Mair on pinyin on BBC Radio 4

« previous post | next post »

BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth program for 4/20/2010 deals with relations between Mandarin and English.  Victor's segment of the program is about the role of pinyin.  LL commenters may find a nit or two to pick with the program's online self-description, but Victor thinks they did a good job in weaving the interviews together to create the program:

Chris Ledgard looks at the Chinese and English languages, and the meeting point between the two. Will the Chinese language be affected by the growing influence of English? Pinyin is the Chinese method of writing Chinese characters in our alphabet. It produces a simplified version of Chinese for children to learn, and is also used for texting, slang and to make it possible to type on a keyboard. It also helps the rest of the world to understand Chinese words. Beijing is a pinyin word, for example. Will the use of Chinese characters eventually die out as the influence of pinyin and English is felt there? And we hear about the language war raging in Singapore, the only country in Asia with English as its first language, between standard English and Singlish, the local variant. Contributors include William Zhou, Chen "Cathy" Liu,"Pinyin Joe"- Joe Katz, Victor Mair and Singaporean podcaster extraordinaire "mr brown", aka Kin Mun Lee.

Unfortunately, the online version of the program will only be available for a few more days. (Why? I have no idea.)


  1. Damien Hall said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    Episodes of BBC radio series are often only available online until the next episode is aired (and Word of Mouth is weekly). Of course, that doesn't answer the question as to why that should be so – I assume the answer is to do with one or more of the following: the BBC having to draw the line somewhere, not having the money to have infinite online storage, copyright, licence-payers' money.

    [(myl) If online storage costs are the rationale, then the BBC's bean counters are even less quantitatively literate than their reporters generally are. High-quality audio mp3's are 128 kilobits per second, which is 16 kilobytes, or 60x60x16000 = 57.6 megabytes per hour, or 57.8*24 = 1.3824 gigabytes per 24 hours day, or 1.3824*365 = 504.576 gigabytes per year of 24/7 audio. Since you can now buy terabyte disks for under $100 retail, that's about $50 per year of audio storage.

    It's true that you'd need to add a larger sum for back-ups, and more money for the computers and cabling; and more for the bandwidth (except that the expected number of listeners for old programs is probably not very large). So maybe it's $500 per year of audio rather than $50. But still, if the cost of leaving the stuff on line is the reason, then either their accountants or their IT department are living in 1985.]

    Also, another nit-pick (sorry!): BBC4 (which you use in the title) is a TV channel (like the TV equivalent of Radio 4, in fact: good, intelligent programming) – if you want to refer to the radio station, you have to use its full name, as you did in the body of the post.

    After all that, thanks for pointing it out, and I'll give it a listen before the next two days are up!

  2. Garrett Wollman said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 6:05 pm

    I believe Damien is right: the BBC typically only contracts for streaming rights for seven days after the last over-the-air broadcast. A very few Radio 4 time-slots are purchased with podcast rights, and these are usually available for somewhat longer (and, more importantly, available through mechanisms other than the proprietary "iPlayer" system); the comedy slot at 6:30pm on Friday nights is one such, but most programmes are not. It's not obvious to me that doing it this way actually saves them any money — streaming of the "iPlayer" sort probably costs more in aggregate than downloads or podcasting would; it's more likely that they do it to increase the potential audience for reruns and paid downloads/compilation sales. (This is in contrast to U.S. public radio programs, most of which are made available for download because the underwriters require it. Some independently-produced shows are only available for paid download.)

  3. maidhc said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

    Most BBC radio shows are only available for a week, but In Our Time and a few others are available more or less permanently.

    If you have an XP system you can record the shows for later using the free program Audacity. If you have Vista or Windows 7 I suppose you could try connecting your headphone output to the microphone input to do the same.

    [(myl) Yes, I've done this for the program in question, even though it turns out that the BBC iPlayer Terms and Conditions seem to say that I shouldn't:

    12. You agree:

    # not to attempt to, or assist any other person to, copy, reproduce, lend, hire, broadcast, distribute or transmit in any other way the BBC Content in whole or in part other than by using the "Link to this Feature"or as permitted in these Terms or to circumvent or remove the digital rights security measures embedded in the BBC Content;

    # not to attempt to, or assist any other person to reverse engineer, de-compile, disassemble, alter, duplicate, modify, rent, lease, loan, sub-licence, make copies, create derivative works from, distribute or provide others with the BBC iPlayer BBC iPlayer Desktop in whole or part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms and to the extent permitted by law.

    It's not clear to me why they should care about keeping people from being able to hear Word of Mouth for more than a week after its initial broadcast. It's not like they're paying Victor and the other interviewees royalties or anything.]

    Another language-related podcast is Lingua Franca from ABC Radio National. These are up for about 4 weeks.

  4. Garrett Wollman said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 11:25 pm

    @myl: "It's not clear to me why they should care about keeping people from being able to hear Word of Mouth for more than a week after its initial broadcast. It's not like they're paying Victor and the other interviewees royalties or anything."

    On the other hand, their contracts with the producers and presenters may well call for residuals.

    [(myl) You mean Chris Ledgard is an independent contractor, not a BBC employee? And his contract is structured so that his work needs to disappear from their site after a week? In order not to interfere with the massive revenues that he gets by retailing it at __? If so, that's certainly working out well for everyone!]

  5. peter said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 6:48 am

    Who knows the proximate reason for the BBC's strange radio listening and TV viewing rights policies, but I suspect the ultimate reason is the predominance within the Entertainment industry of a theory of spectating rights based on time-tiering. For example, you can watch a new movie when it appears in the cinemas, or six months later on DVD, or 1 year later on pay TV, or 3 years later on free-to-air TV. There are no technical or legal reasons for this partitioning; it is merely how the entertainment industry has decided to segment their customers. Why a state-owned broadcaster, whose income depends on a compulsory fee paid by owners of television sets, should feel the need to comply with such an antiquated market segmentation is beyond me.

  6. Franz Bebop said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

    The first line in the broadcast: "Mandarin is said to be one of the hardest languages for English-speakers to learn, and vice versa." Who believes this statement? I don't. Mandarin really isn't that hard, in comparison to other languages I've studied.

    Hanzi characters are hard to read and write, but that has nothing to do with the Mandarin language itself. It's a property of the writing, not the language.

    I also doubt very much that English is the hardest foreign language for Mandarin-speakers.

  7. Dan T. said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

    Professional corporate sites tend to be very restrictive about what they keep up in their archives, being subject to all sorts of contracts, legal restrictions, a desire to move things behind paywalls to make money off them, etc. In contrast, hobby sites (blogs, etc.), usually keep everything online indefinitely, at least until the hobbyist loses interest and lets his hosting account or domain name lapse.

    [(myl) My impression is a bit different. These days, commercial sites generally keep old stuff up forever, and work to add archives of stuff that was never on the web in the first place. They may try to monetize their archives by selling advertising, or they may charge in some way for access to old stuff, but increasingly it's all there. Either the policy of BBC Radio 4 is due to some quirky and ill-considered bureaucratic decision — or perhaps a once-plausible decision that's never been revisited — or else there's something weird about the laws and policies that established them as a government-subsidized quasi-monopology.]

  8. Nick Lamb said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 6:15 am

    It isn't about the storage space (any more). BBC employees have access to the modern archives and can get last year's Thought for the Day for June 17th or whatever else they might want. But they aren't supposed to give it to you because of the copyright issue. For those reading who have a legitimate research need it's definitely worth contacting them, explaining what material you need and why.

    [(myl) What "copyright issue"? Garrett Wollman (above) says that "the BBC typically only contracts for streaming rights for seven days after the last over-the-air broadcast". If that's true, why is it true? It's not like there's another market for archival access to these shows, or for that matter much of a market for the first broadcast. The BBC has a near-monopoly position. So is the problem that their contracts people (rather than their bean-counters and their IT department) are living in 1985?]

  9. Will said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    A few random comments.

    I can understand the presenter saying it wrong, but maybe "Pinyin Joe" should start by learning how to pronounce "pinyin" at least somewhat properly.

    Saying that Pinyin (Hanyu Pinyin) had a single inventor is a little misleading; obviously it owes quite a bit to the romanization systems which preceded it. It's ultimately just a coherent way of representing all possible sounds in Mandarin phonetically.

    Regarding people using pinyin as an input method for computers / phones, I'd think that might actually slow down rather than increase as Mr. Mair speculates, as alternative methods of input (besides keyboards) become more viable… for example, now that a lot of Apple's computers and phones can use the trackpad or screen as an input device, I would imagine using tablet / trackpad for input might grow in popularity. Of course it was possible to do character input with a tablet before too, but devices now are more likely to have built in hardware and software support for it. Entering text with pinyin is pretty fast, especially since computers generally do a good job of guessing compound words, but there's still a lot of disambiguation involved, and it sounds like most of the other text-based input methods (besides either pinyin or zhuyin / bopomofo) are a little more complicated to learn, even if they are eventually faster.

    I wasn't quite sure about the bit about getting past censors using pinyin – did Mair mean using the actual roman characters for the pinyin of Chinese homophones (like guge), or the actual characters? Either way, I don't see how pinyin is really that relevant here – Chinese would be both figuring out ways to get around censors, and "Chinese-ifying" foreign words with or without pinyin. With or without some sort of a romanization system, you can approximate foreign words using Chinese sounds.

    Describing how many people have studied English in school in China seems a little misleading, because, if personal experience is any indication, I would bet that many or most of the millions who have *studied* English can't really speak or understand it at a very functional level. Just as you couldn't say that everyone in the US who's ever studied French is a "French speaker", I think many of these people are not an English speaker in the sense that many listeners might expect.

  10. maidhc said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 6:13 am

    The question of recording BBC programs for later listening is complicated by the international nature of the question.

    Under US law, I believe that recording for the purpose of time-shifting, for personal use, is considered "fair use".

    If the BBC chooses to make programs available worldwide, I believe they must be willing to abide by the laws of whatever country the programs can be accessed from.

    The user agreements posted by the BBC may not be enforceable if they contravene the laws in effect in the country in which the user lives.

    In any case, you could record the program on to cassette tape. I believe that is legal just about anywhere. So the notion that doing the digital equivalent could be illegal is fairly dubious. I don't think the BBC is going to be too worried if the only thing that happens to your copy is that you listen to it on your MP3 player.

    [(myl) Whether or not this is correct as a general matter of international copyright law, why in the world should the BBC care whether listeners, in the UK or elsewhere, time-shift a program like Word of Mouth? Their funding comes from license fees, via the government, and isn't affected in any way by what listeners choose to do with recorded versions of their programs. ]

  11. Victor Mair said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    @Franz Bebop

    As a matter of fact, when Chris Ledgard interviewed me and he began with that line, I explicitly and directly countered him by saying that, of all the languages I've learned, Mandarin is by far the easiest, whereas of all the scripts I've studied, Chinese is by far the hardest.

  12. Mark said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    I would like to hear the show but it seems to have been replaced already.
    Anyone have an alternative source?

    I gave up on BBC radio on-line after getting too many "not available in your country"-type messages. Just now, checking to see if anything had changed, I tried to access BB4, it asked for my country of origin, and it came back with this exact message: "Opps. We were not able to find any places called 'United States of America'. "

    So, they're subsidized by the government and therefore don't actually need an audience? Bragg's program on podcast is pleasant to listen to whilst (sic) on the elliptical machine, however.

RSS feed for comments on this post