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How many coincidences can you accept in a story? If coincidences ARE the story, is there a limit to how many you can stomach? If the answer is yes, this movie is not for you. If you can accept the implausible though, 向左走向右走 has quite a bit to offer. The music, the poetry and the scenery are beautiful. Half-Japanese heart-throb Takeshi Kaneshiro (金城武) and Hong Kong star Gigi Leung (梁詠琪), who starred together in the hit romantic film Tempting Heart (1999), are reunited for another love story. Much of the movie was carried on the strength of these two, who are able to make even the most improbable of plots beleivable. The supporting cast also did a great job adding comic relief to what would otherwise be a serious movie.

The story of this movie revolves around a musician (Takeshi), and a translator (Leung). When they meet, sparks fly, but it seems that they are fated to always be just out of each other’s reach. They are neighbors but don’t realize it. They unknowingly order food from the same restaurant, stay at the same hospital, ride the same subway trains, and even dial the same numbers, all while desperately searching for each other. Unfortunately, whatever they do, they are always just out of contact with each other. When one turns left, the other turns right.

向左走向右走 is surprisingly touching. I found myself really caring about what happened to these two characters, despite the obvious nature and down-right corniness of the plot. That said, there is a certain beauty to how much symmetry is in the story. Not only are the two main characters moving as if reflections (or in their words, “shadows”) of each other, but there is a similar kind of symmetry between the supporting characters who interact with them. The film is also worth quite a few more laughs than I expected. In terms of difficulty for a Chinese student, I think this is one of the easier films out there. I would guess that a typical student who has completed level 4 at Shida (師大), or three years Chinese in college would understand most of the movie. Even if you don’t want English subtitles for most of the movie, I still recommend getting the DVD, though. There’s a Polish poem in the movie, and you’ll want English subtitles for that. I say, if you’re studying Chinese, rent it. If not, rent it anyway.

Rating: 4.5/5

Well, I won’t be moving to my own host anytime soon. The reason? I don’t have a debit card. My US debit card expired last month. I’ve ordered a replacement, but I’m still waiting to get it. It seems like this is as good a time as any to bring up the fact that my ongoing efforts to get one in Taiwan have failed.

A debit card, for those of you who don’t know, looks like a credit card. It can be used like a credit card to buy things online, but it’s NOT a credit card. Debit cards don’t involve borrowing money or buying things on credit, they just charge money out of your bank account. If the bank account is empty you can’t buy anything, but on the good side there are no interest fees or any other fees involved.

About two and a half years ago, I went to 10 or 15 banks trying to get a debit card. Some didn’t offer debit cards at all; they weren’t that popular in Taiwan at that point. However, China Trust and Taishin have them. Unfortunately neither will give them to foreigners. The question is why not? Since they don’t let you borrow money, there’s no risk to the bank. One clerk said that since I’m American I “could just leave Taiwan at anytime”. So what? I could leave Taiwan, and then the bank would lose nothing since I couldn’t have borrowed anything from them. In fact, after I left, whatever balance remaining in my bank account would be theirs.

After huffing and puffing and complaining, I got China Trust to send me a written explanation. The funny thing is, they lied to me in it. They said that due to a problem with their system, foreigners temporarily couldn’t apply. That was two and a half years ago. I went in last week, and I’m still not allowed to apply. I showed them the letter and they just said, “Oh, the system still has the same problem.” Does two and a half years count as temporary?

Today, I received an email from John at sinosplice. He’s been living and blogging in China for a few years and is now a grad student, studying linguistics at 华师大 in Shanghai. Very cool! Unfortunately, he had some bad news for me. Blogger is blocked in China, and therefore it’s a pain for people in China to see my site. Many Taiwan bloggers wouldn’t really care about whether or not their sites were accessible from China, but I do.

I’m interested in Chinese culture as a whole, not just Taiwan. Some topics I write about, such as Baidu are not very well understood in Taiwan. Despite the fact that it’s the 5th most used web site in the world, set a NASDAQ IPO record, and it’s “China’s google”, I’ve met quite a few Taiwanese people in the tech industry who haven’t even heard of it. For topics like these, I really want input from people living in the mainland. Not to mention, bloggers in mainland China are far more likely to be interested in what I have to write than bloggers in Korea, bloggers in Japan, or bloggers anywhere else outside of Taiwan are.

I guess I’ll have to get my own hosting eventually, and make sure it’s with a company that can make my site accessible from China. That means my URL will have to change, which kind of sucks. I don’t want to break everybody’s links. I’ll keep this up on blogger and make sure it points to my new address after I move. The question is, what should I call my blog? As I said in my very first post, I pretty much picked “Doubting to shuo” on a whim. I think the name is hard to remember, both for Chinese speakers and English speakers, and it probably sounds a bit stupid to bilingual people. Originally, I’d wanted “daotingtoshuo”, but some Singaporean guy has a blogger blog of that name (which he’s NEVER posted to, grrr). Any advice? Stick with weird name? Switch to something easier to remember?

The current version of this entry is here: Firefox Tweaks: Search from your location bar

Back in the day, any time there was any problem to be solved, I coded a way and found a faster way to get stuff done. Back when I was really into Texas Hold’em in school, I was analyzing opening hand strengths against various numbers of opponents. I got the idea from my friend, Matt, who actually wrote a PokerBot. Anyway, what did I do once I decided which opening hands were worth playing from which positions around the table? I wrote a quick trainer program in perl to help me memorize them. What did I do when I finished a research project for my Language and Culture class? I wrote a perl script to organize my sources, of course. Oh yeah, I was a geek. But I got sh*t done.

After NOT being a programmer for 5 years, I felt really muddle-brained while I was writing that javascript pinyin tool a while back. I’m embarrassed to say, I spent EIGHT hours working all of the kinks out of it. Not cool at all. I’ve come to a point in my life where I really can’t save time by coding stuff anymore…

But, I can save time by tweaking Firefox!


Here’s what I did: I removed the google search box, and set it up so anything I type in the location bar that isn’t a URL gets google searched. But, if I type “amz” first, it searches Amazon; if I type “wp” first, it searches Wikipedia; and if I type “imdb” first, it searches IMDB. Wanna know how I did it?

1) First, get rid of the search box. When you’re done you won’t need it. First go to View, then Toolbars, then Customize. That will pop up a box with all of the possible wigits you can select. Then you click on the search box in the upper right portion of your Firefox window and drag it into that box. There, no more tiny search box wasting valuable screen space.

2) Since you no longer have a search box, now you have to make your location bar act as one. This will make Firefox perform a Google search whenever you type something other than a URL into the location bar. Type “about: config” into the location bar. Then you select “keyword.url” and enter “http://www.google.com/search?ie=UTF-8&oe=utf-8&q=”. Now whatever you type into the location bar that’s not a URL will do a Google search. You have to exit and re-start Firefox for this to take effect.

3) The last step is to set up bookmarks with keywords. This will let you do searches on specific web pages from the location bar. You can make them for as many sites and you want. I’ve already made search bookmarks for Amazon.com, IMDB, and Wikipedia. We’ll start with Amazon. Go to Amazon.com and search for “voice recorders”. It will take you to this URL: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/search-handle-url/<br />104-8870216-0509507?url=index%3Dblended&search-option=<br />search-amazon&amp;field-keywords=%s&Go.x=0&amp;Go.y=0&Go=Go
Bookmark the page. Then, go to your bookmarks and right click on your new bookmark. Select “Properties”, and replace the “voice%20recorder” part of the address with %s. Then, under keyword, type “amz”. Now, if you were to type “amz harry potter” into your location bar, it would do a search on Amazon.com’s page for “harry potter”. Useful, no?

My Search Bookmarks
Location:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/search-handle-url/
104-8870216-0509507?url=index%3Dblended&search-option=
search-amazon&field-keywords=%s&Go.x=0&Go.y=0&Go=Go
Keyword:amz

Location:http://imdb.com/find?q=%s;s=all
Keyword:imdb

Location:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:search?search=%s
Keyword:wp

I’ve encoded some more KFC commercials, and unlike the last KFC commercial I posted, these don’t require too much Chinese to enjoy. There’s only one relevant line, and I translated it.

Army Video:

The one with the teacher, the boss, and the president:

Translated directly, “您真內行” means, “You’re really on the inside line.” Enjoy.

How could a review of Chinese textbooks start with anything else? For better or worse, Practical Audio-Visual Chinese (視聽華語) is the de facto standard Chinese textbook in Taiwan. Shida (師範大學) uses it. 文化大學 uses it. Taida (臺灣大學) uses it. Nearly every major Mandarin language school on the island uses this book. Unless you study at TLI, there is a very strong chance that you’ll encounter this book. Perhaps the best feature of this book is that almost every experienced Mandarin as a foreign language instructor on the island is familiar with it. Not only that, but quite a few intermediate materials have been specifically designed for students who have studied through the first two books of this series.

The question everybody emails me is this: is Practical Audio-Visual Chinese okay? The answer is yes. It’s “okay”. There’s nothing exceptionally good about this book, but it doesn’t have any glaring flaws either. It includes both zhuyin (注音) and standard 拼音. It has supporting CDs, VCDs, and a workbook. This book takes a very methodical approach. Each lesson starts with a reading or dialogue, followed by vocabulary words, and grammar explanations, each with example sentences. The explanations are clear, and there are no glaring errors.

However, there are a few drawbacks. Even though the book was written in 1994, sometimes it seems like it was written in 1954. The accents of the speakers on the accompanying CDs and VCDs are decidedly mainland. While the CDs are useful for review, the workbook doesn’t take advantage of them. There are absolutely no listening comprehension exercises. Also, there are a few grammar constructions taught in the book that many Taiwanese people don’t understand, such as the double construction. Even worse, is the use of and as passive markers. For example, “我讓你給弄糊塗了.” Most Taiwanese people under the age of about 50 will say that construction is flat out wrong. In truth, it is standard Mandarin, but it’s Mandarin that simply isn’t used here anymore. While this book isn’t quite ideal, it will get the job done, and many, many people have used it as a stepping stone to the next level.

Pros:

  • Comprehensive introduction to Mandarin Grammar
  • Well supported by CDs, VCDs, and workbook
  • Supports both Pinyin and Zhuyin
  • Widely used

Cons:

  • No simplified characters
  • Outdated usage
  • Not particularly interesting
  • No listening excercises in the workbook
  • Fragile cover

Rating: 3/5
Level: Absolute Beginner

I hope to make this into a useful resource for others learning Chinese, particularly those who wish to learn traditional characters. If you would like to review a Chinese textbook, email it to doubtingtoshuo@gmail.com, preferably with photos of the book.

The name of this movie, 短信一月追, means “short message, chase for a month”. The first thing that I noticed about this movie is that the main character, 賦佳 (played by 古巨基) sounded just like the people in the CDs that accompany 師大’s textbooks. It’s kind of amazing. I’ve been told by literally dozens of Taiwanese people that nobody talks like the people from my old textbook (視聽華語). Well, I guess they’re all wrong. Apparently, plenty of mainlanders and Hongkongers still talk just like that. The main character from 短信一月追 isn’t some crotchety old Chinese teacher either; he’s a hip, teenage, cellphone toting pizza restaurant employee who can ride a bicycle like a bat out of hell. Oh, and he’s hopelessly in love with his best friend’s girlfriend, 雪薇 (played by 張韶涵).

The movie begins with a message from his friend, who is studying in the US. His friend says that he’s dying and needs someone to take care of his girlfriend for him, someone to make sure she doesn’t feel too lonely and hurt. From there the plot takes all kinds of ridiculous and yet somewhat plausible twists. The movie was really sappy. On the good side, though, the plot wasn’t too predictable. I can’t really say I would have chosen this movie if I weren’t trying to improve my Chinese. It was still entertaining, though.

Rating: 2.5/5

Following up on what I’ve earlier written about the differences between intensive reading and extensive reading, it’s now time to talk about reading materials. For higher level students, this isn’t so big of a problem. For students with, say an IBT TOEFL of 70 (525 on the paper based version) or an IELTS band 5.5, there are numerous interesting extensive reading options. If your students are already at that level, then I suggest the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. If your students aren’t yet at that level, then this article is for you.

Lower level students pose a real difficulty for extensive reading teachers. In the extreme case, extensive reading just isn’t possible at all. However, it is possible for students to start reading in bulk far sooner than most educators would believe. I’ll assume that your students have learned at least 1000 words (not counting each conjugation or form of a word as a separate entity). Here are the usual stumbling blocks:

  1. Many educators feel that it is important to give children “authentic” material designed for L1 speakers.
  2. Authentic material is entirely incomprehensible to EFL learners who only know a couple thousand words.
  3. While those materials could be glossed, and vocabulary lists provided, that would no longer be extensive reading.
  4. Authentic materials that are comprehensible to low level students are written for toddlers, and therefore not very interesting to EFL students.

Assuming that we’re convinced that extensive reading is worth the effort, and we aren’t going to give up, giving the students dictionaries and sending them off with difficult authentic reading materials is not an option. That leaves two choices, children’s literature and non-authentic reading materials.

Children’s Literature

In my essay about extensive reading I mentioned that one potential barrier to implementing extensive reading is the preconceptions of the learners. Many learners (and educators) feel that foreign language materials have to be difficult and involve slow dictionary intensive labor. Otherwise, they feel, it isn’t real learning. I can assure you that it is just those students who will complain reading children’s books. It’s all about ego. I myself, felt happy to write about and post the old Chinese poem from which the Chinese search engine mogul, Baidu, gets its name. My study from the 國語日報, a daily news paper for children, never made it into any of my articles. It just doesn’t feel that cool to be reading things meant for 7 year old children.

However, once people can get by the initial embarrassment of reading children’s books, they can be useful in a number of ways. First of all, it is almost impossible to read children’s books extensively without learning something about the culture of the people for whose children the books were written. Many learners have claimed that reading children’s books en masse helped them develop a strong interest in and affinity for the target culture. Affinity for the target culture is an extremely important trait for language learners in the long term, according to many prominent linguists.

Perhaps the largest difficulty of all with children’s literature is that for L2 learners who are adults, the books aren’t that interesting. Obviously, things that interest young children and things that interest adults aren’t necessarily the same.

Graded Readers

Graded readers are the other major option for extensive reading classes, besides children’s literature. Graded readers are categorized based on the size of the vocabulary needed to read them. Usually, the vast majority of words in a graded reader will be high frequency words. However, there are also usually a small number of low frequency words in each reader as well. For example, a science fiction story set in space can be written very simply, but no matter how simply it’s written it will need a few low frequency words such as “planet” or “space ship”. There really isn’t any way to avoid a few words like this and still tell interesting stories. These low frequency words are usually glossed and translated at the back of the book. The number of vocabulary words in the book, not including these low frequency words is totaled up, and the result is the number of “headwords” in a book. When deciding how difficult a book to give an EFL learner, it’s best to use the cloze test method I described previously. Generally speaking though, the following guide can be used to determine the number of headwords a student can handle.

Level

Number of headwords they can handle

Students’ TOEIC score

Level 1

400

under 250

Level 2

700

310

Level 3

1000

380

Level 4

1400

450

Level 5

1800

520

Level 6

2500

750

The “levels” in the above chart refer to those used by what I feel is the best graded reader series around, the Oxford Bookworms Collection. My students have made very good progress with their selections and have responded very positively to the books as well. From levels 1-4, each book is about 50 pages long. Books from levels 5-6 can get quite a bit longer. Some books are adaptations of classics, and others are literature created specifically for learners. A few are actually unmodified stories that happen to use suitable vocabulary. The important thing is that these books, as a whole, are actually interesting to read.

Where to Buy the Materials

Considering that on average, Taiwanese people spend over 20% of their disposable incomes on learning English, either for themselves or their children, it is murderously difficult to find graded readers in Taiwan. Do date, I’ve gone to over 40 bookstores, including the gigantic one inside 台北101, and I’ve only found one store that sells them. The same store also has a decent selection of children’s literature and some books for foreigners learning Chinese! It is the Caves Bookstore in 台北 on 中山北路 near MRT雙連站. To get there, go to 雙連站 and then take the exit towards Mackay Hospital. When you get to the first light (中山北路), cross the street and take a left. In less than 5 minutes you’ll get to the Caves Bookstore, right next to a Subway sandwich shop. If you get to a KFC, you’ve gone a little bit too far.

Update: The bookstore mentioned above has closed. The best option now is the Neihu branch of Caves Bookstore, near Cosco.

Last night, while I was doing some Chinese reading online, I came across some pretty good comics. The down side of comics is that it’s all in picture format, so you can’t use Dr. Eye to translate it. So, I guess they aren’t that useful for beginning students. But, for an low-intermediate student like me, they’re great! Thanks to the simpler vocabulary in children’s comics, and the rich context provided by the pictures I can read them without cracking open the dictionary. That makes them nearly ideal for extensive reading use, maybe even better than the 國語日報 (Mandarin Daily for Kids). For example, consider this one I read yesterday.
http://tw.comics.yahoo.com/051119/98/2jsbq.html

Before I read it, I didn’t have any idea how to say “termite” in Chinese. But from the context of the comic, it’s very clear that that’s what “白蟻” means. Someone who didn’t know what “正義感” meant could probably figure that out from the context as well. Also, at least for me, I’m sure I’ll remember “白蟻” a lot longer from this limited exposure than I would have if I’d encountered the same word in a vocab list. Now if I could just put all time I put into blogging in English into reading Chinese comics… Anyway, here are some sites with free comics: