Scribbles in the Sand

All About My Life in Taiwan

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Lang-8 and FluentFlix, Mandarin Progress Report Aug 2012


I’ve recently  come back to my mandarin studies after a bit of a lackadaisical hiatus which didn’t have much focus.

I’m now treating the language like a Venn diagram of interconnectedness.  Previously, reading and writing were less important, with vocabulary acquisition and speaking (attempting to) being more of a central focus.

However, a holistic understanding of many small quanta is better at reinforcing things you’ve learnt. New vocab soon gets forgotten unless it’s strengthened by seeing it used elsewhere.

Recently I’ve been using Lang-8 to improve my reading and writing, and well as boost my syntax skills. This multi- language website is a place to write a short paragraph in your target language and have natives comment and correct your work.  You then give back to the community and correct other people’s work.  I’ve found that if you make friends and happily correct a small bunch of people with good feedback, they are very willing and quick to help you with yours.  This website is very good because it encourages you to think in that language and use words in sentences, and grammar structures which were previously just a series of rules.

When I say writing, I don’t mean picking up a brush, scrapping some ink on a rock and diluting it with water to make some lovely characters. I am a firm believer that the written language is less important for a 老外 and has very few practical uses in this age of technology. Perhaps somewhere along the road I will learn stoke order etc, but for now, to be able to recognise characters is so much more important.

For instance, I don’t know how to write thank you in chinese, but as soon as I see the characters written down I know instantly. Likewise, if I want to use pinyin to input it into the computer I just type xie xie. To actually hand write these characters would take a decade for me. 謝謝

I’m also lucky enough to be using the FluentFlix beta. This new website shows YouTube videos in Chinese, but underneath has a scrolling flashcards of whats being said in Chinese (simplified so far),Pinyin, and English. Hover over a word and it gives you examples and lets you add them to your flash card database.  This is quite a relaxing way to study because it requires little effort to listen to native speakers talk about a huge variety of topics and have easy access to translations, flashcards, example sentences etc.

I’ve completely neglected my vocabulary learning software Anki, and need to go back over previously learnt HSK decks to check they’re not all lost in the ether of my brain.

I am in two minds of whether or not to just devote a year of my life in the mountains as a monk, learning chinese 14 hours a day and become truly proficient in a small amount of  intensive study, compared to a long drawn out amount of itty bitty studying. I could prepare tea, sweep leaves, meditate, and learn kung fu at the same time.

P.s  I Just watched the Taiwanese movie, you are the apple of my eye,  那些年,我們一起追的女孩 and I thoroughly enjoyed it, 8/10 drumsticks.  Other Taiwanese Movies to watch include Monga, Cape No. 7, and Seediq bale




Fun website for learning languages

I’ve recently got back into using Memrise to mix up my learning resources.  I discovered it many months back, but didn’t particularly use it because I gave up learning Chinese characters in place of trying to learn the spoken language.  Anyway, I decided to have another look at it, after a friend raved about how fun it was.  She is currently on a flight to Taipei to study at the university, (check her blog here).

The website is very attractive, and offers many languages including Chinese, French, Spanish, German and Italian.  I recommend you give it a go.  It’s free and fun.  Basically, each new language has its own garden.  First you pick a course (first 1000 words, beginner french etc) and each day plant a few new flowers (words). Each time you learn a new word it provides a nifty mnemonic to help you consolidate it.  In the case of Chinese* each characters morphs into a user-submitted picture.

With other languages, there is a quick paragraph with a memorable story, so from memory, having looked at it only once last night, I remember that the spanish for boring is “aburrido”.  The mnemonic was that it would be very boring having to eat a burrito every day for breakfast”.  The word for stop is parar, so we imagine paratroopers landing on a road, causing you to slam the brakes on your car.  I can remember all of the 10 of the words I learnt last night, and I only saw them once.  Anyway, once you’ve planted a new word, you get tested on it in several ways.  The software determines how well you know each word, and gives you a graphic representation in the form of a potted plant. New words are tiny seedlings.  Known, easy, words are fully grown. Any old words that are in need of revision are shown to wilt.  These plants get flagged up for watering.

I had a quick look at the other languages offered, and found learning new words to be incredibly easy in comparison to Chinese.  The reason is that hardly any words overlap in English or Chinese apart from things like brands.  However, 30% of English is made up of French, and words in many european languages overlap significantly.  It is also easy, as in the case of the above example to make a quick memorable story, such as parar sounding like paratrooper.  Sadly, mandarin is much harder to do this, and it takes a lot of lateral thought to make a mnemonic.  For example, the word for strange is Qí  guài.  To internalise this, I have assigned each of the four tones with specific colours.  the last word sounds like “why” with a g at the front.  Now, there are no english words that come close to this, but fi said it sounded like Jerry maguire.  So I had to shut my eyes and make a mnemonic.  Tom Cruise doing tai chi which is strange.  Now because each word requires a specific tone, I have to assign this visual picture with colours, so Tom Cruise is wearing all red clothing, and is doing tai chi in a green field. As you can see, this is an extremely lateral way of getting to the word for strange, but otherwise, this weird sounding word goes in one ear and it forgotten within seconds unless you find a way of internalising it.  Each word has to have an equivalent mnemonic which is extremely hard to make and often is so intangible that despite knowing the image in your head, can’t relate it to what it means in english.  This is a sign of a bad mnemonic.  The best ones usually involves something really weird, sexual, or rude. Once you’ve used the word  Qí  guài and heard it in the wild, you don’t need to think about tom cruise each time, but initially, it is integral to make theses storys else it is soon forgotten.

Anyway, I recommend you give memrise a quick go, and see how many new plants you can grow and keep watered.

Laurie has just begun using it and seems to be having fun, and has learnt about 15 new characters in as many minutes.  I’m definitely going to learn spanish after chinese. It will be so much easier to learn in comparison, added to this all the knowledge i’ve gained on how best to learn a language.


My Mandarin Plateau

I’ve reached a plateau in my chinese learning which has made me very disheartened.    At the beginning it was easy to see improvements because each new word learnt increased my knowledge two-fold.  Now i’ve reached a point when i don’t feel very confidant in having conversations despite knowing quite a lot of words.  At the beginning I was using Rosette Stone which is a tedious programme but does give you the very basics of the language quite well. Other learning resources included reading language blogs, listening to ChinesePod podcasts, and using the flashcard software Anki recently.

The past few weeks i’ve been going through learning word lists provided by the Chinese government for the chinese proficiency exam, the HSK.  There are 6 levels, the first level is 150 words, HSK2 is 300, and HSK3 is 600.  HSK 6 is something ridiculous like 5000 words. Anyway, i’ve learnt the words from HSK1 and 2 (not the characters) and am most of my way through HSK3, but i’ve reached the point of knowing many words but not knowing how to use them in a sentence, and getting frustrated when i forgot this endless amount of similar sounding words (there are only 400 different phonemes in chinese!). Even if a person knew lots of pages from an english dictionary, they would be  no better at trying to speak the language.

Now i’ve reverted back to listening to Chinese Pod and have begun memorising the dialogues so that I remember sentences rather than words. This is my goal for the next few weeks.  Sadly, the role of an english teacher is to speak English, so learning on the job isn’t great.  I can happily introduce myself in mandarin, and get through most situations providing i have my dictionary app for unknown nouns, but as soon as someone asks me something at high speed, i’m often dumbstruck and have to apologies, despite probably knowing how to answer the question if only I understood what the question was.

Added to this annoyance of not being a fluent god by now is that fact that the polyglot blogger Benny from (check it out) has made it his most recent mission to learn mandarin in just 3 months like his 8 other languages.  His updates on quickly becoming fluent are very interesting, but i can’t help feel quite annoyed by his progress and annoyed at my lack of.  However, I must rationalise this and realise that it is his job to learn and write about languages, and spends around 12 hours a day doing so,thus, i shouldn’t beat myself up too much.  I know everything about how to learn chinese,  but am failing to put that knowledge into practical results.   Hopefully my new goal of learning sentences, and grammar will be more fruitful.  I must also remember than before I came, i knew absolutely nothing, and had initially made an impressive start.  Now i just need to find a way of overcoming by current stagnation.  I know I should just throw myself out there and talk to ask many people as possible but this is something easier said than done.



How Time Works

It’s interesting how engrained time is within the language you speak, and how we take for granted our concept of time. When referring to past events, we often point behind us.  Likewise, if asked to lay cards out with temporal events on them, it is likely they would go from left to right, with the future being rightmost.  When teaching english, it is common to draw horizontal timelines on the board to teach tenses, marking the present as somewhere in the middle and the past to the left.  Learning a new language opens your eyes to how other people think, and how stupid your own language can be.  Today I learnt that the Chinese concept of time is vertical rather than horizontal.  What I mean by this is that If you were to give the same set of event cards to a speaker of Chinese, it is likely they would put the oldest even at the top, furthest away from them, and the newest event at the bottom, close to their chest. I have also read that Hebrew speakers would order the cards from right to left.  This all stems from how the language is written. Chinese is commonly written from top to bottom, therefore, past events are closest to the top.  Likewise, Hebrew is written from right to left, so old events are to the right.  There are even some tribes that have no concept of time at all, or regard it very differently to all of us.  The same experiment on a certain tribes-person found that placing cards from oldest to newest depended on where they sat relative to the sun, always going from east to west, no matter what direction they faced, and consequently changed the position of the cards to respect this. This shows that no only do they have a more circular approach to time, with the rising and setting of the sun, but also a very impressive internal compass.

We might say, “good times are ahead”, or “the bad times are behind us”.  However, Chinese is ordered vertically, so they say “The month above” 上個月 for last month, and the month below 下個月  for next month.  This is very confusing until you realise the vertically arrangement of time.  Another confusing aspect is this.  The word for “in front of” is 前面 (qian mian) and “behind” is 後面 (hou mian).  The root terms qian and hou are also used as time particles, so “the future” is yi hou  (behind) and the past is yi qian  (in front).  Thus, when referring to the future, you would normally point behind you.  I managed to get my head round this by imagining i’m standing on the vertical time line looking to the past.  The past has already happened so you can see what you’ve done, therefore it is “in front of you”.  The future is unknown, so I imagine walking backwards (down the line) and and thus can imagine it as “behind” me.

On an unrelated but interesting note, when Western people refer to themselves they point towards their heart, whereas the majority of people here would point to the nose.  Strange.

P.s. this picture has nothing to do with the post but might get people to click my blog more.

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Dabbling in Calligraphy

Fiona left for Sydney, Australia on Wednesday for Gary and Ellie’s wedding. I’m very jealous at it’s currently summer there and here it is grey and very windy, much like the UK at the moment.

Before she left on her antipodean adventure, I had a go at some calligraphy with her. Laurence bough me a children’s set for my birthday which consist of 3 brushes, a felt mat, a china brush holder, and a stick of black rock which turns out to be ink if you scrape it on a rock for long enough.  This leads into this (very) brief introduction to Chinese writing.

There are over 10,000 chinese characters (Hanzi).  These characters are divided into 6 distinct categories with the majority being phono-semantic compounds (82%), indeogrammic compounds(13%), pictograms(4%) and Ideograms (<1%).

Initially, the written language consisted of basic pictograms, representing things like water and fire. As the language developed, so did the complexity of the writing system. An example of this is water (shuǐ) which started off as something that looked like the flow of water.  However, over time it evolved into the current character which is quite different from its origins.

A similar thing happened with “person” (rén) and nowadays kind of looks like a person walking sideways.

Characters that often re-occur in the language are reduced to simplified component parts known as radicals. For example, any word associated with water (physically or metaphorically), will have the water radical added to the character. This combination of a radical next to another phone makes up the majority of words in the chinese lexis (phono-semantic compounds). Radicals are also used as the main way to look up words in dictionary.

The ‘radicalisation’ of water is –> and can be seen in the three following characters.

海 ocean (Hǎi)
江 River (Jiāng)
湖 Lake (Hú)


There is a difference between the writing in the Peoples Republic of China and that written in Hong kong, Macau, and Taiwan (the “Republic of China” confusingly, but I’m not going to get into cross-straight relations…for now).

China uses a simplified writing system which became officially used in the 70’s and 80’s, following the communist revolution of ’49.  Simplification acts to reducing the strokes requires to write a character, with the hopes of increasing literacy rates across the provinces. However, literacy rates are higher in places which use traditional chinese, and is more likely to be because of the education system rather than the difficulty of the words. Here are some examples of the simplification of characters:

  • 無, 无, nothing
  • 鳥, 鸟, bird
  • 電, 电, electricity
  • 買, 买, buy
  • 開, 开, open

The arguments for and against simplification are too many to list, and an in-depth review can be read here. Traditional Chinese, despite being more complex, is more aesthetically pleasing (if you’re thinking of getting a tattoo) and it seems that if you know traditional chinese you can read simplified, but not vice versa.

Anyways, here is my go at a character which I think means eternity, and is a good one to learn because it contains many integral stokes.  It is meant to be a very soothing, relaxing process but I got easily frustrated and agitated like a monkey on a keyboard.


Learning Mandarin Part II- Bopomofo

Perhaps this should have been the first thing I learnt when starting Mandarin, but hindsight is 20/20 and the more I delve into language blogs and tips on learning, the better my framework becomes for learning.

So today’s post is on initials and finals.  What are these I hear you say? There are plenty of pages devoted to them, but here I will just introduce them briefly.  Mandarin, as we know, is a tonal language, and each character depicts one word.  Each word is only ever one syllable long, and complex words are a composite of two or more characters, and hence syllables.

Each word consists of an initial and a final, much like english words are composed of consonants and vowels.  Initials are the noise at the head of the word, and there are 21 in total.  Anyone familiar with Chinese might have head of Bopomofo, which is chanted in classrooms throughout Asia. Bo/po/mo/fo (the first 4 initials) is also known as Zhuyin and is the phonetic alphabet for chinese, and is also the main input method for computers and phones in Taiwan.

By combining one of the 21 initial symbols and one of the 16* finals with a tone, the computer then gives you an option of possible words based on the likelihood of the use.

The Initials are as follows

  1. ㄅ,b
  2. ㄆ,p
  3. ㄇ,m
  4. ㄈ,f
  5. ㄉ,d
  6. ㄊ,t
  7. ㄋ,n
  8. ㄌ,l
  9. ㄍ,g
  10. ㄎ,k
  11. ㄏ,h
  12. ㄐ,j
  13. ㄑ,q
  14. ㄒ,x
  15. ㄓ,zh
  16. ㄔ,ch
  17. ㄕ,sh
  18. ㄖ,r
  19. ㄗ,z
  20. ㄘ,c
  21. ㄙ,s

There are then 16 finals* which I won’t list, but two examples are “ao”, “oa”.  Put an initial and a final together along with one of the 5 tones** and we have a word, z + ao = zao 3 (morning!),  b + ao 1 = bāo (sack or bag).

With modern words such as mobile phone, words are often quite fun to translate, and certain types of things are grouped together.

Mobile phone is Shou Jī  = hand machine

Fēi jī =  Flight machine  (Plane)

Diàn shì: electronic vision/watch  (TV)

Diàn huà: electronic talk  (Telephone)

Diàn nao:   Electronic brain  (Computer)

And there you have it for todays insight on some basics of mandarin.

Check out this Wikipedia article for more info on Zhuyin and watch this excellent video blog for beginners called Chinese With Mike.  Very informative and entertaining. I hope to get Fiona to do a series like this soon.

The End


(the symbols used above for initials and finals are only used in Taiwan I believe, and are written alongside the characters in children’s books to allow them to read before they know the actual character.)

*  There are technically 22 final noises, but 16 symbols.  The remaining 6 are a combination of final symbols.  This confused me for a short while. See the Wiki on clarification.

** Tone markers can either be written as this ī  í î  ì  or using numbers, Zao3, boa1  (The third tone should be a falling rising tone but my computer doesn’t let me add this without a lot of hassle.)

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An Introduction to Mandarin

Mandarin Chinese is spoken throughout China and Taiwan, and has more native speakers than any other language. There are a few key differences between the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan, and that of the mainland, but the most obvious one I notice is that words which start with a Zh as in Zhōngguó (Chinese) are pronounces with a J as in Jeep, while the Taiwanese say is more like dzong guó (like a bumblebee stuck in a box).  Apparently the Taiwanese accent is becoming more popular and sexy in the main land so I’m in a good place to learn.  Using Rosetta Stone and Chinese Pod however (discussed later) means that a lot of the vocabulary I hear has very pronounced J’s which to me sounds stupid compared to the Taiwanese accent.

The first thing I noticed when starting out was how logical the language seems to be. For instance, the days of the week, and months of the year are incredibly simple once you can count from 1-12.

  • Monday is Xīngqí yī 星期一 (Day 1)
  • Tuesday is Xīngqí Èr 星期二 (Day 2)
  • Wednesday is Xīngqí san 星期三 (Day 3)

Likewise, January is yī yuè 一月 (1st month), and February is Èr yuè 二月 etc etc.
Next I though it would be good to learn the names for some basic food and drink, and there is likewise a similar logic.  Jiǔ = alcohol.  Therefore, Pí jiǔ = beer, Hóng jiǔ = red alcohol/red wine and Bái jiǔ = white alcohol/white wine.  With meat, you say the animal, then stick the word for meat on the end,

  • Zhū ròu (pork)
  • Yáng ròu(lamb)
  • Niú ròu (beef)
  • Yā ròu (duck).

All fairly simple.

Pronouns and possessives are even easier.

  • I/Me = Wǒ  (war)
  • You = Nǐ  (knee)
  • Him/Her/it = Tā

To make it plural, we just add “men” to the end,

  • We  = Wǒ men
  • Yous (pl.) = Nǐ men
  • Them = Ta men

To make it a possessive, we just a de;

  • Wǒ de (my)
  • Nǐ de (your)
  • Ta de (his/hers/its)
  • Ta men de (theirs)
  • Wǒ men de (ours)

So why is it that Mandarin is considered one of the hardest languages to learn in the world?

Well first off, the written language has no semblance to the spoken language. It is one of

the few languages with no phonic clues as to how to say the word.  This makes it particularly impossible in restaurants, where you may as well be looking at hieroglyphs.  Linguists therefore categories the spoken and written word separately, and I am concentrating primarily on speaking, and hopefully picking up some characters along the way.  However, with over 10,000 characters, even natives spend a whole lifetime accruing this knowledge.

Secondly, Mandarin is a tonal language which means the way you say a word alters the meaning unlike English where we can say hello in several different ways to convey different moods.  In Mandarin, there are 4 tones, a flat, high tone, a rising tone, a falling rising tone, and a falling tone.

Here is a common example

  • First tone: ma1 or mā  = Mother
  • Second tone: ma2 or má  = Hemp
  • Third tone: ma3 or mǎ  = Horse
  • Fourth tone: ma4 or mà  = To scold/insult

This means that to start with I would often hear words I recognised only to be told that I was thinking of the 4th tone, not the second tone word.  However, it is interesting to find that in music and singing you drop the tones, allowing the melody to play on, and so the meaning of the song is based on the context.  This is also true of day-to-day speech, which often happens so quickly that tones are often dropped and inferred from the context.  It would only be particularly important if you were talking about your mother scolding you for riding a horse with a hemp reign.

On the upside, the syntax of the language (arrangement of words) is relatively logical, such that the verb aspect (tense) doesn’t change.  To show that an event has finished in the past you seems to add the  ‘le’ particle 了 to make it past tense. e.g

Wǒ zǎoshang mǎi shū le.


I bought the book this morning.

One final point I learnt just yesterday was that Chinese characters are only ever one syllable long, and complex words are composed of short words added to each other.  If you count how many characters there are in the above example, we get 6, corresponding to the syllables in the sentence;

Wǒ (I) zao shang (morning) mǎi (bought)  shū  (book) le (past tense).

Ok, enough grammar for one day.