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




How to Remember thousands of digits, and have perfect Chinese tone recall.

**Disclaimer**  If you have no interest in learning memory techniques for dates, statistics, NI numbers, credit card numbers etc, then it’s probably best if you don’t read on.  I’ll also discuss potential applications for learning Chinese towards the end, although only briefly as I’m still fumbling around with which techniques work best.

So after 3 days of using the memory palace technique (loci/journey method) I can tell you that it is an amazingly simple yet effective method for remembering, at the same time as being quite fun.  Any spare moment where you would normally play on your IPhone can be spent exploring your favourite holiday location or home town.

I’ve only looked at the physical lists once for my geological eras, prime ministers, presidents, European countries and capitals, African/S.American states and now rivers, but I can tell you that I can remember with about 90% accuracy despite not opening a book more than once.

I challenged my girlfriend to remember the 10 Largest countries and their capitals in 15 minutes and she was able to make a journey within 10 minutes, which she can still remember with ease.

Now, I’ll try and keep this next section as brief as I can because I fear I’ve got too involved in this memory technique business, (as is my want), and thus things that I find interesting are perhaps deeply boring to others. Feel free to slink off now, or read on to unlock the secrets of the universe…

O.K, for those that stayed for the performance, here we go…

I, and most people struggle to remember numbers. The limit to our mental capacity is 7+-2.  You can expand this by chunking information, thereby filing your 7 brain slots with 7 chunks.

However, these numbers are rapidly forgotten because they have no inherent meaning or relevance and are in no way interesting.

Elaboration is the key to Long Term Memory (LTM); Taking otherwise boring material and thinking of it in a way that sticks.

These techniques are a crutch to let you remember  long enough that they transfer into your cortical, LTM brain regions.

The Dominic System:

Back to numbers. The Dominic system has a few laws, which turn numbers into letters using the first few of the alphabet.


First, the numbers 0 through 9 are simply remembered as things that look like the number, so 1=pencil (long and thin) 2 (swan) 4 (sail boat) etc.  Now, if you want to remember item 4 on the shopping list, you stick that item on the sail boat and have it in a particular location in your memory palace. Easy enough.

For larger digits, it gets trickier, and has a massively steep learning curve but which once mastered is limitless in its application. (I’m nowhere near this yet).


Large numbers, dates and facts above 10 are remembered as double digits. The numbers 1-9 are given an appropriate alphabet letter

1A 2B 3C 4D 5E 6S** 7H 8I 9N**

**(six sounds like s and nine sounds like n.  You can pick whatever works).

Now, to remember 16 we pick the letter A.S. To make this memorable, we think of a person with those initials;  Arnold Schwarzenegger for instance.

Here is where the difficulty comes in. You have to make initials for every combination of letters from 00-99! AND their associated action (Arnie posing in trunks?).

I’m still struggling to think of people with initials, but some googling can help you build a reference list. Try finding 10 new people a day and it shouldn’t be too daunting.

I’ve yet to complete this process (Any help on B.E, C.S, and C.G?) but have used it to remember the lengths of the 10 longest rivers in England with very little effort. I can now recall these with few issues, and didn’t once have to stop and wonder what number goes with what. It just works.

For example, number 6 is the Ure at 208 km.  Ure sounds like manure. I imagine a river of shit streaming across the bridge near my house.  208 is split into the double digit 20 and 8 left over.

Find the alphabet letters 2=B 0=O which equals B.O (Barack Obama). He is swimming in this shit river. Because it’s a 3 digit number, we use one of the images from the numbers 1-9 list (1=pencil 4=sail 8=sand timer.)  So B.O swimming in manURE timing how long he can hold his breath for using the sand timer (8).

Sounds long winded, and it is somewhat, but it sticks. Then all you have to do is recall the event when you approach the bridge.

This has allowed me to remember all 10 rivers, and 30 digits without too much hassle other than walking from the pub to the park.  And it lasts. Walk this route 5 times (minutes later, 1 day, 3 days, 1 month, and 3 months and you’ll never forget it.

Mandarin Application.

Mandarin has 4/5 tones for each sound you utter. Each tone alters the meaning so saying shui4 jiao4 and shui3 jiao3 has two different meanings (sleep and water dumpling).

You can assign a colour to each tone (which helps massively), and when making a memorable image, incorporate the colour into the picture. However colour slips my memory quicker than a person and the order of the colour is hard to remember.

There is little talk of using the Dominic system on the Internet in this way, but I think it could work. So Sleep (Shui4 Jiao4) = 44 = D.D (who is this? You decide. Try picturing David Duchovny watching you while you sleep.  BOOM, perfect tone recall.

I use red as my fourth tone so I used to make the image red (blood on the sheets?), but with this I can have both, and if one fails, the other will back it up.  I’ve only tried it with a few new words so far but it could be revolutionary in terms of tone recall (a really knit picking but essential part of mandarin I’m afraid). 

If you’re prepared to master Chinese (5 years +) you should be prepared to learn a number system for a week or so, which will not only help your Chinese but also your memory for any number application.


P.s To remember a date, you convert the numbers to letters  (1918)  19= A.S  18 A.H.  Each person has an associated action for a reason.  So Arnold Schwarzenegger (A.S) is doing a goose step (A.H, Adolf Hitler).  Make sense?  It’s difficult at first but it sticks. It means you don’t have to remember two people but rather 1 person doing one thing.

Now, did I remember to turn off the gas?



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.


The opening of TalkEasy

We have now finished the two-week long taster sessions and are halfway through our first official week of teaching.  Each night was open for the different age groups, (adult, senior high, junior high, and primary) with two time slots open for each age group at either 6pm or 730pm.

It all came to a head so quickly after months of preparation. It seems like a lifetime ago that we were jetting around on a scooter in the blistering heat, looking for red posters stuck to the front of houses denoting a rental property.   Once we secured a place, we then spent several weeks turning it into a school, scarping horrible green paint from every surface and re-painting them blue.  The next hurdle was getting our building passed by the education and fire departments which required a large downpayment for the installation of a winch and all the safety equipment.

We were then inspected by the various different departments, and were granted permission to open as a school with less hassle than expected.

Then came the applications for foreign work visas for myself and Laurence.  This took some time, and endless letters back and forth between government offices here and in Taipei.  We manager to successfully get permission to work just days before returning home to the UK for Christmas.  Once in London, we were able to apply for visas which were thankfully granted despite the embassy’s not too friendly reception.  Once back in the country we applied for Alien resident cards (ARC’s) locally, which was easy enough, and a few weeks back managed to get onto the national health insurance scheme.

The timetable was only drawn up a few days before taster week begun, and with only one day before taster week, we had 2000 flyers printed.  Initially we were going to make them ourselves but realised that we had no time, and so took them to the people that designed our sign.  He managed to whip something up that didn’t look too bad, although we look more like a theatre troop than teachers.  The first day of flyering made us feel very awkward, shoving them in peoples faces whilst they did their morning shop at the market.  Later, Laurence had the idea of putting them in letter boxes, so we spent a morning driving round all the large apartment blocks, stuffing leaflets into every nook and cranny we could find.  This was a much more enjoyable experience despite it being one of the windiest days yet.

We had also had many offers from local businesses saying that they would be happy to put our posters up in their shop windows and hand them out to customers which we were very grateful for, as hardly any school here get that privilege.  Even the lady that applied for our health card took a pile and promised to give them out to her friends.  Halfway though the first week of free lessons we stood outside the senior high school in the pouring rain, and a day later, outside a primary school.  We made a point of only handing them to the parents here, as it would have been unfair and slightly weird forcing our product on an unwitting child.  A few days later we targeted the vocational high school which was nerve racking at first, but they turned out to be much friendlier than the “academic” high school, and more game for a laugh.

Despite only getting the posters made a day before taster week begun, and flying schools halfway the week, not a day went by when we didn’t receive phone calls, and we even managed to fill two classes up on one of the evenings.  The best thing is that the majority of our parents are teachers who are fed up of the current schools, and have either heard about, or met Fiona from here part-time work in the local primary school, or her current junior high school job.  All the parents seem to know each other, and word soon spreads around here.  It’s also good if teachers send their kids because that gets around too.  Many of the people who come usually bring friends, and one person heard about our school from Facebook alone!  Indeed, our first student contacted us via “my” website after I gave her our business card whilst buying breakfast.  I was delighted by this as it showed that at least one person had visited my site, and that the email submission form had worked.

Each taster session was a chance to meet the parents/students, and conduct speaking,listening,reading, and writing assessments of them, filling out enrolment forms, and giving them a quick mini-lesson.  We’ve now finished putting all the students into designated timetabled slots which has been an epic challenge considering most kids have Buxiban almost every night, so finding an available slot is nigh on impossible.  We’ve managed to juggle them about and the current state of the timetable looks pretty good.  Our goal of getting enough students to pay for rent was reached by the first day, and our second goal of getting enough students to pay each of us a very basic salary was reached soon after.  The university only returned today so there is another flyering opportunity there, as well as targeting other schools, but now that the word is out, news will soon spread of ‘the new school which has all of the teachers children’. Today has been the first day of proper sunshine, and it has reminded me that Penghu can be lovely and hot place, rather than the cold windy place that has almost passed.  Things can only get better, and warmer.

(My mac autocorrects words which is a really pain as it doesn’t show spelling mistakes, but rather replaces them with a correctly spelt, wrong word. They are hard to find).

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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.