Archive for Language teaching and learning

Difficult languages and easy languages

People often ask me questions like these:

What's the easiest / hardest language you ever learned?

Isn't Chinese really difficult?

Which is harder, Chinese or Japanese?  Sanskrit or German?

Without a moment's hesitation, I always reply that Mandarin is the easiest spoken language I have learned and that Chinese is the most difficult written language I have learned.  I learned to speak Mandarin fluently within about a year, but I've been studying written Chinese for half a century and it's still an enormous challenge.  I'm sure that I'll never master it even if I live to be as old as Zhou Youguang.

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Cantonese tones

If you ask Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM — Guóyǔ 國語 / Pǔtōnghuà 普通话) speakers how many tones there are in their language, most of them will tell you without much hesitation that there are four tones (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th) plus a neutral tone.

Chances are, however, if you ask a Cantonese speaker how many tones there are in their language, they will not give you a clear answer, or if they do, it will differ from what other Cantonese speakers claim.  That has always been my experience over the years, but I just did a little survey to reconfirm my earlier impressions.  The results are rather more amazing than I expected them to be:

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Why learn Cantonese and one way to do it

Anne Henochowicz, who for years was a mainstay at China Digital Times, and whom I have often cited on Language Log, has decided to branch out from Mandarin and tackle another important Sinitic language, Cantonese.

Check out her new blog:  "I'm Learning Cantonese:  Teaching Myself a Second Chinese Language".

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New York high school Chinese test

Zhuang Pinghui, in the South China Morning Post (1/18/17) has an article that is truly baffling:  "US high school Chinese test stumps internet users in China".

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The Annoying PPP (past-perfect progressive)

It's only January, yet we may have already seen this year's winner in the category of Misapprehensions about Chinese Characters and the Nature of Language.  It appears in Xiaolu Guo's "‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain" (The Guardian, 1/10/17).  Ms. Guo's long essay, an adapted extract from her forthcoming Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, is preceded by this dismal epigraph:

Desperate to find somewhere she could live and work as she wished, moved from Beijing to London in 2002. But from the weather to the language and the people, nothing was as she expected.

Poor Xiaolu Guo!

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Teaching Chinese characters in Korea

Bruce Humes writes:

I noticed this news item today (below) that foresees teaching young South Korean students how to read Chinese characters.

I don’t know Korean, but I’ve always been interested in how Chinese characters are used (or not) in Korean and Japanese. I look forward to the occasional piece in your Language Log, touching on topics such as what the re-emphasis on hanja signifies, why it might “boost understanding of Korean terms,” etc.

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Language learning in the field

A few days ago, someone asked me a question about a common situation that's rarely discussed: How can an adult learn to communicate in a language they don't know, without access to courses and books and instructors? And what if the problem isn't just lack of foresight and preparation, because no courses or books or instructors exist for the language or dialect in question?

This question's background is an international development project, where many of the people to be reached are illiterate speakers of undocumented and unwritten languages, and are also often not fluent in the local lingua franca.

Some people may be skeptical of various aspects of the premise. But let's grant it and try to address the question.

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Learn Nepali

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Death to Chinese language teachers

In "Character amnesia in 1793-1794" (4/24/14), I described the so-called Flint Affair, which refers to James Flint (?1720-?), one of the first English persons to learn Chinese.  For his audacity, Flint was imprisoned for three years by the imperial government, and two Chinese merchants who helped him write a petition to the emperor were executed.

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Use the rest room beautifully

This is a photograph of a sign above a urinal at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies taken by Joseph Williams who was there for a Japanese test.  Besides the Japanglish, it's interesting that spaces are added between the words.  And there are no kanji.

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Zuckerberg's Mandarin, ch. 2

Just a little over a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled to China and the world that he was willing to speak publicly in Mandarin: "Zuckerberg's Mandarin" (10/23/14).

That post includes a video which allows us to watch and listen to his every gesture and word.  Now he's back at it again at the exact same location, Tsinghua University, China's premier engineering and science school:

(Or see: "Mark Zuckerberg’s 20-minute speech in clumsy Mandarin is his latest attempt to woo China," 10/26/15.)

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A thousand things to say… Not!

It is not clear to me whether Chris Lonsdale, the managing shyster director at the language-teaching company Chris Lonsdale & Associates, is an out-and-out liar or merely has pork for brains and believes the nonsense he spouts. But what is clear to me is that not enough people are paying attention to the conjecture I mention in one section of this paper: that almost all strings of English words are ungrammatical.

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Fluency in six months

When it comes to linguistics, convincing, worthwhile presentations (such as those by John McWhorter and Steven Pinker) are rare on TED; more typical are poorer ones (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here).

If that is true for TED, then I wouldn't expect better from TEDx.  Indeed, the one TEDx program on linguistics that I have seen, which was published on November 20, 2013, has garnered a viral 5,859,273 views, and is still soaring, having received an additional two hundred thousand or so views since I saw it a couple of days ago — but it is a travesty of language pedagogy.

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