Archive for Language teaching and learning

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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Phonetic annotations as a welcome aid for learning how to read and write Sinographs

In several recent posts, we've been discussing the most efficient, least painful way to acquire facility with hanzi / kanji / hanja 漢字 ("Sinographs; Chinese characters").  Lord knows there are endless numbers of them and they are so intricately constructed that it is an arduous task to master the two thousand or so that are necessary for basic literacy.

It would be so much easier to learn the Sinographs if language pedagogues would provide phonetic annotations for each character.  Better yet, the phonetic annotations should be divided into words with spaces between them according to the official orthographic rules.

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How to maintain first and second language skills

In the comments to "Cantonese as a Second Language" (4/22/19), there's an interesting discussion going on about how to maintain and / or acquire competency in more than one language.  This post started out as a comment to that thread, but it soon grew too long, so I've separated it off here.

My son was born in Taiwan and spent the first two years of his life in Taipei in an all-Mandarin household with lots of members (father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, and two aunts), and plenty of other relatives in the Taipei area (more uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.) — all mainlanders.  They all spoke Mandarin with him.

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Cantonese as a Second Language

That's the title of a new book from Routledge:

John C. Wakefield, ed., Cantonese as a Second Language:  Issues, Experiences and Suggestions for Teaching and Learning

Readers of Language Log know that I'm an ardent advocate of this vibrant language and will understand why I consider the publication of Cantonese as a Second Language a cause for celebration.

Two caveats:

1. It's a full-fledged language, not a mere "dialect".

2. You don't have to worry about the Sinographs when you learn it.

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The politics of "Maria" in Taiwan

During the last few days, there has been a huge furor over this sentence spoken publicly by the Mayor of Kaohsiung City, Han Kuo-yu (Daniel Han):

"Mǎlìyà yīxiàzi zuò wǒmen Yīngwén lǎoshī 瑪莉亞一下子做我們英文老師" ("Maria suddenly becomes our English teacher")

Newspaper articles describing the incident, which is now being referred to as the "'Mǎlìyà' shìjiàn「瑪麗亞」事件" ("'Maria' Affair"), may be found here (in Chinese, with video clip) and here (in English).

Mayor Han is notorious for his errant, flippant manner of speaking, but this instance — which he later claimed was a "joke" — quickly came back to haunt him.  To understand why this is so, we need to take into account a number of factors.

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Pinyin for phonetic annotation

One more reason for me to love Wikipedia.

I just noticed in this article on Chinese honorifics that some example sentences are phonetically annotated with Pinyin.  Not only that, it observes properly spaced word division, which must be technically difficult to achieve.  Furthermore, the Pinyin annotations are appropriately small, yet clear.

I don't know how widespread this usage has become in Wikipedia or elsewhere, but I can tell you that learning about it this morning brought me great joy.

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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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