Video of Q & A Broadcast with Yangyang

google-hangout-01As I mentioned before, on July 17 Yangyang and I did a live broadcast answering viewers’ questions about learning Chinese. We had a GREAT time (and I hope the viewers did too).

Just so you know how the technology works: viewers type in their questions, and then other viewers can vote for the questions they like the best. Then, Yangyang and I just worked our way down the list of questions.

There were some technical difficulties at the beginning, so I’ve cued the video to 4:09 where it gets sorted out.


(blocked in China, but is cued to 4:09)


(works in China but has a minute of ads at the beginning, and I couldn’t figure out how to cue it)

Why I Love Laokang Lookup for iPhone

Yesternight, I was on the bus and saw this fairly typical sign:


I’ve taken this same bus lots of times, but never really paid attention to this sign. I found I could read every character except the one I’ve circled in blue. I also couldn’t use my usual trick of guessing from the context (because this is a kind of formal way of saying “get on and off” the bus).

So, zěn me bàn 怎么办? I could use Pleco’s awesome hand drawing thing and sketch in the 15 (or whatever) strokes. But I don’t do that as much anymore now that I have my friend Paul Condrell‘s beta version of Laokang Lookup on my iPhone. I was able to find the character in only 2 steps.

Here’s How it Works

laokang-luo-demo-1 laokang-luo-demo-2

Boom! Luo and behold, the first character in the result list was the very character I was looking for!


This is similar to (and is perhaps better than) my idea of Hanzi Craft. It’s certainly way better than the Dark Ages before smart phones, and even before online dictionaries, when I would have had to look up all unknown characters by radical in a paper dictionary.

I use the app all the time when I’m out and about. On the same bus trip, I saw a restaurant that specialized in  huàn (a kind of carp), which I couldn’t read. The Lookup app says that it’s in the top 6500 characters (very infrequent). But I was able to find it from the moving bus having only glanced at it because I knew most of the components (the first of which is just yú).

The only downside to this method is you have to learn all the components and their variations, and that takes some doing. But I like it better than radicals because the components seem to be bigger “chunks” of characters than radicals (although, some are the same as radicals).

More on this later, but for now, I just wanted to mention that I love the component search idea and can’t wait to see how the app develops.

Teachable Moment

Here’s the full text of the sign (click on the hanzi to see pinyin and translation):


Live Q & A Broadcast Tomorrow with Yangyang


I’m currently back in the USA for a short trip and Yangyang from Yoyo Chinese has invited me to do a live Google Hangout with her tomorrow. I’ve never done this before, but from what I understand she and I will sit in front of the camera and anyone who “tunes in” (how THAT works, I don’t quite know) can type questions to us. Then, everyone watching can vote questions up to the top of the list and I guess we’ll just start at the top and answer them as we go (I’ll follow Yangyang’s lead on that).

The time zone is hard to figure out so I suggest looking at the time zone conversions Yangyang has already worked out in the official hangout page on the right, look under the “Details” heading, click “Read more (33 lines)”.

Oh, and it appears there’s a countdown on Youtube if you’re in a country where that’s not banned, or even if you are and you have a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, know-what-I-mean.

I’m excited to try this and see what kinds of questions we get asked!

Five Two Zero So Much

The month of May sports one of what I call (for the first time) “fakie-sounding pun-tastic number-slang days”: 5/20. (Here’s a Baidu link so you know I’m not making it up.)

May 20th, pronounced in Chinese as “wǔ èr líng” 五二零 is supposed to sound like “wǒ ài nǐ” 我爱你 (“I love you”). As best as I can figure out, it’s a sort of combination of Valentine’s Day and April Fool’s Day that young people use to biǎo bái 表白, or make jokes, or both.

When I wrote an analysis of the two supposedly similar-sounding phrases on the board for my Chinese students, it was easy to see that in only 3 syllables there are about 5 differences:

520 I love you Difference
wu3 wo3 “u” vs. “o”
er4 ai4 “er” vs. “ai”
ling2 ni3 “l” vs. “n”
ling2 ni3 “-ing” vs. “-i”
ling2 ni3 2nd tone vs. 3rd tone

I think those are significant differences, and therefore I downplay the cleverness of the day. My students strongly disagree.

Here’s why: I’m comparing it to what I consider clever puns and such in English, like “May the 4th” for Star Wars Day. “May the fourth be with you” and “May the force be with you” has only a single phoneme difference (“th” vs. “s”) for the whole phrase. And that lispy switcheroo (the technical linguistic term for mixing up “th” and “s”) has been known to occur independently of this fakie holiday (“the Wellth Fargo wagon is a comin’”). Therefore, I smile smugly and nod slowly when I think of “May the 4th” but I don’t smile and do shake my head slowly when I think of 5/20.

But my students are thinking: “There are no other numbers that are closer to wǒ ài nǐ, so it’s awesome!” It presupposes (for some reason that is mysterious to me) that numbers MUST sound like SOMETHING else! This is the same thing that happens with the number 8 being so lucky because “bā” sounds like “fā” (meaning “get rich”). It doesn’t REALLY sound like it to me. But hey! I admit “ba” sounds more like “fa” than any other number does.

But this may give us insight into the significance of tones to native speakers. That’s really the strongest link between these fakie-puns. The tones for 8 and “get rich” are identical, and two out of three tones from “May 20th” and “I love you” are the same (although, to get even closer they should equate it with “wǒ ài nín” 我爱您, but I see why that would be sillier for a different reason).

One last thing: the “l” vs. “n” switcheroo we see in “líng” vs. “nǐ” makes me wonder if this day originated in some region of China where the “l” and “n” sounds are allophones (like the South, perhaps?). Hmm… I wonder… Oh well.

Tone Colors and What Pleco Did with Them

A: “Dude! Have you ever wondered if what I see as ‘red’ is the same color that you see as ‘red’?”

B: “No dude! It’s scientific. ‘Red’ is just a label for a certain wavelength on the spectrum.”

A: “I know, Dude. But how do we know what our brains ‘see’ when our eyes perceive that wavelength? Maybe what I call ‘red’ is what you see when you say ‘green.’ We’d never know because we always call the same color ‘red’ or ‘green’ when we see it. But what color are we ACTUALLY seeing?”

B: “Dude…”

Have you ever had THAT conversation before (with or without the ubiquitous use of “dude”)? That’s exactly what this post is NOT about.

Before I go on, I’d like to announce that I am deeply in like with my new iPhone 5s. I’ve only had it for a little over a month, but I finally know what all the fuss is about (it’s my first zhìnéng shǒujī 智能手机 ever).

Naturally, one of the first apps I got was Pleco (coming soon: a post about why I love Pleco). One of the options that was on by default was the “Tone Colors.” (If you’re not familiar with what tone colors are, please see John Pasden’s review of  Chinese Through Tone & Color by Nathan Dummitt.)

I love tone colors, and left them on in Pleco. But the problem (as John and his commenters discuss) is: What’s the biāozhǔn 标准? What colors should be assigned to each tone?

Here’s a summary of what 4 people think: [updated to include Hanping]

Default-tone-color-chart2According to Pleco’s creator Michael Love, Pleco first introduced tone colors in Pleco 2.0 Beta 1 (October 2007). Drummitt’s book came out six months later in March 2008, and then MDBG added tone colors a year later.

Right now, I’m an avid user of MDBG and Pleco. But the tone colors don’t match. I don’t want to discuss what the “right” colors for each tone should be, I just want it to be consistent. But I’ve found that people feel very strongly about “their colors.” And I think a consensus is impossible to reach.

But no problem. Pleco has set an example of how apps should handle this issue. Look at the option in Pleco’s Settings > Colors > Configure colors > Tone 1 color:


That’s the solution! Just let everyone set their own tone colors. Since MDBG doesn’t offer this option (yet), I’d have to set Pleco’s colors to match MDBG’s. UPDATE: MDBG now offers Pleco’s colors as one of the options (see here).

(Note: the Pleco colors are in HSB by default, but if you touch the number itself you can toggle through RGB or Hex.)

I hope all you who are developing apps that include tone colors will follow Pleco’s lead on this: go ahead and pick your favorite defaults (Michael Love said “I believe the (Pleco) colors were originally chosen based on what colors of pen the friend of mine who came up with it had available”), but please PLEASE let us users customize them.

UPDATE: Hanping has a big preset menu to allow users to choose their favorite color schemes (but I don’t know what some of those presets are).