Chinese Resources

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why the heck are there Simplified characters in Taiwan?

Taipei Main Station uses the Simplified (台) instead of (臺)
Pick Simplified or Traditional....that's the choice many of us face when we start studying Chinese. When I first began the language journey in 2006 those were my options, and they were clear cut. I was suppose to pick a text book and focus all my efforts on one or the other. But as someone who had their heart set on studying abroad during college, this also meant that I was making an even bigger choice: Mainland China or Taiwan, I decided to say screw the system, and choose both... but more on that another day.

This is the way that many of us look at the world of Chinese characters, especially as a student of Mandarin Chinese. Teachers don't generally talk about Hong Kong, or talk about what might be useful if you're living near a strong overseas Chinese community. The options we have, from the very beginning, feel political.

Anyone who pretends the argument isn't about politics is fooling themselves. Putting that aside however, language learners still tend to focus on studying one form or the other until the inevitable day arrives when you stumble upon a website, a Facebook message, a Tweet, or even a book that uses the other character system.

For those readers who have spent time in Mainland China, you'll know that you are bound to run into Traditional Chinese characters from time to time. Places like restaurants, temples and museums are notorious for having the Traditional versions of some characters, and while guessing the meaning (of a character you might already know in the Simplified form) can be somewhat of a challenge, you eventually get used to it. However, things are little different here in Taiwan, because everything is already in Traditional characters, or at least we like to think so. But then you start to notice some little inconsistencies on the streets, Simplified characters are here too if you look hard enough. The first time I noticed it was at Taipei Main Train Station, where the Simplified "台"(Tái) took the place of the Traditional "臺" in the Chinese for 台北(Táiběi).

As time went on I began to notice a few other similar instances of Simplified characters being used. Two of the most prominent examples are found on Taiwan Mobile's street signs, and on the cans and bottles of Taiwan Beer, where the Simplified "湾"(wān) is used instead of the Traditional "灣" (pictured below).
Showed using the Simplified (湾)instead of the Traditional (灣).
 Initially, a lot of people didn't really take notice of the change, but once they did, questions were raised about the meaning behind the switch. In one Yahoo News Article a Taiwanese citizen said: 「改繁體字會比較好,又不是大陸,我們是台灣人。」(Translation: Changing it (back) to the Traditional characters would be better. We're not Mainland China, we are Taiwanese). In the same article, a representative from the Taiwan Alcohol and Tobacco Company responded to the question of character simplification by stating:
"(rough translation)We don't consider it to be a Simplified character, its more like those other company trademarks (logos). It is meant to bring the bottle to life, it curls and winds. Its design is to make the character stand out from the others, and give it a more visual sense."
While the answer sounds like the perfect marketing response when put under pressure, I would like to posit that there is nothing wrong with using these Simplified characters in the first place, because they aren't political, they're just simplified. The character 湾 much like 台 has actually been in use since the Song and Yuan Dynasties, and are part of a Simplified character group known as the 宋元以來俗字, a group of nonstandard characters, or a demotic writing system used by the common people of the time. A book entitled 《宋元以來俗字譜》,or "A Glossary of Popular Chinese Characters Since Song and Yuan Dynasties" actual researched and outlined 6,240 of these kinds of characters and published the results in 1930 (more info can be found here).

These characters are actually referred to as 簡化字 (jiǎnhuàzì) in Chinese, but are often translated into English just as Simplified characters, where as perhaps something like abbreviated characters might better capture the meaning. Some other such characters that are in common usage today in Mainland China include (but are not limited to):
实、宝、礼、声、 会、怜、怀、搀、罗、听、万、庄、梦、阳、虽、医、 凤、义、乱、皱、台、办、战、归、党、辞、断
While over 330 of these abbreviated characters have been worked into the system we know call "Simplified Chinese," which is used by the UN and the People's Republic of China, it is clear that their origin goes well beyond this past half-century. Furthermore, many people, even here in Taiwan, use many of these abbreviated characters when taking pen to paper. In that way then, what better choice is there than to use the "common mans" character on something as common and everyday as beer or a cellphone?

So, next time you come across a Simplified character here in Taiwan, I hope your first thought is historical, rather than political, cause many of these Characters have been around a lot longer than people who have been arguing about whether they should be studying Simplified or Traditional.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Putting it all in one place: Integrated Chinese comes to the iPad

Today I got an email from Cheng & Tsui, one of the largest Chinese textbook producers in the US. They are announcing that their Integrated Chinese book series will be available on the iPad with its very own iBook edition. According to the email:

"The digital version will "take advantage of the iBook's capabilities. Students experience text, language notes, glossary, and audio in an exciting interactive environment. Plus you can customize flashcards, grammar indexes, and more on your iPad."
The app, or the book rather, will be available May 2012. Those viewing this on an iPad can download a sample here.

While this is certainly good news for the tech generation, it also makes me wonder what these iPad wielding language students will be missing. In the hay-day of my Chinese language study I would cover my textbooks in notes; highlighting key phrases, underlining grammar patterns and pouring over the little details.

When I didn't understand a word or a grammatical phrase, I would have to go through the process of looking it up in my dictionary or in a previous textbook. As annoying as it would be at times, there was something to be gained through re-retrieving information. A quick glance at old vocab would show a sample sentence that my teacher had given, or a radical/ character component breakdown I did during the wee hours of the night.

No matter how many times I open those books, or how long I sit on my bookshelf, those notes will always be there waiting patiently for my gazing eyes. Can the same be said about an iPad textbook? How many updates, software hardware or otherwise, before the digital footprint of what you have studied is erased?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Teaching in Taiwan Part 1: The Past Five Months

I had originally intended to spend some time talking about my impression of using 漫畫 as a teaching material for my student, but I thought that instead I would use this post to catch up on what has been going on for the past five months of teaching. Instead, the post on 漫畫 will be a follow up.

For the past five months I've been spending four hours a week teaching Chinese to a fellow American living here. We first started our classes working on improving  tones and pronunciation (at their request). With that as the focus, we spent a lot of the first few months reading from a book, and paying close attention to how sentences (and tones) flow in a Chinese. Because my student wanted to be better understood when speaking with locals I was a ruthless teacher (sort of a tone Nazi), pointing out every mistake that they made, and often making them start back from the beginning of the sentence over and over again.

This type of teaching method is something I would never do in a traditional classroom, but this was 發音課, so the rules were different. After the first month I started to see huge improvements in my student, and a sort of self-awareness in where their mistakes often occur. I chose this type of teaching method because my student is a working professional who doesn't have time to taking more traditional style classes here in Taiwan. When they interact with locals, the biggest issue is lack of feedback and error correction (on many levels).

Once we started to see improvement in pronunciation, we both felt it was time to move on to a less formal (and less strict) teaching style. We have spent much of the last few months simply having conversation class. For two hours I play the role the listener, my only request to my student has been that, no matter what, they never speak English during those two hour session. My main goal was to get my student thinking in Chinese, and using the vocabulary they already knew to talk around subjects (or objects) that they didn't think they could say in Chinese.

My role as listener is twofold. If my student was able to talk around a word that they could not express, I would provide them the word, also writing it in their study notebook. My other goal is to fix any mistakes that would cause confusion or misunderstanding among native speakers. Because I am also a native speaker of English, I can easily understand what they are saying (when mistakes happen), and therefore I can correct them. Every time a grammar mistake (or pronunciation mistake) occurs, rather than fix it immediately, I write it in the study notebook. Once my student finishes their thought, I can take the time to explain the mistake and how the sentence should be said, also only using Chinese. Since the mistake (and correction) are also in the notebook, it is a reference point for my student to look back on (and hopefully) fix before our next meeting.

We have used this teaching/ learning style for quite some time now (about three months) but I have started to notice a small problem, while my students sense of Chinese grammar is getting better, the rate at which they are acquiring new vocabulary is much less than a student using a traditional textbook. For a while I didn't know how to approach this dilemma. I didn't want to go back to using a traditional textbook, since the material is too far removed from my students needs in the real world, but I also didn't want to spend the whole class talking to my student, and having them stop me every time I said a word they didn't understand.

We recently found a pretty good solution, that has also made our class time a lot more fun... and we have once again restructured our classes to include a wider range of materials, situations, and teaching styles. Now, instead of simply sitting in a coffee shop for four hours a week, or lessons have begun rotating between a few activities:
  1. Exploring Taipei and the surrounding areas (going anywhere my student wants to take me)
  2. Using 漫畫 as teaching materials and as a way of studying new vocabulary and grammatical phrases
  3. Playing an MMORPG in a Internet Cafe with other Taiwanese gamers. 
The first two have been a huge success (more on that in a follow-up post), and the third is an idea I came up with the other night. We are having our first trial run this afternoon at a local Internet Cafe... although I already know it will be a amazing. I told my student that we couldn't go and play video games (and learn Chinese) unless they did some background research (i.e. homework) first. Two nights ago I got an email from my student with about 20 vocabulary words useful for gaming, along with a list of about five games worth checking out.

We just might have found the primer for taking my students Chinese to the next level!
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