Monday, June 23, 2008

A Problematic Education

It's almost exam time, and I'm in a bad mood about that, which is nothing new. What is new is that I know exactly what is wrong with this batch of exams, or more broadly, the system they're a part of. Perhaps if I recount what I'll be tested on, the reader may begin to deduce a pattern.

My exams are for newspaper reading (where we have yet to read an actual newspaper), focused reading (where we read about pandas and compassion and disabilities), oral Chinese (where we talk about repairing bikes, ordering food, and virus protection software), 'reading' reading (where we read selected opinion pieces from newspaper textbooks), listening (where we are tested on 5-10 second dialogue snippets filled with peculiar oddities from the Beijing topolect, and 5-10 minute vignettes about ordering virus protection software, repairing pandas, and compassionate disabilities), and audio-visual class (where we will be tested on 5-10 minute dialogues from films, with a focus on the Beijing topolect).

My biggest complaint is that preparing and passing the above exams is extremely time-consuming, and yet seems to produce very little advancement in language profiency. I think that's most likely because the context is so boring that it's rather forgettable, ba-doom-tish.
On the other hand when I'm just reading BBC articles, Lao She's Cat Country, The True Story of Ah Q, video game magazines, and so on, I find that I'm able to recall all the new stuff I learn without really having to review the stuff. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that the reviewing happens naturally.

My conclusion, reached at after a year studying in China, is that I'm never taking any more specialised 'language classes', be it in Australia or overseas. I was discussing all this with my friend Plato this evening and in the process, I showed him some of the articles I'd written for class. He checked them with great interest, and noted that many of the 'corrections' made by my teacher were in fact unnecessary; I'd written something in an idiomatic, natural way, only to have it simplified or made into something unnatural. Furthermore, I showed Plato our textbooks and he was disgusted with the fact that they were in fact full of grammatical errors or improper usage of words.

So I ask the question, what the hell is up with the 'Chinese for Foreigners' education system in China? Who writes these things, what are their qualifications, and what are their real goals? This is probably overly paranoid of me, but I partly suspect the more official programs (such as the universities) don't really want their foreign students to get too proficient, especially in the more political vocabulary. After all, an incisive critical essay can be quite effective.

Though, they shouldn't worry about that with me, not just yet anyway. I've got about all the literay finesse in Chinese of a steroid-raging lemur attempting the 8 legged essay in the midst of a mardi gras parade. Or something like that. And, as the comments in a recent philosophy essay I just recieved pointed out, my English writing skills aren't that good either.

Ah well, always good to be humbled and what not.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fireworks Because...

There's been fireworks going all evening, and I'm not really sure why.

I was doing some leisurely browsing of China blogs, though, and came across something interesting at the Granite Studio.

According to the article (which is according to a report from Tianjin), this might be an attempt to scare away evil spirits. That's pretty likely, since fireworks are usually employed for that reason in China.

I'll hopefully remember to ask a Chinese friend about this in the coming days.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

New Sinology

There's a really good article which Laurie put me onto, called "On New Sinology", by Geremie Barme.

There are two parts that really stood out for me which I'd like to point out:

'New Sinology' can thus also be described as an unrelenting attentiveness to Sinophone ways of speaking, writing, and seeing, and to the different forces that have shaped the evolution of Sinophone texts and images, as well as Sinophone ways of sense-making. Textually, the interests of a New Sinology range from the specificities of canonical and authoritative formulations in both the classical language (or rather the languages of the pre-dynastic and dynastic eras) and the modern vernacular to the many inventive bylines that have emerged more recently in our media-saturated times.


Indeed, if we fail to insist on linguistic competence in Chinese as a necessary requirement for precise and rigorous engagement with Sinophone texts and images, our students may ultimately fail to make their own sense of what it means to be studying China.

That's so true. Without that competence, we're just restricted to whatever is available in translation, which by nature is going to be a bit behind the times.

In another sense, I suppose the New Sinology contrasts the 'Old' type insofar as there were guys who could read classical texts and produce scholarly translations- which is extremely impressive, especially given the resources of the times- but wouldn't be able to sit down and watch a film.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Ma Jiang

I saw another film by Edward Yang called Ma Jiang. On the DVD I have it also gives the English name as Couples, but I'm not sure if that's right.

The last film of his I saw was A One and a Two, which I really liked. Ma Jiang is quite a different film- certainly a much more disturbing film- but also well worth seeing.

One of the odd things about the film is the performances by the foreign actors. It's not that they're poorly acted roles, but rather just a bit odd. The easiest way to describe it might be as though they delivered the lines as though they were acting in a David Lynch or Peter Greenaway film; very deliberately, very slowly. I'm not sure if it was intentional on behalf of the director, but the result is the film takes on a sort of surreal quality.

It turns out to be a good mixture though, especially since the film starts off relatively innocently and slowly twists and descends.

I'll have to keep my eye out for more Edward Yang films, especially one he did with Christopher Doyle, That Day on the Beach.

My Dad Has a Blog

My Dad is starting a blog, about art and magic. There aren't any articles on there yet but I'm sure it'll be interesting. Dad is a really good writer, painter and getting pretty good at magic too, so I'm sure it'll be interesting.

It's called The Tricks of Art and the Art of Tricks.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Reading versus Writing

John has a good post you should all read, called Pinyin VS Hard Work (yeah, all three of you who read this blog).

Don't run off yet, this isn't just a post linking to a post linking to a post; I'm going to actually give my view on something here. But a warning: remember that this is my blog, not an academic journal, and I'm not really that good at Chinese, so you should probably listen to the links here more than me, even when I disagree with them- they are real Tongs.

So basically John talks about a post where Victor Mair basically says how he basically learned to read and write Chinese, more or less, is about the gist of it. And his method is pretty straightfoward: he reckons it's a good idea to "learn like a baby", and without beating around the bush, he goes on to say that insofar as literacy is concerned, this means reading a Chinese newspaper annotated with pinyin (or bopomopho, or whatever).

Having seen lots of Beijing babies chilling with a coffee and reading the newspaper, I can attest to the efficacy of this method.

No, really, I actually think it's a really good idea, and considering how much of a pain it is when you just want to sit down and chill with the Nanfang Zhoumo but find yourself pulling out the e-dictionary just to read an oddball character in a would be a nice addition to any newsagent, to say the least. I didn't start learning characters properly until I started university, by which time I'd done about 2 years of night classes coupled with a month in China studying at an intensive short course. In the night classes we just did pinyin really, so I think Mair probably has a good point about not killing the fun of learning a language by forcing the characters on too soon.

But there's this line, "Slowly, with practice, I also became capable of writing in characters as well." That's a lot like what various Chinese professors (ethnic Chinese and not) whom I've met have told me, and I'm sure it's correct, but it's horribly vague.

Well, I guess his article is about reading after all, and not writing. But still, I have lots of friends, especially overseas Chinese, who can read Chinese really well, but can't write more than a handful of characters, so I think Mair owes a bit of an explanation for that aside.

Anyway, my real complaint with the article (which is not, really, a complaint after all, but just somethin I'd like to add) is that he misses an opportunity to inform everyone about a modern alternative, which I think is actually better than an annotated paper text.

Annotated texts are nice to some extent, but all that pinyin can be distracting; I think pinyin works best on a fleeting, need-to-know basis, not an omnipresent sort of thing. Friends, I give you.....ADSOTRANS!

Paste in the text with the hard characters, wait a minute or so, and then...well, I won't spoil it for you, but I assure you the result is awesome. Awesome to the max.

The best thing about something like it (and there are retail alternatives like Wenlin and Clavis Sinica, but a mass collaborative project like Adsotrans is so much cooler and will dominate those products before long, mark my words!) is that you can read whatever you want. Well, anything on the internetz, anyway, and that's a lot of choice. Much better choice than whatever a newspaper chooses to handout, as far as I'm concerned.

Oh, and by coincidence, Mair does talk about the sneeze thing in there too. But I repeat, there's nothing 'devilishy difficult' about those two characters, if you have a mnemonic method in place.

I'm going to write another entry soon about what I would actually think of as a better way to learn to write, namely the mnemonic method of Matteo Ricii and Heisig, so check back soon(ish). It'll be fun, and I've just found an article by J. Marshall Unger which looks like good reading...

Some more related reading, and quick word on each, in the meantime.

David "Whiner" Moser - Why Chinese is So Damn Hard
This guy apparently has awesome Chinese, and it's not really meant to be taken seriously- it's pretty damn funny. But anyway, it's an article where he complains about characters being hard to learn, and textbooks being boring. Big, big agreement from me on the second point. Almost all textbooks I've used suck more arse than some experimental Japanese bidet. But that is why we have....ADSOTRANS! And mnemonics...

Victor Mair -Illiteracy in China
This is another article where I think characters get a harder time than they deserve. He hazards some pretty wild guesses, which he readily admits. Like this one, having a swipe at the statement "College graduates are tested on 7,000 characters or more."
"A pipedream!!! I doubt whether even a hundredth of one percent of the Chinese population can write 7,000 characters; probably no more than 2-3% could recognize that many."

Now, I'm not a mathematician, or a genius. Far from it, I can assure you. But according to the always reliable *cough* Baidu, the total amount of Chinese university students as a percentage of the total population is 5 percent, so, I dunno, it doesn't seem that unlikely. Interesting question though.

Victor Mair -Awkward Sneeze
Ok, so maybe I should have attributed the sneeze thing to Mr Mair instead of John B? Anyway, it's a good article, and it's interesting that Singapore is allowing e-dictionaries in their Chinese exams. Would be nice if the HSK had a similar slackening of the rules...