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Category: Observations

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been learning a bit more of the Taiwanese (AKA Minnan) language. One interesting thing I’ve recently discovered is that Minnan is one of the many languages included in the spaceship voyager’s greeting message.

I was listening to the greeting message NASA sent out of our solar system to see how much I could understand, and was very surprised to hear something understandable as Minnan at about 2m50s into it. After a quick check at NASA’s website, sure enough there was Amoy, the prestige Minnan dialect! Below is the Amoy clip from NASA’s page.

I never would have guessed this would be one of the languages we sent in our greeting, though in terms of the number of native speakers, I suppose it makes sense.

I’ve long been an occasional user of the Perapera-kun plug-in for Firefox. It’s pretty handy for quickly looking up Japanese words online.

Once it was installed, you could right-click on any web page, pick “perapera” from the right-click menu, and then hovering the mouse over any word bring up a pop-up display with both the English translation and the pronunciation of the word in question. The Chinese version worked pretty much the same way.

Unfortunately, the developer decided to merge the Chinese and Japanese plugins and abandon the old right click interface and instead add an icon at the bottom right hand corner of the screen (incidentally, the same spot I use for my pinyin plugin). Instead of text, the developer decided to use flags.

Here is the result:

Why a flag?

Using flags is a poor user design choice

Needless to say there are a lot of people in Taiwan who would rather not fly the PRC flag on their desktops. Though I’m not a very political person myself, I felt a bit uncomfortable with this on the computers at my office after the upgrades today. I doubt the secretary would much care for seeing it and while I could explain it to her, it could be more awkward if students see it on the computers.

An icon with the character 中 would be a better choice. Also, from a purely functional standpoint, I miss the right-click interface. It was much quicker than having to go to the lower right-hand corner of my browser and make two clicks.

Recently, I’ve been reading an interesting book called The 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss, and stumbled across his blog. In it, he had a video in which he and Kevin Rose that was primarily about things related to the business of start-ups. But then, surprisingly, in the last 5 minutes of the video, the conversation turned to learning Chinese. Skip the first two minutes of the video if you’re easily disgusted!

The 4th Random Episode from Glenn McElhose on Vimeo.

I thought those language learning ideas were pretty odd. In my own experience as a teacher and as a student, getting a lot of language input improves output, whereas focusing on speaking doesn’t necessarily improve one’s comprehension abilities. In fact, I recall at least unpleasant experience I had in Guatemala in which I was able to ask people for directions in a very fluent manner, but I couldn’t understand their responses. Steve Kauffman’s critique included the very same point:

2) Ferriss says that we should start with production of the language, not comprehension. I could not disagree more. You have to understand before you can speak. You have to get the language in you before you can produce anything in the language. I have seen his previous material where he places great importance on knowing the word order, and certain basic sentences, in different languages. To me the usage patterns in different languages are too varied, unpredictable and usually illogical to allow for any such formula approach. You just need to get used to the language with a lot of input, and work on comprehension.

That said, I have had very good results working on production in a few very narrow situations. The first is pronunciation. I still think the best way is to hear a lot of the language before trying to speak it (just as we do with our native languages), but focused drilling of the more difficult sounds can help quite a bit. I’ve seen it in my students’ pronunciation of “r” sounds in English, and I’ve seen it in my own pronunciation of the “ü” sounds in Mandarin. The other place where focused work on language production has helped me is with writing Chinese characters. I’m not sure that any amount of reading alone would give someone the ability to write characters. It would do wonders for the overall structure of their essays, reports or other writing, though.

I’ve recently found the Wikipedia Commons Stroke Order Project, via Sinosplice.

If you’ve checked out many online Chinese dictionaries or websites on learning Chinese, you’ve seen a variety of ways to present characters’ proper stroke order. Animated GIFs are a favorite, but they often fall flat in one important respect: they display each stroke in a single frame, often leaving the direction of the stroke somewhat unclear.

This is where the Wikimedia Commons Stroke Order Project impresses me: not only are the animated GIFs large and attractive, but they fluidly demonstrate the direction of each stroke. A nice example:

from the site:

Hello, and welcome to the Commons Stroke Order Project. This project aims to create a complete set of high quality and free illustrations to clearly show the stroke order of East Asian characters (hanzi, kanji, kana, hantu, and hanja). The project was started as there was none like it in terms of quality and it seems that it is the only one working on all three schools of Han character stroke order; simplified and traditional Chinese, and Japanese.

You are free to use the graphics we’ve made and welcomed to join us and contribute to our progress. It’s easy, you just have to follow the simple steps stated in our graphics guidelines.

Like John, I’m very impressed with the general look of the project, and very happy to see a free alternative to the various proprietary systems we’ve had to choose from before. I am curious how they’ll handle characters with variable stroke order, but I think most students will be happy being able to see an acceptable stroke order for whatever character they happen to be looking up.

There is one thing about this project that’s a bit depressing, though. That’s the near total neglect of traditional characters. According to the Wikimedia page, only three traditional characters have been added!

Bopomofo37/40 Done0
Hiragana Done Done0
Katakana Done Done0
Kangxi radicalsThese aren’t categorised separately. See the progress pages.
Traditional Chinese305
Simplified Chinese1,010181379

I’m used to traditional characters getting back of the bus treatment in textbooks and online resources for Chinese learners, but this is just sad. Who’s up for adding some Traditional characters to balance this out a bit?

How do you find the best? Whether it’s an apartment, a tenant, a job, or an employee, I don’t believe the answer is classifieds. As I wrote a few days ago, classifieds tend to aggregate the worst of what a market has to offer, since the poor offers remain while the good ones are promptly snapped up and removed from the listing.

Two really cheap apartments

Taking this thought a step further, the very best of what a given market has to offer likely never hit the classifieds to begin with. A great example would be my friend’s old apartment. It was in an absurdly expensive part of Taipei, had two rooms a kitchen and a great rooftop patio, all for just 14,000NT/month (~450USD). Why was it so cheap? For one thing, his landlady wasn’t very interested in the hassle of finding tenants. The reason Martin knew about the place at all was that he was friends with Rob, the previous tenant.

Martin isn’t the only one, either. I have a great deal on my place too, and I found it through a friend of a friend. I had just gotten out of work and ran into him at 7-11. He told me he was moving out, and he just happened to live in the area I wanted to move to. As soon as I heard the price, I pounced on it. Like many other great bargains, it never even got advertised before it was off the market.

The important factor in both anecdotes is that it helps to have the right friends.

A really skilled programmer

My college friend, Tom Kerrigan, was at least a couple standard deviations above the average programmer. He started working on a chess AI when he was 14 and by the time I met him as a freshman at UC Boulder, he was already earning significant royalties from it. Simply put, he was smart and applied himself. So, did his resume spend much time sitting around on job wanted boards? Not that I know of. Intel took him on as an intern before I even met him, and Microsoft snapped him up before he was out of school.

Really talented people never seem to stay on the market that long, unless by choice.

How I found our last two hires

In my last piece, I wrote about my unsuccessful use of classifieds to try to find a top notch EFL teacher. I did find two suitable teachers, though. One is teaching my Up&Away based curriculum for 1st and 2nd graders, and Simon hired the other to teach our advanced classes. Both of these guys have pretty much the exact skill set it would take to do our most demanding classes– they have experience with language learning and teaching, they speak and read Chinese pretty well and they’re eager and take pride in their work.

The power of social networks

We didn’t find them. They found us. Both of them did look at classifieds during their job search, just as I myself did in my first couple of years in Taiwan, but what brought them in was this blog. As a result, they each had a decent idea of what kind of place my school was and what was involved before they ever emailed me.

In a sense, they were self-selected to have at least somewhat similar ideas about teaching and work just by the fact that they didn’t close their browsers as soon as they got here.

In a similar way, this site is the entire reason I ever partnered with Pagewood to begin with. If it hadn’t been for my writing here, Simon never would have known who I was or we had a good friend* in common.

Concluding thoughts

  • Having a lot of friends helps
  • Keep in contact with like-minded people
  • Really great bargains don’t require much advertising

*It turns out that this good friend is the same friend who had the great apartment

As a partner of Pagewood English school, one of my responsibilities is finding top-notch EFL teachers. We’ve hired two this year, and it wasn’t nearly as easy as I had expected.

In years past, the standard methods of finding English teachers were primitive at best. In bigger cities, a lot of companies sent people to the youth hostels to put advertisements on their bulletin boards. In Jiayi, where I lived when I first moved to Taiwan at the end of 2002, strangers on the street occasionally tried to recruit me! Some larger schools advertised in news papers. Now, the most popular option is online classified boards.

The advantages of classifieds boards

I like that classified boards range from free to cheap. I also like their reach. Thousands of people can see a single posting. Best of all, online classifieds are easily searchable.

With these thoughts in mind, I wrote up an advertisement for teachers, posted it to a popular site, sat back and waited for the resumes to come pouring in. And come the did. Within a week, I must have read nearly a hundred resumes and/or emails in regards to the job posting.

The problem

Unfortunately, out of all of those resumes, only a handful were worth responding to, and not a single lead coming solely from the classifieds lead to an interview. Some of the applicants were living in other countries and hadn’t even started learning Chinese. Some had never taught before. Others were backpackers looking for a temporary job to refuel their bank accounts before continuing on a tour of Asia. In short, nearly the entire endeavor was a waste of time.

This lead me to reflect further upon the nature of classifieds in general. Back when I was a college student in the US, I had used a classified board to find high school students to paint houses and it was reasonably effective. Why was it that the classifieds were such a failure this time? Was it just an anomaly, just poor luck?

Classifieds are fundamentally flawed

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to think that very design of classifieds bring the most exposure to the least desirable people, jobs, or apartments. The best bargains are snapped up quickly, leaving the boards full of average to poor offers. The poorer listings remain available for much longer since nobody wants them and tend to dominate search results. Furthermore, poor employees are more likely to be fired and end up right back at the classified board, as will over-priced apartments or poor job offers.

Classifieds, by their very design, tend to concentrate the worst of what the market has to offer.

The reason my search for painters went well is that I was looking for unskilled employees with little experience to differentiate themselves from each other. The distribution of potential employees was relatively flat. Now, on the other hand, I’m looking for exceptional people whose skills aren’t very easily quantified. For this, online classifieds are worthwhile only if they’re free, and even then they’re a long-shot.

I’ve written before about the crazy English names people in Taiwan often go by. This year, though, there’s something entirely new for me.

I’ve had students before who often changed their English name, one of whom even went so far as to take a new one every month. However, I hadn’t ever had a student with an ambiguous name until recently.

He told me his name was Sinbad. But then he wrote Simba on his tape. I updated my records. The next week, he gave me his homework book. It said Sinbad. I changed his name back. Then he wrote Simba on his test book. This was odd enough that I pulled him aside after class and asked him what the heck his name was.

He said he wasn’t that picky. Maybe I should see if he answers to Sinclair.

Regular readers of this site will be aware of my feelings about the, uh… “creative” romanization schemes used in different parts of Taiwan. As a newcomer, it really did make life a bit more difficult not having any clue how to pronounce various street signs or MRT station names. It appears that the problem may be coming to an end. According to, the Taiwanese government has finally adopted Hanyu Pinyin (Chinese language source), the romanization scheme known simply as used by China as well as foreign students all over the world.

It’s been a long time since reading the characters commonly used on street signs has been much of a problem for me, but it is good to see that the era of haphazard romanization drawing to a close. I can’t say I’ll miss seeing a single street 中山 being labeled as “zhongshan”, “chungshan”, “chongsan” and “zongsan” at various points over a 20km stretch, either.

Related Entry: Tone Marks on Roadsigns

I have to say, this is a good week not to be back in Colorado.

It looks like bystanders are getting herded up, too.And what’s up with the storm trooper look?

Recently, I’ve found myself in a position to be hiring EFL teachers for the first time. While I did gain some management experience as the owner of a three crew house painting business back when I was trying to pay my way through college, this is mostly uncharted territory for me. With the house painting, training was brief, and I was only looking for short-term help throughout the summer months. Some degree of physical exertion was involved– carrying 30 gallon tubs of paint, climbing ladders, walking around on slanted rooftops and that sort of thing.

My current search for an EFL teacher, on the other hand, is nearly the opposite. I’m looking for a long-term hire, someone who will build up from part time into a full time position and stay at it for at least three years, there’s not much physical exertion involved at all, it’s far more intellectually demanding, and people skills are of primary importance.

The Applicants

I’ve started looking well in advance. We have some good teachers now, and they aren’t at a full schedule. It’s a good thing, too. This might be a lengthy search. I put up an ad both on this site and on a free Taiwan classifieds board, and the applications have been streaming in. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the people emailing me resumes have been woefully unqualified for the position. Of course, I’ll respect the privacy of all our applicants, but here are a few general examples:

People not even in the same country

It’s difficult for me to understand how someone living in Toronto who can’t speak Chinese at all, has no teaching experience and wants to “try Taiwan” could see himself as a good match for the following:

“Need a dedicated, professional Chinese-speaking N. American teacher. Long-term position.”

People unwilling to meet stated requirements

I can understand how someone who is a little weak in one area, but motivated would take a shot and hope for the best. An applicant with weaker Chinese skills could study intensively prior to opening classes and make it. Someone who only has 6 months of prior teaching experience rather than a year, might be able to make up for that inexperience through hard work. But if an ad says extensive training is involved and the applicants have to be willing to work Monday through Saturday, it’s a bit unreasonable to apply just for one class time slot and be unwilling to train first!

Short-term mercenaries

To an extent, I can understand why a prospective employee would want to get as much money as possible for as little work as possible from the very beginning. In general, everyone wants the best deal they can get. I suspect that the reason so many people looking for this job are looking for the best short-term deals they can get are due to the low-trust nature of the job market for teaching English in Asia. Local message boards are full of horror stories about bosses who promise the stars and renege once they’ve got leverage over their teachers. I’m sure that many of the stories are true, but it’s so bad that many foreigners I know living in Taiwan discount job bonuses completely when they evaluate potential schools. If people think the raise and bonus system is some sort of scam, they won’t be willing to put in the work necessary to get started. Maybe in a year or two, when I have a teacher making well in excess of 100k/month and telling his friends, then recruitment will be easier. For now, sadly, there isn’t much I can do to make applicants trust me.

The Interviews

So far, everyone who has actually come in for an interview has been a pretty good candidate. Obviously, no one has all the necessary skills before training begins, but I’m happy with the people I’ve seen so far. More than anything, they seem to have a genuine interest in education.

The difficult part will be finding someone looking for a long-term position. Most EFL teachers are understandably cautious about taking a multi-year position.