Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cat's Delite

When I was very young I wrote a story at school, during which I used the word 'delite'. The teacher corrected this to 'delight' using her angry red pen. Later that evening my mom was looking at my work, and asked me why I spelled it incorrectly like that. I pointed out that I had seen the spelling on TV - and indeed I had. If my memory serves me correctly, there was a cat food product called "Cat's Delite" advertised, and they used the 'wrong' spelling for the brand name.

I remember feeling how unfair it was that incorrect (quote unquote) spelling was allowed on TV which could confuse us poor little innocent children.

And so we come to Chinese.

I had lunch recently with Jimmy, a language exchange partner. I forget what we were talking about, but when wanting to use the word "communicate" (i.e. people communicating with each other), I used the word 交通 (jiāotōng) - which Jimmy was quick to point it was not the correct word.  He recommended that I should use 交流 (jiāoliú) instead.

I know there are often many synonyms for a single word, and somehow I had convinced myself that 交通 was a valid alternative for 'communications'.  I was about to accept that I must have made it up, or something, when Jimmy came up with a suggestion ... and he was right!

Yup, all over HK I see the logo for Bank of Communications, and the word 交通 appears there. In my mind I guess I had therefore connected those two words - even though in fact 交通 is more about 'traffic' than about people 'communicating' with each other.

Sigh, us poor little innocent language learners. Learner's Delite indeed.

Have u incorrectly learned words that terned out knot two bee rite?  Drop a note be low and rite a comment ...

Friday, April 11, 2014

iPhone's new annoying pinyin keyboard

My pinyin keyboard, for messaging in Chinese on my iPhone, used to look like this ...

But when I upgraded to OS7, it got really ugly and ended up looking like this ...

This new keyboard (which I subsequently found out is called the 'T10') was terrible - I was used to 'qwerty' and I wanted it back!  I looked for another pinyin keyboard in the usual place, but there were no other pinyin options available ...

     Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards > Add New Keyboard ...

So I kind of gave up, thinking that this must be an Apple design choice, and that I was the one left without a choice.

Then a couple of weeks ago, while looking at my list of installed keyboards, I accidentally clicked on my pinyin keyboard  ("Chinese - Simplified,  Pinyin")  - and suddenly I was faced with several options:

At the time, '10 Key' was selected, but nothing else. I took a gamble, by turning off '10 Key' and turning on 'QWERTY' - and I got my preferred keyboard back.

I couldn't believe that I missed that in the first place - as had all the people I moaned to about this new setting, it seems. But even stranger is the fact that this appears to be Apple's default pinyin keyboard for HK & China, even though a quick search shows that most people hate it. What a strange default position for Apple.

From my perspective, however, this is now solved. I have my qwerty pinyin keyboard back, and life is beautiful.

I've written this article because it seems that there are still many people who don't realise that they aren't limited to T10 - so feel free to choose the one you want!

PS. Any of you get stuck with this damn T10, not realising you had a choice? You're welcome to leave a moan comment.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Winning imaginary arguments

I remember seeing a post on Reddit (which I have been unable to track down - let me know if you can) which was roughly as follows:  "This is a graph of how I spend my time in the shower:"

There is certainly some truth to this, and judging by the response to that original graph, there are plenty of people who do this - imagining scenarios, presenting clever arguments, and winning convincingly.

And, for people studying another language, some of those imaginary arguments end up being in Chinese. Don't pretend that you haven't done it too … you know, you imagine a scenario where you're having to deal with some difficult person who only speaks your target language, and you win while arguing in that language.

What's fun is that this imaginary arguments sometimes happen in real life (although probably not arguing with strangers in the shower  :)

Sure, you get the easy scenarios where - in real life - some Chinese person is looking confused and you end up helping them by giving directions in Mandarin.

But you also get the real arguments.

For example, last year I went to South Africa and was standing in the queue at immigrations, waiting my turn to get through. Suddenly a group of five Mandarin-speaking people tried pushing in front of me. I told them in English there was a queue and they should please go to the back - but they pretended they couldn't speak English (or maybe they actually couldn't) - but either way they just ignored me.

I got really annoyed, and started telling them - in Chinese - that there was a queue, and that everyone else is waiting, and they should go to the back of the queue. They stood there speechless. The main guy said something back in Chinese, but I didn't actually understand him - so I just repeated myself, reminding them that there is a queue.

And they backed off, and then slinked to the back of the queue.

I felt fantastic - winning an argument in real life in Chinese - in a scenario that normally would only be imagined during 95% of one's shower time. Then some of the other (non-Chinese speaking) people in the queue smiled and gave me the thumbs up.

So yes, if you're looking for a reason to study Chinese, or to study a little harder, then winning arguments like this - whether privately & imaginary during your shower, or publicly with real Chinese people - definitely makes it worth while.

Have you ever had something along these lines happen to you in Chinese?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The question of the problem with questions & problems

In Mandarin, the word for 'question' is the same as the word for 'problem': 问题 (wèntí).  This is normally not an issue - you can tell from the context of the sentence as to which interpretation is being used.


This morning, however, when I sat down to a hot cappuccino with my Chinese teacher, she asked me, “有问题吗?”   (yǒu wèntí ma?)  I was confused for a moment, since I thought she might have been asking it in a challenge way - like "What's your problem??"   Then I realised she was simply asking if I had any questions at the start of our lesson.

As I say, most of the time the context makes it clear what your meaning is. But if not, you could always extend the sentence just a little.

For example, instead of "我有问题"  (I have a 'question', or I have a 'problem'??) - you could say "我有问题要问你"  (I have a question I have to ask you.)

Or you could just leave people wondering about you.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Looking for Mandarin 'companion'

A few weeks ago I was approached by Jared Turner at Mandarin Companion with the offer of a few download codes, giving me the opportunity to review* some of their new books. MC launched towards the end of last year, with the goal of releasing a series of graded Mandarin readers ("new books for a new generation of Chinese learners") - and they have a growing library available. Also in the MC team is John Pasden (of ChinesePod fame).

TL;WR**:  I'm very impressed.

Extensive Reading
I've read many articles about language learning that encourage you to start reading in your target language (books, magazines, newspapers, comics, …) as soon as possible for maximum gains. Of course for many other languages, it's relatively easy to do this - even quite early on. After all, they use the same alphabet as English, and there is certainly a lot more overlap with English. (For example, can you guess what the Italian word 'aeroporto' means? Or the German word 'Banane'?)

But for Chinese, it's tough to follow this great advice about extensive reading. Even before you can begin you need to have memorised a few hundred characters just to hope to understand the first sentence. And this is where graded readers come in ...

Graded Readers
("this rare hit title uses just 10 letters, as a rule")

You can read more about what Graded Readers are (and why they are good) in Mandarin Companion's own words, but suffice to say that they are books which are written to be at a specific level - allowing for the number of characters used, the level of the resulting vocabulary, the themes covered, etc. 

Over the years I have tried a few graded readers, and collected a number of Chinese books at various skill levels. The problems I have had is that some of the books have been too simple, some have been too complex, and many at the more basic literacy levels have quite boring stories - even childish.

The Mandarin Companion books that I have read are different, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.

So, the books …
I was given download codes for the following three books:
  • The Monkey's Paw (originally by WW Jacobs in 1902)
  • The Country of the Blind (originally by HG Wells in 1904)
  • The Secret Garden (originally by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1911)
These are old stories - but don't let that put you off. I'm guessing the reason for choosing old stories is to avoid issues around copyright, but these are classics - and are very good stories in their own right. A nice touch is that the names and places have been changed to totally 'Chinify' the story, so you forget about the Western world for a while.

In fact, I was so immersed in reading them that I often forgot I was reading Chinese, I was just so into the story - which is how reading should be IMHO.

These three books are all at the so-called Level 1 - which means they use about 300 characters, which build up to 400 unique words. But because the stories chosen were classics, I didn't feel that I was reading children's books - even though my reading skills are materially past Level 1. 

A nice touch was that for certain words which were perhaps deemed to be more challenging for people at Level 1, there is a set of endnotes - you can click on the words to go to the definition, and then click 'return' and get taken back to the place you left off.

And I was pleased to see that people's names and places were underlined. I seldom see this in the Chinese books I read - most commonly seen in movie subtitles - but it's really helpful, particularly for readers who are less experienced.

You can see their full selection of books here.

Suggestions to Mandarin Companion
Although I very much enjoyed reading their books, I have some suggestions for them - one bigger, and several smaller ones.
  • I do have some concerns with the price - at fractionally under US$10, I think it could work out to be an expensive habit. On the one hand, I appreciate that a huge amount of effort goes into abbreviating, translating, illustrating and then grading these books - and maybe this really is the 'right' price. On the other hand, I believe that books for learning like this should be consumed and not savoured, and for something that takes an hour or two to read (depending on your level), even a book a month will amount to a lot, let alone anything more regular.  (At first glance, $10 for around 120 pages perhaps doesn't seem so bad, but allowing for English introductions & endnotes, the stories are only about 70-90 pages including illustrations.)
  • The endnotes are great - but I think a new word really only needs to be referenced once. For later appearances of the same word, I think MC could (indeed, 'should') skip the endnote reference. That would certainly make the reading flow better.  For example, having the endnote break 漂亮的 into 漂亮[2]的 each time, 盲人门 into 盲人[1]门 dozens of times, and 盲人国 also into 盲人[1]国 dozens of times feels a little clumsy and slow.
  • I think that having an illustration that represents the end of the story should be avoided (or put waaaaay past the final page of text). I was down to the last couple of pages and staring at me was a picture of what happens at the end - even before the words had taken me there. I had a sense of pride for having read the book, but it wasn't the words that gave away the ending it was the picture :(
  • There are a few places along the way where a name was missing in the intro, or the 'return' from endnotes took me back to the wrong page. Not serious issues - just requires a little more editing.

The Future
  • I look forward to seeing more titles being released. I will be reading more at Level 1, partly just because I enjoyed the flow of reading at a level that didn't require any thinking or use of dictionaries, and partly because the stories are just good reads. I also look forward to seeing titles coming out at the higher levels (I'm not sure when that might happen, or how far those levels will reach - perhaps MC can tell us below?).
  • Following on from my comment about price, maybe there will be special bulk offers available for people who want to mass consume? Please?
  • And as for you … I recommend that you get yourself a book or two - for instant reading on Kindle, iBooks or Kobo. They're great stories, nicely translated, and they make excellent reading practice. 
TL;DR**:  I'm very impressed and will definitely get some more

* Other than the three free download codes, no other incentives were offered nor taken
** 'too long won't read' or 'too long didn't read'  :-)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

I really regret not studying Chinese sooner!

I had an interesting conversation with a Westerner over a cup of coffee the other day. He has been living in Hong Kong for over 5 years, and barely speaks a word of either Cantonese or Mandarin.

The conversation went something like this …

   Him:  I really regret not studying Chinese sooner.
   Me:  You really regret it?
   Him:  Sure! I have missed out on so much of HK because I don't speak any Cantonese, nor do I read any Chinese characters.
   Me:  And if you had?
   Him:  If I had started years ago, then I would be pretty damn good by now!
   Me:  So you really regret it?
   Him:  Yes, so much!
   Me:  So much? It really bothers you?
   Him:  I think about it all the time, I just wish I had started when I arrived in HK. I would do anything to change that.
   Me:  OK, but you can't change the past. You can however do something now.
   Him:  What?
   Me:  You can do something now.  Today.  Why don't you begin today?
   Him:  Today?
   Me:  Sure. You can't change the past - but in 2 years time, you don't want to find yourself saying "I wish you had started 2 years ago …"   So begin now.
   Him:  Well, I'm not sure I'm prepared to put in all that effort now.

   Me (thinking, but not saying it out loud):  OK, so you don't really regret it. If it bothered you that much, even though you can't change the past, you would certainly change the future by beginning now.

Do  you find yourself in this situation?
  • You wish you had started studying Chinese earlier, and haven't really started yet? 
  • You realise that if you had been using flashcards then your vocab would be much bigger now, but you still aren't using flashards? 
  • You regret not having learned at least a few hundred of the simplest Chinese characters, and you're not currently trying to learn any of them?
Please - don't regret what you haven't done. Don't wish you had made different decisions. You can't change the past. But you can do things differently now. Decide what you wish you had done, and do it now. It doesn't matter that you might have lost days, months or years - because at least if you begin now then it will prevent lost days becoming months, lost months becoming years, or lost years becoming … never.

Aside:  Just in case you decide to actually do something today, here are some links that might help:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Eye shit

The other day I was speaking with a Chinese friend, who thought she might be getting sick, because when she woke up her eyes had been filled with "eye shit". She said it so matter-of-factly, as if that was the official name for the gunk that collects in one's eyes while sleeping.

Well, it turns out that in Chinese, it is!

It is written 眼屎 and pronounced yǎnshǐ - the translation given by is "gum in the eyes".

The first character 眼 is 'eyes' - that's easy'. And according to the same online dictionary, the translation for 屎 is 'excrement, shit, dung'.  So yes, "excrement from the eyes" is a more palatable translation.

But I definitely think that "eye shit" is the winner here today, folks.

PS. In English I call it "sleep in my eyes" - what do you call it?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Saddle up … for the Year of the Horse

Horse calligraphy, by Jasmin
It's riding into town - The Year of the Horse - and it will arrive on 31 January 2014.

In the same way that the western Zodiac has different personality types for people born in different months, the Chinese Zodiac has something for people born in different lunar calendar years. For a bit of fun, if you'd like to understand better what personality you are, and what the Year of the Horse means for you, then take a look at this site which has some great summaries.

But this is a Mandarin-learning blog, so let's dig a little into 'horse' as a character, a word, and as part of larger phrases. This is all consistent with my WordPack philosophy - which helps make learning Chinese much more efficient.

The Character Itself
The Simplified Chinese character for 'horse' is 马, which is written as 馬 in the Traditional Chinese character system - this is pronounced .  Although it's hard to tell, the character actually evolved from something that used to look like a horse! Here's a diagram which I got from Taeglich Chinesisch (a German-language Chinese blog) to make that etymology more obvious:

Just part of a Character
Sometimes, though, the 马 character isn't used as a full character, but rather only as a part of the character. For example, the word for 'camel' is 骆驼 (luòtuo) - note how the horse radical appears in both of the hanzi. When you're learning to read & write Chinese, you need a system to help you memorise all of these variations - I recently wrote an article called Stoned Horses which covers exactly that topic.

Horse Words
There are many words which include the 马 character - some related to horses, and some where the connection is a little more obscure. For your convenience, I have include the full details of the words & phrases below, so that it's easy for you to copy into your flashcard pack. And seriously, if you want to massively increase your vocab, in my opinion you really should be using flashcards.

The format I will be using is:
  • english (simplified / traditional) pinyin: comment
The Actual Horse
  • horse (马 / 馬) mǎ
  • measure word for horses: (匹) pǐ: for example, 'three horses' is 三匹马
  • horse (马匹 / 馬匹 ) mǎpǐ: given the above two characters, this alternative word isn't really a surprise :)
Things Related to Horses
  • saddle (马鞍 / 馬鞍) mǎ'ān: literally a 'horse saddle'
  • horseshoe (马蹄铁 / 馬蹄鐵) mǎtítiě: literally 'horse hoof iron'
  • to ride a horse (骑马 / 騎馬) qímǎ
  • horse racing (赛马 / 賽馬) sàimǎ
Because English uses the Word 'horse'
  • horsepower (马力 / 馬力) mǎlì: uhm, it's 'horse power'
  • seahorse (海马 / 海馬) hǎimǎ: again, as simple as 'sea horse'
  • ponytail - for hairstyles or similar (马尾 / 馬尾) mǎwěi: if you pretend a pony and a horse is the same thing
  • wooden horse / rocking horse / gym vaulting horse / trojan horse in computing (木马 / 木馬) mùmǎ: literally it's a 'wooden horse'
Names & Places - because it makes the 'ma' sound
  • Mark (马克 / 馬克) Mǎkè
  • Marco Polo (马可波罗 / 馬可波羅) Mǎkě Bōluó
  • Barack Obama (奥巴马 / 奧巴馬) Àobāmǎ
  • Rome, capital of Italy (罗马 / 羅馬) Luómǎ
  • Malaysia (马来西亚 / 馬來西亞) Mǎláixīyà
  • Himalayas (喜马拉雅 / 喜馬拉雅) Xǐmǎlāyǎ
  • Amazon (亚马逊 / 亞馬遜) Yàmǎxùn
  • … and so many more example like this.
Figurative Horses - where the connection is slightly tenuous
  • immediately (马上 / 馬上) mǎshàng: get on your horse right now!
  • street or road (马路 / 馬路) mǎlù: I guess it's the place where horses used to ride
  • BMW cars (宝马 / 寶馬) Bǎomǎ: quite a clever name, by sound & meaning
  • zebra (斑马 / 斑馬) bānmǎ: I suppose 'striped horse' is about as accurate as you can get!
  • hippopotamus (河马 / 河馬) hémǎ: it looks like a horse in the river (said no one, ever)
  • fine steed (千里马 / 千里馬) qiānlǐmǎ: literally a thousand mile horse, which would be fine!
  • unexpected winner (黑马 / 黑馬) hēimǎ: literally a black horse, similar to English usage
  • knight in shining armour (白马王子 / 白馬王子) báimǎwángzǐ: a Prince on his White Horse
  • so-so (马马虎虎 / 馬馬虎虎) mǎmahūhū: horse-horse-tiger-tiger, neither one nor the other
  • suck up to / toady (拍马屁 / 拍馬屁) pāimǎpì: to pat the horse's buttocks, to encourage it forwards

Chengyu is a massive body of Chinese idioms (usually four characters) which you can read about here. Below are some of the ones I have found which relate to horses. If you take a look at Chinese-Tools, you will find at least 50 chengyu that use the character 马 - so I will only include a few here, and leave you to trawl through the others if you're overcome with desire.
  • 马马虎虎 (mǎ ma hū hū) so-so: I have already mentioned this one above, but it's one of the first chengyu/idioms that we learn when studying Chinese so it's worth a second mention
  • 兵荒马乱 (bīng huāng mǎ luàn) the chaos of war: soldiers wasteland horses confusion
  • 单枪匹马 (dān qiāng pí mǎ) single-handedly: single spear one horse
  • 非驴非马 (fēi lǘ fēi mǎ) it resembles nothing: neither donkey nor horse
  • 快马加鞭 (kuài mǎ jiā biān) as fast as possible: fast horse add whip
  • 露出马脚 (lùchū mǎjiǎo) unmask the true nature: expose the cloven hoof (also: 露马脚)
  • 马到成功 (mǎ dào chéng gōng) achieve instant success: succeed as soon as the horse arrives
  • 盲人瞎马 (máng rén xiā mǎ) rush headlong into disaster: blind person kills the horse
  • 秣马厉兵 (mò mǎ lì bīng) be combat ready: feed the horse, strict soldiers
  • 一马当先 (yī mǎ dāng xiān) be the first to take the lead: one horse goes first
  • 走马看花 (zǒu mǎ kàn huā) examine a thing hurriedly: ride the horse while looking at flowers
  • 车水马龙 (chē shuǐ mǎ lóng) heavy traffic: car water horse dragon (sorry, what??)

Saddle Up
So now you know the character, the words, the implications. All that is left to do is to have a great Year of the Horse - bring on the dancing horses!!

   Happy New Year!  

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Don't read books, read sculptures

Firstly, happy new year - welcome to 2014!   Secondly, just a quick post about something I saw which I thought was totally amazing …

Zheng Lu is an artist who creates very impressive things - you can see his full collection here. But it was in particular a series of sculptures made up of thousands of Chinese characters that really caught my eye.

The article which talks about these can be found here, it's well worth a look. And to give you a sense of scale, take a look at the picture above, and you can see the most incredible detail Zheng Lu goes to in his work.

So if you're tired of practising reading Chinese books, and you'd like to read something a little different, then read that!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Stoned Horses

When students learn to read & write Chinese characters, there are broadly two ways of doing it. The first is 'brute force' where you practise the strokes over & over again until you have internalised them, and the second is to use some method of visualisation which allows you to decompose the characters into parts - and piece them together again using imagary (which is much easier to remember that just pure strokes).

Although I used the Heisig method to learn 3000 characters (and I've blogged extensively on this - you can find the full collection here), note that what I'm writing below is about visualisation in general, and is not specific to the Heisig approach.

Take for example the character for 'numeral' - which is 码 (mǎ, also written 嗎 in the traditional system). You can see it's made up of 石 (stone) and 马 (horse). When I learned this character, I naturally had to create an image of why stone+horse=numeral. In this case, a flood of images came to mind, and I realised there were so many options.

So many examples!

It got me thinking of times I've spoken to people about visualisation methods, and they say it's so hard to create images. So in addition to the very popular article Tips & Tricks for Heisig Visualisations, I decided to share here a range of images that I could use for this character.
  • I picture the Terracotta Army, but instead of rows and rows of soldiers, I picture rows and rows of stone horses. And of course, since this is a very valuable collection, I imagine each horse is numbered - as you often see in museums. I suppose you can use this & this to help you create the image yourself. Ultimately this is my preferred image for remembering that stone+horse=numeral. Your preferred image may be different, and that's OK.
  • Or I can see a horse doing maths. You know, with numerals. But horses can't write in books, so this horse has a few stones laid out on the ground before him, and he is moving them around, a little like someone might use an abacus, to do the calculations. 
  • I can also visualise a ten-pin bowling alley, but you won't find pins at this place - instead you will find 10 stone horses at the bottom of the bowling lane. Can you see as your ball hits them, they break from the impact - and your score (such a high number!) appears on the board above you.
  • Maybe there are horses running a race, but the track has lots of loose stones on the track, and each time a horse stumbles on the stone and falls, someone keeping score of 'lost' horses chalks up a higher numeral on the board.
  • How about a large piece of cardboard which is part of a colour-by-numbers approach. But with this one you don't paint according to the number, you place a stone of different colour on that number. And when it's done and you step back, you can see it's a horse!
  • Another possibility is to imagine cave paintings of horses scratched into the stone walls, but when you look more closely you notice that between the pictures of horses there are numbers - almost like the person was doing maths with horses as numerals
  • Alternatively, I can see a gateway with a stone horse head mounted on top (it looks a little like this) - there is someone sitting astride that head, and as people pass through the gateway, she updates the numerals in her notepad, since she's counting people who use this entrance. 

Choosing the best one

Let's be clear, the one that is best for me may not be the best for you - so don't simply choose the one that I have chosen, but recognise which one best matches the way your own thinking works.

(It is possible to come up with really bad images, which I've written about here, but none of the above ones fails the tests in that article.)

After having done 3000 characters this way, I know instinctively how my brain works. And if you repeatedly hypnotised me to forget this character, and kept asking me to (re)create an image, it would probably be the first one, again & again. This is important, because in future when you're facing the character in The Real World © you will indeed need to see 码 then think stone+horse, and if your mind comes up with a different image, then you're never going to be able to work out what character you're looking at!)


Did this help? Is it useful to be reminded that there really are so many (good) ways of creating images, that we shouldn't feel helpless, and we shouldn't forgive ourselves for feeling we can only come up with poor images?

So while you're in a visualisation mood, challenge yourself … Pick one or two of the characters below and create a few images that actually work. For fun.

  • 敌: tongue+taskmaster = enemy
  • 妄: perish+woman = absurd
  • 坏: earth+NO = bad
  • 如: woman+mouth = if

Leave a comment if you have any clever thoughts. Or if you have any dumb thoughts, that's OK too.