Happy 2014! It’s that time of year when lots of people are thinking about seriously tackling a language again.
I was referred by a friend to this YouTube video: 5 techniques to speak any language, by polyglot Sid Efromovich.
Lists like this always feel a bit arbitrary to me, because while they’re almost always good recommendations, you’re always leaving some good stuff out for the sake of brevity or sticking to that succinct number.
Here are Sid’s 5 tips, and some articles of my own that complement them nicely:
- Make Mistakes. I wrote a post on the importance of making mistakes called Tone Purgatory and Accent Exorcism.
- Scrap the Foreign Alphabet. This advice seems a bit strange, coming from a language lover. Really what his point boils down, to, though, is not reading a foreign language through the filter of your native tongue. When it comes to Chinese, it means learning pinyin ASAP (and really learning it). Check out the Sinosplice Chinese Pronunciation Guide, the free AllSet Learning Pinyin iPad app, and also X is the Unknown.
- Find a Stickler. Although I spend a ton of time on “how to best be a stickler” with the AllSet Learning teachers, I don’t have much on Sinosplice that corresponds exactly to what Sid talks about. Here are two sorta related ones: Animals as Language Partners, and Recasting in Language Learning.
- Have Shower Conversations. Ah, talking to yourself… and you don’t even have to do it in the shower! My take: Talking to Oneself Productively, later followed by Thinking to Oneself Productively.
- Use the Buddy Formula. Sid specifically refers to “Best Language in Common,” which is an important point in one of my most popular posts: Language Power Struggles. I also like his reference to “Best Secret Language in Common.”
Remember, there are a million ways to learn a language right. The key, in the short-term, is to just get started, and for the mid- to long-term, to enjoy it. Why not do it in 2014?
OK, I admit… I like talking about stages. Stages of learning Chinese, stages of tonal development, Chinese grammar challenges in stages, stages of cultural adaptation. And now it’s stages of jet lag evolution.
I’d like to think that after all these trips across the Pacific, I’d have learned a thing or two about how to minimize the effects of jet lag. In reality, though, despite a few beautifully victorious battles back in the day, I realize that I’m losing the war.
It goes something like this:
- Indestructible 20’s. Ah, those were the good old days. The “stay up all night the day before your flight, and then sleep the whole way there” plan. It actually worked. I needed like a day to bounce back. I actually remember saying, on multiple occasions, “jet lag doesn’t affect me.” Yeah, those days are long gone.
- Slowing down around 30. Eventually I stopped saying “jet lag doesn’t affect me.” I quit feeling like staying up all night the day before a flight was either doable or wise. And I had to start dealing with jet lag the way most normal adults do, over the course of 2-3 days. (Secretly, though, I felt like I was much better at getting over it than the average person.)
- Dragged down by a baby. OK, I’m going to do the manly thing now and blame my heinous jet lag on a baby. (It is her fault, though!) The thing is, when we come back to the States to visit, we stay with my parents and stay in the guest room. And even if I’m still “better than average” at getting over jet lag, two-year-olds are most definitely not good at getting over jet lag. And her sleep schedule, when she sleeps in the same room as me, definitely affects mine. So three days of jet lag becomes a week. Ouch!
The moral of this story: enjoy the time you have before jet lag gets its revenge.
I discovered this little gem of translation magic in my WeChat feed the other day under the title 中文远比英文美 (“Chinese is far more beautiful than English”). The poem quoted below is widely attributed to Shakespeare online, so the attribution is reasonable. (More on that later.)
I’ve tried to maintain a 4-line structure to make comparisons easier, but in a few cases it was inappropriate to break the Chinese poem structures, so I left them as is, since the 4-part structure is obvious anyway.
Original English Poem
> You say that you love rain, but you open your umbrella when it rains.
You say that you love the sun, but you find a shadow spot when the sun shines.
You say that you love the wind, but you close your windows when wind blows.
This is why I am afraid–you say that you love me too.
― William Shakespeare
普通版 (“Normal” Version)
This is the “normal” version, a straight translation of the English above into modern Chinese. (This is also the second most accessible version if you want to try reading the Chinese.)
文艺版 (“Artsy” Version)
文艺 literally means “literature and arts,” but these days it’s often closely associated with the phrase 文艺青年, a young person who pursues artistic beauty (especially of the literary nature), but may often come across pretentious to normal people.
You’ll immediately notice how difficult the following translation is compared to the first one; it’s chock-full of hard words.
诗经版 (“Book of Songs” Version)
This one is written in the style of the 诗经, the “Classic of Poetry,” AKA “The Book of Songs.”
You’ll notice a dramatic reduction in length, plus a classical style.
离骚版 (“Departing in Sorrow” Version)
离骚, also known as “Departing in Sorrow,” is a famous Chinese poem from the Warring States period, written by 屈原, the poet commemorated by China’s “Dragon Boat Festival.”
七言绝句 is a Tang Dynasty poem structure using seven characters in 4 “sentences.”
吴语版 (Wu Version)
吴语 is a “topolect” of Chinese; it’s the family that Shanghainese belongs to.
Shanghainese friends tell me that this version is a little forced and not very poetic (it doesn’t do Shanghainese justice). Seems like it just got tacked on later after a 文艺青年 did the other versions.
女汉子版 (“Strong Woman” Version)
女汉子 is difficult to translate, but 汉子 normally refers to a man. So 女汉子 refers to a “manly” woman, or more appropriately a “strong woman,” the type that takes no crap from nobody. “你有本事” (literally, “[if] you have the ability”) lends an air of direct challenge to the whole thing, kind of a “what are you gonna do about it?” feel.
This one, like the 吴语 version above, also seems tacked on, since the phrase 女汉子 is trendy these days.
七律压轴 is an 8-line poem format, 7-characters per line. (I don’t know much about this, and my Googling didn’t turn up any definitive results, so if anyone wants to help out in the comments, feel free!)
The Original Original Poem (in Turkish)
OK, so here’s the thing… That “original” English poem was not by Shakespeare, and it’s actually a translation into English from Turkish. There’s a reason it doesn’t see too “Shakespearean” (especially in word choice). Below is the original word choice:
> Yağmuru seviyorum diyorsun, yağmur yağınca şemsiyeni açıyorsun…
Güneşi seviyorum diyorsun, güneş açınca gölgeye kaçıyorsun…
Rüzgarı seviyorum diyorsun, rüzgar çıkınca pencereni kapatıyorsun…
İşte,bunun için korkuyorum; Beni de sevdiğini söylüyorsun…
This little experiment certainly doesn’t prove any superiority or “pwnage,” and the English translation was clearly chosen because it matches existing Chinese poem forms, but… Chinese is still pretty awesome.
Last week was a very bad week to be in Shanghai. We had the worst pollution here, ever, as far as I can gather. There are lots of different numbers thrown around, but pretty much everyone agrees that the PM2.5 count went above 500 last Friday (December 6, 2013). Just to put that “500” in perspective:
> WHO guidelines say average concentrations of the tiniest pollution particles – called PM2.5 – should be no more than 25 microgrammes per cubic metre. Air is unhealthy above 100 microgrammes and at 300, all children and elderly people should remain indoors.
My favorite tool for following pollution levels is the Graphing Air Pollution in China page at kopf.github.io/chineseair/. Here’s a screenshot highlighting the peak last Friday (Shanghai in red, Beijing in blue):
By coincidence, I went outside on Friday night (close to the peak) to pick up some milk at the store. It’s a 5-minute walk to the nearest Family Mart. As soon as I stepped outside into the haze, I noticed that the air smelled faintly burnt. I say “faintly,” but it’s the kind of “faintly” that gets incredibly obvious the more you smell it. Meanwhile, the air just felt grimy. Beijing has had some terrific pollution in its day, but Beijing air tends to stay quite dry. Shanghai, meanwhile, is incredibly humid. It makes summers super sweltering, winters bone-chilling, and smoggy days absolutely disgusting.
I’m actually not very sensitive to the pollution, and when people ask me how bad it is, I don’t have a lot to say. It just doesn’t bother me that much. This latest uber-smog, though, got to me. In the 5-minute walk to the store, I started to feel a little queasy. In the 5-minute walk back home, I was feeling sick to my stomach.
So yeah, it was really bad. If it was like this every day, or even routinely, I wouldn’t want to live here anymore. I seriously hope China can take effective measures against this horrific pollution. Right now I’m seriously looking forward to my Christmas trip to Florida. Besides the precious family time, I could also use a little lung detox.
Bitcoin is a hot topic these days, and it seems to come up in all sorts of my interactions in Shanghai, from clients to friends to family. My initial thought was the oversimplification that “Chinese people like speculation,” and they’re getting tired of the super-expensive “bubble that just won’t burst” real estate option. [“Bitcoin” in Chinese is 比特币, by the way.]
Here’s a more informed answer to the question “What is Beijing’s rationale for promoting Bitcoin?” by Paul Denlinger on Quora:
There are several reasons for giving it higher visibility; most recently I’ve noticed that China Telecom, a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) is accepting bill payments in Bitcoin.
Here are some of the reasons:
- China’s economy is too slanted to investment instead of relying on consumer-spending generated tax revenue. This means that there is too much untaxed cash sloshing around in the system;
- Real estate prices are continuing to rise in the cities in spite of government efforts to dampen the price rise. Bitcoin offers a chance to take some excess cash out of the system, and thus dampen price inflation.
- The party is going after corruption among Chinese officials. Even though the party needs to clean up, it needs to give its own members an exit plan, as too much prosecution would make the people think that the party is completely corrupt.
- Since November 2008, the US Fed has been injecting liquidity into US banks at the rate of US$80B a month as part of the quantitative easing plan. This means that 4.8T has been injected into the global economy in the past five years. US banks have tightened their lending requirements, which means a lot of this hot money has made its way to China, where it is fueling inflation. This is in addition to US1-2T of cash in Hong Kong banks which has nowhere to go except China investments. Too much liquidity fuels inflation.
- There has been a lot of talk about China dumping US treasuries if things got hot between the US and China. This is a dumb strategy. Instead, China needs to soak up a lot of the US$ liquidity, and promote the Chinese yuan as an international currency. By promoting the yuan, the US would have to raise interest rates to acquire US$ buyers, making the cost of the US$ higher for its issuer, the Fed.
A lot of the discussion about Bitcoin has centered on its not being widely accepted. This misses the mark. For two years before the euro was officially introduced as a currency in the EU, it was used for settling accounts among banks.
To a large extent, Bitcoin replaces banking services. If it is used among more individuals for settling accounts, it will have a valuable role. Right now, that is just beginning, since the amount of Bitcoin in circulation is just US$15B, which when compared with the other amounts mentioned above, is a very small amount.
Most Chinese buyers of Bitcoin are using it not as a spending currency, but to hide and protect their currency and asset savings. They only convert from Bitcoin to cash when needed.
Compared to banks and individuals who need to report large cash transactions, Bitcoin is anonymous. This makes it ideal for international currency movements. This trend is just beginning.
(I hate copying such a large chunk of the text instead of just linking to Quora, but Quora is pretty hostile to readers that aren’t accessing Quora in just the right way, so there you go.
This Family Mart ad reads:
> 爱 ♥ 回家 [literally, “love” ♥ “return home”]
The character 回 has been converted into a little house, presumably because it’s a lot easier to do with 回 than with 家!
The ad is for a charitable group which helps poverty-stricken children get an education. More info (in Chinese) here. (The video on that page reminds me of the new free 农村生活 content in AllSet Learning’s updated Picture Book Reader iPad app.)
In case you’re wondering how one should understand the phrase “爱 ♥ 回家” grammatically, 爱 is a noun here, so it means “love returns home” rather than “[someone] loves to return home.” Ah, Chinese grammar and its flexible parts of speech…
Here’s a Chinese public service poster that uses a pun to get its point across:
The big text reads:
> 你是要换， [Do you want to replace it,]
> 还是要患？ [or do you want a (safety) hazard?]
So the key here is that “huàn” can be both the verb 换, meaning “to replace,” as well as the noun 患, which means “hazard” (in the “safety hazard” sense). You often see it in the word 隐患, literally “hidden danger,” referring to potential safety hazards. (隐患 actually appears at the very bottom of the notice.)
The question uses the standard “A or B” 还是 question form.
(Sharp-eyed advanced students will notice another pun in the smaller print, involving the phrase 防患于未然 and the character 燃.)
What especially caught my eye was the mention of this use of Chinese characters:
The characters involved are 自由 and 目田. The former is a real word meaning “freedom,” the letter is a nonsensical combination of two characters (“eye” + “field”), chosen for their appearance only.
I really love how creativity with characters (something I call characterplay) allows for circumvention of censorship. This case is particularly ironic, because in order to avoid automated detection you’re literally removing the top part of both characters, a nice parallel to the content removal activities going on behind the scenes at Weibo.
This situation, although more interesting, also reminded me of the word-parsing censorship problem I’ve written about before (also involving the word 自由).
Link via Sinocism.
In a recent ChinesePod lesson on foot baths, I made this comment:
> I think I find this form of Chinese “relaxation” painful about 90% of the time, but that other 10% is quite nice!
This prompted this reply from RJ:
> My experience as well. Compared to “foot massage”, water-boarding is a sport. They scrape the sensitive bottoms of your feet with a very dull knife, so as not to draw blood. All the while they are thinking: die laowai, die. Had I been a CIA operative under interrogation, I would have cracked. The gal that took me, my host, seemed to be having a great time however. The deluxe 1.5 hour package also came with a happy ending. They packed my legs in a warm “herbal paste” that felt a lot like hot drain cleaner. They also wrap it up in several layers of cloth and tie knots so you can not escape. I was so relieved to see that there was still skin on my legs when they finally removed the restraints. I had to drink an extra beer at dinner just to get rid of the residual pain. How I managed to smile for an hour and a half I dont know, but I could just imagine the whole crew laughing and slapping their thighs after we left. “We got another one, die laowai die”! 🙂
User podster replied with:
> Ah yes, the Chinese foot torture. That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Oh, sorry, it’s just “enhanced interrogation.” I got some chemical goo that probably doubles as rust remover at the shipyard smeared on my legs during one of these therapeutic treatments. As the searing pain began to set in, they asked me “烫吗？” [“Too hot?”] I wonder how to ask in Chinese exactly how much pain is “normal.”
I really do wonder if our western feet are built differently (wimpier), or what. Exaggeration aside, this kind of experience seems to be par for the course when it comes to foot baths/massages.
Olle at Hacking Chinese just put up a new post called Asking the experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese. In it, he asks quite a few language learners/experts the question:
“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.
Again, there’s lots more in Olle’s original post.
Chengyu (成语) are the (usually) four-character idioms that any intermediate learner of Chinese knows about. By the time you get to the intermediate level of Chinese, you’ve heard lots about how many of them there are, and how richly imbued with Chinese culture they are, and how they’re wonderful little stories packed into four short characters. Oh, and there are literally thousands of them, so you better start memorizing.
But wait… why?? Why do intermediate learners of Chinese need to start memorizing chengyu so early when, as far as they can tell, they’re relatively rare in daily life? Is it more important to learn a list of four-character idioms than to get better at ordering food in Chinese? Or to talk about basic economics? Or to discuss modern social issues? Or even to finally get a decent grasp of the ever-elusive particle 了? Those tasks all involve the use of relatively high frequency vocabulary and require no chengyu. So why the chengyu urgency?
Many students of Chinese are told by their Chinese teachers that chengyu are important. They take this advice to heart and dutifully start learning. They may enjoy the stories behind them, or they may not, but these students inevitably realize that they hardly ever come across these chengyu they’re learning in actual conversation or even readings.
The fact is that teaching Chinese to foreigners on any large scale is a relatively new thing, and as such, some kinks are still being worked out. Early efforts at teaching foreigners involved a lot of transference of educational methods used on Chinese children. Memorization of Tang dynasty poems, writing out each new character hundreds of times, and memorizing lists of chengyu long before they’re actually useful are time-honored traditions when it comes to teaching Chinese kids their native language. That doesn’t mean these methods are effective for non-Chinese adults learning Chinese, especially when basic communication is the goal.
The Four-Character Fetish
Despite their questionable usefulness, chengyu get a lot of attention. From an English-speaking perspective, so much fuss over chengyu seems a little strange. Maybe it would help to draw some analogies to English.
Some chengyu are relatively straightforward to understand, and the meaning can be guessed. These are sort of like many English idioms. Think “raining cats and dogs” or “a dime a dozen” or “barking up the wrong tree.” They’re interesting to language nerds, and kind of make sense. They can be fun, but they’re no substitute for basic vocabulary. Fortunately, they’re also pretty easy to understand once your Chinese is at a low advanced level.
Other chengyu are more cryptic because they involve words and word order from classical Chinese, and/or refer to specific stories from ancient China. These are the ones you typically cannot guess the meaning of, and if you don’t know them, you’re absolutely clueless as to what they mean. These are the ones that truly separate the men from the boys in terms of Chinese literacy, and educated Chinese often stump each other with obscure chengyu of this type. It would be more appropriate to compare these with Latin sayings common in highbrow English, like “carpe diem” or “et tu, Brute” or “quid pro quo.”
In short, this second type especially, when overused, comes across as a bit pretentious. This connection of chengyu to an elite education is no small part of the appeal, either to native speakers or to learners of Chinese as a foreign language.
No Special Treatment
In Chinese, chengyu are generally considered individual words. This may seem a little strange, and the definition of a Chinese “word” is a bit amorphous to begin with, but bear with me here. Chengyu sometimes serve as mini sentences, sometimes work as verbs or adjectives, but essentially function like four-character words. Sure, they often have a rich history and pack quite a semantic punch in a small package, but they’re still essentially words.
Since they’re words, it’s easily to apply standard linguistic analysis to them. Corpus analysis can tell us how common any given chengyu is, what types of texts it’s likely to appear in, whether it’s a high-frequency word, etc. And the thing is, chengyu are not high-frequency words, especially when taken individually. Some are definitely higher frequency than others, but compared with ordinary words, they’re essentially all low-frequency.
Now obviously I’m not trying to say that low-frequency words are worthless or not worth learning. But why should low-frequency words be prioritized over medium-frequency words simply because they’ve got the chengyu label? When you start focusing on chengyu as an intermediate learner, that’s exactly what you’re doing. As an intermediate learner, there’s still a ton of good useful medium-frequency words to get familiar with. Why should chengyu get preferential treatment? When you need the word for “ambulance” or “stock market” or “allergy,” having memorized a few dozen chengyu (that you’ve probably never used) are little consolation.
So learners, don’t avoid chengyu, but don’t learn chengyu just because they’re chengyu. Don’t give chengyu special treatment when you could be improving your ability to communicate in Chinese. Just think of chengyu as the low frequency words they are, and when you start to encounter them naturally, learn them. When the time comes, you’ll recognize their usefulness in context and will see them more than once. As an intermediate learner, you’ll occasionally come across high-frequency chengyu (I have my own chengyu top ten), but certainly not by the boatload.
If you really love chengyu, then I’m sure my advice won’t shake your passion. And learning a few can certainly be interesting.
I’m often to busy to give the info-packed Sinocism newsletters my full attention, but when I do, I often find really great stuff. I’ve also noticed a trend on Facebook and Twitter. It goes something like this:
1. Sinocism newsletter comes out, with a link to especially interesting story “X”
2. Sinocism readers click through to the story on “X,” love it, share it via Twitter and/or Facebook
3. The Sinocism readers who share “X” get Likes, retweets, comments
You see the net effect here? Sinocism is serving as an invaluable information hub, but it’s not getting credit for the major role it’s playing in the dissemination of China-related news. And the worst part is that the Sinocism readers aren’t doing it on purpose; they’re just using their social media like they always do, but the way the system is set up, Sinocism gets no credit.
I’m pretty sure I saw an example of this last week. There was a great article about Chinese surnames‘ geographical distribution in China that got a fair amount of attention: Mapping China’s Surnames 制图 “老百姓”. I admit, I tweeted it too, the “bad” way. I then saw lots of people I know on Twitter and Facebook sharing it, no credit. I strongly suspect Sinocism set off the rash of shares (but wasn’t credited).
There are two solutions, as I see it:
1. Sinocism needs to build its social media presence. Ugh, I feel a little slimy just using the phrase, and I can understand if Bill Bishop would much prefer to keep the endeavor as a blog and newsletter. (Sinocism does have its own (private) Twitter account and Facebook page, but neither are used or promoted much.)
2. Sinocism readers make an effort to credit the articles they discover through Sinocism when they share them on social media. (For example, you could add “via @sinocism” to tweets, or maybe even “#sinocism“.)
Here’s an example of #2:
— John Pasden (@sinosplice) November 1, 2013
Time for a personal update on some of the stuff I’ve been working on….
Over the weekend AllSet Learning’s Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app (v1.3) was finally approved! I am repeatedly surprised by how much time and effort the creation and maintenance of an iOS app takes. Although the app itself looks great, this is clearly not the best way for developers… it really makes me yearn for HTML5 apps.
That said, I’m really happy with what we’ve done! Sinosplice readers actually contributed ideas for this app’s new content, some of which is free, and some of which is paid. We probably should have added a bit less all at once to this release, but there’s still some more coming. Details about the release are on the AllSet Learning blog post: Chinese Picture Book Reader 1.3.
I’m also putting a lot of time into my (sort of) new Chinese graded reader project, but I’m saving more details on that for a future update.
The Chinese Grammar Wiki continues to grow. We’re adding more sample sentences and more translations across the whole thing, and while it’s already quite extensive in its coverage, it’s also beefing up across the board.
One thing I’ve gotten into personally (for fun, but also research) is Duolingo. I’m trying it out as a purely iPhone experience, and I chose French because I know very little about it, and I know that pronunciation is a challenge. Man, I’ve got some opinions. That’s a future post too, though.
I’m staying super busy, but I have a big long list of blog topics that will see publication on Sinosplice sooner or later. Because I’m spending so much time working on my own projects, it can be hard to not want to blog about them all the time too, but that would get annoying to some of my readers. If anyone has specific questions about what I’m working on, though, let me know, and the answers might just become blog posts.
If you’re interested in updates about all these Chinese-related projects I’m working on at AllSet, please do sign up for the newsletter. We won’t annoy you, and we’ll keep you updated!
My daughter is almost 2 years old now, and as she talks more and more, not only is it a blast to see that this little crying pink thing has grown into a real human, but I’ve also got front row seats to the amazing phenomenon of first language acquisition. If you’ve never seen a kid acquire language from scratch, or have never seen it happen bilingually, there are bound to be a few surprises. It’s kind of messy, and sometimes it feels like a wonder that it even works.
The other night my daughter displayed what you might call “neat presentation” of linguistic mastery. She asked for some water by saying “please water.” I gave her some of mine, and I could tell by her expression that it was colder than she expected. “It’s cold, huh?” I asked her. She nodded her head, repeating, “cold.” “It’s cold water,” I said. She nodded, repeating, “cold water, cold water.” Then she looked at her mom, and exclaimed with joy, “冰水，冰水!” (cold water, cold water). Wow, she’s already becoming a little translation machine! It’s not usually quite so orderly as all that, though.
Then there’s the “little boy” and “little girl” case, which ties in nicely with the concept of linguistic relativity. I recently realized that my daughter didn’t know the words “boy” or “girl,” and didn’t know the Chinese for them either. This seemed a little strange to me, because I know that during the day her Chinese grandmother takes her outside a lot, and she plays with other kids. Shouldn’t she at least know the Chinese for 男孩 (boy) or 女孩 (girl) or 小孩 (child), if not the English?
Well, it turns out that no, she shouldn’t know those words, because she rarely hears them. What she was learning was actually a bit more complicated than all that. Every time she encountered another baby that was male and younger than her, she was instructed to call him 弟弟, the Chinese word that literally means “little brother.” For girls younger than her, it’s 妹妹 (“little sister”). For little boys older than her, it’s 哥哥 (“big brother”), and for little girls older than her, it’s 姐姐 (“big sister”). This is fairly typical for Chinese kids.
Of course, she doesn’t know the word for “man” or “woman,” either. She calls all women 阿姨 (that is, any female that’s not obviously still a child, much to the dismay of the 20-year-old young ladies she encounters), which traditionally means “auntie,” and all adult males 叔叔.
She especially enjoys identifying every 阿姨 (“auntie”) she sees, whether it be a woman on the street, a female mannequin in a store, or even a drawing of a woman in an ad.
Meanwhile, I’m lamely trying to remind her that there are English words for all these people, starting with “boy” and “girl,” and maybe it’s my imagination, but could it be she’s having a hard time accepting the words I offer because they don’t match her existing mental map?
More exposure is all she needs, of course… I certainly won’t make it any more complicated than that; I’ll just keep throwing natural English at her (I don’t speak to her in Chinese). But it’s certainly fun to watch her deft little brain running through these semantic mazes. With continued exposure, she’ll make it through, no matter what Chinese (or English) throws at her.
The Chinese word for “ice cream” is 冰淇淋 (bingqilin). [Somewhat annoyingly, it also has an alternate form: 冰激凌 (bingjiling), but we’re ignoring that one for the purposes of this pun.]
So from “bīngqílín” (冰淇淋) we get this:
Honestly, though, they could really be trying a little harder on the bling.
Via friend and ex-co-worker Jason, who’s new doing cool things at FluentU from Taiwan.
I have to give a quick recommendation to the readers out there that have been toying with the idea of learning a little classical Chinese: Chinese Texts. It’s actually more fun than you might expect.
Via Sinoscism, which offers this introduction:
> This course is intended for people who would like to learn how to read classical Chinese philosophy and history as expeditiously as possible. The professor is a specialist in early Chinese history. He is not a linguist, and offers no more discussion of grammatical particles and structures than is strictly necessary.
This may be true, but I find many of the grammatical explanations rather linguisticky. I don’t mind (and I’m sure they could be a lot more abstruse). I like how supplementary grammar examples given are short, to the point, and interesting.
Here’s an example:
> 而 ér
> This is one of the most common words in classical Chinese. It links phrases, not nouns. “And” or “but” is often a satisfactory translation. However, often the phrase preceding 而 is subordinate, so it should be translated as a participle indicating modification. Thus, in the first sentence of the Mencius, the King of Liáng says 不遠千里而來 “[You] came, not considering a thousand miles too far.” In such cases the first phrase describes a condition or background to the second, as in the English sentence “Peter, fully knowing the danger, entered the room.” In other cases the two phrases are co-ordinate, and the second phrase simply narrates what follows (from) the first.
This is also one of those little bits of classical Chinese that will help sophisticate your modern Chinese. We cover 而 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki in a number of patterns.
Another great example of classical Chinese common in written Chinese:
> 以 yĭ
> This character was originally a verb meaning “to take, to take up, to grab onto.” Thus “X 以 noun verb” would mean “X takes or grasps the noun and verbs,” hence “X uses noun to verb.” Thus 以口言 “speaks with the mouth (口 kŏu),” or 以心知 “knows with the heart/mind (心 xīn).”
> 以 also precedes verbs, in which case it usually acts as a conjunction meaning “in order to.” Thus 出門以見日 “to go out the door in order to see (見 jiàn) the sun,” 溫古以習之 “to review ancient times in order to become familiar with them.”
> One of the most common uses of 以 is in the phrase 以為 “to take and make, take and use as, take and regard as.” This phrase can also be divided to form 以 A 為 B, “to take A and make it into B, use it as B, regard it as B.” As the translations suggest, this action can be either physical—to take some object or substance and make it into something—or mental—to regard something as being something else. Thus 以木為門 “to take wood (木 mù) and make a gate,” 王以天下為家 “The king regards the whole world (天下 tiān xià) as his household (家 jiā),” 孔子以國為小 “Confucius considered the state to be small (小 xiăo),” 吾以為子不知之 “I thought that you didn’t know it.” This use of 以為, both as a unit and as separate words, is still common in modern Chinese.
(You can find 以 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki as well, of course.)
I’m just starting this online course (my education in classical Chinese is still spotty and very incomplete), but it came highly recommended by a friend, and what I’ve read so far I’ve enjoyed a lot.
Here’s another one for the “I can’t believe they named the product that” file (see also “Cat Crap Coffee“). This one has more of a cultural differences angle, with a little bit of translation difficulty thrown in for good measure.
There’s a brand of Chinese rice wine called 酒鬼酒. Here’s a picture of it:
酒 in Chinese, while often translated as “wine,” more generally means “alcohol.” Traditionally, it’s some kind of grain alcohol, like 白酒 (Chinese “white wine“).
A person who routinely drinks to excess is called a 酒鬼 in Chinese, which literally means “alcohol demon” or “alcohol devil” or “alcohol ghost,” depending on how you want to translate 鬼. It sounds pretty negative, but in fact, in Chinese culture this type of alcohol abuse is not nearly so stigmatized. Although the police forces of many regions in China have begun cracking down on drunk driving in recent years, alcoholism in China is not as closely linked in the public consciousness to vehicular manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, and the host of other evils as it often is in the west. In fact, regular heavy drinking is closely linked to some of China’s greatest poets, most famously 李白 (Li Bai).
Here’s 李白 getting his drink on:
So it’s more in the spirit of historical drunken poetry (as opposed to inebriated abusiveness) that this brand of Chinese rice wine is called 酒鬼酒.
Translating the brand name into English is a new challenge in itself, though. If you simply translate 酒鬼 as “alcoholic” and 酒 as “alcohol,” you get “Alcoholic Alcohol,” which sounds like it means “Alcohol that Contains Alcohol,” which is just plain dumb. In fact, you can’t use the word “alcoholic” as a modifier at all for that reason, so if you don’t want to ditch the noun “alcoholic” altogether you have to say something like “Alcohol for Alcoholics,” which sounds like some kind of horrible demented “charity” to my American ears.
This National Day holiday (October 1-7), the People’s Bank of China (中国人民银行) is doing some major work on its computer system which handles interbank transfers, and as a result, interbank transfers will not be possible for the entire vacation.
It strikes me as totally ridiculous (and incompetent) that such an important part of China’s banking system would need to be down for so long. One could hope that it’s the last big push the country’s banking system needs in order to be completely modernized and never require this kind of downtime again for interbank transfers (or anything else), but I’m not quite that hopeful.
The amusing silver lining of this incident is that Alipay (支付宝, Taobao’s payment service) is taking advantage of the business opportunity and sending out its own marketing message: “hey, you can’t do regular interbank transfers during the October holiday, but if you try Alipay instead, no transfer fees!”
Yesterday quite a stir was caused by an article on the South China Morning Post called EXCLUSIVE: China to lift ban on Facebook – but only within Shanghai free-trade zone. To be clear, though, it’s not just about Facebook:
> Beijing has made the landmark decision to lift a ban on internet access within the Shanghai Free-trade Zone to foreign websites considered politically sensitive by the Chinese government, including Facebook, Twitter and newspaper website The New York Times.
An unfiltered Internet? In Shanghai? Seriously?! For some of us, this is a total dream come true. I often say that filtered (and slow, as a result) Internet access in China is one of the most frustrating downsides to living in China as a foreigner. Maybe we should be more concerned about food safety, pollution, and social issues, but the truth is that Internet censorship directly affects us (and our businesses) every single day.
OK, but first, let’s be clear about what this so-called “Shanghai FTZ” really is:
> Shanghai Free-trade Zone is the first Hong Kong-like free trade area in mainland China. The plan was first announced by the government in July and it was personally endorsed by Premier Li Keqiang who said he wanted to make the zone a snapshot of how China can upgrade its economic structure. Other mainland cities and provinces including Tianjin and Guangdong have also lobbied Beijing for such approvals. The Shanghai FTZ will first span 28.78 square kilometres in the city’s Pudong New Area, including the Waigaoqiao duty-free zone and Yangshan port and it is believed it may eventually expand to cover the entire Pudong district which covers 1,210.4 sq km of land.
OK, so it’s not all of Shanghai, it’s just a corner of Pudong. Bummer. But one could hope that such a haven of free internet access right in Shanghai could be expanded over time… or at least exploited by the entire city. It does give one hope.
Lastly, I’m reminded of a quote here:
Here’s hoping for the best!