Tag: Chinese study


25

Jul 2013

Help with the Chinese Usage Dictionary

Yale University has a great Chinese Usage Dictionary with 85 entries. Only problem is that it uses the deprecated HTML practice of frames, and the links in the left sidebar are not right. You actually can get to the articles by hovering over the links, noting the HTML file it points to, and then editing the URL in your browser, but that’s a bit tedious.

To make access easier, AllSet Learning has added an index page for Yale’s Chinese Usage Dictionary, and at the same time, added a few relevant Chinese Grammar Wiki links as well. Check it out!

The Chinese Usage Dictionary isn’t a full dictionary in the sense of Pleco or MDBG, and it doesn’t stick strictly to vocabulary or grammar, alternating between the two. But if you like comparisons of similar words with examples of correct and incorrect usage, or want some exercises, then definitely give it a look.


09

Jul 2013

Meaningful Chinese Transliterations (for fun!)

One of the big headaches about learning Chinese is the relative dearth of cognates and loanwords. None of that “car” is “carro” stuff you get when you start learning Spanish. In fact, when you do learn words that were transliterated into English from Chinese (like 麦克风 for “microphone”), the result is often bizarre and a lot harder to learn than if it had been “more Chinese” (keep in mind that you also have to learn all the tones of the word transliterated into Chinese). Kind of a downer.

It seems to me that the Chinese aren’t too crazy about these transliterations either. When they can, they’ll do things like use the Chinese word 苹果 (“apple”) for the American company “Apple” rather than resorting to transliteration. But for foreigners’ names, foreign country names, foreign company names, foreign brand names, and foreign product names, you do get stuck with an awful lot of transliterations into Chinese.

Recently I came across this list of English words (probably taken from a list of vocabulary words for some horrible standardized test) that have been transliterated into Chinese in a humorous way. That is to say, the Chinese characters chosen, rather than being random or “standard transliteration characters,” were chosen for their meanings. I’ve added pinyin tooltips to the transliterations, and also English translations of the transliterations.

agoni

– pregnant (怀孕): 扑来个男的 (“throw a man on me”)
– ambulance (救护车): 俺不能死 (“I can’t die”)
– ponderous (肥胖的): 胖得要死 (“ridiculously fat”)
– pest (害虫): 拍死它 (“squash it”)
– ambition (雄心): 俺必胜 (“I must win”)
– agony (痛苦): 爱过你 (“having loved you”)
– hermit (隐士): 何处觅他 (“wherever can I seek him?”)
– strong (强壮): 死壮 (“damn strapping”)
– abyss (深渊): 额必死 (“I must die”)
– admire (羡慕): 额的妈呀 (“mama mia”)
– flee (逃跑): 飞离 (“fly away by plane”)
– gauche (粗鲁的): 狗屎 (“dog crap”)
– morbid (病态): 毛病 (“mental issues”)
– putrid (腐烂): 飘臭 (“wafting stench”)
– obtuse (愚笨): 我不吐死 (“I’m not going to puke to death”)
– lynch (私刑处死): 凌迟 (“kill by dismemberment”)
– tantrum (脾气发作): 太蠢 (“too stupid”)
– bachelor (学士/单身汉): 白痴了 (“turned dumb”)
– temper (脾气): 太泼 (“too unreasonable”)
– addict (上瘾): 爱得嗑它 (“love to the point of cracking it in your teeth”)
– economy (经济): 依靠农民 (“rely on the peasants”)
– ail (疼痛): 哎哟 (“Owww”)
– coffin (棺材): 靠坟 (“leaning on the grave”)
– appall (惊骇): 我跑 (“I’m gonna run”)


02

Jul 2013

The Foreign Feel of a Chinese Transliteration

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.

jieke

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, and are both common in Chinese names. and … 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.)

Rose's Revelation


09

May 2013

OF COURSE Radicals

Please excuse a short rant.

Guys, you have to learn radicals if you want to learn to read Chinese characters. You have to.

I bring this up because over and over again, I run into claims of a “secret” to or a “new method” for learning Chinese: radicals. Yes, it’s a bit of information you might not know when you first take an interest in Chinese, so it’s definitely worth stating explicitly to any new learner. But it’s not a “revolutionary way” to learn Chinese. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of the Chinese written language. In fact, the Chinese themselves coud not possibly commit to memory the huge quantity of characters that literate adults know if the system did not somehow build on itself (through semantic elements and phonetic elements).

So it’s not “this great way to learn Chinese”; it’s the only way to really learn Chinese characters, unless you’re going to stop at a few dozen. Just as one does not typically learn to read English by skipping the alphabet, or begin studies in classical music by skipping musical notation, one does not tackle reading Chinese without learning about radicals.

(The latest place I ran into this “secret” was a TED talk called ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese … with ease!)

Could we use new ways of learning Chinese characters? Absolutely. But radicals, or variations of Heisig’s method are not new. Learning thousands of characters is not effortless however you slice it. But it’s totally worth it!

So yes, learn radicals. Not because they’re some new idea, but because if you’re planning to learn Chinese in all its orthographic splendor, they’re one form of ancient Chinese wisdom that you simply can’t afford to ignore.


27

Mar 2013

Chinese Grammar Funnies

longlong

I saw an interesting Chinese forward called 小学生造句 (“elementary school students make sentences”). Obviously, the sentences produced are not exactly what the teacher was looking for. Here are some of the more amusing ones (some understanding of Chinese grammar may be required):

  1. 难过 [dictionary link] [grammar link]

    我家门前有条水沟很难过。
    (There’s a ditch in front of our house that’s hard to cross.)

  2. 又……又…… [grammar link]

    我的妈妈又矮又高又胖又瘦。
    (My mom is both short and tall and fat and thin.)

  3. 一边……一边…… [grammar link]

    他一边脱衣服,一边穿裤子。
    (He took off his clothes while putting on his pants.)

  4. 天真 [dictionary link]

    今天真热!
    (Today it’s really hot!)

  5. 先……再…… [grammar link]

    先生,再见!
    (Sir, goodbye!)

  6. 其中 [grammar link]

    我的其中一只左脚受伤了。
    (One of my left feet got hurt.)

  7. 况且 [dictionary link]

    一列火车经过:“况且况且况且况且况且况且况且”。
    (A train passed by: clanka clanka clanka clanka clanka clanka clanka.)

Photo by rbn_hu on Flickr.


22

Mar 2013

Classroom Culture Clash

Untitled

photo by LeeTobey

A friend in Beijing recently reported an exchange with his Chinese tutor to me that went something like this (embellished by my own imagination and translated into English):

> Friend: So today I’d like to talk about the air quality in Beijing.

> Tutor: I really don’t want to talk about that. You foreigners come to China, and all you want to talk about is how bad the air is, or how the food is unsafe. There’s really a lot more we could talk about. China is an immense country with a long history and rich culture. We don’t even have to talk about China. There’s so much more we could talk about than just complaining about the air quality here.

> Friend: I’m hiring you to help me improve my Chinese, and I want to talk about Beijing’s terrible air quality. So that’s what we’re talking about today.

> Tutor:

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the greatest tutoring session. But just that little piece of dialog recounted by my friend contained quite a few layers of cultural expectations. (A thoroughly enjoyable exchange, from my perspective!)


04

Feb 2013

The Chinese Grammar Wiki Is Kicking Ass

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

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

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

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

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


05

Jan 2013

MandarinTap Looks Interesting

Jut discovered MandarinTap. I haven’t bought it yet (it’s $2.99), but it’s available for iOS and Android. Anyone out there tried it?

Here’s the intro:

I’ll most likely get this later and follow up with a review.


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

11

Dec 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, everybody!


26

Nov 2012

What to Expect with Chinese Grammar

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Grammar Hurdles

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

A few additional notes for beginners:

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

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


09

Nov 2012

Animal House for Studying Chinese

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

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

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

Anyway, happy Friday! 中文!中文!中文!中文!中文!


02

Nov 2012

Sapore di Cina for Chinese Learners

I’d like to call attention to a relatively new blog on learning Chinese by Furio from Italy. It’s called Sapore di Cina (“Flavor of China” in Italian), and the author has a lot of good ideas (in English). A lot of his recommendations are the types of things I tell learners as well, so if you like Sinosplice’s entries on learning Chinese, there’s a good chance you’ll like Furio’s blog.

The blog post that first got my attention was Learn Chinese online: 27 excellent free resources. It’s a good list, and since any list of this sort doesn’t stay up to date for long, it’s good to check it out now. I was happy to see the Chinese Grammar Wiki in Furio’s list of resources.

Recently Furio published ChinesePod Review – An alternative way to learn Chinese. I won’t deny that it’s a complimentary review of ChinesePod in general (and me in particular), but one of the good things about this review is the Furio calls attention to some of the more effective (and economical) ways to get the most out of ChinesePod.

I’ve added Sapore di Cina to my on short list of Chinese resources on Sinosplice. Check it out!


30

Oct 2012

Halloween Vocab Challenges

I’ve always found it a bit tricky at first to talk about holidays in Chinese. The Chinese holidays involve these things that we just don’t have, so it’s not a matter of translation, it’s a matter learning what these things are and what they’re called. 红包, 粽子, 对联, 扫墓, etc. Fortunately, that’s a pretty interesting learning process most of the time (especially if you’re learning the stuff hands-on in China), so all is well and good there.

And then there’s explaining the western holidays to the Chinese. Sure, the Chinese already know a lot about western holidays, so frequently all you have to do is fill in a few of the gaps. The fun part of figuring out where the gaps are, and what misperceptions there are. I’ve always enjoyed this too.

AllSet Learning bottled poison

Halloween (万圣节) seems to bring a few of its own challenges, however. The concept is easy for the Chinese to get: it’s a 鬼节 (a “ghost festival”). It’s the trivial things that tend to pose challenges here. How would you say the following in Chinese?

– What are you going to be for Halloween?
– Don’t forget to wear a costume.
– Why didn’t you dress up?

The concept of “Halloween costume” does not seem to have standard translations, and you can get different answers from different people. I’ve been down this road before, and it can get a little confusing. The key is to focus on the verb for “dress up” rather than on the noun “costume.” Here is some of the language I hear Halloween-happy Chinese young people using:

你要穿什么? This one is a little vague, because it just asks “what are you going to wear,” which might apply to any party.
你要扮什么? This one gets more into the costume/disguise theme, sort of like asking, “what are you going to dress up as?”
别忘了装扮自己。 Here we see the verb 装扮, which is probably the most appropriate verb for dressing up for some role, although it seems a little overly specific for everyday usage. But it literally means, “don’t forget to disguise yourself.”

The in 装扮 (“to disguise oneself”) is not the same one as in the phrase 怎么办; it’s the from 打扮, which is most often used to mean “make oneself up” or “deck oneself out” (for a night on the town). Or you fans of role-play might also know it as the from 扮演, meaning “to play a role.” (Indeed, the formal Chinese translation for “role-playing game” is even 角色扮演游戏.)

One thing is for sure: Halloween parties are a great occasion to learn obscure vocabulary! I leave you with a last question (in 2 flavors), which very well might come in handy if the Halloween parties you attend are anything like the ones I’ve attended in China:

你扮的是什么? “What are you dressed up as?”
你这是什么装扮? “What are you supposed to be?”


25

Sep 2012

iOS6 has your iPhone speaking Chinese

I got a great tip from my friend Will Stevenson yesterday. Apparently iOS6 not only added text-to-speech support for new languages, but also enabled the ability to recognize and read out Chinese, even when the phone is in English language mode, and even when the text is a mix of Chinese and English.

What it is

Here’s an example of “Speak” enabled for a Chinese spam text:

IMG_0660

Here’s an example of “Speak” for a note which includes both English and Chinese (I’m not sure why there’s a choice of reading in either 中文 or English; either one does the same thing):

IMG_0658

Untitled

For text messages, iOS treats each SMS text as one big block of text, and it won’t highlight individual words as it reads them (even though it reads them all). For other types of text, though, in apps like the Notes app, it will highlight each character as it reads it out:

IMG_0659

grassroots

[Side note: here’s what the note was about. I took notice of it because it’s a fairly rare example of mixing simplified and traditional Chinese characters in print. It was done to put the (heart) back into the character for love, since the simplified version quite literally takes the “heart” () out of (traditional) “love” ().]

How to enable it

Anyway, since you’re likely here to get your iOS6 device speaking Chinese, here’s how you do it.

First, go to Settings > General > Accessibility (Accessibility is near the bottom of all the stuff in “General.” Just a little hard to find. Naturally.)

Right at the top, you’ll see an Accessibility section called “Vision.” There you’ll see an item called “Speak Selection.” Touch on that. On the next screen, turn it ON. You can also turn no “Highlight Words” here too (why not?). You probably don’t want to mess with the speaking rate. It gets way too fast pretty quickly.

IMG_0653

IMG_0654

Here’s the really cool thing, though. There’s a “Dialects” section. (And no, I’m not going into the “what is a dialect, really? discussion here!) In there, you can not only choose the dialect for English and other languages, but also for Chinese! At the bottom of the “Dialects” section, under 中文, you can choose mainland Mandarin (中国), Cantonese (廣東話), and Taiwanese Mandarin (台灣). Not sure why they chose two regions and a language/dialect/topolect as the choices. But anyway, fun stuff!

IMG_0656

IMG_0657

What it means

Why does this matter? Well, my friend Will discovered it by accident as he was going through the somewhat tedious routine of copying a text so that he could then paste it into Pleco‘s pasteboard reader. He tried playing the text, and much to his surprise, he could hear the Chinese (whereas in the past, on iOS5, the text-to-speech converter would just skip over all Chinese). In this particular example, after having the Chinese read to him, he didn’t need to look it up after all.

Because a lot of the challenge of Chinese is simply recognizing the characters for the words you already know, text-to-speech can be extremely convenient. Will’s reaction was, “now that I have this feature, I’m going to be using Pleco a lot less now!”

Interesting. Let me know if you think this new feature changes how you learn Chinese on your phone, or if it’s just no big deal to you.


12

Sep 2012

A Visual Case for Stroke Order

Inevitably, students of Chinese characters will ask, at some point, “why do we have to learn stroke order? What difference does it make?

It’s a good question. This is the answer:

好无聊

(The message reads 好无聊. “So bored.”)

This is what Chinese characters start to look like as the strokes flow together. And it’s not just about calligraphy and an appreciation of ancient culture; I discovered the image above through Tencent’s WeChat (the iPhone app).


31

Aug 2012

Graham’s SRS Method

Sinosplice commenter Graham Bond recently left a lengthy and interesting comment on my Misgivings about SRS post. (“SRS” refers to spaced repetition system like Anki; I explain how SRS works in an earlier post.)

I quote Graham’s comment here, almost in its entirety, adding in a few links and just a little emphasis:

I have become a hopelessly-addicted SRS user in recent months. This decision came at something of an impasse in my (nine year-long) Chinese language-learning journey, and was made largely on the back of blog I came across, the author of which was positively evangelical about the possibilities of the technology.

By now – nine months in – I recognise all of the problems and limitations cited above. I was mistaken to think, as many others have, that SRS was a cure to all language-acquisition ills. It is bound to unnaturally skew one’s priorities and lead to the kind of imbalanced result you allude to in your post (ie. I have bulging vocabularly pecs, and puny grammatical legs). That said, it has proved useful in certain respects, not least in introducing a competitive element to language-learning (albeit one in which I compete with myself) and imposing quite a hard-edged discipline (ie. I gotta get through my character sets every day, regardless of how I feel, otherwise the ‘overdue cards’ count mounts very quickly….this can verge on the pathological).

My current set up attempts to address some of the deficiencies mentioned above. Though it’s probably very, very boring, I’ll set out my current arrangements, as briefly as possible, in the hope of explaining how they work for me (and occasionally, how they do not).

I have four decks of cards which, in total, I spend around an hour trawling through daily.

Only one of these, the HSK deck, was downloaded and, as such, contains many words and (at Level 6) idioms which are completely devoid of context for me. Because of the sheer size of the contemporary Level 6 HSK category (1,400+ words), I have had to introduce new cards slowly – I try for 10-20 new words per day – in the hope that by the end of this year, 2012, I will be juggling all cards (about 2,500 for Levels 1-6), while never having to face a single daily session of more than, say, 150 words at one time.

I download daily audio from YouTube clips of 美国之音 TV news broadcasts and listen to them as MP3 files whilst commuting, or taking a stroll. I attempt to listen to at least 20-minutes worth of broadcast material daily. Additionally, I force myself to read at least one Chinese news article (I occasionally substitute this with a page or two of a novel) per day, regardless of subject. These two activities have allowed me to locate the usage of a lot of the fairly formal words or obscures idioms that I have come across in my HSK drills (especially when I read Chinese newspapers, as these are the most likely to feature the more obscure, Mao-era, political terms often used in the HSK). I don’t always have time to dwell on their exact usage – and there are many words/phrases I have not yet heard in any real-world context – but I do get a little thrill when I hear a word or phrase which I have previously only known in the HSK context, being used out there in the real world.

In short, I try to undertake the (largely written) daily SRS drills in tandem with attempts to exercise my listening and reading skills.

My second and third flashcard decks are drawn manually from Chinesepod.com. I listen to lessons at the Intermediate and Upper Intermediate levels (keep up the good work, btw!:)) and, after each lesson, draw down new words/phrases into files which I transfer to my SRS system (Pleco, for what it’s worth). Thus I have an ‘Intermediate’ set, and an ‘Upper Intermediate’ set which are both increasing in size on a weekly basis, as new lessons are made.

My fourth flashcard set – and the most recent, and possible useful, addition – is a list of complete sentences which locates some of the most common/useful/interesting words/phrases in real-world context. I tend to take these sentences from the dialogues at Chinesepod.com, thereby ensuring that they are reliable in terms of how people really speak. This is an attempt to address the most obvious failing with SRS that it allows you to expand your vocabulary without requiring any understanding of how words are actually used in context. In this test, I look at the English translation and read out the correct Chinese sentence. The act of verbalising, if only to myself, seems to make certain patterns stick.

In terms of the specific tests that I undertake, I oscillate fairly systematically between, on the one hand, viewing the English translation and responding with the written Chinese translation (input using hanzi), while simultaneously verbalising the word in the (hopefully) correct tones; and, on the other, reading the Chinese word and verbalising the correct English translation out loud to myself. Regardless of the exact test I undertake, I try to be disciplined and have a rule for myself that if I could not, on request, write the hanzi that appear in the word, or if I get the tone of a character wrong (even if I knew how to write it), I mark the card as wrong. In some ways this is a vanity project – I want to be able to say (as I have been known to in the past) that “I am able to write everything that I am able to say”. On the other hand, as some other commenters have noted, writing a character over and over again does tend to make it stick in one’s memory banks.

As I mentioned, all of this takes me between 60 minutes and 75 minutes per day.

Despite all of my labours, I have concluded that while daily SRS work has enlarged my vocabulary and improved my reading skills (and to a lesser extent, listening skills), it has done absolutely nothing for my general conversational fluency. If anything, this is in a worse place now than it was nine months ago. I lived in China for several years in the Noughties (apologies:)) and, thus, feel confident in terms of my basic pronunciation and tones. But, here I am, nine years in, still finding myself jumping through all kinds of mental hoops and using torturous (and probably way overly complication and clunky) sentence constructions when it comes time to actually have a conversation at anything over a basic elementary level. Similarly, I have little confidence in composing a Chinese sentence in writing. I may be able to write the individual characters accurately, with the correct stroke order etc.etc, but I cannot necessarily link them fluently in a proper sentence, let alone a paragraph.

In summary, SRS is rubbish for improving fluency, but is great for developing vocabulary and thus (depending on precisely how it is used), improving one’s reading and listening comprehension. Luckily for me, right now I am most concerned with improving my Chinese reading skills, so this works for me. And I am (semi)confident that this is great foundational work for when I do, eventually, get back to China and find myself speaking with real people again (you currently find me residing in a sleepy English village – which, over and beyond everything I have said, is my biggest problem of all – the general ambient sounds in my everyday life are not those of Mandarin Chinese!)

Thanks for the detailed comment, Graham! At the time you didn’t know you were writing a guest post, so… surprise! I appreciate you going to the trouble of writing such a detailed account. Other learners will benefit from your ideas.

I like the way you diversified your SRS review, and your confirmation on the shortcomings of SRS as a study tool is helpful. There’s no silver bullet for mastery of any language…


22

Aug 2012

Learn Chinese in 3D takes Chinese learning to the third dimension!

What does it mean to take Chinese learning to the third dimension? Well, it means a cool 3D interface for exploring Chinese characters and words, but beyond that, it’s not totally clear. But that’s OK! The way I view this new app, 3D Chinese, is a sort of experiment, a Chinese learning app that was created because it was possible. And I think that’s a good thing. It’s fun, for one (unless you’re a luddite). I’d like to see more of this kind of thing.

Check out the video and some screenshots:

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

I was a tester for this app, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I gave the developer a few suggestions, and he was quite responsive to feedback. The style of the app still feels a little too Japanese to me, but it’s still a very polished experience.

So what is the app? Basically, it’s an alternative to a character dictionary or character book, where you have a bunch of common characters laid out in lists by radical. Instead, characters are grouped spatially by radical. You can explore the characters in the 3D environment, learn words containing those characters, etc. It’s a very visual, exploratory way to experience Chinese, and I know that appeals to a lot of people.

The app also has its own built-in SRS functionality. I didn’t test this functionality much, as the app seemed much more suited to a visual tour than the old “doing reps” SRS chore, but this feature might appeal to some.

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

3D Chinese is currently priced at $2.99. This is a reasonable price for its beautiful 3D visual experience, but this app is not for either (1) the super hardcore learner who wants extreme depth (that user really just wants a dictionary, not something visual-oriented), or (2) a super casual learner who just wants to be entertained by visuals and doesn’t really want to learn (the 3D effects of the app will lose their charm pretty quickly if the learner isn’t actually into the characters at all). If you don’t fall into either of those categories, and don’t find a price of $2.99 exorbitant, I recommend you give this little experiment in visual learning a whirl.


31

Jul 2012

How I Learned Chinese (part 3)

I started a series of posts all the way back in 2007 on how I learned Chinese. I began with how I studied before I came to China (part 1), and then continued with what I did after I got over here (part 2). That got me to a low level of fluency, sufficient for everyday conversation and routine tasks in daily life. But then what? What did I do to get past that level?

I didn’t continue the series past part 2 because it was obvious to me back in 2007 that I was still learning a lot of Chinese, and it’s never really clear what’s happening when you’re right in the middle of it (that whole forest and trees thing). Now, a good 5 years later, I’ve got a lot more perspective on the big picture of what was going on with my Chinese development back then. So it’s high time I continued the account…


Plateauing

After finally getting my Chinese to a point where I felt like I could honestly say “I speak Chinese” (sometime around 2003), I had to re-evaluate a bit. Wasn’t that my initial goal, after all? To get in, get fluent, and get out? And then move onto another cool and exciting country? Yes, that was my original plan: to be a bit of an “immersion whore.” It’s a dangerous game to play, though… because if you’re not careful, you might become emotionally attached. And that kind of affects the plan.

And I did get attached to my life in China. (I still find my existence here to be rife with an exhilarating kind of chaos.) And I still wanted to keep improving my Chinese. And I had met someone who might possibly be the coolest woman ever. Long story short, I had decided to stay.

Just as I had concluded that I needed real all-Chinese practice to improve my speaking in the beginning, I also realized next that I needed to increase the amount of Chinese in my life. Specifically, I needed a job where I could use Chinese, or possibly higher level studies in Chinese. I always enjoyed teaching English, but my duties as an English teacher conflicted with my personal goals of mastering Chinese. I had reached the dreaded intermediate plateau, that period where getting from point A to point B takes a long time and a hell of a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like you’re making significant progress at the time. I needed a plan to propel myself beyond it, and my sights starting moving toward Shanghai.

plateau

It was at this point that I also came to the reluctant conclusion that I should probably take the HSK. I’ve never been a fan of standardized testing, and the HSK struck me then as particularly estranged from reality (and hasn’t gotten a lot better since). But the more formal Mandarin evaluated by the HSK could be useful in a work setting, and I had also begun toying with this new idea of going to graduate school for applied linguistics in China. You need an HSK score to get into Chinese universities.

HSK Ho!

The one-semester HSK prep course I took at Zhejiang University of Technology in the second half of 2003 was the first formal course in Chinese I had taken since arriving in China almost three years earlier. It reminded me that I hated studying to the test, but also that I really did have quite a few grammar points I still needed to nail down.

I recall clearly, before studying for the HSK at all, that I had some delusions of fluency, thinking that maybe I could go straight for the advanced HSK. My Chinese wasn’t nearly that good, though, and even after completing the course, I didn’t quite ace the HSK as I had hoped, although I got the score I needed for grad school in China.

Result: serious wake-up call! I still had plenty to learn. I had gotten good at the casual conversations I immersed myself in daily, but more of those conversations weren’t really helping me get to the next level (at least not fast enough). And although I had the HSK score I needed, I would still need to pass an essay exam to get into the applied linguistics program I was interested in.

Goals do help

So having studied for the HSK for about half a year and then passing it, I was ready for the next challenge: applying for graduate school in China. I learned that I needed to pass a hand-written essay exam on 现代汉语 (modern Mandarin), to prove that I had both the theoretical linguistic knowledge about the language as well as the Chinese writing skills to express myself. I was assigned a textbook to “learn” in order to pass the exam. The school directed me to the tutoring services of the student center, and I was able to hire a tutor to help me get through it.

What followed was a year of reading the textbook, discussing it with my teacher, and doing regular essay assignments. I directed my own studies and set my own pace, and my tutor (a college student) helped me along the way. Honestly, I barely even remember that year of study. I just remember writing a whole bunch of essays and seeing an awful lot of red ink. I also remember being quite surprised by how quickly my handwriting speed ramped up when I was regularly putting pen to paper with purpose.

When I finally took the essay test, I was super nervous, but all that writing practice paid off. I could bust out a decent length essay in the hour allotted. It wasn’t perfect (I think I got an 80%?), but I was in.

Remember that plateau?

The frustrating thing about the plateau is that you don’t feel like you’re making progress when you really are. It didn’t feel like my Chinese was getting significantly better as I acquired the vocabulary and grammar to pass the HSK, or even as I got steadily better at writing essays in Chinese. It’s not until well after the fact that you can look back on that period of time and realize that your skills really have progressed a fair amount since then. For me, it wasn’t until I was in grad school in 2005, pretty well adjusted after the first few weeks of classes, and thinking, “this actually isn’t so hard” that it finally hit me: wow, my Chinese has actually come a long way since those good old Hangzhou days.

For me, the key to getting through that intermediate plateau period was having a sequence of reasonable, attainable goals. I’m not sure I would have ever made it if my goal was just to pass the advanced HSK. I certainly wouldn’t have done it in order to read a Chinese newspaper. My long-term goal was earning a masters in applied linguistics in Chinese, but my first goal was simply getting a passing score on the HSK, which largely involved learning all the basic grammar patterns I had neglected (because I didn’t need them) and picking up the rather boring (but important) vocabulary I had formerly ignored. The half-year of working toward the short-term goal helped train me mentally for the next goal of passing the writing exam, and being able to switch gears from standardized testing to writing really kept things interesting. After those two smaller goals were attained, all that was left was a 3-year “make it through grad school” goal, which was a special challenge all its own, and a story for another time…


25

Jul 2012

AllSet Learning Pinyin Chart: now with Gwoyeu Romatzyh!

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

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

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

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

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

Zhao Yuanren

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

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

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

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


17

Jul 2012

New Hardware, Changing Study Methods

Skritter Input Device Roundup (2012)

It’s striking how quickly technology is changing the way we learn Chinese. Recently I mused that it doesn’t seem to take as long to get fluent in Chinese as it used to, and one of the reasons I cited was technology. A recent Input Device Roundup update on the Skritter site calls attention to how it’s not just the software (“computers” in general), but actually the hardware that’s changing rapidly, and with it, the way we learn to write Chinese (with Skritter, anyway). Skritter’s in a unique position in that over the last few years, the service is seeing a big change in the types of hardware its users are using to interact with its service. From the humble mouse, to writing tablets, to tablet computers, Skritter’s a service that magnifies the impact of evolving hardware on learning Chinese.

Skritter Scott’s conclusion is that the iPad is now the best way to practice writing Chinese characters using Skritter. This doesn’t surprise me; last year I laid out some ideas for how really killer apps for learning Chinese characters could be created for the iPad, and lamented that no one had really attempted it yet. Well, we’re getting there!

If anyone’s seen some really interesting or innovative new apps for learning Chinese, please share. There’s so much potential…



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