> Phonemica is a project to record spoken stories in every one of the thousands of varieties of Chinese in order to preserve both stories and language for future generations. We are a team of volunteers working within China and abroad.
> Our mission: Bringing the richness of oral Chinese to a wider audience, through the words of natural storytellers, from every corner of the world where Chinese is spoken.
Phonemia is beautifully designed, has great audio content in various Chinese dialects, and has a really cool custom audio player/annotator to boot. If this interests you at all, you should really check it out.
But there’s more! Phonemica has recently launched an indiegogo campaign to continue the mission and expand the project. Support Phonemica while you still can so that Phonemica can chronicle China’s linguistic riches while it still can.
NPR has a blog called code switch now, and recently published an article called Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. I recommend you read it in full if you’re at all interested in the linguistic phenomenon of code-switching, but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll some up the five reasons listed:
1. A certain language feels more appropriate in a “primal” state
2. To fit in to a certain linguistic environment
3. To be treated “like a local”
4. To communicate in secret
5. It helps convey a concept more “native” to a certain language
Code-switching is a well-researched linguistic phenomenon, and you can go into it way deeper than the NPR article does (just check out the references of the Wikipedia article on code-switching).
But while in Beijing over the weekend, I was reminded of another aspect of code-switching: it can be annoying. Although the act of code-switching is generally accepted as “normal,” there are still limits. People can code-switch too rapid-fire, or for “the wrong reasons.” (Alas, the Wikipedia article does not comment on “when code-switching gets annoying.”)
So assuming that non-comprehension isn’t a factor, what are the circumstances under which code-switching becomes annoying? I would guess that a flagrant violation of reason #5 above would be the most annoying… switching to another language to express a thoroughly generic concept, rather than for a “culturally justified” reason. Worse yet: doing that repeatedly. This was the one that came up in my recent conversation.
I’m curious, though, what factors might also make code-switching annoying. Some thoughts:
1. Code-switching too often, and for no discernible purpose
2. Code-switching which seems to be for the purpose of showing off
I’m pretty tolerant of code-switching, though. Maybe you readers have other reasons to add?
(You’ll need at least an Intermediate level of Chinese to know the words, but even a high elementary-level student should have learned most of the characters, in theory.)
OK, to prevent anyone from getting too frustrated, here’s the Chinese:
I’m looking forward to seeing more Chinese creativity at the Power Station of Art.
This post is leading up to another longer post on how the Chinese write numbers. I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (一、二、三、四、etc.); I’m talking about the numbers we call Arabic numerals. In China, they can occasionally be written pretty differently from what an American like me is used to.
An example to prove the point:
I won’t post my own observations in this blog post. Feel free to contribute your own interpretations in the comments (and tell us where you’re from), and, more importantly, ask your Chinese friends to do it and post those results too.
I’ve done this little experiment with a number of people, Chinese and non-, and have gotten surprisingly varied replies (but with some identifiable patterns).
If you enjoy this kind of thing, be sure to check out Sinoglot’s classic Bowl, Plate, Plowl.
Over the past year or so the expression 你妹 (literally, “your little sister”) is pretty popular. You might guess that it’s kind of dirty, based on other common vulgar phrases involving mothers or grandmothers, and you’d be kind of right. It’s clearly not a polite phrase, but it seems to be more often used in a flippant way among friends rather than a vulgar way to start fights.
One of the means by which the phrase 你妹 is getting more exposure is through the crazy popular new game “找你妹” (literally, “Look for Your Little Sister,” although that’s not how the name is really understood). I first noticed this game a couple weeks ago while riding public transportation. I’m seeing it played on iPhones and iPads everywhere around Shanghai. It’s especially interesting to me because it looks so lame, despite being so popular. You basically scroll through a bunch of little drawings of objects, and click on the ones you’re told to find. Whee.
It looks like this:
There’s even a video on YouTube about how a kid played 找你妹 all night and went blind. (Well, I guess there are allegedly more embarrassing ways to go blind…) You can see footage of the game in action in parts of the clip:
As for the recent upsurge in usage of the phrase 你妹, it’s kind of interesting, and Baidu offers an explanation (in Chinese, of course). I’m not going to try to explain it because I’m not personally super familiar with all the nuances of its usage yet, but this is exactly the type of situation where having a group of young Chinese teachers on staff comes in super handy, so I’m going to have to get into this topic in the AllSet Learning office. (Anyone interested in it or have a link to an explanation as good or better than Baidu’s? The other explanations I could find were a bit lacking.)
The AllSet Learning Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app comes preloaded with several free “books.” Although I immensely enjoyed creating a story involving post-apocalyptic steam punk dinosaurs, in some ways those free books were the most interesting. That’s because the content of each book is a simple interview question which is then answered by 10 different Chinese college kids. They’re all studying in Shanghai, but they come from all over China. You get to hear each young person’s own voice, see their photo, and even read their actual handwriting (in characters), which is also accompanied by text. This is a lot more interesting than most textbooks the kids are using these days! Through this app, it’s my hope to show a diverse, modern side of China’s youth, different from other sources.
We’ve aimed for intermediate level learners in the past, but we would consider doing simpler or more difficult questions. The interview questions already included in the app are:
1. 你最喜欢吃什么？ (What do you most like to eat?)
2. 谈到美国，你第一个想到的是什么？ (When speaking of the USA, what’s the first thing you think of?)
3. 你认为幸福是什么？ (What do you think happiness is?)
And this is the part where I ask you, my readers, what types of questions you’d like us to ask for the next round of interviews. The questions need to be relatively short, and somewhat open-ended, but nothing requiring an essay to answer. It’s OK to get just a little bit into the human side of politics (One Child Policy, etc.), but we’re not going to do any particularly inflammatory topics, or topics that could get the interviewees in trouble.
So what questions would you like to see covered in the Chinese Picture Book Reader? Please share in the comments, or drop me an email if you like.
It’s April Fool’s Day (愚人节), and I don’t have anything special, but I just thought I’d share this cute photo I saw online:
Here’s the original text:
Here’s the text with punctuation (and pinyin tooltips added):
And the translation:
> School’s out. I’m so happy! Lao Hu, hurry up!
> OK. Just packing up my book bag.
Have a good April Fool’s Day, 童鞋们 (that’s cutesy talk for 同学们).
I saw an interesting Chinese forward called 小学生造句 (“elementary school students make sentences”). Obviously, the sentences produced are not exactly what the teacher was looking for. Here are some of the more amusing ones (some understanding of Chinese grammar may be required):
- 难过 [dictionary link] [grammar link]
(There’s a ditch in front of our house that’s hard to cross.)
- 又……又…… [grammar link]
(My mom is both short and tall and fat and thin.)
- 一边……一边…… [grammar link]
(He took off his clothes while putting on his pants.)
- 天真 [dictionary link]
(Today it’s really hot!)
- 先……再…… [grammar link]
- 其中 [grammar link]
(One of my left feet got hurt.)
- 况且 [dictionary link]
(A train passed by: clanka clanka clanka clanka clanka clanka clanka.)
Photo by rbn_hu on Flickr.
A friend in Beijing recently reported an exchange with his Chinese tutor to me that went something like this (embellished by my own imagination and translated into English):
> Friend: So today I’d like to talk about the air quality in Beijing.
> Tutor: I really don’t want to talk about that. You foreigners come to China, and all you want to talk about is how bad the air is, or how the food is unsafe. There’s really a lot more we could talk about. China is an immense country with a long history and rich culture. We don’t even have to talk about China. There’s so much more we could talk about than just complaining about the air quality here.
> Friend: I’m hiring you to help me improve my Chinese, and I want to talk about Beijing’s terrible air quality. So that’s what we’re talking about today.
> Tutor: …
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the greatest tutoring session. But just that little piece of dialog recounted by my friend contained quite a few layers of cultural expectations. (A thoroughly enjoyable exchange, from my perspective!)
Although never studying it too diligently, I’ve always suspected that the syllable “gang” plays a prominent role in Shanghainese. Then I got this forward which proves it (see image at right). Don’t spend too much time trying to make sense of the Mandarin; it’s just a silly story about 江江, 杠杠, 傻傻, and 岗岗 calling each other dumb (傻). And yes, it’s pretty contrived. But the Shanghainese version is hilarious.
If you can read Chinese, you might be amused by the image (focusing on the latter half). But you’ll definitely want to hear the audio I had my Shanghainese wife record:
Ganggang.mp3 (1.1 MB)
Here are text transcripts (and keep in mind that the Shanghainese “transcript” doesn’t reflect any official way of representing Shanghainese in written form; it’s mostly just approximately phonetic characters chosen to exaggerate how ridiculous the Shanghainese sounds to non-speakers):
普通话版 (Mandarin version):
上海话版 (Shanghainese version):
Note: Both the Mandarin and Shanghainese texts have been edited slightly from the original image to correct for errors and inconsistencies (and in one case, to better reflect the audio version).
One of our star teachers at AllSet Learning recently shared this with me:
This is definitely a tricky one, and you’re not likely to be able to appreciate it if you’re not at least the intermediate level. So forgive me for not providing pinyin and translations for everything.
Like many jokes, this joke relies on ambiguity. Understanding the different sentences requires some understanding of semantic ambiguity, syntactic ambiguity, and lexical ambiguity.
Here’s what’s going on:
谁都看不上 can be interpreted as either “doesn’t like anyone” or “isn’t liked by anyone.” You’re not normally going to see both meanings used in one sentence!
This is a parsing issue, and revolves around the word 叫做 being a synonym for 叫: “叫做 爱” (“to be called love”) vs. “叫 做爱” (“to be called making love”). In spoken Chinese, you would definitely pause to verbally insert the “space” that I have typed above.
So 一个人 can be interpreted as both “a person” and “[to be] alone.”
You can’t really praise Chinese for having ambiguity; every language does. And what one human mind can encode, another can decode (native speaker or not!).
I was surprised to discover a new little dropdown option in the Gmail menu bar today, with the Chinese character 拼 on it (for 拼音, pinyin). After playing with it, it became clear that it’s an in-browser input method–a way to type in Chinese characters. Most people install Chinese IMEs at the operating system level (Chinese input is supported by Windows, Mac OS, and Linux now), but now Gmail is offering a way to type pinyin without the OS-level IME. It’s all in the browser. What’s more, it’s surprisingly fast. It’s pretty much exactly like using Google Pinyin for Windows, which I used to love, but gave up when I switched to using a Mac. This is very cool.
It’s not only for Chinese, though:
I’m not sure why it was auto-enabled for me, but if you’d like to try it out, just open up your Gmail settings. It’s right at the top:
More info from Google here. (Thanks, Luke, for that link!)
I just discovered this really cool “perspective effect” on Behance:
This is sort of similar to the Chinese/English ambigrams I’ve written about before.
A new project called SVG Hanzi (SVG 漢字/SVG 汉子) allows anyone to piece together an image of a character by specifying its structure and component parts. Very cool!
From the site:
> SVG Hanzi is a web service that can be used to obtain a picture of any Chinese character in SVG format.
> It is only necessary to visit a link that looks like http://svghanzi.appspot.com/[Character Code].
> Character Code here should consist of an Ideographic Description Character ⿰, ⿱, ⿲, ⿳, ⿴, ⿵, ⿶, ⿷, ⿸, ⿹, ⿺, ⿻ or △
(Those weird symbols above represent the main structural patterns of Chinese characters, such as ⿰ for 知, ⿺ for 道, etc. △ is used to denote structures like 品 or 鑫.)
In case it’s not clear, this tool allows you to construct a character by just sticking a string of symbols and characters into a URL, which is then output as an SVG image.
Some examples (click through to view the resulting SVG character output in a pumped-up font size):
Those are all actual characters, of course. I quickly realized that this tool can be used to contract the character creations I love so much (and used to do the hard way, in Photoshop):
Finally, since SVG Hanzi doesn’t force you to use only character components as input (and Unicode character will work), I couldn’t resist these “hacks” (I’m using screenshots just in case SVG Hanzi ever goes down and to not hit the server so hard, but in each case, the image was originally output by SVG Hanzi and then captured by screenshot):
This all reminds me of the Character Description Language created for Wenlin, only simpler, and more universally accessible, since it uses a simple string of symbols to create an SVG, which all modern browsers can display.
Thanks to @magazeta for introducing me to this project.
I’m pretty into geeky tech stuff, so I’m excited about Google Glass. On the new promo site, though, I noticed this strange photo:
My first thought was, “where can you buy vegetables in Chinese by the pound?” Must be in Chinatown in the U.S.
I showed this to my wife, and her immediate reaction was, “they wrote the 苗 in 豆苗 wrong.”
If you’re using Google Glass to buy vegetables in Chinese in Chinatown in the U.S., I’d imagine you’re setting yourself up for quite a language power struggle. Much better to use Google Glass to record your interactions as you learn Chinese by using it (and possibly while getting realtime help from Google Glass).
Wow, I would love for AllSet Learning to be a part of an initiative like that! We’ll see how long it takes us to get our hands on Google Glass and onto the streets of Shanghai…
Since our baby was born in 2011, I’ve resisted the urge to flood my blog with baby topics. But as our little one learns to talk and begins to explore the world around her, I can’t help but delve into issues of first language acquisition, bilingualism, and culture. These are all topics I’ve thought about before, but never have I had such powerful motivation to really dig into them.
I recently read this in an issue of Growing Child newsletter:
> Many studies performed on both animals and humans have shown that exposure in the early years to surroundings that are dull and monotonous can permanently reduce curiosity.
> This results in a vicious circle of intellectual poverty where lowered curiosity resulting from inadequate stimulation leads to still less curiosity, and so on.
I’d be interested to see what the “many studies” were, exactly (leave me a message if you know!), because these two paragraphs strike me as particularly relevant to China.
When I think of my own childhood and look at my daughter’s so far, it’s not hard to apply “dull and monotonous” to a (relatively) small Shanghai apartment, the lack of a backyard, the lack of an open natural environment to explore, etc. I won’t even get into the obvious problems with the local school system.
In addition, here in China the fostering of creativity is often presented as something that needs to be accomplished within schools. In reality, children’s natural curiosity needs to be nurtured much earlier, before the “vicious circle of intellectual poverty” begins.
Is it still possible to stimulate curiosity in children while living in China? Of course! I have no doubt that it is. It just means parents here have to work a bit harder than my mom could get away with: “go outside and play.”
I keep an apolitical blog and generally maintain a low-information diet (the exception is tech news), 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).
This Chinese New Year I went with my family to visit relatives in Baoding (保定), a city just outside of Beijing. The air was OK for our trip, and the famous Chinese hospitality was lavished upon us. The thing that left the strongest impression, however, was the baijiu (白酒). I must have had more baijiu over the course of a three-day visit in Baoding than I’ve had over the previous three years (or more) in China combined. Yikes. Here’s the almost scientific-feeling way that they dish out the baijiu in Baoding:
Shortly after my Baoding boozefest, I was forwarded this relevant link (thanks, Christian!): So You’re Going to Your Girlfriend’s Hometown for Chinese New Year: Thoughts on Making the Best of It. I’ll quote part of it:
> You will notice you have not seen your girlfriend for a long time. The men and women have separated. The men are trying to see how much alcohol you can drink before dying, and the women are interrogating your girlfriend about marriage plans. Go find her.
Stumble into the room, sit down next to grandma, put your arm around her, and start acting like you have confused her with your girlfriend. This will either be met with laughter and the grandma will accept you, or you will never be invited back again. Both outcomes have their benefits.
Definitely an amusing read on cultural differences. While my own experiences didn’t lead to much humor for me, it did lead to one (un)sobering realization. It is true what they say: baijiu does get better the more you drink it, and the expensive stuff really is a lot better than the cheap stuff. I didn’t have any hangovers at all.
That said, I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to Baoding every CNY…
Yes, not often are such bold words warranted when discussing online resources for grammar, but in this particular case, it’s pretty much required.
- Increased total article count from 500 to over 1200.
- Added English translations for all A1 (beginner) and A2 (elementary) level grammar points.
- Added pinyin to the introductions of many articles.
- Overhauled search engine for greater accuracy and depth.
- Added a “grammar box” to the top right of all grammar point pages, featuring level, similar grammar points, and keywords.
- Added keyword pages (example: 不) and keyword index.
- Set up disambiguation pages for toneless pinyin (example: “hao“).
- Broke long grammar point lists down into themed sections.
- Began adding crucial comparison pages, in which two similar grammar points are compared (example: 不 and 没).
- Began collecting grammar points in earnest for the forthcoming C1 (advanced) list.
Also, there’s now a Twitter account specifically for Chinese grammar-related questions and requests: @ChineseGrammar.
If you haven’t looked recently, it’s definitely time to check out this resource again. It’s not going away, and it’s really gaining momentum.
Recently the WeChat app was kind enough to alert me to this news story:
This, as you know, is an apolitical blog, and stories like this are among the least interesting to me personally. But this guy’s name demands to be noticed. His name is 刘铁男. That’s “Liu Iron Man.” His parents named him “Iron Man.” That’s kind of awesome. I haven’t been forced to take notice of a name like this since I discovered the lovely lass named 黄雪 (“Yellow Snow“).
At this point, I’d also like to give a shout out to a friend who goes by the name of 铁蛋 (“Iron Eggs,” i.e. “Iron Balls”).
Who says you can’t have fun with a Chinese name?