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Bedevilled books

I while ago, I wrote a post about the irrational and insatiable urge to own printed books (see Beloved books). My conclusion was that even though I know there are a number of convincing arguments against buying lots of books, I still do, because at that time, I thought that the perceived advantages simply trumped the disadvantages. Since then, I’ve changed my way of thinking a bit, and as a result of this, I will consciously avoid buying news books in the future. In this post, I’ll explain why I’ve changed my mind.

But why?

Before I go through the various exceptions to this seemingly harsh rule of not buying new books, I’m going to talk briefly about the rationale behind the decision. Buying books is simply a waste, and it comes with very few genuine advantages. It wastes money, paper, the environment and so on. It makes it harder to move house, and even though I still think a huge number of accumulated books is very nice to look at, I don’t think that there are enough arguments to keep on adding to the pile.

Two of the advantages with printed books that I pointed out in the original post are that they are nice to look at and that they constitute a good way of presenting myself as a person. However, I think that neither of these will suffer I stop buying books as before. I own around 800 books and, living in a small apartment as I will most likely do, that’s more than enough to get the living-in-a-library feeling. Buying fewer books and getting rid old, bad ones should further enhance the representational value of a book collection, not decrease it!

Some exceptions

Naturally, there are a few exceptions when I will buy books anyway. If any of these applies, I will try to buy the book second hand. If that also fails, I will consider buying it new, but as you can see, that will be very rare indeed.

1. I can’t borrow the book, either from a library or friends
2. I want to keep the book for reference (seldom fiction)
3. I need to take detailed notes in the book
4. The book is so good I want to be able to lend it to friends

As you can see, this will almost entirely eliminate the number of new books I plan to buy. In fact, my goal will be to not buy any new books at all, as long as I’m not forced to for some reason (such as text books and course material).

What about electronic books?

The observant reader will have noticed that I haven’t mentioned what seems to be all the rage now: electronic books. I have tried to read books on screen and even if I this is occasionally okay, I don’t own a device which is portable enough to be convenient and which, at the same time, offers a screen good enough for comfortable reading. However, this is an option that I will try to explore more, because I feel that that’s really the only rational direction to go, although I don’t feel any need to run. The future belongs to the e-books, no doubt about it.

What do you think about e-books? Have you stopped buying printed books altogether or do you feel a shiver down your spine every time you think about reading something on a screen?

Books I already own

What about the books I already own? A rough estimate tells me that at the moment, I own around 800 books. A large number of these books are books that if I didn’t own them, they would never fulfill any of the above criteria to bought new. However, most of them I have bought used and very cheaply (or even received as gifts), so they weigh more in terms of kilograms than imagined weight on my conscience.

Still, I plan to go through the books I have and get rid of the books that I neither have read nor want to read. I don’t know how I will do this yet, but I will try to sell them somehow. If that doesn’t work, perhaps I can swap them or simply donate them to charity. In any case, I don’t plan to move all my books with me next time I move house, which might be sooner rather than later. Trimming my book collection will be a gradual and painful process.

In any case, I still love books, both reading them and owning them, but I feel that I can no longer continue wasting money and resources buying things I could find used or in electronic format. Yes, I do like to live in a library, but I already have enough books to do that. If I really need more books later, the second hand market on the internet is quite extensive. So, no more new books from now on, if it can be avoided!

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


For some people, completing a certain task is not enough, it has to be done perfectly. Intuitively, I count myself to this perfectionist group, but intellectually, I’ve gradually come to realise that this a double-edged sword and that there are times (quite often, actually) when aiming for perfection is simply stupid. If you’re not a perfectionist yourself, the likelihood is that you will find this article fairly pointless, but for those of you who at least partly share this personality trait with me, I hope it will be more worthwhile.

I think it goes without saying that if you want to attain very high levels of ability for any given activity, perfectionism is a must (you don’t get to the top if you’re happy with anything but the best). However, I’m sure that this attitude can be inhibiting and slow progress in some cases, especially at more basic levels, and discussing this topic here might help to draw attention to this idea.

So, when is aiming for perfection a bad idea? I’m prepared to say it’s bad at any time, except for the situation described above, when ability already is lost in the clouds, but it’s especially true for skills where you have to add a lot (like learning languages, chemistry or something). There are exceptions, such as sports where a solid foundation is everything (gymnastics, diving). But why is perfectionism so bad sometimes? Because it is inefficient. Spending too much time on something might mean that you spend less time on widening your horizons and learning more, which would in the end lead to even higher ability. Let me take an example from language learning, in this case Chinese because it happens to be what I’m currently doing. If I had a fairly big test next week, covering several chapters and many hundreds of new words, I’m tempted to aim for 100%. I did that all the time for the first year of Chinese, and indeed it payed off, but I think that the price I paid was too high and today I’m much more careful.

The alternative would be to be satisfied with something like 85-95%, which indeed isn’t bad. In my experience, reaching this level might require lots of work, but increasing the score further takes a lot more time per percentage point. To be sure to nail an exam, you really need review a lot and you will end up reviewing lots of things you really don’t need to review, just to make sure you know every single part. Making sure you have good grasp of the material and then being a bit more relaxed and accepting the fact that you might forget minor parts on the exam takes significantly less time and energy, but the outcome is almost equivalent.

I think those of you who frequent this website know that I’m not doing this because I’m lazy. The point here is that if the idea is to get really good at something (like Chinese) as fast as possible, focusing on perfecting basic or intermediate stages will be a waste of time. That time could be spent talking with people, broadening vocabulary or reinforcing grammar. I’m sure this gives a lot more in return for the time invested. I don’t mean to say that a solid foundation isn’t important (nothing could be farther from the truth), but I’m saying that you won’t get very high if you spend years just laying the foundations. Again using language learning as a an example, I’d much rather learn 100 words and remember 80%, than learn 50 words in the same time and remember every single one. I guessed at the numbers here, of course, but it’s an educated guess.

Looking closer at it, I think there are only two major differences between having 95% and 100% on a test. Firstly, there is a sense of achievement if the score is really high, and second, the time required is, as stated above, significantly longer. The lacking 5% won’t really affect anything real, only the grade and the students sense of achievement. Is this trade worth it? I don’t think so, especially when considering that it might be more healthy not to focus too much on exams and grades, but that’s really another topic altogether.

I realise that I’m in a quite unique position here in Taiwan and that people who study usually do so because they need the grades for something (I’m only here because I want to learn the language). In some cases, the difference between 95% and 100% might be extremely important. However, I’m convinced perfectionism is usually bad anyway if long-term learning is the goal. Furthermore, this principle is applicable to any hobby project or anything you do for your own good or because of your interests.

So, to all you perfectionists out there, do as I’ve done recently, try to relax a bit and understand that there is a rational argument, not for being lazy, but for not being too narrow-minded about exams and grades. Look at what you need to learn and learn it, but don’t be obsessive about it. We will always forget some of the things we learn, but the idea is to learn more than we forget!

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


In my studies of the Chinese language, I’ve come across something which is at first not obvious, but in reality constitutes a huge difference between Chinese and any other language I know. If you haven’t studied the language yourself, Chinese writing and pronunciation are two separate, albeit related, things. In other words, you can’t look at a character you’ve never seen and know how to pronounce it. This leads many to the conclusion that it’s possible, as a foreigner, to learn to only speak Chinese and ignore the daunting task of learning to read or write characters. I think this impossible, or in the very least stupid and/or inefficient. In this article, I’ll write about this, in my experience, unique feature of Chinese and why it’s necessary to learn how to write if one hopes to attain any kind of advanced level.

Picture a web

In order to explain what I’m talking about here, I’m going to use the analogy of a web in many layers, superimposed on one another. So far, I’m only certain about two layers, but it might be the case that there is a third one, but more about that later. The topmost level represents spoken Chinese and the next level down represents written Chinese. In most languages, this distinction is irrelevant, or at least not very important; learning to speak Swedish is very much the same thing as learning to write, the only difference being that you have to learn a ton of arbitrary spelling rules. In Chinese the levels appear separate, but I’m going to argue that it’s a misconception that they are entirely isolated and that speaking can be learnt on its own.

So, why use the structure of a web here? Language learning, like any learning, can be said to be made out of associations of ideas and concepts in the brain. These nodes are linked together, and learning then consists of enlarging and reinforcing the connections between the various points. There are two ways of doing this: First, a connection can be stronger (this is mainly achieved by reviewing and rote learning); and, second, more than one route between any two given points in the network can be constructed (this is learning be associating things to what you already know and studying the same thing from many angles rather than repeating the same process). If you are interested in learning more about this way of learning, I suggest you check out what Scott H. Young has written about holistic learning on his website (it’s basically the same thing).

Chinese 101

Before I can start talking about Chinese regarded as a multi-layered web, I need to explain one more thing about Chinese to those of you who don’t know the language. Chinese has extremely few phonemes, around four hundred unique sounds, excluding tones, and about three times as many including tones. There are numerous words which sound very similar or indeed identical. In order to make communication possible, modern Chinese seldom uses a single character to represent a concept, but rather combines to, greatly increasing the number of available words. Many characters share the same pronunciation, so hearing a single sound is almost never enough to carry meaning (for example, my dictionary lists almost one hundred characters all pronounced “shi”).

The first layers – spoken and written Chinese

Knowing all this, we can now look at the top level of spoken Chinese, or the first layer of the web. As a foreigner, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the similarities of words or characters that in reality means completely different things. Even with knowledge about the way a word is written, it’s hard to distinguish words from each other. My theory here is that the learning web for Chinese takes a lot more time to develop than for other languages I’ve learnt, simply because it’s so easy to confuse similar nodes (words) in the network. Using only spoken Chinese, the links between words seem arbitrary and obscure; more about that soon. i think the web is hard to develop because it’s not obvious what to connect with what, there is (seemingly) no logic behind the sounds.

To see the connections and the logic in Chinese, we need to dive down deeper, to the second layer of the web: written Chinese. Here, we find that many words that doesn’t seem to be related are in fact just that, and often in a very logical way. I will try to illustrate this from three different angles to make it understandable even if you’ve never studied Chinese.

Three examples

First, if a student approach Chinese like a Western language, let’s say French, it’s easy to learn vocabulary as translations from one’s own language: “Shikong” becomes “time and space”, “Kongjian” becomes “space” and “Shijian” becomes “time”. If these are studied as chunks, it will be hard to grasp the bigger picture. Looking at the characters for these words (時空, 空間 and 空間 respectively), we can see that 時 means “time”, 空 means “space or empty”, and 間 means “space” or “between”. Knowing the parts of the words make the words easier to remember.

Second, some characters might have different meanings if they are pronounced differently, let’s take 教 as an example. Read with a high, steady tone, it’s the verb “to teach”, but read in a short, falling tone, it is used in nouns, but still means something related to teaching. For śomeone who only can speak, these words, they will appear to be different words altogether. They aren’t. Learning how to read, one would only have to know this rule and then all words that include this character would be logical and easy to remember instead of separate cases. It’s the same root, but it’s not obvious from the pronunciation alone.

As the third and last example, I’ll say something about listening. Nowadays, I can sometimes guess the meaning of a two-syllable word I’ve never ever heard before. If I know the context and the pronunciation from what the other person says, which greatly narrows down the possible number of characters that can be involved. If I’m able to guess the characters, I might also be able to guess the meaning of the word and thus understand what’s being said. Without thorough knowledge of written Chinese, this would be very hard, if not impossible. it doesn’t happen very often now, but the frequency is increasing rapidly.

Efficiency and long-term perspective

Sadly, learning to read won’t save time in the beginning, but after a while, you will see that the characters appear all the time, and it will then be very easy to expand vocabulary, connecting new words to your growing, bilayered web. Simply speaking, words that seem to be completely different on the surface might actually be very close together in written form. Learning this written form will make it easier to reinforce your web, to connect the nodes using many different routes.

Another way of looking at it is using English as an example. If you want to expand your English vocabulary, a good way is to learn what different roots, suffixes and prefixes mean. For instance, if you know that “post” means “after”, “pre” means “before” and you know what “industrial” means, it’s very easy to guess what “post-industrial” or “pre-industrial” mean, even if you’ve never seen the words before. If you don’t know what the prefixes mean, you’re completely in the dark. It goes without saying that words like this appear in English frequently. Chinese is like this, all the time, for almost every part of every word! There are words for which the explanations are lost in time or sometimes they simply don’t make sense (at least not to me), but combinations of characters into words often follow a pattern that can be understood. Provided you understand what the parts mean separately, that is.

So, what would you rather do, learn thousands of thousands of various combinations and not really understand how they fit together at deeper level, or learn all the parts and thus create a densely interconnected web? I think learning to read is essential to learning advanced Chinese. It’s probably possible to reach intermediate levels only looking at the spoken language, but I’m sure it will be problematic as the total number of words increases. The reason I can distinguish between so many words in Chinese is because I know what characters they are made out of and thus can remember the difference, which otherwise would be arbitrary or non-existent.

This being said, there are of course lots of people who are native speakers without being able to write it, but if you consider that most people take quite a long time to learn a language that way, I don’t consider this very efficient and not an option for most foreigners. In addition, I would hazard a guess that native speakers who can’t write seldom have a very good grasp of the language, definitely not enough to teach it properly. I’m not saying this is cause and effect, but I do think that the two are related.

A possible third layer – classical Chinese

In the introduction, I mentioned the possible existence of a third level, even deeper than written Chinese, and I’ll discuss it briefly now. This level would represent classical Chinese, i.e. the old form of written Chinese that was used up until roughly one hundred years ago as the standard of writing, but is very different from modern, spoken Chinese, sometimes with different grammar and different meanings of characters (a native speaker of Chinese who can read well cannot simply pick up a text in classical Chinese and understand it; our teachers repeatedly say that it’s almost like a foreign language for them). I’m not sure how closely interrelated this third web is to the second one, but I’m starting to think that in order to learn to write and read well, it might be very helpful to at least study some classical Chinese, because I have already found that formal or literary Chinese borrows lots of grammar patterns and more advanced words from classic Chinese. I’ll probably return to this subject later when I’m more familiar with it myself.

So, what to do then? Focus on the top two layers simultaneously, of course. If you really don’t like spending time learning to write, do at least learn to read. It won’t pay off very quickly, but it will definitely do so in the long run (and if you’re aiming to learn Chinese properly, along time is what you need to spend). I have changed opinion over the years about how important writing is compared to reading, but that ought to be the topic of a separate article.

Conclusion

By way of rounding off this article, I think that ignoring reading and writing is a very tempting option, but I also think it’s dangerous and might hamper development, especially after the beginner stage. Learning all those characters is a daunting task, I know, but it will make both speaking and listening a lot easier. I’ve only now started to appreciate the benefits of a multi-layered, integrated web, but I’m sure that I still have many more benefits to discover down the road, because even though lots of reviewing is good, many links will always beat a few.

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Writing this, I’m sitting in the magic coffee shop I’ve discovered close to where I live. I suspect that in ancient times, there might have been a shrine in the vicinity where people sacrificed beautiful shells or precious pearls to the gods of plenty and productivity. Then, as the sprawl of the modern city of Taipei expanded and building in the suburbs increased, this long-forgotten holy site was buried under resident buildings, roads and supermarkets. And a coffee shop. Although the secret of this shrine is lost in the mists of time, its ability to enchant and inspire still lingers, enabling me to be more productive than anywhere else in the world. Welcome to the magic coffee shop!

On a more serious note, I’ve recently explored the well-known productivity trick to simply change environment when productivity is running low. Although this is not entirely new, I haven’t fully realised the potential of different environments before (if you are in any way interested in increasing productive output, I would be very surprised if this post contains anything new, its simply a personal account of a fortunate discovery). Leaving home for a coffee shop seems to enable me to keep on going with whatever I want to do (working, studying, creative writing) for at least as long as my battery lasts, which is at least four hours. Four hours of close to 100% productivity constitutes a significant impetus to any project.

Why is this true, then? Ignoring explanations involving shrines and magic, my pseudo-psychological explanation is that we tend to associate different behavioural patterns and habits with certain places, which would mean that if you usually do something in a certain environment, you would be prone to do that again later in the same environment. Following this line of reasoning, home is a very bad place to be productive, because at least I do all sorts of different things at home (surfing, playing games, chatting), whereas the coffee shop was a tabula rasa the first time I went there. Since then, I’ve only inscribed the patterns of studying and working on that blank slate, meaning that when i go there now, it’s not that difficult to continue doing what I’ve always done there.

However, it might be tempting to focus too much on this explanation, although I’m sure it has some merits. For instance, it’s also true that usually have no internet access when I’m at the magic coffee shop, which makes it easier to focus. On the other hand, this cannot be the main explanation, because the few times I’ve been able to connect to someone else’s wireless network, productivity has still been close to 100%. Another contributing factor might be that it feels more serious to go somewhere else. Even if I don’t think other people really care what I’m doing, i still feel a bit more exposed in public and it heightens my motivation, although perhaps not by very much.

In the future, I will try to explore, expand and exploit this phenomenon, try to see how far I can push this and if I might learn more about environment’s effect on productivity. For instance, would it be possible to create specific places for specific tasks like studying or creative writing? Would it be advantageous to keep different productive activities apart? Would it be possible to create a miniature version of this phenomenon at home, without leaving the apartment? If I find anything interesting, I’ll be back later to tell you about it. In the meantime, I’d be interested in hearing what other people think about this. What are your experiences? What questions would you like to have answered?

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


Most people who have studied a foreign language in a classroom situation (which should be most of us, I think) have depended on a series of textbooks, or a number of them, since different institutions and different levels might use different textbooks. The only situations I know of where textbooks aren’t used at all in a classroom are when the students have very special needs (no text book is applicable) or the students are too advanced. In these cases, the teacher might decide that the class is better off using a freer form of teaching. What I’m going to discuss here, mostly from a learner’s perspective, but also from a teacher’s, is the value of using additional textbooks as a resource for more comprehensive language learning.

Before even beginning to discuss the various benefits that using additional textbooks entails, it’s necessary to take a closer look at what a textbook can do in the first place. I’m convinced that textbooks are useful, but used alone, they will never lead to mastery of a language. Textbooks are good for a number of reasons. First, the authors have chosen vocabulary that they think is suitable for students. These lists are valuable, because the authors’ guesses are a lot better than yours and they also know not to use overly complicated language that might be a waste of time at a student’s particular level. Second, textbooks explain the language, which is crucial for some learners (myself included). I cannot simply learn a language efficiently only by everyday conversations, I need a top-down approach for some elements, including but not limited to grammar. That being said, there are of course lots of things textbooks can’t teach, but that’s not the subject of this article. Also, I should mention that I prefer as challenging environments as possible for my main courses, but that’s something completely different from what I’m talking about here.

Let us look closer at vocabulary for a moment, the essence of language learning. Repeating what I explained above, a textbook can be said to be the your guide in an unfamiliar landscape after having parachuted from the sky. It indicates a direction and leads you along a path of ever increasing difficulty as the topics gradually becomes more difficult as the starting point vanishes beyond the horizon behind you. However, you mustn’t fool yourself into thinking that being able to walk a distance in one direction means that you can do the same in another. A new language is a huge landscape and even the easier parts are vast. Approaching more difficult challenges doesn’t mean that the easier ones are all mastered. This is where additional textbooks come in, but before I explain how, I shall illustrate with an example.

Consider my Chinese studies. As textbooks, I’ve primarily used the Practical Audio-Visual Chinese (although I did use Short-term Spoken Chinese for my first year). This means than when I landed in alien territory, those books took me around a carefully guided tour, introducing various subjects and topics. Perhaps this guide also resulted in a false sense of security, because even though my vocabulary and grammar is now pretty advanced in some fields, I can fail very basic vocabulary tests for areas I simply haven’t visited yet (this is true for English as well, please don’t ask me about word for cooking or cars!).

So, how might additional textbooks be used here? The thing is that they constitute new and different guided tours through the landscape, which by now should be at least partly familiar. The vocabulary is chosen by different authors with slightly different perspectives, leading to another set of words somebody thinks you really should know. Of course, no author can include all words they want, so they have to choose, but if you choose more than one author, you can learn an enormous amount of extremely useful words (this also applies to grammar, but let’s continue using vocabulary as an example). The alternative would be to choose words that you encounter in everyday life, but they might be very far from universal or not even common at all; deciding which to learn and which to ignore is almost impossible. Since you can select textbooks already at your level or below, you can expand vocabulary and strengthen fundamental grammar in quite a relaxed manner.

Again returning to studying Chinese, I’ve recently started looking into a second series of text books called Far Eastern Everyday Chinese, which is the other major textbook series used in Taiwan, and I have also used Taiwan Today: An Intermediate Course (this was what gave the impetus that resulted in this article). All the chapters studied in these books can be said to be below my level of Chinese, but that’s the whole point. Studying these chapters, I found that I knew about two thirds of the words and most grammar, but the elements I didn’t know were truly interesting. The topics chosen in these books do of course differed from the ones in Practical Audio-Visual Chinese, so some specialised vocabulary were new (one book might have a chapter on going to the swimming pool, another about playing football, for instance). Some of these I could safely ignore, but I always found lots of words I didn’t realise I was lacking before I saw them, or expressions that are genuinely useful although I had never thought of them. Continuously reading more and more challenging texts is a very inefficient way of mastering basic language skills and doesn’t ensure a complete map of the most essential parts of a foreign language.

By way of conclusion, I would like to recommend people to use more than one textbook. You don’t necessarily need to study it carefully, but do at least make sure you know the grammar and the relevant words (ignore those that are too specific in areas you have no interest in). It’s an efficient way of strengthening basic language skills and makes sure that you cover as much of the truly essential language as possible. Which textbooks to use is of course impossible to give general advice about, but for Chinese, the Taiwan Today: An Intermediate Course is an excellent choice. Good luck!

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The title of this post is a quote from American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and has been in my quotes list ever since I studied American history in 2006 when I first encountered him (thank you, Margarette). Emerson is a fascinating figure, inspiring and challenging, and high on my list of philosophers to study closer in a hypothetical future with lots of spare time. The quote is taken from a passage in his famous essay Self-Reliance, which reads as follows:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.

It certainly sounds good, but what does it mean? I think Emerson originally meant that small minds lock themselves into modes of thought, and unable to break free, the can’t trancsend and become truly great. This is a valid point, but it’s fairly hard to discuss and relate to everyday life (you’re of course welcome to try if you like), so in this post I’m going to focus on the more hands-on aspects of Emerson’s quote, i.e. when a person foolishly repeats a pattern only because he or she is locked in a rigid, familiar mode and not because it’s the result of active, reflective thinking. Let me take a few personal examples of why I’m a little mind and not a great soul, things I do or have done simply because my mind is locked up.

Reviews on this website are the quintessence of a foolish persistency; I review everything, even though I sometimes don’t feel like it or don’t feel the product in question deserves a review. I go on doing this because that’s what I’ve been doing for more than five years. This consistency has obvious benefits, but I still think it’s foolish. Some reviews are written for the sake of consistency only.

Logging my activities is also exaggerated and sometimes doesn’t have much purpose beyond mere habit. I kept a diary over my exercises everyday for around two years. In the beginning, it was interesting, but after a while I did it because of that hobgoblin. Perhaps stopping made my soul grow a little bit, but I know I could do it again. Again, the pattern was repeated for its own sake.

Going to the same few restaurants regularly was something I did almost all the time when I lived in Taiwan last year. I was too lazy to experience new things, even though I can remember no serious examples of bad restaurants that should deter me from trying more. I had literally dozens of restaurants within five minutes walking distance that I never visited.

I think Emerson is onto something important in this quote, regardless if he’s interpreted in a concrete or more abstract manner, and that is why I think this quote is so brilliant (in fact, it is very close to the top of my list). It reminds us that we should try to raise our heads above the shroud of everyday life and try something new, let our minds roam freely. Being great means to explore uncharted waters and to reinvent oneself. Doing the same things, moving in the same realms of thought, required no greatness.

So, before I end this article with a promise to at least try to expel the hobgoblin, I’d like to know what kind of foolish consistencies you make yourselves guilty of? Do you have something you do simply because you’ve always done it, but when you stop for a minute to scrutinise what you’re really doing, all you find is an imaginary little creature laughing at you? If so, use Emerson’s words as a weapon to exorcise it and free your mind! I will try to do so more often from now on.

Additional reading
Ralph Waldo Emerson (Wikipedia)
Self-Reliance (full text)

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One thosand posts

One thousand posts ago, I started this website as blog experiment. Since then, five years have gone by, and most things here have changed, including language, focus and design. To mark this milestone, I’ve decided to redesign the site, and you should be looking at the new version currently. It isn’t entirely finished and it isn’t perfect, but I have decided to publish it anyway. Having it online hopefully means the incentives to improve the design increase as more people view the site. This post is not about the new design (I’ll publish something specific about the design tomorrow), though, but about the one thousand posts.

One thousand posts, what does it mean? It means more than one post every second day for five years. It means perhaps two million characters. It means almost one month (600 hours) writing. Regardless of how one counts, it undoubtedly is a lot.

Why? This would be the natural question for any sane person to ask at this stage. Is it worth it? Couldn’t i have done a lot of better things with those characters and hours? Perhaps. When this site was new, I wrote a lot of crap, but I’ve changed a lot since then (which probably means I still write crap, but it’ll take me another five years to figure that out, so wait for the day marking two thousand posts).

Put briefly, I think the time and energy invested here are both well spent. I learn a lot, about myself, about writing and about languages. I have a convenient channel of information to family and friends, as well as an archive of opinions about books and films. I have an outlet for writing about myself and what I find important.

Everything changes, and this website is no exception. Five years from now, there will probably be something here reminiscent of the current site, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the focus has shifted again. I certainly hope so, because carrying around a history of one thousand posts shouldn’t inhibit me from making the changes I think necessary, or, to quote Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. So, let this be a reminder that even though things at a fundamental level remain the same, that shouldn’t tie us down, endlessly repeating existing patterns and regurgitating old ideas.

Footnote: I should answer the question quite a few people have already asked, i.e. why the post counter is far beyond 1000 already (this is post number 1191 for instance). This is because deleted articles retain their position in the sequence. Sometimes I create drafts I never publish or remove old posts which have been made superfluous. However, as of today, there should be exactly one thousand “real” posts on my website!

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A little more than a week ago, I posed a question whether I should stay (at least) one more year in Taiwan or not. As many of you commented, both here on my website and elsewhere, it’s true that the question was almost already settled, at least after writing that post. I said that I would think it over for at least one week and that’s what I have now done. My conclusion is that I’m going to stay here next semester. I think the reasons to do so are quite obvious in my previous post, but I will highlight some of the arguments which contributed to my final decision, presented roughly in order of priority:

– I really like studying Chinese
– If I stay and change my mind, I can go home, whereas if I go home and change my mind, I cannot go back
– It’s a lot easier to stay longer than to go back later
– It would be nice to improve my Chinese to professionally useful level

Apart from these factors, there are of course much more that makes me want to stay longer, but I think these are the most important ones. Perhaps more importantly, since I felt the decision dawning on my as I wrote aforementioned discussion, I have had time to get used to the idea of actually going back to Taiwan, even though I still plan to go back to Sweden this summer (more information about that later). In the days that have passed since then, the decision has felt better and better; my brain has caught up with my heart and all three of us intend to stay here in Taiwan just a little bit longer.

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I try to avoid cluttering this website with minor updates on what’s happening here in Taiwan, which means that sometimes a lot of small things happen that don’t merit mentioning on their own. However, this week I received two important letters which have started the avalanche: I now have the information necessary to decide what I want to do next year.

This post will be very long since I have quite a lot of things I want to discuss, not only for your benefit, but also to make things clear for myself. As I write this, I don’t know what I want to do, but in the process of writing about it, I hope to learn more. For those of you who are interested, but not so interested that you’re prepared to read all of this, the situation can is summed up in the following paragraph.

I have two alternatives: going back to Sweden to continue with my teachers’ education or staying in Taiwan for an unspecified time continuing studying Chinese at one of Taiwan’s leading universities (and then go back to Sweden to complete my education). The choice can be reduced to only include one year (or even only one semester), even though the real situation is much more complicated.

Generally speaking, my situation is a lot better than Hamlet’s, because whatever I choose, the outcome will most likely be favourable; I merely have to choose which alternative I think is slightly better than the other. I haven’t decided what I want to do, and I’ll probably wait at least a week before I decide.

This is where you come in. Please know that I’d appreciate help here. If you think that my reasoning is flawed, or that I’ve left out something important, it might be because of negligence or due to missing information from me, but it might also be the case that my reasoning is indeed flawed. I’d be happy to discuss this with anybody and I hope this post can serve as a basis for any discussions pertaining to my plans for the future. I’ll now systematically go through the various aspects of this conundrum, discussing both advantages and disadvantages.

Education in Taiwan
Education is, together with economy, the most important factor. If I stay here in Taiwan, I’ll study at the Department of Chinese Language and Culture for International Students at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), Taiwan’s number one university when it comes to studying (and teaching) Chinese. I’ve been accepted to a four year degree programme, which is focused on Chinese language and culture. However, since this would be a standard university education, the programme also includes compulsory courses for everyone (much like the United States, but unlike Sweden).

The decision I’m making now isn’t to go home or stay four years, but rather if I should start this programme or return to Sweden. I always have the option of dropping out if I find that my decision to remain here was erroneous. This contingency plan isn’t as bad as it sounds, because when I’m here, I’m not very interested in the degree that will be awarded upon completing the programme. My reason for being here is to learn Chinese and I plan to use my teacher’s degree to find a job anyway (teacher is still what I want to be, I’m even more sure about that now than ever).

The education at NTNU seems ideal. Apart from pure language courses on various levels, later in the programme they also provide courses aimed towards teaching Chinese to foreigners (which is exactly what I would like to do with my Chinese when I return to Sweden, whenever that is). Of course, it’s difficult to know now if the programme is as good as it looks, but NTNU has a very good reputation among foreigners and Taiwanese alike, especially for Chinese language studies.

Last, but certainly not least, I love studying Chinese. I can spend countless hours on studying just because I like the language (70 hours the week I recorded). I do this because I love this language and want to master it. Staying here would allow me to take a big step in that direction, although it would be arrogant to think one year would be enough.

Education in Sweden

What about going back to Sweden, then? That would mean continuing my teachers’ education where I left of, i.e. after studying one year general education science and one year English. My next subject would be Swedish, for two years, aiming towards Swedish high school. This is something I look forward to, but I have checked with the responsible persons at the university and it seems like there should be no problem staying here for at least another year. There is a possibility that they will change the teachers’ education in the future, but I’ll probably learn about that well in advance; it shouldn’t affect my decision now at all.

Sduying in general
Staying here means that I extend my education at least one year, which means that I will graduade 2013; spending nine years studying mostly languages might seem like a long time, but right now I feel no urge to complete my studies and start teaching. The problem is that it’s very hard to know what I’ll think about this in the future. Of course, the years I add aren’t useless (I’ve completed all courses I’ve started, sometimes with good results as well) and should thus be useful someday when it’s time to start earning money instead of spending it.

How would my decision affect my Chinese? My language proficiency is improving at a steady pace, not so much because I’m physically located in Taiwan, but rather because when I’m here, I have lots of time to spend. If I go home to Sweden, I’ll keep studying Chinese, but it would have to be moved down several notches on the priority ladder. Another year of diligent studying here in Taiwan would probably make me close to fluent. My Chinese would then be at a level where it’s genuinely useful even outside teaching situations.

But if I like studying Chinese and want to learn more, couldn’t I go back after I finish my education in Sweden? Yes, of course I could, but it would be a lot more inconvenient than simply staying. I have a lot of stuff here, I know people, I’ve been accepted to a university. Besides, if I go back to Sweden, I might get tied down for various reasons, making it improbable that I would go abroad again.

Economy

Although I’m a bit hesitant to discuss my financial situation in public, I will give you the outline anyway. So far, I’ve managed to complete four years of university education in Sweden and one year here in Taiwan without borrowing any money. In Sweden, I work as much as I can and here in Taiwan I have a scholarship. My estimate is that if I’m thrifty, I might survive the remaining three years at Swedish university, still without debt.

So, how does this influence my decision? To start with, it seems likely that I failed to extend the Ministry of Education scholarship I have now, which would have removed all financial factors from this discussion. However, earlier today, I learnt that I’ve been accepted as a recipient of the NTNU Freshman Scholarship, which isn’t enough to cover my expenses here, but it will take me roughly half way. The money I would spend out of my own pocket would be half or less than I would spend in Sweden for an equal period of time.

This money I need to spend is probably the main deterrent in this discussion. Apart from the money I need to spend here, I also delay my working career with one year, further subtracting money. However, if anybody thinks I’m doing any of this for money, you need to think again. I didn’t change from psychology to education because of the lucrative labour market.

Social
The social aspects of my decisions are complicated because they can’t be measured in any currency I know of. However, these factors are important and I’ll try to explain.

Firstly, my relationship with Vanessa gets better and better as time goes by. If I stay here, it’ll mean that I move to Taipei, but that shouldn’t be a problem since she has said she would like to take some courses (like once a week) at some university in the capital.

Secondly, right now I’m not exceedingly satisfied with my social situation. I have a couple of friends and acquaintances I cherish, but not very many. Why? Partly it’s because of limited time. When I first moved to Gaoxiong in February, I didn’t think this was a problem (it still isn’t, but it might be in the future). Also, I know that I’m leaving (for Sweden or Taipei) in one month and I see little or no point in trying to deepen relationships here right now.

I’ve thought a lot about the impact of language on friendship and love, and it seems like my Chinese is far from enough as it is now (I plan to write about this separately in the near future). This problem will subside as my Chinese improves and when I move to Taipei, it’ll be a lot easier to integrate naturally with natives since my Chinese is already quite okay. I wouldn’t like to continue the life I’ve lived the past months forever, but moving to Taipei would give me a good opportunity to change that.

I have no serious social reason to return to Sweden, though. I don’t want to imply that I don’t miss my family and friends, because sometimes I do, but it’s not a problem that needs to be taken into consideration here. Besides, even if I decide to stay here, I will have roughly two months this summer to meet everybody before I depart for Taiwan again.

Summary and comments
It seems like this boils down to a question if I think it’s worth the money and the time to stay here doing what I love, studying Chinese. It’s certainly possible to stay, but is it really such a good idea? I honestly don’t know. I’ve been thinking about this for months now and perhaps I’ve subconsciously already made the decision and only now is it beginning to crystallise in my conscious mind.

However, there’s only been a couple of hours since I received the news about the scholarship and I’m going to wait a few days to let things sink in before I even try to make a decision. In the meantime, I would appreciate any comments, questions, feedback or anything relating to my future plans. This is a very important decision and it needs all the attention I can possibly muster.

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


There are lots of misconceptions about learning Chinese, spread to an equal extent by native speakers and foreigners. Most people’s reaction to my studying Chinese is that it must be extraordinarily difficult. This is wrong. I’ve thought about this a great deal, and I’m convinced that it’s much more difficult for Chinese people to learn proper English than it is for foreigners to learn proper Chinese. In this short article I’ll try to explain why Chinese isn’t as difficult as most people think.

The first problem arises from the confusion of the words “difficult” and “requiring much time”. These two are indeed related, but they are not synonymous. In this context,”difficult” can mean “requires skill”, as opposed to “requires time”, and even though one can achieve skill through diligent practice, they still aren’t one and the same. Learning to write Chinese characters is a prime example of this: it requires almost no skill whatsoever, but on the other hand, it does require the student to spend thousands of hours practicing. Provided normal memory functions, anybody can do it. On the other hand, learning to construct sentences requires actual insight and understanding of the language, which naturally is a result of studying over time, but isn’t necessarily directly proportional to the amount of time invested.

Before I go on to explain why I think spoken Mandarin is fairly easy, I’ll discuss the two things that might actually cause trouble: pronunciation and vocabulary. Pronunciation in Chinese is wildly different from Indo-European languages. Not only are there quite a lot of sounds which sound very similar to the untrained ear (and still are essential for communication), but there is also the problem of tones. I still haven’t formed an opinion as to what determines one’s ability to learn the tones and characteristic sounds of Mandarin, but if learners pay attention in the beginning, most seem to be able to learn this (I don’t even think about it anymore, and I’ve only studied for one and a half year). Vocabulary is a bigger problem, but entirely related to time. Assuming one’s native language isn’t related to Chinese, the languages have few or no words in common. When learning French, I can guess at the meaning of many words, but in Chinese, this is completely impossible (one can of course guess the meaning of Chinese characters and words based on previous knowledge of Chinese, but that’s a different topic entirely). In short, all words have to be learnt from scratch.

Up until now, I’ve only discussed difficulties, so what is it that makes Chinese easier than most people think? Grammar. I think I can safely say that even though I cannot use all of it, I have already studied most of the grammar necessary to speak or read Chinese. If we compare this to French or German, Chinese grammar is extraordinarily simple. Please don’t get me wrong here, Chinese grammar is flexible and dynamic, and I don’t want to make it sound like it’s inferior or anything, but it’s a lot easier to learn than any other language I’ve tried.

Most importantly, there are no inflections. A verb in the present, past or future looks exactly the same (even though it takes different auxiliary verbs, just as in English), number (i.e. singular or plural) does not affect other words, and there’s no gender to take into consideration. In addition to this, the separation between different parts of speech isn’t very distinct; most words can function as verbs, nouns or adjectives without any transformation whatsoever. Thus, new vocabulary is flexible and can be used in a variety of situations. This especially useful for understanding written Chinese.

Now, please form a mental picture of the reverse situation; somebody with Chinese as their native language trying to learn English (or French or German). First, they need to construct a completely new way of thinking about time, it becomes important when something happens for how you are going to say it (and some of the tenses in English are far from easy), you have to inflect verbs depending on the person(s) performing the action, parts of speech are clearly delimited and sometimes a verb and its associated adjective/noun are completely different. And not only do you have to learn when to use these different inflections and variants of words, but you have to learn to use them instantly, in the flow of normal speech. This challenge seems far more daunting than my own approach to Chinese.

Conclusively, I don’t mean to imply that Chinese is easy to learn, but it’s certainly not difficult in the way that most people I talk with assume. It requires an awful lot of time to learn to read and write Chinese, but if I would have ignored the written language and only focused on speaking, I’m sure my spoken Mandarin would be very, very good by now. As it is, I think I’ve come pretty far in the limited time I’ve had at my disposal, much longer than I think I would have if I were a Chinese exchange student coming to Sweden to study Swedish. Learning Chinese takes diligent studying over a long period of time, but it isn’t as hard as it might seem.

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