Monday, July 29, 2013

Mandarin, a stream of syllables with meaning


There is something special about Chinese compared many other languages. Essentially every syllable has a meaning and as the number of possible sounds in the language are less than in English there are a relatively limited number of syllable sounds that need to be learned.

Learning Chinese lends itself to one mode of attack that doesn't seem to work so well in many languages, it is possible to listen to audio and even when most of the words are not understood, armed with a good dictionary and an ear for the syllables analyse and decipher most content.

The syllables are highly phonetic and aside from the famous/infamous Chinese writing system there is a pinyin writing system that uses Latin alphabet characters.

This mode of attack has helped my Chinese learning a lot, but there are problems. I intend to write some software to make this task easier, I have been working on an early prototype as a proof of concept to myself and will be soon working on a more general accessible prototype.


There are a proliferation of sounds that have the same meaning, especially if you still can't decipher the correct tone of the syllable. A tonal difference informs a Chinese speaker of the difference between the word for buy and sell for example but a European may just hear the sound for "mai" without capturing the tone.

Some sounds that are distinct to a Chinese speaker may sound very similar to a non Chinese speaker (effectively homonyms for the learner).

Speakers may not be distinct

As with other languages there are many distinct local variations etc, shi sounds may be pronounced as si sound, r sounds like l, n sounding like l etc. etc.

Added to people speaking fast, children, old people and the accuracy of listening becomes highly variable for the learner.

Word frequency

The Dictionary you are using may not order by word usage frequency, resulting in a long list of words (especially if you omit the tones) starting with the 'the term to denote the Emporors left big toenail". Context will help you if you have it but ideally you want to see more frequent words at the top of the results returned.

The sweet spot

The sweet spot for listening and learning from audio Chinese is probably when you are hearing sentences that you can translate to something like "she/he/it gave me XXXX and YYYY me very ZZZZ" being able to quickly pick up the meaning of XXXX and the other words from sound alone is a terrific learning experience, and this is easier to do than with languages with inconsistent spelling, a bewildering number of possible sounds and where the word boundaries are harder to determine.

The quest

At the moment the best solution I have found has been to use the Pleco dictionary on a portable device, aside from the cost (it is a very good product and well worth the price I feel), the main omission from my desired experience is the element of fuzziness.

The fuzziness I want would give the option to search for "gan tai" and see a list of options and result counts that included "gan cai", "gang cai", "gang tai" etc.

My first prototype requires the Scripting Layer for Android (Python specifically to be installed) it is based on the cc-cedit Chinese dictionary and I have integrated frequency data from the Leeds University frequency list. The code is available at Github and assuming you have SL4A and Python running on an android device (reasonably powerful it is not optimised for performance).

I am just going to write up the documentation over the next week or so and then start on a better prototype (probable Javascript based to run standalone on Android).

If by some miracle you do try out this version (might be best to await documentation)  and it works then questions or feedback will be gratefull received.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Long time no see...

I am back!

Bloggers come, bloggers go, I come and go but now I am back. I have been very busy learning new career related stuff, learning so much that occasionally my head hurts. I also find that programming language and technology learning seems to drain the same resources as language learning.

I have not been completely idle language wise, I can read Afrikaans reasonably now (and Dutch to a lesser but increasing extent). I have had conversations in Mandarin when the opportunity presents but can't claim to be pushing the envelope there. I am ready to approach concerted Chinese learning again. My war with the language was delayed (a tactical retreat).

I intend to partially attack Chinese through the medium of technology, Mandarin is particularly well suited to an attack by a programmer I will be discussing a prototype to help with listening comprehension in my next post.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Benny is learning Chinese!

Quick post this, I have been far too busy recently. Benny is learning Chinese! I have not exactly been a fan of Benny in the past or his approach however I found his post quite refreshing.

Crucially I expected a lot of the usual 'negativity by proxy', I have suspected that he often courts negativity so he can then rant against it, I don't detect that in his post or video.
I have my doubts about him reaching the conversational fluency level described, three months is not very long. To offset that somewhat Benny does have a lot of experience learning languages. It is undeniable that the more experience you have in this respect the better.

I will be interested to see how the conversational level is tested, will Benny take a risk on a total stranger? It is quite a tall order to listen fluently and allow a native speaker to express themselves comfortably in their own language. Keith was very brave in his first chatwithout safety net.

I am not sure also what the reading will demonstrate in this time, Chinese signs could to a large extent be learned symbolically rather than phonetically and a menu can be learned in a similar manner. Different menus from different restaurants could be challenging. I wouldn't make a big thing about the simplified vs traditional, simplified does not mean simple and in some respects the more complex characters are easier to read unless on the small side (then they become squashed insects and blur together ;) ) Traditionally would be harder to handwrite I think.

I hope Benny enjoys the experience, that is the most important thing 加油

Friday, November 04, 2011

Declaring war on Chinese

Have been somewhat stagnant on Chinese recently just ticking over a little, needed something to kick me off and set me on the path to conquer that last big hump (huge) mountain before I will consider myself fluent. Really, really seriously out of practice but everything is still there.

Anger will do I think, yes definitely. Take some negative (and somewhat unfair emotions and feelings, because after-all humans are by nature self-decievers). I am fed up with students who want to language exchange but go cold on you when they realise that is not just going to be a case of them teaching you nihao and they get almost all the time practicing English.

I am fed up with students who have taken years to realise that just studying in England and hanging around with Chinese people all the time isn't going to give them native English. They don't tend to tell you that they are going to back to China for good in a month and that this practice is their last desperate attempt to get better. So just when you thought you have found a good exchange partner, they bugger off.

I am fed up with being blanked or answered in English, when I try to talk to Chinese people now (no problem earlier stages in the process but now I just make them uncomfortable). Even when helping them in shops, two occaisions now, I help them understand what the staff said, they are very grateful, tell me my Mandarin is good (in broken English) and refuse to speak Chinese with me (thanks a lot, you can bloody understand me when I speak to you in Mandarin, just try speaking some Mandarin back to me you may be surprised, I am not just a talking monkey who has learned like a parrot).

I am fed up with the introduce me to your English friends etc. , but no way am I going to dilute your usefulness by introducing you to any of my Chinese friends attitude.

DISLAIMER none of this of course in any-way applies to some of the wonderful Chinese people I have met, just the rest of them...

I am doubly super fed with everybody who assumes I have sexual motives, I don't want to steal your women, I am happily married to an English girl, I have no Chinese wife, no Chinese girlfriend and to be honest even if I re-wound back to when I was single, Chinese girls are good at cute, and pretty but for me mostly too small and cute/pretty/attractive does not neccessarlily equate to sexy. Its a big world out there and every race / culture has beautiful women, learning Chinese to get a date is rather extreme.

I am now fed up with Chinese learners who live out there (for years), did a few semesters at college, have Chinese wives and girlfriends, actually are part Chinese and picked up some at home as kids etc. Being treated like they are the only ones who will every really get it. Blogging about the difficulties etc. Try doing it my way you wimps!

Not fashionable these days, but sometimes I get things done by injecting some negativity (I just do), this is not a Care Bear movie I don't need to be all fuzzy, smiley and positive all the time, sickly sweet, surrounding myself with people telling me they "believe in me" or scaring away all the "hard", "difficult" aspects for me. This last bit I am declaring war on, I don't care how hard or tough this next bit is, if I declare war on something, it is going down!

Ohh yeah apart from that feeling pretty good, loving learning Afrikaans and about to start a new language learning blog.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Chinese chugger


A couple of days ago I spotted a Chinese chugger as I was walking back to work, a golden opportunity for conversation that cannot be missed. For more information on what a chugger is (or may be) either follow the link I gave or watch this video. I will use the word chugger for the rest of this post, I am aware that this vocation is not all good or all bad, even though my choice of the term chugger may seem somewhat derogatory.

Generally I don't have a lot of time for chuggers, if I want to donate to a charity I will do so on more than just a brief invitation and introduction (with sales pressure techniques etc.) I have both observed chuggers and sometimes engaged then in conversation (to get a feel for their techniques) I would be fascinated to see some of their training, as they have to break down barriers fast, introduce a concept to a stranger and get them to sign over regular payments all in a short period of time, their techniques and approach have a lot to do with language use and learning.

This particular chugger was pretty obviously Chinese, so I started off right-away by confirming that (in Chinese) and then took the opportunity for a little conversation practice.

The practice

My chugger seemed a little surprised but then discussed my Chinese learning background for a bit, she assumed I was a teacher or lecturer (of what I do not know) based on the fact that the only person who had talked Chinese with her to-date was a lecturer (of what I didn't ask) and to be fair we were quite close to Bristol university. She also asked if I was English (I hadn't spoken any), this happens quite often now, sadly I suspect because other Europeans are considered to be better at languages than us Brits. I was pleased that she seemed quite happy to continue in Chinese, so I was treated to an introduction to Amnesty International in Chinese. I could follow along quite well and could break it up a little by adding comments that led to discussion about myself. Chuggers are supposed to engage you in conversation and explore you opinions etc. the idea being to make you receptive to the sale. During the whole process there were only a few places where she switched to English briefly. On one occasion she was explaining how Amnesty International influences various world organizations (she either didn't trust my Chinese or had learned the script in English and wasn't entirely confident of translating it to Chinese on the fly) on two other occasions she used phrases that had obviously been taught to her as important parts of the sales script and were designed to engage my emotions (the "magic" is much less likely to work on me if not in my mother tongue).

The time was rapidly approaching the sale, I needed a get-out, fairly easy on the one or two occasions I have talked with English chuggers but my Chinese is not good enough for anything complex (and I didn't want to be rude). I explained that I am a computer programmer and although good with computers I was rubbish at managing everyday life so my wife manages everything in that department (although not entirely true this is plausible ;)). I got a comeback that the direct debit wouldn't start straight away etc. so I could check with my wife but I stuck to my guns and that was that.


Chuggers are trained to communicate, the guys (for example) will act more like one of your mates if you are a guy, they may flirt subtly with you if you are a girl and if an older women they will either flirt or present themselves as a nice young man (whichever looks like it will work the best). Some of their techniques for breaking down communication barriers can be reused to break down communication barriers when practicing a language. This Chinese girl is unlikely to be hampered by her English (I don't know how good her English is), she is short and pretty so is looking up at most Western guys in a cute way, also well versed (or a natural) in the simple subtle flirtation that will break down barriers with a lot of guys; leaning in slightly and a quick touch on the forearm with her hand when explaining something or sharing some snippet of knowledge all done so quick you barely notice (but your subconscious will). Studying sales and dating techniques etc. in your own language will certainly give you pointers for communication.

Follow up

I will follow this up by acquiring some extra vocab. and better strategies for exploiting my next language chugger. If in a foreign country studying language then I would definitely find many more of these opportunities. Some people have to communicate with you it is their job, why not exploit that opportunity, of course you would have to be prepared to avoid the date or sale or con. or whatever if that wasn't your goal. I will also track down some Amnesty International information in Chinese online, it will reinforce or remind me of some of the things she said (may put something into active language that was only passive before or move something up from unknown to passive).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Chinese voices

Some fun with recording.

Two different ways I have been playing with sound.

Searching for a voice

Computer crash this weekend has made this post somewhat harder than it should be, I am going to be doing much more output in the future, even in the area that I hate (recording), I have had hangups with telephones even with English, I have used Skype for Chinese (but each time a bag of nerves beforehand) and a microphone always reduces me to a self-conscious wreck. I have very little nerves talking face to face though.
I need get over this, perhaps I will have to take a test where I record my voice or participate in a telephone interview. So increasingly I will record voice files both off the cuff and as part of other exercises. I am not happy with my recorded voice at all, this latest example is particularly slushy and inaccurate but I gave myself one shot to say what I wanted to say (that will force me to get better in real-time). I have fixed on using Audioboo for now as they offer a quick convenient way to record and upload short sound files from an Ipod Touch.
This example is simply about my Chinese voice (I haven't found one yet), obviously I don't want to talk like a girl or a tough guy from and old movie. I summarised it down (a little hurriedly to fit a Twitter post as follows. One reply already points out that rather than referencing movie voices from old films I would be better off looking to TV and new films (true but I still don't know who would be appropriate to copy).

Zombie School

I am always running crazy scenarios in my head, I had one provoked by a Chinese lesson at Popup Chinese, they have some crazy lesson content, but solid Chinese that helps to remember things and some good examples of Northern dialect and pronunciation. The lesson provoked an imaginary movie advert in my head, when I wanted to play with some new Ipod Touch software I decided to pull the advert out into the real world. Over 20 years ago it took a hardware sampler and couple of computers to do this kind of thing now you can do it with an Ipod touch and £8.99 0f software. This is just a bit of fun, the strange beat is to match the syncopated but fast movement of the zombies, and it only really works with headphones or good speakers (the heartbeat I made by modifying a drum sample is too low and quiet for example).
All the voices are me, sampled through a standard IPod mic, just messed around a little with reverb etc. They are pretty much what I hear in my head, I am least satisfied with the news reporter. The guy that says "They are my sons friends, his fellow students" gets played twice because although I don't know how authentic that voice is I heard someone talk just like that when he was being interviewed on a Chinese news program. Yes I know it doesn't make a lot of sense without the video cut scenes that only exist in my head but I had fun.


I sound forced and self-concious, also I seem to make mistakes that I am less likely to make when talking for real (a friend confirmed this for me). I actually feel more comfortable with a microphone when trying to act a part. I will definitely continue experimenting with sound though. And pursue more recorded project similar to the fake film advert.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Change of style

Official notice that this blog is going to change quite considerably in style as my Mandarin Journey alters. There will be some strange (but hopefully thought provoking posts) and details of a journey towards becoming a highly literate Chinese speaker (I have plans and will have fun).

For a blog that is more focused on the early stages of learning a language (after applying what I have learned whilst learning Chinese) than please visit my Thai learning blog.

My next post this weekend will include an audio file that I made with music and some Chinese speaking (I said it will get strange ;)). I think it was an exercise that started me on a journey towards a much higher level of Mandarin.

Mandarin has five tones

Just a quick thought in passing, I have always considered Mandarin to have five basic tones, not the often quoted four. I guess it comes down to how linguists define tones but four tones + the neutral tone in my mind adds up to five. Not using the neutral tone correctly can make works sound wrong or even change the implied meaning. I appreciate that the neutral tone has more of a role to play in multi-syllable words etc. but come on, surely it is a tone? It adds a similar mental load.

I will admit that Thai "feels" a little more like a five tone language, as the middle flat tone in Thai gets a bit more emphasis and can apply to single syllables in their own right rather than just their position in a certain word or phrase, For me though Mandarin has five tones.

Disclaimer: I am ignoring all the bits and pieces that may happen in speech like third tones that may become second (but not quite second) etc. and any extra tones that may sneak into "near Mandarin" dialects.

Anybody else back five tones???

Monday, July 26, 2010

There are lots of Chinese people

Okay, the title of this post is somewhat obvious, there are a lot of Chinese people and in at least three cities and a bunch I towns I frequent it is quite easy to get casual language practice, quite easy to find Chinese people to listen to and with a bit more effort quite easy to find longer conversations. Not so easy as living in a country that speaks your target language of course but much much easier than some languages I guess.

I have been a little quiet here recently but have posted a lot posts on my learning Thai blog, Thai being the second language I have seriously attempted I can focus much better on telling the story of how I learn a language and refine those things that seemed to have worked with learning Chinese. This blog is going to focus more on what happens next after I can cope with everyday conversation (a bit more and a bit less in some cases). I will also deal with what happens as I try "normalising" what I have learned in Chinese with more mainstream leaning, I have decided to take the HSK4 (probably early next year but I haven't checked out the times when I can take it for sure). for now though this post is about yesterday. I emphasize input a lot because I think input is what you spend most of your time doing doing when learning a language....

A fairly lucky day for Chinese practice but you make your own luck to some extent, another rambling brain dump I am afraid but it shows what I do.

Yesterday I went shopping in Bath with my wife, no set plans for language learning, and I have mostly been in Bristol recently. Eventually we wanted a coffee (or similar) so went to a chocolate/coffee shop. This place serves an excellent hot chocolate (forget anything you mostly think you know about hot chocolate, they also do a good mocha coffee), it is also somewhere where about a year ago I had a most excellent and alas too short language learning discussion with a Belgian, a Frenchman, a Malaysian Chinese and another Chinese girl from Shanghai. Today the shop had four (yes 4) Chinese staff. One of which was the girl from Shanghai (after a while Asian people don't all look the same and vice-versa I suspect) she seems to have become a manager there. This gave me the opportunity for a little Chinese chat, nothing spectacular (I was with someone who doesn't speak any Chinese) but everything helps, different accents, different ways of saying the same thing etc.

A little later and my wife wants to look for something I am not interested in so we split up for about 20mins, left to my own devices I go to a Chinese medicine shop I know but the shop is closed there is a sign saying they have moved. I hear Chinese (Bath is a city that has a lot of tourists you often hear Chinese). There is a party of Chinese tourists, some guy is talking to them loudly so I go up and listen. Nothing very interesting, they are talking about lunch apperently the guy (tour leader?) is going to take them to Hai bao for food. Not sure what he means, Ocean something probably, I think of Hai main bao bao (Sponge Bob Square pants). I assume Hai bao is a translation of something English, but don't know. As they march off I walk with them (why not?). I try not to look too obtrusive, perhaps some one will talk to me. They don't walk far, going into a shopping mall and up an escalator and the puzzle is solved, hai bao is there in big Chinese characters, "Ocean Treasure" a Chinese all you can eat buffet restuarant (not very authentic food for the tourists doh!!).

I am in the right place for the medicine shop, these places are everywhere (although fewer since the recession) the staff always speak Mandarin because they get their Chinese Doctors from mainland China and the staff often have to translate for the Doctors (all of their recruitment pages on-line for the various different medicine shops stipulate that the staff must speak good Mandarin (do your homework ;)). Anywhere I have gone in the UK I can usually get at least a little practice in a medicine shop, they are often expensive but you don't have to buy anything, and if you speak Mandarin they often forget the "hard sell". I find out if they have Tiger Balm, how much it is etc. No I don't need it now I have enough but I used to buy it from them where they were previously (the guy behind the counter is new to me though). They have other customers and I have run out of time....

Later on we are in clothes shop, my wife goes to try something on, I let her know I will be back shortly, opposite this shop, there is a mobile phone accessory shop, via a complicated set of coincidences (can't explain all it would take too long) I suspect a Chinese student I knew (I met her and her Chinese finance when they were working in a cafe and we met up a few times last year to practice English and Chinese) has been working there. There are a Chinese couple in the shop, I haven't prepared but say something along the lines of I am looking for an old friend and I think she works there. No problem but apparently she left a while ago and is now studying in Cardiff.

More shopping, and we have lunch (Spanish), a little later and time to go but we have one more coffee in a Starbucks. I draw the shortstraw and whilst my wife finds a table I join the queue, two Chinese people are ahead of me youngish guy and girl, haven't been in England long judging by their clothes, and manner. I spend a little time listening to their conversation, the bits I can hear are fairly simple, they are mostly talking about things in the coffee shop. They don't buy their drinks together, as she leaves to take her drink to the table I start talking with the guy, how long has he been in England (three months) I compliment him on his pronunciation (more English than American which is unusual) he asks me about my Chinese etc. We move into English, some people would say you should never do this but I tend to see communication as a two way thing, he has been in England for a few months and is going to be starting an Engineering masters degree soon, he wants to practice speaking some English.

I am going to try following a few tours of Chinese tourists when I have a chance, should be interesting. I was genuinely looking for someone in the mobile phone shop but if not I could have made up a name and pretended I was (they will just tell me that X has never worked there). I could have asked the Chinese couple in the coffee shop the time (the time in China that is) I have done that about twenty times before and so far no one has asked me why I need to know the time in China even though some have stopped to chat. None of these are long conversations, that can take a little more luck or planning.

When I get home I pull out my Ipod touch and look up a few things that I wasn't sure about, for example I heard the Chinese girl pointing at something and asking in Chinese if it meant xiao fei. the guy confirmed in Chinese that it did. I was puzzled, I assumed she meant tip, Chinese visitors are often worried about tipping but when I got to where there were, none of the signs had anything about tips (service charges or gratuities). When I looked up the word I realized it wasn't xiao3fei4 but xiao1fei4 (to be fair it is harder to eavesdrop when there is a lot of background noise) I should have worked it out though (we become blinded by what we expect), the word "consume" is bound to have been on one of those signs.

Sometimes when moving through a city I don't go five minutes between each occasion I hear Mandarin being spoken by someone. NOW THERE IS A THOUGHT.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The slow language

My Thai language learning may well be too analytical already to ever be able to really master the language (I don't know for sure). I have plans for Chinese that I think will allow me to progress a lot further but I am keeping one language to myself. I am learning it quite slowly but one language is going to be entirely input based for early and middle stages, I won't even blog about it or say what it it is.

As for the more analytical nature of some of my other language learning, I want to see what is going on, I want to be able to come back to it in years to come and understand what happened.

I am aiming to be able to speak a number of languages and start traveling in the not tooo distant future. For this blog however the focus will mainly become what to do to take my Chinese on to the next stage.