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'  :-)