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Tips and Strategies for Learning to Speak Mandarin Chinese
Updated: 2 hours 26 min ago

Out of the Blue Vocab Trap

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 18:59

In this post I offer some data, a little rant, and then three stories all meant to encourage us lǎowài-s 老外 not to give up on listening comprehension.

I’m often asked, “Is it harder for you to learn Chinese or for a Chinese person to learn English?” Short answer: I don’t know. It’s tough to say because it involves a lot of opinions and complicated factors. But here’s a fact that cannot be ignored about Chinese:

  • There are only 409 possible syllables in Mandarin (see my Pinyin Chart for where I got that number), not including different tones.

Now let’s compare that with English. Chris Barker searched a British English dictionary and found 15,831 different syllables (and he admits that number isn’t 100% accurate). But that’s only unique syllables used in the dictionary. So there are lot’s of other syllables are possible in English (like “foob”) which don’t get counted because there are no words that use them (yet). Just to clarify: “too” and “two” and “to” would still just count as one syllable in that list because it’s about pronunciation not writing.

Not Chinese. 409 syllables. That’s it. That’s all that are allowed. (Which is why it’s so easy to rhyme in Chinese.)

[begin rant]

So who cares? Well, I do. It means that listening comprehension is really hard for me because so many words sound the same in Chinese because they only have 409 “building blocks” to make them. Yes we’ve got words like “too / two / to” and “pair / pare / pear” in English, but the homonym minefield seems to be way more difficult in Chinese. That’s why context (and multi-syllable words count as context) is so important when listening to Chinese. If you have little to no context, accurate listening comprehension becomes virtually impossible.

[end rant]

So here’s the encouraging thing: if you don’t have enough context to understand something, just give up! Don’t be too hard on yourself for not understanding words that fly at you “out of the blue”. Don’t fall for the trap and feel like, “I should have understood that.” No you shouldn’t have. The Chinese people themselves can’t always do it! Let me give you some examples I’ve witnessed.

Story 1: Cash Trap

My English students often ask “How do you say (some Chinese word) in English?” Talk about zero context. They’re sitting there speaking English to each other and BOOM! Chinese syllables flying at my out of the blue. Many times I can figure out the context because we probably have a topic that day in class that gives me a clue. Not so the other day when the topic was “Beggars.”

A student raised his hand and said, “How do you say xianjin in English?” You may notice I’ve omitted the tones from his question. That’s because I wasn’t exactly sure what they were because they came at me so fast. But it didn’t matter. The students around him all chimed in with a unanimous “cash.” He thanked them and the class when on. A few seconds later he raised his hand and said, “Not cash. I mean xianjing.”

The class erupted into confusion. Some students were confirming that indeed “cash” was the word he wanted. Some were saying “trap”. Some were criticizing his Mandarin and not answering his question. And some were asking their neighbors what was going on.

Here are the two words in question:

He really did mean “trap,” and wanted to talk about some sort of trick that beggars use to get money. The class, however, when they heard his (rather unclear and fast) Mandarin utterance assumed he must have wanted to say something about the cash beggars get.

Those two words aren’t even minimal pairs, but because the vocab was out of the blue, and the students didn’t have enough context, they guessed wrong.

Story 2: Soon to be Happy

I was listening to two Chinese girls talking about their recent lives. One confided in us that she’d been depressed lately but that she was hoping her mood would improve soon.

The other girl listened and then nodded in support saying only two syllables: “kuàile.”

“Yes,” the first girl continued, “I want to be happy.”

“No, I meant ‘soon’ things will get better,” the second girl said.

Here’s the confusion:

So that’s the old “Second 4th tone in a row is lower than the first one so it might sound like it’s a 5th tone” trap. It tricked a Chinese girl without enough context. So it can certainly get me.

Story 3: Violent Profits

A student was telling me about her father’s business  She wanted to tell me something that had happened with one of his business partners but didn’t know how to say bào lì in English. I suggested “violent” and she said, “No! Not that bào lì.” I didn’t know what to say then and the conversation came to a halt.

Here’s the problem:

  • bào lì 暴力 = violent
  • bào lì 暴利 = a windfall of money

I didn’t know the second definition of “bào lì” at the time. But I was actually right: bào lì really does mean violent. It just also means something else.

So here’s the bottom line: it can be very frustrating when you don’t understand Chinese words because they often sound like a bunch of other words. But don’t blame yourself. The Chinese people themselves can’t always do it, so of course we won’t be able to. Don’t fall for the cash… I mean trap of thinking you should always be able to understand everything, even if you’re at a pretty high level with the language.

Just get more context, clarification, or if worst comes to worst, you can use that time-honored tradition of letting them write the hanzi in the air with their finger. Then take a picture of the air-shape with your smart phone and check the dictionary for it. I’m sure, by now, that’s a feature that Plecco offers, right?

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faceless Free Until Saturday (for Kindle)

Tue, 01/22/2013 - 17:00

I know, I know. This is (once again) a post NOT about learning Chinese. But it was too cool not to post. I’ll just let my own words from the other website talk for me:

“The Kindle thing I’m enrolled in allows me to give the Kindle edition of my novel away for up to 5 days every quarter (not the paperback version, sadly). So as soon as I figured out how to do it (yesterday), I decided to fire it up!

So if you, or anyone you know, has a Kindle and wants a free book, please pass the word along. Thanks!”

Ok. Now that I’ve done two book news posts in a row, I promise starting today I’ll begin thinking about intending to consider the possibility of getting some of those draft posts about ACTUAL Chinese language learning ready for blog publication.

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faceless Available for Free Kindle Lending

Fri, 01/11/2013 - 14:39

Just a quick note to let you know that the new Kindle version of my novel faceless is out (paperback version here).

Besides various little typo corrections, “real page numbers” (based on the print book), and a new link to this very website, the biggest change is that it is now enrolled in KDP Select which places the book in the Kindle Lending Library. I think you have to be an Amazon Prime member to borrow it, but I’m really not sure how it all works yet.

I enrolled the book in KDP Select at the recommendation of a friend and I’m interested to see exactly what happens next.

Maybe now that we’re on Chūnjié 春节 break I can get to some of those 87 draft posts that have been sitting there wondering if I’ve forgotten about them.

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FluentU – My Review

Sat, 11/24/2012 - 04:21

I’m very excited to write about what I consider the coolest new listening and vocab resource on the Internet: FluentU

The approach is brilliant in its simplicity: take authentic Chinese videos from YouTube (movie trailers, news stories, music videos, sit coms, etc.) and provide English, Pinyin, and Hanzi subtitles.

They’re basically answering the question that all non-Chinese speakers have when we see those kinds of videos or watch TV: “What exactly are these people saying anyway?”

And the technology is really easy to use also.

Already Great:
  • Free to sign up for full access to all videos and vocab tools (for now).
  • Pinyin, Hanzi, and English subtitles for every video, each of which you can turn on/off if you’re smart enough to find that option.
  • Videos sorted into 4 levels (Beginner – Advanced).
  • Videos tagged with 16 different categories such as “Arts and Entertainment” or “Culture” or “News” or “Movie Trailers”.
  • You can subscribe to be notified by email when there’s a new clip in the categories you’re interested in.
  • All kinds of vocab lists and study tools that I haven’t really tried because I’m too busy just watching videos.
  • The video player itself is awesome:

  • If  you hover your mouse over any Chinese it gives you the definition for that word (in this case the idiom: 平白无故 píng bái wú gù).
  • The video automatically pauses whenever you hover your mouse over stuff.
  • The HUGE gray arrows on the right and left let you advance or rewind the video according to sentences (in other words: go to the next or previous subtitle sentence)
Could be Improved:

Now, I would like to point out that FluentU is in “Beta” so that means we’re supposed to cut them some slack on some of these things. Also, I admit it’s much easier for me to criticize something that someone else made than make it myself. But still, here are a few little suggestions:

  • China users Must have “cloak” or proxy because the videos come from YouTube. This is really not FluentU’s fault, but it may present a little problem for learners in China who haven’t sprung for a VPN.
  • Player doesn’t fit on my netbook screen (as you see above, if I want to get all the way down to the little white play / pause button at the bottom, I have to chop off the tops of the heads of the people in the video). This could be solved in several easy ways, and I’m sure I’m not the only one with a netbook.
  • Very difficult (impossible?) to cut / paste anything. When I wanted to paste “平白无故 píng bái wú gù” from the clip mentioned above, I couldn’t figure out how to do it so I had to just type it myself.
  • No Chinese names or info about clips on the site. The website tells me the clip is from “A Chinese Ghost Story” directed by Wilson Yip. But because the written script (and vocabulary, for that matter) is too crazy at the end of the trailer, I had to do my own research to discover its Chinese name (Qiàn nǚ yōu nún 倩女幽魂). Oh wait! Just downloaded the transcript and I see the Chinese name is in there. Can we have it on the site too please?
  • Dubious levels. The clip mentioned above is listed as “Difficulty: Elementary”. However, I definitely couldn’t follow what was being said the first time (or second time) I watched it. Look at the first few lines from the video’s transcript (again, typed by myself because copy and paste is locked for the PDF transcript):

1. 你应该知道在兰若寺会碰到什么

nǐ yīnggāi zhīdào zài Lánruò sì huì pèngdào shénme

2.一只千年树妖

yī zhī qiān nián shùyāo

3. 两条好毒的蛇妖

liǎng tiáo hǎo dú de shéyāo

4.还有一大堆数不清的妖精

 háiyǒu yì dà duī shǔbuqīng de yāojīng

Now this may be just me, but there were several factors working against my listening comprehension during those 4 lines.

    1. BOOM! Right in with a place name I’ve never heard of (Lanruo temple).
    2. Although I knew  yāo (ghosty demon thing), I didn’t realize that tree-ghost, snake-ghost, and the generic 妖精 yāojīng existed, and therefore didn’t understand those on first listen.
    3. The narrator is talking at a mile-a-minute (I STILL can’t hear that  huì in the first line).
    4. Various and sundry other little vocab pitfalls: (“A big pile of countless demons”).

And also look at how many 4-character idioms are used in this 2-minute clip:

Seems like a disproportionately high number to me for a “Beginner level” video.  In my opinion, the vocabulary and speed of this clip make it at least Intermediate.

But regardless  of the little kinks they’ve still got to work out, FluentU is still a very cool way to improve listening and vocabulary. I’ll just talk briefly about that.

How to Use FluentU for Listening Practice

Here’s one option:

  1. Watch the clip without looking at any subtitles at all and try to understand as much as possible.
  2. Read the transcript to get an idea for which words tripped you up.
  3. Watch the clip again without looking at the subtitles to see if you can understand more this time (I bet you will).
  4. Go slowly through it sentence by sentence reading and watching together, repeat if necessary to get every word.
  5. Watch the clip again without subtitles and see if you can understand 100%.

I know that’s a pretty slow way to do it, but my experience has been that understanding every word is the most important part of improving listening. Of course guessing is also a skill, and the above steps are not necessary for practicing guessing. But that’s a different skill than listening comprehension.

How to Use FluentU to Improve Vocabulary

The big question with vocabulary from the dictionary is always: “Do people really use this word… REALLY?!”

The great thing about FluentU vocabulary is that you never need to wonder about that. These are all clips that are taken from the “real world” of Chinese usage. Of course you won’t know how frequently these words are used (for example, the above mentioned “一路平安 yí lù píng ān = safe journey” is, by far, the most useful of those 5 idioms in daily life), but you’ll know they are at least in use especially within the genera of the clip (“News” or “Kung fu movie” or whatever).

I think this is one of the greatest strengths of FluentU: it’s an absolutely reliable source for new vocabulary. As far as I’m concerned, if a word is in a FluentU clip, it’s worth learning.

Thanks to the team at FluentU for providing this awesome resource. Sorry. Got to go watch another clip now.

[special thanks to Alison at teavivre.com for catching my chéngyǔ 成语 typo]

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Top 10 Chinese Characters for Shopping in China

Sat, 10/06/2012 - 01:48

Happy National / Mid-Autumn / Mooncakes / Make-up class on a weekend Festival(s) Everyone!

I know, I know: I’m a little late. But it was walking around town during the holidays with a friend that inspired to write this post. During the ”Golden Week” festivities I saw no end of sales and special promotions. This seems to be true of most holidays (in the world): a way to celebrate is to go out and flower, flower, FLOWER… oh oops. I mean “SPEND!”

So, following in the footsteps of a previous top 10 hanzi post, I’ve listed the most common and important characters you need to know if you’re a big shopper (which I’m not at all, so I could be totally wrong). Of course, it would be better if we had a proper Chinese Sign Frequency List, but until then this is better than nothing. I shall file this under “Travel” because it could be useful to anyone who’s in China for any period of time. And I know it’s more than 10 characters. It’s just 10 “things” to know.

Here’s a printer-friendly cheat sheet if you want to carry it around.

Note: There is a file embedded within this post, please visit this post to download the file.

(requires Adobe Reader, which is available here).

All images courtesy of Google Images searches for the hanzi because I forgot to take my camera that one day I went to the shopping area.

1.  yuán = Yuan (Chinese money)

I know it seems like a no-brainer, but you’ve got to be able to recognize all the different stylized versions of it too. They don’t always use the internationals currency symbol ¥. So when you see a sign like the above one, it’ll help do know that three of the six characters are just telling you the price. (The other three at the end, by the way, are 看电影 kàn diànyǐng = watch movie.)

2.  zhé = Discount (but it’s weird)

Ok a “zhé” discount is very important to know about because it’s counter-intuitive. As you can see from the picture a “7 zhé” discount is REALLY 30% off. So what it means is: you multiply the original price by 0.7 and THEN you get the new price. I know, very strange. But that’s how it is. So essentially a “zhé” discount is answering: “How many tenths of the original price do I have to pay?” Therefore, a sign that says “8.5 ” would be a 15% discount, or original price * .85 = new price. Weird, I know, but that’s how it works here. By the way, you might see 折扣 zhékòu instead of just  zhé. It’s basically the same.

3. 买一送一 mǎi yī sòng yī = Buy one, get one free

Literally “buy 1 give 1,” you’ll see this around a lot during festival time and special promotions. There is also the ol’ “买二送一” which would, of course, be “Buy 2 get 1 free.” By the way, a little grammar aside: How should I say 买二送一? That would be “mǎi èr sōng yī” right? Even though you’re really buying “liǎng gè”  两个 or “liǎng jiàn” 两件, right?

4. 全场 quán chǎng = Whole store

You can see it in the picture above. It’s just good to know that the special is for the whole store. Sometimes there will be a special (and outrageously huge) discount advertised (like maybe even 1 !) but it’ll only be for one really ugly item and everything else is really expensive.

5.  qǐ = And up / Starting at

Here’s a McDonald’s advertisement for dinner time specials. They start at 15 yuan and get more expensive from there. You’ll also see that little after the character which can get a little confusing. If it’s 3 折起 it doesn’t mean “70% discount AND UP!” it means “starting at 70% discount and getting worse from there.” Since the higher the zhé discount gets, the lower the price gets, they start with the best dicount and work “up” from there (which means the price is also working it’s way up, if that makes sense.) If that hurts your head to think about, just forget it and remember: the store will not be giving you the discount you are hoping for. That little rule of thumb should get you through. For you hanzi enthusiasts out there, here’s what the rest of the McDonald’s sign says: 晚餐也超值 / 晚上5至8点晚餐同享超值午餐优惠价.

6. 半价 bàn jià = Half price

Using what we learned above, you can now read that sign: “Whole Store Half Price!” Seems almost too good to be true, right?

7.  dì = _st / _nd / _th 8.  jiàn = Item / Article

This sign says “2件半价” dì èr jiàn bàn jià = Second item half price. It’s a 4th-tone bonanza, sounds like you’re shouting and angry, but it’s probably good news. You’ll see that character used a lot. And usually a number is in the middle with as the front bookend and after.

9.  mǎn = Filly / Fulfill 10. jiǎn = Subtract

Ok, these are kind of tricky and not really necessary (but I wanted 10 things). This sign: “99立减35″ mǎn jiǔshí-jiǔ lì jiǎn sǎnshí-wǔ = “Spend (on your total bill) 99 yuan and immediately we’ll subtract 35 yuan.”

Now, I have to admit I’ve never really taken advantage of, nor paid attention to, sales like this. So if I’m not quite right about that “total bill” part, let me know. Confusingly, that  jiǎn character for subtract is NOT the same as the  jiǎn character for “cut” NOR the same  jiǎn character for “simple.” Just thought I should mention that.

I am admittedly the worst shopper I’ve ever met. So if there are any characters you think are important but I left off my list, please free to leave a comment and let me know.

Happy shopping everyone!

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Semi-final and the Need for Regional Mandarin Resources

Mon, 08/06/2012 - 11:30

I think everyone will agree: there’s nothing like the Olympics to get you thinking about toplects and regional variants in language usage.

Or is that just me? Oh. Ok.

Well, since I’ve spent more time during the Olympics thinking about prescriptive vs. descriptive linguistics than I have China vs. USA on the medals table, I thought I’d share a little anecdote that perfectly illustrates the need for better (descriptive) materials for learners of Chinese.

(For those of you watching Chinese coverage of the games you might find my Olympics Listening Guide from four years ago helpful and also out of date.)

I’ve watched some of the London 2012 games with two friends: one from England and the other from Taiwan. It was in the semi-finals of one of the swimming races that I discovered my friend from Taiwan didn’t know the Mandarin word I was using for “semi-final.”

What I was saying:

The word she says:

Now, a quick click on the hanzi above will show you that BOTH entries appear in the MDBG online dictionary, but here’s my niúròu with the entries: there’s no warning that “bàn juésài” 半决赛 would not be understood in Taiwan.

Now, I don’t blame MDBG specifically. The Oxford Little English-Chinese Dictionary only has “bàn juésài” 半决赛 under “Semi-final” and there’s also no warning that it might not be understood everywhere. What I want is for it to say something like this:

  • Semi-final: “bàn juésài” 半决赛 (mainland), fùsài 复赛 (Taiwan)

I know I’m starting to repeat what I’ve already said in the Future for Chinese/English Dictionaries post, but we’ve got a real problem here.

Imagine I suddenly decide I want to get a job in Taipei. I already speak Mandarin to a reasonable level, but I need some materials to tell me ALL the  differences I should expect to run into when I get there. Does this exist? Is there a dictionary of Mandarin Chinese specifically geared toward the variation spoken in Taiwan? I haven’t been able to find it.

Let’s compare for a moment the materials that exist just on Wikipedia for a learner of English who would like to know the difference between American and British English. Most people know about some of the pronunciation differences and the spelling differences (like “color” and “colour”) but there are also differences in grammar and vocabulary that are important.

Overview (including grammar):

Vocabulary differences :

Pronunciation differences:

Even the way I pronounce “semi-final” in English is different from the way my British friends do (I say “semi” so that it rhymes with “my” and the British say it so it rhymes with “me”). But don’t worry. That’s listed here (do a CTL + F search for “semi” to find it quickly).

That is a lot of scholarship and painstaking list making that has been done over many years. Perhaps it’s not completely exhaustive, but it’s probably pretty close.

There are also dictionaries that show regional differences in spelling or vocabulary. For example, look at the (American English) Dictionary.com entry for “aeroplane”. It shows “Chiefly British” and a link to the American word “airplane.” The inverse is true of the Oxford dictionary’s entry for “airplane.”

That’s exactly what we need for Chinese. And we need it all in one resource. A little bit of scholarship has been done regarding Taiwanese Mandarin as we can see in this Wikipedia article as well various other small articles. But these only give a few examples. What we need are exhaustive lists. It would be exhausting for one person to make them, but if we work together online we can do it. That’s what the Olympics is all about!

And just to be clear, I don’t only want the variations listed for Taiwanese Mandarin, but also Canton Mandarin (coming soon on this blog), Beijing Mandarin, Singaporean Mandarin, etc. You name it. And I’d like to see that information go into the dictionaries.

It would also be great if you could get phrase books and dictionaries customized for the  particular region you’ll be interacting with. This is where e-books / apps could really be awesome.

For example, imagine Chinese 24/7 gets made into an e-book (I’ve asked the publisher and it’s just too complicated with tables and graphics to convert it to an e-book right now). But imagine someone could order my book and had the option to order the Taiwan Mandarin version. How awesome would it be if every time “xīngqī” 星期 appears in my book it were automatically replaced with xīngqí (notice the tone of “qi” is 2nd / rising in Taiwanese Mandarin)!?

Or if someone checks the “Northern Mandarin” option all the 儿化 gets added in so “yìdiǎn” 一点 gets automatically replaced with “yìdiǎnr” 一点儿. You must admit that would be cool. (Feel free to steal this idea, make a lot of money, and just give me a little thanks on the website somewhere.)

And it would be great to have an online dictionary linked in with some print-on-demand publisher that could do the same thing. Oh you’re going to Shanghai for a year? No problem just click the “Shanghai Mandarin” option and get your very own English/Chinese dictionary complete with all the Mandarin words they use in Shanghai printed and mailed to you before you leave.

Chinese is such a tough language and there’s nothing more discouraging than spending a lot of time getting the tones and vocabulary for words just right only to find out “That’s not how we say it here.” With the right resources, and a whole online community working together, we could solve that problem. But I’m still not entirely sure where that one, central database is going to be. There’s still much to be done.

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Class of 2012

Fri, 07/20/2012 - 03:26

When I first started teaching at a Chinese university I was immediately confused by the way they refer to students. For example, a student might introduce herself as a “2012 jí ” student. I (mistakenly) equated that to the English “Class of 2012.” But actually it doesn’t mean she’s GRADUATING in 2012 it means she’s STARTING in 2012.

So just to set the record straight once and for all, here are the two shuōfǎ 说法 in Chinese and their (American) English meanings:

  1. 2012 jí  = Starting college in 2012 as a freshmen. Graduating in either 2015 (for zhuānkē shēng 专科生) or 2016 (for běnkē shēng 本科生)
  2. 2012 jiè  = “Class of 2012.” Starting as a freshman whenever, but graduating in 2012.
By the way, student numbers are usually based on the first system (jí ) and I’m not sure exactly when they use jiè . But the other day two graduated students (native speakers of Chinese) were discussing this difference and I thought I’d share what they told me.

One further complication is that “class” in English really has 3 Chinese translations:

  1. jiè  = graduating class (all students in a “year” of college).
  2. bān  = the actual class of students that stay together in a classroom for a lesson.
  3. jié  = measure word for one teaching “period” or one “class session.”

So this sentence would be much clearer in Chinese than in English:

“I taught every class in the class of 2012 two classes.”

我给每个2012届的班上了两节课.”

“wǒ gěi měi gè 2012 jiè de bān shàng le liǎng jié kè”

Many times speaking with Chinese colleagues in English about “classes” results in confusion and I find that the most efficient way to clear it up is to just use the Chinese word.

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Méi shì 没事 vs. Méi cuò 没错

Tue, 06/26/2012 - 03:29

I now offer you a slice-of-life just exactly as it was told to me by one of my Chinese students. The thing that’s so interesting about it is that both people in the story are native speakers of Chinese, speaking Chinese to each other, ABOUT Chinese vocabulary.

Lara goes to the copy center to make a photocopy. The worker runs off one copy and shows Lara the result. 

(all in Mandarin)

LARA:

Hǎo xiàng bú duì!

好象不对!

It looks like there’s a mistake!

WORKER:

Nǎlǐ?

哪里?

Where?

LARA: (realizing there actually is no mistake and the photocopy is perfectly fine)

Méi shì, méi shì.

没事,没事。

It’s ok, it’s ok.

WORKER: (annoyed that she’d been accused of making a mistake) 

Rúguǒ nǐ shuō “méi shì” jiùshì shuō wǒ fàn le cuò, dànshì nǐ kěyǐ jiēshòu. Rúguǒ nǐ shuō “méi cuò” wǒ jiù zhīdào wǒ méi yǒu fàn cuò.

如果你说没事就是说我犯了错,但是你可以接受。如果你说没错我就知道我没有犯错。

If you say ”méi shì” it means I made a mistake, but you can live with it. If you say ”méi cuò” then I know I didn’t make a mistake.

LARA:

Duì. Wǒ yīnggāi shuō “méi cuò.”

对。我应该说没错

You’re right. I should have said “méi cuò.”

Thanks Lara for this wonderful little story.

 

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Yoyo Chinese – my new job

Wed, 05/23/2012 - 07:38

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve taken a position as “course designer / script writer” at Yoyo Chinese. I’ve only been doing it for a little while so none of the lessons that I’ve written have been posted yet, but I’ll probably refer to some of them in the future.

It’s been really great to work with Yangyang (the hostess and CEO) because, even though I’m the one writing the lessons, I’m still learning a lot. The process goes something like this:

  1. Yangyang writes an outline of the language points she wants covered and gives a bunch of example sentences.
  2. I write a first draft of the actual script for the lesson.
  3. She edits / corrects the script.
  4. I say, “Really!? Cool! I didn’t know that!”
  5. I rewrite / polish the lesson.
  6. She films it.

It seems to me, now that I’ve written a few episodes, this is probably the ideal type of collaboration for teaching a foreign language: the native speaker (Yangyang) supervising and presenting the material with an experienced learner of the target language (me) designing the presentation and providing sympathy for the learners. It’s been fascinating so far.

Like many of the high quality podcast / video lessons out there, Yoyo Chinese is a paid service. But there are some sample videos you can see for free on the site including topics such as Chinese word order, an overview of pinyin, some learning tips.

Also, I recommend looking at some of the free reference materials Yangyang has written including ten common mistakes we English speakers make when learning Chinese.

As one final thought I just had to share this musical language lesson Yangyang posted on Youtube (I don’t have anything to do with the youtube channel).

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Memorizing that Famous Qingming Poem

Mon, 03/26/2012 - 00:38

I could be wrong, but I THINK I remember from that book How to Win Chinese Friends and Gain the Admiration of All Peoples:

Tip 94: Memorize famous poems about Chinese holidays.

Every year when Qīngmíng Jié 清明节 rolls around I’ve always thought about (and then promptly forgotten about) memorizing this little poem.

Well for whatever reason, after years of not doing it, I’ve finally decided to commit it to memory. With the Qingming holiday and the accompanying “Bǔkè 补课 Bonanza” fast approaching, I’ve only got a few days to recite this to as many people as possible (no good doing it AFTER the fact, you know).

Go ahead. Quiz me on it next time you see me.

(The full text and English translations are here.)

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faceless Through to Quarter Finals (top 250)

Thu, 03/22/2012 - 07:05

(from the faceless news feed)

I’m very happy to announce that faceless has made it into the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest in the Young Adult Fiction category (because the main character is 17 years old).

A quick outline of the contest rounds and number of entries:

  1. 5000 entries submitted in each category (Adult / Young Adult)
  2. Top 1000 entries chosen based on 300-word “pitch” (I won’t give you the pitch because it spoils the whole story)
  3. Top 250 chosen based on 5000-word “excerpt” (announced here)
  4. Top 50 chosen by Publishers Weekly editors, who read the whole book (to be announced April 24, 2012)
  5. Top 3 chosen by Penguin editors.
  6. Winner chosen by Amazon customers.

We’ll see what happens next. It’s fun to be in the contest because no matter what, I’ve already got the book finished!

Get all faceless news updates delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.

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The Four Faces of Chinese People (women, really)

Sun, 03/18/2012 - 10:00

Disclaimer: I just pulled random Google Image results. No thought or care has been given to the content of source. Sorry if I’m linking to something weird.

The other day in English class we were talking about hair styles and one boy said he thought the shīfu 师傅 (in this case, “barber”) should consider your face shape (liǎnxíng 脸型) when recommending a hair style.

This lead me to say, “Um… what are the choices for face shapes?”

The class agree there were some “standard” face shapes that everyone talks about (I think it’s girls mostly).

A quick Google Images search for each of the four, respectively, lead me to some images.

The two everyone wants are:

1) guāzǐ liǎn 瓜子脸 = Mellon-seed Face

2) é dàn liǎn 鹅蛋脸 = Goose-egg Face

I don’t see a huge difference, but I think the guāzǐ liǎn is just higher cheekbones and a sharper chin, generally (even though we can’t actually SEE her chin in the first picture).

Then there are the less desirable ones:

3) guó zì liǎn 国字脸 = “Country”-character Face 4) bǐng liǎn 饼脸 = Flat-cake Face

(Didn’t feel right somehow, putting up pictures of these two. You’ll have to do your own Google Search.)

Seems like those are the two that girls don’t want to have.

Anyway, it got me thinking:

  1. I don’t think there are handy, standard expressions like this to describe face shapes in English. I mean, a discussion about face shapes with people in general would be weird for me, personally. But even stranger would be if I discovered that everyone had a shared vocabulary for this in English.
  2. How funny that I could say to a Chinese girl, “You’ve got a face like a melon seed” and her response would be to beam back a huge smile and say, “Why thank you! And you’ve got a goose egg face yourself.”

Because of the high romance of that second thought, this is getting filed under “Love and Dating“! (only the second ever post to be awarded that prestigious label)

Do these seem to be well-known face shapes all over China? Feel free to leave a comment to let us know.

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Chinese Hanzi Adventure Method

Thu, 03/08/2012 - 11:03

(As promised here, this is my separate post about hanzi.)

Anyone want to make some money? You’re welcome to my idea about how I think hanzi should be taught:

Inspiration

If you’ve never had the chance to play an adventure video game (or even some RBGs), you’re missing out on the virtually-fueled feelings of constant improvement and the thrill of using your ever-increasing resources to make progress. You’ll never know the feeling of coming to a locked door and wondering where the key is, only to find it was in the chest in the very first room of the game and you’ve been walking right past it this whole time! The discoveries, improvements, progress, and collection of items all help you work toward your end goal in those games.

I think the spirit of adventure games could be put to work to teach hanzi a lot more efficiently and maybe even more funly than it is currently. Allow me to explain.

How Hanzi Is Taught Now

The following are currently emphasized when teaching hanzi (as I understand it from people who have actually taken Chinese classes):

  1. Learning to write hanzi from the first day of class
  2. Hand writing
  3. Number of strokes / stroke order
  4. Radicals (the ones on this list)
  5. Learning to write 你好 (nǐ hǎo) on the first day of class

Let me go through those one by one and tell you why I think it’s time for an updated approach.

1. No need to learn hanzi until you’re already speaking. You can if you want to (indeed, some people ONLY want to learn the characters because of their beauty, etc.), but for communicative skills I think it’s better to build up a fluency in the language using only pinyin before introducing the hugely time-consuming characters. That is the same order, of course, that Chinese children learn oral and then written fluency.

2. No need to learn hand writing. Again, you can if you want to (and I would recommend Skritter if you want to because I think it’s very cool), but I think recognition is more important than handwriting. (Here’s a 12-year-old article (PDF) that agrees with me … oh …  I mean, that I agree with.)

3. (see number 2) Besides, we’re looking stuff up in pinyin dictionaries or computerized / iPhone dictionaries now (one of the main uses for number and order of strokes in the past was to be to help us find things in complicated hanzi dictionaries). If you’re not going to write the characters by hand, the number of strokes and their order isn’t really that important now.

4. Some of those radicals are pretty complicated. Look,  (gāo = high) is listed as a radical with 10 strokes! Yikes! Aren’t there smaller pieces? (Yes there are, I’m getting to that.)

5. 你好 is too complicated for a first hanzi lesson. Once you are ready for hanzi, 你好 is not the place to start. I know not every teacher of Chinese will try to get the students writing 你好 on the first day of class, but that’s exactly what happened in some classes I’ve heard about from friends. The teacher’s idea is: “Well, that’s the first thing you say in Chinese so you might as well write it too.” Actually, as long as you accept my idea to get the students’ verbal proficiency way ahead of their hanzi proficiency (see number 1), it won’t matter what the first thing they said was (way back then). You are now free to learn hanzi in any order you want.

Minecraft

I turn now to Minecraft, a game I’ve never played, as the perfect example of how hanzi should be taught. (For my purposes I’ll call Minecraft an adventure game.)

My brother explained to me that, in Minecraft, you walk around and get stuff that you use to make other stuff. You have a 3 x 3 “workbench” that you can put raw materials onto and then: voila! Out come more complicated things.

For example, you can put together 3 bricks of gold and 2 sticks in a certain formation to make a gold pickaxe.

You can then use the pickaxe to do things you couldn’t do before and get even more stuff then make more stuff, and the beat goes on.

Hanzicraft

That’s exactly how I think of hanzi. Rather than talking about “radicals” in the strictest sense of the word (this list), characters should be broken down into even smaller “items” that you run around and “pick up.” Then, once you’ve got them in your “inventory” you can start making hanzi out of them.

Here’s an example of the difference between my “adventure” method and the traditional thinking:

  • Traditional thinking: = +
    Total parts (radicals) = 2
  • Adventure method: = + +
    Total items = 3

My adventure method immediately shows that is actually 1 “thing” more complicated than the traditional view of it.

I’m interested in learning characters in order of complexity rather than by their radicals or number of strokes. I don’t care if a character has a million strokes as long as it’s made up of stuff I already know.

So just to summarize, the adventure method is about learning characters according to:

  • Complexity (which I define as number of different “items”)
  • Inventory (what different “items” do I already know)

So here’s how you would “build” in the adventure method:

That’s kind of complicated, and it’s only the second half of saying “hello.” Why are we doing this on the first day of class?

The adventure idea is that you’d want to learn those three “items” that are in red boxes first. But that seems a little bit advanced to me. That’s like asking the students to start making and using the pickaxe before they’ve figured out anything about the sticks and gold.

Here’s how I would start:

Look what I can do with just one “item” yī:

Tada! I’ve only learned one item () and I got 2 more hanzi characters out of it without even learning any new pieces. The characters aren’t more complex (according to my new system) if you’re just reusing “items” you’ve already got. The complexity rating could be thought of as “total number of different items needed to make this.” So even though and are 2 and 3 strokes, respectively, they’re still “level 1″ in complexity and “learnable” because I’ve got all the pieces in my inventory.

Now look what I can do when I go “pick up” a :

So now I’ve only “collected” 2 items ( and ), but already in my inventory I’ve got 7 hanzi (一,二,三,人,大,天). That’s my kind of game! 7 for the price of 2!

And that’s just the beginning because I can now use those new hanzi to build more stuff. tài would be a logical next step.

So look at how complex 你好 nǐ hǎo really is:

Yikes!

No need to do that until you’ve got all 6 of the items leading up to it, and there are a bunch of other hanzi to “build” first along the way.

A quick word on the “mystery item:” It’s testament to the freshness of this idea that the little cover thing at the top of doesn’t have a name or it’s own unicode character (that I know of) even though it’s used again here:

I just used because that’s the closest thing I could find that was like that. It’s ok if the thing at the top of and doesn’t have it’s own name or meaning. Some items may be useless unless combined with other stuff. But I still prefer to think of each individual, reusable piece as it’s own thing so I can “build” any characters I need to out of it.

So there it is. That’s how I recommend learning hanzi characters, and I’ve never seen anything that does this (which certainly doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist). Some things come close, but not ever quite what I want.

But don’t forget, at the same time you’re learning hanzi (or probably better to do it first), you should use pinyin to get yourself speaking up a storm. Learning the hanzi can and should be it’s own separate adventure.

An Actual Game / App

I seriously think this would be a good game or at least an app. If someone would like to make it, go ahead! I hope I just get to try it.

If you want my help (in spite of my horrendous color choices in this article), I’d love to be a part of the project. (Oh don’t worry. I’ve kept a bunch of fun ideas for the game to myself in case I do get to be on the design team [wink].)

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faceless Kindle Edition Released

Sun, 03/04/2012 - 15:32

Just a quick update about my novel: I had quite a few people tell me they would like to read it in eBook format. So I’m very happy to announce the Kindle version of faceless has just been released!

The paperback is still available too, of course, but it ships from the USA so the eBook may be more realistic for expats.

SPECIAL NOTE FOR CHINESE LEARNERS: Because the Kindle conversion process is a little bit tricky (read: I don’t understand it at all), all hanzi in the book (don’t worry, there’s not that much and it’s not important) has been converted to images. I borrowed a friend’s Kindle to have a look at them and they look a little bit… well… like images of hanzi instead of the crisp, clear characters we’re used to seeing on our computer screens. Sorry about that. I’m too ignorant about all things Kindle to have figured out a better way to do it.

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Keys: How Many Words Do We Need?

Mon, 02/27/2012 - 00:46

I know I’m going to start to sound like a huài le 坏了 record, but here’s yet another example of why we need better data in the dictionaries.

Recently, on the weibo-sphere, I saw a lost and found notice about a ring of keys. They used the word:

I’ve been in China almost seven years and this was a first for me. I’ve talked about, lost, and copied many a key in my day, and I’ve only heard and seen:

The disturbing thing is: I can’t deny that suǒchí 锁匙 is a real word for keys and it’s really in use. There it was, staring me in the face on the weibo.

But imagine I just arrived in China and saw this weibo post and wanted to know which word to use. How would I know? What’s the difference between these two words? Is it regional? Is it written / spoken? Formal / informal? Are there slight differences in connotations?

The dictionaries I have don’t give me the answers to those questions. None of my paper dictionaries even have suǒchí 锁匙 (although one has suǒyuè 锁钥!).

And to make things worse, I thought to myself, “Well at least I know ‘key’ on a piano / computer keyboard, etc. is jiàn .”

Then I see MDBG’s entry:

  • jiàn (door lock) key / key (on piano or keyboard)

Oh no! “Door lock key” is listed there too! But is it really used that way?

All my experience says that yàoshi 钥匙 is absolutely the most frequently used word. Signs for key copying places use it. People say it. So I’m not too worried about getting this one right. But still, I’d like to know what the difference is between these words. And is jiàn really ever used to mean “door lock key”?

This seems to be the nature of Chinese: It’s rare to find a thing or concept that there’s only one Chinese word for. So we need the dictionaries to help us make sense of all these synonyms.

Any thoughts on keys or dictionaries, feel free to leave a comment.

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Wanted: Chinese Sign Frequency List

Tue, 02/21/2012 - 14:21

[Update: Bizarrely, comments weren't allowed on this post at first (they are now). I don't know why.] 

Someone want to make some money? Well you’re welcome to this idea if you can figure out how to do it and monetize it. (Maybe it’s already been done, although I doubt it.)

For years we’ve had lists of Chinese characters sorted by frequency. They are all fine and good if you want to learn something about those 3-4000 characters you’ll need to be able to read a Chinese newspaper.

But seriously folks. Who comes to China for their newspapers?

Much more useful (at least to me personally) would be a list of characters found on signs, storefronts, and billboards. Let’s call this genre “outdoor characters.” Even those who are not really interested in learning how to speak Chinese arrive in China and wonder about all the weird symbols they’re seeing. And that’s the point: we’re all seeing these characters all the time. They could be learned and reinforced much easier than the ones needed to read a newspaper or even a weibo.

I’ve wanted this list for a long time, and when a friend said the other day that he too would like it, I got to thinking: “Hey! Since that Pleco thing knows how to convert the real world into characters, why couldn’t we start to put something like this together?” (I have a dumb phone and have never had the honor of trying out the Pleco thing. But I would get a smart phone just for this project if it ever comes into existence).

We could submit photos of outside hanzi characters through a special app on our phone ($$$ people, here’s one way to get some) that would go into a big database and then somehow start putting together character frequency data. Seriously, I would go around taking pictures like these on my phone if it would be for the greater good:

I just went around and took random pictures for 5 minutes. But still, as you can see, already frequency patterns start to emerge:

  • Red (3) = 超市 chāo shì = supermarket
  • Green (2) =  jìn = forbidden / prohibited
  • Pink (2) =  tíng = to stop / to park
  • Yellow (2) =  lù = road
  • Black (2) =  diàn = shop

Isn’t that fun? And that’s just a lame little impromptu frequency list I’ve thrown together. What we really need is a whole bunch of people working on this together. Maybe even Pleco would like to have an opt in (that’s important) program where you can let them catalog the characters you’re seeing outside.

I already put together my own little list of top 10 characters for travelers to learn, but that’s based on usefulness rather than frequency.

Hanzi literacy doesn’t just have to be about newspapers and standardized tests. If someone wouldn’t mind just whipping up this little Chinese signs project for us, that would be great. Just leave the link in the comments section. Thanks so much. Hello? Anyone?

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Chinese Grammar Wiki – First Impressions

Wed, 02/01/2012 - 15:59

I’m very happy to announce the grand opening (last week) of something I’ve been anticipating for hǎo jiǔ 好久:

(zhōngwén yǔfǎ wéijī 中文语法维基)

It’s basically an online grammar textbook that will grow with time (although it’s already pretty extensive) and should eventually have answers to every grammar question we ever have. It’s headed up by John Pasden (who is also Academic Director and co-host of ChinesePod).

Background

In 2010, John and I (and my sister) sat on the roof of the ChinesePod building in Shanghai eating pizza, talking about the gaps in the materials for foreigners learning Chinese. My main beef was (and still is) the problems with all the dictionaries (as I mentioned here). John’s was grammar. He said he was working on something and I told him I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather have filling the grammar gap. And now he’s unveiled it!

Originally just for clients of John’s AllSet Learning consultancy, the wiki is now available to all us laowai-s who need grammar explanations (especially those of us who zìxué 自学 our way through the language).

How to Use the Grammar Wiki

If you’ve used Wikipedia, the Chinese Grammar Wiki will look very familiar to you. I’m not going to explain about all the wiki stuff (like editing) because I don’t have a clue about it myself. I’m going to talk about reading and learning from the wiki as if it were a textbook.

Step 1: Get yourself some pinyin.

There is no pinyin in the wiki! But don’t worry worry less: there are solutions. The solutions involve installing a plugin or little program for your mouse to popup with pinyin when you hover it over the hanzi. They’re actually not that bad. I’ve got some suggestions here.

I asked John why there’s no pinyin in the wiki and here’s what he said:

“It’s not that I don’t think it’s necessary; I would agree that pinyin and translations for everything is the way to go.  But…I’ve learned from extensive experience that adding pinyin and translations to everything is a TON OF WORK, and I was worried that adding that extra work would delay us too much, and the wiki might never launch.  That’s unacceptable!”

I see his point. When I was writing Chinese 24/7 (and faceless too), it was kind of a nightmare to type pinyin (with tones) and hanzi for everything.

Step 2: Pick a starting point.

I’ve come up with two “paths” you can take to browse through the wiki at the moment (the search function isn’t quite running as well as I’d like yet).

  • Path 1: Table of Contents by Level. This isn’t quite as easy as I’d like it to be yet, but it’s pretty good. Go to the Grammar Points By Level page and pick a level you’d like to look at. It’s actually a separate table of contents for each level (I’d love to have the option of seeing everything in one, HUGE screen-full). If you go by level, you’ll have a more systematic progression through the articles (rather than wondering “how important is this to me at my level?”).
  • Path 2: Index by Part of Speech. Go to the Parts of speech overview and read to your hearts content what it’s all about. Or you can just skip right to Parts of Speech category page. Once you get there, you just click you way through to articles that are about any of the sub categories. For example, to see all the articles filed under “Measure Words” you would click on the Measure words link and then choose an article from the next list you get. The only thing to keep in mind for this process is that some articles may be labeled as being in 2 or more categories (so you might start to see some repeats as you go).

Step 3: Read some articles.

I’ve only started scratching the surface with this wiki, but I plan to read every article eventually. I’ve already found out some great information that I never knew. And that’s the whole point. This is a way to fill in the “curious gaps” in my Chinese grammar knowledge. I’m excited to watch the wiki expand and grow. Thanks John and your team for all the hard work!

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Hover Mouse over Hanzi, Get Pinyin and English

Mon, 01/30/2012 - 16:41

[Update: Thanks to all those who left comments and recommendations. I've added them to the post]

Since the last time I talked (asked) about this was in 2007, I thought an update was in order.

If you want to put your mouse over hanzi (like this: 汉字) and get pinyin and English, I only know of a few options (please feel free to add to this list).

Browser Plugins

These are little programs that run only inside your Internet browsers. They’re all free, but only work for web pages (i.e. not MS Word, etc.).

  • Chrome: Zhongwen - I’m trying this right now and I think it’s mostly good.
  • FireFox and Chrome: Perapera-kun - I haven’t tried the newest version yet but others have recommended it to me.
Programs

These are programs that run in your computer’s “system tray” (down near the clock in the lower right) and can be used for any Chinese text on your whole computer including web pages, MS Word, Excel, Notepad, etc.. I only know of one right now.

For Windows

  • MDBG Chinese Reader - I use this all the time and really like it. I haven’t tried the newest version, but there is now a free version (which I’ve also not tried), which is cool. It takes a really long time to start the program. But once you’ve got it loaded, you can turn it on and off without closing it.
  • Lingoes – Recommended by Zhangyanglu and Simake

For Mac

For Phones and Mobile Devices

Please feel free to leave comments and recommendations and I’ll add them into the main body of the article as they come in.

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New Internet Slang: Mù yǒu 木有

Tue, 11/22/2011 - 13:22

Strangely, I’ve been inundated with new Internet slang recently, and I just can’t help writing about it. It’s gotten me wondering about the specific processes and devices are at work for introducing and popularizing these “new” words. I’m getting closer to a unified theory about how it works, but for now, here’s the latest:

  • mù yǒu 木有 = don’t have [wood have]

That mù is actually a purposeful mispronunciation of méi (as in méi yǒu 没有).

My students have cited two sources for this slang way of saying “don’t have”:

  • A cartoon called “Mcdull” (mài dōu 麦兜 in Chinese)
  • A TV advertisement where someone speaks in “non-standard” Mandarin

Apparently, up north somewhere (Shandong?) the pronunciation of 没有 sounds like “mù yǒu” in their dialect. So, to imitate that dialectal, “non-standard” way of pronouncing the characters 没有, Internet users have chosen to use the characters 木有 to remind people to imagine it being said as “mù yǒu” instead of “méi yǒu.”

I’ve seen stuff on the weibo (you need a sina or weibo account to view) to the effect of:

It has also, as always, seeped into spoken Chinese. The other day I was asking some of my drumline students if they had seen something or another. One boy replied that he hadn’t seen it. But he said “mù yǒu” instead of “méi yǒu.” Everyone around us laughed approvingly.

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New Internet Slang: Kēngdiē 坑爹

Sun, 11/20/2011 - 01:02

Recently, I’ve noticed a word making waves in the weibo-sphere and even in my oral English classes:

  • kēngdiē 坑爹 = dishonest [defraud father]

I’ve heard it used in the following contexts:

  • The kēngdiē doctors (坑爹的医生) didn’t know what they were talking about. They just told me to take some medicine and go home!
  • That cafeteria is so kēngdiē! I paid 7 yuan and only got a little plate of food.

Supposedly, it came from some Japanese cartoon but I’m not sure about the details.

I also asked my students if it was considered to be profanity (cūkǒu 粗口), and most of them say it’s not.

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