Posts

Online Role-Playing Game Teaches English to Chinese Students

According to the New York Times, the video game developer behind the popular Age of Empires game has just released a new video game in China aimed at teaching children a second language.

The fantasy role-playing game is called Wiz World Online, and it incorporates many of the elements that make role-playing games so exciting for children. For example, they get to choose their own avatars and solve challenges in a fantasy world. However, instead of testing how well they can combine spells or how fast they can press buttons, these challenges test their English skills.

The important thing about Wiz World Online is that it allows kids to practice everyday words and phrases in the language they are learning. Also, it allows them to pick up new skills as needed, by sending their character to a “wizard’s library” for English lessons.

By giving kids an incentive to practice, Wiz World Online helps them overcome the shortcomings of traditional, school-based language learning programs.

Alex Wang, the chief executive and co-founder of 8D world, the company responsible for the game, says that the seeds for the idea that later became Wiz World Online were planted during his first visit to America from China. Although he had studied English, he found that he had a hard time communicating in day-to-day conversations with English speakers. His classes simply hadn’t adequately prepared him to be alone in an English-speaking country.

Honestly, no matter how much you study a language in a classroom, visiting a country full of native speakers is likely to be a trial by fire. People use languages differently in real life than they are taught in class, and the only way to truly prepare for that would be to spend a lot of time talking to native speakers from the country and region that you are visiting before you go. Still, games like Wiz World Online have a place in language learning classrooms, especially if children like them enough to play them on their own time. Knowing the fundamentals makes it easier to catch on when you do travel to a foreign country, and too many language classes don’t even leave children with a fundamental grasp of the language.

LinkedIn, Now In Chinese

Last week, social networking juggernaut LinkedIn announced the release of their newest localised website in Simplified Chinese.  This is by no means the first attempt at translation for LinkedIn- the service is now available in a total of 22 different languages. However, moving into the Chinese market presents potential pitfalls not found in most other countries.

For one thing, expanding into China means that LinkedIn is obliged to cater to the Chinese government, censoring posts and collecting data on members in that country. Gary King,  the director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, told Time that around 13 percent of all Chinese social media posts are censored. Issues related to censorship have caused both Google and Twitter to give up similar attempts to court Chinese consumers. Read more

Does the UK Need More Foreign Language Speakers?

Is the UK facing a shortage of foreign language speakers in the near future?  That seems to be the case, a new study from the CBI confirms.

Last year, the British Council released a report describing the potential economic harm caused by not having enough UK workers with the right foreign language skills.

The 2014 CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey supports those conclusions. According to the CBI survey, two thirds of UK employers prefer to hire employees with foreign language skills.

Which languages are companies looking for? The most requested language was French, with 50% of businesses looking to hire French speakers. 49% were looking for German speakers, and 44% were looking for Spanish speakers. However, the number of businesses looking for Mandarin and Arabic speakers is growing. For example, 31% of the firms surveyed considered Mandarin a  useful language for their business. In 2012, only 25 percent did. Likewise, demand for Arabic language skills is up 4 percent since 2012.

In a statement,  CBI deputy director general Katja Hall expressed concern about the number of UK students learning these languages:

“With the EU still our largest export market, it’s no surprise to see German, French and Spanish language skills so highly prized by companies. But with China and Latin America seeing solid growth, ambitious firms want the language skills that can smooth the path into new markets. It has been a worry to see foreign language study in our schools under pressure with one in five schools having a persistently low take-up of languages. The jury remains out as to whether recent government initiatives can help spur a resurgence in language learning. Young people considering their future subject choices should be made more aware of the benefits to their careers that can come from studying a foreign language.”

To address this problem, the  government is making foreign  languages mandatory in UK schools starting at age seven.

Is there anything else we should be doing to encourage British children to learn foreign languages? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by mklapper

Almonds or Apricot Kernels

Q: When is an apricot kernel not an apricot kernel?

A: When it’s an almond, as droves of Chinese grocery shoppers are learning to their dismay.

Apricot kernels have  long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat afflictions such as colds and coughs. Almonds have a similar flavor, but are not believed to have the same medicinal value. So, Chinese grocery shoppers were dismayed to learn that the “American big apricot kernels” they’d been buying from retailers like Walmart for years were nothing more than common American almonds.

According to the Global Times, the misunderstanding is a result of a translation error that dates back to the 1970s. When the Almond Board of California began marketing their products in China, at first they used several different translations for the word “almond:”

  • xingren, or “apricot kernels”
  • badanmu, or “almonds”
  • biantaoren, or “flat peach kernels”

“Xingren” was the translation that stuck around, and most if not all Chinese consumers believed they were, in fact, buying apricot kernels.

Walmart shopper Zhao Hong told the Global Times:

“But when I heard that the nuts I bought are in fact almonds, I felt I’d been cheated…”The translation misled me, and I thought the almonds were apricot kernels from the US.”

She wasn’t the only one taken aback. The Chinese government was, too. The decades-old translation error only came to light in 2009, when the China National Food Industry Association tried to create an industry standard for apricot kernels. Weng Yangyang, secretary-general of the Specialized Committee for Roasted Seeds and Nuts, said the committee was “shocked when the ABC told us the ‘American big apricot kernels’ are not apricot kernels, and so have no association with the compilation of the industry standards.”

Even worse, “American big apricot kernels” go for several times the price of actual Chinese apricot kernels, with prices buoyed by the fact that produce from America is often believed to be superior. Plus, almonds are naturally bigger and thus have an advantage over real apricot kernels, as Meng Xianwu, director of the Working Committee of Apricot Kernels at the Association of Cash Forest of China under the State Forestry Administration, explained:

“Almonds can be easily puffed up during processing, while apricot kernels will be broken during the process. Consumers naturally would choose the bigger ones over the small ones.”

All of this goes to show how important it is to get your product names translated correctly the first time. The translation error may have given California almonds an advantage in the past, but it remains to be seen what will happen to their sales once the mistake is corrected.

 

Chinese Opera Program

Music may be the “universal language,” but that didn’t make learning to sing opera in Chinese any easier for the 20 American singers who joined China’s “I Sing Beijing” program this summer. The Associated Press chronicled the vocalists’ struggles in a recent article.

You probably remember learning to sing “Frère Jacques” and “Feliz Navidad” in school as a child. Unfortunately for the vocalists, learning to sing opera well in Mandarin is decidedly more challenging. For example, vocal coach Katherine Chu told the AP:

“Singers are already sensitive to pitch, which is a big advantage in learning Mandarin. But certain words, like ‘zi’ and ‘zhi,’ aren’t singer-friendly. These words can tighten the jaw so we have to teach them how to carry the tones.”

And there’s more…Mandarin includes sounds that aren’t even found in English as well as different intonation patterns, making it quite difficult to master. Read more

Chinese Takes Over in American Schools

American school systems, often strapped for cash and forced to divert resources toward preparing kids for standardized achievement tests, have been slowly decreasing their foreign-language offerings. According to the New York Times, “thousands” of American schools have dropped languages from their foreign-language programs in the past decade. Japanese has been especially affected, but the number of schools offering instruction in European languages like French and German is also declining.

However, even though the study of foreign languages in general has declined, the number of American students learning Chinese is on the increase. Over the past 10 years, the number of American schools teaching Chinese has increased substantially, from around 300 to around 1,600.

There are a couple of different factors driving this trend. One reason, of course, is China’s growing economic clout. Another is the fact that the Chinese government, through Hanban, a language council affiliated with the Chinese Education Ministry, sponsors Chinese “guest teachers” to come to the US and teach. Hanban contributes $13,000 toward each guest teacher’s salary, with the school district paying the rest. To a school district having trouble making ends meet, the extra money makes a big difference.

For example, here’s what Parthena Draggett, the director of the world languages department at Ohio’s Jackson High School, told the New York Times:

“We were able to get a free Chinese teacher. I’d like to start a Spanish program for elementary children, but we can’t get a free Spanish teacher.”

So far, Hanban, which works with the College Board to administer the guest teacher program, has sent 325 teachers to teach in US schools. The two organizations also offer a program that subsidizes trips to China for American educators. It’s wonderful that more American students are learning Chinese, and that the program helps cash-poor school districts offer more foreign language classes. At the same time, it’s sad that other foreign language offerings are becoming scarcer, especially in the younger grades, when it’s easier to learn a new language.

The New York Times Now Speaks Chinese

Last week, the New York Times learned a new language: Chinese. The US-based media company launched a Chinese-language website last Thursday at cn.nytimes.com.

According to the New York Times’ Media Decoder blog, a majority of the content will consist of existing articles that have been translated into Chinese. However, approximately 1/3 of it is expected to be original, created by freelance contributors and the newspapers’ Chinese reporters and staff.

What prompted the new site? As always, business considerations were part of the motivation. As the Media Decoder blog pointed out, China’s rapidly growing, conspicuously consuming upper class has become a prize demographic for advertisers. Denise F. Warren, the paper’s chief advertising officer, said that advertisers acquired so far have been “generally luxury manufacturers. But I believe there will also be an opportunity for corporate and financial advisers. We believe we will be reaching a global, well-educated, international audience.”

The other motivation, according to a New York Times statement to its readers, is to “provide China’s growing number of educated, affluent, global citizens with high-quality coverage of world affairs, business and culture.”

Successfully reporting on certain topics is likely to be a little bit more difficult than selling ads, but the company pledged to do its best. The website will be hosted on servers in Hong Kong, and there are no plans to become an official Chinese media company. As foreign editor Joseph Kahn put it,

“We’re not tailoring it to the demands of the Chinese government, so we’re not operating like a Chinese media company. China operates a very vigorous firewall. We have no control over that. We hope and expect that Chinese officials will welcome what we’re doing.”

Thus far, it seems the road may have been a bit rockier than the New York Times would have liked. The Guardian is reporting that two of the sites’ social media accounts were suspended for several hours following the launch, though the Times was happy with the traffic it has received since the site went online.

Chinese Language Teacher Becomes Internet Celebrity

In China, Jessica Beinecke is kind of  a big deal.

The 27-year-old language teacher has become an internet celebrity for her work on OMG Meiyu (OMG American English), a YouTube program produced by Voice of America that teaches American slang terms like “twerk” and “swag” to Mandarin speakers.  She also has two programs of her own: Crazy Fresh Chinese, which teaches English-speaking students how to say words like “totes” and “hipster” in Mandarin, and Bai Jie LaLaLa. Like OMG Meiyu, Bai Jie LaLaLa is aimed at Chinese speakers.

With her offbeat, bubbly personality and model-pretty good looks, Ms. Beinecke ( Bai Jie to her Chinese audience) has attracted a loyal army of fans, including 400,000 followers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

Why the focus on slang, especially the type of slang words that more conservative English scholars see as a sign of the coming apocalypse? Ms. Beinecke told the Wall Street Journal that the show’s format makes the language more accessible to young students:

“I kind of spice it up and give them something to use. They can say when they go to Starbucks, ‘Hey, get me a zhong bei dou na tie – give me a medium soy latte. It’s something they can use in the moment. So I think that’s what really connects.”

The effect goes both ways, also making Mandarin more relatable to an American audience, she says:

“The looks on their faces when they learn there’s a word for swag and twerk in Mandarin, they instantly have this new connection to Mandarin and they can more instantly relate to a language that they thought up to that point was foreign to them.”

The videos are fun, bite-sized and almost addictive. For example,  if you’ve ever wondered how to say “hipster” in Mandarin, wonder no more:

Translation services in Chinese

Chinese Language Information

The Chinese language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. More than 1.3 billion of people speak Chinese with the majority of the Chinese speaking population concentrated only in a small number of countries: China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The written Chinese language characters are not just pictographs (which make up less than 5%), but they are highly stylised and carry much abstract meaning. The total number of the characters is not known accurately, 50,000+ is a good approximation. Read more

Chinglish

Language barriers and mistranslations are fertile ground for comedy. Chinese translations of English seem to be particularly vulnerable to gaffes, possibly due to a shortage of fluent English speakers and a corresponding over-reliance on translation software.

As an aside, it should be noted that English speakers have their own problems when it comes to translating Chinese characters. Also, at least our Eastern brethren’s translation failures seem to be confined to signs and menus as opposed to permanent tattoos. You can always change a sign! Read more