Friday, March 20, 2015

Sobre mi habitación

Tengo un dormitorio en la escuela. Está en el séptimo piso de la Torre Norte. Dentro de mi habitación hay una mesa bastante desordenada, con un ordenador, una lámpara, unos libros, una maqueta de un ángel con la Sagrada Familia, y muchos otros objetos. A la izquierda de mi mesa está mi estanteria con veintiun libros. Mi armario está al lado. Enfrente del armario hay un tablón de anuncios. La puerta está entre el armario y el tablón de anuncios, y mi cama está enfrente de la puerta y debajo de la ventana. Mi dormitorio es muy ruidosa cada miércoles por la noche, porque hay muchas estudiantes de intercambio que van a los clubs. Además, da a los otros dormitorios de la Torre Sur; Esto es bastante extraños y las cortinas están a menudo bajadas.

Tengo también cuatro compañeros en mi apartamento. Son bastante amables pero los veo raramente.

[Corrections received from Miguel Angel 7 Apr 2015]

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Valerio Learns Chinese: Part 1 - Pinyin, Tone and Springtime

Valerio has been saying nīhàomá and other things at innocent bystanders for a few years now. Now, he has decided to learn the language once and for all, and has enlisted my help for this purpose. This is a summary of our lessons and some reflections about finding the best way to teach Chinese to a serious learner.

Lesson 1 Topics:
1.1 The Hanyu Pinyin Alphabet and pronunciation
1.2 A Spring Morning by Meng Haoran 唐·孟浩然《春晓》

A Note About Phonology:
It seems a common complaint among casual learners (and casual teachers) of Chinese that it is hard to get the pronunciation across and that it is hard to make the tones sound right. The root of the problem are compound: one of it lies in the unreliability of most phonetic spelling methods, the other in the inability of both the learner and the teacher to recognise the numerous differences between the phonetic inventories of their respective native tongues. Let's have a look on how these two add up by considering the syllable

知 (zhī) - to know

For readers who are new, the nice-looking symbol up there is called a character, the basic unit of the written Chinese language. A character functions either as a word or as part of a word. "Zhī" is how you pronounce it, as dictated by the Pinyin alphabet. But how do you say "zhī"? What is "zh", and what is "ī", or do you say "zed-high"? A new learner who reads "zhī" and then starts making some guesses could come up with, for example: [ʒi˥˩] (4th tone).

It's good for a first try, but not perfect. No, the teacher says. Say [ʈʂɨ˥] (1st tone). The student tries again. He combines the visual and audial cues and says [dʒə˥˩], a little closer again to the teacher's pronounciation. Getting it completely right will take a few more tries, but by now it should already have become clear that learning the new language brings you to this perilous and absurd place where not even the alphabet can be trusted, however phonetic it claims to be. Hence:
Item 1: Don't trust the alphabet.

The idea is that an alphabet can be made to represent sound perfectly, or it can be made to be easy to use. Real written languages tend to follow the latter strategy. However, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is designed to encode the widest variety of human utterances in all languages worldwide, and so I use it in the notes for the first class.

The Results: The IPA seemed to bring the point across that certain sounds in Chinese simply don't exist in one's particular native tongue, and have to be learned from scratch. Additionally, it also served as an initial guideline on how exactly to pronounce the new sounds. From the example above, by referring to the IPA consonant table, one could find that the consonant [ʈʂ] is retroflex, and learn to pronounce [ʈʂ] curling the tongue against the hard palate by practice. However, the learner will still have to become used to the new sounds by exposure and listening.

The idea of new sounds also brings us to the next part of the problem: The teacher and learner from the earlier scenario are suffering a communication breakdown. The teacher cannot understand why the learner still says "jerh" despite hearing "zhī" so many times. The learner is frustrated because he hears the teacher saying "jerh", he says "jerh", but somehow is still wrong. This reflects an earlier result in psycholinguistics (see e.g. Trehub, 1975), in which toddlers of six months are found to be able to distinguish pairs of sounds that are "different" in both native and foreign tongues, but lose the ability to distinguish the foreign pairs by the time they hit twelve months. Long story short: You Can't Hear Foreign Sounds!
Hence Item 2: Don't trust playing by ear.

To get around this problem in an ideal world, the teacher should be able to stick his hand into the learner's mouth and move the tongue to right where it needs to be. In reality, he will have to be content to try to understand what exact mistake is being made and to verbally coax the learner to make the sounds the intended way. A less experienced teacher might attribute the inability to make the correct sounds to the learner being "deprived of culture", "of the wrong stock", or that the physiology of the learner's mouth is unsuited to Chinese, and therefore requires surgery. These notions are lamentably false, and since the nature of the problem is psychological, teaching Chinese should also become a test of character for the teacher and an exercise in his ability to empathise.

Specific Hanyu Pinyin Oddities to Take Note of:
The letters b, d and g in Hanyu Pinyin do not denote the same sounds as they do in the English alphabet. Rather, they are unaspirated versions of p, t and k. To make sense of what I just said, consider these three examples:

port [pʰɔːɹt] - sport [spɔːɹt] - 班 bān [pã˥]

In standard English, the p in port is aspirated and the one in sport is unaspirated. If you held your hand to your mouth, you could feel a puff of air at port but none at sport. The b in bān is more similar to the p in sport than the b in, say, big bad wolf. However, an expection can be made if you are singing Mandarin pop-songs, and have to sound like a dimwit in order to make the sound flow more nicely.

a means [a], because each time I hear someone mention yin and y[æ]ng, I die a little inside.

e can mean [ɤ], [e] or [ɛ] depending on where you put it (complicated).

i is pronounced [ɨ] in zhi, chi, shi, ri, zi, ci, si, but [i] everywhere else.

j, q, and x are pronounced [tɕ], [tɕʰ] and [ɕ] respectively. These are alveopalatal fricatives and affricates with no exact analogue in English, but you can pronounce them by arching the tongue close to the hard palate, and then invoking the power of "chee".

zh, ch, sh and r are pronounced [ʈʂ], [ʈʂʰ], [ʂ] and [ɻ]. These are retroflex consonants, meaning that the tongue is curled back on the palate when these sounds are made. PRO TIP: not that I recommend it, but it is possible to survive in Singapore without using (or thinking about) retroflex consonants.

The n at the end of the syllable is not pronounced directly by many speakers of Mandarin. Instead, it turns the preceding vowel into a nasal vowel. E.g. 元 yuán is pronounced [ɥyã˧˥] rather than [ɥyan˧˥]. PRO TIP: It is possible to survive accidentally pronouncing the [n].

Tones are the perpetual bane for learners whose first languages are non-tonal. However, I believe that whatever can be explained in words about tones has been explained as well as one could elsewhere, and it is more practical simply to stop a Mandarin speaker on the streets and then ask him or her what the tones are, if they are cooperative.

Why there is a Poem in the First Lesson:
Long ago, in a high school far away, I was taught that to compose a classical poem, one had to juxtapose characters of different tones in the poem in a way that two corresponding lines can mirror each other, and suchlike. Exactly how I don't know, but it is enough of an inspiration to know that in a poem, the tones make extra sense. What better way can there be to initiate a new learner to a tonal language than this one?

This time, the choice of poem is 《春晓》 A Spring Morning (Chunxiao) by Meng Haoran 孟浩然. I chose it because it is currently springtime in the northern hemisphere and because it is a well-known piece; in fact, it is one of the first to be taught to children during their late infancy. A Tang Dynasty period composition is chosen because of its characteristic simplicity with four lines of five or seven characters each. This places it at an advantage over earlier Classical Age anthologies like Shijing 《诗经》 (too many funky obsolete characters) and later Song Dynasty poetry (too irregular and wordy).

The meaning of the poem is less important; the objective is to train listening and hearing, and the language of classical poems is not Mandarin but Classical Chinese, which is a radically different language (or languages) again with a distinct grammar, vocabulary, etc. Children are usually coerced to memorise classical poems with the hope that the meaning of the contents will automatically be clear to them as they age. Rightly or wrongly, I have decided to go down that path again.

In any case, I present the best translation that I can find here:

春眠不觉晓,Chūn mián bù jué xiǎo,
处处闻啼鸟。Chù chù wén tí niǎo.
夜来风雨声,Yè lái fēng yǔ shēng,
花落知多少。Huā luò zhī duō shǎo.

Sleeping in spring, I hardly know day breaks.
Everywhere I can hear birds singing.
At night I heard the sound of wind and rain.
Next morning, who knows how many flowers had fallen?

Links and Resources for the Intrepid Learner of Mandarin:

1. PDF to the Psycholinguistics paper (Trehub, 1975)

2. For those who would like to know how the funny little IPA symbols sound like in speech:

IPA chart for vowels with sound guide
IPA chart for consonants with sound guide

3. For those who would like to learn Chunxiao:

A Video
Source of the above translation
For comparison, a poem about springtime by a modern American poet

4. For those who want to know about the other kinds of classical poems that I have described above:

Video of Guanju 《诗经·周南·关雎》 from Shijing, a collection of poems traditionally attributed to Confucius
This version is recited in reconstructed Old Chinese, an educated guess on how people could have sounded like during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). Warning: It doesn't sound very pretty

The Song Dynasty poem Shuidiao Getou 《水调歌头》 by Su Shi 苏轼, composed in AD 1076, often sung to this day.