The Secret Ingredient to Language Learning

Yesterday my teacher said that my way of learning grammar was unique.  She even did an impression of me;  quietly reading an grammar explanation, frowning, nodding… and then producing well-formed sentences.  Most people are not like that, she said.  

Well, I’m glad to be able to do that.  I’ve been studying grammar all my life and I know my way around some verbs.  Romance languages taught me about grammatical agreement, tense, voice, and mood.  Chinese has taught me about shifting focus away from the actor of a sentence using grammar; putting it instead on an object. So the places where Tagalog is “difficult” reminds me a lot of work that I have done before.  I can read a grammatical explanation off the page and then start producing.  

Here’s the deal though; grammatical analysis is NOT the language learning superpower.  It’s handy, absolutley, and it’s impressive to bystanders, but it’s not the secret ingredient.  

The secret ingredient is practice.  Even though I can produce well-formed sentences from a first reading of an explanation, I still have to practice the forms in real conversation.  I still have to make mistakes and work thorugh doubts and get confused.  Does everybody hear this?  I’m going to make mistakes.  That’s how I’ll get to fluency, just like everyone else.  

I can know the mechanics and physics of how a bicycle works; I can do all the math and analyse the process, but I won’t know how to ride a bike until I physically put myself on the bike and pedal.  The process necessarily involves wobbling and falling.  

I do have very high expectations for myself this summer; I expect to learn a lot about Tagalog, academically.  Whether or not I become a proficient speaker, though, will depend on my willingness to practice and make mistakes.  Just like everybody else.  From a proficiency standpoint, I’m in the same position as someone who can’t tell an adjective from an adverb.  Practice is still everything.  

I keep rememebering back when I finished my study abroad in France, and I left disappointed in my level of French.  But then a year later after 9 months back in Seattle, I realized I had a new command of vowels and an ease with complex structures that I had gained without any intentional effort on my part.  

People like to believe that they have direct control over their learning, that working hard will produce a direct improvement over time.  But we have to remember, we’re not filing langauge into our brains; we’re giving langauge to our brains to file.  The good news is that it’s instinctual, and it goes faster than we think.  The bad news that we’re not really in control of the schedule, and we do like to feel in-control.

The best we can do is practice our faces off with real communication, as much as possible, on a daily basis.  Get plenty of sleep, hand have healthy blood circulation so the brain can install the new language.  And to try to be joyful about language learning, as our memories hold on to emotion.  

Reading grammar off the page?  It’s not the secret ingredient.  It’s still a pretty cool trick, though.  

Some iPad Magic

So I’m taking the German class, and one of the things we do for our teacher ever week is to record an audio journal.  I use Voice Recorder (FREE) to record on my the journal on my phone.  It’s very easy to use, but I haven’t found a great way to edit audio on the iPhone or on the iPad.  I suppose I’m a little picky, being a recovering podcaster and all.  I am trying to find a way to assign audio homework to my students as well, without it being a pain in the neck to collect and grade.

This week I made the video above using Adobe Voice, which is a crazy easy way to narrate a slideshow.  In terms of audio, it’s even easier than the voice recorder; you can’t edit the audio, but you can do multiple takes of smaller chunks of audio.  Also, there is a good chance that your slideshow might actually be interesting to watch.  It’s a thing right now to make student work that is shareable; the idea is that students try harder when they know that their audience is the whole internet.

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The image to the left is a screenshot of me using the Google Translate app camera function on my German homework.  I pointed my camera at some German sentences, and the app changed them to English right before my eyes like magic.  Well, “English” is a strong word; the translations come out a little janky.

The funny thing about Google Translate is that people, and by people I mean students–they don’t want to believe that the final product is often janky.  They see the sentence “At me in” and “They comes from Germany” and they think, oh yes, this is an awesome way to get my homework done faster.  Then when a teacher like me confronts them and says “this is a machine translation,” they get all haughty and say they worked really hard, and how dare you accuse them, my daddy is a lawyer, meow meow meow…

(It’s the same when they get a native speaker to translate their homework for them; the native speakers throw in advanced grammar and idioms and the students try to pass it off as their own.)

It’s not even difficult to spot.

Finally, my German teacher Frau S showed be a paperback book called “Café in Berlin” from the “Learn German With Stories” series  I was surprised, because I’ve already read this book; in fact I’ve read the whole series.  I told Frau S that I read it on my kindle, which is handy because you can just poke at a word to find the definition in the dictionary.  She was not happy at all when I said this, because looking up everything instantly is not good for your second language reading strategies.  Don’t worry, Frau S, this is not my first rodeo.  Anyway, I’m halfway to a paperless lifestyle; no more paperbacks for me.

My 2015 Language Goals

I know it’s already February, but I barely had time to breathe in January to post my language goals for the year.

First of all, I’ve started a German class on the weekends. Late last year I asked if anyone wanted to take a beginning language class with me; any class. S stepped up and said she wanted to take German, so I said great!

I took my first German class in the summer of 1994 in Ann Arbor; it was a German for Reading Knowledge course, and there was no attempt to make us into German speakers. I don’t remember how I felt about the language or the people back then; I just remember that the class itself was pointless. It was a requirement for my program because a lot of the scholarship in diachronic Romance linguistics had been in Germany.

German is a super cognate language with English, but the case system is robust (more robust than I’m used to, at least) so the relationships between nouns in a sentence is pretty opaque to me, which just means it’s going to take some getting used to. Pronunciation and reading doesn’t seem to be all that difficult. I’m doing my best to speak every day at work and to keep a summer in Germany within my sites.

My major language goal this year is Tagalog, and I’m planning a long six weeks in Metro Manila, studying with a tutor and hopefully talking my face off. I have some huge heritage bonuses with Tagalog, but at this point I still have problems making sentences with more than one noun. Tagalog grammar monster is the “trigger system,” which teachers call “focus” and linguists refer to as “topicalization,” basically it means that a verb in a given sentence is going to agree morphologically with the noun that you’re trying to stress.

This “trigger system” is the one thing they didn’t teach us at SEASSI in 2002, and it’s the whole punchline of the story. Teaching Tagalog without teaching the trigger system makes as much sense as teaching Spanish without verb tenses, or Chinese without word order; it’s the MAIN EVENT. I’ve had time to wrap my head around it intellectually, but I’m taking the summer to wrap my mouth around it

My biggest worry about Tagalog is trying to get Filipinos not to speak to me in English. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has switched into pure English on me and then denied it when I pointed it out, and then screamed with laughter when they realize that I’m right. The level of bilingualism is so high that the line between Tagalog and English is often invisible to them. It’s not like in China or France when people look at your shoes and decide to speak English to the Gringo because they don’t like your pants; in this case, it will be me, a native speaker of Filipino English, asking other native speakers of Filipino English not to speak to me in Filipino English, and instead be uncomfortable as I struggle to match verb morphology to noun topics.

The other thing is that most Filipinos I know have never had to be language learning allies. I once had a phone conversation with my mama, explaining to her how she didn’t have to give me English translations; how she could do things like offer me options when I get stumped on a word. Now my mama is a great language learning ally… unlike my dad, who enjoys trying to stump me. This is exactly why I have an English-only policy with my dad, and that’s just fine.

There are other kinds of native speakers, besides the Allies and the Stumpers. There are the DAMMIT JUST SPEAK ENGLISH people, who are worthless to me. Also there are the Horror Movie Victims, who run away screaming. I don’t expect any Filipinos to be Horror Movie Victims, but I saw plenty of those people in Mainland China.

When I get back to Seattle after the great Manila adventure, I’m sure I’ll be back to concentrating on Mandarin Chinese. Here are some other places I’d like to spend time learning language: Korea, Japan, Brazil, Germany, ASL. The list of languages I will need a refresher trip in: Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese. The list of languages I’d consider someday, if I had the time: Arabic, Swahili. I’ll probably give up before I get to those, though.

Language learning: I’m docking you points for that.

I was walking through a bookstore today–a real, old-fashioned book store, with paper books and everything. I wasn’t shopping for paper books, of course, just taking a walk after a breakfast I regretted eating. Anyway I wandered up to the foreign language section, of course, and found another book with language learning method. This book, of course, emphasized “hacking” your brain, which brings images of MacGyver starting a car with chewing gum and falling barometric pressure, or frantically swapping computer chips in zero gravity before you drown in your own carbon dioxide.

Your brain is a language learning machine. That’s what it does. That’s why you learned your first language; that’s why you continue to ‘pick up’ accents and slang, buzzwords, and jargon; words you never heard before–without much instruction.

Your brain doesn’t need to be hacked. Maybe your attitude needs to be hacked. Your behavior should be hacked. Your approach is probably wrong; you might have an “ugly swing,” to borrow some golf lingo. Most people I know, including myself, have crazy counter-productive habits that sabotage their language learning. I wish I could dock people points. Not that I want them to feel bad. I just don’t think it’s realistic to play basketball without whistling down fouls, or to let restaurants with rat infestations operate without notices and fines.

Fines.  Actually, who cares about points; let’s make it interesting. Here are some fines I’d like to asses on you. I’ll give you my email address if you’d like to deposit the fines into my Paypal account.

$10 Every time you pause our target language conversation to ask “was that right?” Yes, it’s right. When it’s not right, I’ll correct you. Stop making every damn conversation about target language grammar and vocabulary, you egomaniac. The fine doubles if you switch to English. You have to understand how boring it is to have to talk to someone who can’t get through the conversation without calling attention to their sentences.

$10 Every time you just have to tell me something in English. It better be a matter of LIFE OR DEATH if you’re going to forgo the target language, and even if it is a matter of life or death, I’m still going to need ten dollars.

$10 for using your flashcards to produce English. So if your flash card says “el plátano” and in your mind you think “that means banana” and then you turn the card over and say “yasssss, banana, I was right!”, then congratulations, you have just rewarded yourself for producing English instead of Spanish. That will be $10 per card, please.

There will be a $50 fine for feeling bad about making mistakes. The fine is squared if you make another learner feel bad about making mistakes. Your job is to make mistakes, and then learn from them, forgive them, and then laugh at them. And not repeat them. The maxim is “learn from your mistakes,” the implication is that you actually have to make mistakes in order to learn.

There will be a $50 fine for people who feel bad about getting something RIGHT. This includes the teenagers who get the right answer, but still find away to hate and punish themselves. It also includes my heritage language brothers and sisters, for whom vocabulary and grammar triggers deep emotional conflicts after decades of not speaking your parents’ language. In the case of heritage shame, I will dedicate the fines I will have collected to a foundation dedicated to showing you that it wasn’t your fault. In the case of teenage hatred, that money will contribute to my personal wealth.

Every time you refuse a free word or gracious correction, you owe me $100. When you forget or flub a word, the person you’re talking to usually guesses what you’re trying to say and then SAYS IT TO YOU.

“It’s time to get some sleef.”
“It’s time to get some sleep?

It happens just like that, casually. Your job is to accept the correction and say the word out loud. Repeat it. Don’t nod at them or give the “correct” signal from charades, unless your learning target is the “correct” signal from charades. Say it out loud with your mouth.

$100 Every time you do an assignment just for the sake of finishing it, paying no attention to the learning objective. If you didn’t learn, you have wasted your time. If the teacher has to grade it, you have wasted your teacher’s time. You could have spent that time learning, and making the test later much easier for you. But you didn’t, so you’re test is going to be a pain to take, and a pain to correct.  傷不起。 Well now on top of that, you’re buying me a steak, potato, salad bar, a glass of wine and dessert to share. I deserve it, frankly.

$100 Every time you choose memorization over communication with living people. If you can’t go out with your target language friends because you have to stay home and practice your dumb vocab quizzing software, then send me money. If your face is buried in some app that calls itself the “fastest, easiest, most fun way to learn,” instead of exchanging basic pleasantries with the grandma sitting next to you on the bus, I’m going to need you to cut me a check.

$100 Every time you make a claim that you are some special snowflake that has a special second language impediment that the world has not yet discovered. You are probably the 7 billionth person to feel challenged and discouraged. You don’t have to blame someone or find a medical exemption.

$100 Every time you confuse temporary confusion and frustration with acute physical pain. That’s not pain. If you’re one of those people whose pain receptors actually do fire, then obviously you are a special case. But for the people who take ill and act like they’re going to die when they forget a word? that’s not pain kids. Now give me your money.

It’s a $100 to expect a friend or loved one to act as your simultaneous interpreter. Actually, $100 is pretty cheap as far a s simultaneous two-way interpretation goes. If you have a relationship that’s established in English, that person cannot be your interpreter, or language teacher for that matter, without straining your relationship. Pay someone else to be your interpreter or language teacher; professionals are payed by the hour.

$5000 every time you propagate some pseudo-scientific language learning folklore by treating it as gospel truth. For example, if you tell me that “studies have shown that humans can’t learn a language after puberty, then please multiply that sum by the number of languages I have learned after puberty. I thank you greatly. Oh the learning style excuse! “I’m a visual learner so I have to see it written or else I’m medically incapable of learning,” you owe me $5000.

“JP,” you say, “Isn’t it horribly discouraging to impose penalties on people” Well yes, you’re probably right. This blog post does not, in actuality, suggest a course of action. However, I hope it makes you realize that you’re doing a whole bunch of counter-productive habits that sabotage your language learning.

I could keep adding to the list of fines, but I’ve probably alienated enough people today already. In the future look forward to a list of fines I’d like to issue to unhelpful native speakers.

Anyway, before you go hacking your brain, try hacking your horribly counter-productive habits that sabotage your language learning first.

Just to wash the stench of negativity off of this post, here’s a splash of affirmative instruction. The great secret; the great “hack;” the sneakiest short cut to language learning is this: use the target language in real communication. For most of you, that will mean suspending your native language temporarily to give your target language room to grow.

That’s it. You don’t have to buy anything, and no, there’s no software or app that will bypass this for you. If you want to learn to ride a bike, you get on the bike and ride it. If you want to learn to eat with chopsticks, you put chopsticks in your hand and eat with them. If you want to speak a certain language with people, you start by SPEAKING THAT LANGUAGE WITH PEOPLE.

Ask me another time about the miracle of practice; I have more stories to tell.

Know Thyself in 2014

Here’s what I learned about myself in 2014.  I’m pretty slow to perceive stuff about myself, so it’s a short list.

1.  I need expensive shampoo.  Need.  For decades I was buying the cheapest shampoo possible.  When I landed in Taiwan in July, I bought a random shampoo off the shelf; I think my only criteria was seeing the English word “shampoo.”  I noticed pretty quickly that the stuff I bought seemed to clear up a lot of dandruff and skin problems I had been having since forever.  I got around to reading the bottle after a while (it was mostly in Chinese, so I had been disregarding it).  It was some kind of olive oil, super wholesome, no-harsh-sulfates-or-parabens-havin’ bottle of magic syrup.  When I got back to Seattle I made sure to buy something similar.

Just a few days ago, I ran out of it, and I had to use some of the old harsh stuff for a couple of days until I could make it to the drug store for more ben & jerry’s shampoo.  Those were dark days. One afternoon put my forehead down on the case of my laptop, and when I pulled away there was a huge, oily grease spot where my forehead had been, complete with rainbow slicks and suffocating sea birds.  It was bad.

So now, at age 42, I’ve finally learned my lesson… I buy $10 bottles of shampoo instead of $1.50 bottles.  I don’t even know what sulfates and parabens are; I just know that my skin is healthier and I imagine that fewer dust mites are crapping and sexing all over my face.

2.  I hate the Santa Claus lie.  I hate that an omniscient elderly white clown from the Arctic is judging me and rewarding my behavior with retail merchandise, by means of breaking and entering.  I hate the anxiety that it causes in kids, anxiety that is usually interpreted as wonder and joy, anxiety which adults create for their own entertainment.  I hate that people bust their asses to earn money and then crawl all over each other to shop for these gifts, only to give all the credit to the freakishly-dressed elf.  What if you just gave your kids gifts, instead of lying?

I know people are going to call me a grinch and a killjoy for all this, but I don’t give a crap. I have small nieces and nephews, and their parents don’t have to worry about me ashing all over their Santa Claus lie, but when those poor kids are old enough, I will apologize to them for the lie on behalf of the adults, and get them good gifts, gifts made of metal.

(I’ve felt this way since I was very young, but today’s TAL finally pushed me over the edge).

4.  While I’m at it, I want to say that I also really hate watching when people surprise/ambush little kids with their soldier parents returning from war.  I know most people interpret this as joy and euphoria, but what I see is kids crying; months or years of horrible anxiety, finally bursting like a blister at the sight of their parent, and then BROADCAST ON TELEVISION.  Yes of course it’s a good thing to be reunited with a parent returned from war, but it never looks to me like the kids want to be on TV.  It looks to me like they are crying, burying their faces, they want time alone with their parents.  I for one think they deserve time alone with their parents, every second, and the television spectator has no business gawking at them. Maybe that’s just me.  Also the fact that that whole ambush has to be set up with their classroom teacher or on the Ellen show… I’m pretty sure that the tears and the crying happens regardless of the ambush set up.  I know people see joy, but what I see is all the agony they must have gone through.  Maybe it is joy, I don’t know.  What I do know is that it looks highly, highly personal, and if it were me I wouldn’t want cameras in my face.

4.  I can still acquire language in the wild.  I started Mandarin in 2006 and took a slow road to competence, including a few “intensive” programs that were just garbage, and a year and a half in Shanghai where my Spanish improved immensely, but my Chinese pretty much stalled out.  I know I go around preaching language acquisition like a prophet with his pants on fire, but… after stalling out in Shanghai, I still had my doubts.  I wondered if I was ever going to make it to advanced proficiency.

This summer in Taiwan, I didn’t pay people to present grammar to me, and then test me on it.  Testing is a waste of time.  Instead, I paid people to let me talk my face off every day. The result?  I felt like I was learning faster than I could academically manage it.  I felt like my brain was not only soaking it up like a sponge, but actually attracting any stray language that happened to wander near me.  I know the feeling because I’ve been through it before.  People notice it happening.  It’s exciting.

Now, my Chinese is still not yet where I want it; probably Intermediate (High).  There are good days and bad days.  When I’m among close friends, it’s a good day.  When I’m with strangers or second language speakers who are more proficient than I am, I feel my own level sink down to Intermediate (Low), which is disappointing but I am used to it at this point.

When will I make it to Advanced (Low)?  Who knows, maybe I’ll never get there; that can’t be my goal.  My goal is to have lifelong, fulfilling relationships with Mandarin speakers, and to enjoy myself; if I can accomplish that, I know I’ll blow past Advanced (Low) without even thinking about it.

5.  I love salmon cream cheese.  It’s all I want to eat.

I am pretty certain that I will abusive comments about what a jerk I am for hating Santa and for wanting to deprive people of their constitutional right to watch kids to get emotional broken when their parents are home from a dangerous deployment on a couple weeks leave.  I don’t care anymore.  I don’t really go onto other people’s blogs to take them to task about opinions they are entitled to, but Santa Clause is a sacred cow, and so is gawking at kids whose parents we’ve literally sent into a war zone.

Maybe someone will take me to task over salmon cream cheese.  That will be a relief.

The Rubric! It’s alive!

A few months ago, this post dropped the idea all over me to give students a picture of what improving proficiency looks like.

So I copied it exactly. (Teachers share stuff, it’s a thing).

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It’s only been a couple of days, Already my students have a) discovered it and b) started conversations about where they live on the chart.

I always ask them if they like how the arrows rise; they give me a surprised look and tell me they thought I was just really bad at lining up arrows. Then I ask them if I should change it, and they say “no.”

It’s Supposed To Be Fun! and Lingo Interactive

A friend of mine today was telling me about his summer learning project.  He was in Guatemala, learning Kaqchikelone of the dozens of indigenous languages spoken by the Maya.  He’s been at it for a couple of years, and he said this summer he felt a breakthrough.  Of course, ever since he started, he’s been fighting off some pretty unimaginative people who say “Kaqchikel, WHAT are you going to do with THAT?!”  

The answer to that question is always, “I’m gonna talk to some people in that language, dummy.”  I think some people think that there has to be some kind of million dollar business opportunity at the end of it, otherwise it’s not worth the effort.  

Anyway, my friend went on to say that he told himself that it was about the journey, and that he made a decision to enjoy it. So he enjoyed Guatemala, he enjoyed his teachers, He enjoyed the process.  

This is the Way of the Language Learning Jedi.  The satisfaction and gratification don’t come at the end of some long road of suffering and toil  If it’s not fun along the way, you’re doing it wrong. It’s supposed to be fun.  

I’ve been doing language learning for 25 years now, and I hope people don’t think it’s because I have some kind of special talent, or I have some kind of amazing memory, or I somehow enjoy suffering.  None of those things are true.  I’m a serial language learner because I find the process rewarding.  I’m a serial language learner because it’s fun to do. I get to travel and meet people, try new foods and do new things.  Sure, crappy people can be a drag sometimes, but that happens if whether you learn language or not… why not just learn language.  

Sometimes it’s little fun.  Sometimes that “fun” is that tiny spark of self-satisfaction when you remember a vocab word in the wild, or when you meet cool native speakers who are happy to talk to you, and treat you like a person.  Sometimes that “fun” means soaring above the mountain canopy in a sky lift to a tea house, where you drink tea and over eat for hours.  Some times that “fun” means drinking a little bit of beer and then nominating your friends to kiss at a loud, screamingly funny Japanese-themed restaurant so that your table can get free pork.  Sometimes it’s big fun. 

Anyway, I’m glad for my friend, and I love to hear success stories from people that get it.  

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Speaking of loving to hear success stories from people that get it, my friend Frank’s kickstarter campaign for Lingo Interactive dropped earlier today, and I hope he gets funded!  I met Frank seven years ago in Shanghai, and we’ve been good friends ever since.  For as long as I’ve known him, Frank has been passionate about language learning media, and wanting to get it right.  He’s got a few demos made over at the website Lingo Interactive, and they are sharp.  I’m excited to see this project take off, so please support the fundraising effort to get it off the ground!  

Taipei 2014: Post-game Wrap Up

So I’m back in Seattle now and enjoying the crazy roller-coaster of jetlag.  I’ve got a couple of weeks until I have to be in to work, but plenty of planning and stuff to do before that starts up again.  I’ve had a couple of days to think about my time in Taipei; here are my thoughts.

I had a good experience with Taipei Mandarin Institute (TMI). I got a super convenient room with a private shower, and the kind of lessons I wanted for the price of USD $400 per week.

When I showed up, I made it clear that I didn’t want to be spending any time reading any boring ass insulting useless bullshit dialogs and readings that I’m accustomed to. So my classes were mostly conversation: me talking my face off for hours at a time.  My teachers didn’t expose me to any new grammar, instead they gave me room to practice the grammar I had already been “shown.”

Here’s the deal; a lot of programs show you a bunch of stuff; they say “Look, here’s 了, here’s 才,here’s 把 and 被”… and then they brush the dust off their hands, pat themselves on the back and say that they have taught it to you. They conflate showing with teaching, and when the student doesn’t master it by the Friday quiz, everybody blames the student.  It’s like showing someone how to drive but then not letting them get behind the wheel; or showing someone how to dribble a basketball without letting them actually dribble a basketball.

In my one-on-one conversation classes, they put me behind the wheel; they handed me the ball and let me dribble it.  The teachers and the curriculum were not pushing me into new territory.  I had plenty to say, and the need to communicate made me stumble onto important new grammatical territory myself. My biggest area of growth was in my ability to discuss movies, which is something I did both during and outside of class.

As for reading, I didn’t do a lot of it.  However, my teacher sent me the link to a bunch of stories and fables on PDF, which I’m now reading voraciously.  The link is a little 複雜 hard to navigate, so I’ll post them here as I download them.  The thing about reading them on PDF is that I can zoom in on the characters and see them… my eyes are getting old.

As for my speaking, my Chinese is a lot tighter now.  I think I’m now capable of being interesting to hang out with in Chinese.  I can be charming in Chinese and not have to rely on my good looks or money to keep people’s interest.  I think.  My tones are tighter, my sentences are tighter, and I’m using a lot more vocabulary.

Finally I have to say something about Taiwan.  That country is safe, clean, modern, convenient, friendly, and inexpensive. The food is good, it’s easy to make friends, there’s plenty to do, and plenty to talk about.  I saw a lot of Mandarin learners making some counterproductive learning choices (like over-studying, or defaulting to English), but Taiwan is still a really good place to be.  On “Conducive to Language Learning,” Taiwan scores a 9/10, right below Italy.

If you have questions about my stay in Taiwan, just ask.  Remind me to blog about:  Immersion by Relationship, Overstudying, Default to Target.

Why I’ve Switched to 注音符號 Zhuyin Bopomofo ㄅㄆㄇㄈ

I don’t think anyone has any interest in this post.
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When people see my Chinese notes, they notice that I am annotating my new vocabulary words with the Bopomofo phonetic notation: ㄅㄆㄇㄈ, more formally known as 注音符號, which is the system that they use here in Taiwan to give phonetic readings; it’s a system that predates the advent of Pinyin in Mainland China.

And when people notice that my notes are annotated with ㄅㄆㄇㄈ, they always say, “Well, I’m sticking with Pinyin because…” It’s very important to them that I know why they’re sticking with Hanyu Pinyin. I didn’t even ask or bring it up; they just saw my notes and start their testimonial.

When they finish, sometimes I give them some of the reasons that I have switched to ㄅㄆㄇㄈ, but they DON’T CARE. It annoys them to hear my reasons. I will be surprised if any Mandarin learner has made it down this far in the post.

A couple years ago, I tried to get my classes to learn ㄅㄆㄇㄈ, but they were horrible HORRIBLE at it, so I gave up. Since ㄅㄆㄇㄈ and Pinyin are almost exactly parallel, they are horrible at Pinyin as well, but they’re comfortable with it, and honestly, it’s easier for me to see Pinyin mistakes and mark them wrong. So my classes stick with Pinyin and I don’t evangelize ㄅㄆㄇㄈ anymore.

So anyway, nobody asked, but here are the reasons I’ve switched to ㄅㄆㄇㄈ:

  • I already learned it. It took, what, a couple of hours to learn it. I switched my dictionary to show me ㄅㄆㄇㄈ, and zero Pinyin. At first I’d forget a symbol, but then I hit the audio play button and could associate the sound. So now that I know it, and I got familiar with it, why wouldn’t I use it?
  • The Taiwanese are better at it. I’m studying in Taiwan, my teachers prefer it, they don’t mess it up. Incidentally, it’s the 2nd Language speakers and the Mainlanders who send SMS text messages that are really good at Pinyin, but I’ve met more than one Mainlander who will tell me “CH” when I really need a “Q.” I haven’t found that among the ㄅㄆㄇㄈ-using Taiwanese folks.
  • Pinyin looks too much like words. Pinyin is only supposed to be a phonetic guide, and to the Chinese people who use it, it totally is. However, I’m literate in a few languages that use the Roman alphabet, and when I see Pinyin my brain immediately sees a word. And then my brain does something interesting: it TOTALLY DISREGARDS the Chinese character that I’m supposed to be reading. And I mean TOTAL. DISREGARD. When I’m trying to become literate in a language, TOTAL DISREGARD is not my friend. I can force my eyeballs to look at a new character, but then the Pinyin is RIGHT THERE, calling to me. My familiarity with ㄅㄆㄇㄈ is not that automatic; I tend to look at the character first, and only check the ㄅㄆㄇㄈ if I’m not sure how to pronounce it.
  • I can read Taiwanese-produced short stories that have in-line ㄅㄆㄇㄈ annotation. These are often charming, and therefore, readable. As an audience, I actually desire to continue reading until the end. I enjoy reading those short stories! The Pinyin-annotated readings, on the other hand, as a rule tend to be either totally mindless dialogs with everybody agreeing about something everybody already knows; or something horribly boring about the modern infrastructure of some industrial province; or something culturally offensive about how Westerners all collectively and simultaneously invented prostitution and then forced it upon the people of the Middle Kingdom.

So, the Taiwanese like to claim that ㄅㄆㄇㄈ is a more faithful representation of Mandarin phonetics, and I don’t care about that. As someone who is literate in English and French I’m long past the point where I need an alphabet to be completely consistent.

However I have to say that I haven’t totally abandoned Pinyin yet. Besides having to teach it to my students, for now it’s also easier to type characters using Pinyin, since I already know the keyboard.

In any case, there you go, the reasons that I use ㄅㄆㄇㄈ; reasons that no one has ever asked for. We can all now go back to our oyster omelets in peace.

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from MandarinPoster.com

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Taipei 2014 Day 18

Did anything happen yesterday?

My breakfast counter ran out of 蘿蔔糕 turnip cakes by the time I got there, so it was 蛋餅 a Taiwanese breakfast burrito with bacon and egg. Lunch at Kiwi Gourmet Burger, practice Chinese with Taiwan Amy

Afterward, I did my evening walk in 公館 Gongguan neighborhood, and stopped at Picnic, a charming cafe which appears to be all whimsical and casual and crafty, but the staff is very professional, silent behind the counter, and the food is immaculately prepared and presented and I spent almost 300塊 on a slice of quiche, a salad, and a little pot of iced tea. Totally worth it. Totally worth it. Plus, it would have been more expensive in the states; and probably less polished and a little bit irritating. The menus were all hand bound, hand illustrated, hand lettered books that my old man eyeballs could barely read, and I didn’t really get any pictures of it except for the wifi password, which is someone’s phone number so I won’t post it. Sorry, Frankalicious.

I got all my homework done there, and then walked home. Had a little chat with my roommates.

What else is going on? There’s a typhoon coming; from the satellite photos it looks like it’s coming STRAIGHT FOR ME. Not worried, but class might be cancelled. Tomorrow is laundry day anyway.

I’ve broken through the two-week headache barrier that I had spoken about before. I’m happy to report that on the other side of that headache barrier is a lazy attitude. I’ve felt this in France, Guatemala, Italy, and the last time I was in Taipei… that the first two weeks I try really hard to speak correctly, and that is accompanied by a headache (I’m not claiming a causal relationship). Now that that period has passed, I’m feeling pretty lazy about making language acquisition happen. Actually I know it’s happening, so I feel like I can just go about my day and talk my face off to people and make mistakes and get misunderstood and corrected and that’s just how it is. I’m not longer feeling like I have to hustle to make myself understood.

You know the scene in The Matrix, when they shove a guitar cable in the back of Keanu Reeves’ head, and he convulses in the chair, and then it stops, and his eyes open wide, and he says “I know Kung Fu.” That’s what the first two weeks feels like; like it’s all flooding in.

I know Kung Fu.

Unlike Neo the One, the information is still coming at me in a torrent. However, it no longer feels overwhelming.

I have, however, started to worry about going home. There are a LOT of social calls I haven’t made yet, and I have less than two weeks to make them all. I also worry about going home and not getting to practice Chinese every day.

Some ideas I have about future posts:

  • Why I’m all about 正體字 Traditional characters now.
  • Why I’m all about 注音符號 Bopomofo phonetics now (i.e., ㄅㄆㄇㄈ…)
  • Some people study too hard; it’s counter productive.
  • I hate the way they use the term 西方 “Western” here.
  • Cute animal! DON’T PET IT, STUPID.
  • Why we don’t go around calling people “Foreigner.”
  • Tagalog next summer? or Japanese? Or Portuguese? Or back to Italian or French? Pros and cons of each.

Finally, the an update on my cockroach friend. I walked into my shower this morning and found Mr. Cockroach halfway up the door, his legs caught in the hinge. When I opened the door, he fell into my room. So I swept him up with the dustpan and brought him to the common room, where there is a motel. He’s now halfway in the hotel, and I don’t think he’s coming out.

I like to think that there was just one cockroach that I kept seeing repeatedly, and that my shower porch was just a spot he was passing through. There’s nothing there for him but dry surfaces and lonely times. Now that he’s checked into the motel, I have a feeling that the rest of my stay in Taipei will be roach free.

DO NOT BURST MY BUBBLE PEOPLE. DO. NOT.