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Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 020: Shaun Bettinson

Chinese Learn Online - Tue, 03/15/2016 - 09:26

In this episode, I interview Shaun Bettinson, a Brit who now lives in Taichung, Taiwan.

Listen to find out:

- What brought Shaun to Taiwan initially
– Where he learned his initial Chinese
– What he didn’t like about his first group class
– What he liked about his next teacher
– What he recommends you look for in a private teacher
– What kind of effort he put in to learn Chinese outside of class
– What benefits he found from being able to speak Chinese
– How he transitioned from teaching into an alternate career path
– How his Chinese helped him in his new position
– What advice he’d give to someone wanting to switch from teaching to a different career path

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 019: Davide Saccon

Chinese Learn Online - Tue, 03/08/2016 - 04:00

In this episode, I interview Davide Saccon, an Italian now living in Qingdong, China.

Listen to find out:

- How he learned “street” Chinese in Italy
– What brought him to China after that
– Why the Chinese he had learned before wasn’t as useful in smaller Chinese villages
– How he used the Chinese he had learned to land his first job in China
– Why it was much harder to learn Chinese outside of China than in China
– What cultural differences he noticed between working in China versus Europe
– How compensation affects motivation with Chinese workers
– How he manages language and communication with his Chinese wife
– Why he had to change the language approach he used with his kids
– The language approach he finds works best with kids from mixed language couples
– The problem he found with the local education system for kids, and what solution they found for it

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 018: Ethan Feig

Chinese Learn Online - Tue, 03/01/2016 - 04:00

In this episode, I interview Ethan Feig, an American now working in a trade company in Taichung, Taiwan.

Listen to this episode to find out:

- What brought Ethan to Taiwan at age 18
– How Taiwan differed from his prior expectations
– How he learned Chinese from a fellow expat, and how that approach compared to his Taiwanese teacher
– How he maintained his Chinese listening and comprehension skills while back in the US for 2 years
– How he transitioned from teaching English into other work
–  About the work culture at his current company
– What advice he has for others wanting to work in non teaching careers in Taiwan

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 017: Wesley Insights

Chinese Learn Online - Tue, 02/23/2016 - 02:56

In this episode, we welcome back Wesley (from our last episode) to share some of the more fascinating aspects of the Chinese language including:

- How abbreviations work in Chinese (and how they differ from English)
– Why Chinese can’t be the next global language
– Why understanding Chinese culture is so important to understanding Chinese
– The actual meaning of “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”
– How chengyus are formed, used and developed
– Sarcasm in Chinese culture and how it’s used
– How he learns and uses chengyus, and how this differs from how native speakers learn them
– Why accents in Chinese don’t matter
– Why Chinese TV has Chinese subtitles
– How the writing system of dialects like Taiwanese has evolved
– The multiple ways that dialects can be subtitled
– “False friends” in Chinese
– How colors in Chinese are used differently than they are in English
– Why language learning is a series of plateaus with no distinct peak


Lucky Money for Big Kids

Laowai Chinese - Sat, 02/20/2016 - 00:11

Since this is my first year working in business in China, I was introduced to a new tradition this week.

Everyone (well, almost everyone) came back to work on Monday after being home with family for the Spring Festival holiday. I was told by the CFO that we need to do 开门利事 kāi mén lì shì (also apparently written 开门利是), and the responsibility fell to me to do it. This (of course) made me very interested to know what in the world it means.

Basically, it’s a 红包 hóngbāo (often translated as “lucky money”) for adults.

The standard “red envelope” tradition goes like this: unmarried children can get lucky money from their parents, relatives, or close friends at Spring Festival time (but the kids often give all the money to their parents who then give some of it back to the kids to buy things… it’s complicated!).

But the “open door lucky money” that I handed out to employees is more about the symbolism of starting the New Year right rather than financial gain (which I’m sure is how the kids think about their hongbao-s). It means good wishes for our working relationship this year, and also for the company’s business, oh and also for your own personal health and success.

Since I’d never done anything like this before, I actually did a little rehearsal with the CFO. I asked her what to say and what they employees might say in response. That’s when I learned this new phrase:

  • 开工大吉 kāigōng dàjí = (wishing you) an auspicious start of the work year

Replies ranged from standard ones (more here):

to simply thank you (usually double dose 谢谢谢谢 xièxie xièxie).

But one thing is for sure: everyone was really, really happy to get it.

It was fun for me to do because it was so clearly important to everyone.

One guy wasn’t here on Monday and he came in to my office on Thursday for me to sign some other thing. After I signed it I saw he was still just standing there. I said, “Was there something else?” and he kind of looked nervously around and didn’t say anything so I asked again. He cleared this throat and said, “Uhhh… hongbao?”

哦!太不好意思了!对,你周一不在,我忘了!对不起!” I replied and quickly got his hongbao and wished him a (retroactive) auspicious start to his work year. He laughed and left the office smiling.

I also smiled to myself as I realized (for the thousandth time since starting this new job), just how much I still have to learn!

I’d be interested to hear about anyone else’s business traditions for the New Year. Also, for the native speakers out there (if there are any that read this!), do you usually see this written 开门利事 or 开门利是? Feel free to write here.

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 016: Wesley Holzer

Chinese Learn Online - Mon, 02/15/2016 - 03:50

In this episode, I interview Wesley. He’s an American, with degrees in Chinese and translation.

Listen to this episode to find out:

  • How Wesley got interested in Chinese in the first place.
  • How he found Chinese easier to learn as a second language than Spanish.
  • What his teacher did to significantly increase his interest in learning Chinese.
  • Why it’s important to learn the whole culture rather than just the language.
  • What aspect of Chinese drove his main interest in the language.
  • His biggest struggle learning Chinese in LA.
  • What his best decision was, regarding learning Chinese.
  • What he learned on the street that they don’t teach in textbooks.
  • What he learned from taking a degree in translation.
  • Why he learned more from his grad school classmates than from local friends.
  • What happens to foreigners as they live in Taiwan / China for an extended period.
  • The difference in culture working for a Taiwanese run company.
  • Why you also need to maintain your English, while living in a foreign country.
  • The benefits and limitations of having a local partner, with regards to improving your Chinese.

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 015: Dominic Cope

Chinese Learn Online - Tue, 02/02/2016 - 04:00

Dominic is from Oregon, USA, and now lives in Taichung, Taiwan with his wife and 3 year old twins. Listen to this episode to find out:

- What made Dominic move to China at the tender age of 16
– What it was like as a teenager living in China
– Why he lost a lot of weight while living in China
– What aspect of being a foreigner in China was the biggest cultural shock to him
– What brought him to Taiwan a couple of years later
– The biggest differences he noticed between Kunming, China and Taiwan
– What it was like to take a university degree in Chinese with local Taiwanese students
– How he transitioned from teaching English to his current position as Director of Operations for a US Tech company
– His advice for people wanting to transition into a different career path in Taiwan / China
– How he uses Chinese in his daily life
– His approach to language with his Taiwanese wife and his kids
– Why he changed his language approach with his kids
– His thoughts on educating his kids at this young age


Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 012: Priya Lalwani Purswaney

Chinese Learn Online - Tue, 12/08/2015 - 08:57

Priya is originally from India, but has now lived in Taiwan for 27 years. She works as a simultaneous interpreter. Listen to this episode to find out:

- What brought Priya to Taiwan in the first place
– Her initial impressions of Taiwan
– How she began learning Chinese and what approach they took
– Why she recommends an intensive approach to learning Chinese
– Why she thinks knowing Indian languages like Hindi helps in learning Mandarin
– Which sounds in Chinese she finds many English speakers have trouble pronouncing
– How she transitioned into working as a translator / interpreter
– Why she prefers interpreting over translating work
– How preparation for interpreting works
– The various types of translating options available, and the skills required for each
– Consecutive, whispering / simultaneous without equipment, simultaneous with equipment
– How interpreting is done for more niche languages (relay interpreting)
– The process that goes through translating sentence by sentence
– Why she recommends putting kids through the local education system up to Grade 3 or so before switching to an international system
– When she recommends learning to write characters and when it isn’t
– Why she recommends Hindi speakers (Indians) learn using zhuyin (bo po mo fo) over pinyin

Business Chinese: Resigning or Making a Speech

Laowai Chinese - Mon, 12/07/2015 - 23:18

I was greatly encouraged to read in the news this morning that some Chinese reporter made the ol’ 2-syllable-mix-up mistake that’s been my Achilles heel these past 10+ years of speaking Mandarin.

I get bizarre looks when I ask a store clerk if they sell any “honeybees” (mì fēng 蜜蜂) when I really mean “honey” (fēng mì 蜂蜜), but this reporter apparently got suspended for mixing up:

  • cí zhí 辞职 = to resign
  • zhì cí 致词 = to make a speech

And it was about the current president of China! (He actually made a speech and did NOT resign, by the way.)

I’d also like to mention the grammar involved (as you can see from the screenshot in that news link) was:

zài cízhí zhōng shuō 在辞职中说 = “(The President), while resigning, said…”

I’ll write more in detail later about the different words for ending a job in Chinese, but just one final thought before rushing off to the office this morning. Look at how quirky English is: a hyphen can change a word into it’s opposite.

That’s almost as fun as the fact that the word “cleave” can mean “stick together” or “separate!”

Have a great day full of careful proof-reading!

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 011: Jason Schuurman

Chinese Learn Online - Mon, 11/30/2015 - 07:32

Jason has lived in Taichung, Taiwan for the past 4 years, after previously doing a stint in China. Listen to this episode to find out:

- What brought Jason to China in the first place.

- How he practiced learning Chinese before moving to China.

- The benefits of learning Chinese from a native English speaker, and what to look for

- How he compares interacting in Chinese in China versus Taiwan

- How he compared living in Nanjing versus Shanghai

- What prompted him to move from China to Taiwan

- His thoughts on traditional classroom learning versus modern methods

- His thoughts on learning to type versus learning to read.

- His approach to learning to read while learning to speak

- How he received a scholarship to learn Chinese in Taiwan (and what key approach he used)

- The differences between Chinese and Taiwanese people

- His communication approach with his Taiwanese wife


Resources and links mentioned: Anki flashcard program, Taiwan Ministry of Education Scholarship information


New Job Forces Me to Study Chinese Again

Laowai Chinese - Wed, 11/25/2015 - 00:25

(Now that my coughing fit has stopped after blowing the dust off this blog, I think I’m ready to write something.)

After 10 years of teaching English at universities in China, I have made a career change (gǎiháng le 改行了) and jumped into the exciting world of business!

This is the introduction to a new series of posts about business vocabulary and gaps in my own Chinese knowledge that are only getting filled in now that I’m in a new career. But first, a word about teaching Oral English.

The end (for now) of my teaching career is marked with the publication of a brand new book:

Coach Them to Speak: A Practical Guidebook for College Oral English Teachers in China

My friend Elizabeth and I wrote it specifically for Oral English teachers in China, and more information is available about it on my other website here.

I very much enjoyed teaching English, and especially doing it at Peizheng College 广工培正学院 where I spent 8 years. I’m so happy to compile the experiences, tips, and resources from all these years into a single publication.

My new job is working for a company in Guangzhou called 小康之家 Xiǎokāng zhī jiā, or in English “Healthy Household,” owned by my friend Paul Condrell. (Here are 2 different videos on Youtube (English) and Youku (Chinese) introducing the company).

Because the whole job is in Chinese, I’ve found that my normal “cruising speed” for learning new vocabulary hasn’t been enough.

In other words, here I am in my 11th year in China, and for the last 8 years or so I haven’t needed to take notes or really do anything to learn Chinese because:

  1. New words started “sticking” on their own (this happened in about year 3). I could just remember them.
  2. The daily number of new words was so low (0 to 5 most days) it was easy to manage.
  3. The likelihood that I’d have a chance to reuse a new word was fairly low (because of the random situations that I’d learn a new word in) unless I made a point to use a word again (which I loved doing but often forgot to do).

But not anymore! All 3 of those things are different now.

So I went back to the basics.

Here’s my “自学 Chinese kit” from years 1 and 2 (I saved all this mostly for sentimental reasons):

You can see

  • 7 “flashbooks” (about 150 pages each with one word per page = 150 flashcards in each book)
  • 3 “field notebooks” (for taking notes when I’m out and about)
  • My favorite dictionary, “Chubby” (no Pleco back then!)
  • Microcassette recorder (no smart phones back then!).

And now, after 8 years away from the Chinese-learning game, I’ve just created flashbook number 8:

It’s already half full of little goodies that I’ll be sharing in the upcoming posts.

But most importantly: please, always, ALWAYS remember what these little critters say, no matter what muffin-shaped environment they might be in…

With that kind of attitude, how can you NOT learn Chinese?


Chinese Flashcards Apps Updated

Chinese Learn Online - Tue, 11/24/2015 - 11:18

We recently updated both our Chinese Flashcards iPhone apps with modern designs. They should be available as free updates, if you have them already.


You can find them in the app store here:

Chinese Flashcards: Learn 2700 characters

Chinese Flashcards II: Learn 1000 words for beginners

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 010: Cheryl Robbins

Chinese Learn Online - Mon, 11/23/2015 - 02:28

Cheryl has been in Taiwan for 26 years and has worked as a tour guide, translator and author.

Listen to this episode to find out:

- What brought Cheryl to Taiwan in the first place
– Why she recommends Taiwan as a place to learn Mandarin
– The advantage to learning phonetic symbols (zhuyin) along with characters
– How she was able to transition from teaching English to translation and then as a tour guide / translator.
– How she got her first job at a museum
– Why she thinks the demand for translation services will continue to increase
– How to create your own path in your own niche / specialty in Taiwan
– The importance of networking to find opportunities
– What types of projects she would like to do in the future
– The difference in working at a Taiwanese company versus a foreign company
– How to get your ideas through, when working at a local company
– The process of registering your own company here
– How her kids fared with bilingual education

Popularity of the Chinese character TLD for Singapore Internet domains

Pīnyīn News - Wed, 10/28/2015 - 15:48

For quite a few years Singapore has had several choices for those wishing to register Singapore-specific domain names, including .com.sg, .net.sg,, .org.sg, .edu.sg, .gov.sg, .per.sg, and just .sg.

Of those, .sg is a top-level domain (TLD), whereas .com.sg, .net.sg,, .org.sg, .edu.sg, .gov.sg, and .per.sg are second-level domains. This post is mainly concerned with TLDs; but when I’m giving totals I also include .com.sg, .net.sg,, .org.sg, .edu.sg, .gov.sg, and .per.sg but exclude specific domains such as groupon.sg. OK, now back to the post.

Although English is the dominant language of Singapore, it is but one of four official languages there, along with Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil, with Mandarin (along with other Sinitc languages) being the most common of the latter three. Some three-quarters of the city-state’s population is ethnic Chinese, and around half of that group speak Mandarin as the main language in their homes. In addition, for decades Singapore has promoted its campaign to Strike Hard Against Hoklo, Cantonese, and Other Languages that Your Government Says Are Puny and Insignificant Because They Have Only Tens of Millions of Speakers Apiece Speak Mandarin.

So you might think that four years ago, when Singapore introduced Singapore’s name in Chinese characters () as a top-level Internet domain (TLD), many in that multilingual society might jump at the chance to pick up some domain names ending with “Singapore” in Chinese characters. (Oh, it hurts me to use images instead of real text there; but until I get the hack fixed, that’s what I’m stuck with.)

Let’s take a look at what happened when the gates opened.

In September 2011, the first month that dot-Xinjiapo (.) domains became available, a total of 86 were registered. That’s not much of a land rush. The next month and the month after that saw no new registrations. But, OK, maybe they had a sunrise period limiting things. What happened later?

In December 2011 the number jumped to 218. This figure grew over the year 2012 to an all-time high that October of … 247 domains using the . TLD. Just 247. During the same month, Singapore had 143,887 registered domains, meaning that at the high point those with the Chinese character TLD were less than one fifth of one percent of the total. Since then, the number has fallen to a mere 210, with the percentage dropping to less than one eighth of one percent of the total.

Let’s look at this over time:

A Google search for the . domains reveals that those domains are even less used than the already astonishingly low registration numbers might indicate.

So that’s a total of two active dot-Xinjiapo domains, one of which is for sale. In other words, basically there’s just one being used. Ouch. That’s about as close to utter insignificance as a Singapore TLD can get.

Indeed, the only sort of Singapore-related domain that is of even less interest to the netizens of Singapore is one within the dot-Cinkappur TLD, with Singapore written in the Tamil script:

Dot-Cinkappur (.) domains have been available since December 2011, which is just a few months after the introduction of dot-Xinjiapo domains. The middle of 2015 saw the all-time record high in dot-Cinkappur domain registrations: sixteen. Since then the number has dropped to just fifteen.

A search on Google for dot-Cinkappur domains reveals zero active sites.

source: Registration Statistics, Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC), accessed October 27, 2015

See also: sg domain names in Chinese characters lag, Pinyin News, June 23, 2010.

Pinyin font: Sherbrooke

Pīnyīn News - Tue, 10/27/2015 - 14:37

Sherbrooke is a free Pinyin-friendly font by Eyad Al-Samman.

Sinica - Hope and Fear in the Age of Asia

Popup Chinese Lessons - Tue, 10/27/2015 - 01:00

The West has spent decades pleading with China to become a responsible stakeholder in the global community, but what happens now that China is starting to take a more proactive role internationally? In today's show, Kaiser Kuo and David Moser are delighted to be joined by Dutch journalist Fokke Obbema (the de Volkskrant correspondent with a perfectly normal Dutch name), author of the recent book China and the West: Hope and Fear in the Age of Asia.

As always, if you'd like to download new episodes of Sinica automatically, subscribe to our show via iTunes using our custom RSS feed. The easiest way of doing this is to open iTunes, select the option "Subscribe to Podcast" from the Advanced menu and copy the URL http://popupchinese.com/feeds/custom/sinica into the box when prompted. Everyone is also welcome to download this show directly from Popup Chinese as a standalone mp3 file. Enjoy and let us know what you think.

Learn Chinese Insights Podcast Episode 006: Todd Blackhurst

Chinese Learn Online - Mon, 10/26/2015 - 05:36

In this episode, I interview Todd Blackhurst. Todd moved to Taiwan from Texas with his wife and 3 teenagers in 2013. Listen to find out:

  • What promoted Todd to move his whole family to Taiwan
  • How he prepared for the big move
  • The adjustments for the kids, now living in Taiwan
  • The comparisons between the local education (American school) and American education
  • What he would have done differently if he had come with younger kids
  • How living in Taiwan is different from coming as a visitor
  • The challenges an American family has living in Taiwan
  • The differences in how direct you communicate with other people in Taiwan versus America
  • What worked for Todd when it came to learning Chinese
  • Their long term plans and language investment in Taiwan
  • Why he recommends others travel as a family
  • An aspect he loves about living in Taiwan
  • The closeness of family in Taiwan

AP language exams and Chinese in U.S. high schools

Pīnyīn News - Sat, 10/24/2015 - 04:26

Today I’m continuing my look at the U.S. high school Advanced Placement foreign language exams, focusing especially on the AP exam in Chinese Language and Culture. (See also AP exams: using highest and lowest scores to look at the case of Chinese.)In the graphs below, “Chinese” is the first column on the left.

The first and obvious point from graphing the numbers of high school students from the class of 2015 who took an AP foreign language exam is the dominance of Spanish. Combined, the exams for Spanish Language and Spanish Literature outnumber all of the other language exams put together … times three.

Now let’s look at the figures above broken down into the grade during which people took the exam. As you can see, there’s something different about when people take the Chinese exam. For all other foreign languages, most people take the exam their senior year. But the Chinese Language and Culture exam is most often taken by juniors.

That’s a little lopsided. So let’s take Spanish and Spanish Lit. out of the mix so we can compare the other languages more easily.

In just a few years Chinese has grown to be the third-most popular AP foreign language exam, behind Spanish and French. OK: way, way behind Spanish and about half of the number that French has. And Chinese comes in fourth if you count Spanish Literature. Still, Chinese now has more test takers than German. And it has more than Latin, Italian, and Japanese put together. But — you knew there’d be a but — the numbers for the AP Chinese Language and Culture exam are relatively large because most of the people who take it already know the language and didn’t learn it in an AP class. That is reflected in the charts above showing when people took the exam. (Note that Spanish also has a relatively high number of juniors taking the exam.)

The closest measure we have for native speakers and others with a much higher level of exposure to the language in question than other students is what students indicate themselves to the College Board on their answer sheets. Here’s how the College Board defines a “standard” student: They “generally receive most of their foreign language training in U.S. schools. They did not indicate on their answer sheet that they regularly speak or hear the foreign language of the exam, or that they have lived for one month or more in a country where the language is spoken.”

Here are the numbers for “standard” students in 2015 across various languages.

In this, Chinese drops from third place to fifth, behind Spanish, French, Latin (which is without a question on the standard group), and German, but still ahead of Italian and Japanese. When all test-takers are considered, AP exams in French outnumber those in Chinese by a little less than 2:1, which sounds very impressive (and, to some degree, it is). But when only the standard groups are considered, AP exams in French outnumber those in Chinese by more than 7:1.

Later in this series, we’ll look further at both the standard group and those not in it.

Pinyin fonts: Fortunata and Fortunatus

Pīnyīn News - Fri, 10/23/2015 - 11:48

Today’s Pinyin-friendly fonts are Fortunata, which doesn’t quite close the counters of some letters (e.g., a, o, e, p, d), and the somewhat more recent Fortunatus, which does.

Balint Erdosi (I’m sorry to omit the diacritics for now) of Hungary created both of these, which are available as donationware.

Emoji, language, and translation

Pīnyīn News - Thu, 10/22/2015 - 11:57

A couple of days ago the New York Times ran a small piece, “How Emojis Find Their Way to Phones.” It contains the sort of nonsense about Chinese characters and language that often sets me off.

Fortunately, Victor Mair quickly posted something on this. J. Marshall Unger (Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning, The Fifth Generation Fallacy, and Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan) and S. Robert Ramsey (The Languages of China) quickly followed. But since those are in the comments to a Language Log post and thus may not be seen as much as they should be, I thought I’d link to them here.

The Language Log post itself is on Emoji Dick, which is billed as a translation of Moby Dick into emoji. As long as I’m writing, I might as well offer up a sample for you. See if you can determine the original English.

Did you try “Call me Ishmael”? Sorry. That’s not it. But if you guessed that I would choose the passage from Moby Dick that mentions Taiwan, give yourself bonus points.

Here’s what the above emoji supposedly translate:

Hereby the casks are sought to be kept damply tight; while by the changed character of the withdrawn water, the mariners readily detect any serious leakage in the precious cargo.

Now, from the South and West the Pequod was drawing nigh to Formosa and the Bashee Isles, between which lies one of the tropical outlets from the China waters into the Pacific.

Ah, of course. It’s all so clear now.

The next time you hear someone use “pictorial language,” “ideographs,” or the like in all seriousness, perhaps ask them for their own English translation of the above string of images.

Actually, Emoji Dick screwed this up some, as part belongs to the main text and part to a footnote.

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