Maria Holland

Archive for January, 2013|Monthly archive page

Complain + Complain = Drive

In Uncategorized on January 31, 2013 at 1:32 am

Today in our lab meeting, a visiting postdoc from Switzerland gave a presentation on his research.  The title of one of his slides was something like “Gute Results”.

I know a little bit of German – enough to realize that “gute” wasn’t some technical term I wasn’t familiar with, but rather just a relic of a presentation translated from German.

That made me think . . . and I realized that no Chinese speaker would be likely to leave an untranslated Chinese word on an English presentation.  They stick out too much, look too different from English to be passed over or forgotten.

After the success of last year’s resolution to finish Harry Potter in Chinese, I decided to read Life of Pi in Spanish this year.  It’s going well so far!  To finish the book this year I have to keep up a pace just over 1 page per day, and today on the 30th of January I’m on page 42.  My atrophied Spanish muscles are strengthening and I feel like I’m getting faster at getting better, and getting better at getting faster.

I started a Spanish Anki deck when I started the book, and have been adding both the new words I have to look up and old words that I know pretty well.  This helps avoid burnout when reviewing all really challenging cards :)

I’m also still reviewing my Chinese and German decks, plus in a spurt of zeal after I upgraded to Anki 2.0 I made itty bitty decks for all the other languages I’ve picked up words in while on trips . . . I can now say that I know 13 words in Khmer (oh heavens!  10 of those are numbers . . . ), 9 in Korean, 4 in Polish, 5 in Dutch, and 10 in Slovenian.  Not much, but it would be sad to lose those tiny treasures!

Anyway, it’s been interesting having to swtich between languages in a way I’ve never really done before.  When I started learning Chinese I pretty much let Spanish fall by the wayside and never focused on any other language for longer than the few days I was in country.

The other day, I was reviewing Spanish and the English word “complain” came up.  I answered immediately – but incorrectly.  It’s a word that I considered myself to have known before, so I was confused as to how I could have gotten it wrong?

Even more confusing, after a few seconds of consideration, I realized that I knew the true meaning of the word I had answered with – manejar means “to drive”.

But I figured it out.  “Complain” is quejarse in Spanish and manyuan (埋怨) in Chinese . . . My answer, manejar, was a combination of the two.

Interesting how the written languages can be so distinct, but my mind puts all the sounds in the same place!

The Disadvantages of Reading to Learn Languages

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2013 at 1:24 am

I have a lot of thoughts about reading as a way to improve and maintain languages, so I’m going to continue on where I left off in the last post.  There are a few disadvantages to this method, which I think I should acknowledge.  


“Useless” words

My biggest concern when starting Harry Potter in Chinese was all of the “useless” words that I was going to have to learn.  In most languages, proper nouns stick out and don’t really require “learning”, but it’s a different story in Chinese.  (Can you pick out the name in this sentence?  “罗恩打不起精神来,天气实在太热了“)  

But actually, it didn’t end up being too bad.  Yes, I learned about 20 proper nouns (Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Draco Malfoy, the entire Weasley family, Neville Longbottom, Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, Snape, Quirrell, Voldemort, Hogwarts, all four houses, and Quidditch), and had to be familiar with a few others at least well enough to recognize when they were being used.  

But the great thing about reading a 191-page book about the same people is that those proper nouns were almost a one-off deal, an upfront investment I had to make to facilitate the rest of it.  And in the rest of it, I got to learn some really useful things – expel, coma, lion, referee, invisible, peel, Ireland, hatch, sniffle, bow and arrow, intestines, pitch-black, armchair, ankle, chess, flame, and rare are just some examples.  

And the very non-Muggle words like wand, flying broomstick, alchemy, and wizard are really great for impressing people :)


Written vs. spoken language

When I got to see a good Chinese friend of mine over break, I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak Chinese with her for several hours.  As we spoke, I caught myself several times speaking in a way typical to written Chinese, or 书面语.  I guess this is a potential pitfall for this method, which could vary with language and your choice in material.  Harry Potter is not a very formal book, but in Chinese there is a fairly noticeable difference between written and spoken language.  

As I said, I don’t think this is a good way to learn a language from the beginning, and I also don’t think it can or should be the only method used to maintain or advance a language.  It would be most beneficial paired with increased speaking.  In hindsight, I wish I had sought out opportunities to talk to Chinese friends about the book, which would have given me a chance to talk about a subject in whose vocabulary I am well-versed!  


Despite these drawbacks, I made a new resolution this year: this time, to finish my first full book in Spanish!  I have chosen Vida de Pi (Life of Pi) from our family’s quite extensive Spanish library.  I plan to apply the skills I learned last year (though not the vocabulary, haha!) in this endeavor.  I’m interested to see if this tactic works well with my Spanish, despite the linguistic differences (aaah! cognates!  how I’ve missed you!  Conjugations, not so much . . .) and my lower language level.  Stay tuned for future posts!

I’m also using some tools to track my progress, namely Beeminder to keep me on a steady pace of about a page a day.  (A page a day.  Now doesn’t that sound manageable!  Imagine my dismay when, in the depths of my frantic reading over break, I realized that I could have read the entirety of Harry Potter in one year by reading only half a page per day!)

We’ll see how this year goes, but I have tentative plans already.  I was given a copy of 最风筝的人  (Kite Runner, one of my favorite books) in Chinese for my birthday in 2010, and I would love to read that.  XuLei has offered to send me a book in Chinese every year for my birthday present, even making some recommendations.  Adrian, my Mexican lab mate, is also full of suggestions of books written in Spanish.  It would be interesting to read a book written originally in a foreign language, and to read a book that I have never read in English.  These are all future challenges that I hope to tackle soon!


Lastly, I want to share an anecdote from my Harry Potter reading.  While looking up new words after finishing, I came across a few that really surprised me.  Unlike English, Chinese has a finite number of possible syllables, as each syllable is made up exactly of an initial and a final sound, and there are 21 initial sounds and 35 final sounds.  But there are even less than 21*35 = 735 syllables, because not all of the finals can go with all of the initials.  Thus bǔ is not a valid sound, or quen, or xong, or ruai.  After learning around 2000 characters and hearing many more, I have a pretty good feel for what is and what isn’t a valid Chinese syllable.  But there are still some surprises . . . in Harry Potter, I came across four syllables that I had never heard before!  If you had asked me, I would have said that they weren’t even Chinese, but the dictionary says otherwise!  

After looking into it a bit, I suppose it’s not too surprising that I’d never come across them before.  There are only 8 characters that sound like “zei”, 8 “zuan”s, 13 “pie”s, and 30 “kua”s.  This is in comparison to, say, the syllable “shi”, for which my dictionary offers a staggering 276 possible characters.  Crazy.  

PS- looking through the rest of the possible syllables listed on this site, I was surprised by a few others: cen, chuai, chuo, cuan, den, jiong, kei, keng, miu, mou, nang, nen, nou, nǔe, pou, rua, seng, shuan, weng, and zhuai.  Well, that was humbling.

I Finished a Book in Chinese!

In Uncategorized on January 1, 2013 at 11:27 pm

I am extremely proud to say that I completed all of my New Year’s Resolutions.  Three of the four were not that difficult (I resolved to try 50 pumpkin recipes and tried 66), but one was a significant accomplishment.  

On the 31st of December, in a plane from Milwaukee (I know, right?) to San Francisco, with only a few hours left in 2012, I read the last page of 哈利泼特与魔法石.  I started reading in Cambodia (around New Year’s 2011) and made enough progress to convince me that finishing it was doable.  I picked it up again last Christmas and made enough progress to convince me that finishing it was doable in 2012.

Chinese Harry Potter makes a great travel companion; the type and format are not nearly as child-friendly as the English publications, and my paperback copy is only 191 pages.  Plus, because I read so slow, I can only make a little progress in a long transoceanic flight!  For these reasons it accompanied me to Cambodia, and for those reasons I also brought it to Europe this summer (although scant progress was made).  

Grad school is busy and reading in Chinese is a relatively slow, laborious, demanding task, so when Christmas break 2012 came around, I found myself with about 70 pages left and two weeks in which to read them.  Even that didn’t arouse my sense of urgency; it wasn’t until I calculated that I had 35 pages left and 5 days – which meant a daily requirement of 7 pages! – that I really got my butt in gear.

By the end of this intense sprint to the finish, my reading speed had increased noticeably.  Without looking words up (only underlining them to look them up later), I was reading about 7 pages an hour.  Abysmally slow for me, used to reading in English, but lightning speed compared to when I first started reading in Chinese.  So that helped, as did the climax of the book and the exciting finish!

I’m really proud of myself for finishing my first full-length book in another language.  I had tried to read books in Spanish before, even Harry Potter, and never made it very far.  Why did I succeed this time?  I don’t think it was simply a matter of language skills.  Here are the three main reasons to which I attribute my success:


A balance between reading and learning

If you look at my copy of Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal, you’ll find maybe 50 pages of intensely underlined text, while the rest of the book is in mint condition – because I gave up.  I guess I viewed it as a textbook and insisted on looking up every single word that I didn’t know or wasn’t sure of.  This slowed my reading pace to a crawl (especially because I was using a paper dictionary and keeping paper lists!) and reduced my enjoyment to exactly zero.  This is why I gave up.  

On my second try reading Harry Potter, this time in Chinese, I relaxed more.  I allowed myself some leeway.  Some words I figured out from context, and figured that they weren’t important enough to look up or learn.  Some words I looked up – some while I was reading, some later.  (I added over 600 new cards to my Chinese Anki deck throughout the book, so it’s not like I was slacking off! ) The truth is, you only learn from books as long as you keep reading them, and if the process is decidedly not fun, you’ll stop reading and won’t learn anything at all!

I also know that, depending on my mood and schedule, my attitude towards this balance shifted.  Some days I was very curious and looked up (or underlined) lots of words; some days I went a few pages without marking anything.  That would have freaked perfectionist me out when I was reading La piedra filosofal, but I’ve finally been able to embrace this flexibility.  


Mimic “the reading experience”

I love to read books.  I love curling up on my bed with my body pillow and reading some evenings.  I love reading on our couch by the glow of the Christmas lights (that we leave up year round . . . ).  I read in cars, trains, planes, buses, boats, subways, and occasionally while walking.  

Therefore, if I am going to attempt to learn or study a language by reading, I have to emulate those things that I love about reading as I’ve always done it.  Another mistake I made when trying to read in Spanish was to require an elaborate setup for my “reading”.  I would have the Spanish book, the English book (for comparison), a dictionary, a notebook (for new words), and at least one writing utensil.  This pretty much confined me to a desk or other such uncomfortable place. 

At times while reading 哈利泼特 I accompanied it with my electronic dictionary or (eventually) smartphone with Pleco installed, and I always had a pencil tucked into the book, serving dual purposes as writing utensil and bookmark.  Especially near the end of the year, when I was trying to get through a lot of pages every day, I merely marked new words to look up later, dispensing with all of the electronics.  Then, at its most barebones, I was able to lay on the couch next the gas fireplace at home and power through an hour of reading in comfort and with great pleasure.

Of course, this required me to go back a separate time to look up words and add them to Anki, but I rather liked the separation between “reading” and “studying” times, as it made the former more enjoyable and the latter shorter :)


Good book choice

Depending on your language ability, it may seem impossible to read in a foreign language without aid of a dictionary or the English-language version for reference.  Of course, I don’t think reading this way is appropriate for a beginner, but more someone at or above the intermediate level.  But even then, I think it’s a good idea to have your first book be something that you’ve read before in your native language.  

I say this for two reasons: First of all, the general story will be familiar enough to you that more words will become apparent through context, further saving time with the dictionary.  But secondly (and perhaps more importantly),  you know you like the book already.  Given how slow I read in Chinese, I would be devastated if I got a third of the way into a book only to become bored and give up for pure aesthetic reasons.  Think of the wasted time!  

Instead, I knew that Harry Potter would keep my attention, even the nth time around.  In fact, I enjoyed this time through more than I expected.  Reading in a foreign language is a different experience – namely, it’s slower – and I got different things out of the book.  


These were important things to learn, and I’m glad after a few tries that I finally figured out some tactics that work for me!