Saturday, November 1, 2014

Full interview with Timothy Richardson - the man who brought the Heisig method to Chinese characters

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have been really lucky to get some time with Timothy Richardson, the co-author of the Remembering Hanzi book series. Although it is known as the “Heisig method”, it was through the initiative and effort of Tim that this approach was brought from the original Japanese application, to Chinese characters. Although I gave you a teaser to some really interesting facts about Tim and about the process of writing the books with Heisig, below you will find the full interview. Thanks again to Tim for this time, sharing so much about the books.


Tim, let’s start off with two quick questions, one about you in the big world, and about you in the context of the Heisig method:

• How would you describe yourself now, so that the reader can 'place' you?

I've been interested in language learning for a long time, but I also have broad interests in a number of other fields (philosophy, religion, science, etc.) and spend time reading about all that when I have a chance.

I'm a family man. I'm fortunate to have a capable, talented, dedicated wife and nine irreplaceable children. Each is a treasure.

• How did you first come across the Heisig method?

I was teaching English as a Second Language at Snow College, a community college in central Utah, when a Japanese-speaking colleague showed me a copy of Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji 1. I had taken three undergraduate courses in Chinese before that time, and this colleague thought I might be interested in Heisig's approach to the characters. He was right. Within minutes, I knew that (for me) this approach to character learning was better than anything I'd ever seen. Within a very short time, I was looking at and writing down correspondences between the Japanese elements and kanji in Heisig's book and what I knew of Chinese characters.

OK, great start. We’ll get back to the book in a moment, but I’d like to know more about you, Timothy Richardson:

• You live in Hawaii, but weren't born there? How did you end up in Hawaii?

You're right that I didn't start out in Hawaii. I was born in Mesa, Arizona, a place that has many wonderful people, but one that's way too hot for me. I have a definite preference for cooler climates. In fact, my biggest complaint about Hawaii is its lack of cold and snow from time to time. I'm aware that anyone who complains about the weather in Hawaii is likely to be seen as a crackpot, and for good reason. It's lovely here year around. I only have a preference for the cold because I absorbed so much heat in Arizona while growing up. I suppose I ended up here in Hawaii mostly because the University (Brigham Young University–Hawaii) needed someone who could teach both Chinese and Spanish.

• When we started chatting last year, you were actually working outside Hawaii - do you do a fair amount of travel like that?

I was on a sabbatical leave in Utah when you contacted me last year. I do travel some in my current position (it's been mostly to Japan to work with Jim Heisig in recent years), but I used to travel more. Before I decided to work full time in the field of language learning, I worked in several administrative positions in which international travel (or residence) was an important part of the job description. The time I've spent in various countries has definitely helped me as a language teacher.

• What are your current areas of activity?

For 13 years now, I've been part of the International Cultural Studies and World Languages Department at Brigham Young University–Hawaii (BYU-Hawaii), where I teach both Chinese and Spanish, and on occasion, Portuguese. I'm also involved in coordinating the teaching of world languages on campus.

In addition to ongoing work on the learning of Chinese characters, there are non-language topics that I hope to get to in the future (philosophy, religion, science, etc., as mentioned above). But I suppose I'll hold off on commenting about them at this point.

• How would you summarise your language skills?

I'm a native American-English speaker from Arizona.

I do speak Chinese. My wife and I lived in Mainland China for two years, where we taught English at the Xi'an International Studies University. I studied Chinese in much of my free time (unfortunately, without knowing anything of Heisig's approach at the time). I later studied Chinese at the graduate level and currently teach BYU-Hawaii's first three Chinese courses. I'm very fluent in some areas of the language and less skilled in areas that I haven't spent much time in.

Spanish was the first foreign language I learned, while serving as a missionary in Chile for two years. I later lived for six months in Spain and a number of months in Mexico while teaching Spanish on study-abroad programs for Brigham Young University (Utah) and finishing up a Masters degree in Spanish linguistics. I also lived in Brazil for over a year while working for a petroleum company headquartered in Texas, and became very interested in and involved with Portuguese. (Before the M.A. in Spanish, I had completed a Masters degree in public administration [MPA]. Then, after working at the Agency for International Development for a short time in Washington, D.C., I decided that I might prefer the private sector, and ended up working in it for several years before going back to school for the M.A. in Spanish.) While completing the Ph.D. at the University of Texas, I taught both Spanish and Portuguese (mostly Portuguese) and mostly studied Chinese and linguistics.

Finally, it’s worth noting that I don't have any expertise in Japanese. Our whole family lived in Japan for four months while Heisig and I were hard at work on the Book 1s, and I have accumulated more time than that there during other trips, but I have not tried to learn Japanese at all (even though I do find it appealing).

• What was the original trigger for becoming interested in the Chinese language?

I was working on the previously-mentioned Masters in Spanish linguistics at the time. I began to feel a strong interest in Chinese right in the middle of that program, so I started taking beginning classes. This meant that I was teaching undergraduate Spanish courses, taking graduate Spanish courses, and studying Chinese, all at the same time. My Spanish professors wondered about this 'irrelevant' interest I had developed, but they were good enough to tolerate it.

Now back to the work on the books you co-authored with James Heisig:

• I read that there was a 10-year period between seeing the method and writing your thesis - what happened during those years?

I don't know if it was 10 years or not. I could reconstruct this if I could spend time with my boxed-up journals from that time period, but right now that's not possible. It may have been about 10 years between my first seeing Heisig's approach and my finishing my thesis. During the intervening time I was teaching at Snow College, and then studying as a doctoral student at The University of Texas, at Austin.

• How did you get in touch with Heisig originally? Did you just drop him an email? You called? You met him at a university event?

I'm not sure if I wrote him a letter, wrote him an email, or phoned him, but I believe it was probably back in 1992 that I first contacted him, at the beginning of my doctoral studies. I might have something on an old floppy disk somewhere, but that will have to wait to be resurrected, if ever.

If I recall correctly, I asked him if anyone had ever done anything for Chinese along the lines of what he had done for Japanese. My recollection is that he responded that a number of people had asked him that question over the years, and that some had actually begun on the Chinese project. He said something to the effect that none of them had any idea about how much work would be involved. But he also gave me the name of a person who, with his native-Chinese-speaking wife, had actually made some progress toward producing materials for Chinese and suggested that I get in touch with him. I did so, and it's true that this person had done quite a bit of work on the project. Still, my feeling was that he had taken it in directions for Chinese that weren't as appealing as what Heisig had done for Japanese, so I was lukewarm about any sort of collaboration with him.

What contact with Jim Heisig and the other fellow did, though, was convince me that little enough had been done that I could focus on the project as part of my doctoral work. I did have to deal with the fact that I was fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, less fluent in Chinese, and that the sensible, practical thing to do would be to focus on the two Latin American languages. But my persistent inclination wasn't toward the sensible or practical, so I taught Spanish and Portuguese while focusing my studies on Chinese.

• So what happened in the 10 years after your thesis but before publishing the book?

I don't think I had too much contact with Heisig while working on the thesis (a few communications, I suppose, but not a lot). Immediately following completion of the thesis and graduation, I returned to Snow College, where I taught both Chinese and Spanish (and occasionally Portuguese) and served as the Foreign Language Department chair for three years. I remember that I did have occasional email contact with Heisig, and with the fellow who had been working on a Chinese adaptation, during that time.

Then, in 2001, I came to BYU-Hawaii, where I again began to teach Spanish, Chinese, and, on occasion, Portuguese. During the first number of years here, I continued examining a number of Chinese-character frequency lists (four or five) to come up with a unique list of most frequently used characters for Chinese. I also did a bit more of the relevant theoretical research that had been part of the dissertation.

• How much convincing did you have to do before Heisig agreed to 'coauthor' with you? Was it easy or hard?

At some point, I sent a hard copy of my doctoral thesis to Heisig. From what I remember, he took a couple of evenings to read/skim it and seemed pleased. Then, in 2003, I contacted him about making a short trip to Japan to meet him and show him the frequency list I'd been working on. We met and discussed things, and he was very generous in his encouragement for me to go ahead with the project. I told him that my thought, all along, had been that we might work on the project together, and that he would be the lead author.

I don't remember exactly when we decided to actually collaborate on the books, but an outside financial donor who had used Heisig's Japanese books, and who was at that point interested in some similar Chinese books, played an important role early on. I went back to Japan for part of the summer of 2006 to begin work on the books. Heisig, the outside donor, and I took care of a lot of details so that I could return with my family for the first four months of 2007 to continue the process. I returned later that summer and again in subsequent summers.

• What can you share about the time you have shared with Heisig?

I have worked side by side with him on this project for days and days on many, many occasions. He works hard and at a fast pace. He's good humoured and extremely knowledgeable. In his approach to the work of the books, he uniquely combines, it seems to me, 1) a real bent toward systematicity and 2) an impressive ability to find non-systematic solutions when problems require them. I have enjoyed many good meals with him and lots of good conversation. I've even had occasion to have my entire family visit with him. He's remarkably good with children and has a large store of jokes and magic tricks at the ready to keep them entertained. Much, much more could be said.

• Did you co-author the book mainly through emails and document sharing? Would you meet regularly over lunch and Chinese rice wine, arguing about which 1500 characters should be in book 1?

We have exchanged many, many emails and done plenty of document sharing, as well as my spending about nine months in Japan and him spending a few days here in Hawaii working on the project.

When it came to character selection he basically trusted the approach I was taking and left that to me – although we did collaborate on some character decisions with both books. With the Book 1s, we wanted the top 1,000 characters by frequency plus 500 other top-3,000 characters that would allow us to use Heisig's method for ordering them. This is detailed to some degree in the introduction of the Book 1s. We also collaborated on decisions about some of the last characters in the Book 2s when we were having to consider how many frequently-used surnames we should include in the top 3,000.

• Are you still in contact with him?

I am still frequently in contact with him, as the project still has many ongoing aspects to it. Spanish translations of the Book 2s have recently been published in Barcelona, Spain, and German translations are in progress. (Heisig is, by the way, fluent in both Spanish and German. I teach upper-division Spanish courses at BYU-Hawaii, and I can tell you that Heisig's Spanish is excellent.) Our translators, in both cases, are exceptional, but Heisig and I have been quite involved as well. I've helped quite a bit with the Spanish key words, and Heisig oversees the layout and typesetting in both languages. We occasionally have Hanzi-book errata to communicate about. We've also been considering the increasing demand for review apps and a set of books on character pronunciations, but the project that is absorbing our energies at present is an eBook that combines the two simplified books. We hope to have it out soon.

• On a more technical basis, were there any particular challenges that you two faced when doing the hanzi book, that perhaps were not an issue for the kanji ones? (For example, the issue of Simplified/Traditional is one that comes to mind, but maybe you can think of others?)

Yes, the simplified/traditional divide always had to be dealt with, and it had significant impact on almost innumerable details in the books. Initially, Heisig thought we should have just two books, one for the first 1,500 simplified and traditional characters, and another for the last 1,500. In other words, he thought we should introduce the simplified and traditional characters together in the same volumes, and he had figured out a promising way to do this. I was a bit hesitant that going this route would introduce too much complexity, but the deciding voice in the matter came from the outside donor. He expressed a preference for separate simplified and traditional volumes, and that's the direction we ended up taking.

• Can you tell us a bit about the fonts? They match the stories perfectly - but I’ve seen other fonts where the ‘make-up’ of the different characters is actually slightly different.

There were many details that had to be dealt with in terms of the Chinese fonts we used. No one font we looked at, whether simplified or traditional, showed all of the elements we wanted in the way we wanted them. With full-form fonts, especially, there were lots of variants to deal with. We ended up using proprietary fonts, with Heisig doing most of the heavy lifting here. His ability with the software needed to modify characters to suit our purposes was critically important.

• Uhm, Book 2 took a while! (For people like me who had done book 1 and were eagerly awaiting book 2, it seemed to take forever. And given that even official comment from the publishers seemed to use deadlines that were seriously exceeded several times, we all came to the conclusion that book 2 had some interesting challenges in wrapping up.)

You're right about the Book 2 delay. We were very aware of it. I think it's safe to say that one reason for it was that around the time of the publication of the Book 1s my university, BYU-Hawaii, made some significant administrative changes. The School took major steps toward emphasizing the teaching mission of the Institution. That meant significantly increased teaching loads and correspondingly less time for research. Heisig and I both wanted to move quickly on the Book 2s, but my situation at BYU-H made that impossible.

Another thing that probably delayed the books by a year is that we decided, when the Book 2s were well on their way, to change the ordering of the characters. We were both a little dissatisfied with the ordering that we had decided on previously (all too complicated to detail here). I was literally on my way to Japan for several weeks of work when the idea occurred to me that we could perhaps use the same ordering we had used for the Book 1s. That is, we could simply arrange the characters from the second 1,500 in Book 2 lessons corresponding to Book 1 lessons in which we could have logically introduced them. This meant that at least one Book 2 lesson would only have one character in it, and that at least one would have more than 100, but there was a 'cleanness' to this organizational idea that was appealing. I approached Heisig about it shortly after I arrived at the scholars residence in which he lives. He immediately saw some advantages to it, but he also saw some disadvantages, not the least of which was that it would mean redoing days and days worth of work from the previous year and delaying the publication of the Book 2s. After more discussion, we decided to take the new direction, and we're both glad that we did. This Book 2 ordering allows learners to choose between the sequential (Book 1, and then Book 2) path we originally intended and a simultaneous (Book 1 and Book 2) path that we had not. Both have their advantages.

• Are there any funny stories that you remember about the time you were writing the book?

We had a lot of fun with many, many of the character frames. The great majority of the creative work was Heisig's, but we often worked on or modified stories together. I feel that one of the best things I did was express reservations if I didn't think a story worked as well it should. This often led Heisig to add a twist or take a different direction altogether, and the frame involved was very often satisfyingly improved. Heisig has a gift for story creation, to say the least. (I suppose you might be aware that he once received a marriage proposal from a woman in India who had enjoyed his stories and approach to kanji learning so much that she had fallen in love.)

Here’s a major tangent. When my entire family was in Japan for those first four months of 2007, Heisig and I would go down to the gym at Nanzan University and play basketball on Thursday afternoons. We always took three of my boys with us (Nathan, then age 15; Seth, 13; and Jacob, 11), as well as another faculty member or two. I was 56 or so at the time, and Heisig was (and is) a few years my senior. I think my boys would all say that Heisig is a 'crafty' basketball player, and all of us could tell that he knew what he was doing on the court. Once, the previously-mentioned donor brought his two teenage boys and joined us for the day. We had lots of fun, and it was a nice change from writing.

That has been fascinating! Thanks. I’d now like to shift back towards you a little, without straying too hard from the Chinese path ...

• Is there somewhere your original PhD can be downloaded, for interested readers?

The dissertation is rather heavily theoretical in places and heavily referenced. The paper we previously discussed [aside: see link below] is easier for most people to handle. In any case, the dissertation can't be downloaded. The most recent information I have on ordering it (and some people have done so) is this:

If in the U.S.:
          The publication # (or UMI #) is 9838097.
          Call toll-free: 1 (800) 521-0600 (ext. 7044).
          Or write:
                    Dissertations: Customer Service
                    PROQUEST
                    300 North Zeeb Road
                    Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106

If outside the U.S.:
          Again, the publication # (or UMI #) is 9838097.
          Write: Dissertations: Customer Service International Department
                    PROQUEST
                    300 North Zeeb Road
                    Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106
                    U.S.A.

• What other published material of yours would I be able to find online?

I wrote a paper that I presented at a conference in Germersheim, Germany, in August of 2005. A draft that I had submitted to the conference committee has somehow found its way onto the Internet at http://www.fb06.uni-mainz.de/chinesisch/Dateien/hanzirenzhi_papers_richardson.pdf

The paper was later officially published as a chapter in a book that saw the light of day in 2007. Here's the reference:

  • Richardson, Timothy W. (2007). Chinese Character Memorization and Literacy: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives on a Sophisticated Version of an Old Strategy. In A. Guder, X. Jiang, and Y. X. Wan (Eds.), 对外汉字的认知与教学 [The Cognition, Learning, and Teaching of Chinese Characters] (pp. 315-353). Beijing: Beijing Language and Culture University Press.

There's also the short piece (at the link just below) that has some brief comments about the dissertation. I don't know why the owner of the site announced the books as being by Timothy W. Richardson and James W. Heisig, rather than vice-versa. I'll have to write her about that. http://www.kanjiclinic.com/richardson.htm

• Do you feel left out when - in relation to the Chinese book series - it's called the 'Heisig' method, and not 'Heisig-Richardson' method?

I can honestly say that I don't feel left out at all. You've been very kind in acknowledging my involvement in your blog [aside: see reference to 2009 article below], but I'm content to have Heisig's name most prominently associated with the project. It is, after all, his approach to character learning.

• Your draft paper linked to above spends some time defending the use of mnemonics, and it certainly seems clear that based on research that they are indeed effective tools - yet I see plenty of people who look down on such methods. Does this frustrate you? Defending against such fallacies - is this a strong area of interest for you?

I think it's understandable that people look down on mnemonics. They've frequently been used or peddled by disreputable people for less than noble purposes. Too, as I've said elsewhere, I have personally seen mnemonics that seemed so silly that I have wondered if any advantage in recall could possibly compensate for having to think in the terms they suggested. And there are many other objections, some specific to the use of mnemonics with Chinese. Still, we do now have clear evidence of their potential effectiveness, and they have gained legitimacy as language-learning strategies. I, personally, don't know of a task that seems more appropriate to their use than the memory challenge the Chinese writing system presents for the non-native learner of Chinese.

Defending mnemonics isn't "a strong area of interest for me," except as a justification for the work Heisig and I are doing together. I'm content to leave the general defence of mnemonics in the hands of experts in the field of psychology, and elsewhere.

• And what about other fallacies - such as "you must learn the pronunciation at the same time as you learn the characters”?

We do say something about this in the intro to the Book 1s. Maybe I'll allow that to suffice.

• When I originally approached you about this interview, you told me that you already knew of my MandarinSegments blog - because someone had sent you a copy of the 2009 article I wrote. Is there a story there? Was it a friend who sent you the link, or student, or other?

I wish there were a juicy story here, but I honestly don't remember how it came to my attention anymore. A friend may have sent it to me, or it's possible that I happened onto it myself. I don't remember. What I do remember is that I felt (and feel) appreciative of your kind comments.

You & China, the country:

• Have you ever lived in China?

My wife and I lived in Xi'an, China, for two years, while on a faculty exchange through BYU (Utah). Our first baby was born in Xi'an. We had arranged for everything to take place at the 4th Military Hospital, but when the time came, my wife informed me that there wasn't enough time to get there (maybe 30 minutes away through city traffic). Fortunately, the driver that was going to take us knew where there were a couple of midwives on the university campus. They arrived in the nick of time, helped us welcome our daughter into the world, stayed to help for perhaps 45 minutes, and, when all was under control, left. There had been the two of us in our bedroom, and then, that quickly, there were three. It was a beautiful experience. My wife deserves all the credit, of course.

• What are your favourite Chinese cities?

Xi'an, since that's where we lived for those two years. But I also enjoyed Guilin (for its scenery), Kunming (for its wide-open skies), Sanya (for its wonderful seafood), Urumqi (for its unique combination of Han and non-Han cultures), and Yan'an (for its historical connection to the revolution). There are lots of cities I haven't been to, though, so my selection is limited.

• Do you still return every now and then, if so then where? Do you get opportunities to guest lecture out there?

I was last in China (in Xi'an) in 2004 helping with a study-abroad group. I also took a group in 2002. I haven't been back since I started working with Heisig, but would like to return again in the not-too-distant future.

• Do you ever visit Hong Kong? (this is a selfish question - I'm wondering if I might get a chance to meet you :-)

My wife and I have been to Hong Kong twice and really enjoyed it both times. I don't know when the next opportunity will present itself, but I'll be happy to get to meet you if you're still there when that time comes.

• Do you have any favourite Chinese foods?

Yes, definitely. I really like 酸辣土豆丝 (sour spicy shredded potatoes) and 茄子 (eggplant), in almost any of the ways it's prepared in China.


Here endeth the interview. Thanks again, Tim.


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?