So, what was the show? (汉语大会)

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I posted some pictures while I was in China, but I had a few people asking if I could say a bit more about the competition and what it was all about, and perhaps post some video. I’m #6 in the picture here–it’s a screenshot taken from the video below. The clip is only about a minute long, but it nicely sums up the different parts of the show without boring you:).  In another part of the video, you can see me looking at the host in surprised disbelief, and in another I’m playing my guitar.

To back up a bit, as I understand things, the show (汉语大会) is a cooperation between Chinese Central Television (CCTV4) and another branch of the Chinese government called Hanban.  Hanban is the parent organization of the Confucius Institutes that you see all around the world. Their mission largely focuses on the goal of promoting Chinese culture and language learning; some people call this kind of thing “soft diplomacy”.  In this respect, Hanban’s activities are quite similar to the efforts of other governments around the world (think of Spain’s Cervantes Institute, the German Goethe Institute, the French Alliance Française or The British Council).

With that background, my thinking is that the “star” of the show was the Chinese language.  The principle aim was to celebrate Chinese language learning, show Chinese people that foreigners are indeed trying to learn Mandarin, and perhaps to encourage learners of Mandarin to continue with their studies.

I was one of 72 participants from around the world, and I was part of the “Americas” team with four Americans and a Brazilian.  There were also teams (six people per group) from Africa, Oceana, Europe, Asia, as well as domestic teams from inside China– these teams comprised international students studying at Chinese universities.   Most of the participants were much younger than me, but I actually wasn’t the oldest!

The show basically consisted of three parts: the 6 of us planning/rehearsing/performing a skit to show our understanding of a Chinese idiom; next, the six of us were together as a team in a kind of quiz show to test our knowledge of specific topics in Chinese language and culture; finally, each of us did an individual performance (i.e guitar, singing, martial arts, comedic monologue/tongue twisters).

At the end of the day, I think we did a good job; however, it just wasn’t enough to make it into the semi-finals.  All things considered, it was an amazing experience.  Some of the contestants have truly achieved a level of Chinese fluency and on-camera comfort that is really admirable . I came away from the experience feeling quite inspired to keep going with my studies.

I definitely have to close with a word of renewed thanks to the folks at my local Confucius Institute.  I’m grateful for all the work they do, as well as their continued support and encouragement of all the Chinese learners here in Edmonton!

优酷链接

 

 

 

 

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That time I was on a Chinese TV show…

Hard to put words to this trip, but I’ll offer the following summary and let the pictures do the talking.

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In short, I got an opportunity to come to China to participate in this year’s 汉语大会. It’s an annual Chinese proficiency contest that’s put together through Hanban, the people behind the Confucius Institute, and CCTV4, the international branch of Chinese Central Television.  I would only commit to the trip if I could bring my son– thankfully, they obliged my request and he’s here with me.

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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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Documentary film – Blue Eyes, Twenty One Days Of China 蓝眼睛,中国二十一天

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The last 6 minutes of Ji Yida’s “Blue Eyes, Twenty One Days of China” perfectly encapsulates the experiences of a surprisingly large percentage of travellers that I have seen; here, I mean to include folks crossing the Pacific Ocean from both sides of the east-west paradigm.

If you want to skip to the spot I’m mentioning, this link starts at the 14:00 mark: http://youtu.be/6fjoNZG1Kzw?t=14m

The American in the film is from a community of 60,000 people and the videographer is his Chinese friend who went to High School in that community. They took a trip to China together over one of their summer breaks.

Luke, the subject of the film, is a pretty introverted guy–the videographer describes him as “the most non-American-American-I-know”. Some of his comments in the scene linked above reminded me of the time when I came to the conclusion that my Canadian manners were getting me nowhere in many situations in China that really required me to be a little pushy; it was initially hard to make the adjustment and not feel like I was being rude— and also let go of the judgement that others (i.e. the Chinese people around me) were being rude.

and so it goes….

Contrary to the opinion that many folks often express, I have always thought that cross-cultural experiences (especially longer sojourns) ultimately offer you the opportunity to learn more about *you* and your own culture. It’s not a guarantee though– for non-reflective personalities, the process seems to work in reverse and you sometimes see cynical expats who have lived somewhere for years in seeming misery.

again, this has been true on both ends of my Asian-Canadian experience.

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]

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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.

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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).

What works for you?

So many arguments about ‘the best way to go’ for language learners at different levels…

The tricky part, of course,  is that what works for one person might be totally off-base for you.

Ultimately, we can only really judge ‘what works’ for ourselves—if you find yourself arguing, it’s probably a sign that you should try something different…… conversely, what works for you may not work so well for someone else…..  “learn and let learn” I guess.

The designers of most language tests (DELFJLPTHSK, etc.) are trying harder and harder to make test scores reflect real world communicative ability; are you aiming beyond standard language tests (that really only mark the beginning of the next stage of learning)?

As you consider your goals (however broadly), what works for you?

Duolingo invites to give away

I’ve been beta-testing the new Duolingo crowd-source platform for translation-based language-learning for a couple of months— are you interested in giving it a try?

As far as I’m aware, I don’t stand to gain anything from the exchange, but they just announced that current users could give away 3 (three) invites.

Want one?   (update: all gone! ) Please leave a comment or send me an e-mail (raymond /at/wordsummit/dot/com).

From the TED video description:     Duolingo will be a revolutionary product in which millions of internet users from around the world will work together to translate the internet and learn a new language at the same time. All for free.”

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.