Archive for Language teaching and learning

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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Webster’s Second and Webster’s Third: Editors going against stereotype

One of the most well-known pieces of lexicographic history is the controversy that greeted the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Whereas the predecessor of W3, Webster’s Second New etc., had been regarded as authoritatively prescriptive, W3 was condemned in the popular media for its descriptive approach, the widespread perception of which can be boiled down to “anything goes.” (For the details, see The Story of Webster’s Third by Herbert Morton and The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner.)

I recently came across two articles that seem to be largely unknown but deserve wider attention— one by the General Editor of W2 (Thomas Knott), and the other by the Editor-in-Chief of W3 (Philip Gove). Each article is notable by itself because it fleshes out the author’s attitude toward usage and correctness, and does so in a way that undermines the stereotype that is associated with the dictionary each one worked on. And when the two articles are considered together, they suggest that despite the very different reputation of the two dictionaries, the authors’ attitudes toward usage and correctness probably weren’t far apart.

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The end of the line for Mandarin Phonetic Symbols?

Just as all school children in the PRC learn to read and write through Hanyu Pinyin ("Sinitic spelling"), the official romanization on the mainland, so do all school children in Taiwan learn to read and write with the aid of what is commonly referred to as "Bopomofo ㄅㄆㄇㄈ "), after the first four letters of this semisyllabary.  The system has many other names, including "Zhùyīn fúhào 注音符號" ("[Mandarin] Phonetic Symbols"), its current formal designation, as well as earlier names such as Guóyīn Zìmǔ 國音字母 ("Phonetic Alphabet of the National Language") and Zhùyīn Zìmǔ 註音字母 ( "Phonetic Alphabet" or "Annotated Phonetic Letters").  From the plethora of names, you can get an idea of what sort of system it is.  I usually think of it as a cross between an alphabet and a syllabary.

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Characterless future

Browser extensions sometimes can cause unexpected problems, e.g.:

"The Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks" (3/7/18).

Often, however, they can be very helpful if they do what you want them to do.

Jonathan Smith writes:

Do you use the web browser Chrome? If so try adding the extension "Convert Chinese to Pinyin (Mand)". It does a decent job converting Chinese-language web pages to word-spaced pinyin (with tone marks if desired) so one can pretend one lives in a characterless future :D

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The language impact of the Confucius Institutes

The China Daily, which is owned by the CCP, is China's largest circulation English-language newspaper.  It ran the following article in today's issue:

"Chinese increasingly heard around the world", by Yang Zhuang (2/24/18).

What with the flood of Chinese tourists, business people, officials, students, and so forth who are travelling to all corners of the globe, there is little doubt that Chinese languages are indeed being heard outside China nowadays more than at any time in the past.  But that's a very different matter than the claim made in the CD article that non-Chinese are borrowing more words from Chinese languages than before.

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Tones for real

For several years, John McWhorter has been studying Mandarin very seriously.  He and I have, from time to time, corresponded about the best, most effective, most efficient way to do that.  After years of assiduous learning, it seems that he has recently experienced a kind of satori about one of the most challenging aspects of acquiring fluency in spoken Mandarin:  the tones.

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Accentuate the negative

A curious case of a forced-choice sentence-completion question on a ninth-grade exam at a high school in Taiwan is briefly discussed on Lingua Franca today, for a very general non-linguist readership. It merits a slightly longer and more serious treatment, which I thought Language Log readers might appreciate. The exam question basically asks for a decision on the question of which one of these sentences is fully correct and which deserves to be called ungrammatical:

(a) Lydia knows few things, and so does Peter.
(b) Lydia knows few things, and neither does Peter.

Because continuation with neither does… is widely taken to be a test for negative polarity, this amounts to asking whether Lydia knows few things is a positive clause like Lydia knows everything or a negative one like Lydia doesn't knows anything. And a friend of mine in Taiwan reports having asked a number of English speakers, with a truly surprising result. He finds a split between the two great English dialect groups, the North American dialects (AmE) and the British and Australasian dialects (BrE). The AmE speakers that he asked all said (a) was correct, while the BrE speakers all said that (b) was correct.

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The Last Lesson — in Mongolian

The Chinese government has prohibited  Mongolian language instruction in all schools in the Mongolian areas of Xinjiang:  "Southern Mongolia: Instruction in Mongolian Language Banned in All Schools", Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organization (1/3/18).

The last school in the so-called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to provide education in the Mongolian language, the Bayangol No. 3 High School, has banned its usage as language of instruction. According to the region’s Education Department, the ethnic language can be offered as an elective course, but all main courses must be taught in Chinese. This clearly demonstrates that bilingual education is no longer existent which sparked further outrage when articles and internet posts discussing this situation were removed by Chinese authorities. Southern Mongolians are deeply concerned and outraged by this as they feel their nation is being reduced to a Chinese colony.

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Duolingo Mandarin: a critique

A friend sent this lifehacker article to me:

"Mandarin Chinese Is Now Available on the Language Learning App Duolingo", by Patrick Allan (11/16/17)

Duolingo claims that it "is the world's most popular way to learn a language. It's 100% free, fun and science-based. Practice online on duolingo.com or on the apps!"

After reading Allan's article, I sent the following note to my students and colleagues:

Judging from the description in this article, I'm dubious about the efficacy of their method.  Never mind about misleading statements emanating from the author of the article (e.g., there are 1.2 billion native speakers of "Chinese"), they seem to overemphasize individual characters, downplay words, don't talk about sentence structure, grammar, and syntax, and don't give any indication of how or whether pinyin is used.

Has anyone checked this app out?

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Kanji learning for coprophiliacs

Missed this earlier in the year:

"Poop-Themed Kanji Study Book a Bestseller in Japan" nippon.com (4/21/17)

Not only is there one book utilizing the theme of excrement to stimulate interest in kanji, there's a whole graded series of texts, and they're selling like hotcakes (pardon me).

It doesn't hurt that there's a general fascination with feces in Japan that has been enshrined in the "Pile of Poo" emoji:  💩

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Arabella Kushner, young ambassador of good will

New China TV, published on Nov 8, 2017:

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"…her eyes began to swell in tears when she was asked to take out the Mandarin work sheets…"

The following post is from an old, now defunct, blog, but the description of little Eunice learning three languages at once (none of which was her natal tongue spoken at home) and other discussions of Chinese are unusual in their detail and sensitivity, so worthy of sharing with Language Log readers:

"Primary learning in a multilingual society ", Grammar Gang (5/24/14)

The author of the post is Jyh Wee Sew (Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore).  I will simply quote a few passages of the post and make a few concluding remarks, but warmly recommend that anyone who is interested in second (and third) language pedagogy / acquisition read the whole post.

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Imperial miscommunication

[This is a guest post by Krista Ryu]

I came across a fun anecdote from The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty,  which is the annual records of the Joseon Dynasty from 1413-1865, a national treasure of Korea. It is full of interesting, authentic records, since no one, including the kings themselves, could revise the records.  Consequently, even funny mistakes made by the Kings will be recorded in detail.

The story of failed communication between a Goryo Dynasty diplomat and the Hongwu Emperor (1368-1398; r. 1328-1398) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The story is as below (I have translated into English what I read in Korean, so what was actually said in Chinese at the time could be slightly different but the meaning should be the same):

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