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The Quadriplegic Mayor March 3, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Canada, Cantonese, English, French, Mandarin, Punjabi.

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan caught the attention of the international media back in 2006, when he accepted the flag at the closing ceremonies of the Turin Winter Olympics. He is Canada’s first disabled mayor and also the first quadriplegic mayor of a North American city.

The mayor was paralysed after a tragic skiing accident when he was 19. Apart from many other achievements in life, he is also well-known for his linguistic ability. The Tourism Vancouver website contains some multilingual video messages from Mayor Sullivan speaking English, French, Punjabi, Cantonese, Mandarin, and French.

The major does not like to be confined in a wheelchair either. Here is him going hiking:

In the following video clip posted only recently, the mayor shared his thoughts in Cantonese on a legendary Hong Kong actress, a resident of Vancouver, who passed away a few week ago. I was touched when I saw the disabled major, who can barely use of his feet and hands, signing his name in traditional Chinese.

Transcript and translation of the clip are available here.


An Innovative Way to Practice Conversations January 10, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Mandarin, Speaking.

Today, I have accidentally discovered an innovative way to practice conversations. This approach has the following advantages:

  1. It is free
  2. It is purposeful (you don’t carry out a conversation just for the sake of carrying out a conversation)
  3. There is potentially unlimited number of topics to talk about
  4. You can converse with different partners all the time
  5. The other party is always interested in talking to you
  6. There is no need to actively seek out for partners. They will come to you.

A few days ago, I tried to post an classified ad online. I posted my ads on some popular classifieds websites such as the Craig’s List and Kijiji. Then I thought it might be a good idea to target some specific communities. So yesterday I tried 51.ca, probably the most popular one for the Canadian Mandarin-speaking communities. I always avoid revealing my personal information except my email address. But this one, unlike the others, made the contact phone number a mandatory field. So I put in my mobile phone number, thinking that nothing bad could happen.

To my surprise, I received 2 cold calls this morning, one from an air-duct cleaner and the other from a banker. They started right off in Mandarin. Apparently, they got my number from the Mandarin classifieds website. Where else?! Unfortunately, I had to cut short the conversations because I was at work. Otherwise, I would be more than happy to practice my Mandarin with them.

After this experience, I was thinking if I could develop a systematic way to set-up and engage in conversational practices using this channel. Here are some points I have in mind:

  • Find some decent classifieds websites for a specific language community
  • Post an ad or reply to one
  • For local communities, try to find some bargains or sell your junks
  • For international communities, look for outsourceable services such as translation and proof-reading
  • Insist on contact by phone only
  • Use Skype In/Out if international calls are required

Of course, this approach only works provided you can communicate in the target language in some sense, though you can still be far from fluent. Somehow when we talk business, we can usually communicate more than words can express.

Languages Spoken in Toronto December 10, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Mandarin, Toronto.

After more than a year of waiting, the data finally came out last week. Statistics Canada released the language-related statistics of the 2006 census.

Here are the top 20 languages “spoken most often at home” in Toronto, my home town, and their corresponding head-counts and percentages:

  1. English – 2746480 (55.31%)
  2. Italian – 185760 (3.74%)
  3. Chinese, n.o.s. – 172040 (3.46%)
  4. Cantonese – 166655 (3.36%)
  5. Panjabi (Punjabi) – 132745 (2.67%)
  6. Spanish – 108380 (2.18%)
  7. Portuguese – 108185 (2.18%)
  8. Tagalog (Pilipino, Filipino) – 100420 (2.02%)
  9. Urdu – 98575 (1.99%)
  10. Tamil – 93590 (1.88%)
  11. Polish – 80090 (1.61%)
  12. Russian – 65210 (1.31%)
  13. Persian (Farsi) – 63975 (1.29%)
  14. Mandarin – 62850 (1.27%)
  15. French – 58590 (1.18%)
  16. Arabic – 56155 (1.13%)
  17. Gujarati – 54160 (1.09%)
  18. Korean – 47750 (0.96%)
  19. Greek – 46305 (0.93%)
  20. Vietnamese – 45325 (0.91%)

Here is an interesting point about the Chinese-speakers. The “Chinese n.o.s.” category includes responses of ‘Chinese’ as well as all Chinese languages other than Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Chaochow (Teochow), Fukien, Hakka and Shanghainese. This number just too big for the minor Chinese dialect speakers. Therefore, we would expect most people in this category probably speak a major dialect. Somehow they just put down “Chinese” instead of the specific dialect in the census.

Who would do this? My speculation is that those who can speak Mandarin together with another dialect would have a tendency to do so. On the other hand, those who can speak only one Chinese dialect would more likely put down the dialect instead of ‘Chinese’.

If my speculation is correct, then there are in fact many more people who speak Mandarin than what is shown in the data.

No matter what, if we add up all the people in the ‘Chinese n.o.s.’ category together with those in the Cantonese and Mandarin categories, they make up about 8% of the Toronto population. This is about 1 in 12 Torontonians. This is quite a significant portion, considered only 6 out of those 12 speaks English as their mother-tongue.

Xie Xie, Mr Prime Minister November 26, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Mandarin, Speaking.

The Australians voted for a new prime minister this past Saturday. Kevin Rudd will become the 26th Prime Minister of Australia in about 2-weeks time. I don’t know much about the Australian politics, but one thing Mr. Rudd has caught my attention (and probably of many others too) is his fluency in Mandarin.

Of course, the Australians voted for him not simply because he can speak Mandarin. But no doubt, it has become one great advantage for him in the time when countries around the world want to improve their relationships with China.

This YouTube video shows Mr. Rudd interviewed by the Chinese State TV Station just before the election. His Mandarin is absolutely impressive. The Chinese host tried to switch back to English during the interview a few times, but Mr. Rudd insisted to keep speaking in Mandarin.

Mr. Rudd mentioned how he worked hard on his Mandarin while at the university. Once again, this testimony refutes the theory of “minimal effort language acquisition“.

I have noticed my Mandarin has deteriorated in the past few months. I was too concentrated on my French. Some of my Mandarin-speaking colleagues had their contracts terminated recently, and I did not bother to find other colleagues to speak Mandarin. About 2 weeks ago, I came across a Mandarin-speaking parent while picking up my daughter from school. When I tried to speak Mandarin with her, my tongue was just tided up.

After watching the video, I feel ashamed of being a Chinese but yet can’t speak Mandarin as good as a non-Chinese. It is certainly a good reminder for me to work hard on my Mandarin again. I am going to refill my iPod with more Mandarin stuff now. Thanks, Mr Prime Minister, for your inspiration.

Mandarin Tongue-Twister September 21, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Mandarin, Speaking.

Last Friday, I went out for lunch with a few Mandarin-speaking colleagues. We went to an authentic Northern-Chinese Cuisine. We knew it was authentic because it was certified by someone among us who actually came from Harbin, China.

At some point during the lunch, someone brought up a well-known Mandarin tongue-twister. Being the only non-native speaker at the table, I was honoured to demonstrate it. I heard about that tongue-twister before, but it had been a while since I last tried it. So I totally messed it up. The whole table just went LOL.

Tongue-twisters are absolutely fascinating, especially to language learners. They could be very useful, too. First of all, they typically do not require too much time to perfect. Secondly, if you can pull it off, you will definitely impress the native speakers. Even if you fail to do so, it will help to break the ice.

Here is my attempt on the tongue-twister recorded over the weekend. The background noise testifies that the clip has not been edited.

“四 是 四 , 十 是 十 , 十 四 是 十 四 , 四 十 是 四 十 .”
(si4 shi4 si4, shi2 shi4 shi2, shi2si4 shi4 shi2si4, si4shi2 shi4 si4shi2)

Here is the meaning: “4 is 4. 10 is 10. 14 is 14. 40 is 40”.

A Negative Comment May 4, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Mandarin, Motivation, Speaking.
1 comment so far

I was walking down the Las Vegas Boulevard last week with 2 colleagues, both were native Mandarin speakers. We have known each other for years, well before the time I picked up Mandarin. So we usually communicate in English. Imagine how inconvenient they were not being able to speak their native languages because of my presence. So I started to communication in Mandarin with them.

One colleague gave me a comment, in English, “It would be better for me to understand you if you speak in English, or even Cantonese”.

I think it was meant to be a joke. But I was silent for about 10 seconds, didn’t know how to reply. Recovering from my shock, I began to think about what lessons I could draw from this incident.

1) Never say anything discouraging to the language learners around you
You have to be very careful giving out comments. You may think it is a joke, but it might not be the case for the receiving end. On the other hand, some people are tired of overdosed compliments. But I believe they are way better than negative comments.

2) Take the comment seriously
It could be a joke, but it could be true to some extends. My Mandarin has been going through a set-back in the past few months, mainly due to my concentration on French. I know it is time for me to pick it up seriously again.

3) Choose your practice partners carefully
Practice only with someone who are helpful and eager to see you succeed. My other colleague has been very helpful to me. I practice with her from time to time. She kind of gets used to my broken Mandarin, and would try to guess what I am trying to say. The only problem is that she speaks too fast.

Parroting April 20, 2007

Posted by Edwin in French, Mandarin, Speaking.
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Some people call it ‘chorusing’ or ‘echoing’. I don’t know if there is a technical name for it. I prefer to call it ‘parroting’.

I am referring to the type of exercises many people use to improve their speaking skills. You would listen to a piece of conversation or monologue, usually at normal pace, and at the same time repeat aloud what is being said.

I have been doing it for my Mandarin since 2 years ago. Starting from last month, I have been doing the same for my French. My goal is to able to say those lines aloud fluently and confidently. I find that at the beginner stage, I need to practice the same piece over and over again before I can get to some level of fluency. It is therefore not unusual for me to go over the same piece 40 to 50 times.

If I need to listen and repeat to the same thing so many times, it better be interesting to me!

Now, here is the dilemma. Quite often, something interesting might not be useful at all. For example, I found out an episode in ChinesePod recently that I like very much. A fictional couple quarreled over the phone and finally decided to break up. For some reason, I find it amusing to hear people quarreling in my target language. I surely don’t have problem listening to it for over 50 times. However, the content is utterly useless to me. Well, my wife does not speak Mandarin.

At the other end of the spectrum lie those seemingly useful phrases and dialogues that you can find in any language learning tape or CD, such as being at the post-office, restaurant, cinemas, making hotel reservation, asking for directions, and haggling in a store. Would you like to listen to these contents 50 times?

I tend to believe that the main objective of the parroting exercises is for us to ‘chew’ the language. The contents do not have to be useful in our daily life, but it is the good feeling and experience of being able to speak those lines fluently that is more important.

But then how do we learn to say the useful stuff? I personally believe that you initially learn them from enough expose to the language through reading and listening. Then you need to follow up with a lot of oral practices with native speakers.

I personally had experienced this for my Mandarin. I initially parroted over a lot of contents that interested me, but they were of no use in my daily life. Then one day, I had chance to converse with a native speaker. I was surprised that some ‘userful’ sentences and phrases started to coming of my month for the first time. I believe they came from the radio or other materials that I had been listening to. But certainly I did not practice parroting over them.

Then of course, when you reach a level that you need less iterations to perfect your target materials, they can be less interesting.

Here are some ideas of interesting materials for the parroting exercises: you favourite lines in movies, poems, jokes, star interviews, song lyrics, and famous quotes. They are just endless. Remember, you will be saying the same sentences many times. They better be interesting to you!

Laughter in the Class April 13, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Mandarin, Motivation, Speaking.
1 comment so far

In any typical language class of reasonable size, there is always someone, or perhaps a few people, who turn our to be natural comedians or clowns. Either involuntarily or acting on purpose, they bring laughter to the class.

About a year or two ago, I went to a Mandarin Pinyin class. Due to the limitation of resources, different levels of learners all cramped into one class. In this class, there were 2 beginner students, adult males with comical looks. Whenever the teacher asked them a question, they always replied in Mandarin with such funny accents that the whole class would burst into tears upon hearing them. Sometimes the laughter would last for 30 seconds or more! Initially, I didn’t feel it was funny. But when the whole class was laughing, I giggled without giving it much of a thought.

At one point, I saw a guy in front of me, who turned to the students next to him with a serious-looking face. He told them not to laugh. Then I realized that he was right. There was nothing funny at all.

We all join a language class because we can’t speak the language well. We all want to improve. We don’t want to speak the language in such a way that people would laugh at us. It does not matter even if our fellow learners don’t mind being laughed at. We have no idea how much damage we can potentially do to them.

Keep the right attitude and respect our fellow learners. Let’s stop laughing at them!

Building My Pinyin List April 10, 2007

Posted by Edwin in French, Mandarin, Progress.

A few words about my language learner progress in the last month.

I have added 450 words to my French vocabulary list, 150 words more than my original target. In order not to overload myself, I will keep the same target of 300 words for the month of April.

I have been concentrating on my French listening and reading in the past few months, though I have started doing a bit of ‘parroting’ on some simple scripted conversations last month. My experience? Very much like the ‘hamburger’ scene.

I do have a worry about my stagnated Mandarin progress, as mentioned in my previous post. So I am going to work on my Mandarin a little bit harder this month. In fact, I think I need to set some concrete goals. In the past, I have never formally built a vocabulary list for my Mandarin study. I think I am going to give it a try this month.

Here is my goal then. I am going to build a list of 100 Chinese words along with their pinyins. I have about 20 days left, so I need to on average 5 words per day for the rest of the month.

Speaking Like a Pop Star February 21, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Mandarin, Speaking.

I have been talking to a lot of Mandarin speakers on Skype in the past few weeks. Many of them have no problem identifying my ‘Hong Kong Mandarin’ accent (港腔) right away.

One Mandarin speaker kindly pointed out that I tend to mix up the first and forth tones. I realize that it is a common problem for Cantonese speakers learning Mandarin. Many cannot distinguish between the 2 tones. I can tell which tones when they are spoken to me. But when I speak, I tend to mix them up.

Incidentally, there have been more than one person who claimed to like the way I speak, and suggested me to keep the accent. One of them even thinks that I speak like one of the Hong Kong pop stars! Does this imply that pop star speaks bad Mandarin or something?

I have heard that today in Beijing, many youngsters try to imitate that Taiwanese Mandarin accent because they think it is trendy. As for me, I don’t care about which accent to adopt for now. I just want to get rid of my ‘港腔’.