Whiteboard karaoke (spoken word)

Are you trying to improve your Chinese handwriting skills? I’m curious–what has worked for you?

Like many westerners studying Mandarin/Putonghua/Chinese, for the longest time I was guilty of continually saying “later, later” when it came to the idea of really pushing my reading/writing fluency to come in line with my listening and speaking skills.  I passed the advanced spoken HSK several years ago, but could never seem to crack HSK 6, which demanded a level of reading proficiency that I simply didn’t have– bottom line: As much as I ‘wanted it’, I didn’t seem willing to put in the effort necessary to cross the divide.

Sure, reading/writing Chinese is hard (David Moser still has the best essay on this topic), but it’s not impossible; you just have to do the work!    Over the last few years, I have made a concerted effort to try and correct that imbalance.

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Clay Calligraphy: Li Bai’s Jìng Yè Sī 静夜思

I’ve been wanting to try this idea for the longest time– In the end, it was good fun that was quite relaxing!

If you imagine “claymation meets calligraphy”, then you’ll understand exactly what’s going on in this video: I used plasticine (borrowed from son’s art table) to ‘write’ each stroke.

Studying poetry may seem snobbish to many North Americans; however, it’s quite common in many parts of the world and China is no exception.  I can almost guarantee that you could say the first two syllables of this poem to any Mandarin speaker and they could finish the poem for you.  Studying poetry is a great chance to practice pronunciation— ‘writing fancy’, whatever that means in the language you’re working on (i.e. brush calligraphy/interesting fonts) is also a great way to practice writing skills.  Playing with pencil crayons and finger paint is OK too!


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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Take a happy approach

japanese calendar 人生は今が勝負であるJust scanning some images from an old box of papers and pictures.

This quote was one of many from a calendar that I had when I was in Japan–each month would greet you with a no-holds-barred Buddhist edict that you could try and pull into your life.

This particular quote reads “人生は今が勝負である、今を喜ばなければならない”, which you might (liberally) translate as “In life, the fight is for the here and now; you have to create happiness out of this moment“.

Take what you wish from the quote, but what comes to mind today is how easy it is to think of the long walk to competency in another language as some sort of unbearable burden that you have to carry until……when?

When I think of the most successful language learners I know, most of them have simply embraced the challenge as part of their life.   Joggers keep jogging, even in inclement weather; golfers keep at it, even when they’re totally frustrated.  Perhaps you have a similar example from your own life.

Just like hard-core sudoku die-hards delight in a particularly challenging puzzle, try to find a happy approach to your language learning—those challenging days are really a mark that you’re improving and ready to take on new things.  If you can keep that thought in mind in the middle of those moments when you ‘just don’t understand’, or you’re feeling misunderstood, it gets that much easier to dust yourself off and keep moving forward.

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?
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?

Star Trek VI: will computers ever emulate the charm of human language learners?

For some reason, seeing Christopher Plummer in the running for his [now confirmed] Oscar for his role in Beginners, made me remember him playing the role of General Chang in Star Trek VI. I hadn’t watched a Star Trek movie in ages, so I decided to resurrect a golden oldie over the weekend. Star Trek fans may remember that the Klingon-language dialogue figures quite prominently throughout Star Trek VI…

“We must respond personally–the Universal Translator would be recognized”

I’ve actually never been one to get swept up in the idea of learning to speak Klingon, but there was something about the context of a particular scene that I found quite interesting. If you’re not familiar with the world of Star Trek, it’s set in the 23rd century and is full of futuristic gadgets and interplanetary space drama. Whenever there is a conversation between life forms, crossing the language barrier is often done with the help of the computer’s ‘Universal Translator‘. In this scene, however, they can’t use it because they’re trying to be sneaky and, as Chekov (Walter Koenig) says, they must “respond personally”, because the other side would easily recognize the sounds and patterns of the universal translator”. It’s a funny little scene with a crowd of people flipping through English-Klingon dictionaries and grammar books to help Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) communicate in very broken Klingon.  English subtitles like “We am thy freighter” help to approximate how awkward it would sound to Klingon ears. I’m sure that it was only meant to be a silly comedic moment in the movie, but I think there’s something deeper we can take away from this.

There will always be social value in learning languages

I’ve already seen people talking about the many things that the mid-20th century Star Trek essentially ‘got right’ about the future, including the hand-held tricorder (see bel0w). As the power and ubiquity of our gadgets continues to get closer to the world of science-fiction, we often hear folks talking about the idea that language learning will someday become irrelevant because computers will do all the work for us.  For example, with the announcement of Siri on the latest iPhone, isn’t it fair for us to assume that the power of google translate, voice recognition and other innovations like Word Lens will soon conspire to make it possible to communicate directly with people who speak other languages with little fuss?

Add this to the incredible amount of social privilege that native English speakers currently enjoy simply because we grew up speaking the Lingua Franca of the day, it’s not surprising to hear people wonder “Why bother even trying to learn another language if we don’t have to?”.    I think that this Star Trek scene offers us an opportunity to consider the things that our machines *cannot* do for us.

Flickr image “iPhone vs Tricorder” by jdhancock

 The very fact that you are trying to learn someone’s language communicates a message of respect.

It’s sometimes said that “people really like it” when you learn to speak some of their language.  If we dig a little deeper, however, my feeling is that people simply feel respected, and it opens up the channels of communication just a little bit more.    This is especially true for situations that involve native speakers of English– in most situations, it’s the English-language learner who bears most of the stress of the language learning process.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there are times when a simple sentence (even poorly pronounced) can, in an instant, communicate that you understand at least some the challenges inherent in learning to speak another language. On the other hand, if you are using machine translation/interpretation, or can afford to hire a personal interpreter, none of the above holds true–Believe it or not, even learning how to properly pronounce common names in a given language can be a huge positive step.

“If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann muessen Sie Deutsch sprechen.” – Willy Brandt

I’ve always loved this quote from Willy Brandt–you don’t even need to understand German (which I don’t) in order to divine the essence of the last bit.   At the end of the day, this isn’t only true between speakers of German and English, it really does speak to the fact that, when it comes to choosing the language that is spoken in any given context, power comes into play. (more on this subject in a great  paper called “Linguistic justice”, by Phillipe Van Parijs). When we extend this question of ‘what’s the value in learning another language?’ to the level of international business and diplomacy, I really don’t think that we can underestimate the power of what your efforts to learn another language will communicate.

All that to say that I believe there will always be a place for human language learning that technology will not be able to take away. Advances in machine translation/interpretation will continue to thrill and delight; however, I think people will be able to see through them for the foreseeable future.  It’s a bit like the difference between acquaintances  who can’t remember your birthday without a software/app reminder and those kindred souls who remember all of the astrology signs in your circle of friends. In your heart of hearts, you know who remembers your birthday (and you know how many you’d forget without the help of technology).

On so many levels, this is an amazing time to be learning languages. Technology can help us tremendously, but I try not to forget the goal is to enrich human connection and interaction. I still think we’re a long way from automating the process of human respect and fostering friendship. Will we ever get to the point where robots can consistently emote, persuade, deceive and otherwise elicit genuine feelings in human beings? Who knows—I think, for me at least, that asking these kinds of questions is part of the attraction of the whole Star Trek world that Gene Roddenberry created.

“The human race is not nearly enough in awe of its own capabilities.  My picture of the future is not so much one of developing new technologies as it is of developing new insights into human nature.” Edward Hall “The Dance of Life”

“A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules; a language is a flash of the human spirit, it’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.” Wade Davis @ TED

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.

Glimpses of the mid-range future of language learning

JManga looks interesting!    The instant Japanese/English swap function on the manga will be great for learners (skip to 1:44 of the video)—I could imagine that, in the future, some manga could also include audio of storytellers reading the story.

This is yet another example of the exciting things that computers and digital media make possible for language learning.   The neat thing is that language learning doesn’t necessarily have to be the initial inspiration for innovation— advances in toy design, digital media, voice recognition, mobile technology etc. all promise to come together in really interesting and engaging ways over the next few years.

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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