Tag: Chinese study


Oct 2009

Michael Love on the Pleco iPhone App

The following is an interview with Pleco founder Michael Love, regarding the Pleco iPhone app, which is now in beta testing.

John: The long wait for the iPhone app has caused much distress amongst all the Pleco fans out there. Any comments on the development process of your first Pleco iPhone app?

Michael: Well, much of the delay stems from the fact that we really only started working on the iPhone version in earnest in January ’09 – before that we were mainly working on finishing / debugging Pleco 2.0 on Windows Mobile and Palm OS. We laid out the feature map for that back in early 2006, when the iPhone was nothing but a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye, so by the time Apple released the first iPhone SDK in Spring ’08 we were already well past the point where we could seriously scale back 2.0 in order to get started on the iPhone version sooner.


Pleco 2.0

But as far as how the actual development has gone, the biggest time drain has been working around the things that iPhone OS doesn’t do very well. We’ve gone through the same process on Palm/WM too – we start off implementing everything in the manufacturer-recommended way only to find that there are certain areas of the OS that are too buggy / slow / inflexible and need to be replaced by our own, custom-designed alternatives.

On iPhone the two big problems were file management and text rendering. There’s no built-in mechanism on iPhone for users to load their own data files onto their devices; all they can do is install and uninstall software. So we had to add both our own web browser (for downloading data files from the web) and our own web server (for uploading data file from a computer) in order to allow people to install their own documents / flashcard lists / etc. We also had to implement a very elaborate system for downloading and installing add-on dictionaries and other data
files; for a number of reasons it wasn’t feasible to bundle all of those into the main software package, and again there was no way for users to install those directly from a desktop as they can on other mobile platforms.

And the iPhone’s text rendering system is actually quite slow and inflexible, which is rather disappointing coming from a company with as long and rich a history in the world of computer typography as Apple. The only official mechanism for drawing rich text (multiple fonts, bold, italic, etc) is to render it as a web page, which took way too long and used way too much memory to be practical for us; there also seem to be some bugs in the way Apple’s WebKit page rendering engine handles pages with a mix of Chinese and non-Chinese text. And even simple, non-rich-text input fields and the like are a big performance hog – it took the handwriting recognizer panel about 8x as long to insert a new character into Apple’s text input box as it did to actually recognize a character. So we basically ended up having to write our own versions of three different iPhone user interface controls in order to get the text rendering to work the way we wanted it too.

So a quick-and-dirty port of Pleco on iPhone could probably have been ready last spring, but getting everything working really smoothly took a lot longer.



Oct 2009

The Pleco iPhone App (beta)

I just recently had the pleasure of trying out the beta version of the new Pleco iPhone app. In case you’re not aware, Pleco is the software company behind what is regarded as the best electronic learner’s Chinese dictionary for any mobile device (and possibly the desktop as well). Given the dearth of really good Chinese dictionaries for the iPhone, Chinese learners have been eagerly awaiting the release of this iPhone app for quite some time. The wait has not been in vain; Pleco for iPhone is an outstanding app.

The Video Demo

Michael Love, Pleco founder, has made a two-part video of the new Pleco iPhone app:

For those of you in China, visit Pleco’s mirror site for the videos.

An All-New UI

I’ve never owned a device running Windows Mobile or Palm OS, so I’ve never been able to own Pleco before, but I’m familiar enough with previous versions to make basic comparisons.

The Pleco user interface received a much-needed makeover for the iPhone. While older versions of Pleco squeezed a plethora of buttons and options onto the screen (you have your stylus, after all), this iPhone Pleco had to find ways to increase buttons to tappable sizes and limit button clutter by hiding options on screens where you don’t need them all. Compare (Windows Mobile on the left, iPhone on the right):

maindict.gif Pleco for iPhone (beta)

aisearchdict.gif Pleco for iPhone (beta)



Oct 2009

Chinese Modal Verb Venn Diagram

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

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

> : know how to

> : be able to

> 可以: have permission to

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

Chinese Modal Verbs: A Venn Diagram

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

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

> C = possibility (use “” or “可以“)

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

> E = impossibility (use “不能“)

Yeah, grammar needs more Venn diagrams.

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


Oct 2009

Slow Chinese

It’s the October holiday in the PRC, and I’m enjoying a slooowww 8-day vacation. Fittingly, I recently also discovered a site called Slow Chinese (via Chinese Forums), and thought I’d share it here.

slow chinese

Slow Chinese, as far as I know, is the first site to do this (and just this) for Chinese. I know that the same “slow” concept has already existed for some time for learners of German (Slow German), and that it is quite popular among that learner community. The idea, of course, is that if learners are exposed to enough slowed-down input, they will not only get better at recognizing the words they know, but will also be able to more easily pick out the words they don’t know, and the gains will gradually transfer to normal-speed input.

The linguistic question, of course, is: does this work? Is it a good idea?

First I’ll quote friend and fellow linguist JP Villanueva on what he once said about slow input:

> Listen to me: slow input does NOT help you learn language. No! NO NO NO. At best, slow input helps you learn SLOW LANGUAGE. […] Whenever you get mad at someone for “talking too fast,” you need to remind yourself that you don’t speak that language, and no amount of SLOW is going to help you understand.

> Counter-intuitive? Remember when you learned to ride a bike, and you found that it was easier to balance when you had a little speed? Remember when you first learned to drive, and you realized you had more control with a little speed?

> Same with language. Slow speech doesn’t help your memory. You don’t need every word in a sentence in sequence in order to understand what someone is saying.

> Besides, that’s not how your brain listens to your own native language, anyway. Your brain listens for semantic landmarks and then fills in the information in between. You need to learn to do that in your second language. Slow speech levels semantic landmarks, and over-emphasizes the non-content words that hold sentences together.

When it comes to Slow Chinese, there are actually two relevant questions:

1. Is slow input valuable?

2. Is slow input for news (or other media intended for native speakers) valuable?

In answer to question #1, I’d say yes. JP knows what he’s talking about, but earlier in the same post he also made a few caveats where confidence is concerned, and with good reason. There is a period when a beginner has a really tough time distinguishing the sounds of the target language. Yes, the purists are right when they say that continued, persistent exposure can overcome this obstacle, but most learners are not so hardcore. They’re emotional and easily discouraged. They want some help beyond “don’t give up,” and slowed-down input can provide that much-wanted crutch. It is a crutch, however, so if used, it should be withdrawn as soon as possible. It is most useful for learning the phonetics of the language as a beginner, in individual words and short phrases.

In answer to #2, I’d say no. If a learner is ready to take on media intended for native speakers, he should already be comfortable with the language at natural speed. If he has the vocabulary to take on the media but can’t handle the speed, it is likely because communication as a learning goal has been neglected. One can’t carry on normal conversation without comprehension of speech at a normal rate (unless one limits one’s conversation partners to slow-talkers only). So it seems to me that one would be tackling slow-speed media instead of tackling normal-speed listening comprehension and communication, which under most circumstances is a big mistake.

So my conclusion is that the learner’s time would best be spent working on simpler normal-speed input to improve listening comprehension (for Chinese, most Elementary and Intermediate ChinesePod dialogues are good for this; users can listen to the dialogue-only audio, all of which also have transcripts), and then later tackling normal-speed media.

Still, enthusiasm for learning is a valuable thing, so if Slow Chinese is what you’ve always wanted, I say go for it. (Plus, it’s free!) Just don’t forget that it’s not likely to help you out with conversational fluency, if that’s your goal.


Sep 2009

Can't Afford

Intermediate students of Chinese will be familiar with the following pattern:

> V + 不起 = can’t afford to V

> V + 得起 = can afford to V

This pattern is most commonly about money, the typical example being 买不起 (can’t afford to buy).

The pattern is fairly productive, so you’ll see it for lots of different verbs (and not always about money), but recently I heard a new one. A friend was saying that she was going to eat at an expensive restaurant, but someone else was getting the bill. She said she ordinarily wouldn’t be able to afford even just her own meal at that restaurant (in China, each person getting her own check is a “system” called AA), so in this case, she used: AA不起.

Heard any interesting usages lately?


Sep 2009

Fuzzy Pinyin

This is a screenshot from the Google Pinyin installer:


If you’re learning Mandarin for real, sooner or later you’re going to need to experience the rich variety in pronunciation that Greater China has to offer. This simple “fuzzy pinyin” options screen gives you an idea of what’s out there. (Speakers that can’t differentiate between z/zh, r/l, f/h, etc. typically can’t properly type the pinyin for the words that contain those sounds in standard Mandarin, so fuzzy pinyin input saves them a lot of frustration.)


Sep 2009

The Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project

If you’ve checked out many online Chinese dictionaries or websites on learning Chinese, you’ve seen a variety of ways to present characters’ proper stroke order. Animated GIFs are a favorite, but they often fall flat in one important respect: they display each stroke in a single frame, often leaving the direction of the stroke somewhat unclear.

This is where the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project impresses me: not only are the animated GIFs large and attractive, but they fluidly demonstrate the direction of each stroke. A nice example:

More info from the site:

> Hello, and welcome to the Commons Stroke Order Project. This project aims to create a complete set of high quality and free illustrations to clearly show the stroke order of East Asian characters (hanzi, kanji, kana, hantu, and hanja). The project was started as there was none like it in terms of quality and it seems that it is the only one working on all three schools of Han character stroke order; simplified and traditional Chinese, and Japanese.

> You are free to use the graphics we’ve made and welcomed to join us and contribute to our progress. It’s easy, you just have to follow the simple steps stated in our graphics guidelines.

At 378 total characters, the project is still far from a complete set, but it’s off to a nice start!

I do, wonder, though, what kind of stroke order information is freely available out there that could speed the process along. I’ve seen enough separate sets of animated characters to make me suspect many have been automatically generated. (Anyone have info on this?) I’m also curious how the project is going to deal with the annoying issue of variable stroke orders.

Note that there is also an Ancient Chinese Characters sister project.


Aug 2009

The Tyranny of the Textbook

Lately I’ve been working with Nick Kruse of Reign Design on a new project at work called OpenLanguage. Much of our discussion has centered on teachers and students, and the language-learning experience in general.

Nick related to me a story about taking the very limited Chinese he had learned in the classroom back in the States, and then traveling to China and applying it extensively. He discovered that some of the language they learned from Practical Chinese Reader, besides being outdated, was, well… not so practical.

Specifically, when Chinese people encouraged him over and over with the same sentence — “中文!” (“you speak great Chinese!”) — he didn’t understand what they were saying because he hadn’t learned two of the key words.

When he got back to the States, he had a conversation with his Chinese teacher that went something like this:

> Why didn’t you teach us [speak] and [great]?

> It wasn’t in the book.

> But those are useful words!

> We have to follow the book.

I’m happy to see the overall attitude toward language learning changing, and I’m even happier to be a small part of that change.


Aug 2009

Tone and Color in Chinese

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

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

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

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


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

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

Perceptual Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

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

An Alternate Color Scheme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results:




Jun 2009

How to Pronounce nciku

The online Chinese dictionary everyone is using these days is nciku. Newbies and veterans alike all seem to dig it. The quality of the dictionary entries is a refreshing change from the deluge of unimpressive CEDICT clones. One common difficulty among nciku users of all levels, however, is that they can’t figure out how the hell to pronounce the name! Is it N-C-I-K-U, each letter pronounced like its name, or maybe N-C-I-koo, or something like In-see-koo? Just how do you really pronounce nciku, anyway??

By clicking on 简体 (or 繁體) in the footer to switch to the Chinese version of the site, you can see the nciku’s Chinese name: n词酷. So this should answer the original question: the “n” is pronounced like the name of the letter N, and the “ciku” part is pinyin cíkù.


But why?? What’s up with the name? Well, I have to say, it’s a pretty horrible name if your target market is foreigners. No one knows how to pronounce it when they see it. The name does make sense from a Chinese perspective, though.

First, the n. That’s the mathematical n, as in an unspecified number that could be really high. It might seem strange to bring mathematical variables into everyday conversation, but in modern Chinese it happens on a regular basis. In Mandarin when you do something n (n times), you did it so many times you don’t even know how many. Like we say “a million” in English, or, perhaps more appropriate in its ambiguity, “a zillion.” Rather than n, you can also say n, which also means a zillion times, but sounds quite similar to the beginning of the name n词酷.

词酷 is a concocted homophone for 词库, a somewhat technical word meaning “lexicon” or “word bank.” You can talk about a lexicon in terms of all the words of an entire language, or in terms of an individual’s own vocabulary.

So why for ? Well, is the popular transliteration for “cool,” and the character , appearing in such words as 数据库 (database), 语料库 (linguistic corpus), 车库 (garage), 仓库 (warehouse), quite frankly, isn’t very cool.

So there you have it: n词酷, a zillion word banks (but cool).


Jun 2009

RJ's Reasons for Learning Chinese

ChinesePod recently published an elemntary lesson called Why are You Studying Chinese? The lesson content itself was quite simple, but it led to an outpouring of thoughtful responses from the community. I especially enjoyed star user RJBerki’s response:

> Why? Work took me to China, and my first trip opened my eyes to a whole new world. I found China to be a fascinating surreal collision of Old and new, rich and poor, east and west, tradition and modernity, capitalism and communism, ancient wisdom and modern foolishness etc etc.

> The language is beautiful, clever, compressed and elegant like a good math problem. The characters are not only a challenge but also elegant and beautiful, an art form in their own right, but also just systematic enough to appeal to the analyst in me.

> I found myself wanting to travel China and learn more and more. The people are wonderfully friendly, selfless and caring, generous to a fault, and just great hosts with hospitality second to none. As I sit at dinner with these folks, I want to “hear” what they are saying, feel what they are feeling” I want to participate in the conversation, I want to gather as well as share new ideas. I want to read, write, listen, and speak. I want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of China. I want to be a part of the Chinese family. I want to be able to separate the old lies and prejudices from the modern truth.

> This is why I am learning Chinese, which has now become a wonderful and fascinating hobby. A bottomless pit from which I pluck new information, ideas, and unexpected “joys” on a daily basis. No end in site, and for that I am grateful. And then there is Cpod and the community that comes with. Priceless.

I liked RJ’s response partly because I could really identify with it. He echoed many of the reasons I was so attracted to Chinese in the beginning. (Of course, living in China, you find new reasons as well…)


Feb 2009

Mark's New Pinyin Input Firefox Extension

My friend Mark has created a FireFox addon. It does one thing and it does it well: it converts onscreen text from numeral pinyin to pretty pinyin with tone marks.  (It doesn’t convert characters to pinyin or any of that jazz.)

I find this very useful. If it sounds good to you, try out the Pinyin Input Firefox Extension.


Feb 2009

John DeFrancis

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

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

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

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

Thank you, John DeFrancis.


Nov 2008

Back from ACTFL (2008)

I had a great time interacting with other teachers at ACTFL 2008. Yes, what we do at Praxis Language is quite different from what the teachers in the trenches do, but it’s important to connect with them, to hear about how the classroom is changing, how the students are changing, and maybe even about how we might converge in some areas.

I sat in on some particularly interesting talks on CFL (Chinese as a Foreign Language). Only half a year after I finished my own thesis, I felt I really needed to be reminded of the wide world of academic pursuits… some of the research was quite fascinating. I’m planning to revisit some of the topics here in my blog in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I’d just like to draw my readers’ attention to a cool product I ran into at ACTFL: Skritter [China-friendly link]. It’s a really well-executed online system for practicing character writing, and it has built-in support for Integrated Chinese. Check it out.


Oct 2008

Getting by and Enjoying It

A little story from much-loved ChinesePod user AuntySue:

> In hospital I ran into a few Cantonese speaking patients and visitors, who in some cases spoke no English. With the luxury of ample time, I was able to say things I don’t really know how to say, by finding inventive ways to use the few words I did remember. For example, instead of asking if she’d mind opening my water bottle top because my hands were too weak and the cap is tight etc etc, I simply asked “please, can you?” and held the bottle at the top. Worked like a charm. But I’d spent half an hour agonising over the words before accepting that a simpler method was not “cheating” but rather “communicating”.

> When learning a language I too often make it hard for myself by fixating on the words I don’t know rather than finding more uses for the words I do know. Lesson learned. I got my water, the “it’s a talking dog!” look, and a new friend.

Dr. Orlando Kelm, a man of impressive linguistic ability, recently made some related observations:

> My general impression is that people would enjoy foreign languages more if they didn’t have the added pressure of feeling like they are supposed to be equivalent to native speakers. You will notice that our educational system promotes this viewpoint too. We generally teach foreign languages as if learners are somehow going to be total experts some day. (Why else would we spend weeks teaching third semester college students about all of the adjective clauses that trigger the subjunctive in Spanish?) My general impression, however, is that the majority of our learners do not need to speak like undercover spies. They would be just as happy having a great time talking about sushi with Japanese friends in Japanese.

Hear, hear!

I often wonder how good I want my Chinese to be. I have lots of room to expand my vocabulary and improve my ability to express myself, but there are two big questions: (1) do I really need to? and (2) do I really want to?

I’ve gotta say, an unrelenting drive for perfection isn’t exactly the most persuasive linguistic motivation, and the longer I live, the more practical I become. The truth is, I’m not a terribly talkative person, and I’m already pretty comfortable in Chinese. I don’t want to be a Chinese spy (ha!), and I really don’t want to memorize the damn chengyu dictionary. I’d rather get my Spanish and Japanese back to levels where I’m more comfortable and able to enjoy the experience of speaking.

Yes, I think I’ll do that.


Oct 2008

The Death of Handheld Electronic Dictionaries?

Steven J wrote me with this question:

> I have been in china for two years and always used paperback dictionaries or the one on my computer. However, now that i will start studying it seems more handy to have one of these pocket size electronic dictionaries. However it seems that all of these machines have a pinyin function for INPUT only. When looking up a word in english, it only gives you characters. This is quite a pain in the ass for someone like me who can speak some Chinese, but is almost illiterate. Do you have any advice on where to find one of these gadgets that would suit my needs better or can you redirect me to a good place to find information on this topic?

I went through this exact same dilemma when I first arrived in China. I had my handy Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary
which I took everywhere. I noticed the Chinese students all had these little handheld electronic dictionaries, and I wanted one to help me with Chinese. But they really don’t help you a whole lot when you have no way to look up the pinyin for the characters that appear.

I had a Canon Wordtank to help me get through my Japanese studies, and it was great. Designed for the student of Japanese, it provided a “jump” feature which made it easy enough to look up the readings of any word even if the readings weren’t directly displayed everywhere. It got me through my last two years of formal Japanese study, which involved a lot of reading and translation.

But for Chinese? I’ve seen some really cool dictionaries that essentially do what the Wordtank does, but for English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese. With audio. They’re not cheap, though.

I never found a reasonably priced handheld Chinese electronic dictionary that did what I want. I ended up jotting down words and looking them up at home on Wenlin or online.

The heyday of these little handheld dictionaries is coming to an end. I know several people that use their Nokia cell phones for all their English-Chinese dictionary needs. New dictionary apps for the iPhone abound, and the iPhone already has great handwriting recognition support for Chinese built in. Google’s Android is sure to have no shortage of dictionary apps; maybe even official Google Translate dictionary functions.

If you’ve made it this far without a handheld electronic dictionary, then you should just hold on a little longer. The days of single-function handheld electronic devices are numbered. I, for one, wish this new generation of handheld devices would move in for the kill a little faster.


Oct 2008

Syntactic Anguish of the Verb-Object-Modifier Variety

你中文说得很好! You speak Chinese very well.

This is a compliment paid nearly every person with the guts to try out his spoken Mandarin skills in China. All you gotta do is try.

But the simple sentence above contains a grammar pattern which students of Mandarin Chinese take quite some time getting the hang of. Translating word for word, a beginner student will take this English sentence:

You speak Chinese very well.

…and render it as this sentence:


Unfortunately, in Mandarin Chinese this sentence is ungrammatical. This pattern, fine in English, is all broken in Chinese:

×Noun + Verb + Object + [Modifier of Verb]

There are two solutions to this brokenness in Chinese:

#1 Repeat the Verb

That object between the verb and its modifier breaks a sacred connection. You can’t do it. But while you can’t break the connection, you can simply duplicate the verb:


Noun + (Verb + Object) + (Verb + [Modifier of Verb])

Voila! Connection preserved. You just have to get used to duplicating the verb, which, to a speaker of English, seems mighty unnecessary.

#2 Move the Object

As mentioned above, you can’t break the sacred verb-modifier connection. So why not move the object? This totally works, and it’s usually moved to right after the subject:


Noun + Object + (Verb + [Modifier of Verb])

This is just really awkward for a beginner student. Why do you have to put the object before the verb? It seems really weird. Well, you don’t have to. You can also duplicate the verb. But that feels awkward too.

This pattern is so common, however, that it cannot be ignored. The more input the student gets, the more he sees that (a) Chinese people just don’t say it the way I really, really want to say it, and (b) Chinese people use these other two sentence patterns instead. It seems to me that given the choice between the two awkwardnesses, this is how the linguistic drama tends to unfold over time:

  1. Broken sentences following the forbidden pattern
  2. Experimentation with the verb duplication workaround
  3. Attempts to use the verb duplication workaround exclusively
  4. Reluctant acceptance of the object-movement workaround
  5. Relative verb-object-modifier harmony

These are just my own observations, but apparently the verb duplication seems easier, while the object moving is actually more common in the casual Chinese of native speakers (although both are common).

How about you? Are you in the midst of this syntactic anguish? Do you remember being there once?


Aug 2008

The Effect of Tonal Language Experience on the Acquisition of Mandarin Tones

This is the new, improved sequel to a comment I originally left on a Beijing Sounds entry entitled Zhonglish — Revenge of the Non-Native English Speaker.

From Chen Qinghai’s doctoral thesis (2000), Analysis of Mandarin Tonal Errors in Connected Speech by English-Speaking American Adult Learners: A Study at and Above the Word Level:

> Tonal Language Experience

> Any language learning experience may have a positive impact on the acquisition of Mandarin tone (Bourgerie, 1995). The learning of another tone language may have greater effect on the learning of Mandarin tone (J-M. Lu, 1992). In order to find out if exposure to a tone language in childhood facilitates the learner’s performance in Mandarin tone, Sun (1997) used tone language experience as another between-subjects variable in her study. Her data show that subjects with tone language experience do have some advantage in distinguishing tone in phonologically modified contexts (p. 261); on the whole, however, their tone language background is not strongly associated with their tonal performance….

It’s hard to believe that tonal language experience doesn’t help much, but that’s what the experimental evidence suggests. I’d love to hear about more involved studies on this topic. We English speakers do like to look for excuses as to why tones are so hard for us (but this still doesn’t explain the rapid progress of Korean students!).

(The thesis quoted above was the basis for my own master’s thesis. I do intend to discuss it more, and to put some details of my own experiment online. Just need to find the time!)


Aug 2008

Talking to Oneself Productively

As an English teacher in Hangzhou, China, one of the questions Chinese college students most often asked me was, “how can I improve my spoken English?” As a member of the ChinesePod team and student of applied linguistics, learners frequently ask me, “how can I improve my spoken Chinese?” Unfortunately, the are no easy answers or “secrets.” If you’re working hard learning Mandarin on ChinesePod and you’ve found a way to practice speaking, then you’re doing the right thing. But surely there might be an extra trick or two out there?

Actually, there are a few tricks out there, but their effectiveness tends to vary widely from person to person. The one I hear most often is “find a Chinese girlfriend,” but this one clearly has limited application, and it sometimes doesn’t even work for those with Chinese girlfriends/wives. This “trick” is a subset of a larger idea, which is just spend as much time with Chinese speakers as you can. But that one is obvious, and probably not useful for most learners.

One method I have found useful is to talk to myself in Chinese. Now before you stop reading, let me explain. I’m not talking about “How are you? Fine, thank you” type conversation. I mean all day long, as I think about different things, I ask myself, how would I say that in Chinese? If I said that in Chinese, how would the Chinese person respond? If the Chinese person responded X, what would I say then?

Let me provide an example of such a train of thought.

OK, I need to buy a lightbulb. How do I say lightbulb?

It’s “dēngpào.” So I want to say, “Wŏ xiăng măi dēngpào.” How will they react to that?

Well, they might say, “méi yŏu.” If they say that, I’ll just say, “hăo de, xièxie.”

But they should have them, so they’ll probably just say something like, “zài zhèli” or “yŏu de, zài nàbiān” and then I can just say “xièxie” and buy them.

Obviously, this is a rather simple example, but the method can be applied to much more complicated situations. The better your imagination, the more extensive and “branched” the “conversation.”

You might be thinking that this method has a major flaw… if you don’t know how to say these things in Chinese, then your every internalized “conversation” deadends rather abruptly. It’s true that the method works better once you get to the advanced beginner or intermediate stage, but the true value in the mental exercise is in identifying what you don’t know. It’s in identifying what you’re unsure of, before you actually have to use it. Then you can take these questions you come up with and either look them up somewhere (if possible) or ask your teacher.

Soon after I came to China and my Chinese was at the elementary level I would run through this exercise every time I needed to go do something that involved communicating in Chinese. I’d think of what I needed to say, how the other person might respond, and how I’d respond to that. I’d look up every word I didn’t know and write it down (making sure to get the tones right), then go and use it.

Talking to myself: it worked for me.

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese


Jun 2008

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

I’ve been asked many times: Which is harder to learn, Chinese or Japanese? Well, the latest time finally inspired me to make this graphic. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, but some notes will follow anyway.

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

In case you couldn’t figure out from the graph, both are difficult, but in different ways. Both have insane writing systems and lots of cultural background to learn, so those basically cancel each other out. Any language requires lots of vocabulary memorization. Japanese has loads of loanwords from English, but really learning to use the loanwords like a native speaker instead of a crutch is not so easy to do, so I left that factor out as well. For me, the major points of comparison come down to just pronunciation and grammar.

Japanese pronunciation is quite easy at first. Some people have problems with the “tsu” sound, or difficulty pronouncing vowels in succession, as in “mae.” Honestly, though, Japanese pronunciation poses little challenge to the English speaker. The absolute beginner can memorize a few sentences, try to use them 20 minutes later, and be understood. The real difficulty with Japanese is in trying to sound like a native speaker. Getting pitch accent and sentence intonation to a native-like level is no easy task (and I have not done it yet!).

Chinese pronunciation, is, of course, maddeningly difficult from the get-go. It can be so hard to make yourself understood when your sentence is only three syllables long. Yes, I know. I’ve been there. If you keep at it, though, things get waaayyy easier. And in the later stages, accent isn’t as big a deal in Chinese. There are so many wildly different accents in China alone that once you get your tones under control and can string a coherent sentence together, Chinese people will often assume you’re a native speaker in telephone conversations.

Chinese grammar starts out fairly simple for English speakers. Some find it so simplistic that they say things like, “Chinese has no grammar.” This is not true, of course, and there are a few difficult points to master (like , which probably occupies a good chunk of the red area in the middle of the grammar graph), but overall, the grammar is not too rough. If you want true mastery of the language, however, you will also eventually have to study 古文 (ancient Chinese), and that’s quite a bit more work.

Japanese grammar starts out seeming like some bizarre alien code. However, through hard work and determination, the persistent can eventually crack it. Once you get over the grammar hump, and verb conjugations, causative-passive,  and , and keigo are no longer a big deal, you’re in a pretty comfortable place. But it sure is rough at first.

Just to be clear, this is all based on my personal experiences as a very acquisition-conscious language learner, not on scientific research. Please feel free to add your own experiences with these two languages in the comments.

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