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Archive for February, 2012

For those of us from the English speaking world, Chinese characters themselves are often a big piece of what makes Chinese an interesting language to learn. My own experiences are a bit different, since I started with Japanese, but I too have been bitten by that bug. There’s something really neat about how much semantic information is packed in a character! In some cases there are literally a dozen characters with the exact same Mandarin pronunciation, but to the character literate, it’s easy to disambiguate them. That’s cool.

One neat thing about working at an international tech company in China is seeing how new coworkers go about learning English, or if they’re westerners, how they go about learning Chinese. Our CTO has been more interesting to watch in this respect than anyone else I’ve ever seen. He’s all about the characters.

Vacuuming up every character in sight

In a few months, he’s learned to recognize well over a thousand characters during his limited free time. He’s recently started to pick up stroke order from using his iPad to input them, but his focus has been at least 90% on recognition. With this sort of knowledge, he can read ingredients on food labels to ensure that they’re vegetarian, he can operate remote controls, read shop signs and generally navigate around Beijing.

Crippled without comic book bubbles

Obviously there are limits, though. My co-worker is a really smart guy with a PHD in physics and has successfully built and sold 2 start-ups, but he’s still human. There are limits to how much a guy with a family and more than a full-time job can learn in his off hours. He’s learning to recognize so many characters by not spending time on other parts of the language.

Most notably, he’s not learning how to pronounce the characters he can recognize! E.g. he might know that means porridge, but he doesn’t know how to pronounce the character. He would associate directly with the English word “run” and not with its Mandarin pronunciation. It’s kind of amusing to me because he often asks me “what’s the Chinese for (some or another English word)”, and I unthinkingly say the Chinese word to him instead of describing it character by character! Telling him how to pronounce the Chinese word for broccoli during his 3rd month in the country was useless. What he was looking for was “west-orchid-flower”… if only speaking produced bubbles in the air with characters in them as in comic books!

As strange as this method of learning Chinese seems, it’s quite a bit like Heisig’s famous Remembering the Kanji, which helped me quite a bit a few years ago. It’s just that this is the first time I’ve ever seen anybody actually use these methods from the beginning instead of starting with a traditional approach and later trying RTK.

Looking ahead

My co-worker’s current plan is to continue upon his current path until he can mostly “read” newspapers or magazines. If he’s successful, he’ll basically be like my Japanese classmates in my Chinese class– poor speaking skills but some understanding of what most written Chinese he comes across.

There are obviously downsides to going character-crazy. For one, multi-character compounds present a problem. Secondly, speaking is a more useful skill than reading for people actually in China. On the other hand, his speaking is improving from interactions with Chinese people at work, and for the most part he has mental hooks on which to hang the new spoken vocabulary he learns. He speaks more Chinese than any of the last batch of American interns last summer did, and they were half his age and spending each morning in Chinese classes. I’m really interested to see where this endeavor goes.

The Romajinator was tool I made for converting Japanese Katakana into romaji, i.e., roman characters. I’ve recently updated it so that it can also convert Hiragana into romaji. Any serious student of Japanese will have no more problems reading hiragana or katakana than a student of Chinese would have reading pinyin.

It’s mostly just for fun, but for people living in China or other countries in Asia, it might be useful.

Examples

さむらい   ->   samurai 
にんじゃ   ->   ninja 
いちご     ->   ichigo  ->  strawberry
いぬ       ->   inu     ->  dog

Pronunciation

In general, romaji vowels are pronounced fairly similarly to pinyin vowels. The big exception is the “e”, which sounds a bit closer to a “short e” in English. The “o” sounds somewhat like an English “long o”. Vowels with a macron bar over them are voiced for a longer period of time. Doubled consonants represent a pause before the consonant. For example “kippu” would sound like “key”, followed by a pause, and then “poo”.

The above is obviously a very rough explanation. For a more pronunciation guide, I recommend the Wikimedia Commons: Japanese pronunciation page.

This video is an overview of the educational children’s app market. It’s probably most useful for an indie developer wondering, “What educational app should I make?” I talk about what I’ve seen over the course of the hundreds of EDU apps I’ve downloaded and those I’ve extended as part of my work. Some areas of the market are clearly over saturated and there are gaping holes in others.

For those who don’t have time for a video, my advice is don’t make the same ABC app or arithmetic app everyone else is! Unless you can create clearly more compelling content, you’ll probably get buried. Make something between the ABC level and the storybook level… or a fun math app!

A while back, I wrote a Firefox extension that converts pinyin with tone numbers into pinyin with tone marks. The specifics of the conversion process are identical to those of the online pinyin converter on this site.

After installing the extension, a blue square will appear on the right side of the add-on bar at the bottom of your Firefox web browser. To use the tool, type some pinyin with tone numbers into any plain text field on any web page. Then highlight the text and click on the blue 拼 on your status bar. It will convert the tone numbers into the appropriate marks over the appropriate vowels. For example, if you type in “zhong1wen2″, highlight it and hit the button, then it will be converted into “zhōngwén”.

As John suggested, I’ve also made this version add apostrophes for in words like Xī’ān. I haven’t tested all the cases yet, though.

As usual, feedback is welcome and I apologize to anyone who lost this plugin after updating Firefox. The original code works fine in the current version of FF! It’s just that when making a plugin, you have to specify the maximum version of Firefox it will work on. And once you update to a newer version than that, the plugin gets disabled automatically. In order to avoid the hassle of doing this again for a while, I’ve set this version of the plugin to work with anything between v1.5 and v25.0!
🙂

Go to the download page to get it.


Teach in Taiwan or Teach in China?

Probably the second most common question I get emailed from readers of this site is this:

“I’m from the US/Canada, I’ve just graduated and I want to teach English abroad and I want to learn some Chinese. Should I teach in Taiwan or teach in China?”

With my experience of having grown up in North America and then spent most of my adult life in Taiwan and then China, teaching in and later running an EFL school, I definitely have some opinions. But there are a lot of factors involved in making a decision about where to live for a year or more of your life and Taiwan and China both have their pluses. Also remember that the situation for foreign teachers has been changing fairly quickly, especially in mainland China.

What are your goals?

The best place for you depends on what you’re looking for…

Learning Chinese

If your main goal is learning Chinese, then I can unequivocally recommend China, preferably the northeast.

Why? Well there are several factors that make learning Chinese in Taiwan harder. First of all, people there speak more English and they expect to speak more English with you if you’re white, black or anyone who doesn’t look like a Chinese speaker. Secondly, it’s not even clear if Mandarin is the primary language of Taiwan yet. A lot of people speak Hokkien (also known as Taiwanese or Minnanhua) as a first language. Finally, a lot of the people who speak very little English are older and also more comfortable speaking Taiwanese instead of Mandarin. The issue or regional dialects also comes up in southern China, but in the northeast, pretty much everybody is a native Mandarin speaker.

A related issue is the accent. I know from personal experience that the accent and dialect considered “standard” in Taiwan is hard for a lot of mainland Chinese to understand. This is problem since the vast, vast majority of Mandarin speakers are from mainland China. On the other hand, if you speak in an accent similarly to what’s on TV in China, you’ll be understood on both sides of the strait. Finally, the Chinese characters used in Taiwan are traditional characters, or fántǐzì (繁體字), whereas China and Singapore use simplified characters, or jiāntǐzì (简体字). This means that even if your Chinese study in Taiwan is successful, you may find yourself unable to understand simple words like “car” or “from” when you go to China.

This said, you can learn Chinese in Taiwan (or even back home) if you’re willing to work hard. Another minor plus in Taiwan is that there’s more interesting media to learn from. China has been catching up in that regard, though.

Quality of Life

Here, once again it’s no contest. Taiwan is amongst the best places to live on the entire planet. Life in general is convenient. The island is covered with 7–11s, and you can not only pay your bills there but you can pick up stuff you buy on the internet, too! The government has done an excellent job in terms of public transportation. Taxes are low. There’s universal health care that’s both top-notch and affordable! People are nice. I don’t just say that. I actually lost my wallet on a bus once and the driver found my student ID, called my school, got my number and returned it to me! I can’t even imagine that happening in China. The air quality in Taiwan may not thrill some of us used to pristine Rocky Mountain air, but it’s not too bad.

In China, there are also a lot of people that will be nice to foreigners they befriend. Unfortunately there are a lot more who will see you as an opportunity. I was never scammed in 7 years in Taiwan, but I got ripped off several times in my first week living in China! A lot of restaurants have 2 sets of menus… regular ones, and bilingual ones with higher prices! Racism and nationalism are also significant issues.

While there’s a lot of ignorant stereotyping in Taiwan of the “Can you use chopsticks?” variety, I’ve seen more cases of outright hatred here in China… especially towards the Japanese. Sometimes it works out in the foreigner’s favor, and sometimes it doesn’t. Since the concepts of race and nationality are often conflated, it can also make for some unpleasant situations for foreigners of Chinese decent (i.e. “ABCs”, “CBCs”, etc..). I don’t want to make it sound all bad, though. I really do like living in China. It’s just that it requires a thick skin. I’d say that you also need to have a bit more social awareness. You can do just about anything and do okay in Taiwan. In China, it’s easier to piss people off.

One plus for China is prices. As long as you don’t get ripped off, a lot of things can be had for half the price they would cost in Taiwan. Things that usually get all kinds of sin taxes, such as beer or cigarettes are insanely cheap in China! Less than half a US dollar for a beer at a local restaurant is common. A pack of smokes can be bought for about $1.20.

Salaries

This is a factor that has changed a lot in the last few years. When I got to Taiwan, English teaching salaries were two or three times as high as in China. Now, though… you can probably earn more in first-tier Chinese cities. In Taiwan, the salary for new teachers seems to stay around 600NT/hour, which is about 20USD/hour. In Beijing or Shanghai, the average is about 150RBM/hour which is about 24USD. Private classes usually start around 200RMB or 32USD per hour. I have friends making over 300RMB/hour. Housing prices have risen to about the same levels as Taipei, but everything else is cheaper. Purely in terms of money, China is now a far, far better choice. That’s not how it was a few years ago.

If you’re planning on a long term stay, it’s possible Taiwan is still better, though. In Taiwan, foreigners can start businesses such as foreign restaurants, clubs or even software companies relatively easily. In China, the only way to avoid having a Chinese partner with 51% control is to set up an extremely expensive Wholly Owned Foreign Enterprise. That’s a reasonable solution if you’re IKEA, but not if you’re starting your own business.

The Internet

This really belongs above under “Quality of Life”, but the internet in China is so fucked up that it deserves its own section. Everything cool since 2004 is blocked. Unless you pony up the money for a VPN, you can’t use Facebook. You can’t use Twitter. You can’t use Blogspot or WordPress. You can’t use YouTube. You can’t even access Google Docs or Dropbox. You can have Gmail, but it’s a bit unreliable (Update: nope, you don’t even get Gmail… hope your hotel reservation wasn’t sent there!) Basically, you’re back in 2003.

The bottom line

  • If you want to learn Chinese, go to China
  • If you want to live the good life, go to Taiwan
  • If you want to make money, go to China
  • If you the best of both worlds, go to China, learn Chinese well and then go to Taiwan to settle down!

If you want a more detailed comparison that also includes Korea and Japan, then check out my mini-guide: A Comparison of English Teaching Markets in Asia