Tag: books


Nov 2009

Aspect, not Tense

You often hear people saying that Chinese has simple grammar, and the most often cited reason is that “Chinese has no tenses.” It’s true that Chinese verbs do not have tenses, but Chinese grammar does have a formal system for marking aspect. What is aspect? Most English speakers don’t even know.

I’ll quote from the Wikipedia entry on aspect:

In linguistics, the grammatical aspect (sometimes called viewpoint aspect) of a verb defines the temporal flow (or lack thereof) in the described event or state. In English, for example, the present tense sentences “I swim” and “I am swimming” differ in aspect (the first sentence is in what is called the habitual aspect, and the second is in what is called the progressive, or continuous, aspect). The related concept of tense or the temporal situation indicated by an utterance, is typically distinguished from aspect.

So if the temporal situation (tense) of a verb is typically distinguished from aspect, shouldn’t we English-speakers be more familiar with it?

It turns out the situation is a bit muddled in English. From the same article:

Aspect is a somewhat difficult concept to grasp for the speakers of most modern Germanic languages, because they tend to conflate the concept of aspect with the concept of tense. Although English largely separates tense and aspect formally, its aspects (neutral, progressive, perfect and progressive perfect) do not correspond very closely to the distinction of perfective vs. imperfective that is common in most other languages. Furthermore, the separation of tense and aspect in English is not maintained rigidly. One instance of this is the alternation, in some forms of English, between sentences such as “Have you eaten yet?” and “Did you eat yet?”. Another is in the past perfect (“I had eaten”), which sometimes represents the combination of past tense and perfect aspect (“I was full because I had already eaten”), but sometimes simply represents a past action which is anterior to another past action (“A little while after I had eaten, my friend arrived”). (The latter situation is often represented in other languages by a simple perfective tense. Formal Spanish and French use a past anterior tense in cases such as this.)

OK, it’s starting to become clearer why English-speakers aren’t familiar with aspect. But what’s this business about “English largely separates tense and aspect formally”?

According to one prevalent account, the English tense system has only two basic tenses, present and past. No primitive future tense exists in English; the futurity of an event is expressed through the use of the auxiliary verbs “will” and “shall”, by use of a present form, as in “tomorrow we go to Newark”, or by some other means. Present and past, in contrast, can be expressed using direct modifications of the verb, which may be modified further by the progressive aspect (also called the continuous aspect), the perfect aspect, or both. These two aspects are also referred to as BE + ING[6] and HAVE +EN,[7] respectively.

Wikipedia also brings up how Mandarin Chinese fits in with regard to aspect:

Aspect, as discussed here, is a formal property of a language. Some languages distinguish different aspects through overt inflections or words that serve as aspect markers, while others have no overt marking of aspect. […] Mandarin Chinese has the aspect markers -le, -zhe, and -guo to mark the perfective, durative, and experiential aspects,[3] and also marks aspect with adverbs….

If you study modern Chinese grammar, you’ll learn that Mandarin has three aspectual particles (时态助词): , , and . It would be nice if that were all there was to it, but the Chinese situation, similar to the English one, is a bit muddled. That’s about as clear as it gets.

In the case of , the word has a split personality and sometimes acts as an aspectual particle, sometimes as a modal particle (语气词), and sometimes both. There is endless fun to be had studying (I know; I took several syntax classes in grad school).

, on the other hand, is sometimes relieved of its aspectual duties by the adverbs or (or 正在). But then there are some that say that would prefer to draw fine distinctions between these usages as well.

It’s funny to think that Chinese grammar is still in its “Wild West” stage. Linguists are still debating all kinds of fundamental issues of grammar, both within China and without. While you can say with conviction that “Chinese has aspect, not tense,” you can’t say a whole lot more than that. For learners who want to “know the rules,” this can be more than a little frustrating. The good news is that, like all languages, it rewards the persistent. The Kool-aid tastes downright weird at first, but if you just keep drinking it, it starts to taste right.

(If, however, you’re really interested in this whole aspect thing, I recommend you check out Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, which is about as close as you can get to “classic” in this turbulent field. It has over 50 pages devoted to aspect, with plenty of examples, but be warned: no Chinese characters!)


Oct 2009

Chinese Modal Verb Venn Diagram

I’m a bit of a sucker for Venn diagrams. When I was recently asked by a student about the Chinese modal verbs , , and 可以 (all of which can be translated into English as “can”), I recalled a nice Venn diagram on the topic and dug it up.

What creates the most confusion with these three modal verbs is not that they can all be translated into “can” in English. The problem is that they are usually explained over-simplistically something like this:

> : know how to

> : be able to

> 可以: have permission to

This is not a bad start, but this sort of definition is eventually revealed as insufficient to the learner because in usage, the three modal verbs actually overlap. Enter the Venn diagram. The image below is a reconstruction of the one on page 95 of Tian Shou-he’s A Guide to Proper Usage of Spoken Chinese:

Chinese Modal Verbs: A Venn Diagram

> A = ability in the sense of “know how to” (“” is more common than ““)

> B = permission/request (use “” or “可以“)

> C = possibility (use “” or “可以“)

> D = permission not granted (use “不可以“)

> E = impossibility (use “不能“)

Yeah, grammar needs more Venn diagrams.

Update: I’ve been informed that this diagram is actually a Euler Diagram. Oops. I stand corrected. I should have read up on the requirements for Venn Diagrams first! (Hey, some of those extensions are pretty cool!)


Aug 2009

Unaccustomed Earth

Today I was reading Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of stories which owes its title to this great quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Custom-House:

> Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

Well put.


Aug 2009

Tone and Color in Chinese

In his book Chinese through Tone and Color, author Nathan Dummitt presents his system of color-coded tones. In his own words:

> I hope that my system gives a context, even for non-visual learners, for distinguishing between the four tones in Mandarin and providing a mnemonic system to help them remember which tone goes with a particular word.

From the moment I first heard of this idea, I was intrigued by it. Associating tones with colors does open up a lot of possibilities. Once the system is internalized, you can drop tone marks and tone numbers altogether, and you can tone-code the Chinese characters themselves using color. (The best non-color approximation to this would be writing the tone marks above the characters, which you will find in some textbooks and programs.) So I was very receptive to this idea.

Despite being very open to the concept, when I saw the actual colors chosen to represent each tone, they just felt wrong to me. The pairings Dummitt chose were:


Why would these colors feel wrong to me? How could the tone-color associations be anything but arbitrary?

The reason that the colors felt wrong to me was that I had already thought about the relationships between the tones and my own perceptions of those tones. I had even (briefly) considered color when I sketched my “Perceptual Tone Contours” idea:

Perceptual Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

Specifically, I felt that first and fourth tone feel similar, and that second and third tone feel similar. I believe that perceived similarity is strong enough that it affects both listening comprehension and production. This is why I purposely colored first and fourth tone red in my diagram, and second and third tone blue.

An Alternate Color Scheme

OK, so now we’re getting down to the point of my post. As a thought exercise I asked myself: If I had to assign colors to the four tones, which colors would I use?

In answering this question, one has to believe that there are underlying principles which, when followed, might produce better results. Otherwise, arbitrary assignment is fine. So what are the principles? I have two:

1. The colors need to have a high degree of contrast so that they will stand out on a white background and not be confused with each other.

2. The colors chosen need to reflect the appropriate perceptual similarities.

There are other considerations you might take into account if you want to be super-thorough, of course. From an Amazon reviewer of Dummitt’s book:

> If a person was going to design a color code tone system they would probably want to avoid using red and green in the same color scheme. Red – green color blindness causes an inability to discriminate differences in red and green. Hence the testing when you get your driver’s license. 5 to 8 percent of males have this color blindness.

> Using red and orange in the same scheme is also not very bright. Much language learning is done on buses, trains, planes and their attendant stations. Lighting is sub-optimal in all these situations and much worse in China. Low light intensity impairs the ability to discriminate red from orange.

These points have some merit, I suppose, but I’m not sure what colors they leave. I’m sticking to the two principles I listed above. I don’t see how you’re going to avoid either red or orange altogether if you need easily distinguishable, high-contrast colors.

Regarding the principle of high contrast, I can’t disagree with Dummitt’s choices. You can’t choose yellow, and the ones he chose are easy to distinguish quickly.

As for perceptual similarities, I would reflect these similarities by grouping the four tones into two warm and two cool colors. In my Chinese studies over the years, I have often associated fourth tone with aggression or anger, both concepts which I would associate with the color red. Red = fourth tone is the strongest association I have, but from there, all the others fall into place. You can’t use yellow (poor contrast), so orange is your other warm color, going to first tone. My diagram has fourth tone and second tone diametrically opposed (falling versus rising), and green is directly opposite red on the color wheel, so I would go with green for second tone. That makes third tone blue.

The results:




May 2009

Two Kinds of Communists

While on vacation this past week, I finally had a chance to dig into Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. This passage jumped out at me:

> There are two kinds of Communists: the arrogant ones, who enter the fray hoping to make men out of the people and bring progress to the nation; and the innocent ones, who get involved because they believe in equality and justice. The arrogant ones are obsessed with power; they presume to think for everyone; only bad can come of them. But the innocents? The only harm they do it to themselves. But that’s all the ever wanted in the first place. They feel so guilty about the suffering of the poor, and are so keen to share it, that they make their lives miserable on purpose.

Hmmm, I wonder what the Chinese would think about that.


Feb 2009

John DeFrancis

I’ve been feeling guilty for a month for not saying something about John DeFrancis’s passing. I have have no words more eloquent or meaningful than these three, however:

– Victor Mair (on Language Log)
– David Moser (on The China Beat)
– Brendan O’Kane (on his site)

Not surprisingly, I especially liked (and identified with) Brendan’s. If you don’t know DeFrancis and you’re at all interested in Chinese, by all means, check out the man’s work.

I’m also a little embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until recent word of DeFrancis’s death that I realized when it was that I first read The China Language: Fact and Fantasy. While I was studying in Japan in 1997, I checked it out from the Kansai Gaidai library. It was perhaps that book, more than anything, that kindled the spark of interest I had in Chinese, impelling me to formally study it after I went back to the U.S., and ultimately to travel to China after graduation.

Thank you, John DeFrancis.


Jan 2009

Looking Both Ways

I was reading the book Nudge recently, and this passage struck me as odd:

> Visitors to London who come from the United States or Europe have a problem being safe pedestrians. They have spent their entire lives expecting cars to come at them from the left, and their Automatic System knows to look that way. But in the United Kingdom automobiles drive on the left-hand side of the road, and so the danger often comes from the right. Many pedestrian accidents occur as a result. The city of London tries to help with good design. On many corners, especially in neighborhoods frequented by tourists, the pavement has signs that say, “Look right!” (91)

I learned to drive in high school as a 15-year-old through a driver’s ed class. The only really vivid memory I have of that class occurred in a road test. The instructor was in the passenger seat, and he had his own brake. I was stopped at a red light.

When the light turned green, I confidently stepped on the gas. The instructor immediately broke hard, giving me quite a jolt. I glanced up to see that, yes, the light was green. I turned to the instructor, expecting an explanation for his mistake. But no, he was livid.

What are you doing?” he demanded.

“I’m going straight. The light’s green!” I replied.

“Did you look to see if there were any cars coming from the left or right?”

“No, but the light was green,” I insisted weakly.

You didn’t even look, and that can get you killed. I don’t care if the light is green. You still have to look.”

The key part of the Nudge passage was this: “who come from the United States or Europe.” Drivers from those countries have very rigid expectations for pedestrian behavior. Likewise, traffic patterns are so regular and predictable that pedestrians only really need to look one way when they cross the street, no matter what they supposedly learned in driver’s ed.

It’s easy to call traffic in countries like China or Mexico chaotic and uncivilized, and there’s clearly some progress to be made, but isn’t it better for pedestrians to be putting a bit more effort into protecting their lives? Isn’t it better for drivers to be a bit more alert for unpredictable pedestrian behavior?

At the very least, I’m pretty sure after living in China, I don’t have to worry too much about crossing the street in London.


Dec 2008

Black English and Chinese

I was helping a Chinese friend with her English, and was very interested to read the following dialogue in her book. (I have preserved the grammar and punctuation of the original, but I didn’t feel like writing “[sic]” everywhere.)

The dialogue:

> A: Your English is not like American English.

> B: Oh, I see. What I speak is true American English, but it is not standard American English.

> A: What kind of English is it?

> B: It is Black English.

> A: What is Black English?

> B: Black English is as perfect as Standard American English, and in sounds it is equally distinctive.

> A: Can you tell me the difference between Black English and Standard American English?

> B: Black English is similar to Chinese in a way.

> A: Is it like Chinese?

> B: Yes. For example, a Chinese said, “我有5分钱”, there is no -s behind “钱”; an English or an American said, “I have five cents.” After “cent” there is -s; the Black English is “I have five cent”, no -s after “cent”. Another example, a Chinese said, “花红”, an American said, “the flower is red”, but the Black English is “The flower red”.

> A: Oh, I see.

The textbook is called 衣食住行生活英语900句. If I remember correctly, this was Dialogue 1 of five in a chapter called “Learning a Language.”

What a bizarre topic to cover in a book supposedly focused on “useful English.” You only have so much content you can cover in the book, and only a small fraction of that is devoted to talking about language, but you kick off the chapter with a discussion of (morpho-)syntactic similarities between AAVE and Mandarin Chinese??

I’m well beyond being outraged about inferior English textbooks, though. In this case, I have to admit that it’s kind of cool from a cultural standpoint. I’d imagine that the average Chinese person is seldom exposed to such egalitarian linguistic concepts.


Jun 2008

Ode to Heisig and RTK

Thinking about it now, I find it strange that I’ve never written about James W. Heisig and his landmark work, Remembering the Kanji.

It was in 1997 while I was studying in Japan that I came across the book. I was still in this “I must write every new character a million times every day” frame of mind until I came upon this system, and after discovering it I abandoned the traditional approach forever. The book ignited my imagination and unleashed its energy on Chinese characters. Heisig’s system ensnared me immediately, but surprisingly, the more I studied the method, the more I found myself dissatisfied with Heisig’s mnemonics and devising my own. I bought a copy and wrote all over it, “correcting” it for myself. Personalizing it, you might say. Heisig would have approved.

I didn’t stay with the system forever. I never learned a mnemonic for every last character. There just came a point when everything sort of “clicked,” and memorizing characters wasn’t difficult anymore. Sure, I would forget characters (and I still do), but every time I’d forget one and have to look it up, those old mnemonics returned to me and helped lock that character back in my memory. The important thing is that I never had to write characters over and over again. I’ve passed various written Chinese tests without ever having to do that. I have been able to make better use of my time and of my mind.

Occasionally I would come upon a character that resolutely defied my memory. If the character mattered to me, it would get “special attention.” That meant setting aside some time to deconstruct the character, research the etymology (sometimes, but not always, a helpful practice), and apply some imagination. It might take as long as 20-30 minutes for just that one character, but eventually I would come up with a memorable story mnemonic involving the character components, tailor-made for me. And then I would not forget the character again.

In short, Heisig’s book totally changed the way I approach characters. It’s a triumph of imagination over rote learning. I am very grateful to him for that. If you’re trying to learn Japanese or Chinese, I strongly recommend you get Remembering the Kanji.

See also: Adventures in Kanji-Land: James W. Heisig and the Birth of Remembering the Kanji


Feb 2008

The Mother and the Wife

Those of us with an adopted country always have very complex relationship with both our home countries and our adopted countries. Obviously her situation is completely different from mine, but Iranian author Marjane Satrapi makes an interesting analogy in an interview:

> So you’ve been in France for a long time now. Do you feel you can call it home in any way?

> I can live fifty years in France and my affection will always be with Iran. I always say that if I were a man I might say that Iran is my mother and France is my wife. My mother, whether she’s crazy or not, I would die for her, no matter what she is my mother. She is me and I am her. My wife I can cheat on with another woman, I can leave her, I can also love her and make her children, I can do all of that but it’s not like with my mother. But nowhere is my home any more. I will never have any home any more. Having lived what I have lived, I can never see the future. It’s a big difference when someone has to leave their country.

If you haven’t read Persepolis, I highly recommend it. I read graphic novel Maus as a teenager, and it left a deep impression on me. I haven’t gotten quite that feeling since, but Persepolis comes very close.


Nov 2007

How to Evaluate a Random Language for Acquisition in an Hour

Ever since reading Tim Ferris’s book, The 4-Hour Workweek, I’ve been reading his blog occasionally. He has some interesting ideas on language learning, and I value his opinion because he’s a smart guy and he’s apparently gained competence in many languages. I’ve considered writing about some of his ideas before, but when his latest article hit the internet hotlists last week, I had to put in my two cents.

My overall impression of Tim Ferris is that he’s a very bright, enthusiastic go-getter. He has written an inspirational, interesting book with valuable information in it, but I think ultimately the man is not in touch with his audience, i.e. the people who actually read his book in order to put the ideas to use. To put it another way, Tim Ferris’s ideas are interesting and they work for Tim Ferris, but they’re not going to work for most people. Whether Tim Ferris knows this or not is unimportant; he’s still making big bucks.

His latest article is called How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour. I have to say first that the title is entirely misleading. The whole point of the article is to describe a method for assessing a foreign language that will help you to determine how easy it will be for you to acquire. This is not what “learn a language” means to me. I know Tim Ferris is good at hype, but this is pretty blatant false “advertising.” It just makes him look bad.

Now suppose the title were not misleading. Suppose he titled it How to Evaluate a Language for Acquisition in an Hour. What’s the point of this? How many of us are really just looking for a foreign language–any language–to learn? It seems to me that the reason so many Westerners are starting to study Chinese is that they feel it will be useful to them in the future. Or maybe they feel a personal connection with it. It’s pretty safe to say there is some reason for it. The only person who’s going to choose a random language to learn based solely on ease of acquisition is a linguist with too much time on his hands… (perhaps someone who only works four hours a week?). If you’ve already got your language picked out and just want to evaluate it using Tim Ferris’s method, that makes sense, but it seems like the method would be really useful only to someone trying to decide between Japanese and Spanish or some similar situation.

Despite all the misleading hype, it’s still an interesting read, and what he says makes sense. Check it out.


Nov 2007

Photocopying an Entire Book

One of the nice things about living in a country with a total lack of respect for intellectual property laws is that if you really need to, you can have an entire book photocopied for cheap.

I borrowed a book from my professor which compiled the results of various investigations into foreigners’ studies of Mandarin Chinese. There were quite a few investigations with some relevance to my own research, so I really wanted to buy a copy of the book. None of the bookstores in Shanghai carried it, though, and the bookstore employees seemed to indicate that special ordering it would be a long, difficult process. Even good old 当当网 (China’s most famous online book seller) didn’t have it.

Rather than launching a long crusade to track down a seller of the book, I finally just had my professor’s copy photocopied in a little shop near the school. The book’s cover price was 29 RMB. My photocopied version, bound and all, was 25 RMB.

I still would have rather bought the official book, but this convenient alternative is not so bad.

[For those of you interested in the specifics, the charge was 0.1 RMB per page, but each page was A4, horizontal, covering two pages of the original. So the 450 page book came to 22.5 RMB total, plus 2.5 RMB for binding. I dropped the book off in the evening and picked up my copy the next day around noon.]


Nov 2007

Mouse Umbrella

Mouse Umbrella is a “free beautifully illustrated Chinese/English children’s book.” I probably would have written about it sooner if it were e-mailed to me rather than submitted as a new blog on the CBL.

Mouse Umbrella

The author’s explanation:

> As an educator I was hoping you would take a look at my book and give me some feed back. This beautifully illustrated 6 page haiku is intend for Pre-K children who speak Chinese as a first language or English speaking children learning Chinese as a second language. A little mouse is enjoying a bright red cherry at a restaurant when he is washed away by a flash flood. He has only a drink umbrella to help him. Originally written and illustrated by me – Tansy O’Bryant as a bridge between Chinese speaking children and English speaking children. Chinese translation was provided by and Chinese student who was afraid to write because her characters where not perfect. It was esteeming for her to know that the act of not writing is far worse than a little “wobbly” writing. Helps children understand both the power of writing and the beauty of reading with Mouse Umbrella.

> Share it with other educators – Download your copy at http://www.wawallletters.com/free-mouse-book.html

> Tansy OBryant

It is a nice book, and the illustrations are great. The art reminds me of one of my favorite illustrators ever, Graham Oakley. It’s not the best book for studying Chinese, perhaps, but I’m sure some of my readers will enjoy it. (Anyone out there reading stories to their children from an on-screen PDF file yet?)


Aug 2007

Alice in Karmic Chains

Term papers are keeping me from my regular blogging and t-shirt design amusement, but I had to share this little note I stumbled upon while researching Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for one of my papers:

> Publishing highlights

> 1865: Alice has its first American printing. As was the case with most American books of this period, this was pirated from the British edition without any payment.

What goes around comes around, huh? Even if it takes 130 years…


Aug 2007

The Bookshelf Problem

You really want to improve your Chinese, but for a while now have been feeling like you’re lacking something. You take a trip to the book store to browse its offerings in the “Chinese” section.

One particular title catches your eye. You’ve never seen it before. Leafing through it, you decide you like the layout, and some of the examples given. It has a lot of interesting content you could benefit from. A warm feeling comes over you; this is the book that you need to give your Chinese studies a boost! You quickly purchase the book and head home, your fresh new inspiration under your arm.

A week later, the book is sitting on your shelf. It’s been days since you picked it up. You’ve been busy. It’s really a good book, and you’ll definitely use it later.

As time goes by, you wonder why your progress in Chinese is so slow. You want it bad, and you’re dedicated. You can tell that much just by taking a look at your bookshelf. It’s chock-full of books on learning Chinese.

And therein lies the problem.

You’ve been putting time and effort into finding just the right books to learn Chinese rather than buckling down and just doing it. Rather than getting you significant progress, all the time and energy you’ve put into Chinese has gotten you a bookshelf full of books for learning Chinese… and not much else.

This is the bookshelf problem.

I’m intimately acquainted with the problem, and I have the bookshelf to prove it. I’m not ashamed I fell into it (there are far worse vices to be ensnared by), but I’ve had to put a brake on the “book-buying instead of studying” mentality. I really do have all the books I need.

I think the bookshelf problem isn’t exclusive to books, either. Have you ever found yourself on a wild goose chase to find “the perfect Chinese blog,” or “the best flashcard program” or “the “best Chinese TV show?” Worthwhile quests, to be sure, but it’s really easy to get caught up in the pursuit and forget what you were really after.

This doesn’t mean that there is some magic formula like:

> Buy 1 textbook + 1 good dictionary + 1 grammar book

> and then never buy another book again!

Of course not. The occasional new acquisition can keep your studies fresh and boost your motivation.

I’m just saying that if the situation above sounds at all familiar, you might want to consider the bookshelf problem before buying that new bookshelf.


Nov 2006

Military Weaponry for Kids

Identify the theme that doesn’t belong in a series of books for Chinese children:

1. Cartoon Characters
2. Cute Animals
3. Mysterious Dinosaurs
4. Pretty Flowers
5. Means of Transportation
6. Military Weaponry

If you guessed #4, “Pretty Flowers,” you are right! The other five are themes of real coloring/drawing/character practice books in a series by Beijing Children and Juvenile Publishing House.

While we’re on the topic of Military Weaponry for Kids, let’s explore that book, shall we? Here’s what the book’s cover looks like:


The big name on the front is 画童学画, which could be cleverly “translated” as “Draw Child Study Draw.” Here’s what a few of the pages look like:

04 09 10 14 16
21 22 24 25 32

Each page basically does three things: (1) teaches the kid how to draw something across the top, (2) using pinyin, teaches the kid how to say the name of the object in the middle, and (3) gives the kid practice writing the character at the bottom.

Some observations:

1. The characters offered for writing practice in the book are at a kindergarten level, but the weaponry vocabulary is at a much, much higher level. (I don’t even know the names of some of those guns in English. Clearly I come from a totally un-war-like culture. Ahem.)

2. The part at the top that “teaches drawing” isn’t helpful. I used plenty of those “learn how to draw” books growing up, and this one just sucks.

3. Hey, this book is pretty useful for someone like me to learn weaponry vocab. Among the Chinese vocabulary taught in the book are: machine gun, heavy machine gun, handgun, rifle, semi-automatic rifle, uzi, revolver, hand grenade, flame thrower, rocket launcher, smoke grenades, tank, aircraft carrier, bomber plane, fighter jet, guided missile, stealth bomber… and more.

4. One of the guns is called a 来福枪 (lit. “come luck gun”). Hehe. Wenlin says it means “rifle” (a kind of transliteration) but it looks more like a shotgun to me.

5. Oh, right, I almost forgot: why do little Chinese kids need to be learning this stuff??

This kind of children’s book is not very uncommon; you can find similar books in almost any bookstore in China. (See the book here.)

Sort of related: see also Peer-See’s highly amusing entry on teaching incomprehensible weirdness to the children through bizarre blocks.


Oct 2006

Korean from a Chinese Textbook

As I explained before, my wife and I are learning Korean here in Shanghai. Progress has been slow, though, because our tutor unexpectedly had to return to Korea for the summer. Dedicated students that we are, we seized the opportunity for a two-month break from our studies. She’s back now, though, so we’re back in the saddle. We all decided we needed a good textbook.

Korean Textbook (in Chinese)

the book

We textbook we decided on with our tutor is 新韩国语基础教程(上) (New Korean Foundation Course – Part 1 of 2), published by 大连理工大学出版社 (Dalian University of Technology Press). It may not be perfect or even particularly enlightened, but compared to the cornucopia of crap with which it shared space on the book store shelves, it seems like a Godsend.

The reasons I like the text are:

1. Chapter 1 of the textbook eases into the sounds and writing system of the language with extensive explanations of the simple vowels, then simple consonants, then diphthongs, then finals, then rules of pronunciation. That’s 32 pages! There are explanations (in Chinese) with IPA, examples, exercises, illustrations of the mouth, etc. There’s even a diagram showing exactly how the Korean writing system was designed to resemble the human mouth as it makes the sounds of the language (which is something I’d been curious about for a while). I complained last time about spending too much time on writing and pronunciation before learning any useful language and I still stand by that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a very complete reference in Chapter 1 that I can come back to any time.

2. The regular chapters are broken down into pretty standard sections: (1) sentence patterns, (2) sample sentences, (3) dialogue, (4) new vocabulary, (5) Chinese translations of parts 1-3, (6) grammar explanations, (7) exercises. Nothing ground-breaking here, but it’s all very usable and practical. The grammar explanations are clear, with helpful charts and diagrams. I haven’t really spent much time on the exercises yet, so I won’t say anything about that.

3. I like how outside of Chapter 1 there is no romanization of the Korean anywhere, and the Chinese translation is on another page. This forces the beginner to trudge through the Hangul, which is a necessary ordeal.

The big disadvantage of the series is that all the listening exercises are meant to be accompanied by cassette tapes. I guess that can be forgiven since the series was published in 1999, but that doesn’t change the fact that tapes are useless to me now because I own nothing that plays them (and I’m not buying a stupid tape player).

Anyway, if you’re looking for a textbook for learning Korean in China, I think that 新韩国语基础教程 is a pretty good way to go. The two book set cost 48 RMB altogether (without the tapes).


Sep 2006

the lively art of writing and the elements of style

My friend Josh recently returned to Shanghai after finishing his masters and is looking for work. He sent me the following text message:

> Josh: do you have the lively art of writing and the elements of style?

My first impulse was that he was passing on some kind of Chinglishy inquiry he had gotten. The conversation continued something like this:

> me: [confidently playing along] i sure do!

> Josh: Can I borrow them?

> me: [having my doubts about Josh’s sense of humor] well, i might need them.

> Josh: ok, i’m going to try to find them on fuzhou lu.

> me: [thoroughly confused] huh??

As you may know, The Lively Art of Writing and The Elements of Style are two (quite well-known) books. In the context of the text message, which lacked proper punctuation and the like, I was totally thrown off.

Text messages: sly saboteurs of communication.


Sep 2006

Sidney Rittenberg

Sidney Rittenberg

Hank pointed me to an interesting interview with Sidney Rittenberg yesterday. There are various people which call themselves “sinologists” in the world, but I’d have to say that Sidney Rittenberg is one of the most hardcore I know of. You might thing the guy was a little nutty for joining the CPC as an American Marxist back in the 1940’s, but reading the interview he seems quite clear-headed and balanced in his views. (Maybe the clarity came during all the thinking he did in 16 years of solitary confinement in China?)

I still don’t want to be a sinologist, but Sidney Rittenberg is definitely a figure worth learning more about. I’d love to have a chat with him. Here are some more links:

Sidney Rittenberg Wikipedia entry
Remarks at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center 12th Annual Dinner (includes Q&A session)
Future in Review: short bio
– Sidney Rittenberg’s book: The Man Who Stayed Behind

What Not to Say to Your Kid


Jun 2006

What Not to Say to Your Kid

Browsing at the new Zhongshan Park Carrefour’s book section, I discovered this book called 父母不该对孩子说的100句话 (literally, “100 Sentences Parents Shouldn’t Say to their Children“). Since I didn’t grow up in China and I almost never watch Chinese TV, I really don’t have much of an idea of what Chinese parents say to their young children. So this book caught my attention. Some of its content is easy to anticipate, but at times also offers tidbits of social insight or even some cultural humor. I’ll share a few of the ones I found interesting (but I’ll spare you the book’s child psychology counseling).

1. 你是从垃圾堆里捡的 (We found you in a trash heap.)
I thought the stork bringing babies was kind of weird, but it’s better than this alternative. The crazy thing is that it seems that the majority of young people in China today are told this by their parents as a joke! They think it’s funny, and the kid believes it. Unbelievable.

2. 你就这成绩以后扫大街去 (With grades like this, you’re going to be sweeping streets someday.)
Apparently in China being a street sweeper is worse than being a garbage man. I think the guys that wash out the septic tank trucks down the road might envy the street sweepers, though.

3. 你怎么这么笨 (How can you be so stupid!)

4. 你的脑袋里长草了 (You’ve got grass growing on your brain.)
Chinese caustic creativity.

5. 你看看人家的孩子 (Look at the other kids.)
One of my Chinese friends has told me that she believes that Chinese parents’ constant comparisons between their children and other children are the single most damaging thing to Chinese children’s development.

6. 千万别得罪老师 (Whatever you do, do not offend your teacher.)
Ah, Confucius would be so proud.

7. 别动,等你长大再帮我 (Don’t move. You can help me when you’re older.)

8. 你的任务就是好好学习,其他的别管 (Your job is studying. Don’t worry about anything else.)
This is why modern Chinese kids never have to do any chores or help out around the house in any way.

9. 妈帮你去说对不起 (Mommy will go say sorry for you.)
Yeah, you wouldn’t want your kid to realize he is responsible for his own actions.

10. 我没本事,咱家就看你的了 (I don’t have any real skills. Our family is depending on you.)
No pressure, though.

11. 当心,摔下来我可不管 (Be careful. If you trip, I’m not going to help you.)
Is this supposed to teach independence?

12. 那么难看,你还喜欢 (You actually like something this ugly?)
Sometimes kids need to know they have horrible, horrible taste.

13. 你哪有钱去捐款呀 (Like you have enough money to make a donation?)

14. 你在等我表扬你吗 (Are you waiting for me to praise you?)
Sometimes teaching modesty goes a little too far.

15. 那个人真不是东西 (That person is nothing.)

16. 没事,反正没人看见 (Don’t worry, no one saw us.)

17. 不准失败 (You may not fail.)

18. 你问我,我问谁 (You ask me, but then who do I ask?)
I can’t help but find the thought of saying this to a child funny.

19. 闭嘴,小孩子问那么多干嘛 (Shut up. Kids don’t need to ask so many questions.)
Ah, nipping curiosity in the bud at a young age. This helps prevent the later problem of ingenuity and/or problem-solving.

20. 别问这些不要脸的事情 (Don’t ask about such shameful things.)
Is he asking about the garbage heap, maybe?

21. 你怎么不明白我的苦心呢 (Can’t you understand how much I’ve sacrificed for you?)
The Asian parent guilt game! Gotta love it.

22. 早知道这样,当初就不该生你 (If I had known you’d turn out like this, I never would have given birth to you.)

Clearly, we shouldn’t be too hard on Chinese parents. They have a tough job, and they’re imperfect just like the rest of the world’s parents. But here’s hoping some of these sentences become less common in the future… for the children. (OK, sorry, I’ve never used that phrase before, and I had to do it just once.)

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