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.

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?