Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Meet the man who brought the Heisig method to Chinese characters (an interview teaser)

Dark Times

There was a time when the so-called Heisig method was for Japanese only. Those were dark times.

And even though the original version (“Adventures in Kanji-Land”) had been published as far back as 1978, no one had successfully produced a full working version for the Chinese character system. People who were learning Chinese - including me - were still hoping that one day the method would be applied to Chinese characters. (After all, the Japanese kanji come from the Chinese character set in the first place!)

The Age of Enlightenment

And then about five years ago the buzz was that it had been done: a book on Remembering Hanzi would be published. The person who had made it happen, working very closely with James Heisig of course, was Dr Timothy Richardson. And so Book 1 arrived with the first 1500 characters (which I devoured in about 3 months), and then 3 years later Book 2 arrived with the next 1500 characters (which I savoured over a year).

These were good times.

The Interview

Over the last few months, I’ve been in touch with Tim - throwing a barrage of questions at him, including:  When did this all begin? How did he approach James Heisig in the first place? What was the worst part of transferring the Heisig system to Chinese? Why did Book 2 take so long?!

And Tim has been ever-patient, answering my questions in amazing detail, telling a backstory which I found fascinating - and I know you will too!

In the next article, the full interview will be published. But for today I just wanted to share some of the really fascinating things I learned about Tim Richardson along the way …

Did you know … ?

  • Tim is married, and has 9 children
  • His first child was actually born in the Chinese city of Xian, on the university campus!
  • He was born in Mesa, Arizona, and now lives in Hawaii
  • There was a time when Tim was a missionary in Chile ...
  • … so in addition to lecturing on Chinese, he also teaches Spanish & Portuguese at his university
  • It was about 20 years ago that Tim originally approached Heisig with the idea of applying the method to Chinese characters
  • The amount of effort the two of them put into deciding which font to use for the characters in the book will surprise you!
  • His favourite Chinese food (because we are all curious :-) is 酸辣土豆丝 (sour spicy shredded potatoes)

I’ve enjoyed connecting with Tim, and look forward to being able to publish the full interview in the next article.  Stay tuned ...

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mandarin has FIVE tones (I said five, not four!)

Depending on what you read, different sources seem to disagree about how many tones Mandarin has. It's not a particularly big disagreement (and somehow, life goes on) but still ...

Some sources say Mandarin has four tones (No!).   Some say it has four tones plus a neutral tone (what does that mean??).   And others say it has five tones (like this post).

In this post I will *prove* that Mandarin has 5 tones!  :-)  Basically, I want to show you that the fifth tone is not just the toneless pronunciation of a Chinese character - the fifth tone actually changes the meaning of a character.

Brace yourselves.

The 5th tone is NOT the 1st tone
You can see from the MDBG screenshot on the right, the following words.
  • 地方: If this is pronounced dìfāng (where 方 is a 1st tone), it means 'region' or 'local'. But when it's pronounced dìfang (with 方 being the neutral tone) it means an 'area' or 'place'. Clearly the neutral tone isn't simply the correct way to pronounce the word - it actually has a different meaning when you use either the 1st tone or the 5th tone. 
  • 人家: Similarly, rénjiā means a 'family' or 'household', while rénjia means 'people' or 'other people'. 
  • 工夫; And while gōngfū is 'casual labour', gōngfu is 'time' or 'effort'.
So yes, the 5th tone is not the 1st tone.

The 5th tone is not the 2nd tone
Similarly, the following words show that the 5th tone isn't just an alternative pronunciation, it actually changes the meaning of the word:
  • 精神: jīngshén means 'spirit' or 'essence', while jīngshen has more of a 'vigour' or 'vitality' meaning
  • 出来: This one is slightly different, in that it's the first of the two characters which can also take on the neutral tone, but we see that chūlái talks about something 'appearing' or 'arising', while chulai is added after a verb to show completion.
  • 用人: This one is interesting - and it shows that I'm really skating on thin ice with this article, but in the MDBG dictionary (screen shot way above & right) only shows one possible pronunciation, whereas in the Pleco dictionary (slightly above and to the right) it suggests that while yòngrén means 'to make use of personnel', yòngren simply means a 'servant' 

The 5th tone is not the 3rd tone
I'm sure you're getting my point at this stage. Again, looking at the MDBG screenshot to the right, you can see that ...
  • 吗: When it's mǎ it's more about a sound-word (used in the Chinese word for morphine, for example), but as a neutral tone it's the question indicator
  • 起来: This can be qǐlai (to stand up) or qilai (placed after a verb to showing the process is beginning)
So yes, the 5th tone can't be the 3rd tone.

The 5th tone is not the 4th tone

I came up with a few more example here, showing that a neutral tone again totally changes the meaning of the word:
  • 大意: We start with dàyì (main idea), but when we change the tone we get dàyi (careless)
  • 生意: We first have shēngyì (vitality), but end up with shēngyi (business)
  • 不是: And while búshi (fault) has the neutral tone, bùshì (is not) is a clear 4th tone.
  • 世故: And again the one tone has one meaning with shìgù (the ways of the world), while the other tone has a different meaning with shìgu (sophisticated)
There is another one, but again MDBG is silent on the difference, whereas Pleco is very clear:
  • 过 (or 過 in traditional):  When it's used as a 4th tone word then the meaning is about 'crossing' or 'spending time', whereas when we want to show that is is about putting after a verb to show completion, then we need to use it as a 5th (neutral) tone.

So there!   We have shown that the 5th tone is not any of the first four tones - and in each of the above cases we are talking about the same Chinese characters, and about a complete meaning change when the 5th tone is used.

So if you had any doubt whether there are 4 tones or 5 tones - now you now. There are definitely five distinct tones. And it's not just a pronunciation thing!

Sideline thoughts:
  • As you can see, I'm thinking a fair amount about tones at the moment, and this follows the success of my previous article on the sneaky third tone.
  • You might also see this as a confusing follow-on to my discovery that Mandarin is just a series of maths formulae!
  • Do you know why I chose this particular photo - right at the top of the article - to be the header for my post? There is no prize - but people will love & respect you if you explain below specifically where I got the screenshot, and why I used it here.
  • If you want an intelligent discussion of the neutral tone, as opposed to what you get on this blog :) then read some good stuff, like this Wikipedia article.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

That sneaky third tone - stand still!

I've been thinking a fair amount about tones lately, and although some of the points are relatively basic, I thought it would be useful to put some of them down in writing. There is a surprise in here for you!

So today I wanted to write a really short article about the changeability of the third tone - going from blatant to less well known.

1: The Default Position
The character 你 means 'you', and it is written in pinyin as: . This is the dipping tone (it sounds like it looks) - and if you want to hear it pronounced correctly, just selected the audio option here.

2: Two in a word
There are some words which contain two third tones next to each other, like 你好 (nǐhǎo) - this is 'hello' and probably the first Chinese word you learned. In practice, you do not say nǐhǎo when you find words containing two third tones in a row: the first third actually becomes a second. If you have studied Chinese for more than a couple of months, you probably know this. Officially, pinyin still writes this as nǐhǎo even if it's pronounced níhǎo.

3. Two in a row, but different words
This is a slightly different variation of the above, but worth noting. Take the phrase 'very good' which is written 很好 (hěn hǎo).  Even though they are two separate words (so there is a space between hěn & hǎo), you still use the same rule as above, and pronounce this: hén hǎo.

4. The memorise-it-anyway-even-though-it-makes-no-sense type
Many students of Chinese learn the following phrase quite early on: 马马虎虎. It translates as 'horse horse tiger tiger', and the meaning is more like 'not so bad' or 'OK' (not quite a horse not quite a tiger, I guess). And this phrase is a sneaky collection of third tones:
    - 3333: item by item, it's mǎmǎhǔhǔ - but that's wrong
    - 2323/2223: if we followed the rules above, it might be either mámǎhúhǔ or mámáhúhǔ - but that's wrong too
    - 3511: actually the correct tones are: mǎmahūhū (!)

So odd, yes.
But worth noting (just in case).

Sunday, June 15, 2014

As (confusing) as possible

I was revising flashcards recently, and in a relatively short space of time there were sentences that included 尽可能 (jǐnkěnéng - as much as possible) and 尽力 (jìnlì - trying one's hardest).

Aside: 尽 (jin) means something like 'to the furthest extent', so since 力 means 'strength' and 可能 means 'possible', you can see how (尽X) words would work. 

Anyway, so my mind noticed - because the two sentences appeared just minutes apart - that in one I found myself saying jǐn (third tone - which is correct) and the other I said jìn (fourth tone - correct too). Chinese is always confusing - I've written about this plenty before - but I got to wondering when each would be correct.

The other word which then popped into my mind was 尽快 so I looked that up too ... damn!  The dictionary showed that it could be both jǐnkuài OR jìnkuài. So strange.

I was speaking to Judy about this oddity the other day, and she - as a HK'er who uses the traditional character system rather than the simplified system - pointed out the following ...
  • This is a known oddity in Chinese, and even HK people note this when studying Mandarin
  • If you use traditional characters, the words are written 儘可能 and 盡力, which shows us that actually they are not the same character in the traditional set (the 亻 component exists) - which partly explains why the one is third tone and the other is fourth tone
  • 尽量 gets this right, because the one traditional variation is 盡量 which consistently uses the fourth tone (jìnliàng) while 儘量 consistently uses the third tone (jǐnliàng)
  • However, when you look up 尽快 in the dictionary, you strangely find that not only can it be written using both forms of the traditional character (盡快 and 儘快), but even the matching tones that we observed above don't work here!
I guess this is a point of theoretical interest. It's nice to know, but if you're learning by listening & talking (and not just reading) then you'll get these points right anyway. Like in my case, I was actually correctly using the respective first & third tones without realising it - because that's how I learned each - and it was more coincidence than anything that I noticed it.

TL;DR:  Probably the right advice in this case is (a) listen to Chinese more (obviously!) and (b) if you're a flashcards kinda person (and you ought to be, if you're not yet advanced) then make a point of sometimes reading them out aloud - making sure the tones you're saying match the tones you're reading in the pinyin.

I've written before about words which - although the pronunciation remains the same - the meanings can be really flexible. But in this case it's about having the same meaning, but different pronunciations. Do you have any particular words which are as confusing as possible to you? Please leave a comment below ...

Friday, May 30, 2014

Happy 5th birthday, MandarinSegments!

Today is the fifth birthday of MandarinSegments. Happy birthday!

Here are some facts ...

  • I have posted 141 articles
  • My first post was about why I started learning Chinese
  • There have been nearly 200,000 page views for this blog
  • My most popular post of all time is Karate Kid - the qi force, which talks about the Jackie Chan version of Karate Kid - Google sends me all the people who are trying to work out what characters he traced on the window of the train
  • The post of mine which now gets more views than any other (though hasn't quite caught up with Karate Kid) is Heisig Method ("Remembering the Hanzi") - the full collection, which brings together all the posts I have written about this particular way of learning to read & write Chinese
  • Perhaps the post with the most interesting debate was Learn to speak Mandarin fluently in 6 months
  • Even though blogspot is banned in China, I have still received thousands of page views from there. I'm guessing it's through a VPN - although the number is probably a lot higher because the VPN might make the views look like they're coming from the UK or US, for example.
Most importantly, out of all the people who view my blog, YOU are my favourite reader.  You!!  Thanks for visiting, and please come again.

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.