Tagged language

Deconstructing Mandarin Chinese

One of my goals for this year is to learn spoken Mandarin Chinese. Given that I live and work in China it only makes sense that I learn the language which will ultimately help improve both hopefully. Also given that Mandarin is one of the harder languages to learn (hard as in virtually impossible if you want to read as well as speak it) I am not expecting an easy ride.


Last year I read an intriguing article by the author and self proclaimed “life hacker” Tim Ferris titled “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour“. He reasons that before you invest a lot of time on a language you should first deconstruct it into its core components by examining sentence structure through comparison with your native tongue. By doing this you should in theory be able to get a better grasp of the core composition of the language in relation to your own and thus gain conversational fluency faster. That’s the theory anyway so I decided to take a shot a deconstructing Mandarin and share what I found out…

From this we can see how verbs remain independent of the speaker (both according to gender and number), placement of indirect objects (John), direct objects (the apple), and their respective pronouns (him, it). We can also see how to negate sentances and how tenses are expressed.

The good news is that Mandarin uses the same Subject-Verb-Object sentance order as English does and uses auxiliary verbs. The bad news is that pronunciating is notoriously difficult for English speakers since each syllable/word is made up of a combination of “initials” and “finals” plus a tone added. Added to this there are a ton of homonyms to deal with (two of more words with same sound/spelling but different meaning), so many in fact that even native speakers have trouble with it!

As a start to learning a language I think it’s a useful exercise but ultimately a lot of effort is going to be needed build up enough vocabulary to get by. As I did with Korean I’ll be posting up any material which others might find helpful.

Some useful resources:

Update (07/01): Updated document to include Pinyin tones

2009 Goals

Looking back 2008 was a pretty good year on balance. My largest personal achievement was relocating to China from London, starting a new job and effectively a new life here. I’ve been in Shenzhen for four months now and am still enjoying everyday for the most part. A few years ago I would never have imagined having the confidence to be able to do this and now looking back if I hadn’t taken the leap into the unknown I would always have regretted it. I think there’s a lot to be said for avoiding the malaise of the “comfort zone” by forcing yourself to change and by doing so learn something new while gaining valuable experience.

As a record to try and energise myself into action here are my goals for 2009:

  • Gain basic fluency in Mandarin Chinese by EOY
  • Improve photography skills
  • Get fitter through more regular exercise
  • Cook more (something I’ve let lapse since relocating)
  • Stay focused and filter out distractions
  • Redesign blog template (current design getting old)

Talking of high-energy, on a lighter note I’ll leave you with 7 epic minutes from Capsule (Japan) with some very neat motion graphics

…and indecipherable lyrics – “Ankles strapped our secrets slaved march breaking like a fruit just like you leaning bouncing feel the speed of landing stepping jumping jumper”.

10 Future Trends

On the 10th anniversary of its founding Google has recently been asking 10 of its “experts” to give their predictions of what’s going to happen in the next 10 years as the internet evolves. I’m no expert but as a curious partaker in this brave new world I thought I’d give a shot at coming up with my own list of future predictions

  1. Computation moves into the cloud – obvious but important. This is the key to the future which will provoke massive social change. No longer will we be tied to our desks or fortified corporate networks. Work anywhere on any device with the same access to all the same resources.
  2. Technology is humanised – forget “plug and pray”, it just works. Long promised, rarely delivered. This is when technology is liberated from the geeks into the hands of the masses. Compatibility will be a thing of the past once computers all speak a common set of standard languages.
  3. Interfaces are revolutionised – keyboards and mice will seem quaint. Touch, eye, voice and possibly even brain controllers will be commonplace. If you think the iPhone is cool you haven’t seen anything yet. Understanding semantic context will make manipulating complex data childs play.
  4. Connectivity is ubiquitous – the internet is everywhere. Not just on your computer or mobile ~ it will be woven into the very fabric of everyday life as an essential additional layer connecting everything to everyone and visa versa. Blanket high-speed wireless connections will exist across all major cities.
  5. Personalisation gets personal – whether you are in the real world or the virtual world your social connections, interests and history (etc) will follow you everywhere you go. The flow of information will be automatically targeted and fine tuned around this. You control who sees what/where/when.
  6. Language barriers are broken – English is only the 4th most spoken language in the world. Through real-time machine translation you now speak and understand the rest. The volume of information you have at available will drastically increase through this. Small businesses can now operate globally.
  7. Information overload & dependency – faced with more information that you could possibly imagine people will face new challenges of how to cope. Some will thrive in this new sea of unlimited potential while other will face serious mental collapse. There will be those who choose to disconnect entirely.
  8. Viruses are no more – with the majority of software provided as a service (SaaS) viruses which plagued Windows users will be a thing of the past. However, new even more dangerous and sophisticated threats will emerge with personal data stored in the cloud a prime target.
  9. Social homogenisation – spurred on by technology, globalisation take an every stronger hold on social norms. It becomes a cognitive and social culture, not a geographic one, which relies heavily on the notion of information and knowledge exchange in a complex web of relationships.
  10. Man-machine distinction blurs – the line between humans and machines begins to lessen. Old concepts of pre-net existence will seem foreign to our children who will liken the change to the Age of Enlightenment when mankind made a seismic shift in the way we live and ultimately exist.

This wont all happen in the next 10 years but we are already seeing a steady progression towards it and, unless climate change or a natural disaster wipes us all out, I strongly believe this will be a reality well within our lifetime. What would be on your list?

Back to School

It’s been a long time since I posted anything under the “University” category since I graduated over two years ago and whilst I may be a little older and wiser the learning never ends! Since visiting Korea twice this year I felt it was about time I learned a bit of the language so signed up for the Beginners Korean course at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Three lessons later and it’s not going to badly but I think I’m going to have to put a fair bit of effort in to be able to keep up with the work – somewhat reminiscent of when I studied Japanese!

Korean is significantly easier to learn than Chinese or Japanese as the alphabet (called Hangul) contains only 40 characters, compared with tens of thousands in the others! If it’s of any help to anyone I’ve put together a quick reference chart which contains the consonants (19) and vowels (21) along with English sounds to help with pronunciations.

Korean Hangul Chart

You can download the chart in a variety of formats on Scribd. Please remember that I’m in no way a language expert so can’t guarantee the accuracy of the chart (although it’s been fairly thoroughly checked by native speakers)!

Update (29/12): I’ve also updated a Korean Numbers Chart (Pure Korean & Sino-Korean) and Korean Verbs & Patterns Chart.