well.
What was meant to be a “short and sweet” visit was turned not so short by the massive snowfall in the northeast, canceling my flight out, and turned not so sweet by a bout of the flu. (I thought maybe the constant exposure to Chinese germs had me toughened up to the point of being nearly invulnerable to American germs, but this time I fell hard.)
It’s been a long and tiring 2010, but an enormous amount of good work has been laid for an awesome 2011. I’ve got lots more ideas for this blog, and I’ll be taking the time to write them up. (Now if only I could eat solid food…)
A while back Albert of Laowai Chinese visited Shanghai. We met up for lunch and had a good chat about our experiences in China learning Chinese. He asked me an interesting question: what did I think was the biggest problem with the field of Chinese language instruction?
I told him that in general, I felt that there was way too much teaching adult foreign learners as if they were Chinese children, and I felt that more (non-Chinese) learner perspectives were needed to improve the situation. (This is one of ChinesePod‘s major strengths.)
He was looking for more specific answers, though. When pressed, I gave him these two areas:
Tones should be taught systematically, long-term. Way too many programs cover the tones in the first few weeks, followed by a few tone change rules, and then basically leave the students to sort the rest out. It’s not enough, and it’s irresponsible. Most students are going to need a good 1-2 years to really get a handle on the tones, so why aren’t educational institutions doing more to guide students through those frustrating times?
Mandarin Chinese needs a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin. There are corpora for Mandarin, but the ones that are public are not spoken Mandarin, and the corpora of spoken Mandarin are kept private and jealously guarded.
Why does Mandarin need a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Chinese? Because without it, we’re all just taking stabs in the dark as to what “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary is. Yes it is possible to objectively determine what language is high-frequency, but this requires (1) collecting lots of naturally-occurring speech samples in audio form, (2) transcribing it all. Then a proper corpus can be assembled, from which accurate, objective word counts and word frequencies can be derived.
Once that’s done, we could finally have more of a clue as to what the “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary really is. This method isn’t perfect, but it’s a big step forward from relying on native speaker intuition. And no, the new data obtained are not going to match the HSK word list you’ve got, or the Jun Da list either.
It would also be great to see a proper large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin, balanced for regional variation. That would turn up all sorts of interesting facts, like proportion of 哪儿 to 哪里 across all regions represented, and virtually any other speech variation you can think of. (Personally, I suspect that a lot of the Beijing-hua taught in many textbooks could be reconsidered on the grounds that it simply doesn’t represent the Mandarin spoken across mainland China.)
What do you think are the biggest problems with Chinese language instruction today?
> The impact of digital learners on twenty-first century learning environments—including the traditional classroom—highlights the changing role of teachers who, in teaching digital natives, discover that the learners appear to have taken control of the learning process.
> In responding to these changes, what is expected of teachers? Will they simply pursue the traditional model—ignoring their learners’ overnight forays on the web—and assume that time and patience will restore the conventional roles of teacher and student? Perhaps they attempt to master the new technologies themselves, believing they can (or should) equal or even surpass their students’ expertise in navigating online learning environments. Or will teachers and learners together negotiate other possibilities for teaching learners in the digital age?
> In the past decade, however, the introduction of personal digital devices and a range of new web-based search tools and social media have woven a bold new thread into the discussion of “expertise” in the classroom: namely, the appearance of digital-native students who imagine that their ability to conduct extensive online searches, grab and store what they find, and rapidly share the information with each other qualifies them as experts, too.
At ChinesePod, we produce a lot of lessons, and at the forefront of the academic oversight is the question, “is this material appropriate for this level?” It’s a decision that never goes away, and even after 5 years, it’s not easy. After 5 years, though, experience does help a lot.
I certainly can’t deny that user input at ChinesePod has been enormously instructive in helping us shape the service. Especially when certain requests are made en masse, the way forward can be very clear. When a minority requests changes that will affect everyone, however, we have to be a lot more careful about acting or not acting on them.
Anyway, it was good seeing this article, which points out a change I’m already witnessing, and also highlights a new source of friction. Friction is good, though. Sometimes it leads to blisters, but it also leads to those smooth shiny spots.
I’ve been very busy this past week with AllSet Learning. The growth of the business has necessitated a new full(er)-time assistant whom I’ve been busy training, and at the same time, our host office, Xindanwei, has just moved. That means the AllSet Learning office is now located in Shanghai’s trendy French concession area. If you’ve been delaying your visit because our previous location was not cool enough for you, your wait is over. The new address is:
I got a first generation (2G) iPhone in 2008. Then I switched to an Android in 2009. As of this past weekend, I’m back on an iPhone (3GS). Why? I’ll spare you most of the geekery… it’s largely related to Chinese.
The HTC Hero was a pretty solid early Android device. The new smartphones running Android 2.2 are way better now, though. I’m aware of this. It wasn’t just about upgrading hardware and getting the latest OS.
I don’t really care that the iPhone has more apps, snazzier apps, and more games. Unfortunately, with the app advantage the iPhone pulled off another important victory: better apps for learning Chinese. As a learning consultancy, AllSet Learning also recommends various tools for learning Chinese. Well, I’ve got to admit: the iPhone is now the best tool out there for learning Chinese. For myself and for my clients, it’s the phone I need to be using.
Here are the most important factors in my decision to switch back to the iPhone from Android:
– The iPhone has quite a few dictionaries available for the student of Chinese. The free ones are decent, but if you’re willing to shell out a little money, you can buy some very good dictionaries. Popular choices include Pleco, Cambridge English-Chinese (not free), iCED, Qingwen, and DianHua.
– Switching between input methods in the iPhone is instant and easy (especially if you only enable English and one Chinese input method). This is something I do so often that even a slight advantage starts to really matter.
– If you’re interested in handwriting recognition for Chinese (and this is a great learning tool in itself), Apple’s solid version of that is built into the OS.
– The ChinesePod app for the iPhone is better than the one for the Android. (This is a trend that’s not particular to ChinesePod.)
– No good dictionaries. I don’t even know what everyone uses. Hanping? Honestly, until I heard about Hanping (which, although serviceable, is a very basic CC-CEDICT dictionary), I was just using the mobile version of nciku.
– Switching input methods is a bit slow and annoying. It’s tolerable… for a while. But if you do a lot of switching, it gets to you. (Or you might stay in pinyin mode all the time, which also slows you down, since it has no predictive text functionality.)
– It’s getting Pleco someday, but who knows when?
OK, but nothing is totally one-sided… There are a few other points I should mention.
– Google Maps is still messed up in Shanghai on the iPhone. What’s up with this? It always places you some 300-500 meters northwest of where you really are. Apple blames Google. (Google Maps works just fine on Android devices in Shanghai.) This is seriously annoying.
– Google Maps just works.
– Recharging with a regular USB cord is so, so nice. (When you forget your cord, you can even borrow a friend’s digital camera USB cable.)
An iPhone 4 that’s usable in Shanghai is still super expensive, which is a major reason why I got a 3GS. The iPhone 3GS and the high-end Android devices are comparably priced. I was tempted to check out one of the Android phones, but I can’t ignore those iPhone advantages. I’m fickle, though… we’ll see how things develop over the next year.
In my work at AllSet Learning I’ve had a number of clients trying to get from an elementary to an intermediate speaking level, and at the same time finally deciding to tackle the Chinese characters they’ve been avoiding for so long. My advice is usually some variation of, “if you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, you need to bite the bullet and start learning characters.” (Most learners already know this, but somehow they need it told to them unequivocally.)
Fortunately for my clients, they all live in Shanghai, so they’re always surrounded by Chinese characters. If you’ve long been intimidated by Chinese characters, it’s surprisingly easy to block them all out and not really even see them in your daily life. Once the journey to learn Chinese characters has begun in earnest, however, it’s time to take the blinders off. And simply by paying attention to the characters around you, you start to notice a lot.
Sure, especially in the beginning, you don’t recognize most characters you see. But the more you look, the more you recognize. One of my clients told me excitedly,
> I learned the character 女 a long time ago so I could find the women’s room, but I never learned the character for “man.” Then, the other day, I saw the character 男 on a door, and I actually was able to read the character I had just learned. It suddenly had meaning!
One small step on the road to learning characters, but a giant leap in terms of achievement. That first “reading moment” really is a significant milestone in the long road ahead. No, characters themselves aren’t “magical,” but there is definitely a bit of a “character high” in those early days of discovery.
Anyway, eager to support learners of Chinese characters, I’ve been on the lookout lately for super easy signs. Two especially stood out:
小大人 (“Little Adults”)
Do the characters around you help you in your studies? I’m convinced that one of the reasons that Chinese living abroad so frequently forget how to write (relatively common) characters is that they no longer have those constant passive reminders built into their environments. In my own studies here in China, I’ve learned characters from my surroundings many, many times. The characters around you may not be often mentioned as key to the immersion experience, but they sure do help.
I’ve been especially busy with AllSet Learning lately. Lots of exciting developments there; pretty soon I’ll be starting up a news blog for that site. If you’re in Shanghai and interested, it’s a good time to get in touch.
Next Saturday I’ll be attending Shanghai Barcamp. I meant to do it these past two years, but never quite got around to it. Third time’s a charm, I guess? ChinesePod CEO Hank will be there, as well as Xindanwei CEO Liu Yan. I expect to see some other familiar faces, such as Micah and Kellen. Should be a thought-provoking, geeky day.
I noticed one of the sponsors of Barcamp this time is ShanghaiSolved. I’ve heard this idea before, and this implementation looks pretty good. Basically, some people ask questions about Shanghai, and other people answer them. Kinda like Ask Metafilter, or Yahoo Answers, or Aardvark, but just for Shanghai. I’m curious to see if this will take off. It’s got some questions up, about “must-see places” and rock climbing and VPNs, but there’s not a ton of activity yet. (Maybe it’s the picture of Haibao in the header that’s driving people away?)
The idea of the “linguistic power struggle” is one I’ve been dealing with and thinking about for a long time. I’ve made some attempts to find scholarly research on the subject, looking into discourse analysis (which is often concerned with power), expectancy violations theory, and communication accommodation theory, but so far I’ve turned up very little (even outside of Wikipedia!). Thus the discussion which follows will be mostly descriptive and anecdotal, but will raise more questions than it answers.
First, a typical example of the language power struggle. The dialog below is taken from a ChinesePod lesson aptly titled Language Power Struggle. I directed the creation of this fictional dialog two years ago, drawing on my own real experiences and those of other friends in China. The content in square brackets [like this] is a translation of the original Chinese. Note that the Chinese person speaks mostly English, while the American speaks only Chinese.
American: [Hello, can I sit here?]
Chinese: Sure, nice to meet you.
American: [I’m also really glad to meet you.]
Chinese: Your Chinese is very good.
American: [Not at all!]
Chinese: How long have you been to China?
American: [I’ve been in China for more than two years. I’m studying Chinese.]
Chinese: Oh, you are learning Chinese?
American: [I want to work in China, so I need to learn Chinese.]
Chinese: Oh. I think Chinese is very difficult for you. How do you feel this bar?
American: [It’s not bad. It’s just that nobody will speak Chinese with me, so I’m a little disappointed.]
Chinese: Ha ha! You are very serious!
American: [Because I want to practice more, so that I can learn Chinese more quickly.]
Chinese: I want to practice English. In Chinese, we say “[learn from each other]”, you know?
American: [I know. But in China we should be speaking Chinese.]
Chinese: I like talking English with you.
American: [Heh heh, then you should go to America. I came to China just to learn Chinese.]
Chinese: I want to go to America. Let’s be friends. Can you give me your mobile number?
American: [Sorry, I’ve got to go.]
The root of the conflict is quite clear: the American guy wants to speak Chinese, while the Chinese guy wants to speak English. There are quite a few issues contained within this small dialog, though. Below I’ll get into more details.
The idea of being able to send or receive cell phone text messages on a computer is not a new one, but this Chinese software called “Fetion” (飞信 in Chinese, literally, “flying letter”) is new to me. In a recent AllSet Learning teacher training session, we were discussing various types of technology for learning, including ChinesePod, Anki, and Skritter, when 飞信 came up (weird English name: “Fetion”).
For now, Fetion is PC only, although it also has mobile versions. Its “smartphone” version is aimed at Windows Mobile users, not Android or iPhone users. This all makes a lot of sense if Fetion is targeting a younger Chinese demographic rather than professionals.
Fetion mixes social networking properties with communications management properties. One of the benefits it boasts is the ability to store all of your text messages offline on your computer (which Google Voice is currently doing in the US, but in the cloud). Here are the features listed on the Fetion website’s 特性 page:
– A multi-platform system means you’re always reachable
– Free text messaging
– Super-cheap rates for group voice chat
– Anti-harassment security functionality
– 24/7 customer service
I’ve got to say, this doesn’t seem especially impressive; this technology has been around for a while. It seems that Fetion has caught on with a sizable userbase, however. I’m curious how far it will go.
Have you used Fetion? What are your experiences with it? Is it useful? Do any of your Chinese friends use 飞信?
Tomorrow, Friday April 9th, at 4:30pm Xindanwei is having a “Chit-Chat.” It’ll be a mix of Chinese and foreigners, and the guest speaker is Andrea Pan, AKA @popoever, who will be talking about social media (quite possibly mostly in Chinese). Admission is free.
I’ve invited a few Shanghai blogger friends already. It’ll be a good chance to meet up and chat in a relaxed setting, and to check out Xindanwei, the co-working community where my new business AllSet Learning is also based.
I’m excited to finally publicly announce a project I’ve been working on since last year. I’ve started a new company called AllSet Learning. It’s a learning consultancy focused specifically on solving the problems faced by expats in Shanghai trying to learn Mandarin.
I’m especially happy that in this new venture I have the support of Praxis Language CEO, Hank Horkoff. Hank is one of the most driven entrepreneurs I know, and he has had no small influence on my own decision to start a company. So the good thing is that I will continue to work on the academics and podcast recordings at ChinesePod (which I love), and also have my own operation. AllSet Learning will not produce its own content, and will emphasize face-to-face (offline) learning, so it will complement rather than compete with Praxis Language’s products. Over the next year, AllSet Learning will also be the first official ChinesePod Partner as ChinesePod opens up its resources to third parties more.
In this new business I’m really looking forward to talking to individuals about their own specific problems learning Chinese, and really getting into the nitty-gritty of it. ChinesePod is the best online resource for practical study material in Mandarin, but online discussion is just not the same level of personal interaction that working as a consultant on the streets of Shanghai makes possible (and yes, I am going to take it to the streets!).
The AllSet Learning office is located at Xindanwei, a really cool, creative community which has hosted events like Barcamp and Dorkbot, and regularly has interesting characters like Isaac Mao passing through.
I’ll mention developments at AllSet Learning here from time to time. I have a lot planned in terms of offline events and research. If you’re interested, please visit the website, and don’t hesitate to get in touch.