Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tones and Genes

A brief one: I just read this article from New Scientist that uncovers a potential link between one's genetic endowment and one's ability to speak tone-based languages. I don't think it changes much for any Occidental learning Chinese, but it does contain an echo of an idea I read about a long time ago: the notion that languages evolve towards increasing simplicity over time.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Who chooses the names?

There was a thread recently on Chinesepod about students' Chinese names - usually students get Chinese names from their teachers or friends, based on a phonetic transliteration of their own Western names. For example my own is bu lan deng (布兰登). On that thread I asked a question which didn't find an answer: For famous Westerners (actors, politicians etc.), who chooses their Chinese names so that they are consistently used across newspapers and TV for example?

Given the subtle play on words and symbols that Chinese appears to offer, there's sure room for fun or failure.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

It matters where you put your tongue.

Tongues. You can skewer them with metal barbs without feeling much pain (apparently), you can almost find words at the tip of them, you can set other people's wagging with relative ease, you can twist them for fun, or roll them if you've got the right genes. And if you know just the right place to put the tip of your own, you can make all the difference to somebody else. If that somebody else is Chinese. Because then you can make all the difference between pinyin pronunciation of zh and j, or sh and x or indeed ch and q.

The problem is, that even if we are capable of daily high-speed lingual gymnastics, even if English speakers can say this, that those and these with a facility that would make a German speaker zrow up (allowing for notable exceptions like Bertie Ahern - our Taoiseach again for a record turd time), if you stopped somebody in the street and asked them "exactly what are you touching with your tongue when you pronounce a word that begins with w?" chances are they won't have a clue. Why? Because the last time you had to consciously think about it, you were at an age where you also had to consciously think about controlling the muscles at the opposite end of your alimentary canal.

It's been a while now (like since the start) that I wasn't quite sure what the difference in pronunciation between chi and qi was. Or shang and xiang for example. But the answer is easy and difficult at the same time. The pronunciation guide from Chinesepod makes it easy: for your x, j and q, put the tip of your tongue behind your lower teeth (or where they would normally be if you hadn't taken up rugby as a lad). For sh, zh and ch, reach for the roof of your mouth, maybe even curling your tongue back a little if you can manage it. Easy really. Easy to write about and easy enough to read (even if you had to wade through 3 paragraphs of nonsense to get here). Easier done than said, though.

To put this advice into practice, you are going to need to get back in touch with your tongue, and start to reacquaint yourself with its general whereabouts. This may even require a little bit of direct manipulation, which isn't what folks on the street or even family members are used to seeing you do (are they?) But once you hear the real difference between shang and xiang from your own mouth... Well - you'll be speechless.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Oh go on then. A joke (in Chinese)

Class is out here, but my teacher is still in touch by email, and encouraging us to communicate in Chinese. Jokes - even old ones like this - make far more interesting homework than most things. So here was my first attempt (after being corrected by my teacher):

客户: 我有三个问题。 你是怎么收费的?
律师: $100 一个小时。你其它两个问题是什么?

Laugh? I nearly did.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Listening to Chinese: An observation

I hope this observation isn't so obvious as to be uninteresting:

There are two ways to listen to a Chinese sentence. Both have their value, but they are completely different experiences.

  1. Listening to a sentence without knowing what the sentence means.
    In this case, if the vocab and/or speed of delivery is challenging (and it usually is for me), the best I can hope for is to pick out a few words here and there, deducing if not the meaning, at least the gist. It's an intellectual, almost investigative activity.
  2. Listening to the sentence after finding out what sentence means.
    There is a completely different head on my shoulders now. I'm matching the sounds with the Chinese words that I know they correspond to, and really hearing the meaning in much the same way as I do in my mother tongue. The intellect has been short-circuited (actually that's not hard in my case).
One point about 2 is that it's extremely ephemeral. It's like trying to see 3D images by looking out of focus at those printed images (you know the ones, right?) - you can manage it for a fleeting instant, but then the moment is gone. Or like that point in meditation when you start to become aware that you're extremely aware - but inevitably blow the whole feeling away by analysing it.

Another point about 2 is that it's not at all the same as just letting the sentence wash over you. There is a kind of attention there (in fact if you switch off and just let the sounds wash over you, the moment is gone) but it is not an intellectual type of concentration.

One last thing to say, by way of describing this kind of not-quite-concentrating state, is that to me it feels like I am listening to each phrase of the sentence superimposed on its meaning (in English perhaps, though maybe it's mentalese). This has the effect of bringing the phrases to life and injecting them with real meaning.

I suppose the importance of doing 1 (i.e. not rushing off to read the meaning of a sentence before listening to it) is to learn how to bring these two ways of listening together - to transform one into the other on the fly.

Of course what's particularly stupid is that when I arrive at this realization, what do I do? Do I spend more time in the zone? No! I rush off to blog about it. What a git. I don't deserve to learn this language.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Carnegie Hall: Chinesepod subscription report

Very VERY old joke:

Lady (to man on street): Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?
Man: Practice lady, practice.

I'm about half way through my first month of premium Chinesepod subscription. I took this extra expense on for two reasons: 1) I wanted to check out what it had to offer before deciding whether the Practice level (higher cost again) might be worthwhile and 2) my face-to-face lessons here in Cork are over for the next few months and I really don't want to lose any gains I might have made so far this year.

In these two weeks I have noticed that I am actually studying a lot more. Because the information and activity is organized in one place (on the web site), and probably because I am paying for it anyway, I find myself gravitating towards the web site for the best part of an hour each evening, and learning new stuff each time. This works much better than just perusing through my notes. I'm getting obsessed - a necessary obsession. A result of this extra activity is that when I try to form sentences in my head, they tend to come a little more easily now. Some of them may even be correct! Thanks to the expansions I can see many more examples of well-constructed Chinese sentences (I am increasingly impressed by the flexibility and applicability of one of the first constructs I ever learned: the humble (是。。。的) is even more elegant and rich than I had ever imagined (想象还好 - see!!)

You can't beat a little hard work and invested time. What Chinesepod has done is given me a nice place to work.

What I would like to see on Chinesepod next would be more exercises (e.g. "write the following in Chinese") and more leverage from the vocab (e.g. a Google gadget to show me one of my own vocab items refreshed every hour for example) . The possibilities are endless.