A difficult reason for losing motivation

Reading articles like these really drains my motivation for learning Chinese.

Under Chinese law, carriers of hepatitis B cannot work as teachers, elevator operators, barbers or supermarket cashiers. In a recent survey of 113 colleges and universities, conducted by the Yi Ren Ping Center, 94 acknowledged that infected applicants, required to take blood tests, would be summarily rejected.

No, this is not an excerpt from a history book or an old newspaper article, this is a New York Times article published last week. This is just as ridiculous as the AIDS scare of the 80s in the US except umm… 30 years later and for a disease that’s been around far longer. At this rate of progress, maybe someday kids with hepatitis B may be able to attend kindergarten.

Chinese kindergartens and nurseries will shortly no longer be allowed to turn down children carrying hepatitis B who have normal liver function, says a draft government regulation.
The draft regulation, applying to all kindergartens and nurseries hosting children aged under six, also requires them to report to medical authorities and enforce strict sterilization measures if infected children are found.

I wonder what strict sterilization measures would be required? Tell the kids don’t have sex or share needles?

There’s really no way I would ever consider living in China or even staying for any decent length of time. This really was the final straw after continuously hearing bad news from China including internet censorship, political persecution, tampered baby formula, and dogs dying from contaminated food. Now, I know it’s not fair to judge a country I have never visited with no first-hand knowledge. But why would I want to go a country that well… I no longer want to go to? Sure, I can sign up for a tour and check out the tourist traps but it’s hard to justify the huge amount of resources needed to learn a language just for a vacation. I might as well just bring a travel phrase book and be done with it.

I’m still thinking I might want to check out Taiwan though. Only problem is, now I need to start getting used to the traditional characters.

Am I over-reacting here? In particular, this blog post about trust and the comments really made me nervous about going to China. Interested in hearing thoughts from those who have experienced China first-hand.

The #1 Chinese myth

Every time I mention how I struggle with Chinese grammar, people inevitably say something like:

Isn’t Chinese grammar similar to English?

Here’s my answer:

No, not really.

Hey, since you know a whole bunch of Kanji from Japanese, and you speak English, learning Chinese should be a snap, right?

No, not really.

To illustrate, here’s a sentence I ran into during some light reading.

你想把他带到什么地方去?- Where do you think you’re taking him?

If you assume that the grammar is similar to English and translate the words literally, you get something like this:

You think (direct object) him, take where go?

Wow, that doesn’t look like very good English, does it? I mean there’s a verb at the end and something similar the 「を」 particle! But it’s not like Japanese either, since the main verb isn’t “go” but “think”. It’s Chinese sentence structure, which so far I’ve managed to break down into the following rules.

Rules for Chinese sentence structure

  1. Order the words so that it “sounds” natural depending on what words you’re using.

In fact, I’ve given up in trying to break things down logically. My current method of learning essentially boils down to behavioral training and osmosis. It works but it’s not something you can really teach or explain. “Hey, just go with it” doesn’t sound very good. 🙂

On ChinesePod’s Recent Pricing Changes

Staring from the beginning of this month, ChinesePod and other podcast sites run by Praxis Languages stopped offering access to all podcasts for non-paying members except for the Newbie level. I had not intended to write anything about it because how they decide to make revenue to sustain their business is none of my business and something they would know much better about. However, after seeing how they actually implemented the changes, I feel like I need to say something because I actually care about ChinesePod and its continued success/existence (especially if they’re going to introduce JapanesePod). It might be better to email them directly and I might do that but for now I’m putting up my thoughts here for everybody to see and to keep it separate from the very long discussions that are already going on at the site itself.

A personal perspective

First of all, I have to fess up to say that I’m not a paying subscriber and have never really gotten involved in the comments or discussions on the site. The simple reason for this is because I am studying Chinese rather passively and very slowly. I even stop studying altogether for long periods of time and while their slogan is, “Learn Chinese on Your Terms”, you can never really stop studying their material without feeling like you’re wasting money. In addition, I’m not much of a subscriber of anything outside of essential or near-essential services such as electricity and my cell phone. I prefer to buy things to own and I have bought several books on learning Chinese, some comic books, and a very expensive electronic dictionary. I would certainly consider buying a DVD of the lessons, grammar points, and transcripts in a good quality print. However, my major problem right now is time and to a certain degree interest and necessity not a lack of resources.

Basically, I’m just not part of their target market demographic. But really, my personal circumstances are irrelevant in relation to their business model as a whole and I bring it up here just to separate my personal view from my analysis of their decision in general.

An objective/business perspective

From a business perspective, there are several revenue models Praxis could have gone with.

  1. Advertising (including marketing actual goods and affiliate partnerships)
  2. Pay by usage
  3. Subscription

As for the first option, I don’t think general ad revenue is really sustainable in the market of language learning. I highly doubt you can keep an outfit like ChinesePod going without a significantly large audience. And based on my personal site statistics, language learning is not a big enough market for general ads as compared to classifieds and news sites.

However, an interesting idea is to use advertising as marketing for their own products such as printed transcripts, language software, and lesson DVDs. Unfortunately, production and distribution costs are a large problem and again in a small market such as foreign language learning, I see this as an option for boosting revenues but not viable for running a whole company. In addition, I think the people at ChinesePod want to be more innovative than just selling static and stale physical goods like Rosetta Stone.

The second model of paying for what you use would certainly appeal to me more but wouldn’t have worked when they just started out, since they didn’t have anything. It’s also a much bigger hassle to keep track of who payed for what so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. They could maybe sell the podcasts as songs in iTunes but that ties them to Apple’s platform and I’m pretty sure they want people to visit the site, not just get everything form iTunes.

So while people may suggest some other ways to make money while keeping things free, I think ChinesePod has gone with the only model that really makes sense for what they’re doing. Obviously, if the accounting books say they need to close some stuff off for non-paying users to motivate them to subscribe, that’s their business. However, the details in how they decided to go about it seems… to put it politely, misguided.


The first problem is they went with the bait-and-switch and nobody likes to be treated like a fish. When I design and develop features or upgrades in software, as a general rule, I never take features away. If you don’t think you can maintain or support the features in the long-term, you should never give it to them in the first place. In the software/SaaS world, people would rather not have something in the first place than have it taken away from them. In this case, ignorance really is bliss.

They already gave away all the lessons up to now anyway. They should have started closing access to the new lesson only. Especially in the digital world, once you open Pandora’s box, you can never get it back in. So I see no point in trying to close off all the old lessons, when all somebody has to do is release a torrent with all the old files anyway. People who don’t want to pay won’t, no matter what you try to do. I hate to say this, but in this case JapanesePod101 has made the right decision in releasing Premium subscriber-only lessons incrementally.

If the argument is really about focusing on providing more for the paying customers, then prove it by releasing new stuff only for them that makes non-subscribers want to join. Right now, it just sounds like vague promises and nobody can deny that they’re now providing far less, no matter how you try to dress up the situation.

The second major problem is not only did they take away the podcast audio, they closed the comments to non-paying members. BIG MISTAKE. I’m not too familiar with the community features since I don’t participate, but I have never seen a paying community take off. In fact, I think that’s almost an oxymoron. The idea that you have to pay to discuss things with other people online is just ridiculous. Non-paying members won’t have access to the lesson anyway, why block other people such as native Chinese speakers from answering the questions and comments by paying members, with the understanding that they haven’t heard the actual podcast? In fact, native Chinese speakers probably didn’t waste their time listening to the podcasts anyway ever. Really, I’d rather not waste my time discussing things with other clueless paying members if that’s the only people that can respond.

It will be interesting to see what this effect will have on the community around ChinesePod. In my opinion, it will be devastating and irreversible pretty soon. The clock is ticking. Reopen all the community features for everybody before it’s too late!

Again, I’m not saying their decision is right or wrong, I’m just saying that some of the details in the change is not what I would call good business sense.

Figuring out Chinese: 在 vs 着

Can anyone explain to me the difference between 在 and 着? I looked online to no avail. Here are the differences that I came up with. However, I have no idea if they’re correct and I’m sure I’m missing a whole bunch of other usages.

  1. 在 can be used to indicate location, 着 can’t.
    Ex: 我住在美国。
  2. 在 is used for a continuous action.
    Ex: 他在打电话。
  3. 着 is used for a one-time action that changes a state and remains in that state.
    Ex: 她手里拿着一本书。

The best I can figure out is that 着 is not actually an action but a description of a state resulting from the action, which explains why it comes after the verb. For instance, 下着雨 describes the condition as being rainy. This explains why dict.cn translates it as “rainily” which I don’t think is even a word. On the other hand, 在下雨 is the continuous action of rain falling. That’s why you can have what at first seems to be a crazy duplication such as 雨还在下着. It makes sense when you consider that it’s a continuous action of the “rainily” condition.

Yeah, no wonder I hate Chinese grammar. Next, I’ll try to figure out the difference between 一点 and 一些. Ow, my poor head!

SexyBeijing, better than real TV!

With the Olympics going on in Beijing, I’m finally seeing some programs about China on the major TV networks. It seems like it takes a big event like the Olympics or major disasters to get traditional TV to actually take even a cursory look at anything outside the US borders. However, a lot of the stuff is rehashed and almost seems like a collection of whatever they had lying around that had the word “China” in the title.

The problem with TV is that it needs to cater to a large audience and hence the lowest common denominator. With the increasing number of stupid reality/game shows and absolutely no in-depth coverage of any issues that actually require thinking (for example, telcom immunity), the intellectual level of TV seems to be getting lower and lower.

Fortunately, with buzzwords like Web 2.0 and the Long Tail, decentralized media can cater to people even like me who are interested in getting a candid look at China and maybe even a little listening practice from Chinese speakers. With subtitles, that means you might have to actually read something. OMG! Real Americans don’t want to read!

For comparison, watch SexyBeijing.TV’s video about McDonald’s in China versus CNBC. The first difference you’ll notice is that I couldn’t embed the CNBC’s version so you’ll just have to go to their site.


CNBC’s Big Mac in China

The CNBC’s version is only about a minute long but I watched a longer program on TV (I don’t remember which channel it was) about China and McDonald’s and it was pretty much the same kind of deal so I think this is a reasonably good comparison.

While traditional media has much more influence and can talk to, for example, the CEO of McDonald’s in China, they seem to avoid talking to anybody who can’t speak English. I don’t recall having to read a single subtitle in the program. Even if they did interview a local, you’ll get the customary and absolutely horrible dubbing they do for any foreign language speakers.

In contrast, SexyBeijing’s version has some very funny dialogue with real people such as asking a fat kid whether he thinks eating at McDonald’s makes people fat. The one guy who is stuffing his face and goes to McDonald’s everyday is absolutely hilarious. Since his mouth was constantly full of food I had trouble making out what he was saying but the translation is a riot!

Thanks K and safarinew for helping me figure out what he said. Native ears sure are awesome!

你最喜欢吃的是什么? – What’s your favorite thing to order?
汉堡啊。大个巨无霸跟我体型差不多。 – I like the Big Mac. It’s big, like me.

Personally, the SexyBeijing’s version seems more entertaining, informative, and real rather than some American dude narrating a digested version of the story on a background of related images from China. The CNBC’s version might be more informative with statistics of this and that but I don’t really care how many billions or dollars McDonald’s rakes in every year in China or how many hundreds of stores they recently opened.

The traditional media will be around for a while but I’m glad that the internet has allowed new and decentralized channels for content distribution. Let’s just hope they don’t take control (Net neutrality) or shut it down (Usenet) with scary tales of pirated movies and child porn lurking everywhere.

Check out SexyBeijing.TV for more interesting videos! Let’s hope Youtube starts rolling out the higher quality versions. Here’s the Youtube page.

Dict.cn’s daily classroom

My current favorite online Chinese dictionary, Dict.cn has recently been upgraded with lots of new features. For instance, while Chinese Perapera-kun already takes care of this for me, non-Firefox users will appreciate the automatic look-up of highlighted words.

Personally, my favorite feature is the 每日课堂, which will allow you to learn a little bit of Chinese every day with a little story or even just a simple sentence. While this site and most of its features are obviously geared for Chinese speakers learning English, the fact that 每日课堂 has both English and Chinese makes it a valuable resource for us learning Chinese as well.

[2008-08-01] 每日学口语

I have been putting on weight.

I have in fact, been putting on some weight lately so the sentence above is nice to know. 我要少吃多运动。

Finally, this might have been there already, but they also have a 繁体字 dictionary. Technologically, there should be no reason why it would need to be split up but I guess I shouldn’t complain since the site is already free and useful.

Figuring out Chinese: Finding out about “何”

I ran into this sentence while trying to read a little bit from a Chinese blog.


The sentence intrigued me because it was using 「何」, a character I’m sure most of you learning Japanese are already familiar with. I was curious to see how it was used in Chinese and decided to do some digging. In the process, I thought it would be a neat idea to outline some of the steps I take when trying to figure this kind of thing out for any language including Japanese.

Breaking down “何”

I first looked it up in Dict.CN and came up with the following.

1. why
2. which
3. what
4. carry
5. how

Wow, it looks like ”何” can mean just about every question word there is. How is it that I don’t see it more often? As usual, the English definitions are pretty much useless for clarifying anything. Unless I’m looking up very simple concepts or objects such as “friend” or “car”, I don’t even bother with the English definitions. Instead, the real value is in the example sentences. Here are a few samples.

1. 你这次考试的结果如
How did you do on your test?

2. 你跟你的新上司处得如
How are you doing with your new boss?

Ok, in this case, all the examples seem to be referring to another word “如何”. Looking at the sentence, it seems pretty clear that it means something like “how is”. My first thought is, how is that different from “怎么样”? But since this is a whole other direction, I decided to drop it and go back to finding more information about “何” by itself.

So this time, the example sentences from Dict.CN didn’t turn up much. Ah well, time to whip out my trusty Wordtank G90. The definition and example sentences given by the G90 were a lot more useful and seemed closer to what I was looking for.


That explanation was further broken up into 1.何、2.どこ、and 3.どうして with examples for each. Here are just a few samples.

1. 他为不来?

2. 你有高见

I interpreted these examples to mean that “何” is a general question word to increase the level of questioning similar to but probably not as strong as 「一体」 in Japanese.

Now, example sentences are great but I like to have a little more context. So I tried searching “何” in ChinesePod. It turned up a bunch of Media and Advanced lessons which I was too lazy to dig through, one Elementary lesson that had no mention of “何” at all (maybe a bug?), and finally a promising Upper Intermediate lesson called Drinking Ability. And sure enough the dialogue had the following line, referring to a manager out-drinking the whole company.

Way more than one table. It was the whole company!

Ok, so this usage didn’t seem to fit with my initial interpretation. In Chinese, because what constitutes a “word” is so flexible, you have to always be careful to consider whether you’re looking at a combination of characters or a set phrase. So I looked up “何止” in my Wordtank to make sure it wasn’t a set phrase. And sure enough:

【何止】 ・・・にとどまらない。ただ・・・だけではない。

So this was different from just “何” and my original interpretation was safe. By the way, Dict.CN returned no results for “何止” so you definitely want to get the best dictionary you can with the most comprehensive coverage. (My G90 C->J dictionary has about 150,000 entries.)

Breaking down “何为”

Now that I had a general idea of how “何” works, I took a closer look at “何为” from the original sentence that started this whole thing. I noticed an interesting, and as it turns out, deceptive similarity between my original sentence and one of the example sentences for “何” in my dictionary.


Since the first example came with a Japanese translation, I concluded that it was roughly equivalent to “他为什么不来?” but with a more questioning tone like, “Why in the world isn’t he coming?” But “为什么感觉?” doesn’t really make much sense by itself or in the context of the original text.

I guessed that the key was in the difference of order between “为何” and “何为”. My hunch was that the first, “为” is an abbreviation of “为什么” while the second “为” is an abbreviation of “为了”. The translation “What is the feeling for?” seems to fit the context of the original text better.

I searched Google and Baidu for “何为” to verify my hunch and found this page. It looks like “何为” can be a person’s name as well? I don’t really know. At this point, I’m was starting to get frustrated. Who said Chinese was easier than Japanese?? (Oh right, that was me.)

A little more digging up turned up an article titled 何为Hibernate. Alright, I know about Hibernate (it’s a Java O/R mapping framework) and the title “What is Hibernate for?” seems to make sense. I found another article 小泉三次参拜靖国神社意欲何为?. Again the title, “What is Koizumi’s intention for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine?” makes sense. I was too lazy to actually read the articles to verify so in the end I just went and asked a Chinese coworker to confirm my hunch. I seemed to be right though he did mention that the use of “何为” was very high-level and not common.

According to your comments, 何为 is another way to say “what”. so “何为感觉” means “What is feeling?” And “意欲何为” comes from Classical Chinese meaning “干什么”. I admit, I still don’t get it really but I’ll just leave it at that for now.


This is pretty much the approach I take when I run into anything new that can’t be easily learned from a dictionary and when I’m too lazy or impatient to just ask a native speaker. It gets a lot easier to go through all the example sentences and search results as you get better in the language. But the difficulty just means that you’re learning more since you know less.

Today, I learned some useful and perhaps not so useful stuff about “何” in Chinese. Spending so much time digging around for information really helps me remember it better than any flashcard and presents opportunities to learn about other stuff such as “如何”, “何止”, and “为何”. All this extra work will also ensure that I won’t forget that the reading for “何” is “hé” for a long time. While I still don’t completely understand all the nuances yet, I’ll be able to recognize it in the future until I can eventually get a feel for how and when to use it.

And hey, what do you know. I just ran into “何” again for today’s 每日学口语 (8月2日).

What’s the point of going to college?

In conclusion, I’d like to say that Chinese is a um… interesting… to put it politely. Sigh… Again, please feel free to make any corrections if I’m getting any of this wrong.

The Internet Chinese Text Archive

Here’s a Chinese resource that looks pretty cool: The Internet Chinese Text Archive.

The biggest problem with the site is it doesn’t set the proper encoding information!! So you have to manually set the encoding to “Chinese Simplified” very time. It’s really, really annoying. I’ve tried everything on the browser such as setting my preferred language to Chinese with no luck. Ugh… One trick I came up with is to mouse over each link and just read the url on the bottom bar of the browser. It’ll tell you what you’re looking at (in English no less) without having to reset the encoding every time. Then you can finally set the encoding when you get to the text you want.

Anyway, while this site looks cool, the material is far too advanced for me to make any recommendations. I thought I’d try to tackle some short stories first but it’s slow going.

Ooh la la, the 色情性爱 category looks interesting. Could be a good motivator to study Chinese.

Any good suggestions for people like me learning Chinese? Preferably something interesting, not too difficult, and as modern as possible.



On the (possible) origin of 「出来る」

I was just working on an article (one of my 80 drafts) about the difference between the potential form and 「ことができる」 when an amazing insight hit me! I didn’t want to clutter up that article so I decided to write about it separately in this post.

I was discussing the potential form and how only 「する」 had this curious exception of using a completely different verb: 「できる」. While I never thought much about it these many years, with some Chinese under my belt now, I suddenty realized that “出来” was also used in Chinese to indicate potential!

In Chinese, “出来” means to “come out” and you can see various examples of this here.

叫全家人都出来, 我好给他们拍照。
Ask the whole family to come out so that I can take their photograph.

You may be wondering what this has to do with 「出来る」 but what the dictionary doesn’t tell you is that this “出来” is often combined with a verb to indicate that the verb is able to be performed. For example, “听得出来” means “able to hear”, basically the same definition as 「聞こえる」 in Japanese. The listening is coming out, therefore you can hear it. I guess it does kind of make sense, in a weird Chinese sort of way.

I harvested the following example from Google since my Chinese is not too good. So I hope I’m not making any mistakes here in the translation.

Can you hear what song it is?

Some of you may be wondering why there a “能” in there as well which seems redundant. Yeah well, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. (See, I told you I wasn’t very good at this.)

Chinese grammar (if indeed, there is such a thing) doesn’t seem very consistent but my guess is when you have a subject (in this case 你), you need 能 to act as the verb. The 得 (which is kind of like の but only for verbs) kind of rendered 听 a description rather than a traditional verb, hence the need for 能.

So things are a bit different for the negative case because you use 不 and don’t need 得. Here’s another similar example I pulled from Google.

Can’t you hear who I am?

Please feel free to correct me on any of this as I’m pulling these explanations out of my ass as I’m writing it.

Chinesepod has a great podcast discussing “不出来” and “得出来” so I encourage you to check it out. You can also find many additional podcasts with dialogues using “出来” by using the search box. Sorry, I can’t give you a direct link to the search results since it seems to POST and not GET. (John, this is a tiny suggestion for you.)


Anyway, I hope you can see how “出来” means more than just “come out” and is used to express potential as well. So the fact that Japanese uses a verb with the exact same kanji for a similar purpose seems a bit too much for mere coincidence. Could 「出来る」 be some kind of weird Japanized version of “出来”, originally derived from Chinese? Sounds like a good topic for a research paper. All I can say is it’s mighty suspicious that only 「する」 has this weird exception of becoming 「出来る」 unlike every other verb in the whole Japanese language.


Kim pointed out something that I completely forgot about. Another odd potential exception is 「あり得る」 from 「ある」. Is the use of the kanji 「得」 here just another coincidence? The suspicion is growing…