Warning: Declaration of TarskiCommentWalker::start_lvl(&$output, $depth, $args) should be compatible with Walker_Comment::start_lvl(&$output, $depth = 0, $args = Array) in /hsphere/local/home/ackerfors/snigel.nu/wp-content/themes/tarski/library/classes/comment_walker.php on line 0 Warning: Declaration of TarskiCommentWalker::start_el(&$output, $comment, $depth, $args) should be compatible with Walker_Comment::start_el(&$output, $comment, $depth = 0, $args = Array, $id = 0) in /hsphere/local/home/ackerfors/snigel.nu/wp-content/themes/tarski/library/classes/comment_walker.php on line 0 Olle Linge - Languages, literature and the pursuit of dreams · Languages, literature and the pursuit of dreams

Last week, I wrote an article about a reading plan for taking my Chinese to the next level. In order to have a clearer starting point and allow others to understand better what I’m doing and how things are going, this article details all books I’ve read in Chinese so far. I will keep it updated as I read more books.

The following list consists of all books I’ve read in Chinese so far. I have only included…

  • …books written for native speakers
  • …books not written for children
  • …books I’ve read from cover to cover

That means that I haven’t included dozens of textbooks for foreigners, untold numbers of newspaper articles, papers, theses and so on, neither have I included books for children or other learning materials which aren’t aimed towards adults. I might have forgotten a book or two, but this list should be almost complete (with approximate dates). In case I have written something about my experience reading the book, I have provided a link.

Naturally, there’s a huge difference in time spent per book. 《實用現代漢語語法》is 500+ pages of grammar and probably took ten times longer to read than《茫點》, which is a fairly short and easy-to-read novel. Even though my own Chinese ability also influences speed, I would argue that the main reason I didn’t read more earlier is simply because…. I didn’t read. Obviously, reading《潰雪》(that’s Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson) in 2011 took some serious time and I could have read at least five easier novels in that time, but this isn’t important.

Regardless of how I measure reading in Chinese, the measurement is going to be crude and I’m fine with that. Book length and complexity probably balances out in the end anyway.

Books I’ve read in Chinese so far (2013-12-14):

  • 2010-07:《孔子的部落格》 陳峰、夢亦非
  • 2010-09:銀河公民》 羅伯特·海萊因
  • 2011-02:《鍊金術士》 保羅·科而賀
  • 2011-04:《世界大戰》 H.G.威爾斯
  • 2011-11:《潰雪》 尼爾·史蒂芬森
  • 2012-03:《華語文教學規範與理論基礎》 葉德明
  • 2012-06:《空想科學》 柳田理科雄
  • 2012-08:《漢語語法:修訂版》 李納、湯姆遜
  • 2012-11::犀照》 倪匡
  • 2013-01:《天觀雙俠》 鄭丰
  • 2013-01:《華語語音學》 葉德明
  • 2013-02:《實用現代漢語語法》 劉月華、潘文娛、故辭
  • 2013-02:《跟狗狗一起學物理》 查德·歐澤
  • 2013-02:茫點》 倪匡
  • 2013-03:《三體》 劉慈欣
  • 2013-03: 《漢語音韻》 耿志堅
  • 2013-04:《世界之眼(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-05:《世界之眼(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-05:《謝謝你離開我》 張小嫻
  • 2013-06:《大狩獵(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-07:《大狩獵(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-08:《在世界盡頭遇見台灣》 羅聿
  • 2013-09:《活著》 余華
  • 2013-09:《漢字書法之美》 蔣勳
  • 2013-09:《黑天鵝語錄》 納西姆·尼可拉斯·塔雷伯
  • 2013-10:《老子的部落格》 曹鴻濤
  • 2013-10:《真龍轉生(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-11:《真龍轉生(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-11:《飢餓遊戲》 蘇珊·柯林斯
  • 2013-11:《空想科學読本(2)》 柳田理科雄
  • 2013-11:《棋王》 阿城
  • 2013-12:《星火燎原》 蘇珊·柯林斯
  • 2013-12:《科幻世界的哲學凝視》 陳瑞麟
  • 2013-12:《空想科學読本(3)》 柳田理科雄
  • 2014-01:《闇影濺起(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2014-02:《闇影濺起(中)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2014-03:《李家同》 幕永不落下
  • 2014-04:《語音學教程》 林燾、王理嘉
  • 2014-05:《闇影濺起(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2014-05:《那些年,我們一起追的女孩》九把刀
  • 2014-06:《華語表達的態與藝:華語正音與表達》 葉德明
  • 2014-08:《病毒》 蔡駿
  • 2015-03:《白鹿原》 陳忠實

Books I’m currently reading:

  • 《蟻生》 王晉康
  • 《天光之火(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹

2013-03-21 update

As you can see, I’m well on my towards reading 25 books this year. I have already read six books so far, which is almost equal to the number of books I read in 2011 and 2012 combined. If we extrapolate this number, I will end up with 25-30 books before the end of 2013.

If I keep that going, I will reach 100 books in about three years. Of course, steadily improving reading speed should increase the number of books, but there will inevitably be periods when I read less, which cancels out any speed improvements. I will update this article whenever I finish reading a book, although I might not write reviews of all the books I read.

2013-09-19 update

Apparently, I didn’t read as much as I planned to during summer, so I’m somewhat behind schedule. Considering that I read one extra book early, only started falling behind in June. Providing that I read one more book this month, I will be three books behind schedule (or four since the goal is actually 25 this year, not 24 or two books per month). That’s quite a lot considering that I still read fairly slowly. Still, I have some interesting books available and I’m sure I can find the time. I haven’t given up yet, 25 books is still within reach!

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I have come a very long way since I started learning Chinese little more than five years ago. I can read novels, academic papers, textbooks, newspapers and most other types of writing I come across, without using a dictionary. I can even do so without thinking that language is a major problem. Of course, I don’t read terribly fast (about 200 characters per minute for easier newspaper articles; much slower for heavy academic reading), but I would say that I’m literate in Chinese.

The relationship between input and output when learning languages isn’t obvious, but the theory I tend to adhere to the most is that massive amounts of input gives a solid foundation on which a near-native output ability can be built. This is true for both listening/speaking and reading/writing, but in this article I will only talk about the latter. In other words, reading huge amounts of Chinese will hopefully give me the potential to acquire a near-native level of writing in Chinese.

Looking back at how I learnt English

Back ground: I have spent a total of three weeks in English-speaking countries and have learnt most of what I know in normal compulsory education plus a lot of reading/listening on my own. How did I achieve my current English level?

After having learnt how to communicate most things I wanted to say/write in English (which probably happened in high school), I spent an awful amount of time reading in English. I also listened to loads of audio books. I estimate that I have read or listened to about five hundred books in English. That’s a lot, even compared with educated native speakers. This gave me a very solid passive knowledge of English. but it didn’t make me good at speaking and writing, at least not directly.

Turning this passive knowledge into increased writing ability came only in 2006 when I started studying English at university. I found that I was usually able to intuitively tell whether a sentence was grammatically correct or not; sometimes words I couldn’t even tell what they meant popped up in my mind, seemingly from nowhere, and when I looked them up, they actually turned out to fit into the sentence I was writing.

However, reading isn’t enough to become good at writing. I don’t mean to say that I’m a brilliant writer in English (or any other language), but I do think I have mastered the basics and that I’m slowly inching my way towards actually being able to write well. This is mostly because of the fact that I’ve written at least a thousand pages of text in English during the last five years. When I say a thousand pages, we’re talking about composition, so chatting or any other kind of sporadic typing obviously doesn’t count.

I think that the best way to reach a native writing ability is to read an awful lot and spend a thousand hours or so of deliberate practice converting that passive knowledge into active writing ability. Naturally, these aren’t serial processes; it’s perfectly possible (and advisable) to both at once. However, I do believe input is where most students fail.

Taking my Chinese to the next level

Even though I can express myself fluently and with reasonably accuracy both in speaking and writing, my Chinese is still very limited compared to my English or Swedish. Sometimes, that leaves me very frustrated, but then I think of the amount of time invested in the other two languages and find that the comparison isn’t fair. Swedish is my native language, so I didn’t have much choice that to study it for thousands and thousands of hours before English and French appeared in school. Regarding English, I’m not a native speaker, but as I’ve already explained, I have spent some serious time studying English.

I have probably spent more than ten thousand hours learning Chinese so far, but that’s just a small fraction of the time I’ve spent on the other two languages. With that in mind, who am I to say that Chinese feels impossible to learn at times? Shouldn’t I at least spend as much time learning Chinese as I’ve spent learning English before I say it’s hard? I think I should. Chinese is obviously harder than English to learn for native speakers of Swedish, but that doesn’t mean that the method I used to learn English won’t work for Chinese. Sure, it might not take me to the same proficiency level, but I will definitely close the gap.

Thus, I intend to read a lot. My general plan is to try to reach a hundred books as quickly as possible (novels, textbooks, prose). In this article, I will outline a plan. After that, I will publish a list of what I’ve read so far and then keep that list updated.

A reading plan for 2013

My goal is to read at least 25 books in 2013. It doesn’t really matter what books I read as long as they meet certain criteria (for adults, for native speakers, read from cover to cover). In order to make sure that I have a strong enough motivation, my plan is to mix books I really want to read with books that I feel that I ought to read but might not enjoy that much.

For instance, I just finished reading the first part of 三體, but instead of starting on the second part immediately, I will add something dryer in between and continue with 三體 as a kind of reward once I’m done with the next book. In general, the plan looks as follows:

  1. Read lightweight books (novels) if I’m behind schedule
  2. Read heavier books (textbooks) if I’m ahead of schedule

As I just did with 倪匡, I will review and write about my quest to find good science fiction in Chinese. Next on the review list is 三體, but I’ll most likely wait with reviewing that until I’ve read the two sequels. As for the rest of the books I plan to read, I will write about them only if I feel like it, so don’t expect too much.

Looking back at the road behind me, I know that I’ve come far. Looking at the road that stretches out in front of me, I realise that most of the journey is still ahead. Reading a hundred books in Chinese won’t be enough to reach an educated native level, but it will propel me in the right direction. Hopefully, I will also enjoy the scenery as I walk.

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One of the major problems facing me when learning Chinese is finding truly interesting books to read. Sure, I can find books I enjoy, but I have yet to find a book that I really can’t stop reading. Those that I have found so far have been translations from other languages into Chinese. I don’t say it’s bad to read translations, I’m just saying it would be better to find brilliant books originally written in Chinese.

The reason I haven’t found any brilliant books so far is partly because I’m not at a level where I can appreciate books just because of the language use, but it’s also because the kind of fiction I like is very scarce in Chinese. I like literature with cool, interesting or thought-provoking ideas. I don’t like historical novels or novels that are merely after describing historical or personal events. Thus, science fiction is one of my favourite genres.

A quest to find good Chinese science fiction

It seems to me that the Chinese are mostly looking backwards to history when looking for greatness. This is cool if you like Chinese history or historical settings, but not so cool if you don’t. This is just a theory, but I think it might explain why science fiction is much less popular in China than it is in the West. Still, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any Chinese science fiction, it just means that it’s less popular and less developed.

This is the first post of many where I will discuss books I read on my journey towards finding good science fiction in Chinese. It will probably take me many years, but I do hope that I will be able to gradually build up a comprehensive overview that might provide help to other learners of Chinese or to people who are simply interested in Chinese science fiction.

Reading 倪匡 (Ni Kuang)

Having looked online and talked with numerous native speakers about this, one name kept popping up all the time: 倪匡 (Ni Kuang). After having found a number of his books in a used bookshop, I started reading. After having read two novels and as well as having read and heard more about the author and his works, I feel that I’m in a position where I can say something about him in general.

First, here are the two books I read: 犀照 and 茫點:

nk-xnnk-md

This isn’t science fiction

As you can see, it says 科幻小說 (science fiction novel) on both covers. I’ve heard that this isn’t the author’s own idea, but a label that the publisher puts on his books (he prefers 幻想, which means fantasy or illusion and is much more appropriate). In any case, it’s misleading, because neither of these novels (and I suppose most of his other works) is science fiction at all according to most definitions of the genre.

Instead, I would call his books mystery novels with supernatural elements. Sure, these elements are sometimes related to technology, but Harry Potter wouldn’t turn into science fiction just because someone said that his wand was created by an ancient race of star-faring aliens. The point is that it isn’t science fiction and if you start reading these books with the hope of finding good science fiction, you will be disappointed.

That in itself isn’t a problem, though, I like many kinds of novels and I’m not very narrow-minded when it comes to literature (just check my earlier book reviews). The fact that the novels themselves are pretty bad, even when read as mystery novels, is a much bigger problem. Now, you might think that’s because my Chinese isn’t good enough to appreciate the story or the language, but my complaints are of a more basic nature.

Plot summary of 犀照 (spoiler warning)

I don’t want to dwell too much on the actual books, but in case anyone is curious, I will include a brief summary of each book. Note that both summaries include spoilers, so skip this part if you ignore my recommendation and plan to read these books anyway.

In 犀照, the protagonist is contacted by an old friend who is well-known explorer of the South Pole. He has found something astonishing beneath the ice. He has sent blocks of ice for inspection and cautions that they might contain something very dangerous. However, the ice is perfectly clear and seems to contain nothing. Nothing but increasing confusion, gradual insanity and general psychological breakdown, that is.

The actual truth is much less interesting than the above description suggests. Trapped in the ice are microscopic organisms who are so small that they can move in solid ice and float around in the air. The madness comes from not knowing whether or not these organisms have the power to infest human minds.

It turns out that what the explorer has found in the south pole is a very unlikely collection of ancient creatures who inhabited earth long ago. How they were fixed into crystal clear ice in an exhibition-like fashion is not apparent and neither is how this is relevant for anything else.

Plot summary of 茫點 (spoiler warning)

In this story, the (same) protagonist is contacted by the brother of the Antarctic explorer in the above story (although the books were actually published in the reverse order). Since the protagonist is in a bad mood, he doesn’t hear him out, but instead leaves his wife to figure out what’s going on. It takes at least half the book before we learn anything significant other than that it’s related to mirrors and telepathy in some way.

It turns out that a new technology has been developed with which minds can be read, based on the telepathic communication between moths (yes, moths). Similar signals can be used both to receive thoughts (brain waves) and project thoughts (mind control of some kind).

This technology is then used by a go (the game) grandmaster to cheat in high-level go games, but he goes crazy when he (mistakenly) thinks that he’s been found out. Many other people are pulled in and declared insane because of things they see (because of the brain waves) but actually aren’t there. I’ve seldom read about so many people being declared insane and locked up in mental wards so quickly.

The ending doesn’t provide any real explanations, doesn’t leave any interesting questions and is just unsatisfactory in general.

Five common problems

I think these two novels have five problems in common, roughly sorted according to how serious I think they are:

  • Predictability – The plots of both these novels have been very easy to predict. This makes reading them boring, because it all feels like waiting for the main character to figure out what I figured out long before. There are two versions of this problem. The first is major plot elements that have predictable outcomes, the second is scenes that are predictable. The first kind is sort of okay because it can be argued that the way to that conclusion is the point rather than the conclusion itself, but when this happens for most of the scenes in the book it becomes seriously annoying.
  • Surprise inflation – Considering the fact that Ni Kuang uses the same main character in most books, it’s hard to understand why that character feels surprised whenever something slightly out of the ordinary happens. He feels surprised, stunned and dazed quite a lot (呆 and 愣 are very common characters in these books). You would think he’d grown used to encountering weird things, but no. In any case, this is a bit tedious to read, especially in light of the above complaint about predictability. An author should rely on surprising the reader to convey this kind of feeling, not writing about how surprised the main character looks or feels, especially when what’s supposed to be surprising is actually obvious to the reader.
  • No food for thought – I like science fiction because it makes me think. It shows me new possibilities and it sheds light on modern society, human existence and other topics I find interesting. Ni Kuang doesn’t really do any of this. There are some interesting things going on, but they aren’t discussed more than at a superficial level (what actual characters are thinking about a particular situation). It should be mentioned, though, that he does bring up madness, reality and normality in both novels and does it reasonably well. However, since the related phenomena are always fantastic or completely unrealistic in nature, they don’t feel very relevant to me.
  • Lack of internal logic – One of the most important concepts when writing science fiction is internal logic. For instance, it’s fine to say that faster-than-light travel is possible (even if it isn’t according to modern physics), describe some principles for how it works and then write books about it. But if you do, you need to follow your own rules, you need to provide your story with internal logic that makes sense and you need to show your reader that even though there are some fictional elements, the rest of the setting/story is rule-bound in some way. Just because you can break some rules doesn’t mean you can break all of them at once. Science fiction isn’t about letting the imagination run amok, it’s about letting it roam freely within certain restraints. In these two novels, however, there is no internal logical structure. In short, it feels like anything can happen for any reason. In my opinion, this is what places these novels firmly outside the science fiction genre.
  • Forced thrill – The author often creates situations which are supposed to be exciting without anchoring them in the plot. For instance, in 茫點, much of the suspense in the first one hundred pages comes from lack of communication between the main character and his wife. She tries to convey something important to him in a limited time using only hand gestures, but he fails to understand. A painful amount of text is spent on him trying to figure out what she actually meant. There is a phrase in Chinese that catches this pretty well: 故弄玄虛, or deliberately making something very mystifying and/or confusing. Mystery novels obviously need mysteries, but they should be real mysteries and not minor inconveniences blown up out of proportion by the author.

The quest goes on

Before I end this article, I’d like to point out that Ni Kuang is an extremely prolific writer and that I might simply have picked the wrong books. However, based on what I’ve heard from other people and read online, I don’t think that’s the case. I probably won’t read any more books written by Ni Kuang. The two I have already read seem very similar and have the same kind of problems.

That said, I don’t regret reading these two books. They did contain some cool ideas and some interesting parts, but they failed to give me something more than a brief moment’s escapism. I want something more from literature. I’m still looking for good science fiction in Chinese. My next project will be 劉慈欣’s 三體, which I’m quite sure is actually science fiction. If it’s good or not remains to be seen.

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I’ve been playing backgammon quite a lot recently, mostly against a computer opponent, but also against friends. I think the game has many merits and it’s much more interesting than I thought it was after just playing once or twice. However, the most interesting part of the game is the doubling cube.

doubling_cubeSince you don’t really need to know the rules in backgammon to understand the doubling cube, I won’t bother with teaching you the game (check Wikipedia if you want to learn how to play). What you need to know is that each round is fairly short and that a game typically consists of many rounds. Each round can be won in three ways: a normal win (1 point), a gammon (2 points) and a backgammon (3 points).

Enter: The doubling cube

The doubling cube is a normal die with the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64 inscribed on its sides. At the beginning of the game, the die is not active. During the game, a player can use the doubling cube to raise the stakes. If the opponent accepts, the winner of that round will win the normal amount of points multiplied by the number on the doubling cube. The first time it’s used, the stakes are doubled (2), next time they are doubled again (4) and so on. If the opponent doesn’t accept, he loses that round automatically with as many points as the doubling cube shows.

Why do I write an article about this, you might ask? I think the doubling cube is brilliant. It’s one of the simplest and coolest game mechanism I’ve seen in quite a while. It deserves to be explained, praised and spread.

Here’s why the doubling cube is awesome:

  1. It shortens games with a predictable outcome. In most games, there are times when both players know who’s most likely to win. It doesn’t mean that they are absolutely sure who will win, but they definitely have a clear idea. In backgammon, many of these games end because the player who is slightly ahead proposes a double. His opponent, being behind, will not accept the doubling and therefore concedes the round and gives one point to the opponent, rather than risking losing two or more if he continues playing.
  2. It adds an extra dimension of strategy which is not directly related to the game (and which is therefore possible to transfer to other games). It’s not easy to Know when to double, when to accept a double or when to pass. It requires knowledge of the game and the ability to assess the current state of the game (i.e. determining if someone is ahead or not, and if someone is, by how much). Making correct cube decisions is very hard.
  3. It makes it possible to catch up even if you’ve fallen far behind. By playing correctly and using the doubling cube, you can increase the stakes and therefore also the variance of the game, making it possible to catch up with someone far ahead of you. If you’re ahead yourself, you need to balance playing safely to maintain your lead against the risk of being bullied by the other player, who can double more often because he has less to lose.

Beyond backgammon

This kind of mechanism could be introduced in any kind of game which is played with more than one round (which includes games where the players have a ranking or care about the meta-game). It also works for games where it matters by how much you win (such as any game where you play for money). I’m not sure what I want to use this for personally, but I definitely feel that it would be an excellent ingredient in rules for duels in role-playing games.

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Time flies, as they say. Another year has just gone by. As usual, I will take the opportunity to step back a little bit further than usual and look back at the twenty ninth year of my life. I do this partly because I think it’s rewarding to look at what I’m doing (or perhaps more importantly, what I’m not doing), but also because it offers a concise summary of what I’ve been up to for anyone who is interested.

If you have no idea who I am, but still want to figure out what I have been doing since 2007, reading my annual birthday articles is without doubt the quickest way, perhaps in combination with the very short biography on the about page (updated earlier this week).

Therefore, I will mostly follow the pattern from previous  years, but I will of course only focus on the important things; this isn’t reporting for the sake of reporting, after all. I want to point out that the topics below aren’t sorted according to relative importance, but are instead rather arbitrarily arranged.

Education

This is the area where things have changed the most since last year. First and foremost, I have graduated. I now have a degree for teaching English and Chinese in Swedish upper-secondary school (high school). For some reason, I actually haven’t written anything about this on this website, but I don’t consider the details very important. I have graduated and that’s enough.

Secondly, I have moved back to Taiwan, starting a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language. I’m doing this supported by the Taiwan Scholarship, which roughly covers all my expenses here in Taiwan for two years. This is a program mainly designed for native speakers, but which also accepts international students. I plan to finish in 2014, possibly not including thesis submission and defence. I have done pretty well so far.

Hacking Chinese

The main reason I have only written fifteen articles on this website since last year is because I have invested hundreds of hours in Hacking Chinese. This has paid off to the extent that the website is growing quite popular, but it’s still more a hobby than a job, even though this is something I hope to change in the future. I’m very happy with how Hacking Chinese has developed recently.

Hacking Chinese takes up more time than I spend on the website itself. For instance. I have written a book which I hope will be published fairly soon. I have not decided exactly how to continue, but the likelihood is that I will split what I have written into several smaller volumes and publish them one by one over the coming year, editing and polishing as I go along.

Social life

Leaving Sweden again is complicated in many senses and I’m sure those of you who have lived abroad realise this. However, there is a huge difference between leaving this time and when I left for Taiwan the first time in 2008. It might seem like four years time isn’t much, but I have changed a lot (aged, if you will). I was never quite adventurous in the first place and I have grown even less so. I’m still very interested in discovering new things, but not in the physical sense of the word.

This means that leaving Sweden is more difficult this time. Last winter, I met Zoe, who has become more and more important in my life ever since. This change is somewhat peculiar, because it hasn’t been a gradual thing. Instead, our relationship has deepened in quantum leaps, each propelled by some kind of crisis. A major one, but neither the first nor the last, was my leaving for Taiwan. I didn’t expect our relationship to survive that, but it did. And if I didn’t think it would survive in the future, I wouldn’t write about it here.

I also leave behind a group of friends that have grown more and more important, partly because I realise how difficult it is to find friends of the same calibre anywhere else. This doesn’t mean that I can’t find friends or that I don’t value the friendship with people here in Taiwan, it just means that few people can fulfil as many roles simultaneously as those I have in Sweden. That includes social, creative, intellectual and many other aspects I consider important in life.

Creativity output/input

My creativity has been fairly stagnant since I (almost) finished the draft of my novel a year ago, which followed the publication of Magneter och mirakel in 2011. This is largely because I have been to busy with learning Chinese. I have switched most input (reading and listening) to Chinese-related content and most output towards either writing in Chinese writing about learning Chinese in English.

Thus, I feel a bit undernourished when it comes to creativity, something I have already started to change. I just received a pile of books I want to read for their content and not their language (although they are all in Chinese). I also feel a strong urge to start writing creatively again, although that might have to wait until the summer. Creativity levels are on the rise, but from a very low level. This is partly the effect of not being surrounded by people for whom creative output is a normal part of life.

Physical activity/status

One thing I didn’t expect when leaving was that I would spend more time practising than I have done ever before. Sure, I’ve been through some fairly rigorous periods of practising swimming, diving and other sports, but I don’t think any of that can match the time I currently spend on practising gymnastics. I have joined the university team and practice 15-20 hours a week. I have lots of movie clips, but I will write a separate post about this soon and will link to it from this article once it’s ready.

Apart from this, I’m also close to reaching a long-term goal related to body weight. My weight has been fairly stable at around 78-80 kg for the past six or seven years, but since I practice only body-weight sports (gymnastics in particular), weight matters a lot. My goal has been to weigh around 75 kg while retaining the muscle mass I had when weighing 80 kg.

Needless to say, this is very hard to achieve if I practice 20 hours a week. Losing weight and gaining strength at the same time requires some serious discipline. I have failed this time and time again over the past three or four years, but now I have almost succeeded. My average for the past ten days was 75.6 kg. Why have I succeeded this time, while failing my previous dozen or so attempts? I don’t know, to be honest, but I will probably write more about it once I actually stabilise at 75.

Towards a brighter future

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony (Gandhi). I am happy because I feel that what I’m doing now is very close to what I really want to do. I study the subjects I want to study in a language I want to learn and I can handle it. I am on my way to acquiring the degree I want and need to continue doing what I love doing in the future. Even though I’m physically separated from people who matter to me, they are still there.

The only area I’m not happy about is creativity, but as it’s said in Chinese, 月有陰晴圓缺, the moon waxes and wanes. This is perhaps a basic property of life itself and might be only for the good. I do need creativity to be happy, but focusing more on some things automatically entail focusing less on other things. Everything has its time and place.

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Like many other articles I have planned for this website, this article is long overdue. The difference between this one and the others is that I’ve actually written this one and now also published it. It would feel a bit silly to post a summary of my first semester in the Graduate Institute for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language (華語文教學研究所) months or even years after it actually ended.

Since many people have asked me about how I’m doing so far, I thought I’d write about it here. Therefore, this is in a sense also a Chinese proficiency report, even if I won’t bother to evaluate the different skills this time.

In short, I want to talk about three things:

  • My previous long-term goal for learning Chinese
  • My actual grades for the past semester
  • My thoughts about the program in general

My previous long-term goal for learning Chinese

Roughly three years ago, I set the long-term goal of being able to survive a graduate program in a language-heavy subject taught with native speakers in mind. I didn’t know that I would actually do that back then, but it sounded like a good idea and the goal was fairly concrete as well and something to work towards.

As my grades in the next section will show, I have now reached that goal. Sure, I haven’t graduated yet, but if I encounter problems during the rest of my time here, it’s not going to be because my Chinese isn’t up to par. Obviously, I have an almost infinite amount of Chinese left to learn and I still have some serious problems, but they aren’t of the nature that will make me fail my courses. Spending enough time will solve most problems.

I have been thinking about setting a new long-term goal, but rather than rushing it, I’m going to think about that for a while before I write anything about it. It’s likely to to be something related to teaching, explicit knowledge of Chinese or something similar, rather than language competence in general, as has been the case earlier.

My actual grades for the past semester

I took four courses last semester with a total of eleven credits. The maximum score for each course is 100. 70 is required for passing and 80 to keep receiving my scholarship without problems.

The courses and my grades were as follows:

  1. 華語文教材教法 (Chinese Language Teaching Methods and Materials): 89
  2. 話語語音教學研究 (Studies in Phonetic Instruction in Chinese): 90
  3. 漢語語音學 (Chinese Linguistics): 96
  4. 高級華語 (Advanced Chinese language course): 94
  • Weighted average: 92.1

The last course isn’t actually a part of our academic courses, but a requirement from our institution. All foreigners who don’t have the right qualifications have to enrol in language courses for foreigners. Of the three regular courses, the first and third were compulsory, whereas the second was elective.

In general, I’m quite happy with my grades. I think I deserved the 90 in the phonetics course and the 94 in advanced Chinese, but I actually didn’t expect the 96 in linguistics. I would have expected a result below 90. I don’t know what I expected for teaching course, but perhaps 85. This course had a midterm in-class written exam that made everybody nervous as hell, but since I got 84.5 on that one, I wasn’t too nervous about the final grade.

Apart from actual courses, I also passed the 華語口語表達考試, which is an oral exam that all teachers (including native speakers) in Taiwan have to pass in order to become Chinese teachers. I don’t think I did very well on the exam, actually, but obviously someone thought it was enough. That’s one less hurdle left on my way to graduation! Yay.

My thoughts about the program in general

My overall impression of the program so far is actually a lot more positive than I thought it would be before I came here. As you might know, I have studied at this university before and didn’t like it very much, but this is a new department (sort of), new teachers, new campus and, perhaps most importantly, a new level (master). A new start, so to speak.

The quality of the courses vary, but I know that I will learn an awful lot during my time here. Sometimes it might not be because of innovative teaching methods or brilliant lecturers, but that doesn’t really matter. The program provides enough support, a wide variety of interesting courses and a very stimulating environment. That’s more than enough to make me happy.

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Even though only little more than a month has passed since the previous report,  enough has happened to motivate a new article. The previous post dealt with my Chinese ability in general terms and also more specifically about listening ability. I concluded that my ability in general is probably good enough to survive the master’s degree program I’m currently enrolled in. I also lamented the fact that spoken Chinese is much more context-based than any other language I’ve studied, which makes listening something of a problem sometimes. This time I will talk about pronunciation.

Attitude and pronunciation

I regularly ask people I speak with to offer suggestions for how to improve my pronunciation and I have done so since I first started learning. Often, these questions are met by surprise: “Why do you want to improve your pronunciation, it’s already quite good!” The answer is complex and something I plan to write more about later on Hacking Chinese, but it’s precisely because I have this attitude that I have managed to acquire the pronunciation I have now. If I were content with being better than the average foreigner, I could have stopped focusing on pronunciation years ago. The road to good pronunciation is very long and being complacent certainly doesn’t help. Thus, I still think I need to improve and that’s what this article is be about.

A question of tones

In general, I think my pronunciation of initials, medials and finals is pretty good. I don’t want to say that it’s perfect, but it’s definitely good enough for teaching Chinese to students. Even though I’ve tried, I haven’t found any serious problems in this area for a couple of years, so I don’t think this is something I need to improve much.

Tones are different, though. I don’t think I have much problems when pronouncing them individually or in isolated words, but as soon as words are connected into longer sentences and intonation starts being important, I make several small but significant mistakes. During this semester, I’ve asked a number of people to pay attention to my pronunciation (thanks to those who have helped, you know who you are). I have also recorded my own speaking to analyse myself. The native speakers may have used different words to describe these problems, but in essence, they mostly agree on the below analysis. I do, too.

Second tone, fourth tone and pitch range

In general, my tones are correct insofar as the direction is correct (second tone rises, fourth tone falls), but the distinction isn’t clear enough. Occasionally, both these tones are incomplete and usually too low. There are some other, minor problems, but I would say the main problem is pitch range. Since I seem to speak Chinese with a deeper voice than I speak English or Swedish, the pitch range becomes too narrow.

The suggested solution looks as follows:

  1. Prolong second tones. Since the direction is already correct, making the tone longer will ensure that it goes high enough as well. Once I’m used to that, it should be easier to keep the tone height while decreasing the time it takes to get there. Right now it feels a bit uncomfortable, but I’ve checked with a few people and they think the new, higher version sounds better.
  2. Modifying the onset of the fourth tone. Right now, the general contour is correct (falling), but the fall is a bit abrupt. If I want to speak clearly to allow others to master tones as will, I should mark the beginning of the fourth tone better. See the graphs below.
  3. Paying more attention to the third tone. In theory and most of the time when I speak, I pronounce it correctly, but I sometimes slip. This is probably best remedied through more practice. My best performance here is good enough, so it’s mostly a matter of making sure my normal performance approaches my best performance.

The T4 to the left is from a tone reference chart and is a model T4 (female speaker, which explains the higher pitch in general). The T4 to the right is my own normal T4. Both pitch contours were drawn using Praat. Note that I lack the plateau in the onset (red ellipse).

Proposed line of attack

Changing pronunciation in general is hard, changing pitch range when you speak is several magnitudes harder. People tend to identify themselves with their own voices, so changing something as basic as pitch range requires time and courage. I’ll simply have to accept that this will take some work and time. I don’t doubt that it can be done, though. my plan is roughly as follows, although it isn’t really serial (I won’t wait until step one is entirely completed before attempting step two and so on).

  1. Individual syllables
  2. Disyllabic words
  3. Sentences
  4. Natural speech

The goal is to practice each step until it feels natural. Changing natural speech will be very hard indeed, so I’ll try to build up to it slowly, making sure I’ve implemented the above changes in a controlled environment. I’ll have several native speakers helping me, so I’m sure I will be just fine.

Benchmarking

Before I started analysing the problem(s) in detail, I did a recording with me reading an article. It’s roughly three minutes long and even if it isn’t the best I can do (I speak much better than I read), I still think it’s fairly representative of my pronunciation in general. I’ll leave that article alone for at least a month or two until I feel that I have actually achieved something. Then I’ll read it again and see if I have really achieved something or not. I used Praat to check some passages of that article, but tones in connected speech are so complex that I think that seeing the pitch contour doesn’t help much. In this case, I’ll rely on competent native speakers instead.

Please help

Changing pronunciation like this is difficult in many ways, but one of the hardest parts is staying focused. Naturally, I can’t spend all my energy thinking about tones, because that will make communication awkward. However, it would be very nice indeed if people who speak with me regularly remind me of this. As you well know, I don’t mind being corrected, indeed, it’s an essential part of learning. With your help, I should be able to correct these problems!

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I’m now five weeks into the Teaching Chinese as a Second Language MA program at NTNU in Taipei. This post is mostly about my own language learning, but will not follow the stricter style of the previous proficiency reports (scroll down). Since I left Taiwan last time in 2010, my goal has been to learn Chinese to a level where I can survive a master’s degree about Chinese taught in Chinese. Since this is exactly what I’m doing at the moment, even though I might not be in a position to say anything with certainty, I can still comment on the current situation and my progress towards that goal. In short, is my Chinese good enough?

The academic setting

The short answer is “yes”. I can read most textbooks we have without using a dictionary and I can follow along lectures without too much trouble. It requires some effort to produce formally correct Chinese and I still need help with that, but I very seldom encounter situations where I can’t express what I want. I feel confident enough to speak up in class, ask questions and discuss. This was quite nervous at first, considering that two thirds of of the class consists of native speakers.

Written Chinese is as yet an unknown area since I haven’t handed in any written reports yet. However, I’m confident that this will not be a big problem considering that my reading and writing has always been stronger than my listening and speaking. I will need help, I will need corrections and I will need lots of time to think, draft and revise,   but I’m sure I can produce acceptable, formal Chinese. Writing a complete master thesis is another matter, but I still have at least a year before I need to start thinking about that and I have lots of opportunities to learn before then.

The social setting

Speaking has stopped being a problem entirely, at least subjectively and in comparison with other areas. I can talk with someone for hours without feeling tired or without stumbling too much. Sure, I might not get all collocations right and I still make other types of mistakes now and then, but I’m usually able to correct myself. This is what spoken Chinese has felt like for some time now, so that’s not what I’m going to talk about.

Instead, I’m going to talk about context. I’ve known for a long time that context is important in Chinese, but it has only recently dawned on me how immensely important context is for understanding spoken Chinese. At first, I thought my experience might just be due to the fact that I was less familiar with Chinese than Swedish, English or French, but I’m now convinced that this is not the case. Understanding spoken Chinese is extremely dependent on context because of the vast number of homonyms or near-homonyms (words that are pronounced the same way or almost the same way).

The dreaded one-line question

This has lead to some serious frustration recently. Let me give you an example. As I said above, I can listen to a three-hour lecture about Chinese phonetics and understand 100% of what’s being said (although I might not know all individual words, I can extrapolate what I miss). However, when a friend asks me if we have midnight sun in Sweden, for instance, I sometimes need to hear it twice before I understand.

The problem isn’t that I don’t know these words. I do. I have known them for many years. It’s not a question of vocabulary. Instead, it’s the complete lack of context. Perhaps we’re having dinner with a few other people and people are talking about some other topic when someone suddenly thinks about something else they’d like to ask me. If it’s a short question and there is no context, I often fail to understand the first time. This almost never happens in English or even French (I should point out that in general, my Chinese is much better than my French). Also, as soon as I know the topic, I have no problem understanding much more complex sentences about that or related topics. Also, I would consider these questions trivial if put in writing.

A difference between languages

Someone (can’t remember who) made an excellent point illustrating this dependence on context. If you walk up to someone in an English-speaking country and, without warning, say the name of a technical term or chemical substance, the person is very likely to hear what you say, provided he knows what the word means in the first place. This isn’t necessarily true in Chinese, not even for native speakers, provided that the word is a fairly short compound. Again, this is because Chinese has very few syllables compared to English. I have no actual proof for that this causes the language to be more context-based, but it seems the natural conclusion to draw and also matches experience. As far as I know, there have been no scientific experiments conducted on no-context utterances, but let me know if you know of any.

Naturally, this doesn’t meant that native speakers can’t handle the basic communication situations I described above. The reason I fail to understand sometimes is partly due to external factors (noise, music, distance), but it’s also because of a lack of listening speed. In short, I don’t associate sounds with words quickly enough (see this article on Hacking Chinese for more about this). This might seem odd considering that I have heard many of these words hundreds, perhaps even thousands of times and can use them fluently in my sleep, but I still think it is the reason I don’t understand what’s being said. There is a significant difference between “very fast” and “native” in this case.

I’m not complaining, but I do feel frustrated sometimes

Unfortunately, this means that there isn’t much I can do apart from listening to more Chinese, which seems to be the remedy for most language problems I have. Still, this is okay, because all things considered, this is a very minor problem. I can still communicate without too much trouble with most people I meet. I can read and understand textbooks about linguistics, phonetics and teaching methods with some degree of confidence. I can talk about these topics and I can understand when others discuss them. I don’t complain, but I do feel frustrated sometimes.

Perhaps it’s partially a matter of pride. Not understanding a very basic question will lead people to believe that I can’t speak Chinese or at least can’t speak it very well. Considering that I’ve spent some serious time learning to speak Chinese and consider the endeavour to be a success on the whole, this feels a bit bad. However, it’s also just a matter of frustration arising from the fact that I know that this problem raises a barrier between me and some native speakers. Of course, people who know me know that they can mostly treat me as a native speaker in dialogue about a specific topic, but realising that takes much longer if basic communication sometimes fails.

In short, this will lead people to underestimate my language ability, which is about more than just hurt pride since it does influence interaction with these people.

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More than two weeks have passed since I arrived in Taipei and I think it’s high time to tell you a little bit about what has has transpired during this period. I’m not going to give a detailed chronological account, mostly because I don’t like to write like that but also because I doubt many will be interested in reading it. Instead, I will write about a few topics I find important. Hopefully, this corresponds at least roughly to what you’d like to read about.

Settling in

I now feel that the place I live is also my home. That didn’t take very long, although it would be wrong to say that the process is completed. Settling in is an ongoing process that is never fully completed. However, unpacking all my things, putting up some things on the walls, cleaning up a bit and similar things helped quite a bit. I will show you more later when I think I have something to show.

Adjusting

There are many different kinds of adjustments. First, it took me about a week to get rid of the jet lag completely. It only took a few days to be able to sleep okay, but it took a week before I could go to bed at a reasonable time and sleep soundly until morning.

Second, the climate is as different from Sweden as it can be. Sweden is dry and cool, Taiwan is humid and warm. I don’t think I will ever adjust completely, but now the weather has cooled down somewhat, which makes me happier.

Third, there is food. I didn’t encounter any problems during the first week, but for some reason, my stomach hasn’t behaved properly this week. I think it’s getting better, so I don’t intend to do anything about it. It’s only natural that it takes a while to adjust, even if I didn’t encounter such problems last time I came to Taiwan.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it’s necessary to adjust socially. This is a very complex process that works on many different levels. I think this is the kind of adjustment that takes the longest. Fortunately, this isn’t a real issue in the modern world. It’s not as if my contact network in Sweden has disappeared.

Studying

My main reason for coming back to Taiwan is that I want a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a foreign language. My previous experience of the university (National Taiwan Normal University) was mixed (to say the least), but now after finishing the first week, I can at least say that the courses look promising in theory (and so do the teachers). How it will be to actually study here in the long-term I don’t know, but I like what I have seen so far.

I’m taking three courses this semester:

  • 華語文教材教法 (Chinese Language Teaching Methods and Materials)
  • 話語語音教學研究 (Studies in Phonetic Instruction in Chinese)
  • 漢語語音學 (Chinese Linguistics)

I don’t know yet how much time it will take to complete these courses with a reasonable grade (I need 80/100 for my scholarship, 70/100 is the normal pass score). My advantage is that I have studied most of these subjects before, apart from Chinese linguistics. I feel that I have a fairly good grasp of Chinese phonetics and phonology, at least in English. I need to (literally) translate this knowledge and expand it. My obvious disadvantage is of course that most classmates are native speakers and that I will require much more time than them both to read and write the required amount.

Apart from this, I also have Chinese language class twice a week. I don’t know much about this yet,so I’ll tell you more about it later. I just hope that the content of that course is geared towards our program, so I don’t end up with having to learn lots of extra stuff that isn’t really applicable to anything else I’m doing.

Practising gymnastics

I will be able to practice gymnastics very seriously during my time in Taiwan. We’re talking about ~20 hours a week, depending on how much time I feel that I can spend. This makes me very happy indeed. Perhaps this is hard to understand for people who don’t know me well, but having a physical activity that I enjoy is very important for me. The alternative would have been swimming and gym, and compared with that, gymnastics is much better in every single way. I will write about this more later as well, for now let it suffice to say that everything is working well.

Conclusion

So far, everything has been working very well. I have encountered no serious setbacks but have instead stumbled on (or actively found) some really good opportunities. It remains to be seen what I will think in a month or so, when I should have settled in more completely and when I should have a better picture of what my courses really entail in terms of workload and how interesting/worthwhile I find them. I’ll probably write articles about other topics before then, but expect a post like this again in a month or two!

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Arriving in Taipei

Arriving in Taipei was a strange experience. It was a combination of looking at my surroundings and knowing that I have been here before many times, yet at the same time it felt like I have never been here at all. Like if I was caught in a perpetual déjà vu. The feeling didn’t last long, however. A friend I got to know in Sweden and his girlfriend met me at the airport, making me feel welcome. Taipei greeted me with a light drizzle in it’s own, loving way.

The rain was brief though and had stopped altogether when we got off the MRT (underground) and slowly began to home in on the address I had been given by my to-be room mate. I knew that it was close to the campus and to the night market next to it, but it turned out the apartment is located almost in the night market itself. It’s still outside it, however, so even though the location has all the benefits of being close to everything, it’s still a fairly quiet area. This is what the apartment looks like:

What has happened and what will happen

Apart from taking photos (and noticing that my mobile camera really sucks), I’ve also done some other important things. I have handed over the required documents to the university and they seemed happy about that, no problems encountered so far (not that I expected any, but you never know). I have also managed to get a phone number and some other things which are crucial for survival.

So far, most things are better than I thought. This might be because deliberately turned down the expectations. The apartment is great and what I’ve seen of my room mates so far is also good (they like board games, yay!). There are at least five people living here, including me, but I have only talked with one of them properly.

The next few days will consist of getting settled in and registering at the university. Assuming everything goes according to plan, the semester will start on September 10th. Before then, I have some studying to do and I want to have most practical things solved by then. Most importantly, I want to get rid of the jet lag, which is currently keeping me awake at night. It’s almost midnight here, but my biologically, I’m still somewhere in Europe. Try to see what happens if you go and try to sleep eight hours starting from six o’clock in the evening. That’s what I’m going to do now, good night!

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