Archive for Language teaching and learning

Hong Kong Cantonese in jeopardy

From a fluent speaker of Mandarin:

This past weekend, I watched the latest film from Marvel Studios: "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" (an Asian superhero movie). I was rather surprised to hear about 30% of all lines spoken in Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 (Mandarin), especially when given that some scenes were set in Macau and characters from ancient Chinese villages. Although I could not find an article or commentary on this specific topic I was interested in, I did find this Reddit post—the author discusses how strange and peculiar the creators' decision to use Mandarin in particular is in the context of the movie. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (24)

Gender fluidity in the classroom

Recent article on gender and language teaching:

How Language Classes Are Moving Past the Gender Binary

Languages that contain only “he” and “she” pronouns pose problems for communicating about gender identity. Here’s how some language teachers are helping.

By Molly Lipson, NYT     Sept. 1, 2021

Selections from the article:

Tal Janner-Klausner teaches Hebrew. There is nothing unusual about that, but the language presents a frustration that Mx. Janner-Klausner, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns in English, feels compelled to discuss with their students.

Hebrew, as well as French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and other languages, uses binary pronouns, which means that gender identities outside of he/she and male/female don’t exist in any formal capacity.

In Hebrew, even the word “they” is gendered. In French, “ils” refers to a group of men or a mixed-gender group, and “elles” refers to a group of all females. All nouns in gendered languages — including people — are categorized as either masculine or feminine, and any adjectives associated with these words must reflect that gender.

That presents a problem for students who are gender-nonconforming, and, of course, for the speakers of the language in general. Is it possible for learners of a gendered language to refer to themselves and others when their identities are not represented?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (61)

China jettisons English

So they say, but I wouldn't count on it.  We've heard this patriotic, isolationist tune sung countless times during the last thirty years or so (in fact, it happens every time preceding a national political meeting, but nothing ever comes of it).  The wealthy, privileged, elite, right up to and including Chairman Xi, keep spending a fortune to send their children to the comfort, safety, and English environment of the USA.  I know, because I've taught hundreds of them during the last twenty years and more.

"‘Reversing Gears’: China Increasingly Rejects English, and the World:

A movement against Western influence threatens to close off a nation that succeeded in part by welcoming new ideas."  By Li Yuan, NYT (9/9/21)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (8)

Characterless Sinitic

Valerie Hansen is Director of Undergraduate Studies for East Asian Studies at Yale.  Yesterday she was talking to a sophomore who had taken 1st and 2nd year Mandarin online and is about to start 3rd year.  Valerie writes:

After a while, she told me that she did have one worry about taking 3rd year: she had never written a single character and she wondered if her teacher would expect her to know how to write characters.

She can read Chinese and uses the computer to write essays. So in essence she knows pinyin and can identify the characters she needs when she writes something.
 
Is this the future of Chinese? Only computers will know characters?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (19)

Simplified characters defeat traditional characters in Ireland

Article by Colm Keena in The Irish Times (8/2/21):

"Decision on Mandarin Leaving Cert exam ‘outrages’ Chinese communities:
Exam subject that students can sit from 2022 will only allow for simplified Chinese script"

Here are the first four paragraphs of the article:

Chinese communities in Ireland are “outraged” by the decision of the Department of Education to use only a simplified script in the new Leaving Certificate exam in Mandarin Chinese, according to a group set up to campaign on the issue.

The new exam subject, which students can sit from 2022, will not allow for the use of the traditional or heritage Chinese script, which is used by most people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other, mostly non-mainland-China locations.

The decision by the department is a “discrimination against the heritage Chinese learners in Ireland,” according to Isabella Jackson, an assistant professor of Chinese history in Trinity College, Dublin, who is a member of the Leaving Cert Mandarin Chinese Group.

“It is wrong for our Irish Government to deny children of a Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau background the right to sit an examination using the Chinese script that is part of their heritage.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (48)

Taiwanese vs. Mandarin in a village school half a century ago

Comments (9)

Absence of language study in humanities programs

Tweet from Bryan Van Norden:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (54)

Spoken Classical Chinese

Tom Mazanec saw an announcement of a course in Hong Kong, in which the teacher, Dr. Lai Chi Fung 黎智豐, proposes to teach Classical Chinese by focusing on vocabulary for everyday use, just as if one were learning a foreign language. So you learn greetings, introductions, and the like. The idea intrigued Tom, especially since the language of instruction is Cantonese (which would make spoken Classical a little more intelligible than if it were in Mandarin).

If the course were taught in Mandarin, I think it would be a big flop, but since it is being taught in Cantonese, there is a somewhat higher possibility of limited, meaningful spoken communication.  Cantonese preserves more features (phonological, lexical, grammatical, syntactical) of earlier stages of Sinitic than does Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM).  Just in terms of phonology, Cantonese has more than 2,200 possible different syllables, almost twice as many as MSM (source).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)

The importance of translation for learning Literary Sinitic

After reading "Bad poetry, bad translation" (6/18/21), Zihan Guo wrote:

Thank you for sharing this post.

While reading it, its comments, and all the selected readings related to it, I could not help but feel that translating classical Chinese poetry is the way to make sure one really understands it. Back in middle school and high school in China, my teachers would teach poetry and prose through paraphrasing, making them coherent narratives. However, adding things is as detrimental as its opposite. It was not until college that I started to truly appreciate classical Chinese poetry, through producing English translations myself, struggling with its syntactic concision and lack of precision, squeezing meanings from diction and speculating moods from imagery.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

Bringing back the Cultural Revolution — in English

As part of the run-up to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that will take place in July, scenes like this are increasingly common on the streets of the PRC:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (19)

How much language capability does a Green Beret need to have?

In War on the Rocks (5/26/21), Tim Ball has an informative, thought-provoking article:  "Talking the Talk: Language Capabilities for U.S. Army Special Forces".  It begins:

In the mid-2000s, a series of U.S. Army Special Forces recruiting posters began appearing on Army installations across the country. One particular poster prompted more than a few eye rolls and laughs from the Special Forces community (commonly known as the Green Berets). The poster showed a Special Forces soldier conducting a military free-fall parachute jump. The caption stated, “The HALO [high altitude, low opening] jump wasn’t the hard part. Knowing which Arabic dialect to use when I landed was.”

From a recruiting standpoint, the poster hit all the marks. It took the excitement of a commando-style free-fall jump, combined it with the lesser-known expectation for a Green Beret to be a culturally adept warrior, and pushed it over the edge by portraying the jumper as a suave polyglot, capable of switching in and out of complex dialects at will.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

Difficult tongues

Johnson, in the Economist (5/7/21), has an enjoyable article:  "Some languages are harder to learn than others — but not for the obvious reasons".

Here's the first part of the article:

When considering which foreign languages to study, some people shy away from those that use a different alphabet. Those random-looking squiggles seem to symbolise the impenetrability of the language, the difficulty of the task ahead.

So it can be surprising to hear devotees of Russian say the alphabet is the easiest part of the job. The Cyrillic script, like the Roman one, has its origins in the Greek alphabet. As a result, some letters look the same and are used near identically. Others look the same but have different pronunciations, like the p in Cyrillic, which stands for an r-sound. For Russian, that cuts the task down to only about 20 entirely new characters. These can comfortably be learned in a week, and soon mastered to the point that they present little trouble. An alphabet, in other words, is just an alphabet. A few tricks aside (such as the occasional omission of vowels), other versions do what the Roman one does: represent sounds.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (45)

Dissension over the role of the alphabet in literacy acquisition in the PRC

A graduate student from the PRC told me that the situation regarding instruction in Hanyu Pinyin has become quite chaotic in recent years in China.  Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic Spelling"), or Pīnyīn 拼音 ("Spelling") for short, is the official PRC Romanization of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), i.e., Pǔtōnghuà 普通话.

For many decades, it used to be that all students — beginning in first grade of elementary school — learned to read and write via Pinyin.  Indeed, under the program known as "Zhùyīn shìzì, tíqián dú xiě 注音识字,提前读写" ("Phonetically Annotated Character Recognition Speeds Up Reading and Writing"), or "Z.T." for short, which actively encouraged children to use Pinyin Romanization for characters they were unable to write, the promotion of Pinyin continued well into upper grades. See "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08).  In the last few years, however, it seems that instruction in Pinyin — at least in some schools — has become "optional".  Some teachers are simply not teaching the basics of pinyin.  As a result, many students are no longer competent in it, so that when they get to the dreaded gaokao (National College Entrance Examination [NCEE]), where mastery of pinyin is required, they're not prepared for that part of the exams.  Parents are complaining.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (6)