Jun 2010

Misgivings about SRS

Earlier this year the Global Times did an article on using SRS (spaced repetition software) technology to “Learn Chinese in a flash.” The journalist interviewed both me and Dr. Orlando Kelm about the issue, but most of what we said didn’t actually make it into the article. I’m going to use the content of that exchange to finally address my misgivings about SRS.

My SRS misgivings are grouped into three main points below, and I’ve added in some of Dr. Kelm’s input, with his permission.

SRS is a way to enhance your language studies, not a substitution for them

Back in the good old days, we students used to take our vocabulary lists and make flashcards out of them. As we amassed stacks and stacks of these flashcards, it was hard to systematically review them properly, and to keep track of which stacks of cards had which vocabulary. SRS completely solves this problem with a tidy little review algorithm and a feedback mechanism which you interact with as you review your vocabulary. This is great. Those of us who were too lazy to create stacks and stacks of flashcards can now feel vindicated; we will never have to, because technology has saved us from all that arduous flashcard management.

The problem, however, is that SRS is sometimes over-emphasized to the point that it almost seems like a “language acquisition method.” Especially for the analytical-minded, it can be easy to get lost in the efficiency of the review system and all the pretty stats, forgetting that memorization of vocabulary is only one part of language acquisition. If the SRS-obsessed student is not getting plenty of natural target language input and speaking practice, he’ll end up the linguistic equivalent of the guy at the gym with bulging upper body musculature but pencil legs.

Dr. Kelm warns against the “one method for everything” approach as well:

It seems like every time we discover something that is good in one area (e.g., SRS that helps in aiding rote memorization) the tendency is to try to apply it in every other area (e.g., speaking a foreign language). I have seen the same thing with lots of second language theories. For example TPR (total physical response) is a theory where people are supposed to physically use their senses while learning a language (actually open a door when saying “I open the door”, actually taste the food when they say “I am eating a banana). Great, TPR may be OK in some instances, but then people try to apply TPR to every aspect of language learning. It just gets crazy after a while. To me the same issue comes up with SRS. Just because it is good for rote memorization, doesn’t mean that it will be good for all aspects of language learning.

Dr. Kelm reminds us about what else is important that is outside the realm of SRS :

The biggest issue here, as related some of the limitations of SRS, is that of input vs intake, schema theory, and scripts. A gigantic part of language learning is related to CONTEXT. I’m sure there are times when you can recall the exact moment when you heard a new phrase in Chinese, learned a new word, or did something in another language.

For example, last month when I was in China a seller came up to our car and asked my guide if he wanted to buy something. All he said to the seller was “mai bu qi” (I can’t afford that). For me it was the perfect moment because I saw how a native speaker reacts to the sellers. Where I would have just said “bu yao” or “bu yong“, there was something cool about hearing “mai bu qi“. The phrase stuck in my mind and I’ll be able to use it from here on out. This is a great example of how context affects our learning. The more we can create context for learners, the better we retain the foreign language. Note that this is not related to frequency of occurrence or frequency of review (principles of SRS), but more to the impact of the moment. SRS doesn’t necessarily take this feature into account.

Second, language learning also happens in chunks and people learn these chunks in scripts that we follow. For example, if you go to a fast food restaurant to make an order, at some point the cashier will say “Is that for here or to go?” You know the pattern, you expect this question to come up, and so you are prepared to answer it. Even if you don’t hear the question exactly, you can still guess at what was said. It’s part of the “script” that we all follow when ordering fast food. When language learning relates to these chunks and scripts, it helps to make things stick. Note again that this is not related to the frequency of occurrence and isn’t where SRS will shine. (I should probably add that ChinesePod does a really good job of creating short dialogs that help provide this context and simulate these scripts. They recycle vocabulary in various contexts well.)

SRS and the DIY factor

Creating flashcards is a meaningful activity in itself. The act of creating the cards, with each word carefully scrawled by the student (and maybe even a picture or two!) contributes to the learning. Anyone who has ever used flashcards can tell you there’s a big difference between making your own and buying pre-made flashcards.

Ideally, the words and sentences added to your SRS come from your own experience, or from the material you are personally interested in studying. This makes the learning more personal and the results more satisfying. Many students, however, are reviewing ready-made vocabulary lists, pre-loaded into the SRS. This type of review isn’t worthless, but because the learner’s degree of involvement is so much lower, each word’s “memory imprint” is much fainter. It’s also much easier to simply toss aside and forget a digital “stack” of flashcards that took 3 seconds to download, compared to a personalized list one has invested time and effort into.

Using SRS well is a skill

This is the part that no one really expects, because it’s nice to think that technology has solved our problems. The truth is that using SRS effectively is an entirely new skill. I mentioned already that ready-made decks are less likely to be effective, but even an active learner carefully looking up new words and adding them to SRS (with some context) can easily go wrong.

I’ll give you a personal example. I was reading a Lu Xun story, and it contained a fair amount of vocabulary with which I was unfamiliar. After looking up the new words, I dutifully copied them into Anki (my SRS client of choice). There was a fair amount of vocabulary just from that Lu Xun story. Over time, I found that the Lu Xun vocabulary just wasn’t sticking. The words were semi-archaic, and I had virtually no chance of running into them in my modern daily life in Shanghai. I found they were useful only for reading Lu Xun (or possibly other Chinese literature of that era), and yet I wasn’t spending a lot of time reading that literature. The vocabulary was effectively “clogging up” my SRS review sessions as I had to repeatedly review those words, which meant I had less time to spend on review of more useful vocabulary, and I was rapidly losing motivation to use SRS altogether. When I found myself going a week or more without doing any review at all, I eventually realized that I had effectively killed my review sessions and needed an “Anki Reset.”

Including too much obscure “recognition only” material is not the only pitfall; other typical mistakes include lack of sufficient context, overly long sentence examples, and insufficient consideration of what is actually useful in one’s active vocabulary. It’s the memorization of vocabulary which one is able to actually use in conversation that is the most satisfying, after all. Failure to accomplish this essentially amounts to “vocabulary hoarding,” not proficiency in the target language.

Since using SRS properly is a skill which must be practiced, it demands time in itself. Learning to use SRS well and getting into the the habit of using it will take time, which could otherwise be devoted to listening or speaking practice. Is it worth it? For some, the answer is an unabashed yes, yes, a thousands times YES! but for many students the answer is not so clear-cut.


Jun 2010

Chinese Restaurant Worldwide Documentation Project

I recently stumbled across this Flickr group called Chinese Restaurant Worldwide Documentation Project. It has this intriguing description:

> Chinese Restaurants – Worldwide, except China and Taiwan. Here you’ll find the culture ‘clash’ and culture ‘mash’ with all the societies they have adapted to.

Below are a few examples of photos from the group pool, taken at locations all over the world.

Genoa, Italy:

Santa Cruz, Bolivia:

Brooklyn, New York, USA:

Antwerp, Belgium:

Aguas Calientes, Peru:

Paphos, Cyprus:

Of course, there are many more in the pool.


Jun 2010

Quotes from Tales of Old Peking

It’s been a while since I got my copy of Tales of Old Peking. I’ve taken my time going through it. It’s a patient a book, its contents largely magazine-style, most articles only indirectly related to each other. A book like this doesn’t demand your attention or keep you frantically turning those pages until the end. But it’s still a fascinating collection of accounts of old Beijing, through the eyes of foreigners. Below are a few of the quotes I enjoyed the most:

On the City

Page 92:

> I visited Peking about thirty years ago. On my return I found it unchanged, except that it was thirty times dirtier, the smells thirty times more insufferable, and the roads thirty times worse for the wear. —Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, The Breakup of China, 1899

Page 14:

> … But in spite of so much that disgusts and offends one in this wreck of an imperial city, who can deny the charm of Peking, that unique and most fascinating city of the East! –Lady Susan Townley in My Chinese Note Book, 1904

Page 135:

> …if you have once lived in Peking, if you have ever stayed here long enough to fall under the charm and interest of this splendid barbaric capital, if you have once seen the temples and glorious monuments of Chili, all other parts of China seem dull and second rate… when you have seen the best there is, everything else is anticlimax. –Ellen N. LaMotte, Peking Dust, 1919

I may be a member of the Shanghai faction, but I’m not totally immune to the charms of Beijing either.

On Foreigners in China

Page 26:

> As I am here and watch, I do not wonder that the Chinese hate the foreigner. The foreigner is frequently severe and exacting in this Empire which is not his own. He often treats the Chinese as though they were dogs and had no rights whatever – no wonder that they growl and sometimes bite. —Sarah Pike Conger, Feb. 1, 1899

Page 72:

> He has been in Peking nearly four months now, in a comfortable Chinese house studying Chinese history, smoking opium in spite of the prohibition, and frequenting only the Chinese with whom he appears thoroughly at home. He is really very original. –D. de Martel & L. de Hover, Silhouettes of Peking, 1926

The more things change, the more they stay the same?


Jun 2010

Pinyin Tooltips: a Plugin Is Coming

Over the years, I’ve been asked by quite a few people about how I do the pinyin mouseover tooltips on Sinosplice. (Here’s an example: 中文.) It’s a combination of HTML, CSS, and javascript, none of it terribly complicated. (My friend Brad helped me with the javascript parts.)

Anyway, now that Sinosplice has been redesigned, it feels like it’s time to do the tooltips right: as a WordPress plugin. That way WordPress upgrades will be (mostly?) unaffected, and I can easily share the tool with other bloggers. I’m working with a developer now to create the plugin, free and opensource.

Basically what it will do is:

– Add the CSS you need, giving you a few options
– Add the javascript you need
– Add a quicktag to the HTML text editor to facilitate addition of tooltip code

The good part is that the effect is general enough that it doesn’t have to be pinyin-specific, meaning it could work for regular English blogs, blogs about Japanese, etc. I know there are a few WP tooltip plugins out there, but none of them offer quite what I want, as a blogger frequently writing about Chinese for learners.

I’ll be presenting the idea at Shanghai Barcamp tomorrow; maybe I’ll get some good ideas there. Good ideas are always welcome in the comments, too, of course!


Jun 2010

Barcamp, ShanghaiSolved

I’ve been especially busy with AllSet Learning lately. Lots of exciting developments there; pretty soon I’ll be starting up a news blog for that site. If you’re in Shanghai and interested, it’s a good time to get in touch.

Next Saturday I’ll be attending Shanghai Barcamp. I meant to do it these past two years, but never quite got around to it. Third time’s a charm, I guess? ChinesePod CEO Hank will be there, as well as Xindanwei CEO Liu Yan. I expect to see some other familiar faces, such as Micah and Kellen. Should be a thought-provoking, geeky day.

I noticed one of the sponsors of Barcamp this time is ShanghaiSolved. I’ve heard this idea before, and this implementation looks pretty good. Basically, some people ask questions about Shanghai, and other people answer them. Kinda like Ask Metafilter, or Yahoo Answers, or Aardvark, but just for Shanghai. I’m curious to see if this will take off. It’s got some questions up, about “must-see places” and rock climbing and VPNs, but there’s not a ton of activity yet. (Maybe it’s the picture of Haibao in the header that’s driving people away?)


May 2010

Creative Chinese Character Art

In a recent post, Deconstructing the Chinese Character Creativity of Japan, I highlighted some creative work with Chinese characters by Japanese artists. What I didn’t say at the time was, “I wish the Chinese themselves would do more stuff like this.” Well, they are, and just recently I saw some great examples of it, first sent in by reader, and then later on Kaixin Wang (China’s Facebook).

I’m not going to deconstruct them like last time, because these are just way too complex. Just keep in mind that the squares and circles framing many of them are not actually a part of the characters like they were in the Japanese designs.

Creative Chinese Character Art


A Chinese Take on the Baseball Metaphor for Sex and Dating


May 2010

A Chinese Take on the Baseball Metaphor for Sex and Dating

Most Americans are familiar with the “base system” baseball metaphor for physical intimacy. If you’re not familiar with it, you might check out this XKCD comic for the complicated version, or this excerpt from baseball metaphors for sex from Wikipedia:

  1. First base is commonly understood to be any form of mouth to mouth kissing, especially open lip (“French”) kissing.
  2. Second base refers to tactile stimulation of the genitals over clothes, or of the female breasts.
  3. Third base refers to groping naked genitals (handjob or fingering), or oral sex.
  4. Home run (or rounding the bases, scoring a run, hitting a home run, scoring, going all the way, coming home, etc.) is the act of penetrative intercourse.

For the visual-oriented among us, here’s a graphic (adapted from XKCD’s complex version):

The base system (USA)

I can understand that a country little love for baseball might be confused by this metaphor system. Apparently even Europeans are confused by it. However, some people in China have picked it up, but in the process changed the system (reference link removed due to malware at destination website]):

  1. “一垒”代表拉手,
  2. “二垒”代表拥抱,
  3. “三垒”代表亲亲,
  4. “本垒”代表XX


  1. “First base” represents holding hands,
  2. “Second base” represents hugging,
  3. “Third base” represents kissing,
  4. “Home” represents _____

Clearly, this is a whole ‘nother ballgame the Chinese are playing, and their playing field looks like this when superimposed onto the American field:

The base system (China)

So much for “rounding the bases!”

Thanks to Marco from EnglishPod for bringing this interesting cultural difference to my attention!


May 2010

Orlando Kelm on Language Power Struggles

To follow up my recent massive post on Language Power Struggles, I’d like to highlight the responses of Dr. Orlando Kelm, a professor of linguistics, teacher of many years, and learner of multiple languages. Dr. Kelm’s experience is largely with Portuguese and Spanish, but he’s also studied Japanese and Chinese, among other languages.

Dr. Kelm’s three main points were:

1. Chinese perception of use of English: There is something interesting about Chinese adoption of Putonghua as a lingua franca, despite all of the regional dialects and local languages. As related to use of English, it’s almost as if people accept their local language for personal interactions and Putonghua for official interactions. From there it is a small leap to English for professional interactions. Recently when in Beijing I visited a multinational engineering company, German-owned even, but the official language at work was English. It was amazing to see rooms full of Chinese engineers, most who had never been out of China, all using English to talk to each other at work. It certainly strengthened my understanding of the way English was perceived as a professional tool, no different in some ways from switching among c++, php, html, or java.

2. Our skewed view: My guess is that the type of person who is interested in this blog represents a minority. No doubt, most of the world probably confronts mono-lingual English speakers who assume and demand English for all communication. Our frustration with people who want to speak English with us is most likely counterbalanced with a frustrated world that feels obligated to speak English, even when they feel inadequate in doing so.

3. John asked if my experience in Latin America (with Spanish and Portuguese) was similar to his in China with Chinese. The short answer is no, not really. Indeed I have run across people who insist on practicing English with me, and from a professional end English is everywhere, but the aggressive power struggle seems less in Latin America. My guess as to why… well, first I believe that Latin Americans think that English speakers who do not speak Spanish are just unmotivated or lazy, people who could learn it if they really wanted to. On the other hand, Chinese think of their language as “more difficult”. Deep down they must think that it’s easier for them to learn English than it is for ‘us’ to learn Chinese. Add that to the items mentioned by all of these blog comments, and we see that despite John’s cool proficiency charts, language proficiency is only part of choosing which language is used.

Really interesting answers. Thanks, Dr. Kelm! (For more of Dr. Kelm’s observations, please visit his blog.)

Thank you also to all the readers that pitched in and shared your own observations. You’re certainly correct in that there are way more factors at play than I brought up in the original post. It’s been enlightening bringing it all together from so many different perspectives.

Language Power Struggles


May 2010

Language Power Struggles

The idea of the “linguistic power struggle” is one I’ve been dealing with and thinking about for a long time. I’ve made some attempts to find scholarly research on the subject, looking into discourse analysis (which is often concerned with power), expectancy violations theory, and communication accommodation theory, but so far I’ve turned up very little (even outside of Wikipedia!). Thus the discussion which follows will be mostly descriptive and anecdotal, but will raise more questions than it answers.

First, a typical example of the language power struggle. The dialog below is taken from a ChinesePod lesson aptly titled Language Power Struggle. I directed the creation of this fictional dialog two years ago, drawing on my own real experiences and those of other friends in China. The content in square brackets [like this] is a translation of the original Chinese. Note that the Chinese person speaks mostly English, while the American speaks only Chinese.

American: [Hello, can I sit here?]

Chinese: Sure, nice to meet you.

American: [I’m also really glad to meet you.]

Chinese: Your Chinese is very good.

American: [Not at all!]

Chinese: How long have you been to China?

American: [I’ve been in China for more than two years. I’m studying Chinese.]

Chinese: Oh, you are learning Chinese?

American: [I want to work in China, so I need to learn Chinese.]

Chinese: Oh. I think Chinese is very difficult for you. How do you feel this bar?

American: [It’s not bad. It’s just that nobody will speak Chinese with me, so I’m a little disappointed.]

Chinese: Ha ha! You are very serious!

American: [Because I want to practice more, so that I can learn Chinese more quickly.]

Chinese: I want to practice English. In Chinese, we say “[learn from each other]”, you know?

American: [I know. But in China we should be speaking Chinese.]

Chinese: I like talking English with you.

American: [Heh heh, then you should go to America. I came to China just to learn Chinese.]

Chinese: I want to go to America. Let’s be friends. Can you give me your mobile number?

American: [Sorry, I’ve got to go.]

The root of the conflict is quite clear: the American guy wants to speak Chinese, while the Chinese guy wants to speak English. There are quite a few issues contained within this small dialog, though. Below I’ll get into more details.



May 2010

The Challenges Chinese Teachers Face in the USA

The worldwide boom in Chinese study has resulted in a greater demand for Chinese teachers. China is the natural supply, and thus the Chinese government is working hard to train teachers and send them abroad to teach. I’ve heard from numerous sources (including people in the Hanban, an organization which oversees the governments efforts at teaching the world Chinese) that schools are often disappointed with the Chinese teachers sent to them. American schools feel that while the teachers may know about the Chinese language, they are much too traditional in their teaching styles. They just don’t connect with American students very well.

It was interesting, then, to get the other side of the story. ChinaGeeks recently wrote about Teaching Chinese (and China) in the United States, and linked to a great New York Times article: Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America. C. Custer makes some great observations, and his article is well worth a read.

Reading the NYTimes article, Ms. Zheng’s disappointment and frustration is palpable. Clearly, culture is a huge issue; the challenges faced cannot be explained away by outdated teaching methodologies.

> Still, Ms. Zheng said she believed that teachers got little respect in America.

> “This country doesn’t value teachers, and that upsets me,” she said. “Teachers don’t earn much, and this country worships making money. In China, teachers don’t earn a lot either, but it’s a very honorable career.”

And yes, there are also a few ironies in this article that anyone familiar with China will appreciate.


May 2010







Fetion Integrates SMS Text Messaging with the PC


May 2010

Fetion Integrates SMS Text Messaging with the PC

The idea of being able to send or receive cell phone text messages on a computer is not a new one, but this Chinese software called “Fetion” (飞信 in Chinese, literally, “flying letter”) is new to me. In a recent AllSet Learning teacher training session, we were discussing various types of technology for learning, including ChinesePod, Anki, and Skritter, when 飞信 came up (weird English name: “Fetion”).

For now, Fetion is PC only, although it also has mobile versions. Its “smartphone” version is aimed at Windows Mobile users, not Android or iPhone users. This all makes a lot of sense if Fetion is targeting a younger Chinese demographic rather than professionals.

Fetion mixes social networking properties with communications management properties. One of the benefits it boasts is the ability to store all of your text messages offline on your computer (which Google Voice is currently doing in the US, but in the cloud). Here are the features listed on the Fetion website’s 特性 page:

– A multi-platform system means you’re always reachable
– Free text messaging
– Super-cheap rates for group voice chat
– File-sharing
– Anti-harassment security functionality
– 24/7 customer service

I’ve got to say, this doesn’t seem especially impressive; this technology has been around for a while. It seems that Fetion has caught on with a sizable userbase, however. I’m curious how far it will go.

Have you used Fetion? What are your experiences with it? Is it useful? Do any of your Chinese friends use 飞信?


May 2010

Shanghai Sculpture Park is pretty awesome

OK, so its name isn’t terribly appealing, its logo is questionable, and it doesn’t even seem to have a website, but Shanghai Sculpture Park (上海月湖雕塑公园) impressed me. At a time when everyone else was heading to the Expo grounds, my wife and I, together with a few friends and our dogs, headed to the Sheshan (佘山) area outside Shanghai, where Shanghai Sculpture Park is located.

OK, so what is cool about this park? Here are some reasons I liked it:

1. You can take your dog. You actually have to buy a ticket for your dog (it’s 30 RMB), but there aren’t many places in Shanghai you can legally take your dog. Most people in the park seemed comfortable with dogs roaming around, and the whole place was quite clean (no doggy “land mines”). It seems to me this is “dog park” done right.

2. The place is huge. We stayed in a small area of the park, but it’s really quite big [map link]. I’m sure there were a lot of people there, but since they were so spread out, it didn’t seem crowded at all.

3. Giant bouncy hills! OK, this is a little hard to explain, and I’d never seen these anywhere before. But one of the attractions is this cross between a cluster of hills, an air-filled moonwalk, and a trampoline. It was a ton of fun. It was a great place for someone even as tall and goofy as me to attempt front flips, although I had to be sort of careful, because as badass as a flying trampoline head-butt is, I doubt it would be appreciated by the little 5-year-old tykes roaming around (or their parents). Pictures below.

Bouncy Hills

Bouncy Hills

Bouncy Hills

Does anyone know what these are called? I think I remember seeing the word “Fuma” on the sign, and this Chinese BBS thread uses the term 大型弹性球 (“giant bouncy sphere”). Anyway, I highly recommend it… the bouncing and the hills make for a really fun combination.

The park also has those things I once referred to as “hamster balls on water.” It looks like they used to have the spherical kind, but now they use a cylindrical kind. This appear to be a bit more stable, but honestly they look much less fun. Wasn’t the whole point that you couldn’t stay on your feet for longer than one second before you fell over thrashing and sent your ball splashing out across the water? The new cylindrical ones are also pictured in this Chinese BBS thread.

A few more things I should mention on the con side…

1. Shanghai Sculpure Park is a bit expensive. The normal price is 120 RMB per adult. Tickets were sold at a discount for 80 RMB each over the vacation. We spent over 300 RMB for a Chinese-style DIY BBQ lunch. On the pro side, though, the high price means it won’t be too crowded (unlike certain Expos I know).

2. The park closes at 5pm. Why so early?? I have no idea. It’s a bit of a bummer.

3. It’s all the way out in Sheshan. Yes, it’s somewhat far. It’s actually right next to the new Shanghai amusement park, Shanghai Happy Valley (欢乐谷). There’s just more space out there.

4. If you spend too long on the giant bouncy hills in your bare feet, you might just develop huge blisters on your toes. Yes, I can personally attest to the veracity of this statement. You really don’t want me to show you.

If you make it out to Shanghai Sculpture Park (上海月湖雕塑公园), let me know what you think.


Apr 2010

The Calm before the Expo

The Shanghai 2010 World Expo officially kicks off tomorrow. It would be an understatement to say that “Shanghai has been hyping the Expo a lot.” I’ve been taking pictures of various Haibao sightings and a few other Expo-related scenes over the past few months, but it’s finally all coming to a head.

For all the hype that’s been building up, though, there’s been at least as much cause for concern. I’m getting reports from multiple sources that the Expo is disorganized, that it’s a mess, that it’s chaotic, that it will take a miracle for it to not be a disaster. These latest Chinglish pictures don’t exactly inspire confidence that it will be a “world-class event.” Then again, the Chinese do have a way of pulling things off at the last minute. I don’t want the Expo to be an epic fail, but it could certainly happen.

Either way, it’s going to be interesting.


Apr 2010

Deconstructing the Chinese Character Creativity of Japan

Pink Tentacle recently did a post showcasing Japanese town logos which make prominent use of kanji (Chinese characters in the Japanese written language). These designs totally blew my mind. I love seeing creative manipulation of Chinese characters, so this stuff was pure gold.

Be warned, though; some of these are a bit hard to make out if (1) you don’t know what character(s) you’re supposed to be looking at, and (2) you don’t have significant experience with Chinese characters. Below I’ll explain a few of the designs to make them a bit more accessible.

I’ll start easy. This one is cool because it’s not hard to make out, and it has an easily recognized source of inspiration:


This next one is actually two characters, but both are fairly easy to recognize (they’re just a bit chubbier than usual), and they have the added benefit of resembling a Japanese robot! Nice.


Two characters again (八 returns!), but this time a decidedly asymmetrical character is forced into a symmetrical design, with interesting results.


Now we’re getting a little crazy. This very stylized logo turns a line into a circle and a box into a triangle. It takes a bit of mind-bending to see it.

西 (nishi)

This one is probably my favorite (overlooking any similarity to the logos of past fascist regimes).

茨 (ibara)

So it turns out learning character components can have interesting applications after all. Be sure to check out all the other logos on Pink Tentacle. There are plenty more good ones.


Apr 2010

New Online Chinese Resources Links

I figured it was about time I set up a page with links to the Chinese learning resources I personally find most valuable and regularly use. So it’s up: Online Chinese Resources.

A few notes:

– I work for ChinesePod and think it’s great, so yeah, I’m going to recommend it. This should not be a big surprise. I’m aware of quite a few podcast alternatives, and I’ve listened to a few, but I have very limited actual experience with them.

– The list is not exhaustive; there are plenty of monstrous ones out there, and the problem is that they’re all way too long. This one is pretty short, and based on my own experience, which is what makes it useful.

– I am open to suggestions, but I won’t add anything until I’ve had a chance to check it out and spend enough time with it to decide it’s a must-have resource.

I’ll be updating the list pretty regularly, but I intend to keep it brief.


Apr 2010

The Wall Street Journal on Chinese Humor

I’ve been interested in Chinese humor for a while. Most recently, I’ve written about a few Chinese comics and Shanghainese stand-up comedian Zhou Libo. So I was quite interested in the Wall Street Journal’s take, which is initially about Chinese comedian Joe Wong. Apparently Joe Wong’s comedy works in the U.S. but not in China. It’s not your typical cross-cultural story.

This is the part which caught my attention (emphasis mine):

> Younger audiences are starting to warm to the stand-up style, with a Chinese twist. There are footnotes: after the punch line comes an explanation of why it’s funny.

> In Shanghai, Zhou Libo’s stand-up show has become a top event. His repertoire spans global warming, growing up poor and, that perennial crowd-pleaser, China’s emergence as a global economic power.

> He jokes about China’s massive purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds: “I am really confused about why a poor guy lends money to the rich. We should just divide the money amongst ourselves,” he says. “But on a second thought, each of us would only get a couple of dollars!” Then Mr. Zhou adds: “Because the population is so big.”

This is one of the observations I made in 2004 in a post titled When Humor Runs Aground, in which I give an example of a Chinese joke, with the punchline and also the “post-punchline explanation.”

I’d be interesting in seeing more examples of this “post-punchline explanation.” From a sociolinguistic perspective, I wonder how universal it is, and if it follows certain rules. More examples are welcome!


Apr 2010

Gag Chinese Documents (very official-looking!)

I was quite amused to stumble upon a whole array of fake (but humorous) Chinese documents last weekend. The documents adopt the official style of Chinese 证书 (official documents), but the names are a lot more fun. Here are the three I bought (for 5 RMB each):

Three Gag Certificates

The three types of documents above, left to right, are:

美女证 (Babe Certificate); “PLMM” stands for “漂亮妹妹” (pretty girl)
帅哥证 (Cute Guy Certificate)
白痴证 (Moron Certificate); “SB” stands for “傻屄” which I’ll politely translate as “dumbass”

There were at least 10 different types, including things like “World’s Best Mom,” “World’s Best Dad,” “Certified Genius,” “Certified Virgin,” etc.

The insides even look official, with space for a photo:

白痴证: Inside

For comparison purposes, here are some real Chinese certificates, collected from the internet:

Chinese Official Documents

I can’t imagine the government will be particularly happy about these things, especially with the Expo looming. I wouldn’t be surprised if these became scarce really quickly (especially in Shanghai).

Looks like my Flickr photos aren’t showing up for the time being; you can thank the GFW for that. The photos are viewable via proxy.


Apr 2010

The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon’s Chinese

A few weeks ago, a series of clips from The Big Bang Theory, Season 1, Episode 17 became popular on various Chinese sites. In the episode, brainy theoretical physicist Sheldon says he has decided to learn Mandarin because:

> I believe the Szechuan Palace has been passing off orange chicken as tangerine chicken, and I intend to confront them.

Here’s the clip (on Tudou):

To someone who knows no Chinese, this episode works fine. However, native speakers of Mandarin will have trouble following a lot of what Sheldon is trying to say. Although most of the first scene would be easy to follow, a combination of inaccurate pronunciation and bizarre word choices in later scenes make the subtitles a necessity for even native speakers of Mandarin. (I forced my wife to watch this clip with the subtitles covered up, and she could only understand a few of the lines, even listening multiple times. You can also find more than one “what the heck is he saying??” conversations on the Chinese internet, like this one.) The Chinese clip adds Chinese subtitles, but some of them are inaccurate. The play-by-play is below.


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