I’d say that the Chinese name of Starbucks’ new flat white coffee is adequate proof that Starbucks hates Chinese learners. (The other piece of proof is that Starbucks employees in China probably play the fiercest language power struggle game of any other group I know.) Anyway, the Chinese name of the flat white is 馥芮白:
Yeah, don’t feel bad if you don’t know those first two characters. They’re not at all common. And that fist character… wow.
A little more info about the two hard one characters:
– 馥 (fù) fragrant. (The right half is the 复 you might know from 复旦大学.)
– 芮 (ruì) small / surname. (I am familiar with this one mainly because of the “Réel” mall (芮欧百货) near my office.)
So in this case, even if you’re trying hard to use Chinese as much as possible, I’d say don’t feel bad if you took one look at this Chinese name and opted to use English.
The character there is 家, meaning “house,” “home,” or sometimes even “family.”
The first thing I noticed was its Escher-like quality, updated to a modern aesthetic. (Reminded me of Monument Valley even more than Escher directly, actually.) Very cool, and not something I see much in China, for sure!
The second thing I noticed was that the stylized character on the poster is missing a few strokes. If this character is 家, then the bottom part is supposed to be 豕, which has 7 strokes. Instead, the bottom part looks more like the 5-stroke 永, minus the top stroke.
I found this odd, because this is a pretty big difference, and in my experience the Chinese don’t take character mutilation too lightly, especially when it’s not just private use. My wife’s response was just to shrug it off, though, with a, “yeah, but it’s still supposed to be 家.”
What do your Chinese friends think? Cool design, or heinous affront to the sanctity of the 10 strokes of the Chinese character 家?
> Searle writes in his first description of the argument: “Suppose that I’m locked in a room and … that I know no Chinese, either written or spoken”. He further supposes that he has a set of rules in English that “enable me to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols”, that is, the Chinese characters. These rules allow him to respond, in written Chinese, to questions, also written in Chinese, in such a way that the posers of the questions – who do understand Chinese – are convinced that Searle can actually understand the Chinese conversation too, even though he cannot. Similarly, he argues that if there is a computer program that allows a computer to carry on an intelligent conversation in a written language, the computer executing the program would not understand the conversation either.
> The experiment is the centerpiece of Searle’s Chinese room argument which holds that a program cannot give a computer a “mind”, “understanding” or “consciousness”, regardless of how intelligently it may make it behave. The argument is directed against the philosophical positions of functionalism and computationalism, which hold that the mind may be viewed as an information processing system operating on formal symbols.
So my first thought was: what do the Chinese call the Chinese room? The laowai room? Turns out the answer is a little more boring than that: in Chinese it’s called the 中文房间. (You might have been tempted to translate it as the 中国房间, but that doesn’t work as well, since the whole part of the argument is that there are these inscrutable symbols that can be manipulated. It’s Chinese characters that are key, not Chinese culture or nationality.)
The room is “Chinese,” of course, because of the inscrutable nature of Chinese characters. It boosts the argument if it feels like there’s no chance that the person in the room will actually learn them in the process of their Chinese room work.
I have to take umbrage at that: you can read Chinese. (If you want to.) I admit, though, that the Chinese room is not the best way to go about it.
There’s one other thought experiment mentioned which touches on China: the China brain. That one doesn’t seem to have a well-known translation (and no page on Wikipedia), but it seems at least some translators have gone with the straightforward 中国脑子. (This one refers to the people of China, and not the Chinese language itself.)
I’m very happy to report that the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters I wrote about before has met its $75k funding goal. That means that this dictionary will soon be available through Pleco, so if you were holding out, doubtful it would actually happen, doubt no longer. Congratulations to the Outlier Linguistic Solutions team!
This is an interview with Ash Henson, Outlier Linguistic Solutions’ main academic guy. Like some other people I’ve spoken with, I was a bit apprehensive about the project at first, feeling it was all way too academic and probably not a good resource for beginners. The more I talked with Ash, though, the more I was convinced this was not the case. I do believe this is going to be a great resource for learners at all levels, and I look forward to using it myself, both for my own purposes, and for my beginner-level clients.
Anyway, here are some additional questions I had about the dictionary, answered by Ash.
1. You have an article on the problem with the concept of “radicals.” Would it be fair to say that radicals are just an outdated concept which we don’t need anymore because we can look almost everything up by computer now? Is your dictionary going to include the concept of radicals at all?
Well, I’d say that radicals are only reliable as a tool to look up characters in traditional dictionaries. If you only use electronic or software dictionaries, then it’s safe to say that you can ignore them. We will actually point out the radical for each character though, so that you can look up the radical for that character if you need to look it up in a paper dictionary. The main issue with “radicals” is that there are really several unique concepts that are called “radicals”. For instance, you often hear people say “Characters are made of radicals.” While that is a reasonable conclusion to make from the name “radical”, it misrepresents how characters actually work. There are around 500 semantic components that appear in characters and a lot of them cannot be broken down into “radicals”.
2. You’ve mentioned before that the Outlier Character Dictionary will include the most up-to-date research, including even corrections of mistakes in the legendary 说文解字 (Shuowen Jiezi). Could you give a simple example or two of that?
This type of data can be found in the Expert Edition. I’ll share two examples from the demo. For 監 (jiān) “to inspect”, the 說文 says that it is composed of the semantic component 臥 (wò) “to rest” which is used to express the idea “to look down from above” and the sound component 䘓 (kàn) “thick animal blood” abridged to 血. The problem is, 監 is a character from the early Shang dynasty (roughly 1600 bce to 1046 bce), while 臥 and 䘓 don’t appear until Warring States (roughly 475 bce to 221 bce).
Image taken from the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters
Obviously, either this interpretation is anachronistic or maybe 臥 and 䘓 did exist earlier and we just haven’t found any proof. However, if you look at the earliest extant forms of 監, it’s very obvious that it’s a picture of a person looking into a container that has liquid in it. This “picture” is used to represent the idea “to inspect, examine” as this was how the ancients inspected their own faces, i.e., they used water in a container as a mirror.
Another example is 黑 hēi “black”. The 說文 says that the top part is a window and the bottom part is flame (炎 yán) and gives the meaning of 黑 as “the color of something burnt”. Note that the 說文 is explaining the Small Seal script form. The earliest forms show a person with a tattooed face. This is one of the ancient Five Punishments, where the name of the crime a person committed was tattooed onto their face.
3. After all this time, how can researchers be certain about what are mistakes in the 说文解字 (Shuowen Jiezi)?
Basically by way of tracing characters back to their earliest extant forms and seeing how characters are used in earlier scripts. Like in the 監 (jiān) example above, the 說文 says that it’s composed of 卧 and an abbreviated 䘓, but 卧 and 䘓 show up around a thousand years after 監. It’s like explaining the 1066 war in terms of the soldiers’ cell phones. Keep in mind, the author of the 說文 was a very erudite scholar, with a very broad range of knowledge, but he was limited by the information he had access to and by pre-scientific thinking. The 說文 is best understood as an insight into how Han dynasty Confucian scholars looked at the Small Seal script. Even with its problems, it still plays a very important role in this type of research.
4. You’ve told me before that a proper understanding of characters can help a learner guess the correct pronunciation of a character. This is hard to imagine, since a lot of components have a wide range of possible functions and even multiple possible pronunciations. (Examples: 干、赶、汗、旱 or 今、含、零、领、邻) How can you solve this mess?
Sound components can be really frustrating, because they generally don’t give an exact sound. In the same way semantic components give a hint as to the range of meaning a character might have, sound components generally also just give a range of sounds. English speakers might not realize this, but English spelling is very similar. That’s why the exact same spelling “minute” can be pronounced MIN-it for “60 seconds” or mahy-NOOT for “extremely small”. Actually, this second one can also be pronounced mahy-NYOOT, mi-NOOT or mi-NYOOT. As you can see, the spelling “minute” does not give an exact pronunciation, but a range of possible pronunciations.
As a native-English speaker, this isn’t a huge problem, because for the most part, we go from words we already know how to say correctly, to learning how to write them. During college we learn a lot of new, specialized words for the field of work we are training for. Most of these are learned either from reading or from hearing professors or other students use them. When I was in college, I often heard people say words incorrectly because they had only seen them in writing. This is a reflection of the fact that English spelling only gives a range of possible pronunciation rather than an exact, IPA-like pronunciation.
Making sense of sound patterns in Chinese characters is very useful, because they can be used to remember how to write characters. For instance, before I learned how sound works, whenever I had to write a character containing 艮 or 良, I would always ask myself, “Oh, man. Do I put that dot here or not?” It was very frustrating. Once I learned how sound components work, I looked up the pronunciation for 艮 (gèn) and 良 (liáng). Then I noticed that for characters pronounced “gen”, “hen”, or “ken”, it was 艮. If it was pronounced “lang”, “liang”, “nang” or “niang”, then it was 良. So, by learning about sound relations, I went from a meaningless dot-or-no-dot question, to a meaningful “What is the pronunciation of the character I want to write?” question. Though sound isn’t represented exactly in Chinese writing, there are a lot of clues we can use, especially if we know to look for them.
Now to the examples you brought up: 干、赶、汗、旱 or 今、含、零、领、邻
Let’s look at 干 (gān), 赶 (gǎn), 汗 (hàn), and 旱 (hàn) first. Notice that they all have the ending “-an” and that they all share the component 干. This is a strong clue that there is a sound relation. Also note that there is no discernible pattern with the tones. That’s because tones generally are not taken into account. Native speakers would generally use “-an” as the sound clue. However, it’s very useful to remember that “g-“, “k-” and “h-” are very closely related sounds.
As for 零 (líng), 领 (lǐng), and 邻 (lín). Notice that 令 is pronounced “lìng.” Once again, tones don’t count (not to say they aren’t important! They just aren’t represented by the sound component). Lastly, notice that the sound for 邻 ends in “-n” and not in “-ng.” In this particular case, that’s due to the simplification of 鄰 to 邻, and 粦 is pronounced “lín.”
Finally, looking at 今 (jīn) and 含 (hán), we notice that 今 and 令 above are graphically very similar, but like the 艮 (gèn) and 良 (liáng) example, we can use sound to keep 今 (jīn) and 令 (lìng) separate. Using sound patterns to understand the relation between 今 (jīn) and 含 (hán) is a little more complex. You have to understand both that “g-“, “k-” and “h-” are closely related as previously mentioned and that many “j-“, “q-“, and “x-” come from an earlier “g-“, “k-” and “h-“. In other words, two groups of closely related sounds are also somewhat related.
Why do sound series have this kind of variation? The answer to this question is fascinating, but complex. Most characters in use today find their origins thousands of years ago during the Zhou dynasty. Back then, the language was very different and very possibly had prefixes and suffixes and it was these prefixes and suffixes which cause this variation. Another reason is from regular sound changes over the last several thousand years.
5. Your dictionary is designed to provide a wealth of modern character research into characters through a modern interface. How would this be used by a beginner who sees characters as an annoying hurdle?
The key to optimal learning is obtaining the ability to use the system of Chinese characters as a tool for being able to recall character forms after long periods of time and as a tool for making intelligent guesses about characters you haven’t learned yet. Native speakers have these abilities, but they are far from perfect and they are the results of years of input. Non-native speakers learning Chinese can also get them after learning a few thousand characters.
However, as you can imagine, their instincts about characters are probably not as good as a native speaker’s. The main advantage of using our methods is that you can gain these abilities after a few hundred characters, because all of the sound and meaning connections are being pointed out explicitly for each character. And, as I showed above, if you learn our sound patterns, your feel for sound representation will be better than a native speaker’s. We also explain meaning connections in a more precise way, so your feeling for meaning representation will also be more accurate.
To those who think of characters as a nuisance, if you learn them our way, you’ll learn in a way that is both more meaningful (and therefore you’ll likely find it more interesting) and more effective, so you’ll spend less time re-learning characters. We can’t remove the pain entirely, but we can minimize it!
There’s a new Kickstarter project related to learning Chinese definitely worthy of more attention: the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters. I’ve had the pleasure of multiple Skype calls with John and Ash of Outlier Linguistic Solutions, and this project is no joke. They’re out to build something I’ve wished has existed for quite a while, and they’ve got the skills and dedication to make it happen.
The Kickstarter page is packed with explanation, so I won’t rehash the same information you can check out on your own. But I will tell you what’s interesting about this project to me.
It integrates with Pleco. Pleco is already my favorite dictionary, largely because it contains so many different dictionaries. It would be annoying if the Outlier Dictionary were a separate app, and building an app from scratch is a huge drain on resources. So I think this was a smart way to launch the dictionary.
The Outlier founders are learners turned experts (check out this profile). Sure, no one knows Chinese better than the Chinese, but the perspective of a foreigner that has the passion to devote years and years of his life to it is hugely valuable. They have put a lot of thought into the difference between how native speakers learn Chinese and how foreigners learn Chinese, they’ve deconstructed the process, and they’ve come up with a better way for foreigners to learn characters. We learners need this!
The dictionary is academically rigorous. Unlike most dictionaries, it doesn’t hold the legendary 说文解字 (Shuowen Jiezi) as the ultimate infallible reference. In fact, research into mistakes made by the Shuowen are part of the dictionary. This is amazing!
The approach taken to Chinese character structure is new and necessary. I’ve complained about certain products claiming that radicals are a revolutionary way to learn characters. They’re not. In fact, the term “radical” itself is outmoded and confusing, because it’s tied to outdated dead-tree character dictionaries. So the Outlier Dictionary rightly ditches the term “radical” in favor of “functional component,” and it doesn’t stop there. Check out this breakdown:
OK, but is it too geeky?
One of the concerns I expressed to the Outlier team was that they were building a dictionary for academics that didn’t really serve the practical needs of the average learner. They fervently assured me this was not the case; they are building a dictionary that enables a strong understanding of the system of functional components behind characters, while also enabling curious learners to go as deep as they want in their character studies. This is exactly how it should be done, so I can’t wait to get my hands on this dictionary. I also plan to keep working with the Outlier team and deepen my involvement in their project. I know that clients of AllSet Learning could really use what Outlier is developing.
I’m embedding a demo video at the bottom, but there is a ton of information on the Kickstart page, so check it out!
Stylized letters and characters are interesting to me, but how abstract can you get with Chinese characters? You kinda have to retain the strokes and radicals and stuff, right? Maybe not…
The characters represented above are 小燕画院.
Although the name is readable, it might take a bit longer to decipher than most Chinese text, even for native speakers. Have you ever spotted characters that have been taken even further into the abstract?
It’s no secret that I enjoy seeing Chinese characters with some kind of visual design twist (I sometimes call it “characterplay”), and I’m getting more and more friends and readers sharing photos with me. Keep them coming!
Here’s one shared by Matt Scranton:
So the character that means “hair” is 髪 in traditional Chinese, 发 in simplified.
Here are some others I found myself around Shanghai:
This one took me a few seconds to figure out:
A play about suddenly getting rich.
A play on the phrase 霸气十足, which means something “totally dominating.” Changing the oppressive “霸气” to “爸气” (which isn’t a real word) makes it seem friendlier (and appropriate for a Father’s Day promotion), though.
Yesterday Project Naptha hit Hacker News. It offers a way to extract electronic text from image files through a simple Chrome browser extension. Excited to see that simplified and traditional Chinese are both supported by the extension, I immediately installed the extension and tried it out.
The results? Unfortunately, Not so great.
When it doesn’t work at all
First of all, the script needs to recognize the text in the image. This first step doesn’t always go too well, even if the text seems relatively clear to the human eye. Let’s look at some cases where the extension found nothing, despite the Chinese text being pretty legible.
In this first case, the font is non-standard. OK, fair enough. That’s to be expected.
In this next case, the text is pretty clear, but the contrast is poor.
In this final example, the text is fairly clear to the human eye, but also low-res and slanted. That probably makes it difficult for the algorithm.
When it sort of works
In many other cases, some text was identified, but not enough for the extension to be really useful for anything. Here are some images where Project Naptha could identify some text, and the “select all text” function was applied. (The blue boxes show what Project Naptha identified in the images as “text.” Sometimes they are bizarrely incorrect.)
I found the last two quite surprising, considering how clear and straightforward the text is, and also high-res.
When it actually works
Sometimes it was relatively successful in identifying the text. In these cases you must first set the language to Chinese (either simplified or traditional, depending on the text). There’s a cool effect showing you that some processing is going on. When that’s done, you can copy and paste the text.
But… it might not be exactly what you were hoping for.
This selected Chinese text yielded the following copy-paste results:
> 总统亲 ã热ﬂ地接
If it had correctly captured all the text, it would have been:
This one is better:
> 化武器况妹俩也不示弱 麝芦神功连
> 连使出 胭宙电二怪打入深深的山沟
It should have been:
Also, my sample size is too small to make any definite conclusions, but it seems like the extension works better for simplified characters than for traditional.
I don’t mean to sound overly critical. This is amazing technology here, and the fact that it launched with any support for Chinese characters at all is pretty awesome (and brave)! I’m sure the technology will improve with time, and that is going to be tremendously helpful to Chinese learners.
To put this in perspective, the development of OCR (optical character recognition) for mobile devices meant that you could point your cell phone’s camera at any characters you see, and get feedback on what the characters say (sometimes). Project Naptha means the same thing, but for your home browsing experience. For me, that’s when I do a lot more Chinese reading, so it’s even more important. Once this technology is perfected, as long as you have a tool to help you read electronic Chinese text, you’re all set!
Personally, I think this is especially great news for comics. It’s no coincidence that I tested this extension out on comic book text. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this extension develops.
The following is a guest article written by a Sinosplice reader, Julian Suddaby. I have followed it with some commentary of my own.
Warning: if you’re a member of the “Chinese is super easy” faction, this article might annoy you a little, but be sure to read through to the end!
How Many Characters?
by Julian Suddaby, 2014-02-13
I asked Google “how many chinese characters do I need to learn” and the best sites I found pointed to linguist Jun Da’s website and used his data to argue that 3,500 characters should be enough for most people, being that you’ll know around 99.5% of the characters in general circulation.  Is that really enough?
Well, if you’ve got to that point, congratulations. It’s an achievement. But you may not want to stop accumulating characters just yet. Indeed, sad to say, at 3,500 you won’t even be able to read Jun Da’s name, being that 笪 is way down at frequency #5,231.  So how many, then, do you need to learn? Well, that depends on one question that you should ask yourself: what exactly do you want to read?
Students often want to read Chinese newspapers. The Southern Weekly 南方周末 being a popular choice, I took the ten most popular articles over the previous thirty days and ran them through a computer program that checked them against Jun Da’s most frequent 3,500 characters. The results are fairly encouraging for the Chinese student, I think: if you knew the 3,500 you’d only encounter forty-four new characters over the course of those ten articles, and twenty-nine of those you’d only see once and so would probably just take a guess at from context and move on. But you’d possibly want to look up 甄, a pseudonymous surname given to the subject of one of the articles (and thus appearing thirty-five times); 闰, used in the name of a Zhejiang corporation which appears to have buried five hundred tons of poisonous chemicals in their backyard (seven appearances); and 驿, used in the name of a company involved in a online security breach (also seven appearances). 
So, while you probably shouldn’t throw out your dictionary just yet, it does seem that trying to read a newspaper won’t be a disheartening experience.
A Children’s Book
Children’s novels are another popular choice of reading material for language students. Shen Shixi is a well-regarded children’s novelist, whose Jackal and Wolf has recently been translated into English by Helen Wang. I ran an analysis on another of Shen’s novels, 《鸟奴》(lit. “Bird Slave”). This is, character-wise, much more difficult than the newspaper articles, with two hundred and one characters not in the top 3,500. Ninety of those are used more than once. As you’d expect from Shen, the “king of animal fiction”, animal-related vocabulary is one particular problem here, and you’ll probably end up very confused if you don’t look up 鹩, used two hundred and eighty-four times; 喙, used thirty-six times; and 獾, used twenty-two times. 
The novel is about two hundred and forty pages long, and so you should expect to find a character you don’t recognize on most pages.
A wuxia novel
Jin Yong’s novels remain firm favorites. Rather than starting with the four volumes and 1,300 pages of The Legend of the Condor Heroes 《射雕英雄传》, students might perhaps try A Deadly Secret《连城诀》, which is just four hundred pages or so. In those four hundred pages you’ll encounter two hundred and ninety-six characters not in the top 3,500.The most frequently used are from the protagonists’ names (水笙, 水岱, and 万圭), but there are plenty of new common nouns and verbs used multiple times as well. 
On a page-by-page basis, you should recognize more characters than in the Shen Shixi novel above. In terms of total characters, however, A Deadly Secret is more of a challenge.
A modern classic
Lu Xun’s A Call to Arms 《呐喊》, despite collecting stories he wrote at a very early stage of modern Chinese literary vernacularization, should not be much more difficult than the two novels above—at least in terms of basic character recognition. Two hundred and thirty unseen characters in total, with 闰 (remember that one from above?), 珂 (used in a name) and 锵 (a sound) taking the top three spots. 
Even from this very cursory analysis, it appears that if your goal is to read Chinese fiction comfortably without a dictionary, you’re going to need to recognize more than 3,500 characters. Chinese writers use characters well into the four or five thousand frequency range very regularly.
So although reaching 3,500 is worth celebrating, I wouldn’t stop trying to acquire characters just yet. Keep reading and dictionary-checking, and don’t abandon memorizing/spaced repetition if that’s something you find helpful.  You’ll still be coming across new characters for a long, long time…. 
笪 Dà (a surname here, but means “a coarse mat of rushes or bamboo”, with 旦 dān providing the phonetic). Here and later I’m using Wenlin as my main reference for character glosses.↩
甄 Zhēn (a surname here, but originally meaning “to make pottery” and thus composed of 垔 and 瓦, but with no phonetic clue), 闰 rùn (used in a name here, but means “intercalary”; the much more common 润 shares the same pronunciation), 驿 yì (used together with 站 to mean “post/courier station”; right-hand side is the phonetic, as in 译).↩
鹩 liáo (“wren”, with the left-hand side providing the phonetic), 喙 huì (“snout; mouth; beak”, with both 口 and 彖 radicals semantic; no phonetic clue), 獾 huān (“badger”, with the right-hand side phonetic).↩
笙 shēng (“reed-pipe instrument”, bottom is the phonetic), 岱 Dài (“Taishan mountain”, top is the phonetic), 圭 guī (“jade tablet”, cf. 挂 or 桂 for the pronunciation).↩
珂 (“a jade-like stone”, right-hand side is the phonetic), 锵 qiāng (“clang”, right-hand side is the phonetic).↩
For the more technologically-oriented student, another option may be available: thanks to the increasing availability of texts in machine-readable formats students could run their own frequency analysis on a text they wanted to read and pre-learn characters they don’t already know. It’s a pity there don’t seem to be any easy-to-use programs or websites that offer this functionality.↩
It should also be noted that single character recognition is only part of reading Chinese, and is not on its own a good measure of reading proficiency. That said, the relative ease of measuring character recognition and frequency may justify its limited use as a self-diagnostic and motivational tool for learners of Chinese.↩
The following is my response:
Interesting! This sort of helps make a case for the importance of graded readers. (Have you seen Mandarin Companion?)
While I know your intent is to SEEK THE TRUTH, the overall tone of the article is, unfortunately, a little discouraging for struggling learners. For me, this totally highlights the need for materials that give the learner a sense of accomplishment for having reached 300, 500, 1000 characters, rather than an incessant message saying, “STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH.”
You’re quite right, I suppose I am a little too rigidly 实事求是 in the piece! I completely agree with you about the need to avoid the demotivating “still not good enough” feeling and message that permeates most Chinese teaching materials (how I remember my exasperation when the 高级 textbook still required fifty plus new vocabulary items per short text!). There’s really a huge need for more good reading materials with limited character/vocabulary ranges, and your graded readers look fantastic.
Now before you go too crazy trying to read it, know this:
> Some time ago, Instagram user jumppingjack posted the above image of a note she left to her mum. She said that her brother secretly added extra strokes to the characters in the note. The result is interesting though: even though extra strokes were added, the note is still readable to most competent Chinese speakers.
That brother is kind of awesome. That is the kind of mischief I would have been all over as a kid, if only I had had Chinese characters at my disposal. The character substitutions are pictured at the right. (Note: not all of them are real characters.)
(Also, I totally sympathize with jumpingjack for writing the character 期 wrong, with the two sides swapped. I have done that way too many times myself.)
Try having a Chinese friend read the note and take note what gives them the most trouble. Read the original post for the note’s original content (in electronic text) and the author’s analysis and conclusions.
I recently discovered gotCharacters, the personal project of Kathleen Ferguson. I was impressed by the logical organization of the character components, and the clean, attractive design of the site. It was clear that a lot of work went into the site, and it’s all available for free! The following is my interview with her.
What made you decide to create a new resource for learning Chinese characters?
I came to Chinese in 2006 as an adult learner and struggled to remember even the simplest of characters and pinyin. There were few resources that suited my learning style, so early on I started developing my own mnemonics. I’m sharing them on gotCharacters.com with the hope that it will make someone else’s learning experience easier.
How is your work on gotCharacters different from that of “Chineasy” (of TED Talks fame)?
Based on ShaoLan Hsueh’s TED Talk and a quick look at the Chineasy website, I think we share the same goal: offering ways, like visual aids and other mnemonics, to make characters stick and to make learning Chinese less intimidating.
In developing gotCharacters, however, my perspective is different. English is my first language, and I’m a Chinese language learner (an adult learner at that); to me, my content represents material I would have liked to have had earlier in my learning curve. As an example, gotCharacters includes lookalikes—characters that look similar (like 人 and 入, or 千 and 午). To the experienced eye the differences are clear, but for a newbie these characters can be indistinguishable (as they were for me).
How did you create all the content on gotCharacters? Do you have a team? Do you have Chinese teachers involved?
Most of the content started out as reams of handwritten notes accumulated over the years. With the benefit of time and mulling, an idea evolves and it’s sketched on a yellow pad. Then I use a variety of tools like graphics, Flash animations, audio recording, and eLearning software to develop the online content. Cecilia Lindqvist’s book China: Empire of Living Symbols and Claudia Ross’s Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar are my two bibles.
I’m a visual learner, and animating characters brought them to life for me. My first animations were in 2010; in my mind’s eye, I could visualize 人 (person) walking, 飞 flying, and 马 rearing back on its hind legs and neighing. Every time I would come across these characters, as part of another character or as a stand-alone, I remembered the animation and thus the character.
Some ideas take time to come to fruition. I created the “Radical View” map (www.gotCharacters.com/radical-view) in 2011 as an independent project for class. Two years later I presented a more fully formed version at a World Language Teachers conference (my topic was “Overcoming the Challenges of Learning Mandarin: An American Student’s Perspective”), and the Chinese teachers’ enthusiastic response inspired me to make a color-coded, interactive version for the website, which was launched just this month.
As far as a “team” goes, I’m it. My family is supportive of my passion for Chinese and my desire to share that with others. My first Chinese professor, Wu 老师 at Central Connecticut State University, and several Hanban and StarTalk teachers, including Wang 老师, who currently teaches Mandarin at our Newtown High School, have been strong supporters as well.
How far have you come with your Chinese studies?
I’ve come a long way since 2006 when learning everything was a struggle and remembering how to count to ten was elusive. I’ve taken four college classes and continue to self-study using podcasts, books, Chinese movies, and anything else that helps me to learn and remember Chinese.
My reading proficiency is good, and I can carry on a basic conversation with a native speaker as long as they speak slowly and deliberately. My goal is to become fluent in Chinese, and though I have a long way to go, I’m enjoying the journey a great deal.
Did some of the characters you learned at a more advanced level influence how you designed the material for beginners to learn characters?
Technology has actually had the greatest influence on how I designed the material. With the evolution and easy availability of software and web tools, I can do more today than just a few years ago to extend the functionality and versatility of the content.
What’s next? Is this a growing business, or a side project?
It is my passion and avocation (I’m doing what I love), and I hope that I can make a living with it at some point. There is much more content coming to gotCharacters, and I look forward to opportunities to collaborate with others, to develop course curriculum, and maybe someday to teach characters. My mother always told us “Your goal should be just out of your reach” so my goal is for gotCharacters.com to become for Chinese what Kahn Academy is for math.
What especially caught my eye was the mention of this use of Chinese characters:
The characters involved are 自由 and 目田. The former is a real word meaning “freedom,” the letter is a nonsensical combination of two characters (“eye” + “field”), chosen for their appearance only.
I really love how creativity with characters (something I call characterplay) allows for circumvention of censorship. This case is particularly ironic, because in order to avoid automated detection you’re literally removing the top part of both characters, a nice parallel to the content removal activities going on behind the scenes at Weibo.
I definitely don’t like this logo as well as the 永久 logo, but this one is still noteworthy:
The name of the Japanese restaurant is 吟味. This is kind of a strange name to me; the only Chinese word I’m very familiar with that contains the character 吟 is 呻吟, which means “moan” or “groan.” It has numerous sound-related meanings, like “sing,” “chant,” and “recite.” 味, of course, means “flavor.”
In Japanese, I found an entry for 吟味 (ぎんみ) which means “testing; scrutiny; careful investigation.” I guess a name like that could be comforting in a country so beset with food safety issues?
I found it interesting how the mouth radical (口) is used in the same logo to form two very different pictures. The first one is of a table reminiscent of ancestral forms of the character 口, except upside down. The second one looks like a bowl, and although looking more modern, resembles a few of the other ancestral forms of the character 口 (and not upside down this time).
The right side of 吟 (the roof combined with the kneeling Japanese figure) to me really looks more like the character 令 than 今 in certain calligraphic styles.
Logos like this are interesting, but to me highlights an important point: Chinese characters are not pictures. They’re not even very much like pictures. If characters were really “like pictures,” this kind of logo wouldn’t work.
Certain Chinese characters and character components arehistorically pictographic in nature, yes, but you can see how even a basic pictographic element like the mouth radical (口) is actually very plastic. To me, what’s so fascinating about characters is not that they’re “like pictures,” but that they’re a ridiculously complex (and yet still viable) alternative symbolic system to alphabet-based writing systems.
Foreign words, like “Minnesota” or “Kobe Bryant” or “Carrefour” often get “translated” into Chinese in a way that uses the original sounds of the words and tries to represent those in Chinese (thus, using Chinese characters). This process is called transliteration, or sometimes transcription (音译, which breaks down character by character into “sound translation” in Chinese). Thus, the three examples above become “Mingnisuda” (明尼苏达), “Kebi Bulai’ente” (科比·布莱恩特), and “Jialefu” (家乐福) in Chinese.
These foreign names can be quite a pain for learners to remember, because the pronunciation is “off,” and they’re often quite long, plus the worst part: you have to remember all the tones for those “nonsense characters!”
But are they really nonsense characters? That depends. A carefully transliterated name will make some sort of sense in Chinese. This is almost always done with company and brand names, and is the case with Carrefour (家乐福) above; the three characters chosen mean “home,” “joy,” and “happiness,” respectively. For place names, though, the characters are a bit less lovingly selected. So Minnesota (明尼苏达) got: “bright,” “Buddhist nun,” “Suzhou,” “arrive.” Pretty random. Same goes for “Kobe Bryant” (科比·布莱恩特) in Chinese.
So a typical learner of Chinese wants to know: what’s my name in Chinese? And that’s where the tumble down the foreign name transliteration rabbit hole begins. You see, most English names already have standard translations in Chinese. So “John” is 约翰, “Mary” is 玛丽, “Richard” is 理查德, etc. Clearly, these are all transliterations; the sounds are approximated in Chinese, but not the meanings.
From the moment I first heard “约翰” (“John” in Chinese), I hated it. It didn’t sound like “John” at all! There wasn’t even a “zh” or a “j” sound in the whole name. (It does sound quite similar to “Johann,” though; I think I had early European missionaries to thank for the “standard” transliteration of my name.)
After examining the characters, there were two main things I didn’t like about 约翰:
1. The characters 约翰 didn’t make much sense (OK, they make a little sense, from a “Gospel of John” missionary perspective)
2. “Yuēhàn” just sounded weird to me, and unlike most Chinese names
These two features define most foreign names transliterated into Chinese. In fact, oftentimes the characters really are nonsensical; they’re chosen systematically from a fixed list of characters used in transliterations. This list even has its own Wikipedia page: Transcription into Chinese characters.
Looking over the list, I can’t help but feel that certain specific characters are more “foreign” (used especially often in foreigners’ names, and not so often in Chinese names), while others are more “Chinese” (equally likely to appear in Chinese names). For example, 文 and 平 are both common in Chinese names. 托 and 斯… not quite so much.
Thus, over time, as you hear more and more combinations of these “transliteration characters” (杰克, 汉克, 路易, etc.), you start to get a feel for when a “Chinese name” sounds foreign, especially compared to the growing list of authentic Chinese people’s names you’re compiling in your memory. In fact, a computer program could actually run through big long lists of transliterated foreign names and original Chinese names, and by comparing the character distributions in the two lists, assign “Chineseness” and “foreignness” values to each character, allowing for fairly accurate prediction of what “Chinese” names would sound the most foreign. You could probably increase accuracy by taking note of the position of the characters in a word, and certain repeated character sequences (like 斯坦).
But this is what your brain does unconsciously as you learn more and more names. This is how we develop a sense for when a Chinese name feels foreign.
The ironic part of all this for me personally is that after rejecting 约翰 as my Chinese name, I later settled on 潘吉. Both of those characters are in thetranscription table! (Ah, but 潘吉 is actually much more Chinese, even if a bit boring. So 潘吉 is my official Chinese name, although these days I usually just go by John.)
So the name of the sugar is 浓好, a play on the expression 侬好, the Shanghainese version of 你好, or “hello” in Mandarin. 浓好 (the name of the sugar) literally means “strong is good,” where “strong” is the “strong coffee” kind of “strong.”
The character-savvy among you (who understand the necessity of radicals) will also notice that 侬 and 浓 share the phonetic element 农, and that in this case the person radical in 侬 and the water radical in 浓 carry meaning.
On the sugar packet we can also see it is from the “Hello Milk Tea Series.” It does make me wonder what else is in the series…