Chinese Resources

Monday, December 17, 2012

Seeking participants for a small research project.


As the title suggests, I'm currently seeking participants for a small research project I'm doing for my Chinese Phonology class (華語語音教學研究). If you're looking for a few tips on how to improve your Mandarin Chinese pronunciation or just wanna help out, than please take 15 minutes to participate!

Who can participate?
If you meet the follow criteria please feel free to participate in the survey.

  • Non-native speaker of Mandarin Chinese
  • Have recognition of at least 300 basic Chinese characters

How do I participate?
If you would like to participate in the survey please download either the traditional or simplified file from the Google Doc folder I've created. Having trouble access the doc? Email me (see below) and I'll send you the file.

After you've finished you can either upload your document (if you have a Google account) or email it to me. My email is  gaojian85 (at) gmail (dot) com. 

What you should see when you open the link.

In order to participate you must have access to the following programs:
  • Microsoft Word (or a program capable of opening a Word doc.)
  • Audio Recording Program
If you have any questions or concerns please leave them in the comments below. 非常感謝! 

Of course, your participation will remain anonymous and be used for research purposes only.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Classes are over but the lessons carry on.

Two weeks ago my friend and student left Taiwan (for now), returning to America to take a teaching position at UW-Milwaukee. While our last lesson certainly had elements of a typical language class, or at least our typical language class, it was more about asking what's next? Instead of spending two hours introducing new grammar patterns and new vocabulary, we decided to take a break from the Chinese and develop a plan for moving forward.

We spent time discussing short-term and long-term goals, and more importantly how to execute them. Rather than simply looking for end results, we tried to break tasks down into the smallest conceivable parts. Once we had the parts we put them all together with deadlines, expiration dates, and expected outcomes. It was awesome!

Ever since that last class I've been thinking a lot about the role of teachers, especially in the field of foreign language. While some teachers might take pride in how many chapters of a book they taught, or how many grammar points they covered, I left my last class simply hoping that, over the course of 14 months, I'd giving my friend a few tricks and insights into becoming a more independent language learner. I hope that my student left Taiwan knowing how to make her own decisions about what is considered critical, "must know," vocabulary. I hope they better understand the power of context in all forms of communication, and how to use this skill to learn even more. I hope my student learned that there are plenty of ways to talk about (and around) something, even when you don't have the word you're looking for.

These skills, to me, are far more important than me sharing every little bit of Chinese that I've learned over the past six years. Because, let's face it, there is never enough time to teach someone everything (especially when there is so much we don't know ourselves). We should, however, do everything in our power to make sure that students have the necessary tools to go on learning once the bell rings and class is over.

I truly believe that my role as "teacher" is about so much more than simply teaching Chinese. My goal, rather, is about making sure that my students don't make the same mistakes I made; to inspire (at least a few students if I can); and to provide the tools necessary to carry on once class ends and they step into the real world. I don't want to be a teacher, I want to serve as a guide. A guide who walks with students on their own path to self discovery. And I hope for my students sake that I lived up, at least in some way, to this lofty goal.

Actually, I take it back. I don't want to just be a guide... I want to be a guide that knows when to step aside and says "now it's your turn to teach me."

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Good Joke

This morning I pulled 《幽默漢語》( Chinese Humorous Stories) off the shelf and opened it for the first time ever. I really need to better understand Chinese humor, and I figure this is as good a starting point as any. I was drawn in by "不安" (Uneasiness), a joke about a thief. It goes like this:


Brilliant right? The book is actually quite good. It has a bunch of vocabulary I've never seen before, and each "lesson" is only a few lines. Heading to breakfast I started tossing around the idea of memorizing a bunch of these jokes. You know, add a few icebreakers to my "routine"... anything to help get me past the "Your Chinese is great! How long have you been living in Taiwan" part of meeting people. But then, I thought, when was the last time I heard anyone tell a joke? It's been longer than I could remember.

The gods must have heard my plea. The minute I finished eating, the breakfast shops owner walked over and asked me if I wanted to hear a "冷笑話" (cold joke). The joke went a little something like this.
There were two ants, a mother and her son. One day as they were looking for food and found a nice pile of shit to feast on. As they were eating the son looked up to his mom and asked, "Mom, why do we always have to eat shit." The mother looked up from her meal with scorn as said, "child, you know you're not suppose to talk about that sort of thing during dinner!"
WOW! 超冷. Now it was my turn. I cleared my throat, and began to tell the story of the thief and his uneasiness. In my excitement I forgot the fact that the thief was talking to a judge. I forgot the the whole "珠寶" part, and totally butchered the tones on “假貨." Basically, my joke sucked hard. After I corrected the tones and added the whole "talking to the judge" thing, my audience got it, and even laughed (I think they were giving me face), but I felt like a fool.

And then it dawned on me, telling a good joke is no easy task. The delivery has to be perfect, you can't mince words, and you certainly can't mess up the punch line.

I think learning to speak a language at a near-native level is very similar to telling a good joke. There is a difference between being able to simply say what you want and talking around what you want. There is a difference between hearing "I know what you mean, but we usually say it like this," and simply saying it how a native speaker says something. And there is certainly a difference between "not sounding like a foreigner," and "sounding like a native."

As I learn Mandarin, it is nice to be reminded of what it takes to tell a good joke. I might be able to talk about a thief feeling uneasy about something being fake... in front of a judge (almost forgot that part)...

But that is still a long way from delivering a perfect punch line.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Eight New Words

I just finished reading a New York Time's article about the latest greatest iPad. In the spirit of this blog I read the article in Chinese. Armed with my PeraPera popup dictionary I was ready for whatever wacky words the NYT Chinese translators were ready to throw at me.

I enjoyed the article and what it had to say about the propensity of tech companies to release new products every year. I also enjoyed the commentary about what this could do to the industry, especially since most large tech producers are all aiming for products that are more-or-less similar in design and feel. As a language learner, however, I had to quell the urge to "learn" everything I didn't already know from this single article. Instead, I asked myself what was important, and what kind of language would actually help me talk about similar topics with my friends?

In the end, I would estimate that I used the popup dictionary on roughly 50 Chinese words. Out of those 50 words, I decided that only eight actually fit the "talk about similar topics" criteria. They are:

矩形- rectangle
計劃性淘汰- planned obsolescence
更新- replace (I didn't know it was pronounced gēng)
營銷策略- marketing strategy
高端產品- high-end goods
款- version of software, device etc.
把戲 - trick
壽命- life span (who knew it could be used for inanimate things like phones?)

As for the other 41 I had to look up... maybe I'll learn them the next time they appear, but for today I can say with certainty that I learned eight new words. And that's good enough for me.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Teaching update 10/28/12

For the past year I've been working with a student on their Chinese in those spare moments of life. This person also happens to be a good friend, which can make it hard for me to go into total teacher mode. Especially since I keep class prep to an all time low. Recently, however, my student has found new inspiration and has been working hard on a full summary and presentation of what she has been doing in Taiwan for the past two years. She is a P.h.D. student so much of her life has been filled with research and collecting data for her case study. 

Unlike the past couple of months where casual conversation filled most of our class time, this month has been filled with a lot more task based learning strategies; or learning by doing. Similar to my own classes at NTNU, I had my student create a 大綱 outlining what she wants to cover in this presentation and why. The outline was all done in Chinese, and we have been slowly expanding the idea into something bigger during every class. The goal isn't to turn her presentation into something it isn't, which is why she is basically writing the entire thing herself. I feel like my mantra for this project is "the easier the better" in regards to what she is trying to say in Chinese. While I've suggested some useful grammar patterns and vocabulary along the way, this is totally her project. Like my own classes I've been taking online, my role is more to make sure that what she is saying simply works and makes sense in Chinese more than anything. 

While this might not be the best way to acquire new vocabulary or sentence patterns (expect in specific scenarios) I feel that it is a much better representation of what my student has actually accomplished during her time here in Taiwan. Not only in Chinese class, but in life in general. The coolest thing about this for me, as a teacher, is simply that I get to help her figure out the best way to tell that amazing story to others. I don't expect her to sound like 大山, especially given all the things she does in Taiwan that simply can't have a Chinese focus, but I do know that after we finish working on this project together she will be understood... and for second language learners that goal needs to come first.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

One of these corrections is not like the other.

In the interest of fully exploring iTalki, I have decided to take advantage of their "notebook entry" feature over the past few days. Notebook entry, like the name suggests, is a place where one can write a journal entry for friends and other iTalki members to see. The goal is that a native speaker of the target language will take the time to correct your article, thus improving your target language.

While this is a good idea, and great writing practice, it is clear after just two journal entries that the quality of corrections will very greatly between users, and that most native speakers have no training in teaching a second language what-so-ever. You end up with corrections that simply rely on the speakers 語感 (linguistic feeling) rather than provided you with reasons as to why is is a mistake, or why a word doesn't make sense in the context etc.

Take an example of two different corrections from my own journal entry on "the preparatory stages of research." One user's corrections (seen below) has taken my opening paragraph and made drastic changes, but has not provided any reason as to why the changes are being made. Are my sentences grammatically incorrect, or do they just think that their way "sounds" better... I simply don't know.

On the other hand, I got another correction from a user who actually took the time to provide me with the necessary information I would need to actually learn from this writing exercise (see below). I am given options between words, and clarification between what is wrong, and what simply sounds clearer. Also, after the corrections, the user actually took the time to explain why the corrections were made. In this case, my usage of words like "很" or "可" take away from an academic voice that I am aiming for in the paper, which the user explains. Unlike the corrections above, which is ambiguous at best, I can use this information when working on future writing assignments.

In sum, we should be wary of the corrections made on these types of sites, and careful in choosing what kind of feedback we actually want to follow. Also, a quick tip to using sites like iTalki. If you find a correction you like, be sure to express your thanks by providing the same types of feedback to that users writing. That is, of course, if you want them to correct something for you again!
The preparatory stages of research (研究之前的步驟)
假使要作研究,我們應該從普遍的問題(1)問(2)開始,不過哪一個問題呢?在這方面,我們其實有各種選擇,譬如:自己本身的經驗或興趣、其他發表過的研究等、第二語言習得之外的資料等等。這些出處(還是要說源頭)(來源) (出處、源頭都可以,可是我覺得來源最好)不但可以啓發研究的內容、並且可以幫助我們使用不同的角度觀察一些第二語言習得(學習第二語言)(第二語言習得ok, 可是我覺得"學習第二語言"更好)的現象。

Excellent work.
希望這對你有幫助,如果有任何疑問,歡迎寫訊息問我 : ) 

Friday, September 28, 2012

iTalki classrom session: first impressions

In the desperate attempt to fix my Chinese writing problem as quickly (and cheaply) as possible I hopped on iTalki last night and sent out a couple messages to some certified teachers who had positive largely positive reviews and 30 minute demo sessions. It's one day later and I just finished a 30 minute trial session with one of the teachers.

So, how did things go?

Apart from the teacher commenting on my "Taiwanese" sounding Mandarin, there was zero correction of my spoken Chinese, instead all of our energy was focused on working over a one page article I was working on for class. Unlike Lang-8 or other similar journal sites, the wonderful thing about a chatting live with a teacher was my ability to direct the conversation just the way I wanted it-- all writing, all the time (AWATT?!?)

Right now, I'm not looking toward sounding "more Chinese," or "more academic,"but rather working on addressing areas that are simply unclear, or grammatically unsound. Since the particular article I'm working contains a lot of translation from English academic writing I knew there would be issues, particularly in the areas of research methodology and research design. It took a few minutes to find a rhythm that work, but after a half-hour we sussed out many of problem areas.

It is too soon to say where my issues lie, especially since this type of writing is more focusing on my ability to translate into Chinese, rather than use my own words to convey meaning, but I did notice that I have a tendency to overuse the standard measure word 個 when there are more clear alternatives, and I could stand to focus on short clear sentences, not those long elegant ones I love reading. I'll be sure to keep an eye on the measure words in the future, especially when I'm reading other peoples work.

As for those super-badass long (almost run-on) style sentences I love, they're just going to have to wait. Overall it was a good session, and I look forward to continuing on for a full hour next week. Stay tuned for more updates as the sessions continue.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

My serious problem with academic Chinese writing

Well it finally happend. My teacher called me out in class and told me that I need to work on seriously improving my academic Chinese writing ability. She then proceeded to pick apart sentence after sentence of mistakes and translation errors with a look of disgust (okay the last part only happens in my dreams). I've always guessed this was the case, but now I actually know it, and my classmates do too.

Before entering graduate school I had never actually written a research paper in Chinese. I'd never taken a Chinese literature class. Heck, I've only taken three years of formal Chinese language classes in my life; most of which took place in the US, and was not focused on formal writing at all. I have no problem speaking Chinese, cause that is where the focus was, and has always been.

The sad reality is that most of my graduate studies focus on massive input, not output. The average lecture is three hours long, and (we) as students are lucky if the teacher can put a name to a face by the end of the semester. In my first year in the program I wrote roughly 20 papers, some of which were 10 pages or more, but the majority were 2-3 pages of very colloquial writing.

Aside from the grades posted at the end of the semester, the amount of feedback I received by the end of one year was zilch. No corrections, no comments, not a single "hey 高健 you write like a foreigner! Knock it off!" But now I'm expected to change... and fast, because I have a 100 pape research paper due in just 28 months, and I'll be damned if I let my thesis board call out the way I write.

This isn't me playing the blame game, it is simply the harsh reality of where my Mandarin is, and why it got there.

So, how the heck am I going to fix this?

  • I've signed up for a private tutor on iTalki, with the sole purpose of fixing my academic writing. We start class tomorrow, and I have to email them a paper in a little under two hours.
  • I'll be using Lang-8 to focus more on the translation of English academic articles into Chinese (something I'm going to have to get very good at in the next 24 months). Nothing too long, just key phrases or ideas that I'll need to talk about in my own thesis.
  • I'm going to read more academic journals (in Chinese), about the topics I need to know (got about 30 that I've been putting off cause I never seem to have time).
  • I'm going to write more, and with more focus (more on that later).
I don't know if it will be enough, but it's a start. Cause right now the only thing I wanna to hear my teacher say is "wow, your academic writing is really getting better!"

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

For now or Forever?

Before your next 聽寫 ask yourself, do I want to learn these characters for now or forever?

If you just want to get a good grade on the next day's quiz than by all means copying characters over and over again. It doesn't take much time and you'll probably get an A. 

However, if you want to learn them forever this isn't going to work.  Instead: deconstruct characters, make up mnemonics, don't overload on information, and review old material often. It takes A LOT more time, but you'll remember things for much longer.

Researchers know it. Teachers (generally) ignore it. And students get to make the choice. So, what will it be? 

For now or forever?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Art and idioms

Reading "Breakfast of Champions" by Kurt Vonnegut has inspired a desire to take a bit more time out of life for simply doodling things down. That book, coupled with the works of the Horse Dragon Fish blog, better known as Chinese Superman (中文超人), and the awesome, smart, witty comics of M and MX, is why my new "art and idioms" posts exist today.

The post that started it all: 字如其人
Armed with an iPad, a stylus, and the app Paper I've been trying to spend a few minutes mixing "art" with Chinese idioms; breaking with the traditional mold of tweeting a single Chinese word, or even a new word coupled with a short sample sentence. While those things have their place in second language acquisition, I often find the posts stale and easy to ignore (what is the first thing you really notice about advertisements?).
開卷有益: While I've never actually read 《三字經》I'm certain it would be profitable to do so!
Subconsciously I've been aware for some time of what @kidsdada kindly shared with me yesterday regarding "Strategies for Second Language Learners"--namely what what found under the sub-heading "Alternative Assessments." And I quote:
Developing content knowledge while learning a second language requires accurate and ongoing assessment. While students should become proficient readers and writers in the mainstream language, they should not be limited to these methods when showing what they have learned. Models, dramatic performances, drawings, and similar activities allow second language learners to demonstrate the content they have learned in ways that address their strengths. (bolded for emphasis)
 A "typical" class project for me goes beyond an oral report, or mind-numbing lecture. I want my kids to "show" me what they've learned in their own way, using their own individual strengths. As a final project at a Chinese heritage weekend school, my students scripted, directed, and acted out their own theatrical rendition of the idiom 對牛彈琴. After the traditional story was told they had fun with a modern day example of how the idiom could be used. Through the process my students learned so much more than just how to use the language; they worked together as a group, got creative, and put on a performance worthy of... well let's just say it was entertaining for all parties involved.
畫蛇添足: Can't believe I wrote the 足 wrong initially! 
For me, these images aren't really an appeal to my strengths, but rather an appeal to breaking from the norm. While Chris over at Horse Dragon Fish, and M and MX have some serious talent when it comes to creating art, I wasn't going to let a lack of talent stop me from participating. Heck, isn't that was Draw Something is all about? Sure people like to marvel at the really good drawings that show up online, but not being able to draw a photo-realistic image of Darth Vader certainly isn't going to keep people from having fun.
光陰似箭: Is it "time files like an arrow" or "time flies 'on' an arrow," I always forget.
And that is what these new images are all about for me-- simply having fun. The images sprinkled all over this post are my first week of "Art and idioms." I don't know if they will remain daily once the semester starts, but I sure hope so. Even more, I hope they both entertain and inspire you to find new fun ways to use your Chinese. As always, thanks for reading!
井底之蛙: I won't let my inability to draw frogs (or good a good panda) stop me!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Stuff I've Learned 1.0

Probably the most exciting thing about living in Taiwan or Mainland Chinese as a Mandarin learner is the fact that Chinese is all around us. Even a bus ride across town can turn into a game of "how many characters do I know." As a Chinese teacher, I also appreciate the nearly infinite access I have to authentic material.

In an effort to store a bit of this information for when I inevitably forget it (about 30 days from now) I thought I would start a new series of posts titled "Stuff I've Learned." Today's entry showcases a few of my favorite bits of language I've collected. Sometimes the material is new to me, and other times I simply find the information too good not to share.

While this blog was created to document my own journey through language learning and teaching, I also recognize that some of my readers might have a different level of Chinese than I. If you ever have questions about the material I put forth, be sure to ask in the comments below. However, since it is my own blog I won't be giving Pinyin (at least on these posts) in an effort to force character recognition. There are tons of apps that will display Pinyin for ya, so go get one if you need it.

And now... onto the show!

Don't we look cute?
I updated my Facebook with this picture of Pui (my fiancé) and I.  One of the great things about being friends with native speakers on Facebook is that you always have an opportunity to learn new stuff while waisting your day away (and stalking your friends). Among the comments was this one from a classmate of mine. 

"俊男美女、郎才女貌 :D"

俊男: "Handsome guy" was new for me.. the word that is, my mom calls me handsome all the time! And while I could read 郎才女貌 individually as characters I was pleased to learn that it meant "a perfect match between a man and a woman." I'll be sure to add that little idiom to my list of things to bust out at the next Chinese wedding I attend!

Some of the best material comes from bathroom signs!
I find bathroom signs to be a perfect challenge of language competency. You don't really have to ever read the signs (we all know what to do), but they are generally formally written, polite, and to the point. The second bullet point warranted this picture the other day.


維護 (safeguard; defend; uphold) 

I'm sure this should be translated as something along the lines of "for your own safety..." but it sounds way more crazy to say In order to defend your safety...". Also, are people still standing on western-style toilets these days?

Bold move sir. Bold move.
Saw this picture in the paper today. At first I thought, oh they are just kissing, but after reading the article I noted where the guys hand was. And here I thought Taiwan was conservative. That aside, I was drawn to reading the caption where I discovered the proper way to say "making out in public." Before I might have said something like 在大家的面前親吻 to describe the situation, but now I know that I can just use 公然親吻. I'll have to keep an eye out for more 公然 actions on my next MRT ride!

That's all I've got for the past few days, but now that I've started this little series I'll be sure to be on the lookout for future content.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Remembering 獸 forever

What the hell is this thing? What a crazy 野獸!

I'm not really sure why, but 獸 has been an elusive character for me for quite some time. I always seem to get it wrong when ever I want to talk about beasts (野獸) or Unicorns (獨角獸), which is more often than some would care to admit. I however find unicorns to be totally badass (or at least the mystical properties of their blood) and would love to be able to actually write the word at will should I choose to. So after months of struggle (I have a 62.5% success rate writing it on Skritter) I figured it was time to do something about it.

Rather than just copy the character a zillion times onto paper like I would have in my formative years of Chinese study, I decided to step back and actually look at the character, specifically the left side of the character, and find a way for it to stick in my head. See, the issue I was having at first was that it reminded me a bit of the left side of 顫; at least just enough to through me off, but upon closer inspection the difference is huge.

Take a look at the left side. What do you see?
So how did I remember this character forever? I came up with a sick mnemonic worthy of its very own blog post. You see, rather than try to remember all the stokes of the left side I broke them down into little components, and came up with 口、口、田、一、口, basically a bunch of characters that I could write after just a few days of studying Chinese. Once I did that it dawned on me. 獸 is the character for beast or wild animal (see image at top of blog), and everyone knows that beasts are mean and ferocious... so in order for the left side to really stick in my head I just pictured some kind of crazy dog feral (because of 犬 on the right), or rather two crazy feral dogs (口、口) entering a field (田) and fighting to the death until one (一)dog (口) walked away the victor.   

Seriously, how could I forget how to write it now?

Monday, July 23, 2012

First Look at FluentFlix (Beta)

These days it is almost impossible not to find Chinese related content on the web. A simple Google search will give you thousands upon thousands of news sites, movie links, and Chinese songs, all ripe for the picking. While nothing beats authentic content for language learning. Finding lyrics to songs, or web browser dictionaries makes it easy to double check things you might not have understood during a first encounter, but most videos found on YouTube, TuDou, or Youku always seemed a bit lacking. While many videos come with subtitles, there was never an easy way to look up vocabulary words, or pause the video and make sure you really understood what was being said... that is until now. FluentFlix understands our pain, and picks up the pieces where all those other sites fall short.

FluentFlix, for those who don't know, is the brain child of Alan Park, a lifetime language learner who has spent years working in East Asia. As described on their website:
"FluentFlix is a new way to learn Chinese through authentic video content like music videos, movie trailers, news, and inspiring talks. With engaging and immersive content, we empower users to learn with fun videos exhibiting the diversity and vibrancy of modern Chinese culture." 
I first discovered FluentFlix through their blog and was hooked from day one. Whether you're looking for learning tips, language learner interviews, or the hottest most up-to-date chengyu, this site has it all. I think real draw was their amazing example sentences and character by character breakdowns on all their Chinese chengyu blogs. Being a huge fan of idioms myself, I look forward to every new post I get from them in my inbox. For an idea of what I'm talking about, just check out "Attention Bachelors- Describing Chinese Beauty" a post from a few weeks back.

I started using FluentFlix a few months back when I was invited to their beta (thanks guys!). While we all await the real launch I thought I would take a moment to give you all a taste of what FluentFlix has to offer.

Videos, videos, and more videos!

Upon initial login, I was blown away by how much content is already on the beta site. Not trying to miss anything, the site offers a huge range of video topics, such as: Business, Everyday Life, Health and Lifestyle, Politics and Society, Popular Culture etc. New users can select the topics and language level they are at and Fluentflix will recommend videos that fit the criteria, or one can just search all topics and videos manually. Another great thing about the site is that all videos are sorted by level, ranging from Newbie, Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Most videos range from 0:30 to 6:00 in length so one never feels too overwhelmed when sitting down to study. 

Living in Taiwan, I'm delighted to see a wide variety of both Taiwanese and Mainland video clips, giving users a chance to explore slight differences in both accent and vocabulary. 

Amazing use of subtitles

 Just like your favorite foreign films, FluentFlix offers great subtitles for all videos listed on the site. In the image above you can see that each sentence comes with Chinese characters, pinyin, and English subs to make sure you understand everything your watching. Users can toggle both pinyin and English on and off depending on preference, which is another great feature of the site.

These things should be expected of any company trying to deliver video content as a study material, but where FluentFlix really takes things over the top is in how users can interact with the subtitles. Every sentence of every single video on the site has been given its own place marker as you watch. By selecting any sentence in the video, it immediately jumps back to that part of the video (awesome!) and better yet, you can repeat the sentence over and over again to make sure you really get it before moving on. 

FluentFlix doesn't stop there, however, a single click on any of the individual words will provide a pop-up definition, by clicking the word again you are taken to a pop-out definition that gives audio reinforcement and AWESOME sample sentences. From there individual words can be added to your video vocab lists so you can go back and study them later.

Once words have been added to your study lists, you can see them appear on the right hand side of the screen, by clicking those words you are taken directly to the sentences in which they appear... super nifty stuff! I'm a huge fan of context based learning, which is something that Fluentflix does amazingly well. As you are watching the video, selected vocabulary words also appear highlighted in the video to focus attention even further. 

My Vocab

Once you've studied a video, any vocabulary you stared appears on your homepage where you can review them again with audio and sample sentences, or export them in PDF format for later study. I would love to see other formats, like Excel, available so that you can quickly import to Anki, Skritter or other study decks, but since the site is in beta I'm sure those options will be offered down the road (hint, hint). One thing I was pleasantly surprised about was the option to include sample sentences in the PDF, again, context is key and clearly FluentFlix knows that too! 

From the answers on the FAQ page it looks like FluentFlix has a lot more in store for the site, like SRS,  quiz and game modes etc. Although the site is only in beta I'm already sold. I can't wait to see what is next for this new language learning tool! 

For now, I hope you all enjoyed the quick peek into what I think could be the next big thing in Chinese language learning. The side is still in private beta, so be sure to visit and register as a beta tester today! 

Monday, June 18, 2012

The "社會" section

I've got three days left here in Taiwan before I head back to the states, and I'm up to my ears in 報告s and the general laundry list of crap one needs to do before they leave somewhere for months on end.

Rather than regale you all with the various ways I've thought about pulling my hair out, or smashing my head on the desk as I try and analyze Case Grammar structures, I'll just say that I've discovered a new love at my breakfast shop... the "society" section of the 自由日報 (Freedom Daily). Everyone talks about needing to understand 3000 characters or so to read a news paper, but what is the fascination with reading newspapers anyway? I would much rather know how to tell my friend that their fashion sense in that one photo from 4 years ago, which I only found cause I was Facebook stalking them, makes them look kinda like a serial killer. Seriously, that (to me) would be much more useful, and, let's face it, way more fun to teach.

That being said, the 社會 section of this newspaper is sort of a blend of both. You get the "street cred" of reading a newspaper (this is why we try in the first place right?) plus a Facebook feel. It's full of pictures, it covers a broad variety of topics, polarizing opinions, and most of all, language that I can use right away! Here are two articles I found particularly funny yesterday. I can't really remember what useful stuff I learned in the process, and I didn't look up things I didn't understand, but after reading them I had a smile on my face. I'm sure I'll be back for more, which more than I can say of the collected works of Laozi or some textbook about Cross Straight Relations... seriously who writes that crap?

Without further ado, enjoy! I'd tell you the parts that I thought were interesting, but they you might not read the articles yourselves.

辣媽, what is that like the Chinese version of MILF?
Three parts to this discussion about yelling at kids.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Weekend Wake-up Call

I don't remember ever asking my breakfast shop for a wake-up call, or wake-up text rather, but that is what I got at 9:15 this morning. Still in a deep sleep, dreaming blissfully about qualitative and quantitative research methods, I woke suddenly to the obnoxious sound of an incoming text.


I tried to ignore it. I wanted to go back to sleep and let my dreams tell me the true meaning of my final Research Methodology report, but before I could even set the phone down, it exploded again.

"快來陪我,等你 :-D:-)"

It was Leo, the breakfast shop owner's son. I knew it was a mistake to call that phone one morning to place an order for food. Now the 15 year old had a direct line to a friendly laowai. I've created a monster!

Rather than wait for another barrage of texts I decided it was as good a time as any to head down for breakfast. I made my way across the street and ordered the usual, slumping into my favorite spot against the wall... and waited impatiently for my coffee to arrive. Leo was working the grill while his Dad was on a smoke break, but the second he was done he came rushing over to sit with me. 

“我們玩個遊戲!" he said as I placed my phone on the table. Ever since I showed him some of the games I had on my smart phone he has been obsessed. Instead I pick up the news paper and glanced at the first article... it was perfect. I glanced over the article and couldn't help but ask Leo if he knew what “低頭族" was.

“當然”, he replied. "就是你啊! It's true, most mornings you will find my head facing down (低頭) and I guess that would make me a part of the "head down group," but I was shocked that Leo, who spent ever second playing games on his tablet PC until it broke, had the audacity to call me a part of the group without including himself among the ranks!

And then it hit me... this kid looks up to me (maybe). He thinks it is okay to sit around while he is "at work" playing his games because he sees me doing it every weekend. We continued to chat for a while about the article, and a few other things we found in the paper, but the whole time I was thinking to myself, this is a test.

See, Leo is a gamer, and a self-proclaimed poor student. He doesn't like to study English, he doesn't do well in school, and he spends just about ever minute of his weekend at home playing Counter Strike with his friends. But, he looks up to me. So what if I could change that, what if I could figure out a way to make learning fun for him? This will eventually be my job as a Chinese teacher, so why not try it with a kid who already speaks Chinese? 

So after about an hour of chatting and messing around on Skritter together I told him it was time for me to get going. And then I added... "我明天不會帶我的手機來吃早餐". He gave me a look of sheer terror, but I pressed on "要帶一本書,我們可以一起看!” He was puzzled, but intrigued. 

Now I just have to figure out what a kid like Leo would actually enjoy reading. Perhaps it is time to start that Chinese version of Lord of the Rings that has been sitting on my shelf for months!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The wait is over... Skritter iOS is here!

After a year and a half of development, months of beta tests, tweaks and bug fixes, more tweaks and even more bug fixes... the #1 web app for learning to write Chinese has finally made its way to the iTunes App Store! If you haven't had a chance yet (and haven't run off to download Skritter), be sure to check out the awesome video George and Nick put together to get a real feel for what you get out of the Skritter iOS app, and check out the Skritter blog for the full development story.

If you've never used Skritter before, do yourself a favor and go download it now! All new users get a one-week free trial to check things out, and amazing App launch deals after that. With over 150 Chinese textbooks, thousands of user generated lists and integrated ChinesePod support you'll be studying and reviewing from your favorite material in no time. If you've never thought about learning to write Chinese characters before, be sure to check out Skritter's Chinese 101 list and get acquainted with over 200 of the most common (and instantly usable) characters while you learn 75 unique radicals, the basic building blocks of all Chinese characters. 

For those who have used the site before, you'll find the app has just about everything you can do on the site only in a much more stylized way. Things like example sentences, individual list study modes etc. are in the works as we speak, and will be available in future updates. I think you'll notice that the iOS version of Skritter is way quicker than its web counterpart, which makes catching up on reviews easy as pie. However, the largest improvement over the web app is just how smooth the native version runs. Add in the fact that there are two cool and unique themes and you'll probably give up using the website altogether (much like I did in February). 

I could go on and on about this thing, but I really feel like the best way to really appreciate what the app is capable of is to simply try it out yourselves. I'm proud to be part of the team that brought you this app, and I hope you all enjoy it just as much as we have been. Just to give you a taste of how addictive this app is, here is a screen shot of my study results the first month I got my hands on the alpha build...

47 hours in a single month, all while attending graduate classes... yeah the Skritter iOS app is really that addictive!

RequirementsSkritter Chinese requires iOS 5.0 or newer, so that's iPhone 3GS, 4, or 4S, iPod touch 4th generation, or any iPad.

3G or wi-fi only?: Nope. Need to be on 3G or Wi-fi for the download and initial updates, but after that you can just add a bunch of new words while connected to the wireless network and do your reviews on the app. 

PriceAfter the one-week free trial, it's $9.99 for a one-month subscription, or $39.99, $69.99, or $119.99 for six-, twelve-, or twenty-four-month subscriptions. (These are just cents per hour for the typical Skritter user.) Subscriptions are required to add new words, but you can review forever for free. School and institutional licenses are available.

Any questions or comments? Leave them below... and happy Skrittering! 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Raindrops keep falling on my head

Yesterday afternoon the dark clouds started rolling in to Taipei. The impending rain was going to be welcome respite from all the hot and muggy weather we've been having recently. And then it started to rain, and rain, and rain! Even this morning the clouds show no sign of letting up any time soon. 

So how do we talk about 雨 (rain) in Chinese?

First a little about the character 雨. In my opinion it is one of the most clear examples of Chinese 象形字 (pictographic characters), even the modern Character has the look of raindrops falling from the sky. When it is a top component of characters it appears written as ⻗; as seen in such characters as:

  • 電 (electricity)
  • 震 (shake; shock)
  • 雪 (snow)
  • 露 (dew)
  • 雷 (thunder)
  • 霞 (rosy clouds)-- I love this character!
Rain is a special thing, and there are lots of different kinds. Like Forest Gump said:
One day it started raining, and it didn't quit for four months. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin' rain... and big ol' fat rainRain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath. Shoot, it even rained at night... 
So how do we talk about it in Chinese? The most basic way is to simply say 下雨 (rain), that good old V.O. we all learn in first year Chinese. But, what about "stingin' rain" and "big ol' fat rain"? Here are a few fun ways to shoot the crap and talk about the weather with your Chinese friends.

下大雨 (xià dàyǔ)heavy rain
  • 下 (xià: fall)
  • 大 (dà: big)
  • 雨 (yǔ: rain)
When it is really raining outside, the easiest way to say it is 下大雨. Often it comes after a location, or talks about an upcoming event, for example: 台北下大雨 or 下大雨幾率將提高

細雨 (xìyǔ) drizzle; (n.) light rain
  • 細 (xì: fine; small particles)
  • 雨 (yǔ: rain)
For those light drizzles we can say 細雨 or 細細的雨. 

狂風暴雨 (kuángfēngbàoyǔ) f.e. violent storm
  • 狂 (kuáng: mad; crazy)
  • 風 (fēng: wind)
  • 暴 (bào: sudden and violent)
  • 雨 (yǔ: rain)
When the wind really starts to pick up and rain is flying everywhere, then 狂風暴雨 is the perfect expression to describe the scene. If it is raining hard, but not windy, then you better stick to 下大雨, but if the wind is about to rip your umbrella away, than this one's for you!

傾盆大雨 (qīngpéndàyǔ) f.e. rain cats and dogs; (n.) torrential rain 
  • 傾 (qīng: overturn and pour out; empty)
  • 盆 (pén: basin)
  • 大 (dà: big)
  • 雨 (yǔ: rain)
This could be my favorite phrase of the whole bunch... since torrential rains feels like someone has just taken a giant basin of water and emptied it right on your head. 

大珠小珠落玉盤 (dà zhū xiǎo zhū luò yù pán) big and little peals (water) falling on a jade plate 
  • 大 (dà: big)
  • 珠 (zhū: pearl; small, spherical object)
  • 小 (xiǎo: small; little
  • 珠 (zhū: pearl; small, spherical object)
  • 落 (luò: fall; drop)
  • 玉盤 (yùpán: jade plate)
The most poetic phrase of the bunch, this line describes the scene and sound of large and small pearls (drops of water) falling onto a jade plate. When I learned this phrase this morning, my friend told me it is used to describe the sight or scene of rainfall. It makes sense that this phrase is so poetic, since it comes from a line in 白居易 (Bái Jūyì: Tang Poet) poem titled 《琵琶行》(pípaxíng: Song's of the Pipa). For more info on the phrase, check out the full Baidu link.

Well there you have it. A few ways to talk about rain. Got more ways? Please share them in comments below, or check out a trillion more in the awesome link that @Ye Mao Hao sent me a few minutes ago.

Monday, May 28, 2012

A wealth of English phrases (in Chinese)

I'm a huge fan of idiomatic phrases, a topic I've covered quite extensively on the Skritter blog last year, I find they are such a rich way to express your ideas, especially in Chinese; a language that has thousands of years of history. And yet, familiarizing yourself with all of these phrases is never easy. Yet, growing up as a native English speaker, there are already hundreds of idiomatic phrases that I do know and understand. Phrases like: "Don't put all your eggs in one basket," or "early bird gets the worm." 

I would love to use these expressions in Chinese, but I'm not a translator. Although I can usually explain my way around these phrase, my lack of confidence has left these linguistic gems out of my speeches and reports... at least until I came across THIS website. The blogger, who goes by the net-handle 阿靖 (ajing), has complied a list of hundreds of English idiomatic phrases complete with their Chinese counterparts; some of them are pretty literal, while others are simply Chinese phrases that hold very a very similar meaning.   

The key, however, is that instead of using Chinese to figure out the English phrase, we can attack the problem the other way around, using our background knowledge of English to learn similar Chinese expressions. Let's take the above expressions as an example:

Don't put all your eggs in one basket- 別把雞蛋擺在同一籃子裡。不要孤注一擲。
Early bird gets the worm- 早起的鳥兒有蟲吃。

Awesome right!

The site is great for intermediate and advanced learners who have a good feel for how these types of phrases can be used in reports or speeches, and I would highly recommend that everyone add it to their Chinese idioms bookmark folder (surely I'm not the only one who has one of these.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Some other characteristics of 著(着)

Today our Modern Chinese Grammar and Syntax class started talking about Case Grammar Patters (格語法), but our teacher is fond of going off topic today and decide to further look at three functions of 著 (or 着 for you Mainland students), and I thought I would throw that part of the lecture up on the blog (or at least what I understood of it), since using English to work out what my teacher said in Chinese always seems to help me better understand the material. Anyway, lets take a look at 著!

Grammatically, we often think of 著 as a durative, or as representing a continued state... as expressed in the following explanation:


The focus here is on the continued state of an action or condition. However, from what I gathered in my lecture today, that is only one of its several functions. I don't pretent to be an expert on the patter (so take the follow with a grain of salt) but this is what I understand.

著 can be used as a "manner adverb" expression, for example: 他慢慢地吃著 (nibble at food). Here the state of being slow and nibbling is being modified by 著 and thus serving as sort of adverb.

For like a million other examples of this occurring check out the link.

著 can also represent a period of time. Let us take the example 紅臉, or the English to be red in the face (with a blushing face w/e). Here the added 著 is serving as a time marker to indicate that (當下時間) during this present time, so-and-so has a red face. This is not a continuous state, but only a time marker.

Lets look at another example: 忙著讀書 (to be busy reading). Here again, 著 is being used as representing a current period of time, not indicating a continued stated of being busy.

Finally, 著 on a third level can serve as a focal point marker (in an abstract way). Take the example above again 忙著讀書, the focal point (焦點) is on reading (讀書), and since this example phrase is incomplete, one might imagine that you would use this to describe someone perhaps busily reading before going to take a test... or leaving for the day, or something...

It should be noted that 著 is not simply "-ing" in English... it is a little more complicated than that. Again, going back to the 忙著讀書 sentence, if we just wanted to say that someone is reading, we would just say 在讀書, because we cannot say 忙讀書.

I don't know if this helps anyone better understand 著, but if it does please leave your comments below. I hope that from now on, you have a little better grasp of this characters functionality when you see it in the wild.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Visiting Taiwan's ICLP

As part of my Teaching Practicum class my classmates and I had an opportunity to check out Taiwan's International Chinese Language Program, better know around these parts simply as ICLP. ICLP is an amazing program (perhaps the only one in the world) that takes language learners from zero to oral competence in one year. Many students of ICLP go on to do graduate work here in Taiwan, or enter the work force, so how do they do it?

ICLP's program certainly isn't a walk in the park. Students have four hours of Chinese class a day, split into three hours of small group classes (with a maximum of 4 students) and one hour of one-on-one lessons. While in the program, students participate in a language contract. If students are found speaking any language other than Chinese during classes or anywhere in the language learning center they will not receive a certificate of completion at the end of the program.

What really blew me away about the program was how well the students spoke Mandarin after just a year or two of study. Their tones, vocabulary, and sentence patterns were equal of someone who might have been studying for years and years in another program. However, I was most impressed with how naturally they were able to respond to our questions in Chinese, that to me, showed a real display of understanding.

After talking to some of the teachings I think that part of the success of this program is the strong emphasis on oral proficiency. From day one students are made brutally aware of their tone issues and pronunciation mistakes. While it may hurt at first, once they overcome that huge hurtle it gives them a great confidence in their language skill, helping to get them to the next level even quicker. Many of the staff strongly believe that many teachers of Mandarin are simply too soft when it comes to fixing these mistakes, and if these few students are any indication that being strict is the right way to fix this issue then I whole-heatedly agree with their approach.

To be honest, the whole experience made me regret my decision to study at Shida back in 2006-07. But I suppose looking forward is really the only way to progress... who knows, maybe I could be one of those teachers someday.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Reflecting on Taiwan's TOCFL Exam

On Saturday, May 5th 2012, after a grueling week of midterm exams, reports and 15 hours of regular classes, I went in to take Taiwan's TOCFL Exam, formerly known as the TOP. I was registered for the Master Level, also know as the fluency level.

I went into the exam with little hope of passing, but since I have to take (and pass) the exam before I graduate from my Master's program here in Taiwan, I wanted to see what this exam was all about so that I could better prepare myself for next time. I had bought a test booklet to prepare, but the prep booklet doesn't do much good in my opinion, since the material presented always feels about a step or two down from the actual level of material presented on the exam.

The exam is done on the computer, with your results processed instantaneously. Sure enough, after two hours of testing, split into listening and reading, I pressed send only to find those dreaded words "no pass" appear across the screen. However, much to my surprise I was only one point shy of grabbing the master level score, so where did I go wrong?

I would say that my largest problem was that I was simply not prepared for the scope of questions that appeared on the exam. The content was a mixture of news broadcasts, advertisements, business meeting conversations etc., and I simply didn't have enough background to fill in the gaps between the words I didn't know and what they were looking for in the questions provided. I fared a lot better on the reading section of the exam, but the speed at which I read was simply too slow for the allotted time given. With only one minute left in the test I had 10 questions left unanswered, that I hurriedly guess at without even reading the essay provided.

If I only had a little more time, or my reading ability was a little faster, I'm sure I could have made up that last final point and passed the exam, albeit with a poor score. However, instead of getting myself down about the results, I've taken it as a valuable lesson on the areas in which my Chinese needs to improve. Rather than sulk over that one point, I went out for a massive dinner of sushi and devised a plan for how I was going to gain 10 points before I take the exam again in June (just one month away)... and hear it is.

Step 1: Listening.
 My listening comprehension is lacking, there is no other way to put it. Put me on the street with strangers, put me in a classroom with lectures on Chinese syntax, grammar, or the origin of Chinese characters, and I'm perfectly fine. My problem isn't that I don't understand what is being said when I understand the context, my problem lies in my degree of listening comprehension. Quite simply, I need to spend a lot more time listening to things that I simply have know knowledge of. This means spending more time listing to radio broadcasts, news broadcasts, and TV programs that I have absolutely no interest in what-so-ever. So that is exactly what I'll do, I'm not going to like it, and I don't really know if I have the time to really make it happen over the next month, but I've got my radio adjusted to Chinese news, and whenever my TV is on, it is set to the local news... if this doesn't work, I'll adjust again after next month. 

Step 2: Reading:
I've got to read faster, so that is exactly what I'm going to do. Rather than look up words that I don't understand, or focus on blogs and news reports that catch my interest, I'm just going to open the newspaper and read whatever I can. Basically, I just need to make time in my day to read, something that might be easier said that done with 5 classes, 10 hours of teaching, and part-time work every week, but I'll do my best over the next month and see what happens.

Pretty boring post, but this is where I stand, and I'm just going to do what I can to do better next time. Since I don't really have time to "study" Chinese at this point, I'll just do my best over the next month and see what happens. If I don't pass it in June, then I get another year to prepare, and trust me, by that time I'll be ready!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Why Chinese?

A few weeks ago, Hugh Grigg, over at East Asian Student (a super awesome blog)wrote an article titled "Why I decided to study Chinese." It was great to hear his own personal story,and I thought I would share my own about getting started down the path of studying Chinese.

Flashback to 2006. A friend and I have just dismantled our personal company. After spend four years in the automotive industry building drag cars and doing custom engine fabrication for local and national customers, our business is failing to live up to our expectations. Working 80 hours a week at three jobs is taking a toll its toll on us both, and while learning a great deal in the process, we've both come to realization that building and fixing cars is a lifelong hobby, it isn't our ultimate end goal. We both decide that going back to college is a good idea. After traveling to Indonesia in 2004, I've got a taste for all things new and international, and I'm eager to begin my studies. I end up enrolling in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for the Fall 2006 semester.

Although I didn't know it at the time, my path toward Chinese can be boiled down to one fateful evening at a local diner with close friends. Although we would meet there ever week to catch up while sipping coffee late into the night, this particular evening was different. We were joined by a few other people who happened to be a mix of linguistics majors, with a focus, respectively, on either Chinese or Japanese. Their individual passions for these languages is fierce, and a small debate breaks out about which language is "better" to learn.

Personally I've had a strong passion for studying Japanese since I first read Shogun in high school, and I'd even started to teach myself some Japanese while I was running my company, since a large portion of our business involved importing rare Japanese tuning products to the United States for customers who were willing to to pay, and wait three months for the products to arrive stateside. With that being said, I was certainly intrigued by Chinese, and my friend was making a strong argument about the economic incentive attached to learning the language... in short, China's economy was going to overtake Japan in the next few years (which it did).

Coming home later that evening I was giddy with the idea of studying a foreign language. I had picked up quite a bit of Indonesian during my month of travel, which broke my "I can't learn a language spell," that was cast on me by my high school German teacher. I thought, what the heck, and decided to add a language class to my first semester. At that point I tossed economic incentive out the window and decided to choose Japanese, a language (and culture) I had been interested in learning about for years. However, when I went to pick Japanese 101 from the foreign language enrollment page I was met with a dilemma, Japanese 101 was completely full up.

Having skipped my college orientation (80 hour work weeks keep ya busy), I had no idea that I could've just walked into class the first day and asked one of the teachers to sign a class add sheet. Rather, I chose the next best option-- Chinese. I must have been destined to learn Chinese all along, because when I went to pick Chinese I was delighted to find that there was one seat left in the class, and it was all mine! I figured if I didn't like Chinese I could always switch to Japanese during my second year at school.

A few weeks later I was slacking off at work, reading a New York Times article about learning languages via podcast (a relatively new phenomenon at the time) and they were highlighting Chinese, and one company in particular-- ChinesePod. My full-time job was data entry, giving me the luxury of listening to whatever I wanted while I worked, so I decided to give ChinesePod a shot, and signed up for their 7 day free trial.

That summer before college I poured over the material, mimicking their short dialogues and paying close attention to tones. I had been a musician in high school, playing guitar, trumpet and African hand drums, and perhaps that helped me to feel the difference in tones quicker, cause I started practicing them from day one. That whole summer I worked on the basics of Chinese, learning how to ask simple questions and introduce myself. I didn't fly through the lessons, but I put a lot of effort on the material I was studying, and the things I studied I knew well.

When I arrived to my Chinese class on the first day, I was ready to put what I'd learned to the test. It was my first real world interaction in Chinese. We were going around the room, with students giving their name, year in school and major. When it was my turn to speak I went for broke: "大家好,我叫Jake, 我是一年級的學生, 我的Major是Linguistics." My teacher was impressed and actually praised my "good pronunciation" and tones. I would find out later that both of these things would still need lots of work, but it didn't matter, from that instant I was hooked.

My teacher  gave me something that day I had never received when studying German for four years in high school... praise and encouragement. From that moment onward Chinese classes were the highlight of my week. I worked hard the entire semester, and my efforts were rewarded when I took fourth place among first year college students during our state wide Chinese speech contest.

The rest then, I suppose, is history. I moved to Taiwan during my second year of Chinese study and pushed myself to the limit. One year later I worked at a summer camp teaching Chinese, and then packed my bags to spend half a year in Beijing, figuring I should learn a little something about the mainland as well. During my forth year of Chinese study I picked up a job teacher Chinese to Taiwanese-American kids at a weekend school, and made the decision to become a teacher shortly there after, while attending a four day, all expenses paid, Chinese Teacher's Conference in Beijing.

Now here I am, in Taiwan, earning a Master's degree in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. After five years of studying Chinese I'm really starting get the hang of it, but there is still so much more to learn. As a teacher, however, I learned the most important lesson there is from my first Chinese class in 2006... give your students the praise and encouragement they want and need, and you will create a life long language student. 

Got your own story to tell? Feel free to leave it in the comments below.
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