Chinese Resources

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Chinese as a tool for...

I would be curious to know how many times over the past two years I've had to remind my classmates (and teachers) that I didn't receive an undergraduate degree in Chinese. My guess would be more times that I can count on ten fingers. I've never taken a class on the Chinese classics and, until recently, was never asked to translate anything... minus the times when friends or family members saw/heard something that fit their description of what Chinese probably was and asked for my "expert" opinion.

My undergraduate degree was actually in Global Studies, a sort of modern day International Studies degree that focused on globalization and global systems (political, economic, cultural and otherwise). While I had fair share of core classes, my own focus was on how communication and communication systems are affected by globalization and global trends. One point that came up time and time again during undergrad was the idea that languages are a tool for conversation and conveying meaning. 

While I will not deny the strong bond that exists between language and culture, I feel like certain cultural elements become stripped away when a language flirts with or has reached lingua franca status. At that point, the bond between a particular language and its culture MUST be broken to allow non-native speakers a chance to imprint their own culture onto the language, and on a more basic level use  the language to communicate. Chinese, in my opinion, is in the process of making this transition. 

Today, however, as a language teacher and non-native speaker of Chinese I find myself reflecting on the idea that language is a tool. While I don't think my undergraduate program missed the mark or got anything wrong, there are certain elements of this concept that can be greatly expanded upon in reagards to second language acquisition.

As a language student the idea of having a tool for conversation is incredibly important. In initial stages (especially when already living in the target language environment) this often means learning the necessary language to survive and interact with people in the environment. Buying things, hailing a cab, asking for directions, going to the bank... these things are often necessary for living in the target language environment. But what happens once you've passed to the next level, or you've already achieved the ability to successfully communicate (here I am referring to conversational fluency) in the target language? 

In other words, what happens next?  

I left the title of this blog post open ended because I think the "what happens next" should be very individualized... which is really the best part about language being used as a tool. You can can use the tool in any way you want. For me, this notion means trying to figure out a way to live our lives (or at least part of our lives) as we might have done in our home country or in our native language. There should be no reason why you cannot strive toward using your second language to fulfill your own interests and needs. If you like cooking, for example, than what is stopping you from taking cooking classes in your target language, or picking up a cook book in your target language? Interested in music? What is to stop you from writing songs, or taking music lessons in your target language? Interested in sports? Go do that in your target language. Interested in just about anything, than go and try to find a way to do that, or learn more about it in your target language.

So often, language blogs seem to spend all of their time focused on the process of learning a language, but I'm beginning to wonder what negative side effects that might cause/create. Instead, what would happen if learning Chinese stopped becoming the goal, and instead became a tool to reach your goal?

In that case you really wouldn't have a choice, you'd simply have to learn use it. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ChineseCUBES Review

Opening ChineseCUBES for the first time brought me back to being a kid on Christmas morning. The outside, filled with cute cartoon characters and a giant "HELLO!" is beautifully designed and inviting. Opening the box I was surprised at just how much stuff there was! A writing pad, a webcam, a learning pad, character cubes... is there anything that ChineseCUBES doesn't have?

Tossing the CD into my computer (you need an optical reader to use ChineseCUBES) I opened up the Quickstart Guide and followed along with the step-by-step instructions. 10 minutes later I had my study station setup and the software launched. It was time to explore.
ChineseCUBES Learning Pad and Webcam

For those who don't know, ChineseCUBES is "a Chinese-learning software that incorporates Augmented Reality (AR) technology and tactile cubes to assist Mandarin language learning." Rather than dialogues or grammar exercises, ChineseCUBES puts focus on Chinese characters, allowing users to explore how words and sentences are combined through either a learning or freestyle mode.

ChineseCUBES learning mode. 
Learning mode

In learning mode every mini lesson highlights a new character, teaching users how they interact. Starting from“好" users learn how various cubes (characters) combine to form words and sentences. At every step users are encouraged to explore more about the characters by clicking on the "SPEAK," "TRANSLATE," and "WRITE" buttons, or using the corresponding cubes.

With every cube (and lesson) users are encouraged to speak aloud and physically write the characters with the pad and pen provided. The stroke animations are clear and the writing pad works just fine. Every time the program asked me to speak aloud, however, I couldn't help but think that there should be a recording option built into the program that appears automatically on the screen, not only reinforcing the need to physically say a word or phrase out loud, but also to allow users to hear what they sound like and make necessary adjustments.

In learning mode, each theme revolves around a set of cubes. As you progress in levels you combined new cubes with cubes that you've already studying with. The progression and speed feels right for beginners and the challenges provided in between lessons,test retention on characters that you've already learned, for example: character and pinyin matching, character and sound matching etc.. 

While a recording option would be nice, there is one thing that I feel must be changed in learning mode, the hints. Whenever you are asked to find a new cube, or make a new phrase the program would politely remind you that a hint was on the bottom of the screen, if you needed it. The problem, however, is that like displaying pinyin under characters, hints are a language leaners kryptonite-- it kills our ability to use our brain and actually try to comprehend the information! Hints are good, and should be provided, but at least make it a click button away, or wait 5 seconds. Displaying something on the bottom of the screen forever is not hint, it's just the answer.

Freestyle Mode

The cool factor of ChineseCUBES is actually in Freestyle Mode, where users can use cubes and discover how Chinese works. Freestyle Mode is the area that sets ChineseCUBES apart from a traditional textbook. Rather than waiting for a lesson on how characters interact, users can explore on their own. For those still in need of guidance, there are hints that appear on the side of the screen if a particular phrase is a bit off. At any time during the exploration process you can also uncover the translation and speak options to reinforce what you've just learned.

Being no stranger to beginner textbooks or teaching material, I found myself asking which elements of ChineseCUBES could I use in my own classroom, and how might they stack up against a traditional textbook.
ChineseCUBES vs. a textbook, according to the website.
There is no question that ChineseCUBES makes learning a little more game-like. Challenges give you gold coins, and Freestyle Mode lets you wander off the beaten path. Being a fan of LEGO and building blocks as a kid, there is something genuinely interesting about the actual cubes. Reaching for the box to find the perfect "piece" was  an experience I never thought I'd have while studying Chinese; it's a kinesthetic learners dream!

But is that enough to replace a traditional textbook?

While a textbook might feel daunting on its own, I'm of the opinion that any good teacher should never allow a textbook to guide the learning process... that's the teachers job. And while spiral learning is something that a program like ChineseCUBES does better than most, the thing that learning mode seems to be missing is a textbook feel; bad dialogues, cheesy story lines, and the ocasional one-liner sentence practice. Learning that "你" "好" and "嗎" can be combined together is great, but I wanted ChineseCUBES to actually ask me "你好嗎," while I reach for the blocks to respond. I wanted to make my own bad dialogue with the characters I've just learned and watch the drama unfold on screen!

ChineseCUBES does execute the unlimited practice part quite well, but there are still some things left to be desired. According to the website, "40 characters alone are able to form 2,500 unique phrases and sentences," but how do I know when I've discovered them all? With the growing popularity of gamification, ChineseCUBES could gain a lot by adding challenges and unlocks: coins when you discover a new word, a dancing AR tutor when you get a phrase correct... the skies the limit! It would also be great to review previous discoveries and create them over and over again.

If they could find a way to fit those kinds of elements into the learning process, it would makes ChineseCUBES that much better. One thing is for sure, ChineseCUBES is taking a very different approach to character discovery, and I give the company credit for that. Beyond being a novel approach there is no question that countless hours have gone into the manufacture and development of this product, it feels much more polished that many language learning products on the market.

If you're interested in checking out more about ChineseCUBES, or would like to purchase ChineseCUBES for yourself or your classroom, be sure to check out their website or youtube videos for more information.

ChineseCUBES website
ChineseCUBES video

ChineseCUBES was gracious enough to send me their product for review. I am grateful  that I was given this opportunity and sorry that this review took so long. Life (and school) got in the way for far too long!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Translation Practice 2.0

My mini translation challenge continues this week with another post from Seth's Blog. I ran into some issues with this one, and ended up putting my work on Lang-8 to be checked by a native speaker. My biggest issue was whether to add a subject to the sentence or not, or when to add "mistake," since Chinese is a pro-drop language.

I wrote the post in simplified Chinese, since most Lang-8 users are from Mainland China.

Here is my original work, as you can see there are parts that were unclear to me:

Two kinds of mistakes

一种错误是过分的防守现状, 投资太多的时间与力量放在保持目前的状况。
There is the mistake of overdoing the defense of the status quo, the error of investing too much time and energy in keep things as they are.
And then there is the mistake made while inventing the future, the error of small experiments gone bad.

We are almost never hurt by the second kind of mistake and yet we persist in making the first kind, again and again.

Here is the Lang-8 user corrected version:





Truth be told, I don't know how well the corrections capture the original meaning, I'll need to discuss with a native speaker. The confusion, for me, comes from the 即使再...也 portion of the third section. I understand that 即使...也 and 再...也 can both be used as a sort of concession of a truth or outcome, for example: 
  • 即使你去了也沒用 (Nothing would have changed even if you had gone)
  • 你到了北京,時間再緊也要去看老師 (When you arrive in Beijing, however tight your schedule is, you must go to visit your teacher.
But, can they both be used together? Furthermore, is that what Seth is saying with the line "the error of small experiments gone bad? I don't think so.

I'll have to give this one some more thought, but I would encourage anyone who has an opinion to comment below. I look forward to uncovering the mystery, and of course, learning a great deal in the process! Stay tuned for the next episode of this mini challenge sometime next week!

The original blog post from Seth can be found here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sounding like a native (or trying anyway)

Winter break seems to be filled with tons of mini challenges that have been keeping me quite busy. In addition to working on a translation challenge (new post on Friday hopefully), and a news reading challenge (15 articles in the bag so far!), I'm starting a parroting exercise in the hopes of bringing my Chinese pronunciation, speed, and general delivery even closer to a native level.

The idea has actually be festering in my mind every since I saw a video on Youtube talking about 蔣勳's book 《漢字書法之美》. The first viewing blew me away. It wasn't really about the content (although I will be buying his book), but also the way he simply spoke Chinese. His voice, like mine, is deep... and the speed seems perfect for delivering a lecture to eager language learners. After a second and third viewing I decided to figure out a way to work on mimicking him to the best of my ability. He has effectively become my Chinese 發音/口音 muse.

Now, just a month or so later I'm actually on my way. The purpose of this parroting challenge is to see just how close I can come to sounding like this master of Hanzi by the 17th of February, the last day of my winter break. For the sake of making this as public as possible, here is my plan of action.

  1. Transcribe the speech
  2. Split the speech into manageable language chunks (as they are spoken by him)
  3. Benchmark
  4. Mimic every line as close as possible (every single day)
  5. Memorize 
  6. Post results
I worked on step one and two yesterday, and spent around 20 minutes today trying to get a proper benchmark (see my soundcloud upload below). While I'm still way off the mark from the original I was able to get close on speed. Working on the audio file today, made me realize that this is the first time I've actually shared any of my own spoken Chinese on the Internet, or at least since my Chinese was beyond a beginner level, so I'm actually a bit nervous. After giving it a few listens I'm already aware of some tone issues and the crazy pronunciation of the "度" in“適度," but like I said before... it's a benchmark.

I'll be working on cleaning all of those things up over the next few weeks, and I'll probably do a follow-up post before the end.

Well, without future ado, enjoy!

Friday, January 25, 2013

News Reading Challenge: 新聞閱讀挑戰

Winter break used to be about catching up on video games, TV shows, and movies. It used to be about finding a job over break that would put some cash in my pocket. These days, however, winter break is the best opportunity for me to spend heaps of time improving my Chinese.

As the title suggests, one area I'm working on is my news reading ability. After an intense discussion with Olle from HackingChinese, we've outline a few goals for taking our Chinese to the next level in a short period of time. Our short-term/ semi-long term goals are identified as the following:

  • Pass TOCFL (and later the HSK)
  • Be able to produce academic text in Chinese
  • Be able to participate in academic discussions
  • Be able to explain Chinese (grammar, vocab etc. in Chinese)
  • Expand vocabulary beyond current comfort zone
  • Be able to write 5000 characters
 Identifying goals was an important first step, but we also needed to figure out why we weren't already able to do the above mentioned goal, which meant identifying the things that are currently lacking, and then (naturally) coming up with a plan of action.

After taking the TOCFL last year, I already knew where my problems were regarding reading, but I was missing the latter--a proper plan of action. Thankfully, that has all changed, and I'll be ready to face the exam with the confidence and reading speed that I'll need.

So how am I going to do it? That is what my "News Reading Challenge" is all about. Here are my personal goals for this challenge:

  • Read articles in as many different areas as possible
  • Read for speed (pretend it's an exam)
  • Read for content and/or language
  • Plug obvious linguistic holes (but only important ones)
  • Quantity > Quality
In order to accomplish these goals, Olle and I have decided that reading 5 articles a day for speed is an excellent challenge. With lots of other things on my plate, this also is something that I can finish in less than two hours. In order to eliminate too much personal bias, we have decided to stagger the articles we personal choose, so one day I pick five articles, and the next day they are provided by Olle. The articles, all written for native speakers, a selected from the following sources:
Once the five articles have been selected, we head over to the ZH Tool Kit, for a character count. The application also provides a word list, but we are really just after the number of characters that appear in the text we've selected. After that we read. Since we are using this challenge as a way to A) improve reading speed and B) prepare for an exam, we've been timing how fast we can read the article accurately... that means no dictionaries, and now slowing down to work through characters we "might" know. Once I've read the article I record the time it took me to read it and move on to the next.

26.3 minutes of reading with an average speed fo 136.06. It's slow, but a great benchmark.
After reading for speed, it is time to "plug obvious linguistic holes." I'm sure Olle has his own method for doing this, but I prefer to take the text and plug it into Chinese Reader for Mac, an app created by Skritter user Byzanti, and give the article another read. 

This time I look up everything I didn't know the first time, and actually read for details. The great thing about this app is its integration into Skritter's API. Any words that I want to study on Skritter are added with the click of a button. The think I really like, however, is the ability to sort words by occurrences and frequency. While it's not my only guide for what words I should already know, it makes selecting "important" linguistic gaps much easier. 
Chinese Reader's summary interface
After that I can call it quits for the day and move onto another task. Over the past two days I've added 60+ new words to Skritter. Hopefully by the end that number will be reduced. And of course, I look forward to seeing my average reading speed drop dramatically.

I look forward to sharing my results after classes resume on the 17th. I have a feeling the are going to be quite dramatic!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Translation practice 1.0: Seth's Blog

Inspired by Dr. Kubler's lecture on advanced learning strategies (see last weeks post) I decided to try my hand at a translation exercise this past weekend. Rather than pick something I've personally written in English, I used Seth's Blog as inspiration. For the past year or so Seth's (short) words of wisdom have been filling my inbox. His blog covers a wide variety of topics and uses language in a powerful and inspirational way--something that is perfect for translation. By using his words I'm forced to step outside of my own Chinese comfort zone.

I'll be following up on this translation practice in the weeks to come (once finals are done and I've had a week or two to decompress), but for now, here are the results of my first translation challenge:





I learned a few new words like 農場主、 拖延、收割 during the writing process, and can't wait to write another one of these again in the near future. The fact that Seth's post was A) awesome and B) short made this that much more fun to do! Got any suggestions on how to make my translation better? Please leave them in the comments below.

Original post from Seth's Blog:

What do you make? 
You don't run a punch press or haul iron ore. Your job is to make decisions.
The thing is, the farmer who grows corn has no illusions about what his job is. He doesn't avoid planting corn or dissemble or procrastinate about harvesting corn. And he certainly doesn't try to get his neighbor to grow his corn for him. 
Make more decisions. That's the only way to get better at it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Developing Advanced Language Skills

Part of me wishes I could go back and start my program in Taiwan over again. Not because I got bad grades or didn't learn a lot over the past three semesters, but because there is just so much I didn't know about the program then that I do now. One of those things happens to be the importance of the small lecture series that is always going on in our program. The past four weeks have been very exciting for me in this regard. I've heard lectures for Enya Dai (Associate Professor at Monterey Institute), participated in Taiwan's 2012 International Conference of Teaching Chinese as a Second Language, and heard a compelling lecture from Cornelius C. Kubler (顧百里: Professor of Asian Studies at Williams College).

All of these events have changed my life as a Chinese language student/teacher, giving me new ways to think about teaching, research, and my own linguistic development. I've made some amazing connections with professors, scholars, and students like me from all over the world. I wish that I could go back and start my program over so that I could have attended even more of these events. Since I'm not a Timelord I'll just have to keep calm and carry on (or something like that). 

Today's post, however, isn't really about looking back on missed opportunities, but rather about pressing forward. After yesterday's lecture by Dr. Kubler I realized for the millionth time that there is so much more I can do to bring my Chinese to an even higher level. Dr. Kubler has been studying Chinese for the past 40 odd years, and while he might not have a perfect accent, he speaks Chinese at an incredibly high level... I'd be lying if said I wasn't a little bit jealous. Thankfully, his entire lecture was about developing advanced language skills. While he was speaking from the perspective of an educator, and what we can do to help learners develop high-level proficiency, I was thinking about the question with a personal vested interest.

One thing I felt his lecture was lacking was student accountability for the learning process, but since he was talking to a group of teachers (not students) I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. So, here are a ideas of things we can do to develop advanced language skills, according to Dr. Kubler.
  1. Memorization: It's never too late in your journey of Chinese to memorize 三字經, or 三百首, in fact exposing yourself systematically to this kind of language will help solidify it in your brain for natural recall later. I did this a lot with Tang poetry while living in Beijing, and nothing stops people in their tracks more than a properly quoted line from one of those poems.
  2. Paraphrasing: Open up an old textbook that you've used and see if you can take colloquial sentences and make them formal, or the other way around. Take basic grammar patterns and make them 書面語 etc.
  3. Transcription: Listen to audio files from native speakers and transcribe them into Chinese (or English). This forces us to step away from language we would usually use in Chinese, and helps to solidify grammatical patterns and word phrases that are used by native speakers. 
  4. Get a tutor: I'm not talking about a language partner, or even a person who simply talks to you in Chinese. I'm talking about the kind of person who is anal-retentive about every single mistake you make, someone who will force you to say something again not because it was wrong, but because it is High School level Chinese, not professional. 
  5. Translation: Translate Classical Chinese into Modern Chinese. Translate academic Chinese into colloquial Chinese. Translate colloquial Chinese into academic Chinese. Translate English into Chinese etc. While translation is a hotly debated topic in SLA, there is no doubt that translation of any kind forces you to think about the language in different way, exposing you to a lexicon that is not your own, which can be crucial for further linguistic development. Of course, this should probably be done with the help of a tutor, at least at first. 
  6. Read Scrolling Text: Part of advanced language levels is the ability to read massive amounts of text in a short period of time. This skill is something that must be acquired through practice, it isn't going to come over night. This skill might be developed by taking text and putting it into a scrolling text program, or even watching Chinese TV shows or movies without sound on. 
  7. Parroting: Do you like the way a certain actor talks in Chinese, then why not try to sound just like him? Like memorization, we can work on parroting native speakers to help increase speaking speed, regional accent, and even tones and pronunciation. This again isn't something that will come over night, but it could be very useful at high levels of Chinese. I'll be trying this out in the coming weeks and will be sure to include more details at that time.
  8. Stamina:Increase it! To quote from Dr. Kubler's own lecture notes: the ability to maintain high level of accuracy and fluency over a period of time (often under various kinds of stress) is very important to function at a professional level. How long can you speak Chinese in a single day before you get sloppy? How accurate can you be when giving a lecture or presentation in Chinese? These might not be things that the typical language learner needs, but it is certainly something that I have to work on. I have noticed that after about an hour of giving a presentation in Chinese I tend to get "sloppy" with tones. It is something I'll have to work on. 
The above is not a genearl guideline to language learning, but rather things we need to consider when trying to reach incredibly high levels of fluency in our target language. I for one will be working on these skills for the rest of my life. There is so much more to be said about these individual topics, but today I wanted to just get the big picture idea on the page. In the coming weeks I'll be writing about some of the things I'm trying out to increase my command of Chinese. 

Stay tuned! 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 Language Recap and 2013 goals

2012 has come and gone. It seems like just yesterday that I was talking about how amazing 2012 was going to be. While things didn't exactly go as planned (do they ever?), I've decided to do a quick recap of what this year was actually like for me as a Chinese language student/ teacher, in as short a list as possible.

Highlights from 2012:

  1. Failed the TOCFL level 5 fluency exam
  2. Passed 4000 unique characters on Skritter
  3. Read all 47 Initial D comic books inside of a single month period
  4. Taught my first semester of Chinese with MyLanguage360
  5. Attended my first ACTFL conference
  6. MC'd 《華語之夜》(A Night of Chinese) in Chinese
  7. MC'd 第十一屆台灣華語文教學會年會的晚宴 in Chinese (and in front of 300+ Chinese teachers and scholars)
  8. Got told my Chinese academic writing style is "cute."
  9. Wrote a 10 page Chinese report (single-spaced) in a single afternoon (and got a good grade on it!)
  10. Read Ender's game in Chinese for pure enjoyment (meaning I didn't look things up)
  11. Scored "Advanced-High" on the ACTFL OPI exam
  12. Got engaged (not language related but way to awesome to keep of any 2012 list!)
So that's what 12 months of hard work condensed into a highlight reel. I learned a lot this past year, and grew as both a teacher and a student. 

Here is what is in store for 2013:
  1. Rock the Hacking Chinese Chinese character challenge (be sure to join us if you haven't already)
  2. Increase personal/ public accountability for all my language learning related goals 
  3. Pass the TOCFL level 5 fluency exam 
  4. Write my research proposal 
  5. Start my master's research project
  6. Find an internship teaching at an American university
  7. Read a Chinese newspaper
  8. Pass 5000 unique characters on Skritter (890 to go)
There are a million other things that I would like to put on this list, but if last year taught me anything, it is that I need to first increase my personal/ public accountability. Once I do that some super focused goals with start showing up.

Stay tuned! 


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