Maria Holland

Archive for April, 2014|Monthly archive page

One-to-One and Onto

In Uncategorized on April 30, 2014 at 1:46 am

The other two girls in my Chinese class are both American-born Chinese.  They’ve clearly come to their language abilities in a much different way than I have; parents speaking to them, for instance, instead of teachers and randos on trains.  Conversationally, they’re very capable, but my formal study of the language has given me a huge advantage – I can read and write.

One of the girls has clearly studied before, but I don’t believe the other ever has.  She can’t read characters.  This is so interesting to me!  Illiteracy, at one of the top universities in the nation!  Haha.

No, but for reals.  Illiteracy is terrible.  The reason you don’t know this is because you’ve probably never been conscious of your illiteracy.  You couldn’t read, and then you could, and now you can forever.  But when you learn a language like Chinese or Japanese, you take a huge step back in that regard.  Turns out there’s a big difference between losing something and never having had it.

I lived in China for two months one summer with a reading level not even equivalent to a child who could only read three-letter words.  When I went back to visit the farm in the northeast where I had lived my “Chinese childhood”, I delighted in reading street signs and billboards out loud – just because I could.  It was such a wonderful feeling!

A friend of mine was talking to me recently and he told me that if he ever learned an Asian language, he wouldn’t try to learn to read and write.  That’s what I thought once.  I guess, even in a second language, illiteracy is okay until you realize that it’s really not.

The interesting thing about having this girl in class is watching her and the teacher work around her illiteracy.  The teacher typed up all of the questions in the text in pinyin, the standard romanization of Chinese, and she prepared her report in the same way.

The trouble with pinyin is that romanization is a process that leads to information loss.  Romanization, to get technical here, is not bijective.  Quick lecture:

A function is one-to-one, or injective, between set X and set Y if every x in the set X is related to a different y in set Y.  A function is onto if for every y in set Y, there is an x in set X that is related to it.  A function is bijective (and therefore invertible) if it is both one-to-one and onto.

Left: one-to-one but not onto.  Center: onto, but not one-to-one.  Right.  One-to-one and onto.

Left: one-to-one but not onto. Center: onto, but not one-to-one. Right. One-to-one and onto (bijective, or invertible).

Let’s say characters are in set C, and pronunciations (pinyin) are in a set P.  If romanization is our function, it goes from C to P (taking characters and giving them a pronunciation).  This function is onto, because every pronunciation that is valid in Chinese has at least one character that sounds like that.  But it is NOT one-to-one, because several different characters can be related to the same pronunciation (even when tones are taken into account).  For instance, 是、事、试、世、市、式、and 室 are all pronounced ‘shì’.

So, romanization is not invertible.  While you find the pronunciation of a character (with the few exceptions in which there are multiple pronunciations, but let’s not trouble ourselves with that), you cannot find the character of a pronunciation.

I’d love to come up with an analogy here, but in English maybe the equivalent would be saying that you’re thinking of a word that rhymes with “sad”.  Um, not helpful.  Now picture trying to read a text written like that!

It’s very difficult to read pinyin as anything more than an accompaniment to a new word.  An entire essay?  I’d have a headache within a few lines.  The teacher even has trouble with it; I think the only way to understand it is to read it out loud and then focus on the sound.

What I’m trying to say here is – stay in school, kids, and learn how to read!

I’m a Gambling Urban Planner

In Uncategorized on April 7, 2014 at 1:19 am

I think it’s just about time for me to be taking another Chinese class; my Chinese has started to deteriorate noticeably but I think it’s nothing that a little concentrated study can’t stop and even reverse.  The first thing to go was definitely my handwriting.  There’s really no rhyme or reason to the characters I’ve retained and the ones for which I couldn’t even put a single stroke down on paper.

The next thing to go was the tones.  They were always the thing I had the most tenuous grip on.  They are also not important in singing, which – let’s be real here – is 75% of the Chinese I emit these days.  And, bad tones lead to the best stories.

For instance, in one of the classes where we were discussing reasons for homelessness, the teaching listed one reason as “dubo”, and I did a double take.  It sounded like she was saying 读博, which means to study for a Ph.D.!  I know it’s not exactly lucrative, but I’m far from homeless, guys!  After I asked, she wrote the characters on the board – 赌博, ‘to gamble’.  Turns out there’s a huge difference between dúbó and dǔbó.  If I haven’t been paying attention to my tones (hint: I haven’t), I may or may not have been telling people that I’m a gambler when they ask what I do.  (Worse, when I was in college and they asked what I wanted to do after, I told them I wanted to be a gambler!)  Interestingly, though, everyone was always impressed . . .

The next class period, the teacher asked what classes I was taking.  At the time I was only in one other class, an introduction to MPI for parallel computing, offered through the computer science department.  I used a new word she had taught me the week before (程式, ‘code’) and told her my only class was 程式设计.  She looked extremely confused.  “What does that have to do with your major?” she asked.  I started to explain about how I do my simluations on computers and eventually her eyes widened.  “I thought you were taking an urban planning class!”  Understandable.  The sounds “chengshi”, especially with the tones “chéngshì”, usually mean “city”. I figured she would remember teaching me this word a few days ago, but they’re the EXACT SAME TONES.

When people ask me about tones, I usually tell them they’re not a big deal.  Yes, I’ve had difficulties, but only with people who refuse to understand me on principle.  The more interesting cases are those times when your tones are perfect and the meaning still gets messed up.  My classic example before this was the time I almost ended up eating a cigarette lighter for Thanksgiving dinner, but now I have some new stories to tell!


In Uncategorized on April 1, 2014 at 2:53 pm

I’m taking my first Chinese class in almost four years this semester – Intermediate-to-Advanced Chinese Conversation.  It’s a tiny class, just three of us and the teacher, 钟老师.  I know that it sounds a little silly, taking a class instead of just talking to my Chinese roommate . . . but inertia is a powerful thing and I think it’s good to know your weaknesses and to work on them.

The first time we met, the only students were me and 韩夏, a grad student in East Asian Studies.  The teacher asked us to prepare a presentation on our research – easily done for my classmate, who is presumably studying the country whose language and culture the teacher and I are very familiar with.

Me?  Not so much.  When I said my major, 机械工程系, the teacher had to translate it into “Mechanical Engineering” for her.  I didn’t even bother getting more specific with 计算生物力学 (computational biomechanics) or 有限元分析 (finite element analysis).

But, I like a challenge.  So I went home and started looking up the words I would need – cortex, white matter, gray matter, axon, neuron, autism, simulation.  The Google Translate version of my speech goes like this:

My research is about the development of our brain. Our brains, gray matter out there, there are white matter. Gray very curved, which is in the stomach when occurred. We have more brains than any other animal bent, this is very important for brain function.  We do not know how the brain is bent up. Occasionally there will be problems, and some mental disorders may occur, such as autism.  I use a computer to simulate the development of the brain and see what things will affect the bend.

Although I assure you it sounded better in Chinese.  Somewhat.

I was expecting my classmates to have a hard time with some of the words, but I was surprised when the teacher didn’t know some of them!  There was some confusion as to whether I was talking about the growth of the brain or the skull, and the more specific term ‘cortex’ didn’t seem to have much meaning to her.

The biggest challenge, though, was the concept of buckling.  This is a fundamental concept in mechanical engineering, and is also a physical reality that you must have experienced even if you did not know what is was called.  Buckling happens when long slender objects are subjected to compression and an instability causes it to bend out of the plane.  The classic example is pressing on the two ends of a yardstick; it can’t easily shorten in length so it compensates by buckling.


I looked for a translation of this word (变形) for my presentation, but it’s hard to tell if you’re getting results for mechanical buckling or belt buckling, you know?  I also got a couple of words for folding (折) and bending (弯曲), but still wasn’t sure I had the word to convey my meaning.

None of them worked.  When I illustrated the concept of buckling by pressing on the sides of my notebook until the pages bent, she just shrugged her shoulders.  Back in the office, I asked one of my labmates, who is Chinese.  She expressed dissatisfaction with each of my candidate words, but had nothing better to offer.  While I was heating up my food in the kitchen, a Chinese professor in our department walked in, so I asked him.  He struggled for a bit before saying that he was sure he could find it in a textbook somewhere . . . Later, I got an email from him suggesting 压曲, but when I asked another Chinese colleague later he disagreed with that one, too.

All this goes to show how difficult it is to reach professional fluency (or even professional competency) in another language!  Technical terms have very specific meanings; colloquially “stress” and “strain” might mean pretty much the same thing, but not in an engineering setting!  I’d love to have the opportunity to work on this skill further, but this really illustrated to me the need for people who are proficient both technically and and in Chinese in order to really learn!