Archive for Writing systems

How to learn Mandarin

In "Pinyin story" (7/16/18), we became acquainted with the language teaching theory called CI (Comprehensible Input) and the language learning method referred to as TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling).  If you read through the post and the comments, plus look at some of the embedded links, it becomes apparent that, using CI and TPRS, students can learn to write interesting little tales in Mandarin after only an hour or two of instruction.

Now, in conventional "Chinese" language classes, students spend most of their time memorizing how to write characters, and they also devote a lot of effort to mastering grammatical rules and syntactic paradigms.  Even after months of hard labor, students who follow the traditional way will have difficulty expressing themselves in a lively, imaginative manner.  What a breath of fresh air to learn that there are actually enthusiastic, smart teachers out there who offer a more humane and effective way to learn languages, including Mandarin!

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Pinyin story

Tweet by Lori Belinsky:

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"Chinese light"

In the comments to "The ethnopolitics of National Language in China" (7/2/18), "Uyghur basketball player" (6/24/18), and other posts, there has been a vigorous debate on the relationship between national language on the one hand and local and "minority" / ethnic languages on the other hand.

In the course of the debate, many interesting political, linguistic, and cultural issues have been raised, but in the last paragraph of his latest comment, Bathrobe said something that really caught my attention:

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Seismic solecism

Tangshan, in Hebei Province, was the epicenter of what is considered to the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century, with more than 650,000 of its million inhabitants perishing as a result of this July 28, 1976 disaster.  I still remember clearly the day that it happened, because the news came when I was attending a conference on Chinese philosophy at Harvard University, and many of the participants volunteered to assist the people of Tangshan one way or another (our offers were spurned by the Chinese government).

Two days ago, a linguistic upheaval jolted Tangshan, and the tremors were felt throughout the whole of China.

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Green Loosen Stone

Photo taken by Bathrobe at a Teppanyaki restaurant (currently undergoing renovation) in Qinhuangdao (a coastal port city in northeastern Hebei province):

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Unknown language #11

Dan Waugh sent in the following photograph, which he had received from a colleague, who in turn had received it from another colleague who was wondering what is written on the tapestry (what they are referring to it as):

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Chinese characters in the 21st century

We've been having a vigorous debate on the nature of Sinograms:  "Character crises".  It started on June 15, but it is still going on quite actively in the comments section.  A new reader of Language Log, a scholar of late medieval Chinese literature from Beijing was prompted by her reading of this lively discussion and other LL posts to which it led her to send in the following remarks:

Thanks to your blogs, I begin to be aware of some amusing aspects of Chinese languages, though I am still struggling with the terminology.

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Mother tongue is like mother's milk

Pro-Taiwanese language poster on a wall in Tainan (courtesy of Tim Clifford):

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Character crises

From Bob Bauer:

You may have heard that the famous HK-based novelist by the name of 劉以鬯 recently passed away at the age of 99.  [VHM:  I have intentionally left his name without transcription for reasons that will soon become apparent.]

I did not know how to read/pronounce the third character in his name, so I tried to look it up in some dictionaries. But I first needed to decide what is this character's radical? Trying to find the character by its radical turned out to be a very time-consuming process, as different dictionaries do different things with it — at least one doesn't bother to assign it to a radical.

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The future of Cantonese, part 2

During the month of May, we witnessed a major flare-up in Hong Kong over the status of Cantonese:

"Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers" (5/4/18) — with references to more than two dozen earlier posts on Cantonese relevant to today's topic; in toto, the number of LLog posts touching on one or another aspect of Cantonese is far greater than those listed at the end of this 5/4/18 post

"Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers, part 2" (5/7/18)

"The Future of Cantonese" (5/27/18)

All of this has prompted Verna Yu to ask "Can Cantonese survive?", America (6/5/18).

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No dictation

The boy in the photos below is Alexander Aurelius Wang.  He is one of our youngest fans in Shenzhen.  He doesn't like writing characters from dictation (tīngxiě 听写 / 聽寫):

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Sanskrit and Pseudo-Sanskrit Daoist incantations

Joshua Capitanio has written a fascinating, pathbreaking article on a highly esoteric, but also tremendously significant, topic:

"Sanskrit and Pseudo-Sanskrit Incantations in Daoist Ritual Texts", History of Religions, 57.4 (May, 2018), 348-405.

When Buddhism came to China in the early centuries of the Common Era, its Indic texts were brought by speakers of Indo-Iranian languages.  The massive encounter between highly inflected, alphabetic Sanskrit and isolating, morphosyllabic Sinitic naturally posed enormous challenges for translators and interpreters.  Working individually, in small groups, and even in larger teams, those who transferred Buddhist concepts and texts into Sinitic resorted to a variety of devices and techniques, including transcription, translation, paraphrasis, géyì 格義 ("categorized concepts"), and so forth.

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Really weird sinographs, part 3

We've been looking at strange Chinese characters:

"Really weird sinographs" (5/10/18)

"Really weird sinographs, part 2" (5/11/18)

For a sinograph to be weird, it doesn't need to have 30, 40, 50, or more strokes.  In fact, characters with such large numbers of strokes might be quite normal and regular in terms of their construction.  What makes a character bizarre is when its parts are thrown together in unexpected ways.  On the other hand, characters with only a very small number of strokes might be quite odd.  Two of my favorites are the pair 孑孓, which are pronounced jiéjué in Modern Standard Mandarin and together mean "w(r)iggler; mosquito larva".

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