Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘Spanish’

Orientation Day 3 – Forbidden City

In Uncategorized on June 10, 2015 at 4:43 pm

We had another lecture this morning by another PKU professor.  This one was supposed to be about society and culture, but it was really more of the history and politics.  The most interesting thing from this lecture (besides the truly impressive number of s’s he managed to put at the end of nearly every word) was that he, like the speaker from the day before, talked about backwardness and poverty as an “invitation for aggression”.  The man yesterday shared the story of Confucius and his followers walking along the Canglang river and hearing a man singing a song.

Confucius said, “Hear what he sings, my children.  When clear, he will wash his cap-strings, and when muddy, he will wash his feet with it.  This different application is brought by the water on itself.

It was interesting to me to learn that this is at least a somewhat common belief among Chinese.

During the lunch break today, I went back to Bank of China to see about reopening my old bank account.  I confidently handed over my account book, card, and passport and said that I had just forgotten the password.  (Why mention the five years thing if they don’t bring it up?)  She asked if this was the passport I used to open it and I said yes . . . then realized it wasn’t.  I renewed my passport a few months ago.  Apparently the account has been frozen and I need the old passport (or a certified letter from the embassy) to reopen it.  It’s almost not worth it for the 71元 that my accounts say I left in the account . . . but the woman casually mentioned that there was over 1000元 in there!  Apparently we got one last scholarship payment a few weeks after I left Xiamen.  I guess for $300 I’ll try to figure out how to get my old passport here . . . 

Today’s afternoon activity was a visit to Tiananmen and the Forbidden City.  The buldings were beautiful, but the weather was clear and sunny and the air quality was great, so I spent most of the time looking at the clouds. 

IMG 2066

I did get one nice picture of the three Maria’s, though.  We’re nearly 10% of the EAPSI China 2015 cohort – and the similarities go even further!  Two of us are from Minnesota, two of us are the only two working at Tsinghua here in Beijing, they both go to Notre Dame, and their last names both start with G.

IMG 2074

One other fun note from our time at the Forbidden City.  Victoria, our language teacher, had mentioned that she speaks four languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and Spanish).  (There was a hilarious moment in our second language class when she was switching between Chinese and English, and accidentally started a sentence with “tambien”.)  Today I finally took the opportunity to speak Spanish with her.  To my surprise, it felt okay to speak Spanish and I didn’t once slip into Mandarin.  Switching back into Chinese and English later really messed with my brain, though.  Now that I am reasonably proficient in another language (especially one that many people consider difficult) I am less impressed when people speak a second language – but man, am I impressed when they have a third or a fourth, simultaneously held at a decent level.  Code switching is not easy!

For dinner, I ended up at a 土家 restaurant with a few other EAPSI people.  We had a great meal; except for the server switching out our money for a fake 100元 bill, it was the best experience I’ve had yet.  We got some delicious beef, frog, spicy wood ear mushroom, and basically spicy potato chips.

Places like we ate tonight are nice for dinner with friends, but you almost can’t eat there alone and it quickly becomes a two-hour, 40元 affair – not really suitable for a quick lunch.  I guess we’ve done alright for ourselves, but I’m surprised at how tiring eating out is.  I guess I was coming from a very different place when I lived in Xiamen, which was a similar situation food-wise.  But now at Stanford I cook or eat free food all the time, eating out maybe once or twice a month.  The exhausting thing about eating out is that you have to get each meal as you need it – there’s no freezer food, no leftovers to microwave.  We call it foraging, and we really don’t know where the next meal is going to come from.  If it’s stressful for me, I can only imagine how it feels for those who don’t speak Chinese and/or are picker eaters than me.  

Grünes Huevos with 火腿

In Uncategorized on January 8, 2015 at 11:28 pm

In my conversations with friends, I have yet to meet an American who did not learn to read with Dr. Seuss.  And I have yet to meet a non-American who did.  How sad.

Dr. Seuss, for any non-Americans who may be reading this, is a children’s book author and illustrator so beloved that his birthday is observed as National Read Across America Day.  He’s written lots of books that may be familiar even to people who didn’t grow up reading him – The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas have all been made into movies during my lifetime.

His books are fun to read.  The main components that you will find in any Dr. Seuss classic are rhyming and nonsense, made-up words.  In addition, the language is simple.  The story of The Cat in the Hat (from Wikipedia) is very interesting:

In May 1954, Life magazine published a report on illiteracy among school children, which concluded that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. Accordingly, William Ellsworth Spaulding, the director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin who later became its chairman, compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognize and asked Geisel [Dr. Seuss] to cut the list to 250 words and write a book using only those words.  Spaulding challenged Geisel to “bring back a book children can’t put down.” Nine months later, Geisel, using 236 of the words given to him, completed The Cat in the Hat. It retained the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Geisel’s earlier works, but because of its simplified vocabulary, it could be read by beginning readers. The Cat in the Hat and subsequent books written for young children achieved significant international success and they remain very popular today. In 2009, Green Eggs and Ham sold 540,366 copies, The Cat in the Hat sold 452,258 copies, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960) sold 409,068 copies—outselling the majority of newly published children’s books.

Finally, there’s often a good message in them.  For instance, Green Eggs and Ham has got to be the best way to get kids to try foods they don’t think they’ll like; The Lorax is about the environment and consumerism.

Anyway, I grew up on Dr. Seuss.  My mother, whose love of languages and books I inherited, found Spanish versions of a few of our favorites over the years, and this grew into a casual interest in collecting Dr. Seuss books in languages we were interested in.  For instance, when my parents visited in China, we bought a boxed set of six classics in Chinese.

Somehow, I was reminded of this while I was at home a few weeks ago.  The internet is an amazing thing, and a quick search revealed that “Wie der Grinch Weihnachten gestohlen hat” and “Der Kater mit Hut” existed!


Unfortunately, the former was $209.30 on Amazon, and the latter $52.08.  Because it was winter break, though, a few friends of mine were back at home – and conveniently, home for one of them was Germany!

Using a 21st century version of the Pony Express, Alex ordered the books on German Amazon and brought them back to Stanford.  I brought some English and Spanish books from back home, so check out my collection now!!

Carl  2015 01 08 17 54 25

Carl  2015 01 08 17 54 05

In addition to the novelty of having these books in other languages, I think children’s books in general, and Dr. Seuss’ in particular, are incredibly interesting examples of language for two, almost opposite reasons: they’re universal and accessible, and they present special challenges in translation.

I frequented the children’s section of the supermarket in Hunchun when I was first learning Chinese.  I love reading great writing and important literature, but in a language where I have the vocabulary of a four-year-old, I was also stuck to the literary choices afforded to four-year-olds.  The truth is, children’s literature is extremely accessible.  They use little words, avoid cultural references or confusing idioms, and Chinese kid’s books use pinyin to spell out the pronunciation of characters (a necessity because at that point I was completely illiterate).  I’m actually reading a Chinese science fiction novel right now (more on that soon!) so my reading tastes have matured, but just like in my real childhood, children’s books were an important and necessary part of my “Chinese childhood”.  My German is nicht gut, but even I can read a Dr. Seuss book in German.

The other thing that I find so fascinating about these books is the challenge of translating them.  There are so many things to consider when translating: original wording, meaning, style, tone, feel, rhythm, etc.  There’s a reason that there are so many translations of the Odyssey and the Bible; different translators choose to focus on different aspects, because it’s impossible to be exact in every area.

I’ve read two books in other languages that were translated from English – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Chinese, and Life of Pi in Spanish.  Both of them suffered a little bit in translation (Yann Martel’s gorgeous prose was pretty dull in Spanish) but the stories, which I think most people focus on, were unchanged.  All the details were there.

In the average Dr. Seuss book, though, the details are extremely unimportant.  I mean, in some books, fully half of them is made-up nonsense . . .

So, how do you translate that?  I firmly believe that the most important elements of Dr. Seuss books are their ease of reading and the rhythm and rhyme of the words.  The best translations maintain these aspects; the worst translations (I’m looking at you, Chinese) ignore them.

A simple example here:  Green Eggs and Ham relates the interactions of two characters, one trying to get the other to try an unusual and not-at-all-appetizingly-named dish.  In a cumulative list (that has kids shouting along with the reader by the end), many places are suggested in which the dish could be enjoyed.  This is the essence.

Only one of the characters is named.  Originally, he was called “Sam-I-Am”.  This, you’ll note, rhymes with “ham”.  How convenient!!  In Spanish, his name is changed to “Juan Ramón” . . . which rhymes with “jamón”.  In German, a few more concessions are required, and we are introduced to “Jetzt-kommt-Jack” (Here-Comes-Jack), who pushes “speck” (bacon).  Excellent job, all!

But the Chinese book – oh, the Chinese book . . . . the character is named “山姆是我” and he offers “火腿”.  Both are slavishly accurate translations that don’t even attempt to rhyme-the former ends with “wo” (which sounds like “won” without the “n”), the latter with “tui” (like “tray” if you can’t say r’s).  Such a disappointment.  In Chinese, this delightful book is reduced to a laundry list that one must trudge through until it is finally over.

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here and criticize.  But, to make a suggestion on this point, just off the top of my head – perhaps the Chinese translator could take a page (ha!) from the less-literal German and name the character something like “陈过来” (Here-Comes-Chen) and the meat could be “牛排“ (steak)?

The Polish version is on the way and we’re working on Dutch and French . . . I will be returning to this topic again :)

Corazon tan blanco

In Uncategorized on December 15, 2014 at 11:43 pm

This year, for the third year in a row, I made it my resolution to finish a book in another language.  In 2012, my goal was to finish 哈利波特与磨石 (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), which I had been poking at for over a year.  In 2013, I read Vida de Pi (Life of Pi) from start to finish.  Those were made [somewhat] easier by the fact that they were originally written in English, and that I had read them in English.  After two successful years, though, I became emboldened and decided to tackle something harder.

I solicited recommendations on facebook, and ended up choosing Corazon tan blanco, by Javier Marías.  It has been translated into English as “A Heart So White”, in case you’re interested in reading it, but I have not read it in English and honestly have no plans to.

Life of Pi (which I had loved mainly because of Yann Martel’s beautiful writing) became, in Spanish, not much more than a good story.  There were no sentences that stayed with me, that drew me back to reread them, that said what I wanted to say but better.  It was a little uninspired.  Based on this experience, I was excited to read a book in the original Spanish, hopefully getting to experience a gifted author directly instead of reading his story second-hand.

But I also knew that reading a book cold (not knowing the story) in another language would obviously be harder than reading something I knew already.  Sometimes, while reading 哈利波特 and Vida de Pi, I wondered if I was like a little kid, turning pages and saying the words that she knows belong there . . . even if she’s holding the book upside down.  How much did I actually understand, and how much was I filling in from my prior knowledge?  The only way to find that out was to put myself in a situation where I had no prior knowledge.

316 pages and nearly a year later, I believe I was right – it was harder, but the added difficulty was worth it.

Of course, because it’s me, I have some data to share.  I first shared this graph last year, after finishing Vida de Pi.  Through both books, I underlined words I didn’t know as I was reading, looked them up afterwards, and added them to my Anki flashcard deck.  Each time I read a few pages, I counted up how many words I’d underlined (blue), how many I’d added to Anki (red), and how many cards I had in my Anki deck (purple).


This is two years worth of data, but at first glance it looks identical to last year’s.  That’s mainly because the lines are averaged data – so, in both books up to that point, how many words was I underlining per page?  The individual dots represent a few pages at a time, and if you look at those, you do see a significant spike around [cumulative] page 400, which represents page 0 of Corazon tan Blanco.  This is due to two things – both the slightly more advanced language used in a book written in Spanish as opposed to translated into it, and the new vocabulary always required at the beginning of a new book.  (Corazon featured a husband and a wife who both worked as government translators in Europe, so there was some terminology that I had to learn (although nothing compared to Harry Potter!!))

Anyway, the data show that the beginning of the second book was more difficult (at least in terms of the number of unknown words) than the end of the first, but that effect was transient.  By the end of the book, I was looking up ~1 word per page.

Another aspect of difficulty that I couldn’t quantify was the additional memory required to keep track of the story.  I didn’t know the plot ahead of time, wasn’t familiar with the characters, didn’t even’t read the briefest synopsis in English before starting it.  This presented a challenge, because I had to strike a balance between word-level, sentence-level, paragraph-level, and chapter-level approaches.  I had to be careful not to miss the forest for the trees, but it also took a lot of effort for me to get through the trees!  I read about once a week and sometimes when I picked up the book on Sunday I had no memory of what had happened last weekend.  I ended up rereading more of this book than the previous ones.

Overally, it was a really great experience.  The book was quite melancholy and sad (the Spanish phrase that sticks in my mind most is “un presentimiento de malestar”) but, as I had hoped, beautifully written.  Here are two quotes that stuck with me:

“los oídos carecen de párpados que puedan cerrarse instintivamente a lo pronunciado, no pueden guardarse de lo que se presiente que va a escucharse, siempre es demasiado tarde.”

“The ears don’t have lids that can close themselves instinctively at what is said; they can’t keep themselves from what they think they’re going to hear, as it’s always too late.”

One big theme of the book is finding out something that you don’t want to know – in fact, the opening line is “No he querido saber, pero he sabido que . . .”  (“I didn’t want to know, but I know that . . .”)

“no hay en las lenguas que yo conozco palabra que oponer a ‘huérfano’.”

“In the languages that I know, there is no word for the opposite of ‘orphan’.”

Juan, the narrator, is a translator and speaks several languages.  Here he is talking about the sadness of a mother who loses her only daughter.

In 2015 I will be further pushing myself, this time planning to read 三体, widely acknowledged as the best Chinese science fiction novel.  加油!

Vida de Pi

In Uncategorized on November 30, 2013 at 2:21 pm

I did it!  I completed my New Year’s resolution of reading Vida de Pi (Life of Pi, in Spanish) in 2013.  In fact, I finished a month early.  This is the second year in a row that I’ve read a book in a foreign language, and I think it’s been so helpful to me in maintaining and even improving my languages.

Last year, I read the first Harry Potter book in Chinese, but that was a little bit different as I had already read part of it in 2011.  Even so, I found myself scrambling at the end, and I think I read the last third in the two weeks I was home on break :(  This year, I did the whole thing, start to finish, in 2013, and I made a couple improvements that I think really added to the experience.

First of all, after I realized that reading Harry Potter in a year would have meant reading ½ a page every day if I had been disciplined, I decided to be more consistent in the task throughout the year.  To that end, I started using an online service called Beeminder.  They describe themselves as “goal-minding with teeth” – essentially, you commit to a goal and if you fail to make it, they charge you. (There are several caveats; you can change your goal anytime but the change takes effect a week from now, and you don’t get charged for the first “derailment”.)  It’s a cool service and I highly recommend it for anything that you’re looking to track but also commit to.

I set a goal to reach page 400 by Dec 31, 2013 (the bullseye at the end) – and, as the graph shows, I made it (without derailing!):

beeminder I think there are a couple of interesting things to notice from this.  First of all, I started the year by reading almost every day, but by June or so I was in a pretty solid pattern of reading 7-8 pages on the weekends.  This ended up being more efficient and, to be frank, realistic.  Also, look at the outlier right around the beginning of October – I had a friend coming to visit me and I knew I didn’t want to have to read while he was here, so I got well ahead in my reading before he came.  This is totally due to Beeminder; without it I would have fallen behind and had to catch up, but this commitment made me be proactive!

The second thing I did also involved data tracking.  Throughout the book, I kept track of the words I underlined (the ones I didn’t know and had to look up) as well as the words that I added to Anki (my flashcard program).  I started using Anki with Spanish at the beginning of the year, so it was a very clean slate to start with.


A few interesting things about this graph:

The red line and dots are the new cards that I added to my flashcard deck.  At the beginning, I added a lot of easy words that I already knew in Spanish, just so my deck wouldn’t be overwhelmingly hard and discouraging.  (Also because I think it’s an interesting concept to quantify the number of words you know in a language.)  This tapered out quickly, and had been reduced to almost nothing around halfway through the book, when it joined the torquoise line.

The torquoise line and dots are the words that I underlined and had to look up.  Around halfway through, the torquoise line and the red line joined, meaning the only cards I was adding to Anki were words that I had had to look up.  At the beginning of the book, this was almost 15 words per page!  By the end of the book, I was reading much faster, and part of that was because there were only a few (<5) words on each page that I didn’t know.

It’s also interesting to note the outlying data points . . . that red dot around page 240 is when Pi started fishing, and I learned a lot of words for fish and fishing equipment.  The turquoise points around 150 are when Pi first got into the lifeboat and I encountered a lot of terms for parts of the boat and the supplies that he had with him.

I thought all of this was really interesting, and definitely worth the extra effort in tracking the information.  Sadly, this is not even close to the nerdiest Excel spreadsheet on my computer.  Not. Even. Close.

So, with 2014 a month away, I am starting to think about next year’s goal.  I want to continue in this vein somehow, but I’m torn between languages, books, and even mediums.  I feel ready to read something originally in Spanish that I haven’t read yet, but in Chinese I would stick with something I’ve read before (probably Kite Runner, because I already own that).  I’m also considering a telenovela, to really work on my listening in Spanish more . . . We’ll see!

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!

Ich lerne Deutsch

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Summer is here at Stanford, which means a break from the toil of classes and a new routine of regular work hours.  (Of course, by “work”, I mean “research”.  And by “regular”, I mean “set-by-me”)  This gives me the time to pick up all those things I barely had time for during the school year – playing the piano and flute, knitting and needlepoint, reading, and language study.

I’m still cranking away at my faithful Chinese Anki deck, which requires about 5 minutes daily to refresh my vocabulary of ~2000 characters.  And some friends and I recently reinstated Viernes Español, a tradition of [trying to] speak only in Spanish on Fridays.  (My lab mate, Adrian, is a real stickler, making me use Spanish even when discussing research.  Sometimes when we’re talking about continuum mechanics in Spanish, I don’t even understand what I don’t understand!) 

But then I overheard Adrian, who is Mexican, talking to another of my labmates, Manuel (from Germany).  They were discussing Spanish and German vocabulary and grammar – and points!  They had just started using a program called duolingo to learn each other’s languages.  Duolingo’s gimmick is that it has you “translate the web”, but in my opinion that feature needs a lot of development.  The real draw of duolingo for me is that it awards you points for learning and reviewing, giving you a concrete way to track your progress . . . and compare it to others’ : )

So I convinced another friend of mine, Martin, to start learning German with me.  Apparently competition is a very good stick (or carrot?) because we have definitely been pushing each other along in the pursuit of knowledge.  Martin, who I am convinced does not ever do work, has 1968 points to my 1162, but I do pretty well in second place keeping him on his toes. 

It’s been fun learning a new language from [almost] nothing.  I’m back in that heady era of high returns, when the words you learn immediately get used in every sentence you speak (“I”, “you”, “to be”, etc.).  When exceptions and, for that matter, all tenses but the present are a far-off threat.  When your mistakes are adorable because you clearly don’t have the skills to be malicious (Adrian recently told our summer student that he ate her instead of that he saw her). 

Also, it’s fun to learn a Germanic language!  It’s fun to struggle with grammar instead of vocabulary (as Chinese is totally the opposite).  Cognates are super fun – oh my goodness, after 3+ years of Chinese I had forgotten how wonderful cognates were!! 

I don’t know exactly how far I’ll go with this program or with this language, but I do know that I will not likely have another time in my life more conducive for learning German.  I have a large circle of German and Swiss friends, including three people I see every day in the lab, and I’m going to Austria for a week in September.  Might as well take advantage of the opportunities and incentives! 

Auf Wiedersehen!

If You Want Me to Shut Up . . .

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2010 at 11:14 pm

. . . just speak to me in Spanish.  It works every damn time. 

I’m now in El Paso, TX, staying at my abuelos’ house.  Everything about this place – from the location mere miles from the Mexican border, to my relatives whose first language is Spanglish – makes it the perfect place to work on my first second language.

But things have changed.  I haven’t studied Spanish in about five years, haven’t really used it in three, and in the past two I started working on a different second language.  It’s certainly sad, but if I ranked my languages in order of fluency, Spanish is definitely no longer second.

It would have been cool to be able to speak to my Spanish, Mexican, and Columbian friends in Xiamen, so I was a little bummed at the atrocious state of my language abilities last year.  It wasn’t until I got here, though, that I felt full-blown guilt.  For all that I joke about forgetting I’m Mexican . . . I am.  Spanish isn’t really my language, but it is the language of the Garibay and Velasquez families, and I DON’T SPEAK IT ANYMORE.  It’s beautiful, it’s my heritage, and it’s almost gone. 

Not 100% gone, thankfully.  I understand as well as I ever did (which is good, because Abuelo is giving me free Spanish lessons by telling his stories using chunks of English and Spanish).  I just can’t respond.  When he asks me a question, I have to catch myself before responding automatically in Chinese, then I freeze as I try to move past that into the deeper layer of Spanish that I’m sure is lying around in there somewhere.  Between my shame and the simple lack of words in the right language, I’m literally rendered speechless.  It’s horrifying. 


I think I am stupider right now than at any point in my life – well, at least the last 5 or 6 years.  The only math I’ve done in a good 16 months is converting RMB to USD and dividing dinner bills between large groups of people; the only scientific concept I’ve thought about was heat capacity when explaining to Carlos why tomatoes stay so hot in malatang soup.  I lost my Spanish due to an intense year of Chinese study, but when I video chatted with XuLei two days after getting home, she said my Chinese was already slower.  What’s left for me to lose??


I’m spent yesterday afternoon working on a letter in Spanish to my Spanish friend, Carlos.  I promised I would but I immediately regretted it.  Everything about it is difficult!  I’m getting used to a new keyboard (because, ironically, at this point I find Chinese infinitely easier to type than proper español with the tildes and everything) where even the punctuation is different!  The sentence structure is unnatural to me because it’s so similar to English with only a few exceptions.  The vocabulary is just a matter of pushing through the brambles of Chinese to find the old Spanish stuff that has gotten buried, but the conjugations are downright painful.  Subject, tense, endings – what’s up with that?  Compared to Chinese, Spanish feels like this delicate language that must be used very carefully or everything will fall apart.  Chinese, on the other hand, is a brick wall that you can just throw up any old way; it’ll be fine.

It ended up much better than I expected.  I swallowed my pride and gave it to Abuelo to proofread, and he only found a few mistakes.  I was pleased, considering I just went with what I felt on most of the conjugations. 


I’ve confided in Abuelo how sad I am at losing my Spanish, so he let me in on a secret.  “To speak like a Mexican,” he said, “you only need two words: pendejo and chingar.”  He offered a few examples to round out the lesson, and I left the table feeling a little bit better.

So later he was bothering me about getting ready to go.  In my  best Mexican accent (the one thing I never really lost), I said, “Ay, pendejo!  No me chinges!!” and he about died laughing.  These words aren’t exactly suited to a polite conversation, if you know what I mean!  He told me that anyone else would probably be offended, but he was just proud that I’d learned the lesson.  (And he bragged about it later, too!)

I’m pretty pleased with myself, too.  This is the man who has introduced me all my life as “my UGLIEST granddaughter” and often simply addresses me as “Ugly” (not to be confused with “Idiot”, my brother).  He once taught my cousin Sofia that her name was Sofea (or “so ugly”).  It’s about time he got what was comin’ to him!


We had a party at the house today, a big get-together of the Garibay, Velazquez, Zuñiga, Zubiate, Martinez, et. al.  My mother only has three siblings but my grandparents both have a whole slew, so my extended family on her side is possibly even more crazy than on my dad’s, with his 9 siblings.  It’s hard to keep them all straight, but made slightly easier when we decide to just call most everyone ‘cousin’, regardless of actual geneological ties. 

As I snacked on Abuela’s amazing guacamole, I found myself sitting next to Velia, one of the relatives who falls into the category of ‘aunt’.  She was talking to a ‘cousin’, inquiring about her parents.  “No tienen health problems?” she asked.  Her Spanglish is the best; cracks me up every time.  I’m much more adept at understanding it now (because that’s how I spoke Chinese when I was lazy), but I remember times when the sentence “Fui al tienda para comprar un shirt” would set me off racking my brain for the meaning of this word, “shirt”.  Understanding such a combination of multiple languages is an acquired skill (and, as I came to discover in China, being able to speak that way – and be understood – is a downright luxury). 


After the party died down, Abuelo and I went out dancing.  It was hosted by the Golden Bears, an organization consisting of alumni of El Paso’s Bowie High School over the age of 50.  I go to meetings whenever I’m in El Paso, but this time I lucked out and happened to be in town during a social event.  Considering my main areas of study this last year were Chinese, soccer, and dancing (specializing in dancing with old people), this was right up my alley.

It reminded me so much of my Wednesday and Saturday nights in Xiamen.  I stood out among the crowd here, too, – although this time it was because I was the youngest person in attendance by approximately three decades, not because I was the only foreigner or the tallest person, like ever. 

Another thing I noticed is how people liked me for what I am, not as much who I am.  In China, I was the foreigner and could do no wrong; in El Paso I’m Gaby’s granddaughter and their affection for him is instantly shared by me.  It’s kind of nice because while some people were probably interested to know that I had just returned from China, they would have been just as pleased to meet me no matter what I was up to. 

I got my old-man dancing in; I’m ready to leave El Paso now. 

Dirty Dancing: Xiamen Nights

In Uncategorized on March 21, 2010 at 12:37 am

Today in class I heard something that I’ve never heard before, and never expect to hear again – someone saying that there really aren’t that many Chinese characters.  Whether or not this is true, the teacher immediately followed it up by saying that Chinese has a lot of words (combinations of characters).  Either way, it’s a lot of stuff to learn . . .

We interviewed each other in pairs and then introduced our partners and their hometowns to the rest of the class.  I was stumped for a second when my parter, a guy from Osaka Japan, asked me what the 特产 (special product) of Minnesota was.  My instinct was “things on a stick” but dismissed that as 1) too hard to explain and 2) completely overshadowed by China’s tendency to put literally anything on a stick.  (At the Minnesota State Fair you can get “anything [that Americans eat] on a stick”; in China you can get “anything [that Chinese eat] on a stick”.  Guess which category includes more things?)  I finally told him that our thing was cheese, but that’s really more Wisconsin. 

I was kind of bummed when I realized that my states (I have two: MN and OK) have no special products.  But then I remembered something a wise person (Kristina) once told me: “When they say 特产, I say no.”  This is because, to make a generalization, most 特产 are really gross.  Remember New Year’s dinner when I was served Xiamen’s specialty of worms in jello?  Or the countless items of dried fruit with special nasty flavor added because they were ____ city’s specialty? 

Oh wait, maybe lutefisk is Minnesota’s 特产!  That sounds about right . . . and proves my case as stated above. 

In the afternoon, I did my flashcard reviews.  Doing Chinese and Spanish reviews back-to-back is a crazy exercise in mind-bending.  It probably doesn’t need to be stated, but the two languages are very different.  After nearly 10 months of rather intensive Chinese study, I have developed some habits that are turning out to be very bad for my Spanish.  I tend to leave out words that I don’t think are necessary, like prepositions and the verb “to be”.  I am uncomfortable with naked adjectives and have an irrational need to put ‘muy’ in front of them.  I often end my interrogative sentences with ‘ma?’ and actually have a hard time making my inflection sound like a question.  I have even less idea of the gender of various nouns and find the whole concept incredibly weird.  I am continually confused by the Spanish accent mark which looks like a second tone (está) but sounds like a fourth tone (està). 

Qué lástima!

Later, XuLei accompanied me to the hospital for a check up.  I have had a pretty horrible cough for almost two months now (and hadn’t had enough of the hospital these last few weeks) so I decided to go in for a check up.  While I had previously undergone a health exam, been to urgent care, and spent many hours accompanying Lester in the hospital ward, this was my first time going in to see a doctor during normal hours. 

The examination took place in a room containing two small cubicles.  There was a doctor in one, talking with patients as they filed through her door-less “office”.  When it was my turn, I explained my breathing problems to the doctor and the audience of fellow passengers.  It wasn’t that bad, but I could imagine some conditions in which this level of privacy would be extremely uncomfortable.  Then again, on a later trip to the same room, we saw (from behind) a man pretty obviously fumbling with his half-open pants.  I continually underestimate the Chinese people’s ability to ignore those around them.

After a quick examination and an X-ray, the doctor told me I was fine.  Then – in an action I took to negate what she had just stated – she gave me a prescription for four drugs and told me to come back on Monday.  I think this is fairly typical in China; actually I’m kind of surprised I got off without an IV!  FYI – Chinese medicine tastes worse than American.  Sad day . . .

XuLe and I went to dinner afterwards, which was a very interesting experience.  We went to a restaurant that I frequent with my [foreign] friends.  They recognize us, at least in the form of a huge mob, and over time have come to remember some of our habits.  They sometimes prompt us if we don’t order a dish we always order, and they ask how many bottles of beer we want instead of asking if we want anything to drink.  But when it was just XuLei and I, they treated us differently – not good or bad, just different.  The waitress asked if we wanted soup (which we foreigners never do) and they made us write our order down ourselves! 

As we walked home, we had a funny conversation and freaked out some Chinese passersby.  I sometimes forget that everyone can understand when I speak Chinese . . . until someone reacted to me saying “I don’t want to lose weight – I like my fat!  If I could lose weight off my feet, I would, but I can’t.”

Back at home, I read some emails and blog posts concerning the feast day of St. Joseph, which was apparently today.  It’s a Solemnity, which trumps Lenten obligations like abstinence on Friday.  Unfortunately, Friday was quickly winding down as I found out this information.  Like I said, my Lenten sacrifice of not eating meat hasn’t been really hard so it wasn’t too big of a deal that I didn’t find out until the day was over, but it still made me sad.  It just made me realize that, for all the progress I’ve made here, I’m still not really integrated fully into the church community here.  Living the faith is such a communal thing, you know?  I love my church here and am still delighted at its very existence, but it’s still a far cry from Newman . . .

Because Lester hadn’t broken the doctor’s no-dancing-for-three-weeks rule enough yet, we decided to go to the Key.  XuLei and XiaoYang went with us, XiaoYang for the first time.  It was really lame at first, not least because they made us buy drinks if we wanted a table!  My outrage is probably mainly a reflection of the ridiculously privileged status that we foreigners hold at bars here (as in, most of my friends have at least one bar in which they drink free and/or are paid to hang out), but still.  Anyway, it turns out that Friday nights aren’t as fun as Saturday nights, and the dancing doesn’t get started until at least midnight.  I had recently been wondering what we danced to before Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas; well, last night I saw the answer and it was not pretty. 

But eventually they got the dance tunes cranking and it got fun.  I immediately hit the dance floor and somewhere around the time I saw XuLei and XiaoYang doing the jive to Sean Kingston I realized that my life is basically like the plot of a Dirty Dancing movie.  You have your basic street-wise dancer; your sheltered classically-trained dancer; a collision of their worlds, values, and experiences; and an awesome soundtrack. 

So where’s the male love interest??