syz (a.k.a. Steve) is responsible for two of my favorite blogs: Sinoglot (where he writes alongside Kellen Parker, et al.) and Beijing Sounds. If you love discussing Chinese, there’s no better place than on Sinoglot. And if you’re having trouble understanding local Beijingers, Beijing Sound will help you by break the conversation down.
Q: You write for two blogs: Sinoglot and Beijing Sounds. Tell me more about them. What goal do you have for creating them?
Well, asking about “goals” in the first place is probably giving me more credit than I deserve…
I started Beijing Sounds first, in 2007. At that point I’d been arguing with my Beijing mother-in-law — uh, I mean, learning Chinese — for about five years in the States. In the process I’d figured out that it was Beijing dialect I was learning, inadvertently, and that it wasn’t always what they taught you in books. Experiencing that “language outside the books”, and having a bit of a linguistics background, were all the excuse I needed to put up Beijing Sounds, which of course had to have recordings because I wanted to let folks hear the differences for themselves.
A couple years after starting Beijing Sounds, I’d finally become literate enough to want to blog about more than just oral language around Beijing. In that time I’d also met some other like-minded folks in similar situations: i.e. involved in a language niche somewhere in China but wanting to write outside of that niche. In January 2010 we put our chips together and came up with Sinoglot. As the tagline says, it’s “language in China, eclectically,” which means we try to bring up issues of linguistic interest that are taking place in China, but we don’t hold ourselves up to any standard of being the comprehensive source for all things language.
I think of both blogs as pretty focused on language and language culture in China, with Beijing Sounds being very narrow and deep (to the point of being hopelessly nerdy sometimes) and Sinoglot being, to abuse the spatial metaphor, more like an archipelago.
Q: If you had to pick a favorite post from each blog, what would it be?
For Beijing Sounds it’s hard to stop at one, so I won’t The readers’ favorite is probably the recording I posted just a few months into the blog. It’s my daughter and her Beijing grandmother bantering about how you change the meaning of 汤 (tāng) when you -r to it and say 汤儿 (tāngr). For some reason it’s a charmed post — maybe it’s the 5-year-old’s completely un-self-conscious burp in the middle of the recording? Anyway, it’s always had the most page views and I think it has the most comments.
For me personally, I’m a fan of the banter and subject matter of Silkworm Husbandry.
Now as for Sinoglot, I hope it doesn’t hurt our revenues for me to say this, but I like it more for the readers than the writing. Sinoglot readers are a stunningly erudite group of Chinese language aficionados — self-taught, tenured professors, and everyone in between — actively participating in conversations that might be sociolinguistic (Mandarin as future lingua franca) or esoteric, insider stuff (second round character simplifications) or random translation issues (“my ass is toast” for 我会嗝儿屁的).
Just read the comments on those posts and you get an idea how deep the knowledge is. I usually learn more from readers than I contribute to the conversation, and Sinoglot posts sometimes get comment counts that belong on a site discussing celebrity breast implants rather than a site for language nerds who are mostly well-versed in Mandarin.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake you made when you started studying Chinese?
Characters too early, then too late. As a complete beginner, not knowing where to start, I went through a lengthy period of writing dozens of characters dozens of times a day, long before I could say more than a few sentences. Naturally, it did squat for my language ability and discouraged the shǐ out of me. It would have been much more efficient to start learning vocab and grammar through pinyin.
Half a dozen years later, circa 2007, I was still putting off getting literate even though I had pretty decent conversational skills. That was a mistake too. If you want to function in Chinese society at anything above the level of polite chit-chat, you need to become literate. It’s a pain, but it’s doable, and I should have started doing it about three years earlier than I did. In 2007 I finally started and quickly realized I probably could have progressed much faster in the previous years if I’d been working on literacy.
Q: Is the increase in people learning Chinese a fad? What’s the appeal for studying this language?
If you define a fad as something that lots of people are intensely interested in for a short period of time, after which they lose interest in it, then Chinese learning is definitely a fad. But then, for Americans especially, most language learning is a fad because there’s little motivation to learn another language.
Since learning a new language always sounds like a good idea, the fad is always with us (I’m speaking as an American now). The only thing that changes is the country of our affections. To date myself, I’ll acknowledge being aware that there was a fad for learning Russian. After that it was Japanese, around the time that a square foot of Tokyo real estate could buy a gated mansion in Beverly Hills. Now it’s China.
I don’t see the fad as a bad thing, though. It never made sense that every bilingual Chinese/English speaker would be from China, but for a while it was almost true. Now not only are there plenty of Chinese-English bilinguals whose native language is English, there are also Chinese-X language bilinguals (usually polyglots) in practically every language you can imagine. If that change is a result of the fad, I see the fad as a Good Thing indeed.
With the fad has also come a change in attitude. Fifteen years ago, an expat coming to China on assignment would have had the attitude that Chinese is impossible, inscrutable — and never bothered to learn more than a nihao. Now, know folks even on three-month assignments who use their time in Beijing to buckle down and get in enough language study to direct taxis, order some food, and chit-chat a bit with monolingual coworkers. Believe me, they didn’t have to do this. You can get by in Beijing (and some still do) on English, sign language and written instructions to cab drivers. If the more open attitude is due to the fad, count me as a supporter.
Q: Why do you think most people learning Chinese struggle with the language?
In the first place I think a lot of people don’t divide up the task well. There’s listening, speaking, reading and writing. You’ve got to pick out tools and materials that are appropriate for your level in each of those areas and that’s not always easy to do. It’s not even easy for teachers. Back in the States I took a class from a (native Mandarin speaking) teacher who picked out materials that were, in retrospect, grossly mismatched to the students’ abilities. This was a class for “heritage” speakers, mostly Chinese-American kids. The listening exercises were laughably easy. The writing exercises were impossibly hard. That’s a good approach for making people feel like Chinese is a struggle.
Then across those four skill categories there are two major problems: how best to approach Hanzi literacy and how to create conversational opportunities. The Hanzi literacy problem is a whole topic in itself, so I’ll just stop here for now. It’s something I’m really interested in. The “conversational opportunities” problem is interesting too. If you’re studying Chinese outside China the opportunities are hard to find, but it’s becoming easier with websites that offer that kind of thing: Popup Chinese and ChinesePod come to mind. In China you’d think opportunities would be easy to find, but if you’re in a city of any size, the fact is that there are always going to be people around you who can speak English*. So for example in Beijing, even here in the heart of Mandarin-land, learners still often need to make an effort to identify opportunities for speaking practice.
*It would be interesting to talk to non-English speakers who have come to China. There’d be a lot of flabbergasted looks, I guess, at the idea that one could be a foreigner and not speak English.