Focus: Learning and Teaching Chinese
Here we have a short guide to five different Chinese input methods, including pinyin, zhuyin, cangjie, sucheng and boshiamy, all of which can help your Chinese in different ways, some can improve your tones and some are based on the shape of the different characters. We apologize for the bad video quality - hopefully we can improve it soon.
The Arabic language has been my principle subject of study, and means of employment, for the past eight years. Recently I came to Taiwan to have a go at Chinese. Four months on and I can say that Chinese is inordinately easier than Arabic! Why? Perhaps some of has to do with improvements in my own language learning method, but I think it is mainly differences in the languages themselves, and in the approach each culture has to teaching its own language.
The principal difficulty with learning Arabic is the disparity between what we learnt in the classroom and what we would hear on the street. In class we learnt what was called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a formal language used for books, newspapers, on the news, but rarely for speaking. This meant that though we might be able to write at great length about American foreign policy in class, we could not make ourselves understood when asking for a cup of tea in the cafeteria. To further complicate the problem, the spoken language (aamiyya) varies widely from country to country, city to city, and even sometimes street to street. So even if we were taught to ask for a cup of tea, "I want" can be "aawiz", "biddii", "ureedu", "widdi", "nibbi" and many more variants depending on what region our teacher was from. So in some ways I can understand why aamiyya was considered off limits in the classroom.
Indeed, after five years of Arabic study, and three years working as a translator, I still regularly met people who I could not understand a single word of what they were saying. Here, it is a relief that whether I am in Taipei or Tainan people's accents -to my ear- are more or less the same, and unless one is speaking Taiwanese, I have an equally good chance of understanding either of them.
Another difference is the reading. Arabic, with 28 phonetic characters, compared to the thousands of Chinese characters each with a pronunciation that cannot always be inferred from reading, and sharing only 400 different sounds between them, should be easier, right? The problem is that in standard written Arabic, vowels are not expressed and in Arabic more than in other languages, vowels are very important. This basically means that every unfamiliar word I come I still end up guessing at the pronunciation (meaning aside!), and in Arabic there are a lot of words! It is embarrassing that after all this time I still cannot really read a newspaper or a novel without the help of a dictionary. At least in Chinese, once you have learnt the meaning of a character, and its sound, you can be sure it is a friend for life.
However, the biggest difference for me in how easy it is to learn a language is how well this language is taught, and Arabic for the best part was taught pretty appallingly. Think 1970s textbooks about conferences in East Germany and visits to the Middle East by President Bush (Sr.), long dictations, reading aloud, all the things that it has been agreed are not beneficial to language acquisition. The first words we learnt in our Arabic class, as I recall, were "Foreign Minister", "Summit" and "communiqué". By contrast my Chinese class –in a small, newly-opened language school- is fun, fast-paced and the emphasis is placed squarely on being able to speak Chinese and not to read and write it. Also, because there is a smaller gulf between written and spoken language –當然 for example, although used colloquially, can also be found in newspapers and books. In Arabic, similar expressions would usually be used only in oral communication, and confined to a small geographical area, so would certainly not be found in teaching materials- it is much easier to learn common oral language and to feel like I am fitting in- in linguistic terms!
Living in the Middle East and trying to get by in Arabic required me to become incredibly stubborn, mendacious and sometimes downright rude just to be able to speak Arabic and not English in my day to day life. One time in Yemen we pretended to be Kazakhs for a week. In contrast, trying out the Chinese I have learned so far –while shopping, at work, at the many regular language exchange events held in Taipei-I have received nothing but encouragement, and nothing but Chinese! I have found that people are generally patient, and if it is necessary to resort to English, people do so reluctantly. However, my flat-mate, who is fluent in Chinese, repeatedly complains that he finds the opposite, so perhaps it is just a question of perspective, and beginner's enthusiasm!
One sure way in which Chinese has been much more instantly rewarding is the advance of technology there has been since I was studying Arabic. There are now plenty of new ways to acquire a new language, all of which Chinese has embraced. For one thing, smart phones have been a revelation for me. Gone are the days of piles and piles of tatty paper flashcards scattered around the house and stuffed in my pockets. Downloadable dictionaries like Pleco also have the facility to create and test flashcards. I am using the AV Chinese textbook series and I can even download flashcard packs which correspond to the chapters so that every time we have a test, all it takes is an hour or two of scrolling through the flashcards- when I am walking, a spare few minutes at work, before I go to sleep- and that's vocabulary learning sorted. Social apps like LINE also are really good for keeping in touch with the new friends I've made here and a great way of trying out what I've learnt.
I do in fact like Arabic. I have had some amazing experiences, met unforgettable people, and discovered a treasure of literature and poetry. Yes, it is hard, but it was taught using the wrong methods. The way to learn a language today-or perhaps ever- is not to do a university degree in it! Advances in technology, ease of communication and travel, mean that universities often seem outdated compared to the many more ways to learn a language there now are.
When reading in Chinese, particularly literature and academic essays on literature or on certain blogs, you'll notice that the author uses combinations of words that don't exist in any dictionary as compounds - this practice, known as 「造詞」(zaoci), is frustrating when one is first trying to get to grips with academic writing or blogs, but eventually you start to appreciate the wit and creative charm behind it. If you've ever read The Meaning of Liff you'll get an idea of what this achieves and the possible comic effects.
This can be done for several reasons.
The first is to translate a foreign concept (or what was once only a foreign concept) into Chinese, many of these are simple but amusingly to the point, examples include 無政府主義 (no-government-ism) as a rendering of 'anarchism', 天主教 (master-of-the-heavens-religion) for Catholicism, or 利己主義者 (interest-self-ism) as a fancy way to say 'egotist' or for someone who subscribes to a self-interested ideology. A lot of these subsequently end up in the dictionary. More recent and artistic examples of this kind of word include both 「多音交響」(duo1yin1jiao1xiang3) "many-tones-symphony" and 「眾聲喧嘩」 (zhong4sheng1xuan1hua2) "many-sounds-clamouring" which attempt to render Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of "heteroglossia" into Chinese. These are usually found in academic articles and the source language equivalent is normally still placed in brackets behind the word to indicate that this is an experimental attempt. These words are also often translated differently in mainland China and Taiwan.
Another form of zaoci, however, is simply to create a new word by blending aspects of existing words. This form is more interesting and harder to identify, but can sometimes catch on and enter common usage. The technique is generally taking two words (normally consisting of two characters each) and taking one character from the first and one from the second to make a new word. These examples are quite hard to find, as they are essentially invented by the individual on the spot. Here's a short list of some of the more artful ones that I've discovered so far, feel free to add more in the comments box.
1. 「索愛」(suo3ai4) which blends 「索討」(suo3tao3), "to ask for", with 「愛情」(ai4qing4), "love," to mean someone who acts in a cutesy manner to try and get what they want - a near synonym for the mainland Chinese term 「賣萌」(mai4meng2) and the term 「撒嬌」 (sa1jiao1).
2. 「魘醒」(yan3xing2) which is an abbreviation for 「從夢魘中醒來」, "waking up from a nightmare".
3. 「熹亮」(xi1liang4) which combines 「熹微」, "the faint sunlight just after dawn" with 「光亮」(guang1liang4), "bright", to get a synonym of 「微亮」(faint light).
4. 「憤罣」(fen4gua4) which combines 「憤怒」 (fen4nu4), rage, and 「罣礙」(gua4ai4), worry, to mean a rage born of worry.
5. 「離聚」(li2ju4) which combines 「離散」(li2san4), "disperse", and 「相聚」(xiang4ju4), assembly, to mean when an assembly disperses.
Using variants is another way to make your writing more aesthetically pleasing (and also dictionary/foreigner proof). A variant is essentially another way of writing a certain character in Chinese which makes no significant change to its meaning. Some have been lost to standardization, but many are still commonly used - both versions in different settings and registers of writing. A common example is 「角色」 vs 「 腳角」. Another is the 「台」 in 「台灣」and 「舞台」 vs 「臺灣」 and 「舞臺」. Sometimes the variants are interchangeable in every combination like 「台」; at other times the variant can only be used when the word forms a verb or a noun, for example, my colleague Jiahe talks about the difference between 「鋪」 and 「舖」 below:
Another colleague, loathe to appear on camera, gave me this explanation of the difference between 「掛礙」 and 「罣礙」, which the Ministry of Education online dictionary states to be the same, meaning that here, 「掛」 and 「罣」 are variants of each other:
(Translation: I originally learned to write this word as 「罣礙」, the 「罣」meaning "stuffed up or congested", I interpreted this as one's heart being congested or stuffed up with some worry. However, later I discovered that 「掛礙」was a more common way of writing this word, with the 「掛」 meaning "worry" or "concern". Moreover 「掛」is easier to write, so people are more likely to write the word as 「掛礙」。The two forms of the word can be used interchangably according to the online dictionary of the Ministry of Education. This is because language is essentially just down to convention.)
In this second interview, I had the mainlander of the office, Yingying, discuss the variant pairs 「分／份」 and 「姐／姊」:
My interest in this subject really started when I changed to using the Cangjie input system - which is an entry system based on visual components of each character (if you're using a computer in Taiwan, these can be found on the bottom left corner of your PC's keys, or bottom right of your Mac's keys) :
日 (sun radical) + 月 (moon radical) = 明 (bright) for example
Although it's slightly more complicated to learn, it's helpful in getting characters to stick in your head - but as a side effect of this entry system - sometimes strange looking characters pop up when you get a stroke in the wrong sequence, like the long list that appears when you type a sound in pinyin as shown below:
In writing my thesis the title of the play I was discussing includes the character 「間」written 日弓日, but if you put an extra 弓 on the end, then you get 「闁」, a rare archaic variant of the character 「褒」 - meaning to praise. A mistroke in writing 「且」 written 月一 (and) gets you a variant of 「冉」 which is as follows: 「冄」 written 月一一. This is essentially the same as when you're typing in Zhuyin or pinyin and you have to sort through a list of weird characters, but in Changjie you generally only get one character with each combination you type, except on the rare occasions that two characters share the same canjie code, as above. Regardless if you're interested or not in the different ways to input Chinese characters, this really got me interested in why different people chose to use different variants in different situations. Have you found any interesting characters, variants or new invented words, if so feel free to let loose on the comments section!
In parallel to the interviews made with different learners of Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan, we decided to ask various teachers about their experience teaching in Taipei but also abroad, such as Mexico and France. Shufan, for example, has been a teacher of Chinese as a Foreign language for more than five years, her favourite experience being teaching to College students. She also lived in Mexico two years where she taught young children. Feajuar is a slightly less experienced teacher who has now switched to teaching English as a second language in Taiwan. Leo, or "professor Zhu" (朱老師) is one of the rare male teachers of Mandarin in Taipei, we met him at the Tianmu branch of the infamous Taipei Language Institute. Emmanuelle is French and she has been teaching Chinese to junior high school students in France for two years, at Perigueux, she was then in Taiwan for a workshop on teaching Chinese a sa foreign language.
For our viewers in mainland China, please click here.
In this video we talk to different students of Chinese about their experiences learning it, what the hardest aspect of it is, and the aides and help they have found along the way.
Free resource that features podcasts for all abilities, as well as helpful pop-up quizzes and a series of HSK mock questions based on vocabulary learned in the different podcasts. The website also features the Sinica podcast, with news and current affairs in China discussed in English for China watchers who haven't got to grips with the language as yet.
Radio Taiwan International offers downloadable programs in Mandarin Chinese (not to mention programmes in Taiwanese and Hakka) for advanced learners who want to get an idea what's in the news in Taiwan.
This is quite a good station with interesting programmes on a range of topics, a little like a Mandarin version of BBC radio 4. The link above is to listen live, but the official website is here if you want to browse different programmes.
There are a plethora of different radio stations that you can listen to but the two listed above seem balanced in their views and catered towards people interested in culture.
Lu Xun collected works on itunes
You can listen to Lu Xun's collected works on itunes, although in general audiobooks are not widely available for more modern writers.
Some of these talks are in Chinese and feature some famous scholars in different fields.
Cheesy soaps and TV programmes
There are a lot of very cheesy TV programmes and dramas that you can hone your listening skills with available online, from "Meteor Garden" back in the day to the more recent "Black & White", a helpful tip is to cover over the Chinese or English subtitles (depending on what version you get your hands on) and try and write down any vocabulary you hear, then you can put the pinyin into one of the dictionaries mentioned below, and possible character combinations will come out, you can then go and compare this with the actual subtitles. If you're not into cheese there are also some other shows that you might find interesting. Below is a very limited list of shows that I've watched or seen brief glimpses of over the last couple of years:
孽子 Crystal Boys: This is an excellent dramatic adaptation of Bai Xianyong's book of the same name. Following the life of A Qing, a young gay man who has just been chucked out by his father and has to come to terms with his new life and the death of his brother. Like many Taiwanese TV shows it's often bootlegged on youtube or tudou... just saying.
流星花園 Meteor Garden: This show takes the crown in terms of cheesiness (unless you look at some of the Taiwanese language shows). It's cheesy but light and fun (for the first season anyway).
痞子英雄 Black&White: Familiar story of two detectives in the police force who don't like each other but are forced to work together - it might be a tired trope in the detective genre, but it's in Mandarin and features different areas of Gaoxiong as backdrop. This, like Meteor Garden is an idol drama, so get used to the overacting and sudden swoops into dramatic music, but it's not an awful show.
波麗士大人 Police et vous: Too cool for an English name, this Taiwanese idol drama has a French name instead. Two friends join the police training school only to become love rivals - more cheese and overacting for you to enjoy.
全民最大黨 Celebrity Imitated Show: This programme is now off the air, but it was a political satire along the lines of "Spitting Image", looking at politics and current affairs. You can still catch some old episodes online.
大學生了沒 University: A panel of pseudo-celebrity (because of the show) university students compete to tell the funniest anecdote on this show on a diverse (ish) range of topics. This show sometimes even features a few cheesy foreigners like our very own Daniel Pagan Murphy. Reasonably easy in terms of vocabulary except for slang terms.
There are loads of other shows to explore, expect to see the same format repeating again and again however. Currently I am yet to see the Taiwanese "Breaking Bad" or "Mighty Boosh".
Improving your spoken Chinese
This is a free download which assesses your spoken Chinese, extra classes require payment however.
There are Chinese people out there who want to talk to you, whether online or in your own city, most likely, whether to engage in language exchange or just to make friends. You can check sites like gumtree in your own city or post an ad on a website like tealit in Taiwan or the various ones in mainland China advertising for a language partner. As with anything online, be wary of psychos/con-artists.
If you're not lucky enough to live around the corner from a kareoke joint, you can always go on youtube and sing along to the latest hits, you can even post your own just like Daniel Pagan Murphy (though steady yourself for the tide of abuse that is standard fare in the youtube world). You'd be amazed how often a bit of vocabulary from a song will be useful in every day conversations, particularly if you're going through a really heart-wrenching break-up.
Frustrated that Chinese book stores in the UK don't seem to have noticed that the May 4th Movement happened a while back now? This website provides international delivery of the latest titles, here's a few authors to get you started.
朱少鳞 Zhu Shaolin - A good author to start with. Chick-Lit full length novels.
胡晴舫 Lolita Hu - Casting a critical eye on different aspects of modern life, interesting essayist.
韓麗珠 Han Lizhu - Not yet read anything by this Hong Kong author, but was recommended by a friend.
木心 Mu Xin - Chinese author, probably my favourite Chinese author that I've read yet.
阮慶岳 Roan-Ching Yue - This author's short story collection is great.
吳念真 Wu Nien-zhen - This guy is a great story-teller and he uses really simple language well, although he's a little old-school.
白先勇 Bai Xianyong - Don't let the famous name put you off, although I would avoid 台北人 and go for his full-length novel 孽子.
This is a useful news website that features translations of Chinese articles, the original Chinese pops up in a dialogue box when you hover over a certain paragraph of the translated text.
Wenlin is not for free but it is quite a useful tool in learning Chinese, as it not only has a wide range of definitions, but the definitions library can be added to as you go. You can also draw characters and it will give you suggestions as to what it could be. It employs a hover over system, that allows for easy reading of large chunks of text.
Excellent website that allows you to input big blocks of text and hover over any individual character to get pronunciation and translation. It also parses words automatically.
A very useful dictionary that allows you to search for ending characters and sounds as well as beginning ones.
Useful app for android phones, pinyin entry possible. Free but there is also a professional edition available.
Good basic Chinese dictionary program for smart phones. Excellent for first time learners. Comes with flashcard system.
Taiwanese developed phone application. Bigger wealth of definitions than Pleco and more advanced content as well. For advanced users.
A staple of Chinese learning. A particularly useful feature is the capability to search for "fuzzy" pinyin, where the exact pronunciation is not known.
A very advanced Chinese-Chinese dictionary with detailed descriptions of phrases and words. Capable of searching for parts of compounds. If you want the character to appear at the start of a word you can put a ^ before the character, if you want the character to appear at the end of the phrase you can put the $ sign behind it.
A quick, easy and useful Chinese popup dictionary which supports both simplified and traditional Chinese. Just install it in your browser. Also exists in other languages such as French.
Offers free Chinese language course based on the US government's Foreign Service Institutes Mandarin Course.
An interesting talk on associating characters with pictures as a learning aide. Basic stuff but something for everyone to take away from this.
Nicola Boyle, a political science and Chinese major in Nanjing, suggests this video learning website. although she does say you now have to pay for it. She also suggested the following: Beijingcream, Shanghaiist, Italki, Waygo and Lang8
Photo by Greg.