Adult: What do you most like doing with your family? Child: Chair.
Obviously, this exchange doesn’t translate well into English, to put it lightly! But even a beginner can get why the child misinterpreted the question.
The key to understanding this exchange is knowing that 做 (zuò), the verb meaning “to do,” sounds identical to the verb 坐 (zuò), which means “to sit.” Add into this that many verbs in Chinese don’t require an additional preposition like their English counterparts (for example, we’d say “sit on” rather than just “sit”), and the child’s answer starts to make a lot of sense.
So how do we adults differentiate between the two meanings of “zuò,” anyway? Well, obviously context is key, but the sentence patterns and word combinations we habitually use tend to point quite clearly to one or the other meaning. As a learner, it’s important to get lots of input to build up a “bank” of these common collocations, and eventually, the potential confusion all but disappears.
I’ve noted before that my daughter (now 8yo) was a fan of the character “biang” (an unofficial character used to write the name of a kind of noodle in northwestern China). We’ve also pointed out to her that it’s frequently not printed out (just as it’s not in the text of this article) because computers can’t handle it. But it’s been a while since we thought or talked about the character “biang.”
Then recently my wife spotted this use of “biang” in the wild and shared it with our daughter:
Her immediate response was, “they wrote it wrong. It’s missing a 立刀旁 (刂).”
Aaaand, she was right:
We’ve created a monster!
P.S. Technically, there’s probably no true “standard of correctness” for this character, but the one she originally learned (same as the image above, but using simplified components 长 and 马) seems to be the most widely accepted version.
I recently posted a bit about my daughter’s Chinese first grade Chinese language (语文) textbook. I haven’t found the time to dig deeper yet, but I couldn’t help but notice this story from her second grade textbook (and sorry, these photos are not pretty…):
The story of 曹冲 (Cao Chong) devising a way to weigh an elephant is a classic story in China. I wasn’t aware until now that (apparently) second grade is the time for a Chinese child to learn it, if she hasn’t already.
What struck me as interesting about this story is that the very same story is the subject of an Upper Intermediate ChinesePod lesson from 2011: How to Weigh an Elephant (hosted by Jenny Zhu and me). Much of the vocabulary is the same, and the difficulty level is roughly equal.
So… in this particular case, a second grade reading for Chinese kids matches up with an upper intermediate lesson for foreign learners. I’m still exploring the ways that first and second language acquisition differ, in terms of relevant topics, vocabulary, grammar, etc., but this one really jumped out at me.
I recently wrote about being amazed by how many characters my daughter learned in a year of Chinese elementary school. I’ve got a lot of thoughts on that, and it’s a great way to highlight the difference between “first language acquisition” and “second language acquisition,” as well as the difference in respective study materials. But first, I just want to share just the lists of characters and words covered in the textbooks of the two semesters of first grade in China. (Otherwise, I’ll never get this stuff done!)
The following word lists come from this 语文 (Chinese language) textbook series, the standard set approved for all Chinese children by the Chinese government in 2018 (and published by 人民教育出版社):
The book on the left is for semester 1 (上册), and the book on the right is for semester 2 (下册).
In the images to follow, the characters in the 写字表 (“Character Writing List”) are all words the kids need to learn to write, even if some of them initially appear in a 识字 (“Character Recognition”) section of the textbook, and some of them first appear in other sections.
Grade 1: Semester 1 (Character List)
Grade 1: Semester 2 (Character List)
Grade 1: Semester 2 (Word List)
This isn’t a comprehensive list of all the words that could be made (or even were covered) by the characters learned in the second semester of first grade. It’s more a list of words that can be formed with the new characters learned and were covered in class. Single-character words are not included in this list. (Note: just perusing this list, you will notice that even in first grade, certain words appear that you would never teach a non-native beginner learner.)
Apologies for the iffy quality… the scanner was acting up. All the characters should be clearly legible, though.
I’ll follow up in a future post with some of my thoughts on all this. I also plan to convert these lists to nice electronic text formats (or maybe just find a place to download them), but if someone else does it first, please share!
In the meantime, beginners, do not despair! You’re not a child, and you won’t learn like one, but you can still learn Chinese. Just differently.
There’s a cultural trend I’ve noticed over the years living in China, and it’s recently come into sharper focus as a result of having my own children and interacting with more Chinese parents. It’s the family habit of letting the child decide the menu for meals, or, in the case of eating out, letting the child decide where to eat or what food to order for everyone. I’m not talking about an occasional thing; I’m talking about a habitual practice.
I probably first noticed this when I started dating my future wife. She lived with her parents, and would frequently communicate with her mom on the phone. I noticed that I would often hear her telling her mom what she wanted for dinner that night, and that’s what her mom would make. I thought this was kind of weird, but figured that was just her family, she was kind of a strong personality, she was good at choosing food everyone likes, etc.
Over the years I learned that this was quite common, and it starts early. Children of 4 or 5 years old frequently decide most of what’s on the menu for the evening, practically every day. In some homes, the child decides their own menu while the adults eat an entirely separate meal. It’s no wonder that so many kids in China are picky eaters!
When this started happening in my own home with my own kids, I quickly put a stop to it. “Kids don’t get to decide what’s for dinner,” I said. “They eat what they’re given.” Fortunately my mother-in-law and wife were cool with that, but they had already started falling into what seems to be the “default mode” of letting the children (usually the youngest) decide what’s for dinner in a Chinese household.
One awkward thing about comparing this aspect of Chinese and American families is that I really only have my own “American cultural experiences” to compare to, and those are not at all recent! I don’t have regular contact with many American families, so if this same habit is now super common in American families too, I wouldn’t know. I suspect that it exists as well, but is nowhere near as widespread as it is in China, where the One Child Policy has set off a cascade of new family dynamics, often resulting in spoiled sibling-less children.
Talking to other parents in Shanghai, what I usually hear is, “my kid often doesn’t want to eat, and is already so skinny. So I’d rather let him decide what to eat and eat something rather than eat nothing.” My reply to this, of course, is, “he’ll be pretty hungry and less picky the next day after he eats nothing for dinner. He won’t starve. 4-year-olds don’t go on hunger strikes.” This works in my family (I’ve let my kids go hungry when they decide they’re going to be picky eaters), but I get the definite impression that Chinese parents think this won’t work in their families (or they’re just not willing to let their kids miss a single meal).
We’re working on a new discussion course for intermediate learners at AllSet Learning focused on various topics related to raising children. It’s really a very, very rich vein for discussion, and it’s the reason this “picky eater” and “kids ordering food” topic resurfaced for me recently. If your experience (American, Chinese, or whatever) is different, please share!
I’m in Florida on vacation with the family this July. I’ve managed to get my kids to a respectable bilingual state despite them growing up in Shanghai, but American culture is one thing my kids just don’t get a lot of, and it’s probably one of the most interesting aspects of this trip. Kids adapt to new surroundings quickly, but their reactions to new situations and unfamiliar American culture is super interesting.
Unfortunately, it’s not practical to make a big long list (I wish I had one!). One simple example is wading pools, though. My parents never got a pool installed, but the backyard is plenty big, so we can do the old backyard wading pool thing (fill it up with a hose). Such simple pleasures are utterly foreign to Shanghai kids, but still a blast! (Coming up soon: backyard water balloon fight, “Slip ‘n Slide,” and playing in the sprinkler. Classic American middle class fun!)
Anyway, the insanity part relates to a conversation with my daughter (now 7.7 years old). It went something like this:
Her: Is America insane? Me: …. Yes. Her:BWAHAHAHA! Me: …. Her: Why? Me: …. Her: BWAHAHAHA!
I guess maniacal laughter is better than weeping. I mean, “chaos is a ladder,” right?
There’s a certain type of question, phrased in the negative, which is answered entirely differently depending on the conventions of the language you’re speaking in. Take this English language exchange for example:
A: You’re not going?
B: No. (I’m not going.)
In English, we say no to the idea of going. Not going, therefore “no.”
Chinese works differently, however:
A: [You’re not going?] 你不去了？
B: [Yeah. (I’m not going.)] 嗯。（我不去了。）
In Chinese, we say yes to the statement itself. “Not going” is correct, therefore “yes.”
This is all fairly well-known stuff. Any English teacher in China is well aware of this issue, and hopefully anyone learning Chinese is as well. Even after you know about this difference, though, it takes some getting used to. You have to think about it for a while.
What I didn’t expect is that this seems to be just as hard for my bilingual kids. Both of my kids attend all-Chinese kindergarten, but I speak with them entirely in English at home. For the most part, they’re quite fluent in English for their ages, but occasionally Chinglish creeps in a little. How they respond to negative questions is another example of this: they respond the Chinese way.
So I’m constantly having conversations like this:
A: You’re not going?
A: You mean “no, I’m not going,” or “yes, I am going?”
B: No, I’m not going.
Not a big deal, but my 3-year-old is especially stubborn about answering these questions the Chinese way. He’ll get it eventually, though.
Still, if you’re feeling annoyed as a learner of Chinese that these are still tripping you up, you may take some consolation that even children, who supposedly “absorb language effortlessly like a sponge,” struggle with this. The big difference is that they don’t get discouraged, and they never ever give up.
My daughter is 6 years old now, and aside from yearly trips to Florida, she’s grown up entirely in Shanghai. Her school is a Chinese school, not an international or bilingual school, when means that I’ve had to make extra efforts if I want her to grow up bilingual. I’ve always practiced “One Parent One Language” (“OPOL”), meaning that I never speak to my daughter in Chinese, even though I’m observing her acquisition of both Chinese and English with keen interest.
Since she’s grown up in Shanghai and attends a school where Mandarin is spoken most of the time, it’s safe to assume that my daughter’s Chinese language skills are going to be a bit more dominant. For example, I get the feeling that she’s mastering irregular verbs a bit more slowly than American kids might. I’m not worried about it; her accent is fine, and she sounds like an American 6-year-old most of the time. I’ve certainly never felt she was making mistakes that Chinese learners of English might make. …until recently.
In the past few months I’ve noticed that my daughter confuses the words “make” and “let” in her English. This is a mistake frequently made by Chinese learners of English. In Chinese, 让 has both meanings, and context makes the rest clear. In English, if you don’t get these words straight, your English sounds quite weird (and non-native). So I definitely took notice when my daughter said things like:
*”She was really mean, and let me cry.”
*”He always lets me laugh.”
*”What you said let me angry.”
In every case, the word “make” should be used, and the word “let” is used instead. (I’ve never observed the confusion going in the other direction.) She’s generally receptive to corrections of her English (she catches on pretty quickly when I correct her on her usage of irregular verbs, for example), but this one has been a bit more stubborn.
I’m curious: do any monolingual (or at least not growing up in China) English-speaking kids make this mistake? Or is it something particular to this situation? I expect it will works its way out in time, and I’ll be interested to see if the same thing happens with my son (who is now 3).
I remember struggling with the unspoken “ifs” of the Chinese language. Sometimes what’s said is meant to be understood as a hypothetical, but there’s no “if” word to be found. You just have to get used to it, and it can be quite bewildering at first.
It was somewhat gratifying, then, to see my daughter struggling just a little bit with this same issue. She’s five and a half now, and fully fluent in Chinese for her age, but she’s still in the process of acquiring Chinese grammar. (See my previous post on grammar points learned by age 2.)
The context was that my daughter had done an especially good job of getting up early and getting ready for school quickly. The conversation with her mom went something like this:
You could translate the exchange like this:
Mom: If only you did this every day!
5yo: You’re being sarcastic!
This translation into English totally fails to reveal the source of the misunderstanding because I had to add in the unspoken “if,” absent from the Chinese original. The full sentence including the 如果 “if” would would have been:
Because my daughter didn’t understand that there was an unspoken “if” in the sentence, she assumed her mom was being sarcastic, since she was quite clear on the fact that she doesn’t always do a good job of getting ready for school quickly.
In actuality, the 就好了 part of the sentence wouldn’t really make sense without a 如果, so there’s essentially only one possible interpretation of the original sentence. It takes kids a while to figure out the intricacies of these grammar patterns, though!
My daughter is almost 5, and she has a penchant for “riddles.” At first, these started out super simple, such as, “what animal can fly?” or “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” Over time, they started to get more and more complex, morphing into questions such as, “what animal can fly but isn’t a bird?” or “what animals swim in the ocean but aren’t fish?” or “name three animals that live in the ocean but have no eyes.” These games are good linguistic exercises, reinforcing the vocabulary my daughter is picking up in the books we read her. In most cases, she can even do these riddles bilingually, and she enjoys quizzing her mom in Chinese on the ones I give her in English that she is able to answer.
Occasionally I’ve asked her to give me a riddle, and it’s usually something super simple, similar to the afore-mentioned “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” one. Fair enough… I don’t expect the riddle of the Sphinx from a 4-year-old. But the other day she asked me this one:
What has 5 legs and lives in the sky?
Pretty certain that no animal has 5 legs, I figured she got the number wrong, and was counting a tail as a leg or something. So I guessed “dragon” and “pegasus” and the like, but she said those were wrong, and she knows a tail isn’t a leg. I was stumped!
The answer to the riddle is “a star.” (She’s most familiar with the 5-pointed star, which she’s always getting in sticker form.)
I was kind of blown away by this, because it’s a pretty cleverly crafted riddle. Trying not to be too quick to declare my daughter a genius, though, I gave some thought to what might be going on in her bilingual mind.
In Chinese, a 5-pointed star is called a “五角星,” literally, “5-corner-star.” But here’s the thing… “foot” in Chinese is 脚 (pronounced “jiǎo,” exact same pronunciation as 角 above), and it’s a word sometimes used to represent the whole leg. She hasn’t officially started learning Chinese characters yet, and she definitely isn’t aware of how the two Chinese words are written. So in her mind, is it all the same “jiǎo”? Is a Chinese five-pointed star a “five-legged star” to her?
I tried to investigate this question, but my daughter didn’t have much patience for my line of linguistic questioning (a trait she probably inherited from her mother). In the end, I got her to answer like so:
Me: Do you know what the 五角 in 五角星 means?
Her: It means “five legs.”
Her: [thinks for a minute]
Her: …or “5 corners.”
I’m not sure if she thought of that second meaning when she was devising her riddle, and neither is she. Language acquisition is a largely unconscious process, and that’s especially true for kids. She hasn’t come up with any similarly clever riddles since. We’ll see what happens.
While we’re on the topic of Military Weaponry for Kids, let’s explore that book, shall we? Here’s what the book’s cover looks like:
The big name on the front is 画童学画, which could be cleverly “translated” as “Draw Child Study Draw.” Here’s what a few of the pages look like:
Each page basically does three things: (1) teaches the kid how to draw something across the top, (2) using pinyin, teaches the kid how to say the name of the object in the middle, and (3) gives the kid practice writing the character at the bottom.
1. The characters offered for writing practice in the book are at a kindergarten level, but the weaponry vocabulary is at a much, much higher level. (I don’t even know the names of some of those guns in English. Clearly I come from a totally un-war-like culture. Ahem.)
2. The part at the top that “teaches drawing” isn’t helpful. I used plenty of those “learn how to draw” books growing up, and this one just sucks.
3. Hey, this book is pretty useful for someone like me to learn weaponry vocab. Among the Chinese vocabulary taught in the book are: machine gun, heavy machine gun, handgun, rifle, semi-automatic rifle, uzi, revolver, hand grenade, flame thrower, rocket launcher, smoke grenades, tank, aircraft carrier, bomber plane, fighter jet, guided missile, stealth bomber… and more.
4. One of the guns is called a 来福枪 (lit. “come luck gun”). Hehe. Wenlin says it means “rifle” (a kind of transliteration) but it looks more like a shotgun to me.
5. Oh, right, I almost forgot: why do little Chinese kids need to be learning this stuff??
This kind of children’s book is not very uncommon; you can find similar books in almost any bookstore in China. (See the book here.)
Sort of related: see also Peer-See’s highly amusing entry on teaching incomprehensible weirdness to the children through bizarre blocks.
The other day as I was walking through my apartment complex I noticed what appeared to be a child of 3 or 4 and his grandmother. The child was on one of those little toddler vehicles, pushing himself along with gusto. As the child got farther and farther away from his grandmother, I heard her start to make some noises as she hurried to catch up.
I knew what was coming on. The kid was about to get a volley of “be carefuls” and “stay near mes” and “that’s dangerouses.” This is what it’s like to grow up an only child in China.
But I was wrong.
As the child pushed happily along, the grandmother called after, “you’re flying, you’re flying!” The kid was delighted.
Kid art! Dontcha just love it? I mean, how can you not get some interesting results when you combine children’s undeveloped fine motor skills, a severely incomplete understanding of the world in virtually every aspect, and ART? It’s a clear recipe for entertainment, I say. Sure, you may get the occasional four-year-old’s disgustingly pathetic attempts at cubism, but you also get some real gems.
About a year ago, a kindergarten gave me a pack of postcards which were made from their students’ artwork. It’s actually some really innovative work. The design company, “Redo Studio” (上海瑞德美术设计有限公司), created most postcards by combining several children’s artwork and adding fancy Photoshop effects. The results are worth a peek. I scanned them and put them in a new “Chinese Kids’ Art” Flickr album. Some sample thumbnails:
I was briefly tempted to do Maddox-style art evaluation, but apparently I’m just not that mean. Plus I really do think these postcards are a cool idea.