Tag: Chinese study


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…


29

Jun 2012

How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?

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

Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan/大山:

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

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

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

> 5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.

> 10 years to feel comfortable in the language.

David Moser:

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

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

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

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

My own experiences:

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

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

What’s the deal?

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

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

The good news

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing

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

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

Very true.


18

Jun 2012

More Simple Chinese Signs

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

Noodle to Noodle

面对面 (noodle shop)

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

The other characters are 重庆, the city of Chongqing.

Big Big Small Small

大大小小

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

City West Middle School

市西中学

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


12

Jun 2012

Skritter for iPhone: finally!

The hard-working guys at Skritter have been working on an iPhone app for quite a while. They put up a nice launch page, made a really cool video, and then… proceeded to “keep us in suspense” for a really long time. Well, the wait is finally over! Even though I’ve been helping to test the new app prior to the official release, I waited until I got word from Skritter that the app has been officially approved before writing this review. The app is real!

Skritter iPhone app: Launch Page

I’ve mentioned before that I feel the iPad has real potential for Chinese writing practice. I’ve always liked Skritter, but when Skritter first came out, I had already put in my writing time (the old-fashioned way), and I wasn’t really interested in using a mouse or a writing tablet to practice characters. It did strike me as a cool way for a new generation of learners to write, however.

With an iPad, though, it’s different. The iPhone is a little small, in my opinion, when my writing utensils are as big and fat as my fingers. That’s why I’m more excited about Skritter on an iPad than on an iPhone, and I actually tested the app exclusively on my iPad rather than my iPhone. (To be clear, Skritter has only released an iPhone version so far, so I was just running an iPhone app at 2X on my iPad.)

How is it? Although I’m not crazy about every aspect of the design, the app got one thing very right: writing is very smooth. And for this app, writing is the right thing to get right. (I’m pretty sure that makes sense.) They could have invested more into slick iOS interface design, but they chose instead to make the actual writing functionality of the app work really well. Good call.

I’ve only got screenshots here, but the “virtual ink” feels very liquid as you write, like it’s really seeping out of your fingertips. When you hold your finger down and make slower strokes, you can see the extra ink “flowing” out and sinking into the “paper.” I like it.

Here are a few screenshots of me fluidly writing my name (and then the ink fading). Meanwhile the Skritter robot wants none of my narcissistic tomfoolery, and reminds me in blue what I’m supposed to be writing.

Skritter iPhone app: Fluid Writing Skritter iPhone app: Fluid Writing

Here’s me writing the character . (And no, the Skritter robot doesn’t like strokes to be that connected, but hey, it made a cool screenshot.)

Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安 Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安

Here’s some crazy unacceptable strokes just straight-up exploding, and then a screen for tone recall:

Skritter iPhone app: Explosion Skritter iPhone app: Tone Practice

Here’s some word lists and a settings screen:

Skritter iPhone app: Word Lists Skritter iPhone app: Settings

Finally–and this is a feature that kind of took me by surprise, because I’m a Skritter fan but not a regular user, so I was unaware of this feature before I discovered it–here’s a shot of Skritter’s Pleco integration. When you’re writing a word, you can click on the “info” button on top right, and then click on the Pleco button. That opens up Pleco, with the word already looked up. Pretty sweet! And there’s a button at the bottom of the Pleco screen which can take you right back to Skritter when you’re done.

Skritter iPhone app: Info Skritter iPhone app: Pleco Support

Bottom line: very cool app. Yes, the free app requires a Skritter subscription to support it, so it’s not the cheapest option for writing practice. (But if you’re such a cheapskate, what are you doing with an iPhone, anyway?)

You can get the app here.


P.S. It wasn’t until after I had written this review that I bothered to ask Nick of Skritter why the styles in the video and in the app I tested were so different, so only then did I learn that you can change the theme of the app. I gotta say, I like the “Dark Theme” much better. The default theme is a bit of a “Peking Opera Mask” turnoff for me. I’m all for a modern China with modern Chinese.

Here’s the difference between the two:

Skritter: Dark Theme Skritter: Traditional Theme

Skritter: Dark Theme Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安

Apparently a lot of people prefer the traditional “inky” style to the modern “flashy” style. Interesting.


P.P.S. If you’re interested in learning Chinese, though, make sure you’ve learned your pinyin first. AllSet Pinyin for the iPad can help with that.


11

May 2012

Back to Jing’an (thoughts)

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

Jingan Temple in Late Morning

photo by Neil Noland

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

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

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

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

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


02

May 2012

Peking Opera Masks

Recently Brendan put up a post called Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair on the new “Beijing Avengers” group blog, Rectified.name. It’s an insightful take on how contemporary Chinese literature is being represented (and not represented) abroad.

I especially enjoyed the explanation toward the end of his use of “Peking Opera masks”:

peking-opera-masks

> A few years ago, a few other translators and I were talking with employees of a Chinese publishing house who said that they had some books that they wanted to translate into English — things that they said would show foreigners the real China. There was a brief and intense period of excitement, until the publishers said that these were coffee-table books about Peking Opera masks and different varieties of tea. Ever since then, I’ve used “Peking Opera masks” as mental shorthand for the Chinese habit of attempting to interest the world in aspects of itself that most Chinese people don’t give two-tenths of a rat’s ass about. (This same thing affects Chinese-language instruction, but I’ll save that rant for another post.)

Oh yes… you better believe that plenty of Chinese study materials out there are rife with Peking Opera maskery.

(Note: Just in case you have a burning desire to discuss Peking Opera masks in Chinese, these masks are usually referred to as 脸谱 or 京剧脸谱 in Mandarin.)


09

Mar 2012

Types of Tone Mistakes

Huh?

As a learner of Chinese, you’re going to make mistakes with your tones. A lot of them. It’s unavoidable. It can be helpful to reflect on the kinds of mistakes you’re making, though, because it can help you realize that despite all the mangled tones, you’re actually making progress.

No, I’m not just talking about the stages of learning tones which I’ve written about before, I’m talking about mistakes which are fundamentally different in nature. As your Chinese gets better and better, you’ll keep making some mistakes, but the types of mistakes you make will change.

Types of Tone Mistakes:

  1. Mistakes of Control

    When you first start studying Chinese, you have no idea at all how to properly make the tones. Even if you can hear a difference, you can’t do it yourself. Or maybe you can hear and repeat it immediately after, but then quickly forget how to do it. This is all part of the process of learning tones.

    Don’t think this type of mistake is only for beginners, though. Even after you can accurately produce individual tones in isolation, you’re going to have problems with tone pairs and tones across whole sentences for a while. (For me, the most insidious of these was the 3-2 tone swap error.)

    Relax! Persistent effort will totally pay off. No one masters tones in 2 weeks. It takes time.

  2. Mistakes of Ignorance

    Sometimes you don’t know the tones of the words you want to use. Don’t worry; it happens to all of us. If you only use words for which you’re 100% sure of the tones, then you’re doing it wrong. Not knowing the correct tones but blundering on through anyway is just part of the learning experience.

    The key here is that you eventually make the effort to learn the proper tones for the words you’re unsure of. This takes time, patience, and lots of dictionary lookups. Eventually your accumulated tonal knowledge (and proper execution) make you start sounding less like a “stereotypical foreigner” when you speak Chinese.

  3. Mistakes of Memory

    For me, this is always the most frustrating tonal mistake of all. Have you ever been sure that you know the right tones for a word, and always took care to properly pronounce that word, but then found out much later that the tones you thought you had down cold were actually wrong?

    I remember when I first came to China I was sure that the word for “north,” , was pronounced “*bēi” (first tone rather than third). I was horrified to finally learn the truth. I’d been confidently saying it incorrectly for half a year.

    Nothing to do but make the mental correction and move on. Memory is never perfect, and you can’t really avoid these mistakes.

  4. Mistakes of Influence

    This one can also be frustrating, but I’d say it’s more confusing than anything. So what happens when the dictionary says a word is pronounced one way, and your friend tells you it’s pronounced a different way? Or two friends give you contradictory information, but it’s all different from what the dictionary says? Sadly, these issues invariably plague the intermediate learner of Chinese.

    There are several reasons that these discrepancies arise. First is regional variation. Different parts of China pronounce some words in different ways, and although at times you’ll hear unquestionably “non-standard Mandarin,” at other times it’s unfair to call a certain regional variation “wrong” or “right” (although some Beijing have no problems at all doing this).

    Second is the widespread use of dated reference materials. Printed dictionaries simply aren’t keeping pace with the rapidly evolving language of the Chinese people. New words are created, and pronunciations change (sometimes just the tones) relatively quickly.

    Third is a cultural tendency to submit to the recognized authority (i.e. the outdated reference materials). So you often get exchanges like this:

    A: How do you pronounce the character 血?

    B: “Xuě.”

    A: But the dictionary says it’s either “xuè” or “xiě.”

    B: Oh yes, that’s right.

    A: But you just said…

    You get the idea. But what can you do? Know that dictionaries are not perfect, and no single person can be an authority on a whole language. You’re going to have to assemble your mental map of the words of the language over time, from the mouths of many speakers, not one “omniscient” teacher.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. They’re inevitable, and they help you learn. But as long as you’re going to be making these mistakes, you might as well look a little closer and gauge how your language ability is growing and your unruly tones are slowly but surely being tamed.


Speaking a Foreign Language without Translating

21

Feb 2012

Speaking a Foreign Language without Translating

Friends of mine have asked me many times: can you really speak Chinese without translating it first in your head? And when I answer yes, the follow-up question is: but how can you get to that point? I have to translate everything!

There’s both an implied lie and a rather direct lie in that follow-up question.

“But how can you get to that point?”

The problem is that it’s not a “point.” There’s no instant when you can suddenly stop translating completely. Rather, you stop translating longer and longer stretches of language. Over time, what was once long stretches of language which needed to be translated, interspersed with only occasional words you understood, eventually becomes long stretches of language which don’t need to be translated, interrupted only by the occasional need for translation.

“I have to translate everything!”

Do you? Do you have to translate 你好 (“hi”)? Do you have to translate 谢谢 (“thank you”)? To tell someone you don’t want something, do you have to consciously translate “I don’t want it” into 不要? Or do you just blurt them out?

Sure, when you first start out, you have to learn these expressions, and then you do have to translate them when you first start using them. But especially if you’re in the target language environment, their usage starts to become automatic quite quickly. I observed 你好 and 谢谢 becoming automatic for my parents during their recent two-week visit. They don’t speak a lot of Chinese, but even they were “speaking without translating” relatively quickly.

With enough practice, more and more words and phrases become automatic. You don’t feel your brain shirking its translation duties; it just happens so naturally. When you finally realize it’s happening, that you’re starting to understand and process not just individual words and short phrases, but whole sentences without even translating them, it feels a little surreal. It’s kind of like one of those Escher works. You really can’t pinpoint at what point the bird became a fish.

But the truth is, if you’ve been not just “studying,” but using your language skills for any length of time, the ebbing of conscious translation has already begun. If you try, you can sort of feel it. It’s this weird sensation called “fluency” creeping up on you, ever so subtly.


25

Jan 2012

Personal Experience with the Other Particle “ma”

I remember quite distinctly the way I learned the sentence-final particle . I had only been studying Chinese for a little over a year, and thus was quite familiar with the yes/no question particle , but not this new , which seemed a bit more complex. I might have studied it before and just ignored it, but once I was on the streets of Hangzhou and hearing it all the time, I knew it was time to start figuring out what this was all about.

So I broke out my trusty old Oxford dictionary (we still learned Chinese from actual books in those days), and looked up . Here’s what I found:

Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary (2nd Ed.)

> : ma (助) 1 [used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious]: 这样做是不对~! Of course it was acting improperly! 孩子总是孩子~! Children are children! 2 [used within a sentence to mark a pause]: 你~,就不用亲自去了。 As for you, I don’t think you have to go in person.

I know some people hate learning from dictionaries, and grammatical concepts especially can be difficult to learn that way, but for me this explanation was a revelation: used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious.

I think a lot of us have personal experiences in which we acquire a new word, and the memory of those specific vocabulary acquisition experiences stay with us long after we internalize the words themselves (one of my own personal examples is my attempt to buy a bug zapper light). This is quite natural, and it’s also one of my key misgivings about SRS. The way we naturally acquire language stays with us and reinforces the entire process, tightly binding words, meaning, and real-world experience. SRS (or simple word lists in general) can’t really offer this deep of a connection.

But back to my dictionary example… How is this any different from an SRS learning method, divorced from a real-world connection? Logically, I feel like looking up a word in a dictionary isn’t much different from being presented a word electronically. Sure, there’s the tactile interaction with the book, and the effort involved in getting out the book in the first place, and the act of physically flipping to the appropriate page, then locating the appropriate headword with my finger. How much “momentum” do these behaviors actually amount to, in a learning context?

Although I can’t think of many compelling instances besides my example, I definitely feel that there are words which I learned (and not just “learned,” but developed a strong connection to) largely due to a dictionary. This leads me to two important questions:

How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through a dictionary? What was it that made it so memorable?
How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through SRS? What was it that made it so memorable?

For me, I think the dictionary’s explanation struck me so poignantly because I had actually already expended a significant amount of mental energy on the use of but I had not yet been able to express the ideas concisely, and the entry did just that, right when I needed it.

Please share some of your own personal learning experiences in the comments. I’m very interested to hear what you have to say.


Related Grammar Links:

Yes/No Questions with 吗 (Chinese Grammar Wiki link)
Expressing the Self-Evident with 嘛 (Chinese Grammar Wiki link)


08

Dec 2011

Chinese Lyrics (with Pinyin) for Christmas Songs

Christmas songs in Chinese

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!


29

Sep 2011

A Greeting with Training Wheels

How do you ask “how are you?” in Chinese? Most textbooks or other study materials include the classic greeting 你好吗? (“how are you?”) right in the first lesson. From a course creation perspective, this greeting is great. It builds on the universal greeting 你好 (“hello”) by just adding one word, plus it allows an opportunity to teach the very basic grammar pattern of using the question particle to create yes/no questions. It’s also very easy to answer, and the classic response 我很好 (“I’m fine”) reinforces (1) the basic “N + Adj” sentence pattern in Chinese, as well as (2) using only super basic, core vocabulary.

So what’s the problem?

Training wheels: ni hao ma?

Well, Chinese educators’ dirty little secret is that Chinese people themselves rarely use the greeting 你好吗? with each other. Some people will tell you this expression actually evolved out of a perceived need for Chinese greetings to more closely resemble western ones, which might be easier for westerners to learn. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this theory, but based on years of observation, I can confirm what many others have also observed: that native speakers very rarely use 你好吗? with each other.

When I first learned this “dirty little secret,” I was quite indignant. Why would you teach learners something that no one ever says? It’s irresponsible and lazy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that educators underestimated the intellect of the learners. And it does seem that many Chinese educators continue to feel that it’s a good idea to teach 你好吗? to beginners (perhaps for the reasons listed above). So in my work at ChinesePod over the years, I’ve tended to avoid 你好吗? as much as possible.

But over time, I’ve noticed another thing. Chinese people do say 你好吗? to foreigners. They’re especially likely to use it with foreigners when they know the foreigner knows very little Chinese, or if they suspect as much and are just testing the waters. (It can also be used as a barb in a language power struggle, as in, “OK, if you insist, I’ll speak Chinese with you… 你好吗?“)

So what’s going on? Are these Chinese speakers being racist jerks? Are they thinking, “this learner can’t possibly handle more than this”?

For those embittered by too many language power struggles, it might be tempting to think this way. But for most cases, I don’t think this is the case. When I reflect on my own English interactions in China, I can find similar situations in English. Take this fabricated dialog for example, which I’m almost sure I have acted out in real life several times in the past:

> Me: Hi, how’s it going?

> Student: [confused] Going?

> Me: Hello, how are you?

> Student: [visibly brightening] Fine, thank you. And you?

> Me: I’m great.

Now, if this were my own student, I’d quickly teach him the way Americans actually greet each other nowadays, covering all the basic “how” and “what” informal greetings. But if it were just a very short conversation with someone who doesn’t really want to learn real English anyway, then “Hello, how are you” served its purpose.

This is why I now view the 你好吗? phenomenon as a sort of linguistic training wheels. It’s something you learn early on, and then try to move away from as quickly as possible. Key to the equation (and the reason why I no longer consider the prevalence of 你好吗? in Chinese textbooks to be a total blight on the entire industry) is the fact that Chinese native speakers will sometimes use it with learners. This is a fact that can’t be denied. But any serious learner won’t be using the training wheels for long (if he ever did at all), and will soon leave 你好吗? far behind.


15

Sep 2011

Ode to a Paper Dictionary

The Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary is a solid dictionary. It’s a great compromise between “comprehensive” and “portable,” and it’s the one I had with me in my early days in Hangzhou, when I had to look up every other word that I heard. I started with the “handy pocket-sized” version, but I quickly realized that even though it was half the size, it was still a little brick of paper I had to slug around, and the characters were just way too small at that size. So I used the medium-size brick of paper comfortably for years.

I still have that dictionary, although it’s showing its age. Over the years, I have had to use packing tape to reinforce its edges and spine, but at least I managed to do that before it started totally falling apart. Here’s what it looks like now:

IMG_0010

IMG_0011

Slightly worn, you might say.

When I used this dictionary regularly, I used to highlight words, phrases, and sentences that popped out at me as being useful or somehow study-worthy. What’s great is that I can still browse the dictionary now and see what I once highlighted. Sure, nothing is dated; there is no metadata. But it’s enlightening and amusing to flip through this paper record of my progress.

A little sample:

避免 to avoid
关心 be concerned about
关于 about; on; with regard to; concerning
上当 be taken in
下流 obscene; dirty
大海捞针 look for a needle in a haystack [I’m pretty sure I never ever had a chance to use this, even if I managed to memorize it briefly]

You get the idea.

But the point of this post is not to recommend a great dictionary. I used that dictionary every day for a very important period in my life, and it facilitated all sorts of conversations on a regular basis (yes, I was one of those annoying students that would occasionally put a conversation on hold if there was a word I felt I just really needed to know right away). And yet, I don’t recommend that dictionary much at all. Nowadays I regularly recommend Pleco (and sometimes Wenlin) to AllSet Learning clients, but not paper dictionaries.

Why? Well, there are a number of reasons…

– Most people don’t want to carry around a heavy book, but they take their cell phones everywhere
– Most people find looking up words in a paper dictionary quite a hassle
– Electronic dictionaries are so fast, and with one more touch you’ve saved the word as well for later reference

I remember when I first came to China, lots of people were using mini hand-held electronic dictionaries. They were great, except that (1) they rarely provided pinyin for English-Chinese lookups, and (2) they had short dictionary entries with very few sample sentences. Well, those days are over. The day has finally arrived, and entries are now bursting with information, while internet connectivity offers potentially limitless sample sentences.

So why am I still a little sad? Well, there’s definitely something to be said for idly flipping through those pages made of paper. I’m not sure why dictionary serendipity of the eyes-to-paper variety feels more special than dictionary serendipity of the search-and-related-data variety, but it does. And looking at that old battered paper dictionary, its mere existence does feel meaningful. I beat the crap out of that thing with my learning, and then did just enough work to keep it on life support. And now I neglect it, relegating it to a bathroom book, while computer-based dictionaries serve my daily needs.

We had some good times, paper dictionary. It’s not you, it’s me. But relationships change.


01

Sep 2011

Pinyin Typist for iPhone, iPad

Pinyin Typist is an app for the iPhone and the iPad which allows for easy pinyin input with proper tone marks. Note that it is not an input method; you can’t use this app to switch between English and pinyin input like you can with Apple’s built-in language input support. But it turns out that Pinyin Typist works even better as an app rather than an input method.

In the screenshots below, I’ve used the iPad version of the app. Note that you can adjust size of the pinyin text (larger text makes pinyin tone marks much easier to make out). Pinyin tone input works pretty much as expected; just type out a syllable, then hit a number to add the tone mark. You can be pretty sure that tone marks are implemented correctly, because even Mark Swofford (of pinyin.info) has given it the nod. I have found no problems with it.

Pinyin Typist

Pinyin Typist

Pinyin Typist

In case it’s not entirely clear, the way to use this app is to open Pinyin Typist, type pinyin with tone marks, then hit the app’s handy “Copy” button, switch to another app (like the “Mail” app pictured above), and paste in the pinyin.

[Update: clarification from the developer] Actually, in Pinyin Typist you can also directly email the text in its Pinyin Typing tab view, and you can also directly email the title and text of a saved snippet from its Snippets tab view, without leaving the app and switching to another one. (The button that reveals those direct emailing commands is the one on the top right.)

I find switching apps to type pinyin and copy it over is actually a good way to do it, simply because I don’t use pinyin very often. Yes, I do use it occasionally, and for those occasions this app is very handy. But if the pinyin were an actual input method, it would be pretty annoying to have to cycle through it every time I wanted to switch between English and Chinese input (which is often). I had to remove Chinese handwriting input because pinyin input is almost always faster to input, and having the extra input method there in the way was just too annoying.

The one problem I have found with the app is that because I’m actually typing in English mode, iOS’s autocorrect (damn you, autocorrect!) sometimes “corrects” a pinyin syllable. This isn’t a problem when there’s a tone mark on the syllable, but it’s sometimes a problem when the syllable has a neutral tone. For example, when I typed “zhīdao” above, iOS originally correct it to “zhīSao” (no idea why). It’s a fairly minor issue, though.

The app is not free (it’s currently $2.99), which raised in interesting question for me: how important is it to be able to type pinyin on iOS? I’ll admit that I use pinyin a lot more on my regular computer than on my iPhone or iPad. I do need to frequently provide pinyin for AllSet Learning clients, but not via my iPhone or iPad. It seems like this app would be especially useful for a Chinese teacher who frequently texts students, or who sends a lot of email on an iPad or iPhone.

I raised this issue with the developer of the app, Wayne. He’s also very interested in learning more about how potential users will use his app. As a result, he volunteered to provide 5 free copies of Pinyin Typist for Sinosplice commenters who leave an insightful comment below and explain why the app will be useful to them on their iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. (If you have other comments about the price, you can leave those too, but be nice.) The developer will choose the 5 winners from the comments himself, and I’ll provide him with the email addresses so that he can award the app to the 5 winners (so be sure to use your real email addresses; the blog will never publicly display them).


Update: The developer has chosen the 5 winning commenters; you should be hearing from him shortly!


26

Aug 2011

Shanghai Internships for Learning Chinese

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

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

Lucas and Hugh

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

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

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

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


19

Aug 2011

Word Tracer Apps for Sinosplice Readers

iPad Apps for Writing

A while back when I wrote my Learning to Write Chinese Characters on the iPad post, I reviewed an iPad app called Word Tracer. Word Tracer is going strong, and now comes in both iPad and iPhone flavors. In addition, the developer has added some additional functionality to the app in a recent update, allowing for Chinese writing practice that isn’t strictly “tracing.”

Anyway, to thank me for the review, the developer has offered me a number of free copies of the app (iPad or iPhone) to distribute to Sinosplice readers. If you’re interested in getting a free copy of this app, simply leave a comment here (with your real email) or send me an email explaining why you think that the iPad (or iPhone) makes the most sense to you as a way to practice writing Chinese. I’ll award the best ones in the first 48 hours with a free copy of Word Tracer. (Be serious in your replies; I’m very interested in learning something from this!)


Update: Thanks to all of you who commented and emailed me! The response was really pretty good, and I regret that there are too many of you for everyone to get a free copy of the app. I do appreciate the responses, though, and those selected will receive an email shortly. I’m closing comments on this blog post now.


05

Aug 2011

Continent Names and Region Names in Chinese

Although not actually very complicated, the names of continents and world regions can trip up a student of Chinese. It’s not the continent names that are hard, it’s that knowing the continent names can lead one to incorrect inferences about the names of various world regions. An AllSet Learning client (this is for you, Stavros!) recently reminded me of this fact. I struggled with this myself not so long ago. Because no one ever took the time to lay it out for me, it took me forever to piece it together on my own.

Basically, the way it works in Chinese is like this:

1. If it’s a continent, it ends with the suffix –. (You can think of as representing the meaning “the continent of….”)
2. If it’s not a whole continent you’re talking about, drop the .

So that means, for example, that “Western Europe” is not ×西欧洲, because it wouldn’t make sense to say “the continent of Western Europe.” Drop the , and you get 西欧, the correct way to say “Western Europe.” It’s as easy as that. (I say “easy,” but I know I said ×西欧洲 quite a few times before anyone ever told me, “we never say that; just say 西欧.”)

These examples below should help drive the point home:

  • 亚洲 – Asia
    • 东亚 – East Asia
    • 东南亚 – Southeast Asia
    • 中东 – the Middle East
  • 欧洲 – Europe
    • 北欧 – Northern Europe
    • 西欧 – Western Europe
    • 东欧 – Eastern Europe
  • 非洲 – Africa
    • 北非 – Northern Africa
    • 南非 – South Africa (the country)
    • 西非 – West Africa
    • 东非 – East Africa
  • 澳洲 – Australia
  • 南极洲 – Antarctica (literally, “South Pole Continent”)
  • 北美洲 – North America
  • 南美洲 – South America

A couple final complications…

1. You don’t often divide either Antarctica or Australia into regions in Chinese
2. You can also say 美洲, which means something like “the Americas”
3. Because 北美洲 and 南美洲 already have cardinal directions built into their names, it’s awkward to try to use the short form (like ×东北美 or something).

So the world region names are actually pretty simple, no ke…


18

May 2011

Xiaoli is very weird

I just discovered these bizarre videos on Youtube called iamxiaoli. They’re supposed to be for learning Chinese, but they’re a little unorthodox, to say the least. Here are two of the ones I found more interesting:

0003 How To Say “Friend” In Chinese

0005 How To Say “What is This?” & “He Doesn’t Know” In Chinese

I’m curious how effective these videos are at teaching Chinese. Can anyone voice for having learned some words or phrases from these videos?

Anyway, Xiaoli got my attention. The (sparse) website is at iamxiaoli.com.

Not in content, obviously, but in some ways this stuff reminds me of ChinesePod in its early days, trying something new and different, unafraid to explore and experiment. I’m not surprised that this particular effort came out of Beijing.

Via Study More Chinese, via Social Mandarin.


10

May 2011

QQ Live is Awesome

I’ve not been a fan of QQ the IM client, ever since its malware phase c. 2002. I used it to practice typing Chinese with friends online, but it forced me to use “Tencent Explorer” as my default browser as long as the software was installed. I have never forgiven Tencent for that.

Still, this QQ Live application is pretty awesome. I discovered it through its iPad version (and wrote about it in my recent iPad Apps for Chinese Study post), but have heard that there’s a desktop version for Windows that works great too. Get it!

QQ Live

It’s my experience that while this app doesn’t do anything that other apps don’t do, it’s especially fast (even if you’re outside China, I hear) and easy to use. Also, its limited selection is a blessing in disguise. It offers a lot of the popular TV shows and movies (including my favorite, 非诚勿扰), and saves you the trouble of having to search on Baidu video or bittorrent sites.

Remember: this is a free app with no login required. I suspect this is all a promotional trick and that we’ll all have to log in with a QQ ID just to use the program eventually, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it while it lasts!


iPad Apps for Chinese Study (2011)

05

May 2011

iPad Apps for Chinese Study (2011)

We recently purchased an iPad 2 for AllSet Learning, and quickly set about looking for useful apps for learning Chinese. It didn’t take long for me to realize a basic truth about having an iPad: once you have an iPad, you want to run iPad apps on it, not iPhone apps. And the there are way more iPhone apps out there for learning Chinese than there are iPad apps. The purpose of this post is to call attention to the decent iPad apps out there.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

I realize this post isn’t going to stay current for very long, and that’s OK. Rapid innovation is one of the things that drew me to the iOS platform in the first place. For now, though, I have my top picks for iPad apps for learning Chinese. One thing I should make clear in advance, though: many of these apps are not explicitly for learning Chinese; they’re simply apps in Chinese (good sources of more input).

Pleco

Yes, I think I’ve mentioned before that I love Pleco. It’s a great dictionary app. It also supports the iPad, while many other iPhone dictionaries don’t. I won’t say too much about Pleco here.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

QQ Live HD

I must admit that I’m not a fan of the QQ IM client. But this app is great. It doesn’t require any kind of QQ login or account; it’s just a simple app for streaming Chinese movies and TV shows, and it’s fast (in Shanghai, anyway). I’ve already watched several movies on it, and while I won’t recommend any of those movies, the app does its job just fine.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

Zaker

This one is an obvious Flipboard clone, but it’s a really good Flipboard clone. It’s one of those really good clones that tries to one-up the original. And, of course, it’s got tons of Chinese content ready to be added for magazine-style consumption, whether it’s Chinese news, Chinese blogs, or Weibo. It supports copy-paste, too, so you can pop over to the Pleco Pasteboard Reader when you need to.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

Chinagram

I’ve reviewed this one before already: Chinagram for iPad.

Radio Chinese Plus+

This app is quite simple. It only offers three Mandarin stations and three Cantonese stations (6 total), but it works just fine.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

雷人图片2011

This is just a big collection of silly photos from the internet. Some are funny; many are just bizarre.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

一日一囧四格漫画

A collection of poorly drawn comics of the 冷笑话 (dumb joke) tradition. This app, like the last one, demonstrates how simple an iPad app can be.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

My Chinese Library, Pinyin Trainer, and Chinese Number Trainer

I’m grouping all these apps together because they’re all by one company, called TrainChinese. While these apps aren’t revolutionary, they’re of good quality and exist in iPad versions. Sadly, not many apps for learning Chinese have met that simple requirement. They all seem to have free versions which are somewhat limited, trying to get you to pay. I recommend the pinyin trainer and number trainer to beginners.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

My list of really noteworthy iPad apps for learners of Chinese ends there. There are a few others worth pointing out, though… The four others pictured but not covered are: 枫林书院精选 (an ebook reader that comes with a number of titles), 中国新闻周刊 (China Newsweek), iLearn Chinese Characters Lite, and Kids Mandarin.

These are the apps in the “Good…not HD” folder (I wish they had iPad versions):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “词典” folder (iPad apps include: iCED, KTdict, eFlashChinese):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “阅读” folder (iPad apps include: 格林童话集, 中文杂志, 宋词三十首, 三毛全集, 给力书城, 拇指索引圣经, 爱阅读, 让笑话飞, 小姐日记):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “新闻” folder (none are iPad apps):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “故事” folder (iPad apps include: Chinese Stories (really bad), Heroes of Three Kingdoms, The Greatest Daddy (English and Chinese), 一千零一夜选, nciku Peter Rabbit):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “其它” folder (none are iPad apps):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

I know I haven’t been exhaustive in my search for good iPad apps; I’d love to hear recommendations!



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