Phelps on Grammatical Gender in Mandarin

Wait — you haven’t heard of his ground-breaking research? With credit to Street-Smart Language Learning for the Fox News link and some fun analysis, along with a generous hat tip to MandarinMnemonics for linking to it with the best headline on this meme: “Michael Phelps, Rosetta Stoned?“, I’m pleased to introduce you to a side of Michael Phelps you probably have not been exposed to. Fast forward to 0:50 for the crux of the analysis.

[RSS subscribers, you’re going to have to click thru to the actual post to see the video]

You heard it on Fox first. Getting started on the basics of Mandarin, Phelps says, “I learned a few of the simple terms and the masculine-feminine terms.”*

Maybe the interviewer was prescient when, with peculiar emphasis, she referred to the endorsement agreement between Rosetta Stone and Michael Phelps as “a no brainer.”

Speaking of unearthing new secrets of Chinese, I’m reminded of Brendan O’Kane’s keen observation about the insights of Ezra Pound, which for some reason O’Kane buried in the comments on a post:

I remain convinced that Pound hit upon truths in e.g. his translation of the Analects that no other sinologist or translator has yet unearthed. For instance, did you know that Confucius hated the Jews?


*In case you’ve alighted here without any background in Mandarin: there is no grammatical gender; that’s one of the many conveniences of the language from the second language learner’s standpoint.

PS: That same Street-Smart Language Learning post links to some Rosetta Stone footage of Phelps trying out his Mandarin. But in the interest of maintaining my perfect record of never belittling anyone’s attempt at Mandarin (not least because my own pronunciation is so belittlable), I can’t say I recommend it.

11 responses to “Phelps on Grammatical Gender in Mandarin”

  1. hsknotes says:

    In Confucius’ defense, the Jews hated him first.

  2. Katie says:

    Although, have you ever used Rosetta Stone? They spend some large portion of the early lessons trying to teach you the difference between man and woman, boy and girl, and bizarrely, he and she. The poor unsuspecting English speaker has no idea that this is a really odd place to start learning Mandarin. (Mandarin speakers seem universally horrified that it drills the word “女人“ into you.) So perhaps the fault is only partly with Michael Phelps, who probably should have picked up on the fact that ‘tā’ and ‘tā’ sound identical, especially if he was practicing his writing with pinyin and not characters.

    • Syz says:

      Katie, that’s fascinating. Maybe I should have given the guy more credit (especially because he was probably being thrown into Spanish by the Rosetta Stone people at the same time). I used to work at a company that offered free Rosetta Stone access and I kept meaning to take a look. Clearly it deserves a (muckraking?) second look.

  3. Contrary to the title of my blog post, I have no problem with Michael Phelps’ performance. He is a beginner, I expect nothing more. However I do have a problem with Rosetta Stone’s teaching methods and marketing message.

  4. Syz says:

    MandarinMnemonics: I’ll defend your title against you, cuz I still think it rocks. It’s absolutely not contrary to read “Michael Phelps, Rosetta Stoned?“ as anti-Rosetta. It stoned Michael Phelps into a linguistic stupor. Given what Katie says about the he/she business, it’s even more probable.

    And normally I’d give his pronunciation a complete pass (not even a snide PS), except that supposedly he’s not a true Mandarin beginner. He’s been using Rosetta Stone, right?

  5. Thanks, I was hoping that people would see the double meaning.

  6. You guys got it all wrong. The terms to which he’s referring are more along the lines of those you’ll find in Niubi.

    I bet Rosetta stone spends all that time on 他 and 她 only to completely neglect 祂 and 牠.

  7. Thanks for the link (although I’m a bit late in getting back to you on it) and, for the record, it wasn’t my intention to belittle Phelps’s pronunciation. My purpose in pointing out that a Chinese speaker couldn’t understand what he was saying while the software could was to point out the problem in the software.

    Phelps, and any other language learner, should be gungho about trying to pronounce things, and that will inevitable lead to plenty of fails. The issue is that some kind of feedback is needed, and Phelps was clearly not getting that.

  8. Syz says:

    @SSLL. Right. Fully support you on not belittling. I even took back my snide comments earlier. As for Rosetta, I have no personal experience and have hardly taken more than a cursory look, but things seem to be pointing to an Enron-like trajectory: all investment, no product. (Although, again in fairness, it’d be nice to hear from someone who’s used it successfully.)

  9. The thing that concerns me about Rosetta Stone is that we haven’t heard from anyone who has used it successfully.

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