Archive for Language teaching and learning

Learning Tamil

Recently we have had a string of posts on South Asian linguistic phenomena.  Most of the languages involved have been Indic, and will probably continue to be predominantly so during the coming months and years.  Consequently, I'm delighted today to make a post about Tamil, a Dravidian language with a glorious heritage.

Except where otherwise noted, the indented paragraphs below are by Carrie Wiebe (professor of Chinese language and literature at Middlebury).  They are integral and self-explanatory, so I will make few interpolations.

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The pain of pronouncing Mandarin "guóqí" ("national flag") for a Mongolian child

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Google, the wannabe Egyptologist

Sensational article by Hagar Hosny in Al-Monitor (7/23/20):

"Google presents new tool to decode hieroglyphics:  Google has created a new tool to translate hieroglyphics into English and Arabic at the stroke of a key."

It starts like this:

In a July 15 press release, Google announced the launch of a new tool that uses artificial intelligence to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and translate them into Arabic and English.

Google said that the tool, dubbed Fabricius, provides an interactive experience for people from all over the world to learn about hieroglyphics, in addition to supporting and facilitating the efforts of Egyptologists and raising awareness about the history and heritage of ancient Egyptian civilization.

“We are very excited to be launching this new tool that can make it easier to access and learn about the rich culture of ancient Egypt. For over a decade, Google has been capturing imagery of cultural and historical landmarks across the region,” Chance Coughenour, program manager at Google Arts and Culture, said in the statement.

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Mongolian-language education suspended in Tongliao

Tongliao 通辽市; Mongolian: Tongliyao.png Hot.svg Tüŋliyou qota, Mongolian Cyrillic.Түнляо хот) is a prefecture-level city in eastern Inner Mongolia, PRC.  The news is not good. 

It follows a familiar pattern:  there's a similar story about suspending Tibetan-language education in a part of Sichuan following the covid-19 closure of schools.

It sounds plausible since notification was given verbally, typical of the way Chinese government does things it doesn't want to be caught out on.

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Pinyin for ABCs

If you didn't know it already, "ABC" means "American-born Chinese".  There's no reason why ABCs should necessarily speak Chinese, no more than why ABGs (American-born Germans) should speak German or why ABVs (American-born Vietnamese) should speak Vietnamese, etc.  In this video, ABCs explain for themselves why they can't speak Chinese.  This is a long (23:14) podcast.  Feel free to watch all of it if you are so inclined, but for efficiency's sake I will guide you through it in instructions below the page break.

"10 REASONS WHY CHINESE AMERICANS CAN'T SPEAK CHINESE! | Fung Bros"

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Automatic Pinyin annotation — state of the art

[This is a guest post by Gábor Ugray]

Back in 2018 your post Pinyin for phonetic annotation planted an idea in my head that I’ve been gradually expanding ever since. I am now at a stage where I routinely create annotated Chinese text for myself; this (pdf) is what one such document looks like.

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The Mandarin grammatical particle "le" — one or many?

When I was learning Mandarin over half a century ago, the more grammatically minded Chinese language teachers argued that historically and functionally there were multiple "le" particles that just happened to end up being written with the simple two-stroke character 了.  Then a contrary movement set in, and linguists tried to prune down all the "le" into two or even one, claiming that all of the different 了 developed out of an ur-了.

The irony of it all is that, before the 20th century, there was no established, systematic, explicit grammar for Sinitic languages in indigenous sources.

See, inter alia, Victor H. Mair (1997), "Ma Jianzhong and the Invention of Chinese Grammar," in Chaofen Sun, ed., Studies on the History of Chinese Syntax. Monograph Series Number 10 of Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 5-26.  (available on JSTOR here)

Mǎshì wéntōng 馬氏文通 (conventionally rendered as "Ma's Grammar", though it would probably be closer to the original meaning in Chinese to translate it as "Written Language Unobstructedness"; 1898)

Just as we have seen in a recent post, before the 20th century there was no Chinese concept of "word":

"HouseHold GarBage" (12/6/19)

Which leads to the question:  can you have grammar without words?

There have been countless papers, articles, dissertations, and monographs on le 了.  Here I'm going to introduce two dissertations on le 了 written within the last few decades and the latest monograph on le 了 as representative of what has been happening with regard to the conceptualization of this protean particle in recent times.

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How to learn to read and write Chinese

From the moment I began learning Mandarin more than half a century ago, I had a strong, visceral opposition to learning the characters.  I wanted to learn the language — its phonology, grammar, lexicon, morphology, syntax, idioms.  My teachers forced me to learn some characters, but I figured out various ways to devote much more of my time focusing on the language rather than on the writing system.  Most of my secrets for learning Sinitic languages in pre-digital days are detailed in the "Readings" below.  But it is so much easier to learn Chinese in the current age of electronic resources than it was even a couple of decades ago.  Now there's no excuse for or reason to slave over character flash cards and dictation (tīngxiě 聽寫 /听写 [a striking example of the difference between traditional and simplified characters]).

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Pinyin as a guide to English pronunciation

Benjamin Hull shared a unique application of Hanyu Pinyin that he noticed on a Pizza Hut (Bìshèng Kè) menu in Ānhūi Shěng Wúhú Shì (where he is currently studying Pǔtōnghùa) — see photos below.  Ben notes:

…the use of Pīnyīn as a guide to English pronunciation is new for me. For a moment I thought it was Yīngyǔ yīnbiāo ("English phonetic symbols") as taught in schools, but I have never seen [ou] used to transcribe the relevant vowel in Chinese pedagogical usage (/əʊ/ is listed as the appropriate transcription in the Bǎidù entry for yīnbiāo). It must be Pīnyīn, which leads to a few interesting notes.

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Not just any old Putonghua

No siree!  These Hong Kong students are being taught to emulate Beijing government models:

In the 13rd [sic] Hong Kong Cup Diplomatic Knowledge Contest held on May 12, Hong Kong high school students militantly spoke perfect Putonghua. Their Beijing accent, tone, gestures, facial expressions all reminded one of China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying, or even Chairman Mao's wife Jiang Qing. E.g, a schoolgirl indignantly yelled, "Not a single country has fallen into a debt crisis as a result of joining the One Belt One Road!" (The fact, however, remains that due to their inability to repay debts to China, Zambia has lost to China its Kenneth Kaunda Airport and the ZESCO Power Plant; Sri Lanka has handed over its Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease; and Kenya is giving up its Mombasa Port to China.) Xie Feng, Commissioner of the Foreign Ministry of PRC in HKSAR, called upon the students to love the State of China and take up positions in international organizations like the UN. Critics suspect that quite a few HK kids are already thoroughly brainwashed by their pro-CCP education and may be used to infiltrate into American & other Western organizations.

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Why Literary Sinitic is so darn hard

Two days ago, in "Difficult languages and easy languages, part 2" (5/28/19), we listed scores of languages from easiest to hardest to learn.  Spanish came out overall as the easiest widely spoken language for many people to learn, while Arabic and Turkish struck many people as quite difficult to master.

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Is Mandarin easy to learn after all?

Betteridge's law of headlines states: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."  The title of this post ends in a question mark, but as its author, I mean for it to be answered by the word yes.

Early yesterday morning, I posted "Fluent bilingualism in Singapore " (5/28/19).  Less than six hours later, around noon, I posted "Difficult languages and easy languages, part 2 " (5/28/19).  Both posts fortuitously touched upon the real or imagined difficulty of Mandarin, the former allegedly attested in the poor record of getting Singaporean students of Chinese ancestry to attain fluency in the language and the latter in the results of a large scale survey on the perceived difficulty of languages carried out two years ago on Language Log.  In both cases, Mandarin came out looking as though it were a very hard language to learn.

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Difficult languages and easy languages, part 2

On March 4, 2017, I posted on "Difficult languages and easy languages".  The response was overwhelming — there were 151 comments.

First of all, I want to thank everyone who participated in this survey.  The large number of respondents who contributed their thoughtful appraisals means that the results do carry a certain degree of significance.

Considering the fact that tabulating the results was a rather daunting, time-consuming task, I was not able to post them as quickly as I had hoped.  The main reason that I was able to finish the work at all is simple:  although Cathay Pacific has wonderful service, they do not have Wi-Fi, at least not on the planes I flew to and from Hong Kong in late April of 2017.  Consequently, during the nearly 30 hours of my flights back and forth across the Pacific to review the Translation Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I was able to concentrate on recording the figures on the pages of the survey I had printed out and brought with me.  Further delays since then were the result of the press of teaching and mentoring, writing blogs and newsletters and articles and books….  Finally, on Memorial Day, May 27, 2019, I was at last able to type up the results (the tabulations were almost lost when my backpack got soaked in a rainstorm two years ago; fortunately, the pages on which they were written were buried deep inside, so they were not destroyed — that would have been the obliteration of weeks of work).

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