Bloody Fish

Regular readers may have noted that I’ve published mercifully little correspondence over recent weeks. To be honest, I’ve been a bit slow catching up with the backlog, and Auntie’s continuing health problems mean that I’ve little choice but to throw all but the most urgent items in the bin.

Anyway, the following item struck me as serious enough to read to Auntie when I visited her this morning. Unfortunately, as soon as I reached the part about the Canadian, she stuck her fingers in her ears and began mumbling something unprintable. Shortly afterwards, the doctor had to come and administer her medication.

Dear Auntie Sinoglot,

I used to like fish; the tasty, succulent morsels; flakes that fall from the bone. Then I learned to snick a chunk with my chopsticks, roll it around my mouth and sick the bones onto the tablecloth. Perhaps, these could have been my oracle bones, but I no longer enjoyed fish as once I had.

They say that fish enhances brain function. But then they say so much.

Once upon a time, way back when, I studied hard. No, really, I did. I could always find time to grapple with grammar, root around in dictionaries and make cards, lots and lots of little cards.

Chinese pronunciation tried me. I retreated into mindless activities whenever things got too tough. If I wanted to avoid hard work, I always had the trusty cards, flashcards, each cut by my own kitchen-scissor hand from sheets of coloured card, individually bought from an increasingly amused stationer. At least the stationer became a regular, if mocking, conversation partner.

Flashcards punctuated my day, but never did they become study itself.

At the same time, I would collect interesting expressions, often scribbled for me on sheets of the then still unpronounceable, quarter-folded, slightly quilted paper provided by every downmarket restaurant. Idioms which came up in conversation, bon mots and, more often than not, the names of fish on which I’d nibbled, all found their way onto such notes.

Most of these pieces of paper ended up in a dusty old drawer between HSK certificates and one yuan notes inscribed with possibly incendiary, but still indecipherable, messages. The rest were soaked in tea to line the ashtray.

I don’t think I ever paused to consider the phenomenon but, “Would you write that down for me?” might stand for, “Would you remember that for me.”

I had the memory of a goldfish.

I wonder how I ever learnt anything. But often enough I’d turn to that trusty companion; my dear old dictionary. My first. It still sits on the shelf, rarely touched these days, now just one of a long line of reference books; some well-thumbed, some as new. But that thrice-bound friend still smiles down on my desk.

Sometimes, in the name of study, I would watch television. I thought it might open my mind. I might absorb language by staring at furniture. I knew it wasn’t really meant for clever people like me, but at least I needn’t fear being brainwashed.

Between the bizarre advertisements for stretching your child, whether intellectually or vertically, and other implausible claims, I glimpsed the grinning Canadian.

There he stood, in all his strangely proportioned glory; a halibut in a mandarin collar. In his raised hand a gadget. One cannot describe this action as holding; desirable products must never be handled. But he displayed, complemented, commended an electronic dictionary-cum-study aid. The answer to all my prayers. Though I’d prayed for nothing.

Who’d a thought it? A dapper gent selling hand-held gizmos to credulous kids. And I fell for it; hook, line and sinker.

The device itself, of course, was rubbish. It’s name punned on having a good memory, but it was stuffed to the gills with things every school child wishes he needn’t remember, and quickly forgets.

Occasionally I would slide it out of its little velcro sleeve and look up a word which would otherwise have been felt-penned on napkin. The wobbly little stick would produce petrol rainbows on the screen and passable definitions for simple expressions. But I had bigger fish to fry.

One day, between chuckling over the writings of some PR thief, and reading the lurid fantasies of a sex-crazed Englishman hell bent on baiting the, still only mildly indignant, Chinese youth, I stumbled upon an innocent enough comment on a blog about learning Chinese.

Apparently, everyone had a kind of electronic dictionary.

You know; everyone.

I’d been hooked, and would slowly be reeled in.

The dictionary was named after a frequently mis-pronounced fish. It cost a bit. And then there was the hardware – one of those swanky gadgets that only my uncle Bob had. But now I had a reason, an excuse even, to haul myself into the digital age.

I couldn’t make a purchase like this on the spur of the moment. Options were carefully weighed. Windows Mobile or Palm. You remember Palm, don’t you? Either way it looked a complicated business. The software would work on some machines and not others. Sometimes there were little work arounds. Some of the machines could even make telephone calls. That seemed somewhat excessive. I simply wanted a little device to enhance my study, and maybe to allow me to carry around my calendar and addresses.

One Sunday, I bought a Palm. I synched the device with my laptop. It wiped my contacts book and doubled all the entries in my diary.

Then I downloaded my saviour. No grinning Canadian had persuaded me to buy this. It was all function. You get what you pay for. And I got the fish.

I marvelled at the possibilites. I cross-checked entries in different dictionaries, scratched characters by hand and realised how smart the fish was, checked radical lists and assured myself that I’d still be able to grind through the same sort of look-up tables which had occupied so much of my earlier studies. Then the flashcards. No more scissors and felt-tip pens! It even remembered what I’d looked up in the dictionary, and allowed me to go back and add these words to the packs of flashcards I’d created…well, downloaded, if truth be told.

It did everything I could have prayed for.

And then I stopped learning stuff.

I’m not sure when I realised this. For a long time, I kept putting new expressions into flashcard lists, going through routines much like my old routines. I was free to study wherever I went. And never was I lost. My memory was in my pocket. It was like a linguistic GPS.

Flashcards were still sorted into decks, but I could no longer drop them all over the floor. I needn’t even count or stack them. Three dimensions had become two.

Vocabulary acquisition became more like kleptomania. Even now, I catch myself looking up words, just checking, you know, in mid-conversation. I feel like one of those poor cretins who film pop concerts on their mobile phones.

Auntie, I’ve taken the ritual out of study. How can I put it back?

Yours, floundering,


I wonder whether an any of our readers could offer guidance to this poor soul.

15 responses to “Bloody Fish”

  1. Mias Mysteron says:

    Drawer! Not draw!

    [fixed. thanks? -kp]

  2. @Miss Mysteron: OED has “draw” with the meaning “drawer” going back to 1692, but it’s marked as US usage. With England also having quite a few dialects, I wonder if that was part of the letter-writer’s dialect, or really just a typo.

    [I can’t argue with Randy. I changed it back. I’ll let Sima make the decision as to whether it’s a typo or not. -kp]


    The letter is quite a nice piece of writing.

    As far as offering my viewpoint on this matter, I often use an electronic dictionary: the free Hanping Chinese dictionary which I have on an Android phone. I have both pinyin and written character IMEs. I definitely use it every day, but rarely in the middle of a conversation unless it’s really pressing that I get a clear definition before the conversation can really continue.

    It has a history, but I don’t really look at it.

    I think it’s important to know what words mean when you encounter them — just letting them slip by is certainly not going to help comprehension. I’m not sure what percentage of words I remember after looking them up. Glancing through my lookup history, I would say that I probably remember about half of them. I think it often takes many lookups before a word sinks in. But on the other hand there are certainly words that just click, and after one lookup they become almost impossible to forget.

    I have been using Anki flashcards daily for more than two years now, and I’m absolutely sure that that increases my vocabulary.

    But I think the best thing for increasing vocabulary is reading, and I’ve been trying to make sure I do that a bit every day (after years of avoiding it).

    Another thing that makes a difference — and might be the critical thing for the letter writer — is trying to remember things. If one just looks something up and then goes on, with no effort to commit it to memory, then there is very little chance that it will stick. One has to try at least a little.

    I often, especially with the Anki cards, try to create some kind of mnemonic for the word. Since I’ve been doing this, my vocabulary has definitely been getting bigger.

  3. Mnemonics never worked too well for me, or perhaps they did and I just never realised I was using them. Mostly they distract me. All it takes is one person to say 田 looks like a window and then I’m stuck seeing it as a window forever. Experiences using the word are much more valuable to me.

    I can’t express enough how good reading is, if you do it right. But I think it’s the kind of thing that has such potential to get discouraging a lot of people don’t even really make too much more than a superficial effort at reading. Myself included. I’ve recently been spending more time with magazines and less time pretending to read 村上春樹.

  4. Alan says:

    I assume the fish is Pleco? iOS is the platform to use btw, although their Android version is catching up. They have a whole load of new dictionaries and features coming in the next few months, keep a look out for them.

    btw 田 looks like just a field to me; one of the mercifully easy to remember pictograms…

  5. Sima says:

    @Mias Mysteron
    Thank you. I’ve just checked the original and you are quite right.
    @Randy, Kellen
    Thanks and apologies.
    Serious problems with the typing pool here at HQ.
    Will try to sort things out asap.

  6. Tezuk says:

    That was a great article. Long live the fish! I’d be dead in the water without it.

  7. Chris Waugh says:

    Experiencing words is great for remembering them. Having the mother in law here more or less full time to help with childcare is rapidly expanding my Huailaihua and Yanqinghua vocabulary because I get so many of those, “What did you just say?” moments and I follow them up.

    And I’m gonna third the reading recommendation. I came across the phrase “党老爷们” in a story by Lao She (I think… too lazy to check through my blog archives), asked my wife who explained it and said the female equivalent is “老娘们”, and said that I qualify as a 老爷们 – big mistake on her part,cos I immediately asked if that makes her a 老娘们. Got me quite an interesting reaction. Anyway, combo of reading and experiencing = two new words burnt vividly into my memory.

    Now, if only I could be as good at creating good habits as I am at slipping into bad habits…. I’ve got too many books in various stages of “on the go”.

    But I’m definitely an old fashioned kind of learner. I’m convinced that having to look characters up through the radical index and copying them out by hand is a vastly superior way of learning vocab than copying a character into something electronic that does all the hard yards for you.

  8. Eric says:

    I add my voice to the chorus for the benefits of reading. Reading is even better if you can pair it with other forms of similarly themed content. While reading one Jin Yong novel (金庸 is a Chinese martial arts writer), I watched a TV version of a different novel. The way vocabulary appeared in both was extremely helpful. Both mediums made the other easier to understand. Jin Yong was way out of my reach until recently–but I would think that earlier on, I could have read news reports and listened to radio broadcasts that dealt with similar topics. Still, I do feel compelled to add–even though every knows it–that reading doesn’t come easily in Chinese. After almost 8 years, characters still seem like they’re out to get me. I am regularly frustrated by surprise multiple readings and variant forms. Even the great Fish is regularly thwarted by the (excessive) variant forms that appear in traditional versions of Jin Yong.

  9. For beginning learners of Chinese, I would like to emphasize Eric’s statement:

    reading doesn’t come easily in Chinese

    I think it’s true in any language that the best way to build vocabulary is through reading. I’m sure that all of us have built the largest portion of our native language vocabulary by reading, and that a significant portion of the vocabulary we learned that way remains separated from our everyday vocabulary.

    The problem with Chinese is that it takes a Very Long Time to get to the point where you can read comfortably (without looking up characters so often that it gets in the way of reading).

    It’s really difficult to find things to start with.

  10. Chris Waugh says:

    What’s wrong with using children’s books for reading in the early stages of learning Chinese? Something I’ve recommended to others. After all, children’s books are designed with “learning to read” in mind.

  11. Absolutely nothing! The problem is that the character lookup is daunting if you don’t know the pronunciation first. And then there’s the problem of where to separate the words.

    In languages with alphabetic writing systems we don’t have those two problems.

    One way to help with this is to first try to just learn as many common words as you can, in order of frequency, with a spaced repetition system like Anki or SuperMemo.

    Another way that helps with the first problem is to start out with pinyinized books (books with the pinyin written over the characters). These types of books unfortunately don’t usually group the syllables together into words, although there are some rare examples of this. I think has some references for some.

    I found that until I could read a page needing to look up only one or two words, reading was just painful. When I finally reached that point, it finally became much more like “reading”, and less like “studying”.

  12. Chris Waugh says:

    The lack of word spaces is something one needs to learn to deal with when learning to read Chinese, so although, like tones in speech, it can be daunting to begin with, learners, I think, are best to get stuck into it as early as possible.

    Another disadvantage of the pinyinised books, other than spacing between syllables, is the extra self discipline required to stop the eyes slipping up to the pinyin. Bilingual editions have a similar problem, in that it’s easy for the eye to just glide over to the English (or whatever foreign language) when you get tired. But this is something that can be overcome with practice.

    In any case, it strikes me that the vocab of children’s books is pretty similar to that an early-stages learner of Chinese needs, and simple texts and pictures make them far more accessible than newspapers or older books.

    And besides, any real world book is going to be better than any textbook, right? In my experience, regardless of what language you’re studying, language textbooks are universally insufferably boring. Trouble is, they’re necessary, so you might as well go out and liven things up with whatever real world reading material your vocab can handle.

  13. ze says:

    I lived in China when I first started learning Chinese. I spent a large amount of time being the goofy looking foreign adult hanging out in the children’s section of the kids bookstore–but with little result. The books I found had two problems related to the fact that they were for kids:
    1) They were meant for kids who already knew Chinese. They might not have know characters, but they knew Chinese. The books tended to talk about things that kids could understand, thus: bugs, monsters, dinosaurs, etc. Those are great kid topics, but the vocabulary is not typical of adult speech. Thus, the only way to remember the words was to drill, drill, drill. Further, learning those characters didn’t really help me get closer to reading the things I, an adult, was interested in.
    2) When books added Pinyin, it seemed there were no longer any limits on what the content could be. Some of the most common ‘kids’ books were Tang Dynasty poems and historical stories. As with kid books based on kid-friendly topics, the vocabulary was removed from common daily life. Once again, there was little mutual reinforcement between the vocabulary I was seeing in books and the vocabulary being used by the people I spent most of my time around.
    In the end, the books I benefited from most were by the Taiwanese illustrator/author Jimmy Liao 幾米. They were meant for adults (or at least young adults). They dealt with emotional themes I could relate to and take an interest in. They had interesting illustrations. Though I couldn’t read the text (it was meant for adults), I could read enough words to enjoy the process of scanning the pages. The books were short enough to be ‘read’ quickly, and rewarded repeat visits. It was still several years before I could really read them, but in the mean time, they were measuring sticks for my progress. The best ones were story-based (Jimmy writes a lot of books that are more pictures+arm chair philosophy with no connected narrative). For anyone interested, here are the names of the ones I liked best: 幸運兒/幸运儿 Xìngyùn’ér Mr. Wing, 月亮忘記了/月亮忘记了Yuèliang wàngjìle The Moon Forgot, 向左走向右走Xiàng zuǒ zǒu, xiàng yòu zǒu Turn Left, Turn Right.

  14. pc says:

    Just my two cents on reading.

    I’ve found that regardless of the language, books that are a collection of letters work much better than novels for early stage vocabulary acquisition and having that feeling of “actually reading.” Plus, you usually get the whole gamut of “things that happen to normal people” vocabulary (love, divorce, financial troubles, longing, happiness etc.). I’m partial to “我爱问连岳 (I Ask Lian Yeah!).” It’s a four part collection of letters from the early 2000s written to the blogger 连岳.

Leave a Reply