Archive for the 'linguistics' Category

How to memorize Chinese tones

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

One of the challenges in learning Chinese is remembering the tone for each word, but I’ve come up with a fool-proof method to learn tones in just a few seconds per word.

Use visual memory

Since the tone numbers (and even the tone symbols) are more or less arbitrary, you can substitute something more memorable for them. I assigned the following objects to visually represent the five tone contours in Mandarin Chinese (four tones plus “unmarked” tone):

  • Tower
  • Jet
  • Swing
  • Waterfall
  • Pavement

The tower and pavement images are motionless because the tone contours they represent don’t change. The others incorporate motion (imagine the jet taking off, the swing falling then rising from left to right, water plummeting down the waterfall).

I also assigned colors to each object to give my memory another feature by which to “index” the tones and to let me use highlighter pens to flag ones I want to remember. Since any color association would also be arbitrary, I assigned the primary colors in ROYGBIV order (with one exception) to yield the following:

  • Red Tower
  • Yellow Jet
  • Green Swing (like Tarzan’s)
  • Blue Waterfall
  • Grey Pavement

Pavement is the exception (grey instead of indigo), but it’s appropriate both because this symbol is supposed to represent no tone and grey is kind of a non-color, and because pavement is generally grey.

To remember a word’s tone, mentally picture the word with the appropriate object (or combination of objects if it’s a multi-syllable word). You can try it yourself: “Horse” in Chinese is mă, and it’s the third tone. To remember the tone, create a mental “story” associating a horse with a swing and/or the color green. The crazier, sillier, more action-packed, or violent the image, the easier it is to remember, so don’t just imagine a horse in a green swing (though that is probably silly enough). Instead, put the horse in a latex suit, and put the swing in a circus, S&M dungeon, or superhero training camp.

Update: MDBG, an online Chinese dictionary, has introduced the same color scheme I suggested above (except that it continues on to indigo for the the 5th tone/no tone instead of using grey).

This idea owes a lot to Harry Lorraine and to James Heisig.

Here are some other strategies for reinforcing your tone knowledge:

  1. Draw the tone in the air. Use your finger to indicate the tone while you are saying it. You will look like you are conducting an imaginary orchestra, but adding a physical element to your tone production makes the tones easier to recall. Many of the teachers here in Shanghai bob their head to indicate the tone instead of using their hands.
  2. Create tone families. I remember the tones for cow-milk (牛奶) and milk-cow (奶牛) by remembering that the French keep dairy cows for cheese even though they don’t drink much milk. I know that France is Fǎguó (3-2), so this pairing helps me remember that milk-cow is the same sequence.
  3. Add emotional color. suggests giving each tone a personality. For example, he thinks of the fifth tone as “secretive, deceptive”.

You lie, in faith, for you are call’d plain Cake

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

Andrew and I took the MagLev train to Pudong Airport to pick up Joel. His plane was delayed so we killed time in the Hope Star Cafe, which advertises “Coffee and Cate”. “Who’s Cate?”, we asked the waitress, and she pointed at the display case and said, “Cake! Cake!”. Andrew said, “That’s what I love about this place, no attention to detail.”

Japanese, like Chinese, has almost exclusively “open” syllables, which means syllables ending in a vowel, like Yo-ko-ha-ma. Since the vowel represented by “u” is not strongly pronounced in Japanese, that sound is generally used as the ending to “closed” syllables in foreign languages, so “baseball” becomes be-su ba-ru. An exception is syllable-final “t”, which is pronounced “ts” when combined with “u”. In that case, Japanese uses “o” at the end of the syllable, so my name is Roba-to and a present is a gifto. (Some Japanese speakers are aware of this rule and conscientiously delete every “o” following a “t” or a “d” in English, so that a colleague once asked me if I was planning to wear my “tuxeed” [tuxedo] to the Christmas party.)

I noticed that the hotel elevator lists “Front Dest” [Front Desk] as a first-floor destination, and wonder if there is some similar transliteration rule in Chinese that makes “t” an easy mistake for word-final “k”.

Large figures and tongue-twisters

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

We went to XinTianDi again this evening and ended up at the bar featured on the cover of the Lonely Planet Shanghai City Guide (TMSK), where we were privileged to pay $12 for a drink. We practiced saying 555,555,555.55 and 111,111,111.11 in Chinese (not easy), and tried the following tongue-twister:

shí sì shì shí sì
sì shí shì sì shí
shí sì bú shì
sì shí bú shì shí sì

(fourteen is fourteen
forty is forty
fourteen is not forty
forty is not fourteen)

For the record, the hardest tongue-twister I know in English is:

The Leith police dismisseth us.

The hardest tongue-twister I know, period, is one that Imme taught me:

Brautkleid bleibt Brautkleid und Blaukraut bleibt Blaukraut.

([A] Wedding dress remains [a] wedding dress and cabbage remains cabbage.)

False friend

Monday, September 29th, 2008

I was mailing a letter today and two American women at the station next to me wanted to send something by overnight express. The first girl was talking in English, and extremely quickly. The poor guy behind the counter couldn’t understand her, so her friend tried to help. The friend said in slow, careful German, “She wants to spend the night.” The guy behind their window blushed and the woman behind mine laughed aloud.

In the evening we had planned to watch a Bavarian movie called The Earlier You Die, the Longer You’re Dead, but some family drama with a younger sister caught up in a Turkish/East German conspiracy meant we drove to Lörrach and back instead. We had dinner at Brennessel when we got home, maybe my last spätzle for some time.


Thursday, September 18th, 2008

One of my friends in grad school gave her linguistics students instructions to observe and record a conversational misunderstanding. One of her apparently hapless students gave several examples from his own interactions during the week. In one, he met a girl in a bar and found out they both ran track for the university. After chatting for some time, she said, “We should go out some time”, meaning go out on a date. He thought she meant go out for a run, so answered, “How far do you go?”

In Japanese, the word hai means “yes”, and is also used to indicate that you have heard or are listening to someone. It sounds pretty much like the hi that English speakers use for hello, which made the following exchange common:

Foreign guest: Takemura-san?

Takemura: Hai!

Foreign guest, startled: Oh, hi! [sometimes accompanied by a wave]. I just wanted to ask you…

When I was waiting in the Frankfurt airport for the supposed bomb to be cleared off the train back to Freiburg, several extremely attractive women and one guy were wandering around with clipboards approaching people to complete a survey. The man approached me. He asked me in German, Do you live in Germany? I answered in English, No. He appeared to interpret that as, No, I don’t understand you/don’t understand German, and mirrored that back to me in pidgin English: You no German? I said, That’s right.. Basically he didn’t understand any of the immediate intention behind my responses, but was still able to draw out the full pragmatic value of the exchange, namely that I didn’t want to take his survey.


Thursday, September 11th, 2008

In at least one Amazonian language, pitch conveys much of the meaning of an expression, which makes it possible to whistle anything you want to say. As a result, Pirahã speakers can with little effort hold whistled conversations with people whom they can’t see.

I found this idea fascinating and bizzare, but a little reflection turned up a few examples in English where most of the meaning is encoded in pitch. For example, if you say, “I don’t know’ without opening your mouth or moving your tongue (try it), the low-high-low pitch pattern alone conveys the meaning to other English speakers.

But not to speakers of other languages. When I first moved to France to study, I would occasionally, unconsciously substitute “uh-huh” and “huh-uh” for Yes and No. Because the “h” phoneme is not significant in French, French speakers who had not learned English had trouble differentiating the two grunts, and I had to unlearn them.

Yes = uh-huh, mm-hmm
No = huh-uh, nuh-uh, hm-mm (first “m” is actually a glottal stop)

If you add pitch to the mix, you can say “no way”: “say” huh-uh, but extend the final uh and give it a falling tone.

All this is a long prelude to explain a linguistic discovery a friend and I made some time ago. German and French both have a word that is a combination of contradiction + assertion. In English, you need to use a circumlocution. An example should make it clear:

  • You didn’t pay the telephone bill, did you?
  • I did too.

In English you say, I did too, I did so, or Yes, I did, but in German you can say simply Doch (In French it is Si.) Why doesn’t English have a one word equivalent for contradicting people? It turns out that it does, but most people stop using it once they are out of their teens (if they ever use it at all). To the list of meaningful grunts in English, you can add yeah-huh (or yuh-huh), which means Yes, so. Pitch is expressive here as well: the more pitch variation you apply to the “huh” syllable, the more obviously wrong you imply your interlocutor is.

The three sentence rule

Monday, September 8th, 2008

When I was living in Tokyo, I created a conversational rule for myself: if someone asked a question and I couldn’t answer it in three sentences or less, I would say, “I don’t know.”

After three sentences, people’s eyes glaze over — they weren’t really that interested in the first place, they are in conversational mode, so not ready to absorb a lot of detail, etc. And “I don’t know” is a particularly good answer, since it can’t be misinterpreted the way, for example, “It would take too long to explain” is usually interpreted as a request to be cajoled.

The end result wasn’t that I ended up saying “I don’t know” a lot, though, it was that I got better at explaining things in three sentences. Three sentences convey the right amount of detail to have a chance of making it into long-term memory, and they take the right amount of “conversational time”: people often ask a question not because they want information, but because they want to introduce a topic, share some free-association the topic inspired, talk about their own experience related to the topic, or warm up to the “real” question they wanted to ask. Making a short answer yields the floor back over to them so they can embroider on the topic they’ve introduced.

The three-sentence rule was extremely effective: conversations with newcomers to Japan on the idiosyncrasies of Japanese food, culture, dating and the rest were suddenly much less like school and much more lively, and the success of the rule gave me some insight into PowerPoint culture: PowerPoint presentations are not meant to provide detail on a subject. They are meant to give your audience the three bullet points they need to explain a topic conversationally and yield the floor back to their interlocutor without having to say, “I don’t know.”

Tibetan has no word for “guilt”

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

I was talking with a friend of a friend in Borough Market’s Monmouth Cafe before I left, and she mentioned that there is no word for “guilt” in Tibetan.

That may be, but just because a language doesn’t have a single word for a thing is no indication that it doesn’t exist in the culture. Take the Germans. If you ask a German what the opposite of smile is, most likely he or she will say “to wrinkle the forehead” (Die Stirn runzeln) or “to make a sad face” (Ein trauriges Gesicht machen). Yet (in my experience, not to stereotype) German officials love to frown, especially in disapproval.

My flight from Heathrow to Frankfurt was delayed by an hour, so I missed my connection to Basel/Freiburg. When I got to the Lufthansa desk in Frankfurt, they said the next flight was the following morning at 9:00. I asked about a train. [Frown] The clerk called, chatted with someone, put the phone down and told me that the last train was leaving in just ten minutes and suggested I wait until the morning. I said I wanted to make the train. [Frown] He hand-wrote a train voucher and put me in the immigration queue. The first immigration officer told me I was in the wrong line [Frown]. The second immigration officer told me my brand-new replacement passport was invalid [Frown]: I hadn’t signed it. I ran to the train and handed my voucher to the attendant. He said, [Frown] “I don’t think we can accept this.”

Not having a word for something in your language doesn’t mean you don’t understand or use the concept. Germans frown. Tibetans likely experience guilt. And though they had to borrow a word for it, Anglo-Saxons definitely take pleasure in the suffering of others.

As I spent two of my precious ten minutes before the train left waiting patiently on the escalator behind several elderly travelers with large luggage, a less patient person forced his way up past all of us, smacking the old folks with his laptop case as he went. When I got to the top of the escalator, I ran down the corridor, with Laptop Guy far ahead. At the track flyover, I saw the sign and stairs for Track 5 hidden on the left. He had gone straight. I considered calling out to him, but I didn’t. I went left down the stairs and on to the train just 30 seconds before it left. As the train pulled out I smiled with Schadenfreude, then immediately felt guilty.

Port to port

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Today I read Kate Fox’s book Watching the English. It’s an anthropological investigation of English cultural “rules” that I should have read before arriving, but couldn’t get through in the US.

I read this passage yesterday:

Port must always travel round the table clockwise…so you must always pass the bottle or decanter to your left.

No-one has the slightest idea why clockwise port-passing is so important. The rule serves no discernible purpose, other than to cause embarrassment to those who are not aware of it, and, presumably, a peculiarly English sense of smug self-satisfaction among those who are.

I loved this book, and wish I had found a copy much earlier than my penultimate day in London. But the last paragraph stuck in my head as “wrong”, and while I was packing the reason came to me: port means “left” in naval jargon. I think the rule of passing port clockwise/to the left is likely in deference to all the party-going naval officers waiting to make a joke about how unnatural it is to pass something called “port” to starboard.

I did a google search to test this theory. I didn’t find direct evidence, but found the phrase “port to port”, which suggests it is a reasonable assumption.

How do you know when you are fluent in a language?

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

With Chinese, I’m still at the rote memorization stage. I was talking with Manny last night about techniques for learning dialogues by heart, and thinking about the long road from here to fluency. How do you know when you are fluent in a language? Many people answer that question by saying, “When you start dreaming in it.” Can that be the right answer?

I’ve had dreams in which I can fly, but I don’t think that means that I really can fly, or even that I know what it would feel like to be a bird or Superman. That’s part of the magic of dreams, you can have the feeling of doing something without the reality of it.

I have a stronger reason to doubt the dream hypothesis: I’ve dreamt that I could speak Ancient Greek. After six years of study, I can read Homer and the early Platonic dialogues with not much effort, but I can’t speak Ancient Greek. And I had just started studying Greek in a summer intensive program when I had this dream, so I couldn’t even read that much without a dictionary.

I think that dreaming in a language is an indication that you are immersed in the language, but isn’t necessarily a sign of fluency. I also think that you probably gain fluency in different domains more quickly. Many gaijin are fluent in “Taxi Japanese”, and can get home from any part of the city, but have no other Japanese language competence.

I began to suspect that I was gaining general fluency in Japanese the day I got on the train at Shinjuku station, then immediately jumped off when the conductor announced that it would be an express train (which skips my station). I didn’t have time to reflect on or translate the announcement — I reacted to the words subconsciously.

In France, I met an apple farmer during a bike ride to Mont-Saint-Michel. After some minutes of conversation, he asked if I were Breton. No one would mistake me for French (there are not many 6’4″ blond Frenchmen), but to be mistaken for the Celtic minority of Bretagne made me realize my studying had paid off.

In Germany, a good comeback made me feel like I had reached a degree of fluency in everyday conversation. I was in the student cafeteria (the Mensa), testing bottles of soda to find a cold one. I finally took one from the back of the rack, and the server scolded me in German: “They are all the same!” I replied without thinking, also in German: “Then it doesn’t matter which one I take, does it?”