Blog


04

Feb 2010

Website Upgrade in Progress

Comments are now temporarily suspended on all blog posts as I prepare to move Sinosplice completely off DreamHost and onto WebFaction, my new host [more info].

On the new host Sinosplice will be sporting a new look (although much will remain the same… especially for you RSS readers!). Still simple and minimalist, but more professional and up-to-date, executed by Ryan of Dao By Design, the China blogosphere’s designer of choice.

Ryan and I will be tweaking the new site over the weekend, so if all goes well the new design will go live and comments will come back on Sunday, February 7th.


02

Feb 2010

The 3-2 Tone Swap Error

This post identifies a type of tonal production error which many students of Mandarin Chinese make, not only in the beginner and elementary stages, but often well into the intermediate stage. While neither years of personal observation nor the multiple appearances in the audio data for my master’s thesis experiment constitute definitive evidence, it’s my belief that the phenomenon is real, and examining it can yield useful results for both students and teachers of Mandarin Chinese. I’m dubbing the error the “3-2 Tone Swap.”

The Error

Note that the term “error” is used in the error analysis sense, meaning that it is committed systematically, and is not merely a random mistake (which even native speakers make from time to time).

The error occurs, in two-syllable words, when the tonal pattern is 3-2. Many students will pronounce the 3-2 tone pattern incorrectly as 2-3. Some typical examples:

– 美国 (Correct: Měiguó, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: Méiguǒ)
– 法国 (Correct: Fǎguó, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: Fáguǒ)
– 五十 (Correct: wǔshí, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: wúshǐ)
– 可怜 (Correct: kělián, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: kéliǎn)

Personal History

I remember quite clearly when I discovered myself committing the 3-2 Tone Swap error. I had learned the word 可怜 (kělián) in Hangzhou from a friend. But I noticed that although I had “learned” the word, every time I tried to use it, my friend would correct my pronunciation. “No, it’s ‘kělián,’ not ‘kéliǎn.'” This was extremely frustrating for me, because I thought I had learned the word, and I was pronouncing it wrong even when I knew that the tones were 3-2. At the time I dismissed it as just a “problem word” that I would get eventually.

Around this time I became super-vigilant about my tones. I realized that although I was communicating pretty well, I was still making a lot of tone mistakes. Part of this new awareness came when I realized that native speakers were correcting me all the time using recasts, but I had previously been oblivious to it.

A typical conversation went like this:

> Native Chinese speaker: 你是哪个国家的? [Which country are you from?]

> Me: 美国。 [The USA.]

> Native Chinese speaker: 哦,美国,是吗? [Oh, the USA, huh?]

> Me: 对。 [Right.]

After having this same exchange about a million times, I had started to assume that it was just a natural conversational pattern in Chinese to have your country repeated back to you for verification. Yeah, it seems a little strange and inefficient, but there are stranger features of the Chinese language.

What I eventually came to realize, however, was that when I gave my answer, 美国, I was routinely mispronouncing it as *”Méiguǒ” (3-2 Tone Swap error), and then the other person was both (1) confirming the information and (2) modeling it for me in his response, which included the correct form “Měiguó” (a classic recast).

When I finally realized this, it sort of blew my mind. I had thought my tones were already pretty good, but I had been pronouncing the name of my own country wrong all this time?? Learning Mandarin Chinese is, if nothing else, an exercise in humility. There was nothing to do but hunker down and try to reform my pronunciation. While I found it easier to focus on high-frequency words like 美国, it quickly became apparent to me that the 3-2 tone swap issue was rampant in my pronunciation.

Research

Although the 3-2 Tone Swap phenomenon cropped up in my own experiment on tonal pairs for my masters thesis, it was not the focus of my own research. If anyone knows of specific research done on this phenomenon, I would love to hear about it.

The data in my own experiment showed some interesting patterns. While errors in 3-2 tonal pairs were clearly more common than in the other two tonal pairs I examined (1-1 and 2-4), there were some inconsistencies. Namely:

1. Errors were notably less frequent for numbers (e.g. 50, “wǔshí”)
2. Errors were less frequent for one’s own country (e.g. “Měiguó”, “Fǎguó”)

While all subjects illustrated the first trend, the second was particularly well demonstarted by an intermediate-level French subject, who routinely pronounced “Fǎguó” [France] correctly, despite the existence of a 3-2 tonal pair, but then also routinely pronounced “Měiguó” [The United States] incorrectly as *”Méiguǒ” (the 3-2 Tone Swap).

What this suggests is that although some tonal pairs seem to take longer to master, the mastery is not categorical. In other words, you don’t suddenly “get” the pronunciation pattern and then just switch over to correct 3-2 pronunciation for all words where it occurs. Acquisition of the 3-2 tonal pair appears to be occur more on a word-by-word basis, making it largely a matter of practice, practice, practice (which also explains the better performance with numbers). This mirrors my own experiences.

Questions

Tonal mastery is a long process for most students, with the 3-2 tone pair appearing to be one of the last patterns to acquire. Why?

I suspect that there is a relationship between the 3-2 Tone Swap error and the 3-3 tone sandhi (in which 3-3 tonal pairs are systematically converted to 2-3). The learners that exhibit the 3-2 Tone Swap error typically do very well with their 3-3 sandhi. Could learners be internalizing but then overextending the 3-3 tone sandhi rule to include not only 3-3 pairs, but also 3-2 pairs? It’s certainly possible.

Again, if anyone knows of any research into the above phenomena, I would appreciate links or more information!


31

Jan 2010

A Peek at Shanghai’s Suzhou Creek Art District

I’ve recently made two trips to Shanghai’s Suzhou Creek Art District (more info). It’s in the Moganshan Road area (Google map), and it’s probably easiest reached by taking the subway (Line 1) to the Shanghai Train Station, then Changshou Road west over Suzhou Creek, then making a right, following the creek north. The road there deadends into a complex of buildings which make up the art district. You’ll see a bunch of graffiti as you head in.

Some of the graffiti in the area:

Tiger Art along Suzhou Creek

Shanghai Graffiti Shanghai Graffiti

The when I went just this month I checked out the work of a an art collective called Liu Dao (六岛), AKA island6. The group likes to mix traditional art forms with newer media, like animated LED displays. Quite interesting (check out their website for examples).

Yesterday I checked out the exhibits at “Things from the gallery warehouse 2” [PDF intro].

> In the Fiction between 1999 & 2000 (2000), Hu Jieming takes on a more universal challenge, the daunting proliferation of media and information engendered by the Internet. Hu’s huge information labyrinth is constructed from screen captures collected from across the Web and network television during the twenty-four-hour period from midnight of December 31, 1999, to midnight of January 1, 2000. It represents the difficulties we all face in navigating through a world where information can be empowering, but only if we can filter through the barrage of useless images and texts that cloud our minds and dull our instincts. Hu asks, “What will we choose to do when we are controlled by information and lose ourselves?”

The TV image maze-cube

Mark Kitto in Art

I liked this one a lot… The piece actually makes up a maze that you can wander through. There are so many screen captures which make its point rather well: there’s no way you can look at it all. You find yourself wanting to just get out before too long. Nicely done.

This other piece, Massage Chairs, while perhaps less aesthetically appealing, answers an engineering question I’ve always had: what, exactly is inside those electric massage chairs?? The massage chairs below were stripped of their padding, the moving parts laid bare, but still powered up and moving.

IMAG0115 IMAG0117 IMAG0119 IMAG0116

> Massage Chairs – Then Edison’s Direct Current was surrendered To the Alternating Current (2003) consists of six massage chairs of various designs – found objects, readymades – stripped of their upholstery. Still in operation, their mechanisms are clearly visible, the cogs and belts moving the various shapes intended to knead and gently pummel the backs of human bodies requiring relaxation. Without their padding and soft surfaces, the chairs themselves are skeletal, strangely anthropomorphic and not unreminiscent of electric chairs. The sounds they emit,
the whirrings and rhythmical clickings echo ominously in the gallery interiors they now occupy, evoking a response that is a far cry from any of the desired effects of massage.

Finally, the pieces at Mr. Iron were really fun and imaginative. It’s that style where sculptures are created out of old scrap metal. Some of them were really amazing, and quite a few are strongly commercial (see the site’s classics section for examples.) My favorite one, already long sold, was a recreation of Giger’s Alien (sorry, it’s a picture of a picture with a cell phone camera, so not very clear):

Giger's Alien, made of scrap

I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m personally most interested in art’s intersection with technology, but there are lots of different styles of art in the Suzhou Creek Art District, so I recommend you check it out, no matter what your interest. A word of warning, though: there’s extensive construction going on right now (2010 World Expo prep?), so it’s quite messy.


26

Jan 2010

Hongbao Fantasy

I originally found this video introduced by a Chinese friend on Kaixin Wang as “a Chinese film way more fantastic than Avatar”:

Transcript for the students:

> 老师:你的孩子又考了全班第一。

> 家长:谢谢谢谢。(递红包)

> 老师:你在伤害我。

> 医生:好了,病人终于脱离危险了。

> 家属:谢谢谢谢。(递红包)

> 医生:你在侮辱我。

> 官员:你的审批手续全办好了。

> 商人:谢谢谢谢。(递红包)

> 官员:你在藐视我。

> 警官:恭喜你啊,考试通过了。

> 司机:谢谢谢谢。(递红包)

> 警官:请你尊重我。

> [source (with additional sarcastic commentary)]

The video is a public service message urging people not to accept hongbao (red envelopes full of money) for what they should be doing anyway for the good of society. (And apparently that idea is still rather outlandish in modern China.) Anyway, the video does a good job of educating us foreigners in what situations Chinese people typically give their “thank you notes”:

– A teacher tells a mother that her child is the top student in the class
– A doctor informs someone that his family member is no longer in danger
– A government official announces that a businessman’s procedure is complete
– A police officer announces that the student has passed his (driving) test

I know some students of Chinese that spend a lot of time on Chinese news websites. I’m finding that Kaixin Wang‘s 转帖 (“repost”) system is way better, acting as a combination RSS reader / Digg / SNS site (so the content is filtered by your young Chinese friends). I highly recommend it as a source of interesting material.

Apparently, though, some of the posts (like the one I refer to above) mysteriously disappear… so read quickly, and enjoy!


24

Jan 2010

Guangming Commits Cheese Fraud!

Fraudulent Cheese

Gustatory investigation confirms what should be obvious by a cursory visual check: the single-serving substance Guangming (光明) is selling is definitely not cheddar cheese (切达奶酪).


16

Jan 2010

Streaming Netflix Movies on a PS3 in China (FAIL)

I got a PS3 late last year, and soon after Netflix announced a new feature: the ability to stream unlimited movies on the PS3 for only $8.99/month.

This got me thinking… even if you only pay 5 RMB per pirated DVD in China, it only takes about 12 movies per month to hit the equivalent of $8.99. I know many people here who watch far in excess of 12 DVDs per month, and they rarely ever watch the same DVD again, leading to piles and piles of unwanted DVDs, and just tons of DVD waste in general. And this Netflix plan is actually a legal alternative.

The way it works is you sign up online (yes, with a credit card), and then they immediately mail the Netflix PS3 disc (required for streaming) to your US address. Your two-week free trial starts at the same time.

There’s not really time to receive the disc in the States, and then ship it to China and still have time to enjoy the free trial. The people at Netflix are very nice and accommodating, however. So I had my dad mail the Netflix disc to me in China, then called up Netflix’s toll-free number (a free international call using Skype). I explained that I had received the disc, but hadn’t been able to try it yet (they can verify this), so the free trial had expired. Could I have another free trial? Oh, and by the way… I’m in China.

The customer service representative was happy to help me out, but let me know she wasn’t sure if it would work in China. Netflix is working on offering the streaming service internationally, but the movie studios are holding it up. I was hoping that Netflix was depending on very few people going to the trouble of shipping a disc to a US address and then re-mailing it to another country.

Anyway, after I inserted the Netflix PS3 disc, there was a rather long wait (2 minutes?) before the screen came up with the verification code. My customer service representative used that to reactivate my free trial. I could then browse all movies through the PS3 interface. I was told to try playing one. That’s where I got this message:

FAIL!

So Netflix is quite thorough in their streaming setup, it would seem. I’m disappointed; I was hoping Netflix could give me a (almost) legal alternative to buying pirated DVDs in China, and at a competitive price point. I would definitely pay Netflix a monthly fee for this service because:

1. It reduces waste
2. It rewards the creators of the films and the legitimate distributors
3. It’s super convenient and competitively priced

For now, the best similar alternative is very illegal: download movies to one’s home computer via bittorrent, then stream them to the PS3/TV across the network using PS3 Media Server.

What Netflix is doing really gives me hope that a legal, economically feasible alternative is on the way, though.


14

Jan 2010

Worry about the Internet in China

If you’re not in China, it may be hard to imagine the extent of the worry caused by Google’s recent announcement that it may just pack up and leave China. Sure, you can analyze the political and financial angles, but for most of us, this recent news forces our minds to leap straight to the worst-case scenario that will affect us personally: what if all Google services get blocked in China?

Many (including this Chinese language summary of the situation) are concluding that using a VPN might just have to become an essential “always-on” part of using the Internet in China. My fear is that if that day comes and VPN usage becomes so widespread, it might not be long before that method too is struck down by new GFW technology. I’m really afraid of being stuck in that information void.

It’s not just about one big company operating in China. It’s about how in recent years, various internet services have made us feel much more connected to our loved ones half a world away. It’s about how the internet is becoming such an integral part of our lives, through email, through IM, through social services, through smartphones… and wanting to be a part of that progress. No company is more key to that progress than Google.

A Chinese friend of mine recently admitted to me what I didn’t want to say myself: “if they go so far as to block all Google services in China, I don’t even want to stay here anymore.

This is how deep the worry runs for many of us.


If you’re not up on the situation, I recommend these articles:

Google and China: superpower standoff (a good blog post roundup on the Guardian)
Earth-shattering news and a faked interview (Danwei’s angle)
Google’s China Stance: More about Business than Thwarting Evil (TechCrunch)
Soul Searching: Google’s position on China might be many things, but moral it is not (TechCrunch)
Google v. Baidu: It’s Not Just about China (TechCrunch)
The impact of Google’s bold move


12

Jan 2010

Cosmetic Surgery Culture

ChinesePod co-worker Jenny had occasion to visit the plastic surgeon’s office recently, and she took away some interesting (although not terribly surprising) insights:

> 1. Most popular form of plastic surgery in China: an even divide between all-time favorite double eyelid operation (双眼皮/shuang1yan3pi2) and new comer face-slimming injection (瘦脸针/shou4lian3zhen1).(Note, many Asians are born with single eye lid, but double eye lids are considered beautiful. We are also obsessed with a small face. My take is that Asian faces tend to be flatter (hence bigger). I don’t know what’s ugly about that, but there is an industry dedicated to making one’s face smaller, everything from lotion to plastic surgery).

> 2. The consumers: girls in their 20’s top the list. The aforementioned operations were monopolized by these girls. There were literally 5 girls coming in for one of those treatment every hour.

See her blog post for the rest.


06

Jan 2010

Avatar IMAX 3D Tickets Selling Well in Shanghai

Peace Cinema (和平影都) in Raffles City (People’s Square) is the place to see Avatar (阿凡达) in IMAX 3D in Shanghai, but it’s still hard to get tickets, days after the Sunday midnight opening. I went tonight, hoping to pick up a pair of tickets for sometime in the next week, but the theater only sells two days in advance, and all popular times were sold out. You can see the crowd in the picture below. The crowd never got too big, because everyone kept showing up, finding out it was sold out, and then leaving unhappily.

Avatar 3D IMAX, Shanghai

Avatar 3D IMAX, Shanghai

Tickets there range from 30 RMB (non-IMAX) to 50 RMB (IMAX, morning), to 150 RMB (IMAX, prime time on weekends). The soundtracks are all English, with Chinese subtitles. The theater’s (?) website has the price list for the current day.

Avatar has been out on DVD in the streets of Shanghai for a while, but I’m still patiently waiting to experience IMAX 3D for the first time (eventually).


Jan. 7 UPDATE: A friend of my wife offered to buy tickets for us. She showed up at 7:30am to get in line. The theater opens at 9am. When she arrived, there were already 200-300 people in line, some of whom had been there since 4am. Still, with so many showings every day, and a pretty decent capacity, you’d think that person number 300 could still get tickets. No dice. Everyone was buying up lots of tickets, so the theater was sold out of Avatar 3D IMAX tickets by the time our friend’s turn came.

I just found out that the theater is raising prices to 180 RMB per ticket next week. Suddenly I’m losing some of my enthusiasm for Avatar in Shanghai…


Jan. 11 UPDATE: Over the weekend the price rose again from 180 RMB to 200 RMB, caused a furor, and then was changed back to 150. Also, the sale of tickets was opened up for all of January, after which all IMAX 3D tickets promptly sold out. (I’m OK with this; I gave up on IMAX and watched it in regular 3D yesterday. It was awesome.)


04

Jan 2010

Chinese for English Pronunciation (Shanghai World Expo Edition)

This certainly isn’t the first time that Chinese characters have been used as a guide for pronunciation of English words, but it’s the most recent example I’ve seen, related to Shanghai’s World Expo. Here’s the “世博双语指南” (World Expo Bilingual Guide):

Shanghai World Expo English

And here’s a text transcription of the content:

> 欢迎光临
welcome to our store! (维尔抗姆突奥窝思道)

> 早上好!下午好!晚上好!
Good morning! (古的猫宁)
Good afternoon! (古的阿夫特怒)
Good evening! (古的衣服宁)

> 有什么需要帮助您的吗?
Can I help you? (坎埃海尔扑油?)

> 对不起,我只能讲简单的英语。
I’m sorry, I can only speak a little English.
(俺么搔瑞,埃坎翁累思鼻科额累偷英格历史)

> 请您稍等!
Just a moment, please. (杰丝特哞闷特,普立斯!)

> 我叫我同事来帮助您!
I’ll find our colleague for help.
(埃伟哦凡的阿窝考立个否海尔扑!)

> 再见!
Bye Bye! (白白!)

And just in case all those “nonsense characters” were too much for you, here are some randomly selected pinyin transliterations. See if you can figure out the English original:

– Āi wěio fánde āwō kǎolìgè fǒu hǎiěrpū!
– Gǔde āfūtènù
– Wéiěrkàngmǔ tū àowō sīdào
– Ǎnme sāoruì, āi kǎn wēnglèi sībíkē é lèitōu Yīnggèlìshǐ.
– Kǎn āi hǎiěrpū yóu?

Fun stuff.


23

Dec 2009

Classic Chinese Christmas Song Links

Every year around Christmastime, my “Christmas Songs in Chinese” blog post from 2006 gets a lot of action. I’ve been seeing a lot of requests there for lyrics, and I tried to help out with that, but I found the Chinese versions of these Christmas songs’ lyrics surprisingly difficult to track down. If anyone can offer links to those lyrics, it would be appreciated by many.

Anyway, you may enjoy these Sinosplice Christmas music posts from the archive:

Christmas Songs in Chinese (13 MP3s)

Ding Ding Dong (hilarious Hakka version MP3)

Christmas Classics in Cantonese (the song link is still good, but the Flash links below are mostly dead now)

The Christmas Story in Chinese (#005 and #006 in the New Testament)

Chinese Santa
Photo by Pakueye on Flickr

Merry Christmas!


21

Dec 2009

Zhou Libo's New Book: Hui Cidian

周立波:诙词典

Taking advantage of his current popularity, Shanghainese stand-up comedian Zhou Libo (周立波) has swiftly published a book on Shanghainese expressions called 诙词典 (something like “Comedic Dictionary”).

The book isn’t exactly a dictionary, but it groups a whole bunch of Shanghainese expressions by common themes or elements, then explains them entry by entry in Mandarin, followed by a usage example from Zhou Libo’s stand-up acts for each entry.

“Shanghainese” Characters

What’s interesting (and a bit annoying) is that Shanghainese sentences are written out in Chinese characters, and then followed by a Mandarin translation in parentheses. Here’s an example of such a sentence:

> “伊迪句闲话结棍,讲得来我闷脱了。(他这句话厉害,说得我一下子说不出话来了)”

> [Translation: “That remark of his was scathing. I had no comeback for that.”]

The book is peppered with sentences like this, and as a learner, I have some issues with them:

1. If you read the Shanghainese sentences according to their Mandarin readings, they sound ridiculous and make no sense (a lot of the time) in either Mandarin or Shanghainese.

2. Unless you’re Shanghainese, you will have no clue as to how to pronounce the Shanghainese words in the sentences properly (so what’s the point?).

3. I find myself really wondering how the editors chose the characters they used to represent the Shanghainese words.

To point #3 above, I know there are cases where the “correct character” can be “deduced” due to Shanghainese’s similarities to Mandarin. To use the example above, the Shanghainese “闷脱” can be rendered in Mandarin as “闷掉.” Then why 脱 instead of 掉? Well, 掉 has a different pronunciation in Shanghainese, and it’s not used in the same way as it is in Mandarin. The 脱 in “闷脱,” however, in Shanghainese is the same 脱 as in “脱衣服” in Mandarin (which is “脱衣裳” in Shanghainese). It seems like this game of “chasing the characters” from Mandarin to Shanghainese might be ultimately circular in some cases, but I can’t really judge.

The other point is that some of Shanghainese’s basic function words, pronouns, and other common words don’t correspond to Mandarin’s at all, and the characters used certainly seem like standard transliterations. An example from the sentence above would be the Shanghainese “迪” standing in for Mandarin’s “这,” or (not from above), the Shanghainese “格” for Mandarin’s “的.”

So how do you know which characters are “deductions” (these are kind of cool and can point to interesting historical changes in language), and which ones are mere transliterations? Well, research would help. I don’t have much time these days for such an endeavor, but I do know some Shanghainese professors of Chinese at East China Normal University who could point me to the right resources.

Shanghainese Romanization

Lack of a standard romanization system is a problem that has plagued students of Shanghainese forever. Some favor IPA, but most find it a bit too cryptic. The problem is there is still no clearly superior solution that has become standard.

Zhou Libo’s book doesn’t make any headway in the romanization department. Headwords are given a “Shanghainese pronunciation” using a sort of “modified pinyin” with no tones. This is definitely more helpful than nothing, but it’s another reason why this book doesn’t make much of a learner’s resource for Shanghainese. Where the romanization diverges from pinyin, you’re not sure how to pronounce it (“sö” anyone?), and where it matches pinyin, it’s often not really the same as pinyin.

(more…)


19

Dec 2009

Pleco for iPhone is out!

Pleco for iPhone (beta)

After reviewing the beta version, interviewing Michael Love on the app, and commenting on beta testing progress, I’d be remiss not to note that the Pleco Chinese Dictionary iPhone app is out. And the really great news is that the basic app is free!

A quick intro from the Pleco product information page:

> Go to itunes.com/apps/PlecoChineseDictionary to instantly download the free basic version of Pleco for iPhone / iPod Touch; you can add on more advanced features / dictionaries from right inside of the app, but the basic version is an excellent little dictionary in its own right (and includes the same wonderful search engine as our more advanced software).

If you own an iPhone and you’re studying Chinese, get this app!


17

Dec 2009

Default Social Activity: Murder!

It wasn’t until after I’d been in China a while that I started thinking about a culture’s “default social activities.” Friends like to get together, and there’s often no special occasion, so they tend to rely on the defaults. If you’re sports fans or gamers, you might have ritual activities, but most people I knew growing up in Suburbia, USA relied on a small number of default activities:

1. Go to a movie
2. Go to a bar
3. Go to a party
4. Go bowling (or mini-golfing)

After staying in China a while, it took some time to realize that most Chinese people don’t go to movie theaters often, hardly ever go to bars, and don’t really do the party thing. Bowling only happens on rare occasions. China’s “default social activities” list looks more like this:

1. Go to dinner
2. Play cards (or mahjongg)
3. Go to karaoke
4. Play 杀人游戏 (“the murder game”)

It wasn’t until recently that I realized the status and ubiquity of the 杀人游戏 (a game usually known as “mafia” in English). A few years ago I thought it was just a fad, but I just keep hearing about it everywhere, from all kinds of people. It’s just not going away. Recently my friend Frank brought to my attention that some players in China are so fanatical about it that they join clubs (with 6000 members), and even pay to play.

Anyway, if you live in China, definitely give it a try. It’s almost certain that all your young Chinese friends know the game, and you can play it almost anywhere. If you ask me, it’s way better than cards, mahjongg, or karaoke, and if you’re learning Chinese (or your Chinese friends are learning English), it’s good fun practice.

I’m not sure how many versions are played nowadays (it’s been a while since I’ve played), but the Baidu Baike page has an extremely lengthy “version history” with tons of different roles. All you really need to get a game going, though, are the words “杀人游戏.”


15

Dec 2009

Bits from Beijing

I just got back from a business trip to Beijing. I was representing ChinesePod at the Hanban’s recent “Exhibitions of Resources of Confucius Institutes and World Languages.” Despite having lived in China for over 9 years, it was my first time in northern China in the winter. Here’s what I noticed:

– Chinese 暖气 (central heating) is awesome. I’m used to winters in Shanghai, to only being warm for short periods of time during the winter, to the floors being freezing for months on end… so I was not prepared for my hotel being “boxers and a t-shirt” warm the whole time. And the floors weren’t cold at all. (Now I also see why visitors from the north are so wimpy here in the winter.)

国家会议中心Wow, the former Olympic Village is a desolate ghost town (but the “You and Me” theme song is still playing on a loop there). It’s such a huge space; you’d think that it would be utilized a little better post-Olympics. The exhibition I attended was in the “National Conference Center,” but drivers didn’t even know where that was; when I asked to be taken to the 国家会议中心 (National Conference Center), I was invariably taken to the nearby 国际会议中心 (International Conference Center). I guess even the massive new conference center isn’t getting much use yet.

LED ChristmasThe world’s largest LED screen at “The Place” is impressive… but it’s kind of sad. That mall doesn’t seem to have a ton of traffic still, and the screen already has more than a few dead pixels. (The screen faces downward, by the way, and it’s only on at night.)

"Hawaiian Pizza"When I ordered a “Hawaiian pizza” at a cafe, I got a pizza with spam, dragon fruit, banana, apple, and kiwi fruit on it. Yikes.

(Normal blogging to resume soon… Recent spottiness is due largely to lots of time spent on some “new research.”)


08

Dec 2009

A Message to Mandarin

One of ChinesePod’s more active and positive users, simonpettersson, recently wrote an amusing Open letter to the Chinese language. Here’s how it starts out:

> You’re afraid, aren’t you, Mandarin? You’re starting to feel it; the cold sweat trickling down your back. You heard I kicked English’s ass already at 12, and you witnessed first hand what I did to French. French is my b*tch now. And I’m coming for you, Mandarin.

> I know you fancy yourself the biggest, meanest language in town. I know you beat the snot out of most anyone who comes to take you on. Hell, you even gave me a sound asswhooping once that caused me to give you space for quite some time. But I’m not like the others. I’m not giving up, and with every day I grow stronger. You ain’t never met anyone like me, Mandarin. And you’re starting to realize it.

The rest of it is on ChinesePod.

I loved this post, and not just because of the “I don’t care if it’s supposed to be difficult” attitude. Simon does a good job of reminding us that learning a language is not just a weekend’s endeavor, and to keep up the fight, you have to play the mental game. You have to psych yourself up. Talking a little trash does some good.

It also reminds me that I’ve got to keep working hard too if I want to someday be able to deliver the kind of merciless asswhooping that Simon describes.

Here’s to asswhoopings!


Related: Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard


02

Dec 2009

New Host

I haven’t been posting much lately, but I’ve still been working on this site. I finally chose a new web host so that I can leave DreamHost. The new host is WebFaction, and so far it’s excellent. It’s not quite that simple, though.

WebFaction is excellent because:

– It allows for easy hosting of multiple websites
– It makes its policies on application memory usage completely clear to users (this is the major sin of DreamHost and its ilk)
– It’s fast
– It has affordable dedicated IP solutions (important in case you get blocked by sheer bad luck)
– I wrote the support team on three separate occasions at different times, and each time, they got back to me within 5 minutes. (These weren’t very difficult questions, but still… that’s amazing, coming from DreamHost, which responded in a few hours on good days, in a day on typical days, and NEVER on bad days)

WebFaction is maybe not great for everyone because:

– The control panel seems quite rudimentary after using DreamHost’s, seeing Media Temple’s, and seeing a few others. It really seems quite bare bones. (A few features I asked about were “in development,” but they had other somewhat techy workarounds.)
– The company uses its own unintuitive system for installing “Applications” and pairing them with domains. (I use the word “application” in quotes because not only web apps like WordPress, but also even things like static directories for hosting files count as “applications.”)

The system is actually kind of cool once you get used to it, but it’s definitely not for someone who just wants one simple website. I’ll probably write more about it once I’m fully moved over.

The other way I’ve been spending time on Sinosplice is with a long-overdue redesign. The whole site! More on that later…


22

Nov 2009

Updates and Links

Updates:

– Since my GFW Android Market rant, it looks like the Android Market may no longer be blocked. I’ve been able to access it again for the past few days on my HTC Hero here in Shanghai. Not sure if this will last, but it’s certainly a welcome development!
Pleco for iPhone (beta) just went into Beta 4 testing. Michael Love says this will probably be the last round of testing (but wow, that team does an amazingly thorough job!), so that means it will likely be submitted to Apple for review very soon.

Links:

– Google recently released a pinyin conversion tool on Google Translate, but it’s super primitive. Mark at Pinyin.info details all the ways it sucks (via Dave), but they all boil down to this: the tool simply romanizes characters, without regard for proper spacing, proper punctuation, or multiple character readings that can only be determined with data-informed word segmentation. (Boo, Google! You can do waaayyy better!)
– Google also added a cool-looking new Google Translate Toolkit (via Micah), which looks like the beginnings of competition for translation software like TRADOS (the preferred tool of translator Pete).
– An over-the-top rant on the importance of reading Chinese (via Micah) serves as a good reminder to those of us who might be satisfied with our functional speaking ability and too lazy to improve our literacy (this is definitely me at times!).
– Speaking of reading material, ChinaSMACK recently reminded me that even when you’re too lazy to tackle 老子 or modern thinkers, there’s still less challenging but interesting material to read in Chinese, and reading something is certainly better than nothing.
– Finally, most of us have used character-by-character literal translation as a mnemonic for memorizing certain Chinese vocabulary, but now there’s a blog dedicated to just that, called “those crazy chinese.” “Sweet pee disease,” “hairy hairy balls,” “ear shit”… check it out.


19

Nov 2009

Aspect, not Tense

You often hear people saying that Chinese has simple grammar, and the most often cited reason is that “Chinese has no tenses.” It’s true that Chinese verbs do not have tenses, but Chinese grammar does have a formal system for marking aspect. What is aspect? Most English speakers don’t even know.

I’ll quote from the Wikipedia entry on aspect:

In linguistics, the grammatical aspect (sometimes called viewpoint aspect) of a verb defines the temporal flow (or lack thereof) in the described event or state. In English, for example, the present tense sentences “I swim” and “I am swimming” differ in aspect (the first sentence is in what is called the habitual aspect, and the second is in what is called the progressive, or continuous, aspect). The related concept of tense or the temporal situation indicated by an utterance, is typically distinguished from aspect.

So if the temporal situation (tense) of a verb is typically distinguished from aspect, shouldn’t we English-speakers be more familiar with it?

It turns out the situation is a bit muddled in English. From the same article:

Aspect is a somewhat difficult concept to grasp for the speakers of most modern Germanic languages, because they tend to conflate the concept of aspect with the concept of tense. Although English largely separates tense and aspect formally, its aspects (neutral, progressive, perfect and progressive perfect) do not correspond very closely to the distinction of perfective vs. imperfective that is common in most other languages. Furthermore, the separation of tense and aspect in English is not maintained rigidly. One instance of this is the alternation, in some forms of English, between sentences such as “Have you eaten yet?” and “Did you eat yet?”. Another is in the past perfect (“I had eaten”), which sometimes represents the combination of past tense and perfect aspect (“I was full because I had already eaten”), but sometimes simply represents a past action which is anterior to another past action (“A little while after I had eaten, my friend arrived”). (The latter situation is often represented in other languages by a simple perfective tense. Formal Spanish and French use a past anterior tense in cases such as this.)

OK, it’s starting to become clearer why English-speakers aren’t familiar with aspect. But what’s this business about “English largely separates tense and aspect formally”?

According to one prevalent account, the English tense system has only two basic tenses, present and past. No primitive future tense exists in English; the futurity of an event is expressed through the use of the auxiliary verbs “will” and “shall”, by use of a present form, as in “tomorrow we go to Newark”, or by some other means. Present and past, in contrast, can be expressed using direct modifications of the verb, which may be modified further by the progressive aspect (also called the continuous aspect), the perfect aspect, or both. These two aspects are also referred to as BE + ING[6] and HAVE +EN,[7] respectively.

Wikipedia also brings up how Mandarin Chinese fits in with regard to aspect:

Aspect, as discussed here, is a formal property of a language. Some languages distinguish different aspects through overt inflections or words that serve as aspect markers, while others have no overt marking of aspect. […] Mandarin Chinese has the aspect markers -le, -zhe, and -guo to mark the perfective, durative, and experiential aspects,[3] and also marks aspect with adverbs….

If you study modern Chinese grammar, you’ll learn that Mandarin has three aspectual particles (时态助词): , , and . It would be nice if that were all there was to it, but the Chinese situation, similar to the English one, is a bit muddled. That’s about as clear as it gets.

In the case of , the word has a split personality and sometimes acts as an aspectual particle, sometimes as a modal particle (语气词), and sometimes both. There is endless fun to be had studying (I know; I took several syntax classes in grad school).

, on the other hand, is sometimes relieved of its aspectual duties by the adverbs or (or 正在). But then there are some that say that would prefer to draw fine distinctions between these usages as well.

It’s funny to think that Chinese grammar is still in its “Wild West” stage. Linguists are still debating all kinds of fundamental issues of grammar, both within China and without. While you can say with conviction that “Chinese has aspect, not tense,” you can’t say a whole lot more than that. For learners who want to “know the rules,” this can be more than a little frustrating. The good news is that, like all languages, it rewards the persistent. The Kool-aid tastes downright weird at first, but if you just keep drinking it, it starts to taste right.

(If, however, you’re really interested in this whole aspect thing, I recommend you check out Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, which is about as close as you can get to “classic” in this turbulent field. It has over 50 pages devoted to aspect, with plenty of examples, but be warned: no Chinese characters!)



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