Monday, December 17, 2012

Not to introduce a sentence topic with "For"

It's not uncommon to hear Chinese speaking English say "For" to introduce a sentence-level topic, e.g.

The two programs, A and B, work together. Program A is easy and we already talked about it. For Program B, I don't know if we can work on it now.

Obviously, the word "For" should be "As for", "As to", "Regarding", "As regards", "Concerning", "As far as ... is concerned", or "When it comes to". But for some reason, many Chinese use the single word "For".

A Chinese sentence can be preceded by a standalone topic noun phrase for emphasis or other reason, as in

程序B,我不知道我们现在是否可以做。
(Program B, I don't know if we can work on it now.)

while the literal English translation in the parentheses is less common. This is technically called fronting (in the Chinese sentence) and left-dislocation (in the literal English translation). But I don't think that can explain why so many Chinese artificially introduce the noun phrase with "For".

Monday, November 12, 2012

A joke about Chinese calligraphy in inscription

It's common practice in China to have a well-known calligrapher or a government official to write the name of a famous building, bridge, or tower, in Chinese paint brush, to be used as inscription on the entrance or facade of the architecture. The ideal person is an official and calligrapher two in one. The less ideal is one of two, which one preferred depending on who you talk to. If the calligraphy is beautifully carried out and the name or title of the architecture is easily recognized, the inscription definitely enhances the beauty and value overall. But the two criteria may not match all the time.

One particular case is the inscription "山东博物馆 " (shan1dong1 bo2wu4guan3, Shandong Museum). On October 9, 2011, somebody first suggested a possible alternative reading of the cursive writing, "心系情妇那" (xin1 xi4 qing2fu4 na4, heart tied to mistress there). On October 21, more possible readings "山东情妇馆" (shan1dong1 qing2fu4 guan3, Shandong Mistress House) and "心系情妇波" (xin1 xi4 qing2fu4 bo1, heart tied to mistress wave or bosom), and it starts to evolve into a short story. A day later, "山东情妇报" (shan1dong1 qing2fu4 bao4, Shandong Mistress Newspaper) was suggested, and the full story was completed:

十一期间一对儿情侣在山东博物馆游玩,小伙子凝视着博物馆上面的字说:“书法写的不错啊,心系情妇那!” 女孩说:“你傻B啊!明明是山东情妇馆!贪官的情妇都关这里面了!” 这时,一个路人经过,听到两人的对话,心里暗暗想:两个2货!不认识字还在这装有学问!明明是心系情妇波!!

(During the October 1 national day holiday, a couple were touring around Shandong Museum. The guy stared at the inscription on the museum building and said, "Calligraphy not bad, 心系情妇那!" The girl said, "You stupid! It's obviously 山东情妇馆. The corrupt officials' mistresses are locked in there!" A passer-by heard their talk, and thought to himself: two idiots pretend to be educated not knowing how to read, it's clearly 心系情妇波!)

You judge the reading. Here's the image:

If the above image is not shown, this smaller image is from the official web site:
http://www.sdmuseum.com/hy/001.jpg

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"谢谢叔叔!" "Thank you Uncle" said not to a family relative

In a crowded bus in China, a middle aged man sees a young kid standing by him. He stands up and yields his seat to the kid, who says to him "谢谢叔叔!", literally "Thank you Uncle!" Can a non-family-relative be called uncle, aunt, grandma or grandpa? I posted a question to a language discussion forum, because I read, in a German language textbook, "Kinder, das ist Onkel Schmitt aus Amerika" ("Children, this is Uncle Schmitt from America"), which prompted me to think that a non-relative can be called uncle in Germany.

The discussion was quite active, with most responses providing cases where a non-relative can be called uncle in different parts of the world in different languages, even in the US. But there're some nuances in usage: in most cases, if the name follows the title, it becomes more acceptable (just "Uncle" may be rare but "Uncle George" is acceptable in many situations); this addressing is more popular in a rural area; and it was used more than it is now.

Keeping those minor differences in mind, I would summarize three types.

(A) Even a stranger on a bus may be called aunt, uncle, grandpa, grandma, older brother/sister, not followed by a name. Countries having this usage: Japan, China, possibly many other Oriental countries.
(B) A good friend may be called aunt, .... Countries: UK, Turkey, Germany,...
(C) Only family members or relatives are addressed like this. Countries: US,...

The above distinction is definitely changing in time and varies from place to place even inside one country or culture zone. I've been in the US for only 20 years and never lived in a rural area. I won't be surprised if a neighbor is called Uncle George by all kids on the street. But that's probably very special, only for specific persons deserving this dearly respect in a small area, not generally applicable. So I don't consider it to be type (B).

An example in type (A) is at the beginning of this posting. Here's another one. A Chinese greets his male same-age friend at the door. If the friend is a Chinese (or Chinese American), the father would like his child to say to his friend "叔叔好!" (literally "Hello Uncle"). But if the friend is not a Chinese, this greeting ("Hello Uncle") would be awkward and confusing to say the least.

The three types do not include cases that are too informal, or if the title applies to only a very specific person in a specific group (imagine a well respected old man in a church where everyone dearly calls him "Grandpa"). The reason for these exclusions is that in these cases, these family relative names can be used across all cultures, not culturally sensitive or interesting.

Needless to say, there's nothing absolute, especially the distinction between (B) and (C). It's more like a continuing spectrum. At one extreme, a stranger on the bus can be called "uncle" if he yields his seat to a little kid, who would say "Thank you, Uncle!". At the other extreme, the man has to have fairly close relationship with the child or his parents to be addressed that way. It's the degree of the closeness, maybe among other factors, that maps into the continuing spectrum.

Language difficulty

More specifically, it's difficulty of learning a language, as Wikipedia correctly calls it. This topic always generates a lot of discussion, mostly personal opinions, which I won't deal with. To streamline this discussion, I only focus on metrics that are measurable and on aspects most people usually neglect.

Difficulty is not an objective measurement. It must be subjective and human nature contributes to its measurement. So what is possible to measure something subjective? The answer is survey and statistics, as done in social sciences in the last century, and some humanities in recent decades. A wide spread measurement on the Internet is the student study time statistics from Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State, available at Wikipedia, Effective Language Learning, another forum, and one of the earliest, in here, but not at the FSI web site.[note]

___________
[note] In April 2010, I contacted Defense Language Institute (which assigned the actual language training to FSI) for the official web page showing the student study time broken down to individual languages. The gentleman sent me back a PDF file of that same information, but told me that was not available on their web site.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Translation: "Virtue is like a rich stone, best plain set"

Francis Bacon's Of Beauty has "Virtue is like a rich stone, best plain set". What is exactly "best plain set"? According to leonAzul on this page, it means, best if placed against or in front of a plain setting or background. Hence my translation:

品德犹如宝石,于平实的衬底前最优

水天同, perhaps the best Chinese translator of Francis Bacon's works, has the same understanding, with this translation:

才德有如宝石,最好是用素净的东西镶嵌

compared to others'

德行犹如宝石,朴素最美  <-- Not right
善犹如宝石,以镶嵌自然为美  <-- Correct
美德好比宝石,在幽暗背景的衬托下反而更显名贵  <-- Over-"translated"; where's 幽暗?

(The above Chinese translations are collected at fang's BLOG.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

"NBA" as an entry in Chinese dictionary

In the August 28, 2012 issue of "北京晚报", it is reported that more than a hundred Chinese scholars signed a letter sent to the Chinese government claiming that the de facto official Chinese dictionary 《现代汉语词典》 is illegal to include 239 words which begin with a letter of a western language, violating certain laws that govern the correct usage of the Chinese language. "NBA" is among the words. This news was followed by intense debate on the Internet ([1], [2], [3], [4], to name the first few). The scholars worry that gradual introduction of 字母词 or letter-words will eventually cause harm to the Chinese language, calling it "the most serious damage since the Chinese character Latinization (Romanization) initiated a hundred years ago". The pro-letter-word side of the argument claims that the Chinese language has been evolving all the time for thousands of years, and that introducing "NBA", "PM2.5", and other letter-words into the most popular dictionary helps the general public easily understand these terms which are already widely used. When CCTV changed "NBA" to "美职篮" (literally "US professional basketball"), the Chinese NBA viewers simply ignore the term and continue to say "NBA" in conversation. CCTV changed back to "NBA" as soon as the Chinese dictionary was published, semi-officially approving "NBA" as an acceptable word in the Chinese language, and more than raising the eyebrows of a handful of die-hard Chinese language scholars.

To be fair, a dictionary of a spelling language (language whose writing system is alphabet-based) never lists a Chinese word as is. An English dictionary never has a non-Latin spelling entry, thus excluding not just Chinese, but any Oriental language, Hindi, Arabic, any Slavic language, and many others as well. To incorporate "饺子" into an English dictionary, the spelling "jiaozi" is used. Now, if we need to have this "symmetry", we must add to the Chinese dictionary a Chinese-character-transliterated word such as "摁逼诶" in place of "NBA". It looks funny though. Why? I guess it's because the users of the word "NBA" in China are used to it and appreciate its simplicity. (How long do your eyes stay on "摁逼诶" for your brain to process the same info as "NBA", even if your native language is Chinese?) If this had happened a century ago, "摁逼诶" would most likely have been accepted in preference to "NBA". But nowadays the Chinese audience of "NBA" are at least able to pronounce English letters. The beauty of simplicity rules. Considering the law of survival of the fittest almost equally applicable to linguistics, I don't see a bright future for "摁逼诶" or any other transliteration.

Hence the dilemma between two rules: the established rule of dictionary compilation, and the situational usage of a word in the population. Because a Chinese character is intrinsically more difficult than a Latin-based word, incorporating "jiaozi" instead of "饺子" in a dictionary of Latin-based language is natural. But on the Chinese language side, the two rules are having a tug of war. Leaving "NBA" or any letter-word out of the Chinese dictionary retains its purity but increases inconvenience of a general reader -- he has to consult another dictionary. The awkward "摁逼诶" in the dictionary would be useless because nobody and no media would likely adopt that spelling.

My take on this: The Chinese dictionary can have an appendix listing the commonly used letter-words, without not yet accepted Chinese transliterations ("麦当劳" is OK but "摁逼诶" is not). It avoids the dilemma by explicitly stating that these words are not Chinese and yet they frequently occur in Chinese text. Inclusion of them is merely for the convenience of readers.

P.S. With the ubiquity of the Internet, this debate may become irrelevant and eventually forgotten, as the Chinese readers that care about "NBA" or any letter-word have easier access to the web for the meaning of the word than the paper-based dictionary. Although this particular dictionary, with no online version, serves as a prescriptive guide in mainland China, its definition of the letter-words may not be as authoritative as the scholars wish it would be.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

"第几" has no English equivalent

It's a frequently asked question in English study forums in China (recently here). How do you say "第几" in English? When A asks B, "这是你第几次来纽约?" (literally, "This is which time you come to New York?"), B may answer "第二次" ("The second time"). A more natural English question may be, "How many times have you come to New York?", "Twice", or "How many times did you come to New York before?", "Only once (before)".

The awkward "which time" is a literal equivalent of "第几次" as in "Which time is it you come to New York?" The English "time" is one word for both the time you use a clock to keep track of and the ordinal count of repetition of you doing something, which is a measure word. Other languages may use two words for these meanings (时间, Zeit, tiempo, temps, tempo vs. 次, Mal, vez, fois, volta, respectively). The reason "which time" sounds unnatural may be related to this particular polysemy (one word having multiple meanings) of English "time".

Here are more challenging ones, "第几个", "第几件", and "第几本", as in "老师要我们读John Smith的ABC系列的所有三本书,你在读第几本?" ("The teacher wants us to read John Smith's all three books in the ABC series. Which book are you reading now?") But "Which book are you reading?" is not a good translation because the answer may well be "I'm reading his Book Title". The question in Chinese actually demands the answer "I'm reading his first|second|third book". English "which" properly matches "哪一(本)". It does not specifically ask the ordinal number as the Chinese "第几(本)". The fact that these Chinese question words are more challenging is probably because "个" and "本" have no measure word equivalents in English, and although "件" may be "piece", "Which piece ...?" does not specifically demand an answer of the ordinal number in the series.

A little follow-up. A Chinese reader says "So English is deficient?" My answer is that every language may have stronger expressive power than another in one case, but less in another. In this case, Chinese wins. In the case of subjunctive mood, Chinese loses (you have to guess whether "如果我有1000块钱" is the counter-factual "if I had 1000 dollars", although "如果我是你" is definitely "if I were you"). In the textbook case of ambiguous English sentence "He hit the man with a stick", Chinese wins because you can't make up an ambiguous sentence in Chinese. And the list goes on.

(This posting has a follow-up.)

Friday, July 20, 2012

eCollegeFinder's ESL article

eCollegeFinder has a new article on English as a Second Language, How to Educate ESL Students. It discusses two methods of education, "bilingual" (students only use their native language when they study subjects such as math and science) and "immersion" (English all the time; further divided into two methods depending on whether the students study English exclusively for a period at the beginning), then the pros and cons of each method are properly and clearly evaluated.

Here are my thoughts. Firstly, the bilingual method should be preferred if English is taught in a non-English-speaking country; it would be counter-productive if immersion were enforced, unless of course the students are outnumbered by English speaking natives in a small enclosed environment such as an American or British international school. My friend, president of a language school in China, reported that her students used to demand native English speakers who speak no Chinese as teachers many years ago, and slowly changed to bilingual teachers, as they found the latter to be more efficient for their learning. On the other hand, if the students are in an English-speaking country and surrounded by English all the time, the immersion method will definitely win. It's interesting that Texas, where I am now, is among the few that practice this "least popular" method. Some bilingual parents complain about the segregation in school and regret that they report in the school registration form before their kids go to elementary school that they speak xyz (a language other than English) at home. Unlike adults, young school children learn a foreign language better in immersion and should not be artificially isolated.

Secondly, the education science or pedagogy should learn from medical science. Strict control study should be a standard. Whether bilingual or immersion is better, and better under what condition, can be argued verbally based on personal experience and common sense, as I'm doing here. But nothing beats a well controlled study, perhaps followed for four to ten years, with statistical analysis. It may be impractical to implement a single- or double-blind study. Nevertheless, statistical numbers are more scientific than experiential observation.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Off-topic: ESL blog award

I was entered into eCollegeFinder ESL (English for Second Language) Blogs Award, and apparently got to the 39th place in the finals. Not bad, considering late entry into the nomination phase and no promotion by me or anybody. Actually, I'm not sure if my blog is for ESL. It probably was a long time ago. But now it "degenerates" into a general, English and Chinese and sometimes any language, blog.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Linguistic authority

A recent update on "Ni Hao Ma" (你好吗) is not a native Chinese greeting prompted me to blog about what I have thought of for some time, let me call it, linguistic authority. It is the established convention for a language by its native speakers in a certain geographic region where a significant proportion of the population speaks that language. For example, there's a linguistic authority for the Chinese language in China but no such one in the US in spite of a Chinese diaspora. The effect of this authority is such that the Chinese speakers in China have the right to invent new Chinese words which will be accepted, although not necessarily used, by whoever learns Chinese. Similarly, Americans can invent new English words which will be accepted by people learning English. If an English word were invented by Chinese, it would be laughed at and rejected (at least initially; some of these words may be proved to be good ones later, such as shero I suppose); such words are called Chinese Pidgin English (洋泾浜英语).

A linguistic authority exists where the majority of the regional population speaks that language. Therefore, mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, and to some extent Hong Kong, each have their own linguistic authority. The word "共识" (consensus) was initially used in Taiwan and readily accepted by the mainland China. Just because Chinese mainlanders don't say "镭射" (laser) and Taiwanese don't say "激光" doesn't mean they can call the other side wrong. But the improper use of "chocolate" as a verb in an advertisement I saw a few years ago at the Shanghai subway stations, "I chocolate you!", is unpleasantly Chinglish, because the inventor of this phrase, probably a Chinese, does not own the authority in creative usage of the English language. But imagine someday English native speakers start to use "chocolate" as a verb. This usage in non-English-language areas of the world will be accepted, like it or not. (Whether its usage among the native speakers will survive is a different matter.)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Interjection (叹词)

Interjections (叹词) are another type of "虚词" or empty words. At least one interjection seems to be common to many if not all languages, i.e., Ah (啊). Some are only slightly different in pronunciation among different languages, e.g. Chinese "哦" pronounced [o:] (IPA symbol) compared to "Oh" in English (or Spanish or French). Some are pronounced about the same but carry different meanings, such as Chinese "欸" which suggests slight surprise and confusion ("欸,他怎么又走了?", "Huh, how come he left again?"), where "Huh" (or "Huh?" or "What?") is an acceptable translation. But English "Eh" indicates hesitation in speech ("His name is, eh, John Smith, I think").

Some interjections are completely inscrutable without translation. The Chinese "哎呀", pronounced [aija] in IPA or "aiya" in pinyin which can take different tones, is uttered for a big surprise. Conversely, English "Uh-huh" ("yes") or "Uh-uh" ("no") is completely unintelligible to a Chinese with no knowledge of English.[note] This fact may not be immediately appreciated by the speaker, causing confusion in a conversation. There's no problem if I say "uh-huh" to a Chinese having lived in the US for some time, in an all-Chinese conversation. I may be lightly laughed at but well understood if I say it to a Chinese that has learned English for some time. But if I say it to my parents who know no English at all, they assume I didn't catch the part of the conversation right before this point.

Thus, we see that interjections, unlike words of other classes, are special in that the speaker unconsciously uses one unique to a specific language in the environment this language is spoken, even when he converses in another language, often his mother tongue. It is not conspicuous to his mind that interjections may be just as language-specific as are other types of words.

_________________
[note] These yes-no words may not be considered by some as interjections.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

虚词"虽然":empty word "although"

The Chinese empty word (虚词) "虽然" or "尽管" corresponds to "although", "though", or one sense of "while" in English. "In spite of" or "despite of" can also use "虽然" as its Chinese equivalent, but "虽然" must be followed by a sentence or at least a verb followed by an object or an adverbial modifier as in "虽然下雨" ("in spite of the rain") or "虽然做完了" ("although [the work] has been completed"), where "下" or "做" is a verb and cannot be omitted.

A basic grammatical difference between Chinese "虽然" and English "although" is that "虽然" strongly calls for "但是" to start the main sentence as in "虽然下雨,但他还是去了" ("Although it rained [In spite of the rain], he went"), while "although" must not have "but"; if you have the urge for it, a "yet" is acceptable.

"但是" here may be considered as a conjunction, but not in the sense that it connects two full independent sentences. In English, two full sentences (with only one period at the very end) must be connected with a conjunction, or a semicolon if the second sentence serves as a further explanation. The Chinese (as well as French) does not have this requirement; the two sentences may be separated by just a comma. Probably due to lack of the requirement for a conjunction between two full sentences in Chinese, the conjunction "但是" in the "虽然...但是..." construct may be omitted, e.g. "虽然下雨,他还是去了".

Because English prohibits "but" at the beginning of the main sentence that has a clause of "although", people bilingual between Chinese and English subconsciously omit "但是" in the "虽然...但是..." construct; to these bilingual speakers, there's no such strong calling for it, or rather, there's a strong calling for not having it.

虚词"当然":empty word "of course"

The Chinese empty word (虚词) "当然" is generally translated as "of course" or "certainly". It makes perfect sense in this example, "你会游泳?", "[我]当然[会] ("You can swim?", "Of course [I can]"). But "当然" is also commonly used in a different context, as in "明天每个人都必须到办公室,当然你事先请假了可以不来"("Everybody must come to office tomorrow. But of course you don't have to come if you asked for leave earlier"). In this case, "当然" is said in a much weaker tone and more resembles "but", "nevertheless", "however" in meaning than the more common "of course". The German "natürlich" ("naturally") or "allerdings" ("though") may be closer to this sense. English does have this meaning, as Wiktionary says "Acknowledges the validity of the associated phrase", e.g. "Of course, there will be a few problems along the way". But this sense is used more often in Chinese.

虚词"很":empty word "very"

The Chinese empty word (虚词) "很" means "very". This translation is straightforward and universally accepted. But there's one little subtlety in its actual usage: "很" is used more often in Chinese than "very" in English. This causes some descriptions using an adjective in Chinese not really "very" much so (if everything is very good, nothing is really that good). For instance, "He's good", "He's good at playing cards" may be translated to "他很好", "他很会打牌", although they can also be "他不错", "他牌打得[很]好". The sentence "他很好" is not likely to be changed to "他好", which sounds odd, and "他很会打牌" may be misunderstood if shortened to "他会打牌" ("He knows how to play cards"). The apparently superfluous "很" serves no purpose other than making the sentence sound more native. But translators may not realize this and tend to literally translate "很" to "very". This practice seems to be particularly widespread among the translators living in China. I believe the correct way to deal with "很" is to review the context and ignore it if it does not really carry the meaning of "very".

Monday, May 21, 2012

Chinese "empty word" 虚词


The term "empty word", or "虚词", in Chinese, refers to "a word or morpheme that has no lexical meaning and that functions as a grammatical link or marker, rather than as a contentive" according to Dictionary.com. Specifically, they include prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary words or "Chinese particles", onomatopoeias, interjections, and adverbs[note1]. But in spite of its long history (back to 1890 to 1895, perhaps invented by a missionary or sinologist), the translation "empty word" has the connotation that the words, whoever utters, are not to be trusted, while "虚词" in Chinese is a purely technical, grammatical, term. This makes "empty word" a poor translation for "虚词", although no better one has been proposed. Incidentally, "hollow word", if it were used as a translation, may be closer literally ("hollow" for "虚"), but also has unwanted connotations.

Wikipedia considers the word "expletive" as the equivalent of "虚词". We need to think beyond the more common meaning of "expletive" here (words of profanity), and only consider syntactic expletive and expletive attributive. Because of its common usage of the word, neither is perfect in my opinion. In addition, be aware that an expletive in English is not quite equivalent to a "虚词" in Chinese. The latter is purely based on word class, while grammatical expletives in English are more context-sensitive. That is, all adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, "Chinese particles", onomatopoeias, and interjections in Chinese are "虚词", with no exception, but there's no such simple rule in English.

Probably because of Wikipedia's English rendering of "虚词" as "expletive", pages of other languages use incorrect or not quite correct words, such as explétif in French, Kraftausdruck in German (words to express strong feelings, swears, expletives), where Formwörter[note2] or mot-particule[note3] may be a better term. But the Japanese page uses the Kanji 虚辞.

_________________
[note1] This footnote is needed to avoid simplistic equivalence: English adverbs include almost all words of the construct adjective-ly, but Chinese adverbs are more or less limited to "very", "little", "all", "also", "probably", etc.
[note2] This word may have been coined by German sinologists about a century ago, as in Vergleich der wichtigsten formwörter der chinesischen umgangssprache und der schriftsprache
[note3]> as in Le mot-particule 之 tchē

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Off-topic: Learn English to Know China

I read this on weibo.com, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook: "We used to learn English to know the world. We now learn English to know China" (当初我们学英语是为了了解世界,如今我们学英语是为了了解中国). (The earliest occurrence of this quote as of now is on Twitter authored by huqiwen.) The apparent oxymoron in the second sentence is one of the best remarks on the national censorship. Although any web site deemed sufficiently government-unfriendly is blocked, those in English are generally in much better shape than those in Chinese. If this were not so, learning English to know China would be just as ineffective as reading Chinese materials.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Follow-up to "Why the Chinese language should not adopt phonetic writing"

In October 5, 2011, I posted Why the Chinese language should not adopt phonetic writing?, where I brought up Sun Yat-sen's statement that romanization of the written Chinese would contribute to disintegration of China due to markedly diverse pronunciations of the Chinese dialects. Two points I want to make today. First, Sun was unlikely the first to observe that. According to 李玉刚's 《狂士怪杰:辜鸿铭别传》 p.74 (Li Yugang, Alternative Biography of Ku Hung-Ming, 1999, Beijing), 马建忠 very closely alluded to the idea when he explained why the ancient Greek, Roman, and Indian, but not the Chinese, civilizations, withered, at a private "lecture" to Ku: "正是这种方块汉字,才使我们每个中国人,能够不分地域和方言地聚合在一起。因为,在这世界上,怕只有我们中国人,可以因地域不同有着各式各样发音的方言,但大家所使用的文字,都是这同一种方块字。"(It is these square-shaped Chinese characters that enable us the Chinese to come together, without regard to region and dialect. Because, in this world, I'm afraid, only we Chinese have dialects of all kinds of pronunciations due to disparity in region and yet everybody writes the same square-shaped characters.) Based on the context, Ma's lecture was probably made in 1879, most definitely earlier than Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People.

Secondly, if the mutually unintelligible Chinese dialects are the reason for not romanizing the Chinese writing system, one may naturally follow up with a question, What is the effect of the Putonghua movement? This is an excellent question. It's possible that in one or two more generations, the mainland Chinese will almost all be able to understand and even speak Putonghua. While everybody cheers for that achievement, should we bring up the topic of Chinese romanization again, since the socio-linguistic condition used by Ma and Sun as an excuse one hundred years ago ceases to exist? There's still a very strong technical reason against romanization though: too many homophones, i.e. too many different characters pronounced the same. But at least there's one less reason left. People, including me, who cherish the beauty and elegance of Chinese characters, together with the culture intertwined with them, will have to fight harder against romanization, if the topic will be brought up again.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Learning ... as a second language

Teaching English, Chinese, or any language as a second language must obey the rule that the students learn the fastest when they understand a certain amount of materials, either spoken or written. Without scientific study, I place the "certain amount" at roughly 75%, beyond which the students find it boring, and below which they find it too challenging to be interesting. A local high school in the town is academically reputed in all subjects, including foreign languages. The Advanced Chinese class is taught by teachers from Taiwan, who are excellent in the Chinese language and less than desired in English. As the class is taught in mostly Chinese, almost all students are Chinese-descent so as to be able to follow the teacher's instructions; basically, students not hearing Chinese in everyday life have a hard time to survive. Another high school not far away is not as competitive, and the Chinese class is taught by one whose mother tongue is English. The class is full of white and black students fully engaged and sufficiently but not overly challenged. A similar case is given by a friend of mine, who opened a foreign language school in southern China in the 1990's. Initially, the students demanded foreign teachers, who were fairly expensive back then. Recently, my friend said, some of her students "became more realistic" and preferred Chinese teachers, because they "felt they learned more" this way.

In a nutshell, other things being approximately equal, the determining factor for the fastest progress, and as a side effect, personal interest, is the percentage of the language that can be understood. The graph of the learning speed vs. material or class difficulty may be a bell-shaped curve centered around 75% of materials understood on initial reading or hearing as a metric for difficulty. Now, all I wish is a proof from a controlled study by psychologists or educational scientists.

P.S. There is one unique aspect in teaching Chinese as a second language. Traditionally, the students are required to memorize the characters completely so they can write them manually. As everyone knows, the Chinese writing system is not spelling-based and so poses the greatest difficulty to all students. With the advent of computer technology and acceptance of the unofficial standard of input, pinyin, one no longer needs to completely memorize a character to "write" it; he only needs to recognize the one out of multiple given by the IME, Input Method Editor. (A classical example is "" as in "喷嚏", "sneeze", which few Beijing University students can write with free hand.) This has made significant impact on all the people around the world using the Chinese language, businessmen, workers, students, and teachers themselves. Unfortunately, some teachers in some schools still require the students to write the characters in hand, wasting their energy otherwise available to study more characters, more sentence structures, or more culture topics.