Talking about big numbers in Chinese and English

I put the chart below together for someone I know who, despite having a strong grasp of English, often seems to get tripped up when talking about large numbers. It may seem like a trivial topic but this particular person works in a financial institution in a sales capacity…… I’m sure you can understand how a slip of the tongue in this kind of context might make someone lose confidence in their abilities.

I figured I could put something together that they could put beside their desk and refer to in a pinch– maybe it will work for you?  Feel free to print/cut it out.

big numbers

As it happens, this can be an issue for English speakers learning Chinese as well— the primary challenge being that English and Chinese (this is actually true of Japanese as well), put breaks at different points in large numbers. While English leaves things in clusters of three digits (thousands, millions, billions, trillions), Chinese groups the digits in clusters of four (i.e. units of 10,000: 万,亿,兆).

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2012 year-end: reading more Chinese, thanks to Lingq

I’ve been reading quite a bit of Mandarin lately–after following Luqiu Luwei’s blog essays (闾丘露薇 ROSE GARDEN) for awhile, I’m starting to feel like I can call myself one of her ‘regular readers’.  Luqiu Luwei is a world-travelled Chinese journalist and one interesting bit of trivia is the fact that she was the first female journalist (from any country) to go to Iraq to cover the war in 2003.

Her essays are always insightful, but after reading one of her recent posts (Why do we care about America?),  it occurred to me that I might have finally (at long last) succeeded in creating a regular Chinese reading habit that is challenging, yet doesn’t necessarily feel like ‘studying’.

As any intermediate/advanced student of Chinese will tell you, reading Chinese can be quite intimidating. Long after you’ve started to feel comfortable reading relatively complex sentences, you still find yourself constantly running into strings of unfamiliar characters that leave you absolutely stumped.  Sure, you can guess at the first few, but soon enough you’re stumbling through prose feeling completely lost.  It’s not hard to understand why it’s hard for some people to ‘keep at it’.

I’ve commented on this before, but because of what I just described, my Chinese study was always completely lopsided, to the point that I could pass an advanced spoken Chinese test but still fail the reading/writing test at the same level.   Looking back on the last year, I can definitely say that I’ve made some meaningful progress after a looooooooooong plateau, and I really have to thank the Lingq platform for helping me through a critical period with Mandarin.

[full disclosure: I have no connection with the folks at Lingq–it profits me nothing to share what I’ve written here; this post does not contain affiliate links]

training_wheels_by_rivulette-d54u2ph (Creative Commons)

Lingq is like putting training wheels on a two-wheel bike

From my perspective, Lingq is basically like putting a pair of training wheels on a bicycle; because the platform allows you to input your own content, you feel supported, and still remain in control of the direction in which you steer your studies.   The different parts of the Lingq platform collectively conspire to help you keep your balance, even if you’re challenging terrain that is a little above your skill level.

For an explanation of how Lingq works, you can click on the screenshot of my avatar below to be taken to a youtube video by the system’s Canadian creator, Steve Kaufmann.

lingq

click to watch a video by the creator of Lingq

You still have to do the work

One caveat I need to throw in—Lingq makes no promises that it will do the work that you need to do.  I had a free account on Lingq for a couple of years (mostly dormant), before I finally gave it an honest effort.  Like so many useful language resources and tools out there, I could have picked it up earlier, but somehow I didn’t.

Beyond the significant boost in the number of characters that I can now recognize, I think the biggest benefit that I’m taking from Lingq is that I can now dive into harder texts, both online and in print, with an increased feeling of ‘forward momentum’.  I definitely feel renewed enthusiasm for reading and I feel like I’m well-prepared to forge ahead as I head into the next language learning plateau.

The starter membership at Lingq is free, so I would recommend taking it for a spin to see if it works for you.  The platform supports the study of at least a dozen different languages.

As a DIY guy, I’m pretty stingy when it comes to spending money on language learning tools, but I think the year that I spent with the basic membership ($10/month) was definitely worthwhile.

Wishing everyone success with their 2013 language learning goals.

If you were held to the same standard as English learners….

The other day I got to thinking of the standard to which English language learners in my community are held every day.  I wonder how well I would measure up if the shoe were on the other foot?

Regardless of your performance on standardized tests, If you’ve developed some competency in another language, do all of the following describe your level of comfort in that language?

1. Able to write coherent text, explaining somewhat complicated circumstances? Able to do the same verbally, over the phone.
2. Able to persuade, teach or train?
3. Able to calm a tense situation?
4. Aware when you are being misunderstood, and able to get conversation back on track?
5. Develop professional rapport with someone who initially doubts your abilities?
6. Write a comprehensive report?
7.?
What makes a few of these difficult (I’m sure there are better examples), is the cultural context in which they rest. Added to that, the consequences of ‘getting it wrong’ tend to rattle your confidence and, over time, it get’s harder and harder to step out of your comfort zone.
Which part is ‘hardest’ will be different for everyone; however, in terms of being able to think on your feet in a professional context, I think the fourth one is especially valuable— and probably the one over which you have the most control (or at least practice).

James Earl Jones vs. Shan Tian Fang: the *way* some people can use language

It’s always amazing to listen to people who seem to have a knack for making your native language come to life, even when they’re only saying a few sentences. That was the thought that came to mind when I stumbled upon an old clip of James Earl Jones presenting Sean Connery with an award, while giving eloquent praise to Sean Connery’s voice as one that “inhabits time” .  It’s a great little video (see below) because James Earl Jones, of course, is also a legendary ‘voice’ of the North American entertainment industry.

When I think of interesting voices in languages that I’ve studied, one ‘voice’ that comes to mind is the legendary Chinese storyteller Shan Tian Fang (单田芳).  I remember first hearing him on the radio while riding in taxis when I lived in Xi’an.   I always enjoy trying to imitate voices so, after hearing his unmistakable voice several times, even though I couldn’t speak much Chinese,  I remember asking someone at work “[imitating radio voice] Who’s the guy on the radio that talks like this?” [/imitating]—my colleague was almost in tears laughing at my “Shan Tian Fang” voice speaking in English:)

As I recall, my colleague then wrote down Shan Tian Fang’s name in Chinese so I could ask for a DVD at the video store, and told me what radio station I could tune into if I wanted to listen to more of his epic tales.

Anyway, the point that I wanted to raise was that I think it’s important to find examples of people who can poetically speak the languages we’re trying to study.   Even if you don’t ‘study’ these actors, it’s always a good idea to have a sense of what an eloquent speaker sounds like in your target language. With so much audio and video available online (even for free) these days, it’s never been easier to explore old tv, movies and even commercials in any language.

DIY tools: make your own tracing sheets for DELF/HSK/JLPT writing practice

With a strip of  rainbow-coloured carpet weaving a path up the stairs and onto the wall around the whole store, it’s not hard to understand why any kid would love to spend a few hours hanging out in a bookstore like the Poplar Kid’s Republic Bookstore in Beijing (蒲蒲兰绘本馆).   Located right next to a cafe I used to visit in the Jianwai SOHO area, it had lots of great origami paper and Japanese (as well as Chinese and Korean) books. I picked up some books for my son the last time I was in Beijing but, if anyone knows of a similar kind of international children’s bookstore in Canada *please* let me know!

Tracing Practice

One book that I picked up from that shop is called (えんぴつで書いて読む日本の童話), which you might translate as “Penciling your way through Japanese children’s stories”.  The concept of the book is remarkably simple: famous pieces of children’s literature printed in an large font (I’d guess 36pt?), the font colour is probably about 35% grey so, as kids read it aloud, they trace over each character with their pencil.  One can assume that their parents would also read the story to them at the same time—neat way to experience a story, eh?

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Interviews with successful adult language learners in Edmonton (#1: Matthew-Mandarin Chinese)

 Do you know anyone in the Edmonton area who might have a story to share?

Matthew

Let’s pretend that you’ve moved your family to a completely new country– sure, you can get by in the language; however, among the list of challenges you must negotiate as a newcomer, you’re trying to manage the sometimes daunting task of learning how to negotiate the local financial system.

It’s not hard to imagine how happy you would feel if, in such a situation, a local staff member came out and worked with you, in your language. Again, maybe you feel comfortable with the language, but what if your spouse doesn’t speak it as well as you do–aren’t you meant to be having these conversations together?

The scenario I’ve described–specifically, the role of the helpful bilingual staff member–captures a little bit of what Matthew does every day right here in Edmonton: speaking Mandarin Chinese with some of his clients.   But what’s the story here?  Matthew grew up speaking English in St. Albert, one of Edmonton’s satellite communities–naturally, I was curious to sit down and ask him about his experience of learning Chinese.

Why Chinese?

According to Matthew, his journey began when he was twelve, when he got involved with Tae Kwon Do, “which is actually a Korean martial art–but my teacher was from Hong Kong”. Hearing the teacher speak Chinese from time to time piqued Matthew’s interest, but he never had a chance to do anything about it until he got to University.

Fast-forward to the year 2000.  Watching TV one day during the summer between his first and second year, Matthew stumbled upon a NFB documentary (Dashan – Ambassador to China’s Funny Bone) about Mark Rowswell, a Canadian who is fluent in Mandarin and wildly famous throughout China. Matthew had originally considered simply taking a couple of Chinese courses to satisfy the language requirement of his Arts degree; however, after seeing how far Mark Rowswell had taken Chinese after not studying as a child, Matthew thought,  “if he can do it, why can’t I?”.

By the time Matthew graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Chinese Linguistics and Culture, Mandarin–something that he had originally considered studying “on a lark”–had became a genuine passion.

Matthew’s learning process

In addition to the Chinese that Matthew learned in University, his HSK Chinese Proficiency Exam score in 2003 earned him a scholarship to study at Nanjing Normal University for the 2004/2005 school-year. Since returning home to Canada, he says his preferred way of continuing to learn is a method that one of his fourth-year professors used to teach a course here in Edmonton.

“What she basically did was take an old Chinese movie, 早春二月 (zǎochūn èr yuè) (Early Spring in February), and transcribe every single line in the movie, highlighting some of the grammar points and vocabulary for us. She divided the film into twelve units and we systematically made our way through the whole film over the semester”.

While he learned a great deal from that particular movie, after all was said and done with his ‘school’ studies, he decided that what he really needed to do was learn more colloquial speech. To that end, since returning to Canada, he has made a personal project out of studying a modern Chinese dramatic series set in Vancouver, entitled 别了,温哥华 (biéle, wēngēhuá) (Farewell, Vancouver). Just like his old professor, his goal is to essentially transcribe and translate every word in the series, writing down the pinyin of every idiom and trying to find an English equivalent.

Why movies?

“Have you ever heard some of the language tapes that some people use to study English?” asks Matthew. “The vocab is great, but real people simply do not talk like that.  When people flow with natural English, they drop syllables, consonants and round out vowels— Chinese is exactly the same.” For that reason, Matthew finds that movies and TV shows to be a more authentic learning resource.

Matthew says that he enjoys continuing to study in his spare time, and is currently about half-way through the 24-part series of Farewell Vancouver. “You have to understand, when I was studying in China, it was exhausting studying Chinese class all day.  When class was over, all I wanted to do was speak English with my Western friends or watch a DVD so I could unwind. Now that I’m back home, it’s more of a hobby that I can enjoy at my own pace.

How far do you want to go with your Chinese?

Regarding the question of continuing to learn Chinese, Matthew was quick to answer that “it never really stops”.  The question, in his mind, is really about the level of intensity that you’re willing to put into it at any given time.  For the time being, he has set himself the modest goal of “always being better”.

“Don’t get me wrong, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would go back to school to get my masters in Chinese linguistics”, says Matthew. “But, things being as they are, I have to be realistic and balance my Chinese study with my life, my friends and family–I have courses that I have to take for work and those take time too”.

For those interested in learning more about China, Matthew recommended a book that is available at the Edmonton Public Library: The Man who Loved China, by Simon Winchester, is the story of Biochemist Joseph Needham. (audiobook here)

Do you know any successful language learners in the Edmonton area?

Just like Matthew,  the profile that I’m looking for at the moment is someone who grew up primarily speaking English, started learning another language as an adult, and now speaks the language well enough that they feel confident enough, if the opportunity presents itself, to use it in a workplace setting.

Given the amount of diversity in our city, I am confident that Edmonton is home to many successful adult language learners.   Perhaps you know someone who learned to speak a new language to communicate with their in-laws, a new neighbour or perhaps a business partner?  I look forward to continuing this series as I get in touch with more people.

Passed the new HSK level 5, as well as the intermediate spoken Chinese test

I sat both HSK tests last November, but didn’t see the results until yesterday—- what a great way to start off the year!

I did extremely well on the spoken test, as well as the listening section of the HSK 5 (fifth level of the new six-level scheme); however, my reading and writing scores are definitely telling me that I need to do more practice in those areas.

It’s worth noting that the written section of the test requires you to write chinese characters by hand— if you’re used to typing chinese, you may find it easy to compose text by inputing pinyin and ‘choosing’ the correct character, but it can be a bit of a challenge to recall the character when you’re stuck clutching your pencil.

As I recall, there were a few different kinds of questions in the writing section— some involved putting sentence fragments in the correct order, and others involved being given three or four words (eg: 电脑, 游戏, 学校) and having to compose a sentence.