Adventures in Chinese Haggling
Our summer intern Zach had zero Chinese when he started. That hasn’t stopped him from communicating! Here’s how he did with just “Dūo shăo qían?” (how much?) and “TaÌ guÌ le!” (too expensive!).
I started learning Chinese just 13 days ago. My vocabulary is still in the infancy (I can say “delicious” and occasionally ask for water) and my practice of tones sounds like a pitchy falsetto singer sliding around the octave. But with every new word I’ve learned, a little bit more of China has opened up for me. Ordering my own food in a restaurant has become a highlight of my day, although I do get offended when they bring me a fork instead of chopsticks.
This past weekend, I was ready to get out of Shanghai and try a bit of my local tongue outside of Shanghai. I can still only form about six coherent sentences (and one of them is “Nĭ hăo”) but in my mind, I was ready. With a train ticket to Suzhou in hand, my goal was to dive into the culture and see how much I could discover.
Realizing that haggling was a great way to get started, I prepared two phrases for my adventure: “Dūo shăo qían?” and “taÌ guÌ le!” I figured that I would ask the first question, and regardless of the response, I would answer with “too expensive.”
Walking around the souvenir shops of Ganjing Lu, I took careful attention to select the right item. With the temperature and humidity climbing well beyond my comfortable threshold from back home, I decided to purchase a fan. One particular tourist trap had a beautifully crafted selection. I picked one out that featured a picture of Confucius on one side and some hanzi writing on the other.
Nervousness settled into my chest as I realized I was about to have to talk to someone. My pronunciation is average at best. Beyond the few phrases I’ve learned, my vocabulary is almost non-existent. This could be really messy and really embarrassing, but if I didn’t give it a shot, I would never know for sure what would happen.
I waved at one of the women that was walking around and managing the store.
This was the big moment. I was about to enter the world of International price negotiation. I just had to ask one question, give one objection, and suggest a lower price. Then I was going to be the proud owner of a fan.
With a curious look on my brow, I asked, “Dūo shăo qían?”
The woman pulled a small spiral note pad out of her pocket. Cool! I thought. She understood me.
She wrote something on it and turned the pad to face me. It read 19.
Here I go!
“TaÌ guÌ le!” I said, with feigned outrage at the price. Now the real negotiating would begin.
Or at least this is where the negotiating was supposed to begin. Instead, she shrugged, put the note pad back in the pocket of her apron, and walked away.
I think this raises an interesting point about international travel. Just because I’ve seen how a process works does not mean I know how the process works. In the end, traveling is all about meeting and working with people, and people everywhere are unpredictable.
But this also meant that as I boarded the train back to Shanghai, I had failed in my haggling mission. It was my first weekend outside of Shanghai since arriving in China, and my small limited vocabulary had gotten me nothing.
But as the train clipped along at 297km/hour, I realized the value of putting myself out there in his wildly foreign language. I turned around and noticed the woman sitting in the seat next to me had an empty water bottle wedged in the seat pocket of the chair ahead of her.
I smiled at her and pointed at the water bottle. “Dūo shăo qían?” I asked.
She looked at me and then at the water bottle. It was obvious she was confused. After saying something I didn’t understand, she silently stood up and moved to empty seat across the aisle from me and sat back down.
I did my best to keep to a straight face as I turned around and looked back out the window. Now, I was 0-2, but I was also really proud of myself. Learning a language is a hard process. It can be nerve-racking, but everybody says stupid things at first and makes awkward mistakes in the process. By hopping on trains to new places, trying to talk to new people, and looking foolish every step of the way, I’m learning a lot both as a global citizen and a language student. If shrugged shoulders and extra elbow room on a train are the worst thing that can happen, it is totally worth taking the chance to engage with people.
I look forward to learning more and testing out my skills on future adventures.
2013 Fall Interns: Logan and Ashyln
Logan Pauley and Ashyln Weber were two Centre College students that helped extensively with testing early versions of the graded reader stories which AllSet Learning created for Mandarin Companion. Their intermediate levels of Chinese and dedicated attitudes were a tremendous help. As a result, they were even thanked by name in the books they worked on at AllSet Learning.
In addition, they both also did some good work on the Chinese Grammar Wiki.
In Logan’s words:
Studying in China for the fall semester, my main goal was to improve my Mandarin skills. Immersion and constant discussion with experienced teachers, editing and testing Mandarin Companion graded readers, and doing translations and edits for the Grammar Wiki truly afforded me an opportunity to enhance and apply Mandarin in a tangible way. During the internship, I could really see improvement in not only my knowledge of Mandarin, but also my confidence in using it.
While my responsibilities in the office had a lasting impact, the atmosphere John. Yu Cui, Renjun, and Siping fostered made the internship what it was — lighthearted and fun, but productive. Some of my fondest memories of Shanghai include being made fun of / trying to defend myself while testing graded reader discussion questions (and, later, drowning my sorrows with a Mex & Co. burrito!)
Although my time at AllSet is over, I’m truly grateful for the opportunity and really hope to revisit the office someday! Thank you so much!
Thanks a lot, Logan and Ashyln! We know we’ll see you around these parts again.
AllSet Pinyin 2.0
AllSet Learning Pinyin 2.0 has been released, and is now available as a universal app with retina graphics which works on both the iPhone (tall and short) as well as the iPad. We’ve actually been working on this app for quite a while. Why did it take so long? This app was a total rewrite of the original, and now takes full advantage of the new “auto-layout” features which enable it to work flawlessly on iPhones and iPads.
So what’s new that you can actually see?
- Updated “slide-out” menu
- New design for settings, addons, and “about” info
- Added elements of iOS7 design
- Fixed the audio for the “cai” syllable (it sounded a little weird)
- STILL NO ADS
Here are some shots of the new design (iPhone 5 screen size):
Note that the app also supports Spanish, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Thai, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese. Here are a few examples of that:
Since releasing our pinyin chart app in 2012, we’ve noticed a lot of other pinyin apps released, some even clerly “borrowing from” our own carefully considered design. Many of them even add in ads to try to monetize a free app, or cripple functionality in an effort to make users pay.
We’re dedicated to making a useful app for learning pinyin, and we believe adding ads to an app like this is just too annoying (especially for an iPhone version). We’ve got plans for making this app even more useful in the future, and we hope that our users will support our efforts and help spread the word!
One way is to retweet our announcement on Twitter:
Our Pinyin app, version 2.0, is out! It now works on iPhone and iPad, iOS 6 and iOS 7. Still free, still awesome. https://t.co/wll24MGZOh
— AllSet Learning (@allsetlearning) May 23, 2014
Another is to share our Facebook post announcement.
And, of course, 5-star reviews in the App Store are extremely helpful in keeping us going.
Thanks for your support!
Story Selection for Mandarin Companion
The AllSet Learning team handled the story writing for the hot new series of Chinese graded readers, Mandarin Companion. As a result, we also had to wrangle with some serious academic issues. One of the questions frequently asked about these new books is how we chose the stories. People find it odd that we chose to write adapted versions of western classics rather than just using Chinese stories. Well, there are good reasons for the choices (and there’s no ethnocentrism involved!)
Reason #1: Traditional Chinese Stories Are Difficult
Sorry, but it’s true. Traditional Chinese stories often involve ghosts, monsters, spells, emperors, war tactics, and all kinds of really cool themes. The only problem is that each of these brings with it some pretty complicated vocabulary. To make matters worse, a lot of these words are written with rare characters. When you’re writing a graded reader (especially at Level 1, the 300-character level), impractical vocabulary is a no-no, but the use of obscure characters is absolutely taboo.
One potential workaround is to “adapt” the Chinese stories themselves. “Simplify” them. This seems like a good idea at first, but serious simplification is always needed, and that usually requires some pretty serious compromises. Character identities and whole plot points might need to be drastically altered. While the average reader may be fairly forgiving in this department, the average Chinese person may be less tolerant. To many Chinese, such changes amount to making the story wrong, to slandering sacred Chinese culture. Obviously, that’s not our intent, but significant changes to Chinese classic stories can upset people for cultural reasons.
So when you add up vocabulary/character challenges and cultural barriers to story modifications, our conclusion is that you’re better off avoiding the traditional Chinese material for the lowest levels. We wish it wasn’t so!
Reason #2: Western Classics Are Easy
It’s not that the stories themselves are inherently simpler, it’s that classics like The Secret Garden already have a long tradition of translations, simplifications, and adaptations. As westerners, we’re used to it. It doesn’t bother us (even when they’re really wacky, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). When we tell prospective readers that we have Chinese versions (fully adapted to the Chinese context, with all Chinese characters and Chinese settings) of classic western stories like The Secret Garden and Rip Van Winkle, the reaction is usually, “cool!” It often deepens reader interest, sometimes to the point of interest becoming how we adapted this particular story to the Chinese context. That’s a reaction you can’t get from your audience when you use unfamiliar Chinese stories, and we’ve found that our Chinese would-be-allies tend to be somewhat skeptical about westerners tinkering with the inner workings of Chinese classics.
We’re fine with all this, really. It just means that…
Conclusion: Western Classics Are a Better Starting Point
It’s not that we think it’s a bad idea to ever do Chinese classics. We want to. It’s just that for the lowest level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Rather than cramming more obscure characters down our readers’ throats, we’d prefer that they just got started reading earlier. That means the simplest possible content conducive to compelling stories for Level 1, and the content that works best at those levels.
Mandarin Companion does have plans for simplified Chinese classics as well as original content (sci-fi, anyone?) at higher levels. We’ll be happy to help them make that happen!
Chinese Picture Book Reader 1.3
The Chinese Picture Book Reader version 1.3 has finally hit the app store! This version addresses what we’ve been hearing the most: the app needs more content. So it’s got it, both free and paid. Here’s what’s new in this version of the app:
- The app is now both iOS6 and iOS7 compatible, and entirely RETINA (iPad 3+), and all new books support retina.
- The big change is lots of NEW BOOKS, both free and paid. Fee content has been updated to a new, retina style.
- We’ve added a nifty new parallax transition effect to the textbox as you swipe between pages.
- The app home has been refreshed a bit and made more consistent with the rest of the app.
New books include:
- Life in the Countryside, a narrated photo set featuring the work of China-based photographer Sean Hanratty
- College Kid Interview #4: “What Chinese city do you like most?”
- College Kid Interview #5: “Who is your hero?”
- College Kid Interview #6: “In the past 10 years, what do you think has been the biggest change in China?”
- College Kid Interview #7: “What do you think is the best way to pursue someone you like?”
- College Kid Interview #8: “If you want to live pretty well in Shanghai, how much do you think your salary should be?”
If you enjoyed any of the “college kid interview” series content before, you’ll definitely appreciate this update. There are now more voices, photos, and real handwriting, all in a new high-res design.
We hope you like the updates. More to come!
Word Boxes on the Chinese Grammar Wiki
In our endless endeavor to make the Chinese Grammar Wiki useful and accessible, we’ve added yet another feature: word boxes. Word boxes? That’s right, on all of our keyword pages we have added a box that automatically links up to other websites that can help you get a deeper understanding of the vocabulary and usage of each individual word. Websites like MDBG are great for understanding the definitions of words, while Jukuu and Weibo can show you the words in real sentences. These are more resources to help you on your way to Chinese fluency, and we are glad to help you find them.
The word boxes do not necessarily have specific ties to any individual grammar point. Instead, the word boxes link to different kinds of websites: dictionaries, explanations, and example sentences. This way, if you are unsure as to the actual function of a word, you can look it up and clear up the confusion before you study the concept. Additionally, the example sentences are a great way to see the word and its related phrases in action. If the examples on the Grammar wiki aren’t sufficient, the examples sentences from other websites will help show you the correct usage and their contexts.
Here’s an example of how a learner might use the word boxes for 在:
- The learner is browsing the article on “Zai” following verbs
- The learner clicks on the keyword “在” in the box at the right, taking her to the keyword page for 在
- The learner clicks on the links in the word box at the right, getting lots of extra examples using 在
The Grammar wiki will still be the go-to resource for Chinese grammar, but we are happy to link to other websites that offer excellent additional information that we’re not in the best position to provide. The information on all of these websites complements the information that we provide on the Grammar Wiki, providing a fuller, deeper understanding of how the words fit into Chinese grammar. We can provide the explanations for the constructions and then we show learners where they can read and practice the constructions that they’ve just learned.
The new word boxes create a network with the Chinese Grammar Wiki spreading out and connecting to other Chinese learning websites. This way, your Chinese learning experience will be more complete, and your comprehension of the grammar concepts will be better for it. Check out the new word boxes and let us know on Facebook or Twitter (@ChineseGrammar) what you think of them!
2013 Summer Intern: Ben
American Ben Slye was recommended to AllSet Learning by previous intern Parry, and turned out to be a great fit. Through a variety of duties, Ben proved that he was an industrious addition to the AllSet Learning team for the summer. (Our teachers in the office also thoroughly enjoyed joking around with him as they helped him improve his Chinese.)
Ben’s projects included graded reader research, graded reader testing, app testing, taking Chinese “training lessons” with AllSet Learning teachers, assisting with blog post writing, and editing and enhancing the Chinese Grammar Wiki.
Ben had this to share about his internship experience:
My time at AllSet has just flown by. I thought a summer would feel longer than this, but the people in the office always made it fun. Between making me do translations for the Grammar Wiki to giving feedback on any new materials, I was always surrounded by Chinese, which was just the way I wanted it! Most of my time here was spent fine-tuning the Grammar Wiki, making it more connected and more accessible. I was also able to participate in some of the teacher training programs, giving a student’s perspective on the way that they taught. I loved seeing those meetings and how a consulting business like AllSet conducted them.
Of course, having native Chinese speakers to work with really helped my speaking ability. Just being able to talk to them every day, making jokes or asking about their weekends, it was always possible to practice Chinese. Plus I was talking to teachers, so they knew how to get me to learn better! Every time I tried they would be able to correct me or give me some new vocab, so there was always more to learn. I filled pages of my notebook with new words, and I always made sure to use any new grammar they taught me (although not necessarily correctly). They would keep correcting me, and I can see a definite improvement since starting here.
Although my stint at AllSet is over, I am so grateful for the opportunity, and so happy to have met the wonderful people that I have in Shanghai. It’s been great!
Thank you for everything, Ben! You were truly a powerhouse when it came to Grammar Wiki editing, and we all loved having you around full-time. The office definitely felt emptier when your internship ended. (Good thing you left your precious notebook behind so we have something to remember you by….)
P.S. Yes, of course we got his precious notebook back to him!
2013 Summer Intern: Brandon
Texan Brandon Sanzhez was this past summer’s CET intern. While at AllSet Learning over the summer, Brandon worked on a range of projects, including audio editing for the Chinese Picture Book Reader, social media promotion, graded reader testing, app testing, taking Chinese “training lessons” with AllSet Learning teachers, and Chinese Grammar Wiki editing.
Brandon brought a sense of humor and positive attitude to all he did, and everyone in the office enjoyed having him around. (Too bad he had those pesky Chinese classes in the mornings…)
Brandon’s take on the experience:
I came to Shanghai with hopes of learning Chinese culture and language, but didn’t really know what to expect. John’s compassionate and motivating personality provided comfort and encouragement in a very unfamiliar environment. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous flying halfway around the world to intern, but AllSet provided a stimulating and friendly work environment that soothed my nerves.
I absolutely loved the variety of tasks I was given throughout my internship at AllSet Learning. One week I could be working with audio software to analyze Chinese tones; the next, I am offering suggestions for AllSet’s future products and submitting UI design ideas for upcoming apps. My ideas were met with enthusiasm, and I truly felt like a part of the AllSet Learning team.
My two months in China zoomed by, and I enjoyed every moment of it. AllSet Learning was an invaluable aspect of my experience in Shanghai, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such kind, open, and passionate individuals.
We appreciate all you did, Brandon. Keep up with your Chinese studies, and we’ll be happy to buy you another coffee on your next visit to Shanghai!
Lots of New Content Coming to the Chinese Picture Book Reader
The AllSet Learning team has been hard at work for some time now on the next round of new content for the Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app. A blog post on Sinosplice helped provide some ideas, and summer intern Mei helped with the graphic redesign of the “College Kid Interview” series, which now supports high-res “retina” iPads.
Keywords on the Chinese Grammar Wiki
When studying Chinese, it’s always good to have a few keywords that can unlock a host of grammar structures. Lucky for you, we have them, on our new Keywords page on the Chinese Grammar Wiki! By linking up the words to the grammar points that they are related to, we’ve made it so that you can see what sorts of constructions they’re a part of. Keywords can also be found in the Grammar Box at the top of the articles, just in case you wanted to see other related constructions for that word.
This page is particularly useful if you know that a phrase contains a certain word, but you don’t know what other kinds of situations it belongs in (or what the structure means in the first place!). If this is the case, all you need to do is find the word in the list and it will take you right to that page. Another option is using the search bar. We have pages in both pinyin and hanzi, so you can search for either one. Then the wiki will take you to a disambiguation page, allowing you to choose the right topic. It’s just another way to make the Wiki easy to navigate and makes finding grammar that you want to study simple.
Another way the Keywords page is useful is if you want to study the many uses of a particular word (I’m looking at you “了”). If this is the case, all you need to do is type in the word, and you will find a list of all the constructions that use that word. In the case of “了” you might be there a while, but by the end of it you would know all about its various uses. (Sidenote: We’ve also added a special “Uses of le” page, because it’s a point that really deserves special attention.) Finding keywords is a great way to kickstart your memory and learn a lot of different ways to express yourself with just one piece of vocabulary. Don’t pass up this opportunity.
If you are confused about a specific use of a word, or if you want an overview of all of its uses, the new Keywords page will meet that need. Here are a few keywords to get you started: