I was pleased to be contacted recently by Katie, the author of a new blog related to learning Chinese called Panda Toes. She’s based in Beijing, and has already gotten through the hardest parts of learning Mandarin, so she’s interested in sharing tips to help build reading fluency.
Your first thought might be, “to get better at reading Chinese, don’t I just need to read more Chinese?” Well, yes. No one’s going to argue with that logic. But even putting aside the crucial question of what a learner should read on her own, there are some techniques that can make the whole process less painful and more productive.
I really like how in her first article, The Art of Reading Chinese (as a non-native speaker), Katie gives a lot of emphasis to recognizing names (both Chinese and foreign). This point absolutely deserves a lot of attention, and it’s something I remember being tripped up by repeatedly, back in the day. (My time in the news translation trenches did me a lot of good in that regard, but it was most definitely not fun work.)
To add to Katie’s point, I’d like to emphasize it is most definitely worth your time to spend a bit more time learning Chinese names and their structure. While you shouldn’t make a big flashcard deck and memorize ALL THE NAMES, you should be gradually gaining familiarity with common names and common name structures. But how does one do this?
Learn your Chinese friends’ names. Really learn them. Every character, every tone. Ask why they were named that, and ask if it’s an unusual name, or a “typical Chinese name.” If their name contains certain characters that almost exclusively appear in people’s names, identify those as such. This learning is reinforced by your personal relationship with the person; this same knowledge-gathering would not be as effective on a group of random Chinese people.
Learn some famous Chinese names. Again, be selective. These should be names that have some meaning for you. If you like talking about politics, then learn politicians’ names. Same goes for Chinese movie stars, singers, directors, etc. You can gradually expand this list over time. As you do, make note of patterns. For example, the name 章子怡 (Zhang Ziyi). Did you know that there’s a “A子B” naming pattern? Almost all Chinese people will be familiar with it, and sooner or later you need to be too.
You need to know the super common Chinese surnames (again, learn them over time), but you also need to know that some super common words or characters can also be surnames. It really through me for a loop the first time I ran into surnames like 文, 水, 米, 左, or even 门.
Ask your Chinese friends what they think of other people’s names. This is especially easy to do when you’re trying to come up with your own Chinese name, or naming a baby, but it’s also something you can do anytime. Getting Chinese friends’ takes on other Chinese names will really enrich your understanding of names, and you’ll probably be surprised by how widely opinions will vary. Just remember that no matter how much you respect a person, no single person’s opinion is “correct.”
Good luck in building your reading fluency. I’m glad to see Panda Toes is live, and I’ll be contributing to this discussion more in the future. Most of my work these days in reading is with lower levels, editing Mandarin Companion graded readers, but my more advanced clients at AllSet Learning are always looking for interesting new reading content, so I’m always looking at new material for that too.
I just recently did an interview with SmartShanghai: [10-Year Club]: John Pasden of Sinosplice and AllSet Learning. It also has a tagline: A trip down memory lane with long-time Shanghai-based language specialist John Pasden. Dude speaks Chinese with the intensity of 1000 exploding Da Shans. That “exploding Da Shans” line cracks me up for many reasons.
Long-time readers of this blog will probably appreciate this answer I gave:
SmSh: I know you get this a lot — speaking specifically to your job, what are some tips for people trying to learn Chinese?
JP: You have to get out of your comfort zone. I know a lot of people that get out of their work “expat bubble” and talk to Chinese friends, but they’re only talking to Chinese people with pretty decent English. Not enough discomfort! Try talking to your ayi about her kids, or ask the fruit stand guy how much he pays for rent, or try to convince the guard in your apartment complex to stop smoking. You may think your Chinese isn’t good enough, but you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Look up a few words or phrases in Pleco, and give it a shot. Those are the conversations that will NOT be comfortable at first. You will likely fail hard at some of them, but those people are not going to switch to English, and they’re likely to have more patience for your bad Chinese than you do. And if they laugh, just assume that it’s because you made their day by even trying to talk to them in Chinese.
One of the things we do at AllSet Learning in Shanghai is to continually train our teachers. Of course it’s not that our teachers have no training; in fact, many of them have masters degrees and many years of teaching experience. The issue is that many of the academic degrees and classroom teaching experience attained in China draw on an outdated teaching tradition, largely a variation of how the Chinese educational system teaches Chinese children.
Add to that the fact that our service is based on deep personalization for individual learners, each with her own goals, needs, interests, and quirks, and you pretty much have an endless bounty of teaching issues to discuss and improve upon.
As a result, we’ve been sharing some of our ideals, methods, and tips with our teachers in Chinese on WeChat. Then we also post a lot of the same material to our own blog. Some articles come from old Sinosplice posts (like this one), sharing the foreign learner perspective with Chinese teachers (like this one), while others share more specific teaching tips. (We have a number of articles of this type which haven’t yet been ported from WeChat.)
The point of this post is to ask the question: What do you wish your Chinese teacher knew? I’d be happy to make it into a topic that we address in Chinese in a constructive way, and share online.
Obviously, we’re not talking about politics or cultural differences. It’s issues like:
I know my tones suck; why won’t you correct me more?
I really don’t think I need to be able to hand-write 2000 characters…
If you’re my Chinese teacher, why do you ask me to call you “Sunny” instead of something Chinese?
This textbook doesn’t even have the word for “cell phone” in it… why can’t we update?
Please share your ideas in the comments, or on Facebook, or whatever. All constructive feedback welcome! This is about working to improve the situation, not simply whining.
> I have a bit of headache wading through the mass of competing OpEds about the Xi visit and US-China relations. One thing I do not understand is people talking about the need for trust in the US-China relationship. I am sorry to be so cynical (then again the name of this newsletter rhymes with cynicism) but Chinese politicians do not trust each other, US politicians do not trust each other, the Communist Party has made it very clear it sees itself in an ideological struggle with the “Western values” represented by America, so how can any sentient person really expect there to be trust between the two governments?
> Or is it just a diplo-speak nicety people think needs to be parroted, even though everyone realizes it is a bit of a fantasy?
The last article I read on the topic called the two world leaders frenemies. (I’m pretty sure such a designation would preclude trust?)
P.S. Bill Bishop recently left China, but Sinocism lives on. Even when based in Washington, D.C., a better source for China reading is not likely to come along any time soon.
> When I first saw it, it seemed as if someone hastily duct-taped an ersatz Facebook news feed to the app and slapped the Picassa icon on it. But as I’ve used it, I’ve found it a surprisingly original and subversive feature. In fact, it’s everything Facebook’s news feed isn’t:
> No filtering — Every one of your friends’ posts is here, with no filtering or re-ordering. If one of your friends is annoying, you can take them off the feed, but it’s an all-or-nothing deal.
> More intimate — When you like or comment on a friend’s post, only they and any mutual friends can see it – not all of both parties’ friends, as on Facebook. This means that only the author of a post has an accurate idea how many people liked or commented on their post. This lowers’ users inhibitions in engaging with their friends’ posts.
> No companies/news — When you follow a company or news site’s official account, they push their updates in a separate area, not on your news feed. Though a friend can re-post content from these accounts to Moments, it takes some deliberate action.
> No auto-posts — Third-party apps can post to Moments, but only if the user initiates it, gets switched into WeChat, and manually confirms the post, each time.
> No games — Tencent makes boatloads of money off of Zynga-style social media games. However, they’ve had the good sense to relegate this activity to a “Game Center” section of the app that can be safely ignored.
> No photo filters – Though many types of content can be posted to Moments, it’s biased towards photos. Moments also actively eschews Instagram-style filters, in an attempt to make posts fast, spontaneous, and raw.
> As a result of these design decisions, and the way it’s sewn into the parent app, people here are addicted to checking this feed, more than any other. To switch between messaging to checking the feed, to commenting and engaging, and back is a swift and fluid movement that people perform countless times each day.
The danger in a project like this is that it will be overrun by marketing agents with their own agendas, and that the content which rises to the top doesn’t actually represent the best of what’s out there. Olle looks like he’s making efforts to deal with that issue, so here’s hoping Hacking Chinese Resources does well.
“How do you bridge the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion?”
> The truth is that no materials–textbooks, podcasts, videos, whatever–are entirely appropriate for any individual learner. That’s why it’s essential that the active learner adapt all materials to his own specific needs. Obviously, a good teacher is a tremendous help in doing this, and any good Chinese lesson with a teacher will involve bridging the gap between the language introduced in the study material and the language the learner can actually put to use.
> At AllSet Learning we spend a lot of time selecting the study materials most appropriate for a given learner. That way, there’s less “bridging” that needs to be done by teachers, fewer additional vocabulary words that need to be introduced, fewer outdated or irrelevant terms to be filtered out, etc. More time in the lessons can be spent practicing applying the material to real-life situations.
> For the independent learner (especially in a foreign language context), this issue of selecting materials is a huge challenge, and it probably involves a lot of time sorting through potential material. Recognizing that most textbooks are pretty outdated (how many textbooks currently in use never cover the words 手机 or 网络?) is a good start. The big question is then whether or not the material is truly useful for you, the learner. Usually HSK word lists and chengyu stories are not the most useful material. Neither are blindly selected frequency lists. What material is going to get you talking to Chinese people the fastest, about the things you care about, adding to your motivation to keep improving? That’s the right material to study.
Definitely check out some of the answers if this topic interests you at all; there’s a lot of them, with lots of good points.
A lot of the answers are what you might expect, but I especially liked the response by Roddy of Chinese-Forums.com:
> I think I’d warn against a mindset of “I’m immersed, therefore I’m learning.” We all know people who’ve spent years in what should be a perfect language learning environment, yet somehow fail to make much progress. What do they fail to do?
> First I think is a failure to pay attention and absorb. What do people actually say and do in the situations you’re in? Sit near the counter in a fast food place and listen to how people order food, or how the cashiers shout the orders back to the cooks. Stand near the doors on the bus and listen to how people buy their tickets or ask the conductor how to get to wherever. Note how your colleagues greet each other and how age or status affects that. Adopt that language.
> It’s kind of remarkable how people can fail to do this. I was in McDonalds once eating with another foreigner, who was complaining about how they never seemed to understand his order for fries and he always had to point at the menu. Somehow he’d never noticed everyone else was asking for 薯条 [french fries], not the 土豆丝 [shredded potato] he was requesting.
The Chinese slang word 屌丝 (meaning approximately “loser”) has become pretty popular in recent years, thanks to the internet. Of course it’s got its own Baidu Baiku entry (in Chinese), and you can find it in the ChinaSmack glossary (in English) too.
But there are a few weird things about this term. First, sources don’t always agree whether 屌丝 is pronounced “diǎosī” (3-1) or “diàosī” (4-1). [My personal sources usually assure me it’s 3-1.] Second, isn’t 屌 a vulgar slang term for “penis”?
Rather than delving into these issues myself, I’d like to direct you to an article on a new blog called Civil China which, as one of its first articles, takes a look at how the term has surged in popularity in recent years, and even how connotations shifted from mostly negative to not-so-negative. The article is Diaosi: Evolution of a Chinese Meme.
The post includes some very interesting textual analysis of the use of the term 屌丝 on Weibo over the past year and a half. (Complete with fancy data visualizations!)
For those of you actually trying to learn vocabulary (and possibly too lazy to read the whole thing), don’t miss this conclusion about the meaning of the word 屌丝:
> Although “diaosi” is often translated as “loser” in English, our analysis points to a distinction between a Chinese “diaosi” and a “loser”: losers are responsible for their own lack of success, while diaosi are made by larger social conditions. No wonder then, that “loser” remains an indisputably negative term, personal in its injury, while “diaosi” is a true meme: dynamic, complex, and current, cultural rather than personal.
The interview includes a number of questions I’m frequently asked these days by foreigners in China. Here’s an example from the interview:
> You are married with a Chinese girl, have a daughter and opened a company in China. Do you ever think about going back to U.S.?
> Of course. I’d be lying if I said I never think about it. I think about it not because I’m tired of China and want to go back, but rather because I suspect there may come a time when it just really doesn’t make any kind of sense for me (and my family) to stay. Ecological, economic, or political disasters could definitely befall China. You can’t be a responsible parent if you haven’t at least thought about a plan B.
> That said, I don’t have plans to leave China anytime soon. I’m still having a great time here, loving the experience of building my own company, and sincerely hope that I can be here for quite a while.
I keep an apolitical blog and generally maintain a low-information diet (the exception is technews), so I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to keep up with the news. I have a lot more time for work and pleasure that way, and I’m still able to stay on top of the important issues in the world.
Even so, I’ve come to recognize what a valuable resource Bill Bishop’s Sinocism is. You can sign up for the newsletter and get regular updates on all major issues facing China. I know more than one information junkie that reads every link in the newsletter, but for me, the headlines and blurbs are often enough. I click through when the articles especially interest me (and learn important new Chinese buzzwords from time to time too).
If you’re interested in China and you’re one of the few that haven’t heard of Sinoscism, definitely check it out. Bill Bishop is also on Twitter (@Niubi) and the excellent podcast Sinica.
I’d like to call attention to a relatively new blog on learning Chinese by Furio from Italy. It’s called Sapore di Cina (“Flavor of China” in Italian), and the author has a lot of good ideas (in English). A lot of his recommendations are the types of things I tell learners as well, so if you like Sinosplice’s entries on learning Chinese, there’s a good chance you’ll like Furio’s blog.
Recently Furio published ChinesePod Review – An alternative way to learn Chinese. I won’t deny that it’s a complimentary review of ChinesePod in general (and me in particular), but one of the good things about this review is the Furio calls attention to some of the more effective (and economical) ways to get the most out of ChinesePod.
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”:
> 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.)
While the article is about Beijing, this paragraph definitely reminded me of some of the things I’ve also felt about Shanghai:
> Beijing, after all, has much going for it in these heady days. Possibilities abound. Opportunity knocks. There’s a buzz here, a palpable energy. It’s a city with edge, full of quirky characters doing interesting things. Change is the one all-pervasive constant. The Beijing zeitgeist is a shape-shifting polymorph, the city a suitable setting for self-reinvention. It’s impossibly big and yet it offers the intimate charms of a small town – that sense of community that many of us found missing back home.
Those that have taken root in Beijing probably might be forgiven for assuming that this feeling is not to be had in Shanghai. I’d say the main difference is that Shanghai is not “impossibly big.” Part of its charm is that the “downtown” city area (obviously, Pudong is not included) is actually relatively small.
By now I hope you’ve heard of Living with Dead Hearts, a documentary project spearheaded by Charlie Custer of ChinaGeeks which aims to spread awareness of a very serious social problem in China:
> Each year, as many as 70,000 children are kidnapped in China. They are not held for ransom; rather, they are sold. The lucky ones are sold into new families who raise them like adopted children; others are sold into slave labor, marriage, prostitution, and lives on the street. Most children who are kidnapped will never see their parents again.
> Living with Dead Hearts follows several parents whose children have been kidnapped as they struggle to track down their kids and to make sense of what has happened to them. Along the way, the film also looks at the experience of kidnapping and growing up in a strange family from the child’s perspective and examines the lives of street children.
Aside from helping get the word out about this project, I’d like to offer a few comments for students of Chinese, since many readers of this blog fall into that category. From a language learning perspective, there are some things you want to be aware of before watching even the trailer for this documentary:
Many of the people in the documentary speak in heavily accented Mandarin, if not full-on “dialect” (read “topolect,” which might as well be a separate language, in many cases). If you’re a learner trying to use Chinese movies as study material, this is not a film to beat yourself up about for not understanding; most Chinese native speakers will be unable to understand some of the people in this movie without the aid of subtitles.
Dialect is sometimes used as a literary device; unfortunately, in this film it’s simply a cruel reality: the victims interviewed are often from the countryside and can do little to fight back or get help.
The word 拐卖 means “to abduct and sell,” the verb for what we commonly refer to as “human trafficking.” It’s not a verb you normally hear much. In the trailer below, you hear the grown-up 拐卖 victim use the term.
The Chinese word in the background behind the title “Living with Dead Hearts” is 躯壳. Although not an everyday term, this is one of those words that has a definite “correct” reading in the dictionary (“qūqiào”), but don’t be surprised if some of your Chinese friends read it as “qūké.”
The meaning of the word is “body; outer form” (not including the soul). My New Age Chinese-English Dictionary provides an appropriate sample sentence:
失去精神，就成了没有灵魂的～。 Once the spirit is lost, what is left is only the body without the soul.
The trailer is below. If you haven’t watched it yet, please do.
After my last post on 你好吗, which I consider “a greeting on training wheels,” I received an email from a reader about the non-interrogative, even more widely used greeting 你好. Brad’s email (slightly edited):
> I drove to a friend’s house [in Qingdao] to pick him up for supper. My friend doesn’t speak English and I’ve only known him for a few weeks. When he got into the car I greeted him with “你好!” (paying careful attention to not say “你好吗?” ha ha). To my complete surprise, he turned to me and said “You know Brad, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, and I’m not saying this to be critical of your Chinese, but I think we’ve now moved beyond having to say 你好.”
> I think I had a dumb look on my face and didn’t know what to say… nor did I know exactly what he meant. I asked him “What should I say? I don’t think I understand.”
> He said that 你好 is hardly ever used by people who know each other well, and it’s fine and dandy to use it between people who know there’s a formal barrier between them (age, acquaintance, colleague, stranger, superior, etc.), but that he considered me a close enough friend to no longer be at the 你好 stage.
> To me, this sounded exactly like the French “vous” vs. “tu” or Spanish Ud. vs. Uds. Again, I asked him what I should then say in such a context. His answer — say nothing! I said that’s impossible… I must have to say something like 最近很忙吗? or even 吃饭了没有？ He said I could if I wanted, but it should sound sincere instead of just an insincere verbal gap-filler (I’ve actually heard that line a few times from colleagues who have stopped me dead in my tracks for saying something perceived to be an unnecessary “insincerity” like “you’re wearing a nice sweater today.” I now longer give compliments unless it’s pertinent to the situation, and you know what? Neither does anyone else!).
> I asked him then what he would say, and he just gave me that “E”* grunt noise that might be the closest thing to a brief, low toned and quick “hey” in English, the same kind used to acknowledge someone you know while on the fly when passing them in the hall at work. He then said I could get right to the point after the grunt.
> Shocked! That was my reaction. But even more shocked by the fact that I now can’t recall any “friends” ever addressing themselves with 你好 when we meet as a group. It’s always that E!*, followed by “name”, and then something straight to the point. Even my colleagues (who are friendly with each other, but not friends) don’t say 你好 to each other.
> I know there might be a North-South divide on some of these issues (my southwestern friends all said for them 味儿大一点 meant more 辣的，the Northern friends thought it meant 加香, and the deep Southerners didn’t know what it meant), but I’m wondering if you ran into this simplest of linguistic mysteries in Shanghai?
Maybe I don’t read the right blogs, but it seems like China Daily Show isn’t getting nearly as much attention as it deserves. This China-centric Onion-style “news” site is hilarious. It describes itself like this:
> China Daily Show is not affiliated with China Daily or The Daily Show and is intended for humorous purposes only. All events, characters, names and places featured are products of the authors’ imaginations, or are used fictitiously.
Here are some recent headlines to get you started:
Here’s a chart which incorporates illustrations of food into their Chinese character forms [Note: these are based on Japanese kanji, so not all apply equally to Chinese; see my notes below]:
Below are the characters involved, suped up with Sinosplice Tooltips for the readings of both the Chinese and Japanese (more notes at the bottom). I get the impression the English translations were not written by a native speaker, so I’ve added a few notes in brackets to clarify where appropriate.
蛯 ( / 老 / 蝦)
root [= radish]
Creating this table was a good exercise in both vocab comparison between Japanese and Chinese, and also simplified and traditional characters. A few things jumped out as I created the table above:
1. Many of the Japanese characters above are not normally written in characters (kanji). In modern Japan, many words like 林檎 (apple), 苺 (strawberry), and 蛯 (shrimp) are often just written as “りんご,” “いちご,” and “えび,” respectively, in hiragana (no characters).
2. There are words like レモン (檸檬), the word for “lemon,” which looks weird not written in katakana. And I’m not familiar with 腹詰; I’ve always encountered “ソーセージ,” which entered Japanese as a loanword from the English “sausage.”
3. 苺 means “strawberry” in Japanese, but it’s the morpheme “-berry” in Chinese, used in such words as 草莓 (strawberry), 蓝莓 (blueberry), and 黑莓 (blackberry).
4. I’m not a big fish-eater, so I’m not confident in the fish translations. Any corrections are welcome.
There’s a lot more I could say here, but unfortunately, my blogging time is limited. Comments welcome!
How do we foreigners live in China when YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are all blocked here? We use VPNs to get around the blocks. Five years ago, it seemed like only a few foreigners I knew in Shanghai found it really necessary to pay money to circumvent the blocks. Now, almost all foreigners I know find it necessary. Tools like Facebook have become too important of a means of communication to just give up.
For a while, it felt like there was a truce. Lots of sites will get blocked, but the blocks are easily worked around through VPNs. Those who “need” VPNs just had to pay for them. Now the situation is different. Recently many VPNs have stopped working, and even those of us that prefer to stay apolitical need to use the internet (unfettered).
Some recent articles about the status of VPNs in China:
Recently Best Buy (百思买) announced that it’s closing its China stores. I normally don’t pay too much attention to this kind of news, but Best Buy is a little different. Somehow it felt a bit more relevant to me this time.
Best Buy is an American chain, and there’s still a huge Best Buy store down the street from where I live. I welcomed the arrival of Best Buy because I hate its domestic competitors, Suning (苏宁) and Gome (国美), which, incidentally, are also just down the street from me. I had high hopes that Best Buy would prove that the citizens of Shanghai, too, are willing to pay for better service and assurance of high quality.
Alas, it was not meant to be. It’s hard to say for sure how much of the equation is price, and how much of it is Best Buy’s failure to live up to the levels of service it upholds in North America. But something didn’t work.
I especially liked this post because Adam shares a lot of my same sentiments. Adam notes:
> …let me note that I would have loved it if Best Buy had succeeded in China. In part, out of Minnesota pride (I’m a native, and still consider it home) but also because I liked being able to shop for electronics in China without having to bargain, worry about buying fakes, or not being able to return items. The laptop upon which I’m writing, right now, was purchased there, as was the printer to my right, the speakers in front of me, and the iPod in my gym bag. I’m as sorry, and as irritated, as anybody that this happened.
Meanwhile, business is booming at the Apple Stores across Shanghai…