Saturday, September 26, 2015

Funny Chinese transliterations to help remember English words

Some Chinese guy with too much free time came up with interesting Chinese transliterations of some English words. Part of the list is as follows, with my English translation of the transliterations in parentheses.

救护车 ambulance 俺不能死 (I can't die)
雄心 ambition 俺必胜 (I must win)
强壮 strong 死壮 (die strong; this Chinese "word" only exists as a transliteration for English "strong")
羡慕 admire 额的妈呀 (Oh my God; literally, my mom; 额 is a dialectal pronunciation of 我)
脾气 temper 太泼 (too surly or boorish and rowdy)
经济 economy 依靠农民 (rely on farmers)
海关 customs 卡死他们 (block them to death)
怀孕 pregnant 扑来个男的 (a man throws himself down on me)
地主 landlord 懒得劳动 (too lazy to work)

What's special about these phonetic transliterations is that they are meaningful phrases or sentences on their own and there's semantic connection, although no equivalence, with their English counterpart. An "ambulance" doesn't mean "I can't die", but imagine what the person being transported is saying to himself. "Customs" ("custom" in the original posting) maps to "block them to death", consistent with the practice of economic protectionism.

English-speaking people learning a European language, particularly a Romance (Latin) language, can greatly benefit from etymology.[note] When etymology fails to help, some sort of mnemonics may be conjured up, unless the learner prefers rote memory, as young children tend to do. Alison Matthews and Laurence Matthews' Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters does exactly that to help English speakers learn Chinese words. The book exists because there's too little etymological connection between English and Chinese. To go in the other direction, a Chinese cramming English vocabulary has to rely on mnemonics as well. I only hope to see a more complete list of Chinese transliterations than the one shown above, ideally published as a pocket dictionary, so the student can look up a word to read the suggested mnemonic while enjoying the fun that serves to strengthen the memory.

[note] In fact, I've been writing my book Learning Spanish Words Through Etymology And Mnemonics for almost a year, inspired by this idea. Here's a sample page of the book.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Prepositional separation as a difficulty of Chinese

For lack of a better term, I call this prepositional separation: In Chinese, a concept normally denoted by a single preposition in most other languages must be expressed by two characters or words separated by other words. For instance, English "in" is "在...中" or "在...里面" in Chinese. In short simple sentences, this is not a problem. But when a sentence becomes longer, even a native speaker begins to struggle when he crams more and more intermediate components into short-term working memory, in eager anticipation of the end marker such as "中" or "里面", to finish processing the information. Take the following as an example,

He put the ring in a bright color box that has an exquisitely decorated label on it, which reads "For Julia".

Of course, a good translator may choose to break up the long-winding Chinese sentence, precisely because the long-winding attributive clause sounds awkward, unnatural, or simply, non-Chinese. In addition to attributive clauses, Chinese suffers from potentially long complement clauses as well. Take the following as an example.

A sophisticated computer behaves like a human in the sense that it can generate its own commands according to the current situation it encounters.

The Chinese translation is almost forced to have two sentences; otherwise, the "in the sense that" clause would be too foreign to be a Chinese ear.

Separation of a semantic structure that provides one single functionality is generally undesirable, in Chinese or any language. Winston Churchill allegedly made up a sentence, "This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put" in response to the picky editor. German has tons of separable verbs (as well as its ending "not") that swell the brains of simultaneous interpreters. Fortunately, English and many other languages normally consolidate the words or phrases that represent one concept, or can do so as an option. You can say "put on the jacket", or "put the jacket on". But when the "jacket" becomes long due to a series of adjectives, it's unlikely you'll separate "put" and "on", and you'll definitely not do so if "jacket" has an attributive clause. In Chinese, on the other hand, the "word ... word" (e.g. "在...中") construct is the only option. A translator has to be clever enough to shorten the "..." part to a comfortable level.

The Chinese language is difficult not just because of its large repertoire of characters, but also because of other aspects such as its prepositional separation, which may become increasingly cumbersome in expressing complicated ideas in the modern world.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Translation of a poem "Snow falling on high branches..."

Somebody asked for a translation of this poem:


My translation:

Snow falling on high branches befits blooming flowers
I'm amazed at this clean beauty
So demonstrative as to debase myself?

The last sentence may be a challenge. 摧眉 literally means "make lower eyebrows". But figuratively it means "lose confidence; flatter (in the bad sense)".

This poem, technically ci rather, was probably composed by a person named 啼非 in 2004.

(The image of the fan below is from Mr. Vishal Upadhayay's Facebook posting.)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

English words that seem to have opposite meanings, "sanction", "bash", "bashful"

Somebody in a forum mentioned a few English words that seem to have opposite meanings. One is "sanction", which according to Wiktionary means (1) an approval, by an authority, generally one that makes something valid; (2) a penalty, or some coercive measure, intended to ensure compliance; especially one adopted by several nations, or by an international body. A quick response from another guy is "really? somebody should tell Putin that sanction can mean something better!!" That's interesting! Anyway, I've always worried about the seemingly conflicting meanings of this word and sometimes avoid using it in my writing or speech, unless it's very clear, as in "economic sanction (against a country)".

Another example mentioned is "bash". On the one hand, it has the meaning of to strike heavily, to criticize harshly (source), as in "Bashing Hillary? Don't go there, GOP". On the other hand, the word "bashful" means shy, timid (source). How could you justify these two opposite human behaviors with one single word (or word with a suffix)? This word, though, is different from "sanction", in that "bashful" actually has a completely different etymology and is related to the verb "abash", to make ashamed or embarrassed (source). In any dictionary, when two words have the same spelling but are descended from two etymological sources, they're usually listed as two headwords or entries. In case of "bashful", it's not the word "bash" with the suffix "-ful", but was formed by "abashed" + "-ful" and later lost the initial unstressed vowel (a process called aphesis). "bash" does have the same meaning as "abash" except that sense is now obsolete.

Well, some words that look like having different meanings but they don't, such as "flammable" and "inflammable". That's another topic, for now.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thought experiment: reading speed of a trilingual

I've always wondered about this. Imagine a person perfectly trilingual[note1] in English (or any language using a phonetic writing system hereinafter), Korean, and Chinese. I predict that his reading speed is Chinese > Korean > English. The speed can be measured by reading a culture- and language-neutral passage telling the same simple story. (But see [note2].) I suppose that the information the brain and eyes acquire within a given moment is the most for Chinese, less for Korean and the least for English. Suppose the text font is about the same on three sheets of paper (or computer screens), each written in one of the three languages. The eyes scan from left to the right. Due to the nature of English, the eye movement is completely linear. The amount of information thus gained within, say, one tenth of a second, may be less than in the case of Chinese. A language- and culture- neutral passage about the same content is normally printed shorter in Chinese than in English. But the eye scanning speed is about the same. So the total reading time will be shorter for Chinese. Let's call that advantage of information density for Chinese.

Secondly, I suppose human eyes focus on circular areas, instead of horizontal lines. That is, the very focal point is a round dot, the farther away from it, the less focus; eyes do not focus on one fixed-width line, the farther away above or below or to the left or right to it, the less focus. Chinese characters have the advantage of packing semantic information in a square block, compared to English which spreads the same information out horizontally, whose acquisition requires left-to-right scan by the eyes.

The Korean language is a unique case in that its letters are arranged both in a block and horizontally. It's a perfect compromise between English and Chinese. The eyes can gain some information focusing on one spot but usually must move horizontally to gain enough for a word. So the reading by the same person reading the same content will have the intermediate speed.

On the other hand, a March 24, 2015 article reports the research by Georgetown University scientists, After learning new words, brain sees them as pictures (probably based on this publication). Indeed, our brain does not process English text strictly linearly when our eyes horizontally scan the line into our brain. This means that the distinction between a language with largely block-based information (Chinese) and one with line-based information (English etc.) is not so dramatic. Nevertheless, I would be very delighted if we could find a person perfectly trilingual in English, Korean and Chinese, or at least perfectly bilingual in two of the three, to test his reading speed. Personally I'm not sure if I'm perfectly bilingual in English and Chinese. But I do feel that my reading speed in Chinese slightly better than in English. But I have not done a well-prepared test.[note2]

[note1] He's said to be a maximal trilingual, in the field of Second Language Acquisition.
[note2] Obviously the test must be given by another person. Since the person taking the test naturally reads the passage faster if he's already read the same content in any language, the passage actually cannot contain the same content translated into different languages in real implementation of this test. How the test can be given in the most appropriate way may be a technical challenge.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

My first book

I just self-published my first book, Random Thoughts while Studying English and Chinese. The table of contents are as follows:

1 "主席" (Zhǔxí) was Chairman, is President
2 "Ni Hao Ma" (你好吗) is not a native Chinese greeting
3 Affective meaning of "中国" (China)
4 Chinese Character Usage Frequency
5 2015: The Year of "羊"
6 Why do Chinese choose uncommon English names?
7 Scholarly translation should be literal
8 "We should all be learning Chinese..." thus they say
9 "He" (他) and "she" (她) mix-up for Chinese students
10 "第几" has no English equivalent
11 New Chinese Acronyms
12 "Dragon" for "龙": a mistranslation?
13 Joke due to translation: "Oracle bone script" was registered as a software brand by Americans
14 Chinese religious language
15 "Modern" and "现代" or "近代"
16 Translation: a case study, "feminism" and "女权主义"
17 Translation of "computer", "calculator", and others
18 New Year's Wish: Less new usage of 被 (bei)
19 "谢谢叔叔!" (Thank you Uncle) said not to a family relative
20 "NBA" as an entry in Chinese dictionary
21 ESL methods: bilingual and immersion
22 Linguistic authority
23 Chinese "empty word" 虚词
24 虚词"虽然": empty word "although"
25 虚词"当然": empty word "of course"
26 虚词"很": empty word "very"
27 Interjection (叹词)
28 Why should the Chinese language not adopt a phonetic writing system?
29 Learning ... as a second language
30 Technical document needs literal translation
31 Levels of translation quality proposed by Yan Fu: A small example
32 Proper name translation: semantic or phonetic
33 Proper name translation: standardization
34 What language is popular?
35 Which English letter do Chinese pronounce wrong the most?
36 Language education to solve Chinese ethnic conflict

Any comments and reviews, good or bad, are highly appreciated. In case you ask, the landscape painting featured on the cover of the book is my hand-drawn replication of 山水图 (Picture of Mountains and Water) by 黄鼎 (Huang Ding, 1660-1730), an early Qing dynasty painter.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Excerpts from a book on second language acquisition

Second Language Acquisitionby Susan M. Gass (C) 2013, Taylor & Francis, 4th ed

It's a comprehensive literature review or overview of the academic research on second language acquisition, citing over 1000 references. Very complete, yet boring and verbose. The following are excerpts that I personally think are interesting. (Some text can be found at

The basic assumption in SLA research is that learners create a language system, known as an interlanguage (IL). This system is composed of numerous elements, not the least of which are elements from the NL and the TL.
Central to the concept of IL is the concept of fossilization, which generally refers to the cessation of learning. The Random House Dictionary... "to become permanently established in the interlanguage of a second language learner in a form that is deviant from the target-language norm and that continues to appear in performance regardless of further exposure to the target language."

English does not allow resumptive pronouns in relative clauses (I saw the woman who she is your son's teacher). p.71
pronominal reflexes (or pronoun retention/resumptive pronoun), a phenomenon--common in many languages (including informal English)

Table 4.1 Hierarchy of Difficulty (Source: Adapted from Stockwell, Bowen & Martin, 1965)

DifferentiationEnglish L1, Italian L2: to know versus sapere/conoscere ←most difficult
New categoryJapanese L1, English L2: article system
Absent categoryEnglish L1, Japanese L2: article system
CoalescingItalian L1, English L2: the verb to know
CorrespondenceEnglish L1, Italian L2: plurality ←easiest; two forms are used in roughly the same way

In general, children have better phonology, but older learners often achieve better L2 syntax

the notion of equipotentiality, expressed by Schachter (1988). She pointed out that children are capable of learning any language.

Lexical categories...: nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and so forth. These are referred to as content words. Functional categories... (e.g., articles, possessives), or they may be categories consisting of grammatical morphemes (e.g., plurals, tense markers).

language learning is largely lexical learning (e.g., Chomsky, 1989) (Some notes on economy of derivation and representation. MIT Working Papers in Linguistics, 10, 43-74)

Oral repetition correlated with general proficiency, but visual repetition (writing words over and over, memorizing the spelling letter by letter, writing new words and translation equivalents repeatedly) negatively predicted vocabulary size and general proficiency.

A comparable example took place at a G8 summit in Okinawa, Japan. Prior to the summit, Prime Minister Mori of Japan spent time brushing up on his English. Upon meeting President Clinton, he apparently became flustered and, instead of saying, How are you?, said instead: Who are you? President Clinton responded: I'm Hillary Clinton's husband. However, Prime Minister Mori, unaware that he had asked the wrong question, was anticipating a response something like I'm fine, and you? and responded I am too.
Thanks go to Caroline Latham for bringing this example to our attention.

Focused attention was most beneficial for syntax and least for the lexicon. In addition, there was a diminished effect for proficiency, with focused attention having a greater effect in early stages of learning.

The original formulation of CPH (Critical Period Hypothesis) came from Lennenberg (1967), who noted that "automatic acquisition from mere exposure to a given language seems to disappear [after puberty], and foreign languages have to be taught and learned through a conscious and labored effort. Foreign accents cannot be overcome easily after puberty"... The Sensitive Period Hypothesis predicts sensitivity, but not absolute drop-offs, such that a learning decline might be gradual.

Their (Bialystok and Hakuta (1994)) recalculations also revealed a deterioration in proficiency starting after age 20--well after the proposed biological changes suggested by the CPH.

Examples of easy structures are word order in simple sentences and pronoun gender; examples of difficult structures are articles and subcategorization features. Easy structures did not show age-related effects, whereas difficult structures did. He (DeKeyser (2000)) ties this to explicit and implicit learning, claiming that younger learners have intact the ability for implicit and explicit learning, whereas adults have lost their ability to learn implicitly.

DeKeyser and Larson-Hall (2005)...: Children necessarily learn implicitly; adults necessarily learn largely explicitly. As a result, adults show an initial advantage because of shortcuts provided by the explicit structure, but falter in those areas in which explicit learning is ineffective, that is, where rules are too complex or probabilistic in nature to be apprehended fully with explicit rules. Children, on the other hand, cannot use shortcuts to the representation of structure, but eventually reach full native speaker competence through long-term implicit learning from massive input. This long-term effect of age of onset is most obvious to the casual observer in pronunciation, but on closer inspection appears to be no less robust in the domain of grammar.

The primary difference between children and adults is in the mastery of phonology, which can hardly be due to input differences.

Studies indicate that motivational arousal is greatest for tasks that are assumed to be of moderate difficulty (see the discussion in Brehm and Self, 1989)

Anxiety is not always a negative factor in learning. ...: low levels help, whereas high levels hurt.

Hoffman (1986) notes that anxiety can direct attention away from meaning and toward pure form (acoustic properties, order of presentation, phonetic similarities).

strategy instruction was found to be substantially more effective when ... when the strategies targeted reading, speaking, and vocabulary, rather than writing, listening, and grammar.

Although adults show a faster speed of learning an L2, children seem to have an overall advantage in terms of ultimate attainment, at least for phonology and, possibly, syntax.

Table 18.1 Definitions of Bilingualism

Cook (2005, Multi-competence: Black-hole or worm-hole?) argued that there are effects of multilingualism on how individuals process their NL, even individuals with a minimal knowledge of an L2.

in early L3 production, certain functions, such as prepositions, articles, and conjunctions, tend to come from the L2 and not the NL. This may occur even when the two languages are not phonetically similar.

Cenoz (2001)... cross-linguistic influence... linguistic distance is one factor. This was the case for all learners, regardless of language dominance... Age is another (factor), with older learners showing more cross-linguistic influence than younger children. There are language-related factors as well, with more transfer of content words than functional words.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Affective meaning of "中国" (China)

"中国" (China), literally "Middle Country" or "Middle Kingdom", probably acquired its affective meaning quite late in history. This means that the word was used as a pure geographical term for a long time in Chinese history, unlike a few other terms such as "华夏", or during the Tang dynasty "大唐" (Great Tang, 618-907 CE), mention of them subconsciously arousing an emotional sense of national pride among the contemporaries.

One piece of evidence for this observation comes from its occurrence in a book written in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420). Faxian (or Fa-Hien, Fa-hsien) (337–c. 422) "was a Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled by foot all the way from China to India, visiting many sacred Buddhist sites." His 《佛国记》 (Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms) (a.k.a 《法显传》, Biography of Faxian) states that "从是以南,名为中国。中国寒暑调和,无霜、雪。人民殷乐无户籍官法。" (The place from here toward the south is named the Middle Country. In the Middle Country, cold and heat are harmonized, and there's no frost or snow. The people are well-to-do and happy. Household registry or government laws do not exist.)

Why does Faxian's book serve as evidence for lack of the affective sense of "中国" in early China? The word "中国" first occurred in the earliest book in Chinese history, 《尚书》 (Book of Documents)[note], which was compiled by Confucius (551–479 BC) and read and memorized by every pupil that could afford minimum education in ancient China. Monk Faxian definitely knew most if not all words in the book. But he used the word "中国" to denote the central area of today's Indian subcontinent, to be precise, to translate the Sanskrit word "Madhya-Des", paraphrased as "central territory" or "central kingdom" or "midland country" by various scholars, which existed during the Gupta period (approximately 320 to 550 CE). It's hard-pressed to imagine that Faxian would have chosen "中国" if it had already had acquired a sense beyond its literal meaning. If "中国" had been used dearly as words such as "夏" or later in history "大唐", Faxian would have considered a different character combination to translate the Sanskrit word, or perhaps added a translator's note if "中国" had to be used.

More than a millennium later, 《四库全书总目》 (Annotated Catalog of the Complete Imperial Library, completed in 1798 by the Qing dynasty) criticized Faxian's word choice by saying that he "以天竺为中国,以中国为边地" ("considered India as the Middle Country and China as the frontier"; note the same word "中国" could mean both "Middle Country" and "China"). What we can read off of this critique is that the word "中国" had acquired its affective sense by the late 18th century. From now on, it's not to be used to mean just the middle part of some land, or any country in the middle of something larger. It uniquely refers to the Middle Country or the Middle Kingdom or China, with its rich culture and history. Yet two centuries later, it's our turn to criticize the editors of the imperial encyclopedia for their lack of the sense that one born later in history should only judge a historical figure from the historically contemporary perspective.

[note] 《尚书·卷十四·梓材》: "皇天既付中国民,越厥疆土,于先王肆" (The heaven already obliged [the Zhou family] to govern the people in the Middle Country. If we extend and develop the territory, our ancestor's Dao will flourish.)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Which English letter do Chinese pronounce wrong the most?

The answer to the titled question depends on how much the Chinese has already studied English. If he knows almost nothing about the English language, it's likely he pronounces letter "A" as [ɛ] instead of [eɪ], "C" as [sɛ] instead of [si] (or [si:] if you want to emphasize the long vowel), and "K" as [kɛ] instead of [kei]. Let's ignore these people and focus on those that have learned enough English and have probably been living in an English-speaking country for some time and whose level of English as a second language has fossilized.

In my observation, the most commonly mispronounced English letter is "N". Instead of [ɛn], many Chinese pronounce it like a prolonged [n], missing the vowel [ɛ], or the vowel is too short and weak to be heard. This is particularly evident when he/she spells a word on the phone, where a very clear, distinct pronunciation of each letter is expected, e.g., "His name is Wang, W-A-N-G" (['dabulju:], [eɪ], [n], [dʒi:]). Due to the nasal nature of [n], with the initial vowel [ɛ] stripped off, the other side of the telephone would likely ask "W-A-What-G?" Of course giving an example word solves the problem, such as "N like in Nancy".

Note the IPA symbols for the mispronounced letter "W" in the above example sentence. The first vowel I wrote is [a] and the second [u], while the correct pronunciation of "W" is ['dʌbə(l)ju:] (parentheses for the optional phoneme). Too many Chinese pronounce [ʌ] as [a], because [ʌ] does not exist in Chinese. This substitution also occurs for [ɑ], which again does not exist in Chinese. So letter "R" is read like [ar] instead of [ɑr]. Fortunately, [a] alone does not occur in English; it only exists in diphthongs (e.g. [ai]). Mispronunciation by substitution of it for [ʌ] or [ɑ] won't cause misunderstanding, just a distinct foreign accent.

I'm not sure why "N" is read by Chinese as [n]. If you know why, I'd like to hear your comments.

Note: The difference between [ʌ] or [ɑ] and [a] is clearly indicated in the International Phonetic Alphabet vowel chart. Both vowels not existing in Chinese are pronounced in the back side of the mouth.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Why Chinese choose uncommon English names

A Washington News article Satirical news site attacks China’s weird English names quotes a BBC article, which ultimately quotes a CCTV News article Tips for Chinese choosing an English name. Indeed, some Chinese people choose English names that sound too outlandish, with unnecessary connotations, such as Dragon, a fierce often wicked beast in western culture, or Sugar, a name implying a flirtatious character. Readers of these articles understandably laugh, and then question why Chinese choose English names, and why uncommon names.

Here's why English names are commonly used. Many Chinese characters are hard to pronounce except by people trained in Chinese, one of the most difficult languages in the world. I would estimate that more than half of Chinese names, more than half of which are of three characters, contain at least one phoneme a westerner finds difficult to pronounce. Of all 21 pinyin initials, q, x, zh, r, z, c, and s when followed by i, and j, ch, sh to some extent, pose a challenge. Among the finals, e, yu, yue and probably a few others are often mispronounced. Mispronunciation goes beyond what I list here. Many years ago I had a master car mechanic friend named Ge Xun. One day another buddy of mine and I tried hard to solve a car problem with no success. We decided to call Mr. Ge, even though he warned us not to call him at work unless there was a crisis. When the phone was picked up by a guy in his shop, I realized I had no way to tell him my friend's name as said in Chinese. So I had to spell out each letter. Later my friend told me he had an English name George. It makes perfect sense for those with such Chinese names to have English names just to make everybody's life easier.

Now let's explain why Chinese choose uncommon English names. According to a China Daily article, So Many People, So Few Surnames, "there are about ... 4,000 to 6,000 [Chinese surnames], of which about 1,000 are most frequently used", while Mark Antony Lower's English Surnames: An Essay on Family Nomenclature, Vol. I (p. xii-xiii) claims, even in 1849, that there are about thirty to forty thousand English surnames. In addition to the number difference, Chinese surnames are much more concentrated on the common ones; for example, "In northern China, Wang (王) is the most common surname, being shared by 9.9% of the population" (Wikipedia). English surnames, even as common as "Johnson", would not enjoy a dominant 10% distribution. A much larger number and a greater variety of English than Chinese names make it possible that two people with English surnames can choose a common given name with little concern for the same combination of a common given name and surname. You may have two John's in office. But it's unlikely to have two John Smith's. But if two Chinese are both called John, you may end up with two John Wang's in the cubicles not far from yours. The solution taken by Chinese immigrants to the English speaking countries or Chinese workers in a mostly English speaking environment is to use less common given names. "John" is a bad one. "Nicholas" may be better. Unfortunately, "Dragon" is bad, too, from a different direction.

So what's the best solution? There's no ideal one. Let's focus on given names and forget about surnames for now. It has to start from birth. For new or would-be parents, here's my advice. If you anticipate your child to live or work in a global environment, give your child a Chinese name whose pinyin is easy for non-Chinese to pronounce. That is, avoid names such as Ge, or Xun, or Qiu, or Zhong. (Refer to the list above.) Then the child never needs an English name just for easy pronunciation. He or she may still consider an English name, but for a different purpose: easy for his hundreds of business clients to remember his name, for instance.

P.S. A frequently asked question is, Why don't Japanese or Indians living in the US choose English names? One reason is that Latinized Japanese or Indian names are never difficult to pronounce. Secondly, they never had this tradition. Chinese immigrants, aside from the pronunciation perspective, probably follow the tradition established by early Chinese immigrants, mostly from southern China and Taiwan. But whether the tradition, or lack of, is actually just an effect of the pronunciation difficulty may need more research to find out.