Chinese Resources

Friday, December 16, 2011

Practicing writing on the go.

Skirtter is making some big waves with the the soon-to-be-release of their iPhone app. It is one of the main reasons I'll be saying 再見 to trusty iPhone 3G. Just take a look at their new teaser view, it looks spectacular!

I'll be sure to have a review out as soon as I get my hands on the app. But for now, just enjoy!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Enjoy the journey

Sometimes starting the journey of second language acquisition can be the hardest part. In those first few months of studying Chinese, many find characters and tones incredibly complex. A quick Google search reveals that you need to learn around 4000 individual characters to read (and understand) a newspaper cover to cover. At that point the route to fluency seems almost impossible. Even a basic conversation with someone who has a slightly different accent than you are used to can be frustrating.

Part of this might be that we set our goals too high. A while back a blog popped up with the goal of "being fluent in a year." After a few months of daily posts, and the occasional rant on the impossibility of the goal, the blog was gone. The user gave up. The bar was set to high. While it is important to set long-term goals, I think the short-term goals are what is ultimately going to keep us going.

What if the aforementioned blog had a goal of learning 1000 characters, getting through a textbook, or even finishing a novel?  Those are things that are measurable, and certainly achievable. By reaching short-term goals, we still get that warm and fuzzy feeling of success. We should be proud of learning a new grammar pattern, a new set of characters, or understanding what a waiter said to their boss at our favorite Chinese restaurants, not discouraged that we didn't learn more.

Take pride in the little things, and meeting the short term goals. Those are the things that are going to keep us coming back for more. As cliché as it might be, learning a language really should be about the journey and not the destination.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Self-study with online materials

It's no surprise that digital technology has revolutionized our access to information. In the area of language acquisition this means that we have more ways to study than ever. Researchers in the field of educational technology (Beatty 2004, Blin 2004, et al.) find technology as a great way for students to find information that fits their own individual learning styles and abilities. Unlike even the best student centered classroom activities, digital technology (for education) creates "student-initiated, self-managed interactive learning by students at their own pace" (Kubler 2011).

Digital technology is the ever "patient" provider of content. No matter how many times we replay a Youtube video, or hit next on a flashcard program, we will always be the first to call it quits at the end of the day. Now, more than ever, we can access information that is relevant to our needs, and (hopefully) increase our language output. While this instant access to information may be a wonderful thing, it is important that we find out ways to effectively use the digital technology (in this case online materials) as a study tool.

So how do we go about self-study with online materials? To begin to answer this question I've adapted some information from Cornelius Kubler's article titled "Promises and Perils of Educational Technology in Foreign Language Curriculum and Materials Development" with a typical ChinesePod lesson (covering dialogue, vocabulary, expansion, and exercise).

Step 1: Get in the zone.
Regardless of what kind of online material or digital technology you are using, it is important to dedicate focus and concentration on the task at hand. As recently mentioned on Lingomi's blog multitasking isn't the way to go about studying (especially listening skills). While the Internet is rampant with Podcasts and mobile learning apps, there is a lot of research out there to suggest that multitasking while trying to study is a serious impairment on our ability to learn. Therefore, even before you are ready to study the latest lesson, get yourself mentally prepared. Turn off Facebook, step away from Twitter, and find a quite place to focus on whatever it is you are trying to learn.

Step 2: Listen to (or read) the new material (more than once).
Listen to the dialogue for a ChinesePod lesson two or three times. Don't be concerned if there are things you don't understand. The goal of this step is to familiarize ourselves to the general context and new linguistic material. Don't look-up new words, or pause the dialogue if you are getting lost. Instead find out what information you can gather from the dialogue.
(For a typical ChinesePod lesson this step should take about 5 minutes).

Step 3: Drill the lesson.
Now it is time to read the dialogue (closely). Check the words that you didn't understand during step two, but be sure to check them in context. Read the sentences over and over, repeating them out loud until until you can repeat them back in a fast manner. The more you practice saying sentences or vocabulary words, the more natural they will come out when you are actually trying to use them in a real situation. Listening (or saying) a word or sentence once simply isn't enough.
(This could take about 20 minutes... even more if you are focusing on how to write the Characters, but you need to take the time if you actually want to learn, and be able to use the materials)

Step 4: Study the notes (or listen to the entire lesson).
Now that the vocabulary and sentence patterns are familiar, it is time to actually listen to the entire ChinesePod lesson. If you have done step two and three, you should find that the words in Chinese are no longer foreign to you, and you will be able to benefit from the English explanation of a particular word or grammar pattern and its usage. Think of this as the lecture portion of a class. You don't get much out of a lecture if you haven't done the homework beforehand.
(For a typical ChinesePod lesson this section will take 15 minutes)

Step 5: Expand on the material.
Now that you have heard the new material multiple times it is time to check out any expansion material that has been provided. In the case of ChinesePod this means looking at the key grammar patterns or vocabulary words from the lesson. Read through each of the expansion sentences (out loud), thinking about the meaning. Try and make your own sentences (which you can post in the discussion section) to see if you real understand the material. Ideally, you should memorize any vocabulary or grammar pattern that you find necessary. As Kubler states: memorization "is a very important step," which "firmly establishes in your brain the sounds and structures of the language for you to drawn on later in your own speech."
(Expansion materials and working on new sentences could take around 15 minutes)

Step 6: Test you mastery.
In the case of ChinesePod this means doing the exercises. Now that you have the vocabulary memorized, you've listened to the dialogue, and you understand the grammar patterns, this should be a breeze, after you have crushed the test, mark the lesson as studied... and really mean it!
(A set of exercise drills should take 5 minutes)

What I am suggesting in this post, is taking the time to turn online materials into your own sort of virtual classroom. If you follow all six steps, you'll have spent an hour fully learning the materials that you set out to study. This might not be something that you can do everyday, and you certainly can't do it on the bus or while you're working, but if you are conscious and active in your learning approach you will ultimately get more out of it. 

Confucius, in The Analects, is quoted as saying "工欲善其事,必先利其器 (Gōng yù shàn qí shì, bì xiān lì qí qì 'If a craftsman wants to do a good job, he must fist sharpen his tools.' It is important to have the right tools and to "sharpen" them, but we also need to know that these tools only help us do a job, we are still the ones who need to go out and do it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Reflecting on my summer in Beijing

A day doesn't go by that I don't think back to the wonderful experience I had this past summer in Beijing at 中央民族大學(Minzu University of China). I spent six weeks attending Hamilton College's ACC K-12 Chinese Language Teachers Institute for Non-Native Speakers of Chinese with 9 other Chinese teachers. Our goal over those six weeks was to not only improve our Mandarin Chinese, but also explore new ways of teaching Chinese language and culture.

During the course of our program we learned to push our Chinese language skills to a new level (with large help from a Chinese Language pledge) and cover an incredible amount of material: from cultural lectures, and curriculum design, to class visits and Chinese teacher conferences. Now, only a few months later, I still marvel at how much we learned and accomplished during those six weeks.
A rough outline of events for the first three weeks. We really had quite the busy schedule.

While I cannot emphasize enough just how much better my Chinese became after those six weeks, I think that even more importantly, I gained a new found confidence (and passion) for teaching Chinese to others. The ability to collaborate with other K-12 Chinese teachers from the United States, and teachers trained in China was, in a word, priceless.

One of the most important lessons I learned, came from the first day of class when we started talking about the "Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century." These standards, developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) are commonly referred to as the 5Cs: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. These five concepts allow for teachers to provide students with a comprehensive learning experience, that will ultimately allow them to interact (successfully) in the target culture.

Inspired by our summer program and ACTFL's 5Cs, I would like to propose my own Standards for Learning a Foreign Language in the 21st Century, otherwise know as the 5Cs of language learning: Commit, Create, Consider, Crave, and Contribute... to language.

1. Commit yourself to the language you are studying. You don't need to be a genius to speak Chinese, but you certainly have to put in time and energy. During our summer in Beijing we did this by signing a six week language pledge. No matter if we were in the classroom or visiting the park, every word we spoke was in Chinese. This level of commitment isn't for everyone, but it certainly is possible to create your own language pledge in small doses. Giving yourself a commitment, whether it be by only Chinese, or making the time to study everyday is a key to success.

My language pledge (and desktop background for the program) was not only a contract with ACC, but also a contract with myself.
2. Create a study system that works for you. This summer we learned the importance of 因材施教 (yīncáishījiào), or the ability to teach according to a student's individual abilities. We faced this rather daunting task by playing games, making videos and overall thinking about the way that different students acquire new information. However, this is something that we as language learners should consider as well. If something isn't working, don't be afraid to try something else. With the availability of free teaching materials online, trial and error until finding something that works should be encouraged.  

A classmate learns how to teach bargaining by practicing her own skills in our classroom market.
3. Consider your environment. The classroom, the Internet, the streets, the people around you, these are all tools and ways that we can learn something new. A huge part of being a successful language learner is having a spark of curiosity. No matter where we are, there are new things to be learned and absorbed all around us. If you're not in a Chinese speaking environment, that should stop you. Let every encounter with a second language (spoken or otherwise) be a chance for new discoveries and insights. Our program took full advantage of our environment. We even had a class in Black Bamboo Park, where we all had the task teaching our classmates one of the many activities we learned that morning. 

My adventure in Black Bamboo Park had me learning to Chinese waltz!
 4. Crave more than you think you can handle. Push the boundaries of what you think you can do with Chinese. Sometimes we have do something that we think is over our head before we can learn what we are capable of. I never thought that I would be able to speak in front of a group of native speakers in Chinese (without being completely self-conscious) until I found myself doing just that for around 200 Chinese teachers who were heading to American and wanted to know what they should expect. At that point my confidence went through the roof. While those opportunities don't come around every day, it is never to early to start a blog in Chinese, sign-up for a speech competition, or switch your computers operating system. Just be sure to keep telling yourself that you can do it!

My classmate and I leading a two hour presentation on media technology in the classroom. Something we never thought possible before the ACC program.
5. Contribute to the language learning community. No matter if you are a teacher or a student don't be afraid to share your opinion. My summer in Beijing taught that my role as a non-native speaker teaching Chinese is incredibly important.  As non-native speakers we can relate to the mistakes students make, and share our own experiences from learning Chinese. As students, contributing to the language learning community is even more important. Let teachers know what works and what doesn't. Sharing input about what you want to learn will not only make lessons more meaningful, but also encourage initiative and independence in the language learning journey. 

Of course, my 5Cs aren't ACTFL certified, but they are way to keep language learning fresh. Now, living in Taiwan as a grad student, I realize just how much I learned during my six weeks in Beijing. My confidence as a second language speaker, and as a future educator has increase tremendously, and if I could go back again I would.  If you are a non-native Chinese speaker and have a career in teaching Chinese as a second language, or are considering one, I would highly recommend looking into the K-12 Chinese Teacher Training programs.

If you have questions, please leave them in the comments below, or send me an email.

Students and Teachers of the 2011 K-12 Summer Program.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Making time for language.

There are very few people in this world (if any) who can wake up one morning and decide they're going to run a marathon the next day, the next week, heck... even the next month. We aren't able to pick up the guitar and shred like Jimi Hendrix after just a few lessons. Things we do in life require practice, patience, and most importantly dedication. Learning a second language, especially for those of us who can hardly even remember what hitting puberty was like anymore, takes time and energy. 

Go out and ask someone who does something really well how they achieved success.  99.99% of the time it's because they put in a lot of time. They got up every day and worked toward their goal until it became a reality. So what does that mean for us, the language learner? It means we need to stop thinking that things are going to come without effort, or over night. Those kind of thoughts lead to disappointment and failure.

Maybe it's time we take a different approach. Learning a language isn't riding a bike. If you don't keep peddling (and peddling often) you are going to forget how to do it (or rather speak it in this case). So today, I propose that we re-think about how we go about learning a language. Let's start making the time, every single day, so that we can obtain our goal. Of course, the more time we spend, the better the results... but first and foremost lets find our rhythm. 

With the rise of the Internet, possibilities are endless. Everywhere you turn there is information ripe for the taking. We have music, movies, blogs, news, textbooks, podcasts etc. all just a single mouse click away. However, just like learning to shred like Jimi, or pushing yourself harder and harder to reach that end goal of 26 miles (and 385 meters) in a marathon, we need to be active and engaged. We need a healthy balance of output and input (especially to speak a language) and we need to practice... a lot. 

I don't know about you, but my goals are set high, and I'm going to take the first step toward reaching those goals... I'm going to make the time.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A quick way to enter (proper) 拼音 (pīnyīn) on a Mac

If the rest of you are like me, then at least once a day there comes a point where you will need to type something out in pīnyīn. Of course we can take the easy way out, adding numbers to the end of the word, but lets be honest... it just doesn't look nearly as nice as having tone marks above the word, dui4 bu2 dui4? 

Of course, there are plenty of online-resources out there that will help convert 漢字 to 拼音, but they are often flawed in their own right. Let's take an example from Chinese-tools

Here is the sentence that I put into the translator:
It came out like this:
nǐ hǎo / hào wǒ jiào gāo jiàn wǒ zì měi dì / dí / de wēi sī kāng xīn zhōu

Not only did the software miss a few crucial characters like 們,來,國, but it also took out all of my punctuation. On top of that, you still have to go through and select characters that appear as 多音字. Another problem with relying on Chinese-tools or other online resources is that you have to be connected to the Internet. 

Lucky for Mac users there is an easy solution to the problem. By turing on the U.S. Extended keyboard you can typing in pīnyīn in no time.  Here is how:

Step 1: Open Language & Text in System Preferences. 

Language & Text options found in System Preferences

Step 2: Activate the U.S. Extended input method. 

Find and select U.S. Extended
Step 3: Start typing in pīnyīn!

...okay, so first you need to learn how to actually input the tones, but that just as easy.
  • 一聲 (First tone) is created by pressing A (where ⌥ represents the Option/alt key). When you press it a flat tone mark will appear above whatever letter you are about to type.
  • 二聲 (Second tone) is created by pressing E. Again, pressing this will put a rising tone above the letter you are typing. 
  • 三聲 (Third Tone) is created by pressing V
  • 四聲 (Fourth Tone) is created by pressing  ` 
  •  *** In my original post I completely forgot to address the umlaut. Luckily, John left a comment revealing the trick. As he put it:

    1) Press the LETTER needing the tone marking FIRST, like the "u" in lǜ
    2) then ⌥⇧u to make the umlaut,
    3) then ⌥⇧ plus the a, e, v, or ` to add the appropriate tone marking on top of the umlaut.
In just a few minutes time you will no longer need to rely on the Internet for your pīnyīn dirty work. Another bonus of using the U.S. Extended keyboard is that you now have another opportunity to practice remembering tones every time you want to write in pīnyīn... it really is a win/win. 

*** I would also recommend that you adjust your keyboard shortcuts so that ⌘Space (see images below) will allow you to select between previous input sources, it will save you a ton of time when you are switching between languages, especially if you switch between 简体字 and 繁體字 like I do. 

Good luck and happy pīnyīn-ing! 

Gāo Jiàn
The options for setting up Input source shortcuts.

How your input selection should look when you key ⌘Space.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

An in depth look at "Live the language- Beijing"

The people over the Education First have a great video series entitled "Live the Language". I just found one of the videos about traveling to Beijing. 

For those of you that haven't been, If this video doesn't spark some curiosity in mainland China (specifically Beijing), I really don't know what is going to do it for you. Other than creating an interest in travel, this video can certainly be used as a language learning tool. I enjoy the fact that Chinese characters appear large on the screen, and with pīnyīn too. Even better than that however, is the visual imagery they use along with the characters. There is never really any confusion about the character they are introducing, and without even studying Chinese it is pretty easy to guess and correctly understand the meaning. 

In order to take the language learning experience on step further, I thought we should break down the 35 words featured in the video and provide a bit of background information, along with some sample sentences.

Here are the words, in the order they appear in the video.

北京 (Běijīng): The Capitol of China, with a population of over 20 million. A great place to live and studying Chinese for any expat.

抵达/抵達 (dǐdá): a verb, which means "to reach/ to arrive at". 自上海起行,至今日抵达北京。 Zì Shànghǎi qǐxíng, zhì jīn rì dǐ dá Běijīng. I departed from Shanghai, today I arrived in Beijing.

欢迎/歡迎 (hūan yíng): a verb, which means "welcome/ greet". The most common example of this verb is 欢迎您来到北京 (or another location). Hūanyíng nín lái dào Bēijīng. Welcome to Beijing.

您好 (nín hǎo): a formal greeting used for first encounters or for people that have a higher status than the speaker, also used as a way to show respect. This one doesn't really need an example sentence, since it is a set phrase that can be used by itself. 

寄住家庭 (jì zhù jiā tíng): This is actually a mistake in the video. They have the pīnyīn correctly listed as jì sù jiā tíng, which should actually be 寄宿家庭, which is a homestay family. It is a great way to quickly improve your Chinese (or any language for that matter) and integrate into the target culture. 你们的项目有没有寄宿家庭住宿?Nǐmen de xìangmù yǒu méi yǒu jì sù jiā tíng zhù sù? Does your program offer any homestay housing options?

礼物/禮物 (lǐ wù): a noun meaning gift or present, which has the measure word 件 (jiàn). 我今天要去做生日,你觉得我应该送什么礼物? Wǒ jīntiān yào qù zuò shēng rì, nǐ juéde wǒ yīnggāi sòng shénme lǐ wù? I'm going to celebrate a birthday today, what do you think I should give as a gift?

* Cultural note, if you are going to someones house for a dinner, or staying with a host family, you should come with a small gift. For more info on dinner etiquette or gift ideas, click here.

音乐/ 音樂 (yīn yùe): a noun meaning music. 我喜欢听音乐. wǒ xǐhuān tīng yīnyuè. I like to listen to music. 

地铁/ 地鐵 (dì tǐe): a noun meaning subway system. Beijing is filled with subway lines that will take you all over the city. Sometimes you have to transfer lines, but it is certainly much cheaper than taking a cab, and it is a great way to practice your listening... because if one thing is sure, you will not be alone on the subway. 我想去故宫。我可以座地铁到吗? wǒ xiǎng qù Gùgōng. wǒ kěyǐ zuò dìtiě dào mǎ? I want to go to the Forbidden City. Can I take the subway there?

学校/ 學校 (xúe xiào): a noun meaning school, which has the measure word 所 (sǔo). 学校明天放假. xúe xiào míngtiān fàngjià. There will be no school tomorrow.

书法/ 書法 (shū fǎ): a noun meaning calligraphy, one of the ancient art forms of China. I don't think this one really needs a sample sentence. However, I will say this, if you are thinking about learning calligraphy, then start paying attention to your stroke order early, and I would recommend studying traditional Chinese characters.

老师/ 老師 (lǎo shī): a noun meaning teacher. This character has three measure words depending on the situation or how much respect you are giving. Of course 个 can be used to say 一个老师, but you can also say 名 (míng) or even 位 (wèi), which are much more formal. 

包子 (bāo zi): a stuffed bun. This is a pretty staple breakfast in China. You can buy them individually, or per 笼 (lóng). 一笼包子多少钱? yī lóng bāozi duōshǎo qián? How much for a long of baozi?

厨师/ 廚師 (chú shī): a chef or a cook. For this noun you also want to use 位 as a sign of respect for the position. 

溜冰 (liū bīng): a verb-object pattern, which means to ice-skate or to roller-skate. This is quite popular among kids in the park, you will often seem them practicing in the afternoons while their parents chat with friends close by.

谢谢/ 謝謝 (xièxie): a verb meaning thank you. Much like 你好/您好, this is a set phrase that doesn't need any explanation. Saying 谢谢 is one of the easiest ways to get Chinese people to compliment you on your Chinese!

打盹 (dǎ dǔn): a verb-object pattern meaning doze or take a nap. 西班牙人午休的時候,通常會打盹一下. xībānyárén wǔxiū de shí hòu tōngcháng huì dǎdǔn yīxià. The Spanish often will take a nap during their mid-afternoon break. 

踢毽子 (tī jiànzi): another verb-object pattern meaning to play shuttlecock (or Chinese Hacky sack). It is a common sight to see in the park, and a lot of fun. 如果你去公园,你会看到很多人在踢毽子.  rúguǒ nǐ qù gōngyuán nǐ huì kàn dào hěn duō rén zài tī jiànzi. If you go to the park you will see a lot of people playing Chinese Hacky sack. 

菜单/ 菜單 (cài dān): a menu found in a restaurant. Not much explanation needed for this one. After you got a hold of a menu and ordered food you can say 买单 (mài dān) to ask for the bill.

筷子 (kuài zi): these are chopsticks, something that you should really learn how to use before you arrive in China. Even if Chinese people see you using them they might still ask: 你会用筷子吗? nǐ huì  yòng kuàizi ma? Can you use chopsticks? 

面条/ 麵條 (miàn tiáo): this is the standard way to say noodles. They come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. Sometimes they drop the 条 off of the name of the dish so start focusing on 面 and remember that your getting noodles. 

卡拉OK (kǎ lā OK): a lone word meaning, you guessed it, Karaoke. This is a very popular pastime activity in China. You generally rent a private room where you and your friends can order snacks, and sing your hearts out. Karaoke bars have a wide variety of music, from Chinese to western, just be ready to make a fool out of yourself, and have a great time!

老人家 (lǎorenjia): an old person, just like the video suggests. As a fun note, this is also a colloquial slang for Chairman Mao Zedong. 

一 &  二 (yī and èr): the numbers one and two. I wasn't even going to list this because it is so basic, but I thought that the video was a little misleading in the way they presented to two children. In Chinese, you can also use the word 两 (liǎng), which is commonly used to describe two things, or two people. If you were describing the video you would not say 二个小孩子,but rather 两个小孩子.

晚饭/ 晚飯 (wǎnfàn): a noun meaning supper or dinner. Dinner uses the measure word 顿 (dùn), for example: 我刚刚吃了一大顿晚饭.  Wǒ gānggāng chī le yī dà dùn wǎn fàn. I just got done eating a huge dinner.

酸奶 (suānnǎi): a noun that means yogurt or sour milk. A must try if you are in China. 

晚上 (wǎnshang): meaning evening. 今天晚上你要去哪里? Jīntiān wǎnshàng nǐ yào qù nǎli? Where do you want to go tonight? 

早晨 (zǎochen): (early) morning or daybreak. This is the perfect time in Beijing. It isn't noisy on the street, the breakfast shops are already open, and people are congregating in the parks to enjoy the morning.

天坛/ 天壇 (Tiāntán): A proper noun meaning the Temple of Heaven (in Beijing). This is a wonderful place to check out if you are living in, or are visiting Beijing.

太极 (Tàijí): the Chinese for Tai chi, which is an abbreviated form of 太极拳 (tài jí quán). 

攀登 (pān dēng): a verb that means to climb, clamber or scale. 我半天一直在攀登,終於到山上了. Wǒ bàntiān yīzhí zài pāndēng zhōng yú dào shān shàng le. I climbed for half a day before I finally reached the top of the mountain.

长城/ 長城 (cháng chěng): The Great Wall of China! A place that everyone needs to see with their own eyes. No explanation necessary for this one. I'll just leave you with a picture.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Study More Chinese: A website with a fresh look at daily study drills.

Recently I found a community project that is focused on providing free (and fun) ways to learn Chinese. The name is simple-- Study More Chinese. The project is filled with videos, blogs, photos and an open forum. Unlike the pay as you go sites on the net, this site depends on user content to grow and develop, if you find something that you think is interesting, then post it up and share with others. I came across the site on Twitter when Brandon, the creator of Study More Chinese posted a video titled: "Best Chinese Girlfriend Ever at the QingDao China Beer Festival" 

The video is filled with some great vocabulary and got me curious enough to join the site. And I have to admit, that guy has one heck of a girlfriend! One of the things I really enjoy about Brandon's project is the "Daily Chinese Sentence". As he states on the group page: 

A new twist on the passive  'daily word' / 'daily sentence'.  Join this group to receive new Chinese words each day by email & then respond by using them in a new sentence.

It certainly is a twist. Rather than having your inbox filled with random vocabulary words that you will passively observe, this site asks the users to actually join the conversation. It is certainly a fresh take on all those Chinese word of the day messages that are floating around cyberspace. As a group member you can see how others make those two vocabulary words their own. 

If any of you feeling like trying your hand at the Daily Chinese Sentences, then swing over to Study More Chinese and become a part of the community. Part of learning a language means being active in your study, and find things that interest you. This site is a great way to take that to the next level, by allowing you to share your interests with others too.  

Friday, August 19, 2011

App Review: Shi Zi (识字): A Primer of Chinese Characters

A few months back I had the opportunity to try out Shi Zi: A Primer of Chinese Characters. The website outlined the goal of the application, which are as follows:

"Most Chinese characters consist of components that represent physical things. This primer uses animations to teach 88 Chinese characters that are components in many other Chinese characters. Mastering these 88 characters will provide a foundation for Chinese language learners to quickly learn the other characters."

After completing all of the various Chinese Character sets, I thought it would be a good idea to give it a review. 

Positives about the application:

Firstly, the application has a really unique and Chinese feel to it. The layout is simple to follow and I loved the different 獎品 (jiǎngpǐn: prizes) that you receive for completing practice sets, it helps add that extra bit of encouragement when you get 100%.

The topics they selected are all really great as well. The mix of animals, locations, people, weather etc. provide a ride range of characters for people learning Chinese and a lot of background information on Chinese culture. With the exception of some of the animals, much of the vocabulary would be found within a first or second year Chinese language textbook. 

Unlike your basic flash card systems, Shi Zi incorporates animations and pictures to help students memorize the characters. For those of use who are more visual learners this is a huge bonus. Trying the animation and pictures to the character, making them easier to recall the next time you see them. An example of 日 (rì: a day; the sun; date) can be seen below. 

A huge plus to this application is the the ability to record your own voice and play it back while studying. Although I didn't use the option very often, I think that other learners who are still new to Chinese pronunciation will find this component very useful. I did notice that when using the record function my voice came in a lot softer than I expected, but turning the volume up a little louder and speaking louder were easy enough fixes. 

The program allows students to choose Chinese or English as an audio background. When I used the application I had the audio set to Chinese the entire time. However, I noticed that the background information on the Chinese character was still in English. If they changed the background info to Chinese it might give those more advanced (or super curious students) even more opportunity to study some of the vocabulary and sentence patterns being used.

The negatives (or things I would personally change):

I did find that after spending more than 20 minutes reviewing I was a little sick of hearing the women end many of the explanations by asking if you can still see the similarities between the traditional character and what is used today in modern China. I know that it is a set pattern, but it sure got annoying. 

One thing that I did want at the end was the ability to study all the words together, or in larger blocks. By taking the characters and putting them all together it gives a better test of how much the student has learned overall. Also, I think it would be nice to have the names of the prizes in Chinese as well as in English. Again, this allows students to learn even more material than being presented if they wish too.

I did like the fact that the application made use of both listening and visual aids to select characters. This is certainly an application designed for students with a basic understand of Chinese, or those who are looking to get a solid start. Compared to many of the other applications out there in this price range I would say that it is well worth $1.99. Even though I have been studying Chinese for quite a while, I still felt that this was a useful learning tool.


Usability: 5/5
Design: 4/5
Subject Matter: 4/5
Reusability: 3/5

Overall: 4/5

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Choose your own adventure.

With the growing rise of technology, information is growing easier to come by. You don't need much more than an iPod and a Wi-Fi connection to learn about the best tourist destinations and the easiest ways to get there. I would bet that there is a strong correlation between the ease of information access, and the amount of tourists who are venturing out into unknown lands. They arm themselves with nothing but a few survival phrases and their favorite travel guide (in PDF form of course).  And while this is great, especially for the businesses that reap the benefits of guide book recommendations, I think that it is taking some of the fun and excitement out of figuring things out on your own.

I recently had such an experience, which prompted this post. As I was traveling around Kunming, in lovely Yunnan, China. A friend I had met in the hostel and I decided to check out Qiongzhu Temple, a site highly recommended by the guide books. It was easy to get to, we thought, and would make for a perfect first day trip in Kunming. After stuffing ourselves on some of the local treats we headed out in search of a cab. The guide book assured us that a cab ride would be about 30 minutes and roughly 45 kuai (about 7 USD).

When we finally managed to hail down a cab, I asked the driver if he could take us out to the temple. And although he was willing to get us to the right spot, he wanted 150 kuai... one-way. I'm not generally stingy, but when we are talking about paying three times more than the guide book says, I know when to politely get back out of the cab.

Rather than get ourselves down, we decided to make a change of plans. We picked up a map of the city and got ourselves oriented to our current location. We did it old school, not by using GPS and Google Maps, but by getting our bearings with street signs and local landmarks. We decided to fly by the seat of our pants and ask the locals what was worth checking out. They recommended we check out the East and West Pagodas, built in the Tang Dynasty. From there it was off to Jinma Biji Square, which to our surprise was only a short hike away.

Checking another spot off the list as we toured Kunming by foot. 

From Jinma Biji Square we found a local bus and headed to southern Kunming to check out the Yunnan Ethnic villages. While it was a little touristy, okay it was super touristy, our 1 kuai bus ride was the perfect way to get a taste for the entire city. After heading back to city square we were off on foot again, wandering back alleys in search of Cuihu Lake, a park located in the city center. Along the way, our impromptu foot tour brought us upon some cultural propaganda, in the form of wall paintings, about creating a more civilized Kunming. Without the Government's help I would have never known that walking across the street while reading a book is dangerous.

Getting from place to place wasn't as easy as checking out the guide book or calling a cab, but the sense of accomplishment we got at every stop is hard to beat. If we got lost, we stopped and asked for directions, putting our Chinese listening and speaking skills to test. Most importantly I got the feeling that I was exploring areas of Kunming that few foreigners usually venture to. As cliché as it sounds, it really became more about the journey, rather than the destination. 

A random wall painting we found during our walking tour.

For anyone who is actually interested in learning a language, and the culture that surrounds and shapes it, taking the time to figure things for ourselves is a lesson that we too often ignore. It is important to remember that it is okay to make mistakes while speaking a foreign language, we can use these experiences as an important learning tools. Also, we aren't going to understand everything that is going on around us... that's okay. Learning to pay attention to body language and context allows you to figure things out on your own, rather than turing to the dictionary for every unknown word.

Sometimes, it is best to put the guide book and dictionary away and see where the wind blows you; sometimes we simply have to choose our own adventure.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The current state teaching of Chinese in America

Dear readers, this is an open letter than I composed for our midterm report. It is intended for a government official (as per the requirements of the assignment). Enjoy!

我很荣幸有这么难得的机会来给您写一封信。我叫高健,我从事汉语教育工作。今年夏天,我来到中国的中央民族大学参加ACC K-12的暑期中文教师培训项目。我在这里认识了许多有丰富经验的中文教师。就我个人而言,他们之所以都很特别,是因为他们都是非母语者。通过这个项目我们不但提高了中文水平,而且掌握各种各样的教学方法和理念。

在参加项目期间,我有不少的机会跟其他的老师分享我们关于美国的中文教育局势的经验和看法。虽然美国以前已经开始了教中文,不过现在美国掀起了一股学习汉语的热潮,由此可见,为了让学习者成功,教师应该掌握大量、丰富、标准的教学方法。如此一来,教师能有效地让学生获得听说读写这四项技能。所谓的让学生获得四项技能指的就是学习者不但能有效地跟中国人使用目标语交流,而且可以进一步了解中国的文化与风土人情。为了更有效地教学,教师应该把注意力放在二十一世纪外语学习标准上,也就是我们所说的以5个字母C开头的单词:沟通、文化、贯连、比较和社群。当然,教师也不应该忽视三种沟通模式,分别为:理解诠释,人际交流和表达演说。 教师采取这些标准的做法能够让学生有效地说出心中的所想所思。


其次:在美国学习汉语的学生由于受到环境的限制,在下课后没有机会跟母语者交流,因此容易造成洋腔洋调的问题。对于以上的情况我个人深有体会。 当我处于初级阶段时,除了在课堂上之外,我没有机会跟别人交流。由此可见,汉语教师应该想办法为学生提供一些交流的机会。因为我们现在处于高科技时代,教师应该在课堂上使用多媒体辅助教学,这样不但会有助于学生了解中国的文化,而且可以提供一些课后的学习材料:比如,有意义的视频,电子笔友,练习汉语的网站等等。






Monday, July 25, 2011

China Update: July 25th, 2011

This week was filled with a lot of studying and our midterm exam, but the highlights have got to be the time we spent outside of the classroom. 

Monday morning we headed out bright and early to Black Bamboo Park, which is located just a few blocks away from our campus. Arriving at the park gates we were greeted by a group of street calligraphers gracefully coating the ground with Hanzi (Chinese characters). Their brush, made of PVC and a delicate sponge filled with water, was the perfect tool for perfecting their art form. With the early morning sun beating down the characters quickly faded away, giving us but a fleeting moment to enjoy their masterful craft. Once inside the park we ventured to and fro, enjoying all the amazing sites.

Finding respite from the suns rays under some trees, we played a rousing game of Chinese hacky sack, while a group of locals danced to China's modern classics. Before I knew it, one of my teachers took the liberty of finding me a dance partner, an older women who was a retired dance instructor at Minzu University. She was a wonderfully patient teacher, and I quickly progressed beyond learning the Chinese three step, and began incorporating basic spins and a "feel for the pace of the music" to my routine. After a few dances we pressed on, stopping to enjoy the various forms of Tai Chi being practiced in the park. 

I hope that before I leave Beijing I will have an opportunity to return to Black Bamboo Park. My first time there was an experience that I will not soon forget. The park was a mix of tranquility and turbulence blending together to create something truly magical amidst "normal" every day city life. 

After our midterm we ventured out of Beijing to Cuandixia, a village suspended in a time now past. The entire village was made out of stone and perfectly preserved by the local population (with the help of Chinese law forbidding any exterior changes). The villages history dates back to the Ming and Qing Dynasty, with a few wall paintings older than America itself. We spent our day hiking in the mountains and getting a taste for the local flavors. I spent the night "looking at big mountains," which in Chinese is a turn of phrase for chatting about any and every topic under the sun. When it was finally time to turn in for the evening I was surprised to find that the kang (a heatable brick bed) I was sleeping on felt as soft as a Tempur-Pedic... who am I kidding, it was hard as brick! 

Monday marks my last full week in Beijing. I can't believe how fast time has gone by. After that I am off to Nanjing with my program, followed by roughly 20 days of travel around China. It is sure to be a grand adventure and I look forward to sharing it with you all. 

Gao Jian

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lessons from a coffee shop

Chinese, just like any other language is constantly evolving, taking old words and giving them new meaning for the modern generation and the changing times. Today I had the opportunity to spend some time with a few baristas at Beijing's 西尚咖啡厅 discussing a few of these words. To my own surprise, a lot of these words and their usages have origins in Japanese manga and anime.

萌 (méng): Originally this word meant sprout or bud (萌发:méngfā). Like others on this list is has its roots in Japanese manga and anime. The word is now used to describe something (or someone) that is particularly cute (可爱:kě ài). For example: 那个大熊猫非常萌哦 (nà ge dàxióngmāo fēicháng kě'ài o!) Of course, if you want to sound hip and impress the ladies, that that works too!

控(kòng): Although this word originates from the English word "complex" (or rather the initial sound con), it wasn't until the Japanese adopted the word that it started to gain ground in today's Chinese pop-culture. Today the word has come to represent a new style of self-project, or critique of one's in interests and behaviors. In Chinese you will see 控 appear behind a series of characters (often two other characters. 按照日元语法形成“某某控”的语言景观重构。 

Now lets take a look at a few practical usages:
  1. 微博控 (wēibókòng): someone who spends all day on their 微博 (wēibó:a micro-blog such as Twitter). 
  2. iPhone控: I don't think this one needs any explanation, but do note that you can also say 手机控 (shǒujīkòng) for those of us who haven't bought an iPhone yet. 例子:昨天我跟我的朋友一起去吃了饭。当时,他一直在用他的手机,真是个手机控!
Now onto some less practical usages that also have their roots in Japanese pop-culture:
  1. 御姐控 (yùjiěkòng): a great word for those among us who have an interest in slightly older (and perhaps more dominant) women. It is translated into English as a "Royal Sister Complex".  
  2. 萝莉控 (luólìkòng): a lolita complex. Someone who likes the appearance of younger girls. Could be a great word to use for those older men who enjoy spending a little bit too much time hanging around Chinese high schools.
  3. 镜子控 (jìngzikòng): See someone spending a little bit too much time "fixing" their hair in the mirror? They might just be a 镜子控, in which case you should call them out. I would translate this into English as narcissism if it didn't have the strict connotation of using a mirror to check yourself out.
宅男/宅女 (zháinán/ zháinǚ): Directly translated 宅(zhái)means "house" or "home". This word is used to describe someone who, apart from work or attending class, spends all of their time at home. While it is commonly translated as "Otaku" (someone who has a obsessive interest in manga and anime) I personally think that the Chinese definition of the term more loosely describes someone who spends most of their time at home in their room. You'll often find these people getting their food "to go" and buying things on 淘宝网 (táobǎowǎng). This phenomenon is rather common in modern Chinese cities with so many people who work long hours, at the end of the day they would rather spend time at home alone than go out with their friends. 这些人觉得出去玩不如留在家里。

That's all for now. If you have other fun modern slang that you would like to share, please feel free to post a comment below.

Thanks for reading!
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