An island on an island

Northeast China is hoary in winter (and the winter lasts at least ten months) and torrid in summer, which means that you have to have a lot of different kinds of clothes, not to mention that you have to wear many layers of them all throughout the winter, which makes it difficult to bathe frequently.

The predominant language there is the northeast topolect of Mandarin, 东北话 (dōngběihuà), and that has some interesting features, which I might from time to time continue to blog about.

But I got sick of having it be 12ºC indoors for five months (and the average outdoor temperature all year is less than 5ºC!) and moved south to an island on an island…. Continue…

Auntie, or Big Sister?

Believe me, I try to be grateful for the corrections. I know the phase won’t survive much longer.

My 8-yr-old daughter is in such a happy-to-correct-Dad’s-Mandarin phase that she hand-signals proper tones in the middle of my business phone conversations; she interrupts my dinner table stories; she whispers fixes to me in the back of cabs as I talk with the driver. Continue…

The Pinyin blur

The kind of dual-script format (Pinyin above, hanzi below) kids’ book I showed the other day

click to embiggen

…is quite common for books targeted at early elementary kids. Since my daughter has been hiding under the covers with a flashlight to read this one, I thought I’d ask her if she ever read the Pinyin:

“Read what?”

“The Pinyin,” I said, pointing. “I mean, it’s right there, above the characters.”

“Oh yeah,” she laughed. “I kind of don’t really even notice it. It’s like a blurry line.”

“But what if you come to a character you don’t know? Do you look at the Pinyin to learn the pronunciation?”

“Oh no. I just skip it or sometimes I guess it.”

Ah, to be a kid learning Hanzi. Sounds a helluva lot easier than what I’ve gone through. If only I could relax and just guess.

Just a little mistake?

Hanyu pinyin is a pretty easy system of romanization to learn.  There are very few “rules” that stray from its connection with Chinese phonemes.  One of the rules is that the final iou is contracted to iu (unless there is no initial, in which case the i changes to y).  Other than for the sake of brevity, I’m not sure why this rule was adopted, but sometimes we can see the original pop through as a mistake.

My younger son was writing his journal today about Alice in Wonderland, which we saw yesterday, and after him telling me that he thinks it’s not good to write pinyin when he doesn’t know a character, and me telling him that that’s one of the best uses of pinyin, he wrote how Alice, after drinking water from a little bottle, “jiòu biàn 小了”.

Character math

On my second-grade daughter’s worksheet the other day.


Is this common in Chinese classes for foreigners? There’s also something like an oral version of this that I’ve heard her playing (with her mother or grandmother) from time to time. If I ever get a good recording I’ll post it.

It’s kind of amusing, but pedagogically it strikes me as a waste: awfully rote compared to much of the stuff they do and are capable of at this age.

If anyone has different versions of this, you can send them to me (bjshengr <at> gmail <dot> com) and I’ll add them to the post.


As Syz will attest, children are a lode of linguistic gold.

One Chinese grammar pattern I find especially interesting, mainly because it is so much more flexible than its English cousin, is called a complement of result. The English version belongs to a structure called a predicative complement.  An example is she called him an idiot.  The verb called is followed by two noun phrases, but they are not both objects, as would be the case in I gave Sally my book.  The noun phrase an idiot is a property that is assigned to the object him in that clause.  In English, predicative complements can be noun phrases, like an idiot, or adjective phrases, like stupid (she called him stupid).

In Chinese as well, complements of result are a kind of predicative complement that can be an adjective phrase, like 我吃饱了 (wǒ chī baǒ le; I’m full), 他累坏了(tā leì huaì le; he’s exhausted), or 玩儿腻了(wánr nì le; bored of playing (with this)).  All of them show the state of something after something happens; you eat until you’re full, are tired to the point of exhaustion (note that 累 is an adjective—adjectives can serve as complete predicates in Chinese), you play with something until you’re bored of it.

But they can also be verbs! Continue…

Tangible onomatopoeia

I’m writing this while on the subway. I’ll of course have posted from somewhere else by the time you’ve read it.

A father and child are standing in front of me. The kid was admiring a rather bright light and saying “light (灯 dēng)” while pointing, in order to get his father’s attention. As his father looked, the subway doors began to close as the warning chime rang. Or dinged. Or denged in this case.

As the door went 噔噔, 噔噔* the kid went 灯灯, 灯灯.

– – –
* also dēng

Dear Diary,

As soon as you step into first grade in a Chinese elementary school, you are required to keep a journal for the teacher to check.  This continues until you graduate from high school.

My older son (9) doesn’t like to talk a lot, and hates writing, and can’t see the point in this exercise.  I constantly have to give him ideas, and throughout the two month winter holiday I just let him copy paragraphs from an encyclopedia of the animal world, just to keep his hand moving.  Continue…