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As both a language teacher and as a language student, I’ve been in to extensive reading for a long time. Back in 2004, when I first experienced the benefits for my students, there weren’t that many people talking about extensive reading online. I wrote about it on this blog and later used graded readers from Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press as a cornerstone of the curriculum I wrote for Pagewood.

All things considered, it was no great surprise when Cambridge UP reached out to me about work on an EFL reader. The shock was what they wanted. What they wanted for their graded reader was me.

Cheque from Cambridge University Press
They somehow found an old blog post I’d written. In it, I told how my ex-girlfriend from college had nudged me into taking an intensive Japanese course over a summer. In the past I had had no success with language learning, but she had already learned Spanish pretty fluently. During that summer, I was practically living in her apartment and I saw her using a much wider variety of language learning techniques than I’d ever considered.

I ended up with an A, the second highest grade in the course after her. I ended up going back to school, getting fluent enough in Japanese to largely understand TV and earning an entire BA in Japanese Language in only 2 years. After that, I ended up moving to Taiwan and learning Chinese. That was a long time ago, and I’ve since forgotten most the Japanese I knew and only maintained very occasional online contact with her. Still, I’m grateful. If you’re reading this, Diana, thank you! You changed the direction of my life and it’s been a lot more interesting as a result!

Sadly, Cambridge changed us into Australians and made us brother and sister in the retelling of my story. I don’t know if I’m at liberty to share the passage, but I got a good laugh out of hearing my own words leaping off the page at me with the diction of an Englishman! CUP offered me £100 and my name in the acknowledgments in exchange for using my story, so I figured why not?

I’ll definitely buy my grandmother a copy once I know which one it is. She loves that kind of thing.

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.

I came across this study this morning, and it boggles the mind.

Chronic radiation is defined as the radiation received slowly or in a low-dose-rate from various sources. It is completely different in nature to the acute gamma or neutron radiation generated from the atomic bomb explosions that occurred in Japan at the end of World War II. Tantalizing insights from people living in higher-than-normal background radiation areas in the world and from nuclear energy workers receiving excess radiation over long years have suggested that chronic radiation might paradoxically be beneficial to humans. However, in the absence of an epidemiological study, it has been impossible to conclude whether chronic radiation is harmless or indeed beneficial to human beings. Fortuitously, an incredible Co-60 contamination incident occurred in Taiwan 21 years ago, which provided the data necessary to demonstrate that chronic radiation is beneficial to human beings.

Chronic Radiation Is Beneficial to Human Beings by Yuan-Chi Luan

luan.chart

I hope I’ve been exposed to similarly beneficial radiation and or contaminants during my time here in Taiwan.

I’ve decided to start recycling older entries on this site. I don’t know too many people doing that, but there are a few reasons I find the idea appealing.

When I started writing on this site, I had a lot of things I wanted to write about, many of them already written in paper journals. There was a steady supply of things to write about, and I had a fair amount of time in which to write it. Now, though, things are different.

This blog already has nearly five hundred entries, some of which have been useful to me or interesting to my friends, but others which haven’t. Still other entries were very useful, but have limited shelf-life. It only makes sense to update them. I may be able to improve them, too.

I thought I’d seen everything in Taiwan’s English cram school market. Recently, I’ve had an experience that shows how naive I (still) am. I can’t really get into any details online, but here’s the gist: A school owner offered to sell her school’s students.

A school’s financial valuation

In general, when an English buxiban changes hands, the going rate is about the amount of tuition the students can be expected to pay in a single financial quarter. Thus, if a school is charging 3000NT per month and it has 200 students, then it would be worth 3000NT * 3 * 200 = 1.8 million NT. Location, curriculum and reputation obviously factor in as well, but these things are generally reflected in the school’s student numbers.

I can understand this. A school’s value is definitely dependent on the amount of tuition money it brings in, and while most schools lose some students as the result of replacing any teachers or making any other large changes, most students usually stay. Especially if the teachers stay, and the curriculum is left intact, it makes sense for students to continue. Why bother looking for another place to study if there’s a good chance that things will be fine?

Selling the students

I just can’t wrap my brain around this one. Say one owner decides to “sell” the kids studying at his or her school to some random other school owner who can’t attract students through conventional means. I suppose it’s possible to get them to go initially, if the first owner is pushy enough about it. If the first owner tells the children’s parents, “Sorry, we’re going out of business, but my buddy at another school will teach them for the rest of their semesters,” the parents would be justifiably upset, but they’ll probably take what they can get since they’ve already paid. The problem is, their kids will almost definitely get shortchanged educationally, and they’ll resent it. I can’t see that many staying long enough to ever pay tuition to the school owner who “bought” them.

I know education, even public education, is a business. But this is out there.

Last spring, I wrote about an “awesome blog” I’d found. The writer, John B., was an American who had just moved from Hangzhou to Shanghai. He wrote about language learning, cultural observations, and a number of other topics. In particular, he had written an inspiring post about his goal of learning five languages, an amusing account of The perils of being a preschool teacher, and an interesting post about this picture. To top it off, the layout of the blog was phenomenal. I loved it. Less than two months later, he destroyed the entire thing.
continue reading…

Soon after I moved back into the city this fall, Simon pointed out the “drunken” mosquitoes at the new school. Basically, the place is full of them, but they’re all sluggish and kind of confused looking. In my first month there, I even caught one trying to drink from my sock.

My new apartment is right down the street from the school and it, too, is infested by drunken mosquitoes. Especially while I was moving in, the sheer number of them was just maddening. One day, Yiru was over and had had about as much as she could take. Embarrassed about my place being so full of them, I knew it was time to act. I’m normally not much of a mosquito killer, but I half heartedly took a swing at one on the wall. THWACK! Into a splotch of blood it went! The thing had barely reacted to my swing. Thwack, thwack, slap, slap, clappity whack! Eight more were dead in less than fifteen seconds! Swiff! I caught another, using one hand! Within a minutes or so, the room was empty of them! For a life-long mosquito hater, this area is awesome!

Who could come up with something as whack as red bean flavored Kit Kats? Apparently, not the Taiwanese. No, no… the convenience stores have to import this stuff for us. Thank goodness for Japan.

Red Bean Kit KatRed Bean Kit Kat Hosted on Zooomr

I bought them out of morbid curiosity, but get this- they were good!

Last night, after learning that my favorite department store offers photos, I went in to have my ARC pictures taken. It must be the seventh or eighth time I’ve done so, and before it’s always been about the same. I sit down, some guy takes my picture, I come back an hour later and that’s that. This time was different. The guy spent literally 40 minutes mercilessly photoshopping my image. He lowered my right shoulder, he made the scar on my forehead disappear, he smoothed out the appearance of my stubble, he lightened my eyebrows from black to a slightly reddish brown, and he even made me 5 shades whiter. I really wish I had the original, but here’s the result.

photoshoppedphotoshopped Hosted on Zooomr

There’s something he did that made my eyes look glassy, too.

Brendan recently found a really interesting story titled Software does judge’s job in China [AFP via Yahoo! News].

BEIJING (AFP) – Judges are not usually at risk of losing their jobs to modern technology but that may be changing in China, where new software is handing down sentences automatically.

The Zichuan District Court in east China’s Shandong province has installed programs on judges’ computers that provide advice on the proper verdicts in criminal cases, the state-run China Daily reported.

It looks like the software only handles sentencing as opposed to verdicts. The original article is “量刑软件”会不会“腐败,” (”Can sentencing software be ‘corrupted?’”).

I’ve also noticed that Brendan has put up a translation of the most amusing poster I saw during my whole vacation on the mainland.