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.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Technical translation: word "apply" as a case

You frequently see the Apply button on a computer. For instance, after you make some configuration changes, you can press OK to apply the changes and exit, or press Apply to apply the changes and stay where you are. Surprisingly, there's no perfect Chinese translation for the word "apply" in this sense. Common translation is "应用". But that word in modern Chinese is synonymous with "使用", i.e. "use"; e.g. "应用方法" (use the method). The English word "apply" here actually means "make or commit the changes now". It would be awkward or just plain wrong to say "use the changes".

Here are more examples. When software has a bug, you apply a patch to fix or work around the bug. Chinese translators still use "应用" as the counterpart for "apply", as in "应用补丁", literally, "use the patch", which is semantically different. Colloquial phrase "打补丁" sounds natural, but it is too informal. Data replication software copies data changes from the primary site to the replicated site and applies the changes to synchronize the two sites. In Chinese, it's said "应用数据变化(修改)".

Fortunately, tech savvy Chinese readers have no problems understanding "应用" here. If it takes a while to get used to it, they'll get used to it. But for me, I can't help searching for the perfect word. "实施" (implement)? "使用" (use)? "采用" (adopt)? None is the exact match. I know the set of Chinese characters has been frozen for about a century now (probably even for newly discovered chemical elements), but Chinese words are invented on a yearly, if not monthly, basis. If there's no perfect word in the existing Chinese vocabulary, can a new word be created instead of using an existing word in a slightly different or new sense? One thousand years ago, Chinese translators created a large number of new words in translating Buddhist scriptures, and the words later migrated to Japan. One hundred years ago, Japanese translators created many new Chinese words in translating western technology, and they migrated to China. So, what Japanese translators say about "apply the changes", or some other technical jargon, would be an interesting question.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Off-topic: Joke: Recruiting

A joke found on the Internet. (Two lines omitted from the original.)





A company is recruiting. Lots of people call in saying the security guard stops them at the entrance and they expect somebody to come out to usher them in. The recruiting officer says, if you can't even deal with the security guard, you don't need to come.

In the end, the one climbing over the wall to get in becomes the overseas market specialist.
The one getting in after reasoning with the guard becomes an R&D engineer.
The one who coaxes and pesters to get in becomes a customer service manager.
The one fighting himself in replaces the security guard.

Value lies in the result. In front of the same obstacle, you chicken out, while others look for a way out.

[note] "翻墙" literally means "climb over the wall". But it also refers to the action of circumventing the Great Chinese Firewall to reach the Internet outside of China.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Thought" and "以为"

The Chinese word "以为" means "thought", as in "I thought it was Tuesday today" (我以为今天是星期二). There's only one little detail some Chinese speakers often overlook: the verb in the subordinate clause should be in the past tense. "I thought it is Tuesday today" is not right.

If you think about it, though, the past tense in the subordinate clause doesn't meaningfully indicate a past behavior; only the verb "thought" in the main clause is clearly in the past. The past tense of "was" in the example sentence is required by the grammatical agreement between the main and subordinate clauses. Probably due to lack of this semantic implication in the subordinate clause, a Chinese student often takes the easier word "is" and forgets the correct one, "was".

Interestingly, I found this sentence in a German learning CD: "Und ich dachte es ist Dienstag." (literally: "And I thought it is Tuesday") That means in German, it's acceptable to use the simple present tense in the subordinate clause even if its main clause uses the past tense. But I'm sure using the past tense is fine too ("Ich dachte, es war Dienstag.").

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Incorrect English in a petition to the White House

I just saw Invest and deport Jasmine Sun who was the main suspect of a famous Thallium poison murder case (victim:Zhu Lin) in China, a petition to the White House calling for investigation and deportation of a suspect in the Zhu Ling case. I'm pleased with this volunteer work that aims at bringing this 18-year-long horrendous criminal case to a satisfactory end. However, the author of this petition is seriously lacking in basic English language skills. Lousy errors occur from the title to almost the end: "Invest" for "Investigate", "Zhu Lin" for "Zhu Ling", ..., "petite" for "petition". I'm deeply disappointed with this apparently Miami-based Chinese gentleman that has a warm heart yet inadequate training in English. Let's see if the White House will respond to a petition full of grammatical as well as factual (Zhu Lin for Zhu Ling) errors, if the signature count reaches 100 thousand.