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Trying Pimsleur Cantonese in Hong Kong

Over the past few years, I’ve heard a number of really positive reviews of Pimsleur language learning programs. Some of my friends have even lent me their Mandarin or Japanese packages. At the time it was hard for me to see the point. I had already learned the vocabulary being introduced, half the audio was English, and it seemed kind of weird. I filed Pimsleur under “stuff that works for people not like me” and put it out of my mind.

Then, not too long ago, I had a chance to see the results first hand. My friend Ben made some Japanese acquaintances and decided to give Pimsleur a shot, largely due to the recommendation of another friend. I saw him the next day, he told me he’d worked through an hour or two and then proceeded to ask me in Japanese, where I was from and if I could speak English! The thing that really impressed me was his pronunciation. To my ears at least, it sounded even better than his Chinese pronunciation! Considering he’d spent years living in Taiwan and using Chinese daily for work, that impressed the heck out of me. Afterwords, I thought a bit more about it. Pimsleur is essentially a spaced-repetition listening and mimicking program.

Arrival in Hong Kong

Before getting to Hong Kong, I’d only worked through the first three hours of Pimsleur Cantonese, but I did find quite a few chances to use what I knew. Furthermore, people in the airport answered my Cantonese in full-speed Cantonese I couldn’t understand! That’s usually a sign that your accent isn’t too far off. Obviously, it’s not ideal for communication in any given moment, but fortunately I knew how to say “My Cantonese isn’t that good” in Cantonese and switch to Mandarin. It’s not much, but even such minor successes gave were very, very motivating!

Over the next couple of days, I continued with the Pimsleur and also found I was picking up a lot of vocabulary from hearing people’s replies. Individually any given reply may not have made sense the first dozen times I heard it, but it did sink in with repetition. I don’t know how much help being a Mandarin speaker and a (poor) Taiwanese speaker gave me, but there were definitely a lot of things that sounded really similar.

After Hong Kong

By the time I left, I was able to order simple drinks, order a value meal at KFC (yay!) and talk to people a little. It wasn’t a lot, but for only spending a single week in Hong Kong, it was far, far better than I had expected. Despite my small vocabulary, locals were shocked with my canned Pimsleur sentences. One didn’t even believe that I was a tourist and not a longer-term resident! The best ego boost I got was after leaving HK, when I was chatting with a guy from Guangzhou. He said (in Mandarin), “Your Cantonese accent… it sounds like a Hong Konger.” I had been certain he was going to say laowai! I guess Pimsleur must have hired their staff from HK, not Guangzhou.

I have no illusions about the level of my Cantonese (low-beginner), but it was the fastest start I’ve ever gotten with a new language. If anything, this experience has reinforced to me just how much pronunciation matters. Especially for a clearly foreign-looking person in Asia, your pronunciation has a huge impact on how much real language input you get and how much of a hassle it is to get it. Back when I first started studying Chinese in Taiwan, I encountered numerous people who steadfastly insisted on using English with me all the time, often even it made for more difficult communication. After improving past a certain point, I almost entirely stopped running into those people. This was more correlated with improving my accent and losing some of the mainland curled R sounds than it was with vocabulary gains. Similarly, I’ve heard numerous people complain that getting HK people to speak in Cantonese is like pulling teeth if you’re a westerner, but I didn’t experience it at all. Instead, it was me asking them to switch to another language because I couldn’t understand them.

If I ever decide to learn Thai or Korean, I’ll probably start with Pimsleur.

I’ve just recently arrived in Hong Kong for the first time. It’s not at all what I’d expected from all of the HK movies I’ve seen, or even from what my friends have told me.

The Airport

The airport in Hong Kong was fantastic. It was very clean and new-looking. I found the immigration and security processes quicker and freer of hassle than those when I visited LA International Airport last year, and there was a lot of help for a newly arrived foreigner such as myself. The tourist information desk was great. Not only were they familiar with the hostel where I planned to stay, but they were able to give me directions to get there cheaply by bus instead of taking another train. A++!

Transportation

Actually, I found the public transportation very much the same as it is in Taiwan. There’s an MRT, but they call it an MTR. There’s an Easy Card (悠遊卡) for the subway and buses, but in Hong Kong, it’s called an Octopus Card (八達通). As in Taiwan, the card can also be used at convenience stores. In short, the transportation is excellent albeit a bit pricier than in Taiwan.

Prices

I didn’t find prices anywhere near as bad as I’d been lead to expect. From what people had told me, I’d had the impression that everything in HK would cost huge sums of money and I’d burn through my entire savings in a single week. The reality was much more mundane. The subway, buses and taxis were all a bit more expensive than Taiwan, but by less than a factor of two.

Food was the same for local stuff, cheaper for Chinese food of varieties hard to find in Taiwan, the same for fast food and ridiculously expensive in western style restaurants and pubs. 7-11 seemed about the same, but had more expensive options (e.g. Starbucks coffee for sale right next to the Mr. Brown). Beer in HK was cheaper.

Housing was definitely a bit more, but it was hard for me to judge since I was staying in a youth hostel. I paid about $150HKD (~$19US) for a small room and my own small bathroom. That in Kowloon, but less than a 5 minute walk from the subway.

All in all, I’d say that HK is a bit more expensive than Taipei, but you could spend far more if you love western-style pubs.

English and Mandarin

Unlike what I’d been told, most people in Hong Kong actually speak pretty bad English. There are more westerners there than in Taiwan, but of the locals I’d say that less than one in fifty really spoke good English. The travel agent’s English was far worse than that of those in Taiwan in areas with similar numbers of foreigners. The clerks at a lot of western stores and restaurants knew the English they needed to sell their specific wares or food, but it wasn’t universal and that was usually about it. On the whole, I’d say a higher percentage of people in HK are capable of the bare-minimum levels of English than in Taiwan, but it’s certainly not like you won’t be isolated from the society if you’re a mono-lingual English speaker.

Mandarin on the other hand, is pretty widespread. About three quarters or so of the people I met in HK spoke much better Mandarin than English. It was still heavily accented, and mixing in Cantonese words here and there wasn’t uncommon, but communication wasn’t a big problem for short conversations. I even met some westerners there who studied Mandarin, but not Cantonese! I’m not sure I’d have made that choice though. Cantonese is clearly the language of the land.

Haggling!

I was kind of surprised to find that haggling is so common in such a rich, well developed territory! I bought some hair clippers at a pretty nice looking electronics store. Originally, after seeing the price of $285HKD, I decided to wait until getting to Guangzhou to buy them. I told the clerk I’d have to think about it and started heading for the door. At that point, he chased me down and said I could buy them for $250. My movement towards the door hadn’t even been a negotiating tactic, but I guess he took it as one. I’d never ever try bargaining at that sort of store in TW, but after realizing the price was negotiable, I came back with a lower offer and the game was on!

Annoying Salespeople

On my way home to my hostel, a charming Indian man came walking up to me with a gigantic face-splitting smile. “This shahrt!”, pointing to his admittedly slick-looking button-up dress shirt. I was a little shocked and didn’t react. “These trousahs! I can make a suit for you!”, he continued with the same grin.

I pointed to my shorts and T-shirt and said, “I’m not a suit guy!”

“Come on! Just let me show you something…”, he continued. I have to say the salesman exuded charm and somehow made a tailor’s shop sound like the most exciting, wonderful place in the world. I smiled to myself and continued on walking. It wasn’t so easy to continue smiling after the third or fourth Indian guy stepped out in my path with the same offer, after a differently accented guy tried to get me to buy a watch, or especially after the streets filled with self-promotional prostitutes.

I don’t remember where I read it, but I once read an English writer who claimed that the fastest, simplest measure of the civility of a place was whether you had to hail a taxi or if the taxi drivers all hailed you. Hong Kong doesn’t do well by that measure.

For Mandarin speakers, 尖沙咀 is a terrible name!

I was staying near the Tsim Sha Chui (尖沙咀) MTR station. As an aside doesn’t that name look terrible to a Mandarin speaker!!? 尖沙 is pronounced jiānshā, which is 姦殺 or “rape and murder”. I don’t know what’s going on at that station, but it sure sounds bad!

World Cup Madness

What a difference from Taiwan! There probably aren’t many places more crowded and less conducive playing a game that requires lots of space and well-conditioned runners, but these guys love it here! I was in a huge mall called iSquare in the 尖沙咀 area, and they had a big screen up for people to watch for free and it looked like about a thousand people were crowded in the area watching a game! I could hear their moans of agony on missed goals from the street outside!

Aggressive, but friendly people

I’ve definitely seen more aggressiveness in general in Hong Kong than I’m accustomed to, but people were still pretty friendly. It may be a by-product of not working, but I found it surprisingly easy to meet people. I liked HK, except for the harassment from salespeople and I’m sure I’ll come back in the future.

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 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.

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?

I made a thoroughly unpleasant first visit to Boston today. You know, I was totally predisposed to like the place, too. I loved the accents in Good Will Hunting. My college buddy’s girlfriend who visited from Harvard was awesome. Just their stand on Pop vs. Soda vs Tawnick is sweet.

The problem is, the roads suck. In trying to get to the Taipei Economic Office, I spent hours drivingriding around and around, never more than a couple of miles away, and yet not being able to find the @#$@!* place until after they had closed at 4:30. A nice grid, like Toronto, would have been ideal. I could have managed a diagonally aligned street system like Denver‘s, though. Any system would have been nice. Boston doesn’t seem to have one, though. It’s almost as if the layout was designed by a bunch of drunkards pushing oxcarts around. Oh wait. It was.

Beyond the general madness of its design, of course it’s a pain in the ass just by virtue of being big. It’s filled with one way streets, pedestrian only streets, the parking sucks, and it’s freezing. With the subway and all, I’m sure it’s a nice place to explore on foot in the summer, but I didn’t make it to the Taiwanese “embassy” until 4:45, at which time they were already closed. That means borrowing Sonia’s car and making another 3 hour trip back there tomorrow.

Solar Power, it’s not just for granola-chomping hippies anymore. Solar power generation has been increasing exponentially for decades, but as futurist Raymond Kurzweil once said, nobody notices exponential growth until it hits the “knee of the curve“. Fortunately for us and our planet, it nearly has.

Between 2000 and 2004, the increase in worldwide solar energy capacity was an annualized 60 percent. Since 2005, production of photovoltiacs has grown somewhat more slowly due to temporary shortages in refined silicon. Still, technological progress has been relentless. In 1990, each watt of solar power from an array cost $7.50. By 2005, average prices in the US were nearly halved, at $4.00. Today, the price stands at about $3.60, even with the refined silicon shortages. Mass produced cells typically have an efficiency of about 17.5%, with some at the very high end achieving 30% efficiency. Meanwhile, designs already exist to take take advantage of nano-engineering and shave the cost per watt of solar cells to a tenth of their current level.

As solar power has been getting cheaper and more refined by the year, oil costs have been going up. It still isn’t to the point at which solar power as cost efficient as traditional methods, but the trend is definitely in that direction. In some areas in which power companies pay a premium on energy sold back to them from residential customers who generate their own solar power, the adaption of this technology has been dramatic.

Last year, global solar power spending topped fifty billion dollars, with Germany and China leading the way forward. Each country spent over ten billion dollars on solar power, and saw dramatic increases in deployment, far ahead of what their governments had expected. Germany leads all countries in solar power generation:

” There are now more than 300,000 photovoltaic systems in Germany — the energy law had planned for 100,000.

Spread out across the country, they are owned by legions of homeowners, farmers and small businesses who are capitalising on the government-backed march into renewable energy.

By tapping the daylight for electricity — which power companies are obliged to buy for 20 years at more than triple market prices — they are at the vanguard of a grassroots movement in the fight against climate change. “

Planet Ark: Cloudy Germany Unlikely Hotspot for Solar Power

China is becoming both a top user and maker of the technology:

“The technological prowess of China is growing a lot faster than people in the West reckon,” said Andrew Wilkinson, co-manager of a fund at the investment bank CLSA Emerging Markets that invests in Asian clean-energy industries.

Suntech’s 3,500-strong work force at four sites in China produces photovoltaic cells, the delicate, hand-sized black silicon panels that can transform sunlight into electricity.

At a time when China’s Communist leaders are trying to turn lumbering state companies into nimble global competitors, Suntech already goes head-to-head with Japanese and European rivals in foreign markets. Shi says that all of Suntech’s technology comes from its own labs.

International Herald Tribune:
Solar power pays off for Chinese entrepreneur

Interestingly, China is also undertaking an ambitious project to spread the use of solar power in Africa. They’re both training technicians and investing in joint-ventures in undeveloped countries.

[BEIJING] Chinese scientists are to train 10,000 technicians from African and other developing countries in the use of solar energy technologies over the next five years.

Describing the plans, Xi Wenhua, director of both the Institute of Natural Energy (INE) and the China Solar Energy Information Centre, told SciDev.Net the training will include programmes on small-scale solar power generation and solar-powered heating and irrigation.

Using funding from the central and provincial governments, the INE — part of the Gansu Provincial Academy of Sciences — has established an eight-hectare training facility powered entirely by solar power. The facility, which is the largest in Asia, has trained more than 400 people from 70 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America since 1991.

Science and Development Network:
China to train developing nations in solar technologies

Raymond Kurzweil’s prediction that by 2030 we’ll be able most of our projected energy costs at that time through solar power still sounds bold. I sure wouldn’t want to bet against him, though. He’s the guy who predicted both Deep Thought’s defeat of Gary Kasparov and the mapping of the human genome 15 years before they happened.

Related Articles:
Worldwatch Institute: Solar Energy Booming in China
Japan Times: Japan cedes solar power lead to Germany; China closing gap

Disclosure: I own shares of Suntech Power (NYSE: STP), and much of this piece is based on things I learned researching the company.

The gloom in the air is almost palatable. For years now, most Taiwanese people I’ve known have not just been glum, but been down right pessimistic about the economy.

In one sense, it seems irrational. While Taiwan’s GDP growth since 2000 has been very poor, much of that can be attributed to currency fluxuations. If one looks only at PPP-adjusted 2006 data, Taiwan managed a very respectable 4.6% growth. So, why are people so gloomy? The answer is wage stagnation. Reuters reported on this:

“If salaries in Taiwan continue to stay at current levels, it will encourage white collar workers, such as managers, to go to China,” said Chou Ji, an economics professor at Shih Hsin University.

In the first eight months of the year, Taiwan’s average monthly salary rose 1.84 percent from a year earlier to T$46,646 (US$1,431), just a tad higher than inflation of 0.62 percent during the same period, statistics agency data showed.

During the same period, the average wage in South Korea rose 5.6 percent to 2.6 million won (US$2,830), Korea’s Labour Ministry said.

WAGE STAGNATION

“What you see is that wage growth in Taiwan is very weak,” said Peter Sutton, Taiwan’s head of research at CLSA, adding that the island’s strong exports were not translating into a rise in wages. “There is much more optimism in the other countries.”

“The Taiwan exports sector is really strong, but the domestic sector is protected and … has very little foreign participation. So domestic consumers face much higher costs.”

CLSA said in a survey of income earners that 29 percent of respondents in Taiwan saw their income fall and 42 percent saw no increase in the past 12 months, with 32 percent saying that they were worse off than 10 years ago.

Reuters: Salary stagnation stifles Taiwan’s middle class

The average Taiwanese wage is about half that of the average Korean wage. Just a few years ago, Taiwan was ahead and now it’s fallen so far behind. Worse still, 32 percent of Taiwanese people report that they are worse off than they were 10 years ago. No wonder the average guy on the street is gloomy.

One of the great things about teaching EFL is seeing the different responses of each class to the same material. My old Monday/Thursday class finished reading Pocahontas (the 45 page Oxford Bookworms version) a bit back, and they enjoyed it quite a bit. One student had a few difficulties with all the new words, and the Indian names in particular, but even she got into it by the end. The interesting thing with this class, though, was their reaction to the story.

Most classes talk about how they think it was great that Pocahontas lived with in Jamestown and learned English, or how it was exciting that she went to England, or how John Smith should have married her, or how the Indians should have killed the English settlers. Not this class, though. Nope. All they wanted to talk about was how bad John Smith was. And not for how he handled the Algonquin, either. Nope. He was veeeerry bad because he went back to England while nearly dying from an illness and didn’t send a letter to Pocahontas, who was only 14 and didn’t know how to read yet anyway. What an insensitive jerk!

I’ve recently discovered that all the comments I’ve made on Reddit.com for over a month have been invisible to the rest of the world. I had no idea, though, because reddit makes it look like they’re visible by displaying them to me while I’m logged in.

Reddit Deceived Me 2

If you click through to Zooomr, I’ve set up some portals on the picture that illustrate what I’m talking about. On the left browser, I’m logged in as “xiaoma”, and my comment is visible. On the right side, I’m not logged in, and my comment is mysteriously missing.

I knew I’d been spending a bit much time reading and “participating” in reddit comment threads recently… but when I found out that all that time was spent in vain, it felt like I’d been punched in the gut. All this time I thought I was engaging with a discussion with netizens the world over, but instead, I’ve been typing in a vacuum.

Reddit, I used to be your biggest fan, but now I feel unclean even linking to you. Either your code is buggy, or you banned my account (except for my submission that hit #1). I can’t even fathom why my account would have been gagged, either. I’ve been reading through my comment history and both less profane and more thought out than most of what I see in the comment threads. You need look no further than the profane comment right below mine that wasn’t censored to see what I’m talking about.

Update 10/13/2007: It appears that Reddit is up to some other kinds of “covert” censorship.

Update 10/14/2007: My comments have mysteriously re-appeared, and this story has equally mysteriously been deleted from Reddit.

Update 10/21/2007: Now, reddit shows all my comments as “deleted”… unless I’m logged in, in which case it looks like nothing’s wrong. This whole business of trying to deceive the user is ridiculous.

Update 10/31/2007: The comments are visible again.