Outlier Linguistic Solutions

Once again, I’ve been inactive here for a while. I moved to Tokyo two weeks ago and I’m hard at work learning Japanese and trying to maintain or improve my Chinese (I’ll be posting later on how I’m doing that while in Japan, I promise).

But I have another, very exciting piece of news to announce.

A few months ago, two friends of mine name Ash Henson and Chris Schmidt asked me to join their not-yet-founded start-up. Ash has had a profound influence over me in the last few years. It was after talking to him that I decided to take up palaeography instead of Qing history. He helped me through the process of applying for the MA program. He’s been the board off of which I’ve bounced most of my ideas about language learning over the last few years, being an accomplished polyglot (he speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, Dutch, and German, and is learning Japanese) and an accomplished and passionate scholar of early Chinese phonology and palaeography. You might know him if you read Olle Linge’s blog Hacking Chinese (which you should), because he contributed to two great posts (Asking the experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese and Asking the experts: How to learn Chinese grammar).

So I joined them. We’re called Outlier Linguistic Solutions (our Chinese name is 久茂語林), and our first project is a dictionary of Chinese characters for learners. It’s going to be incredible (in my very honest, though slightly biased opinion). It will be the only book for learners to present Chinese characters in an etymologically- and pedagogically-sound manner. It will teach you how Chinese characters really work. We explain characters in terms of their functional components: components that express sound and/or meaning. We will teach you exactly how each meaning component expresses meaning within the character (something literally no other book in English gets right), how the sound component expresses sound (including the possible range of sounds that each sound component can express), and how the character got to look the way it looks and mean what it means in modern Chinese. No other dictionary or textbook does any of this, and the ones that try get it wrong. The people that can do this sort of research aren’t generally interested in helping second language learners (they’re busy trying to read excavated texts), and the people who work in language pedagogy don’t know enough about palaeography and historical linguistics. We’re taking our academic training in those fields, combined with Ash’s background in language pedagogy and our combined experience as language learners, to create the tool we wish we had had access to when we first started.

I’m doing some of the research, and I’m also in charge of our online marketing.

So that’s what I’m up to now. We have other awesome projects lined up after that, but that’s our primary focus right now. We’ll be doing a Kickstarter in a few months to try to fund the rest of the project (it’s been in development for years already), so Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our new blog (content coming very soon, written by yours truly) so you can keep up with what’s going on. And please, spread the word. Tell your friends who are learning Chinese (or Japanese, because we want to develop a Japanese edition), tell your professors, tell anyone you think might be interested in what three geeks in Taiwan and Tokyo are up to!

Finally, an update!

Wow, it’s been 8 months since I posted! So much has happened since the last post, I don’t even know where to start.

I said in an earlier post that I was planning to defer admission to the MA program I applied to for a year. Well, that was my plan right up until a few weeks before the fall semester, when they emailed me and offered me a really nice scholarship. Apparently somebody else declined the offer of admission (and hence the scholarship) to go somewhere else, so they offered it to me instead. That person did his undergrad in Chinese at a famous university in Massachusetts that starts with an H, so I don’t feel so bad about being their second choice.

So I started the MA program in the fall. I started it with the intention of seeing it through to the end, but also knowing that if my wife got offered a job in Japan, that we’d of course jump on it. And that’s exactly what happened, just a few weeks ago. She got a job at a very prestigious international school in Tokyo, teaching pretty much exactly what she wants to teach and is qualified to teach. The administration is fantastic, and they’re amateur/enthusiast musicians and artists themselves, so they appreciate and value what my wife does. It’s a dream job for her. We’ll be moving there in August for at least two years, and more if we really like living there. I’ll be taking a leave of absence from my department, but the most likely scenario is that I won’t end up coming back to finish. No big deal. If we love Tokyo and want to stay there a while, I can do an MA there and transfer some of the coursework that I’ve done. If not, I don’t need an MA for the PhD programs I’m applying for, and advanced proficiency in both Chinese and Japanese would likely count for more anyway.

While in Japan, I’ll of course be maintaining and hopefully improving my Chinese as well. I’ll continue doing as much translation work as I can get my hands on, and I’ll be finding some language exchange partners to talk with some every week. I’ll also watch movies and TV shows in Chinese (both from China and Taiwan), and I’ll be reading a lot in Chinese too. I have a lot of books, both in my field and more general things like novels, that I’d like to read, and I’ll also be working on my 文言文. I’ll have to divide my time between Chinese, Japanese, and whatever English tutoring gigs I can find (gotta make money, you know), so it will be interesting to see how that works out.

Anyway, back to the MA program. I took two graduate courses last semester, one on Chinese character morphology and the other on Chinese philosophy in excavated texts. The professors were well-known, respected scholars and I learned an immense amount from both. Since I didn’t do my undergrad degree in Chinese, I also have to take some undergrad courses, so I did the first part of a yearlong 文字學 class. I’ll be taking the second half next semester, which starts Monday. I also took a consecutive interpretation class because my friend teaches it and asked me to, and it was really good for my Chinese.

All in all, I wrote 3 papers last term, all in Chinese. A 5-page paper just after midterms for the undergrad class, a 14-page final paper for the morphology class, and a 26-page beast for the excavated texts class. It was a grueling process for sure, but it showed me where my weaknesses are, both language-wise and knowledge-wise, so I have a clear direction for what to learn going forward and I’ve identified research problems that I can apply my new knowledge to, rather than simply learning in a vacuum.

Next semester I’m taking a class on 書法 which will require me to learn to read—and maybe write with a pencil—行書 and 草書, a very useful skill and one I’ve meant to acquire for a while now. Another will be on the history of Sinology in Japan, which should be useful for obvious reasons. Of course, I’m going to sit in on each before making a final decision, as there are a few others that seem interesting if these don’t work out.

A few months ago, I attended a palaeography conference here in Taipei. I was one of only 5 or so non-native speakers there, two of them being a professor from Japan and his interpreter (he seems to speak Chinese just fine, but presented his paper in Japanese) and the rest Westerners. I did pretty well, and was able to follow pretty much all the presentations with the exception of a section here and there that was too specialized for me. I was pleased with that, and I’ll try to come back for the next one in two years.

So those are the highlights. I’ve been incredibly busy and will continue to be at least through the end of the school year, so I probably won’t post much here anymore. My main focus apart from the classes I’m taking is to get ready for Japan. I’m studying Japanese as much as possible, and I’ve got some new (to me) ideas and techniques that I’m trying to apply. I don’t have time to really write about it, but it essentially involves a lot of shadowing and a lot of repetition and drills with the goal of internalizing everything and making it habitual. I’m prioritizing the spoken language heavily, to the extent that I only use the books as a reference when needed. I’ve learned a lot by reading Donald Larson’s Guidelines for Barefoot Language Learning: An Approach Through Involvement and Independence as well as his Becoming Bilingual: A Guide to Language Learning. I strongly recommend those books if you can find them. I’m applying what I’ve learned in those books as much as possible (they’re written for people living in-country, so some of it isn’t possible yet), and I’m also integrating other things I’ve found useful while learning Chinese. If I write more about it later, it probably won’t be here but on another blog devoted to learning Japanese, if I decide to start one. I may post more here once I’m in Japan, but it will of course have a very different focus: how I’m maintaining and improving my Chinese while not living in a Chinese-speaking environment and while striving to learn another very difficult language as well and as quickly as possible (again).

So there it is, I guess. I started this blog a bit over two years ago as a way to get my thoughts out and also to get information out there about the MTC and learning Chinese in Taiwan. Along the way I hope I’ve demonstrated what’s possible if you can really attack the language with everything you’ve got for an extended period of time. I came here barely being able to do anything in Chinese (I started at PAVC 2 at the MTC). Within 18 months I started working as a freelance translator, and within 2 years I began grad school as one of only four Westerners in one of the top Chinese departments in Taiwan and managed all A’s my first semester. I squeezed out 40 pages of academic prose within a three-week period in January, I attended a conference entirely in Chinese with world-renowned scholars in my field, and I’ve learned to read 小篆 easily and be able to make sense of other ancient scripts like 金文 and 楚簡文字. My Chinese is still not where I’d like it to be, but I think that’s really the key to my success and the core message of ChineseQuest. Never be satisfied with where you are. Always push forward.

Pen Scanners

I guess first I should say that I’m not in any way affiliated with PenPower or any other company. I’m just writing this because I bought one of these things and I can already see it’s going to be tremendously helpful.

OK, so if you’re like me, you collect sentences in Anki at least sometimes. I do it for two purposes: 1) to help improve my Chinese (a la the AJATT 10,000 sentences method), and 2) to remember stuff I read, like important facts and concepts from books in my field. If the latter also helps with the former, all the better.

I highly, highly recommend getting one of those pen scanners by PenPower or the like. I ordered their WorldPenScan BT yesterday and it arrived today. The BT stands for Bluetooth, and I paid a little more for that functionality (4990NT vs 3990 for a USB-only pen).

It supposedly recognizes around 200 languages, though I haven’t tried them all of course. I have tried it with English, Chinese (both traditional and simplified) and Japanese, and it works incredibly well with all of them. In Chinese, it does best with standard 宋, 明, and 黑 fonts, and the only time I’ve really had trouble so far is when I tried scanning stuff from a comic book. That was partially due to the font, partially due to things like the outline of the word bubble getting in the way, and partly because I marked it up with a pencil, which also got in the way. So in the future, I won’t be underlining things I want to enter into Anki, but maybe making a note in the margin instead. It works with both vertical and horizontal text.

Another really nice feature is its translation function. You scan a word, and it gives you a “translation” from Bing (which I don’t pay attention to) and a definition (which is nice). You can set both the language you’re translating and the language you want to translate into. I’m not sure which dictionary it uses, but I just scanned 好 and it gives a ton of definitions in both Chinese and English, along with example sentences in both languages:

1. (優點多的; 使人滿意的) good; fine; nice: 好姑娘 a nice girl; 好年成 a good year; 好天氣 nice [lovely] weather;好消息 good news; 人民的好兒女 fine sons and daughters of the people; 你幫他的忙, 真太好了。 It’s nice of you to help him. 莊稼長得真好。 The crops are doing well.
2. (健康; 痊愈) be in good health; get well: 就年紀而論, 他的身體好極了。 His health is wonderful for a man of his age. 你好 ! Hello! 她現在身體比去年好了。 She is in better health now than (she was) last year. 我的病好了。 I’m well [all right] now.
3. (親愛; 和睦; 友好) friendly; kind: 好朋友 great [good] friend; 他對妻子兒女很好。 He was kind with his wife and children. 他們從小就很好。 They have been close friends since childhood. 這兩個孩子又好了。 The two children have become friends again.
4. (用在動詞後, 表示完成或達到完善的地步): 計劃做好了嗎? – – 還沒做好。 Have you got the plan ready yet? – – No, not yet. 文章寫好了。 The article has been finished. 午飯快準備好了。 Lunch is almost ready. 坐好吧, 要開會了. Take your seats please. The meeting is going to begin.
5. (容易) be easy (to do); be convenient: 暖瓶放在這兒好拿. It’s handy to have the thermos here. 這本書可不好買. This book is not easily available. 這個問題好回答。 This question is easy to answer.
6. (用在動詞前, 表示使人滿意的性質在哪方面): 這本小說很好看。 This novel is very interesting。 這支筆挺好使。 This pen writes very well。 這支歌很好聽。 This is a very pleasant song。 這種魚很好吃。 This fish is very tasty [delicious]。
1. (表示贊許、同意或結束等語氣): 好 , 就這麼辦。 O.K., it’s settled。好了, 不要再說了。 All right, no need to say any more。 我打開電視機好嗎? – – 好 , 請打開吧。 Shall I turn on the TV? – – Yes, please。
2. (反話, 表示不滿意或幸災樂禍): 好 , 這下可麻煩了。 Well, we’re in for trouble now。
1. (便於) so as to; so that: 把她的地址告訴我, 我好找她。 Tell me her address so that I can go and see her。 把這件事做完, 好再開始另一件。 Finish this so that you can start another. 別忘了帶傘, 下雨好用。 Dont’t forget to take your umbrella in case it rains. 今兒早點睡, 明兒好早起趕火車。 Let’s turn in early,so as to get up early tomorrow to catch the train。
2. (用在數量詞、時間詞前面, 表示多或久): 好半天 quite a while; 好久 very long time; quite long; 好幾個月 several months; 她上街買了好好多東西。She went shopping and bought quite a few things.
3. (用在形容詞、動詞前,表示程度深,並帶感歎語氣):好大的工程! What a huge project! 好冷啊!How cold it is! 好漂亮! How beautiful! 好深的一條河!What a deep river! 你這個人好糊塗!You are such a fool! 前些日子我好忙了一陣子。I was quite busy some time ago. 這事好險哪!That was a near thing!
4. (用在形容詞前面問數量或程度,用法跟“多”相同):機場離這兒好遠? How far is the airport from here?
5. (用於套語):好睡!Good night! 好走! Goodbye!
[方言] (應該;可以) may; can; should: 時間不早了,你好走了。It’s getting late. You ought to get going. 我好進來嗎? May I come in?
1. (指表揚的話或喝彩聲);討好 curry favour with; ingratiate oneself with; 觀眾連聲叫好。 The audience broke into loud cheers.
2. (表示問候):你去見著他,別忘了給我捎個好兒。Don’t forget to convey my regards when you see him. 向你的父母問好。 Give my love to your parents.
1. (喜歡; 喜愛) like; love; be fond of: 好表現 like to show off; 虛心好學 be modest and eager to learn; 他好開玩笑。 He is fond of jesting.
2. (易於) be liable to: 好發脾氣 apt to lose one’s temper; 好傷風 be subject to colds; 好暈船 be liable to seasickness; be a bad sailor
(姓氏) a surname: 好謙 Hao Qian

Pretty awesome, right? It also does images:

jxs1 jxs2 jxs4(all from 季旭昇:《說文新證(下)》 page 142)

Sweet. So sweet.

Like I said, I bought this to help with entering sentences into Anki. It does that much more quickly than I could type them. But I think it’s going to be useful far beyond that. For instance, I can see this being very helpful in grad school.

Anyway, it’s a bit pricey (4990NT is about US$166 right now), but I think it’s really going to be worth it, so I figured I’d share.

On Input

I noticed a big sudden spike in visitors yesterday. Turns out Khatzumoto tweeted my last article. That’s a nice coincidence, because I came here to write about the importance of large quantities of input.

I’ve been looking for “The Fix” recently. The thing that I can do that will allow me to do things in Chinese more like native speakers do them. Grammar, phrasing, word choice, accuracy, the whole nine yards. I’ve tried tons of things. Except one, until recently.

Turns out, that one thing happens to be the “One Thing” I’ve been looking for, so why was native, comprehensible input the one thing I didn’t try? I can’t figure it out for the life of me, except that I knew I was focused on learning academic Chinese, and that I knew that such a high proportion of people who use Chinese in academia went to ICLP, so I focused on using their curriculum and textbooks as my blueprint.

As I think is clear in my last article, it worked reasonable well. I’m working as a translator, I’ve attended graduate-level lectures, etc. Nothing to sneer at.

But still, when I speak Chinese, it isn’t comfortable. I don’t always phrase things the way a native speaker would, so I often sense a moment of confusion, however brief, before they understand. It’s rare that they don’t understand, but that brief moment really bothers me.

It isn’t my pronunciation, my tones, or my intonation. I’m not one for false modesty, and I can say that those things are good enough that they almost never cause problems. It’s my phrasing and word choice. It’s called 翻譯腔 in Chinese. I’m translating directly into Chinese from English. Not all the time, of course, but it happens often enough.

I think Krashen would say it’s because I’ve learned the language, but I haven’t yet fully acquired it. Sounds right to me.

So a few weeks ago I was reading some articles over at AJATT, and I thought I’d give this whole comprehensible input thing a shot. Again, I don’t know why I didn’t do more of this before, but so it goes.

I put on a movie while I was translating one day a few weeks ago, and I haven’t looked back since. I found my brain putting phrases on repeat. I kept hearing 姜文 and 葛優 in my head (the movie was 讓子彈飛) for the rest of the evening, and I was thinking in Chinese more than in English. It was like my brain had been put solidly into Chinese mode, when that’s usually a pretty tenuous state for me. The next day I did more, and I felt comfortable speaking Chinese. I’m generally somewhat reluctant about it because I’m too aware of my shortcomings, but this time I had no hesitance. I spoke freely and more fluently than usual, and felt much more confident about it. I was hearing Chinese in my head the whole day, even when I wasn’t listening to it.

So I went home and read about the “din in the head” that Krashen talks about. I had heard the term but hadn’t really looked into it, but I knew that this onslaught of Chinese my brain was feeding back to me must what it referred to. I was right. Krashen believes that it signals that language acquisition is taking place. The article resonated with me, because it described exactly what I was experiencing and allowed me to make sense of it.

An important point that Krashen points out (and has been borne out in my experience) is that aural input triggers “the din” much more effectively than reading does. Read a lot, by all means (I’ll be participating in the 多読コンテスト/Tadoku/Read More Or Die challenge next month, and you should too). But put in lots of time with your headphones on. I’ve found it to be much more effective as far as this goes. Krashen says two hours seems to be the dose that makes the magic happen. Again, he seems to be right in my experience.

Also, I should emphasize that it needs to be comprehensible. It’s fine if there are some things you don’t understand, even preferable. But you need to be able to follow it. On the easier end, 龍貓 (Totoro) is a great choice.

I should say here that no amount of listening to recordings of ICLP textbooks did this for me. I think it’s because they’re boring. As much of a fan as I am of what 思想與社會 teaches, I can admit that the lessons are mind-numbingly dull. 讓子彈飛 is fun. It’s really entertaining, so I found myself tuning into it while I should have been working, when I would tune out something like 思想與社會 even when I wanted to focus on it.

So I’ve gotten so excited about all this that I’ve even started sentence mining again. New rule (for me): it only goes in if I find it interesting or funny. So there’s a lot from 讓子彈飛, Deathnote, the Chinese translation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (馮尼果,《貓的搖籃》), articles on 台語書面化, whatever. The funny stuff is especially fun to review because it takes me back to that moment in the movie or book, and the other stuff is fun because it’s interesting. I’m also putting in things from a book I’m reading on pre-Qin history, which is 一舉兩得 because it helps me learn stuff in my field and improve my Chinese at the same time. That book is in 簡體字, so those cards are too, because I need to get better at reading the language of Mordor anyway. I think I’m going to do this with a lot of the books I’ll be reading in my field. If I’m diligent and thorough about it, I think it will help a ton.

Anyway, that’s it. Go out and buy some movies in Chinese. They can be Chinese movies, or dubbed movies. I’ve found that Disney and Pixar movies tend to have great voice acting if you get the official version (though the shady street vendor versions can be their own brand of fun awfulness), as do Ghibli movies. A lot of Hong Kong movies have Mandarin dubbing too. Other than those, most movies in Taiwan don’t get dubbed as far as I know, but apparently they do in China, so you can order from there. Watch them and listen to them repeatedly, and let the magic happen.

Let me know how it works for you.

The Payoff

I know I haven’t been posting here much lately. That’s a situation that’s likely to continue, unfortunately. I’m too busy, and I don’t know if I have much to say that’s relevant, because the stuff I’m doing these days is more specialized to my field. That is, I’m reading a lot of classical Chinese, history, historical phonology, philology, etc. I don’t have anything to say about that stuff because I don’t know much about it yet, I’m just starting out.

But, I know this blog gets a lot of hits from people planning to go to either the MTC or ICLP, and probably other programs in Taiwan. Search terms that show up include things like “how long before I’m fluent” or “how far will this or that program get me” and the like. A lot of people are just starting out, or they’re coming here with some Chinese already under their belts, and they’re wondering (with good reason) what their Chinese will look like after a given amount of time. If that’s you, hopefully this post will serve as inspiration.

I came to Taiwan in August 2011. From September that year through November of 2012, I studied at the MTC. I tested into PAVC Book 2, which, if you’re familiar with the series, is at a very basic “just starting out” level. Some of my classmates had literally just started from zero at the MTC 3 months earlier. I worked hard most of the time I was there. Harder than just about anyone else I knew. I did have a few periods where I slacked a little, but I was still doing more than most. Since leaving the MTC, I’ve done a lot of self-study and worked some with a tutor. I’ve audited graduate classes in my field, joined Classical Chinese reading groups with other foreigners, and generally just worked my butt off.

Oh yeah, I worked smart too. SRS, basing my study on the ICLP program, reading as much as I could about how other people have successfully learned languages, etc. But no matter how smart you work, you still have to work hard.

Another thing is that I’ve stuck around longer than most. Most of the people in my classes went back to their respective countries after a year, some even less. Their Chinese, as you might expect, has stagnated, or even regressed. Some of the academics I met (some on the verge of completing their PhDs) are still unable to read books by Chinese scholars in their own fields, even though their 文言文 might be excellent.

Last month the hard work and tenacity finally paid off. After 1 year and 8 months in Taiwan, I got a job as a translator. Chinese has gone from being a hobby that I hoped would be useful one day to now being a marketable skill.

I’m getting as much translation work as my brain can handle, all paid by the character, not the hour. And the pay is pretty good, and will go up once I’ve “proven myself.” I can make as much translating for 20 hours per week as my wife does at her more-than-full-time international school job. More than that though, is that it’s really interesting work, and really good for my Chinese. I’ve done CVs for big-time CEOs, academic papers, articles published in Taiwanese magazines, you name it.

I’m actually putting off the MA programs I applied to, for multiple reasons unrelated to this post. I’m allowed to defer for up to a year if I get accepted, but I may not even do the MA here. We’re also trying to find my wife a job in Japan starting in the fall of 2014, so if that happens I’ll continue working as a translator, learning Japanese, reading as much as I can in the field and getting ready to apply to PhD programs back in the US whenever we decide to go back. If we end up staying in Taiwan, then I’ll start the MA next year, and do this translation job until then, and maybe on a more part-time basis once I start. Either way, it’s a good job and my Chinese will be all the better for it when I do start grad school.

I’m not posting this to brag. I’m very much aware of how much I still need to improve, and my shortcomings stare me in the face every time I come across an unknown word. But let this serve as proof that if you put in the time and effort, you can reach a level where you can use your Chinese professionally. You can probably even do it faster. My wife speaks very little Chinese, so a good portion of my life is still in English. If you’re single or married to a Chinese speaker, you should run circles around me.

Work hard. And don’t come to Taiwan for a year, you’ll just leave with half-baked Chinese. Give it two years, at the very least. Really, I feel like I’ve only just gotten my black belt. Now is when the real learning can begin.



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