Chinese as lingua franca

Thinking about Chinese today (and procrastinating from doing my homework), I drifted to the idea of Chinese (Mandarin) as a lingua franca, and wondered if such a thing was possible.

Since I took the HSK yesterday, I looked up information on language tests on Wikipedia. As someone who’s studied TESOL, linguistics, and second-language acquisition, it’s all pretty fascinating. One of the things I found out was that passing a standardized English exam is a requirement for a college degree, even in countries where English isn’t an official language, such as Italy. As far as I can tell, no other language has become a standard like this.

There are numerous reasons why English has become a lingua franca, and people will undoubtedly debate which ones are more important, and which ones aren’t important at all. My personal thoughts are because of the proliferation and global availability of English language media (movies, music, tv shows, etc), and because there isn’t an official English language academy. Because English lacks an official academy, it’s a bit of a mongrel language that incorporates many bits and pieces from other languages, and it also gives English a lot of flexibility to come up with new words while other words fall out of favor.

But I digress. This post is meant to be about Chinese as a lingua franca, not English. Searching for “Chinese as a lingua franca” on the internet, it’s not surprising that many others have also wondered about it. (It might seem ironic that all the articles I saw are written in English, but that’s probably a selection bias since my search term was in English. There might be some equally good articles in Chinese or in other languages.)

Most of the articles I read indicated doubt that Mandarin (or any other version of Chinese) will ever become a lingua franca. Most of those articles can be boiled down to “Chinese is too hard to learn” or “tones and/or characters are too hard to learn”. As someone who’s variously taken classes in French, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese, and who has occasionally studied Swedish, Norwegian, Latin, and Hebrew, I’m fairly confident in saying that Chinese is no more difficult to learn than any other language. It takes time to learn any language. The more time devoted to studying a language, the easier it becomes to understand and use.

One of the best posts I came across, someone in a forum posed the following question: “Can anyone make a good case for making Chinese the official language of international interactions?” While the question was interesting, one of the replies caught my attention. The author suggested that certain things would need to happen in order for Chinese to become a lingua franca. These are:
1. China becomes a superpower, and US is no longer a superpower
2. China dominates the world in international trade, economy and exert (sic) cultural influence around the world
3. Chinese movies and modern culture are everywhere the world (sic)….

Another author in the same thread also suggested that it would take at least a generation after those things happened before Chinese truly became a lingua franca.

It’s incredibly fascinating, but rather than post to a nearly decade old thread, I’m using my blog to express a different thought:

While online translation tools aren’t perfect, they’re getting better all the time. They’re pretty good when it comes to words or short phrases, but less so when it comes to abstractions such as similes and metaphors. Still, as they get better, that might change in the future.

With the development of translation tools (e.g. Google Translate, among others), and with the addition of speech-to-text and text-to-speech tools, will the idea of a lingua franca continue to be important in the future?

If a person in the US can speak English to someone in China who only understands Mandarin, but with both of them using a “universal translator” of sorts, will we still need the concept of a lingua franca? Will it still be important?

The HSK 1 experience

Yesterday I took the HSK exam and thought I’d share some thoughts on the experience.
In Indianapolis, the exam is administered by the Confucius Institute at IUPUI, and for whatever reason, the exam is paper-based, not computer-based.

When signing up for the HSK, you get an email from chinesetest.cn confirming that you’ve booked a spot for the test. It just has the date, not the time. A few weeks before the test, you get a follow-up email telling you the time to show up for the exam. My Chinese teacher, who also works for the Confucius Institute, said they have to wait until the registration deadline passes to figure out how many people are signed up, so they can work out a schedule of when the tests should take place. For me, the follow up email said the exam was to take place at 13:30 yesterday (the email actually used 13:30, not 1:30 PM).

However, last week during class, our teacher said our HSK we should arrive at 8:30, not 1:30. Apparently one of the test takers requested to take the test in the morning, so they moved us all to a new time. I think this was a bit unofficial, since I didn’t get a new email reflecting this new time.

Arriving for the test, the requirements are a photo ID (the same ID that was used for test registration), a 2B pencil, and the test ticket. I forgot to print my test ticket, but luckily the teacher did that for us (all of the test-takers for the HSK 1 were students from her class). I didn’t think it was important, but it turns out it is. The test ticket has information that has to be transferred to the test form. The test form itself is a fill-in-the-bubbles style of paper which will presumably be scanned for scoring.

There were three of us at the exam, but four were scheduled. It turns out one of us had to work (even though it was a Saturday). 老师 handed out our test tickets and the blank test forms, then had us spend a few minutes transferring information from the tickets.

Note: The exam form said that we should write down our name as it appears on our ID, even though it wasn’t required during registration. This led to some confusion about whether we needed to add our middle names. Most state IDs include a middle name or initial, but we seldom use them in our everyday lives. I registered for the exam as Michael Hawkes, but my ID says Michael Peter Hawkes, and I ended up writing down the latter on the test form.

After we finished with that, 老师 handed out the sealed test booklets and told us not to open them right away. She read out the official HSK instructions, which were in Chinese, but she also gave us brief translations (e.g. “Don’t open the test booklets yet.”)

The HSK level 1 exam has two parts: listening comprehension and reading comprehension. Each section has 20 questions. For the listening part, there is an official HSK audio file that is played (I think it’s from a CD, but I’m not sure). The audio says something, and we pick out the best response from those listed in the booklet. The audio section is a mixture of true/false and multiple choice questions. While I didn’t understand everything that was said, I understood enough to get the right answers (I hope). The reading comprehension section was fairly similar with the true/false and multiple choice questions, but the last few questions confused me a bit. It was a section of five fill-in-the-blanks type of questions, and there were five 汉字 to choose from. However, two of the characters were ones I didn’t know, so I had to guess where they were supposed to go. Since I’m pretty confident i guessed correctly on the other three, that gives me a 50/50 chance of getting them right or wrong.

Note: By the way, downloading HSK 1 practice exam from www.chinesetest.cn and using it to study was very helpful. The format of the practice exam was the same as that of the actual test, though the questions were obviously different.

After 老师 collected the exams, we left. The exam scores are supposed to be listed on the www.chinesetest.cn website in 30 days and after 45 days we should be able to get the certificates. I presume the tests are being sent to China to be graded. The maximum score is 200 points and 120 points are needed to pass.

The local Confucius Institute offers the HSK test twice a year, once in the spring and once in the autumn. My plan is to take the HSK level 2 exam this coming fall, and possible take the level 3 exam next spring, though I’ll have to wait and see. The number of words and characters to know grows with each level of HSK exam. Below is a list of how many words a test-taker must know for each level:

Level new words cumulative
HSK 1 150 150
HSK 2 150 300
HSK 3 300 600
HSK 4 600 1200
HSK 5 1300 2500
HSK 6 2500 5000

Basically, each level of the test is double the level of difficulty of the previous level, and hypothetically should take twice as long to learn. While I’m pretty confident I can take and pass the HSK level 2 exam this fall, I’m not positive I’ll be able to learn enough to pass the HSK level 3 by spring of 2015. We’ll see.

HSK

Next Saturday, April 12th, I take the HSK level at 1:30 pm at the Confucius Institute at IUPUI. About a month ago I took an HSK Level 1 practice exam and supposing I scored it correctly, I did pretty good. Also, since my grade in class is just over 90%, I feel good about doing the 汉语水平考试.

When I registered, they didn’t give us the time of the exam. My Chinese teacher, who also runs the local Confucius Institute said it was because they have to determine how many people are the different levels of the HSK exam that day. I guess they want to make sure all the Level 1 examinees take the test at the same time, all the Level 2 examinees take their test at the same time and so on. Since this is the only HSK testing center in Indiana, we will probably have students learning Chinese at other schools and colleges.

One odd thing is that the test is given on paper at this location. I’m not sure why that is, but I guess it probably has to do with the center’s funding and the requirements for computer-based test centers. When I took my CompTIA exam in January, that test center was sort of high security. Test takers had to leave belongings in lockers outside the testing room. The only thing we could bring in was the key to the locker. I wasn’t even allowed to wear my analog watch. I imagine HSK probably has similar requirements for its computer-based test centers.

Chess masters

Judging by the news that the Russian Senate unanimously approved Putin’s request to send military forces to the Ukraine, I wondered what the US might do? Send a sternly worded letter? Sanctions?

Sending ships into the Black Sea might be one possibility, but I also thought Russia might give up Edward Snowden if the US agrees to back off regarding Russia’s plans for the Ukraine.

Far-fetched, I know.

OS X 10.9 Mavericks

I’ve been using OS X 10.9 for awhile now and one respect it actually seems a bit slower than the previous versions of OS X. After I login, it takes a lot longer for the Dock and the Desktop icons to appear. I’ve noticed this on two different Macs.

Violently ill

It’s nearly five in the morning, and I’m awake after feeling some indigestion. It’s subsiding now, but it’s a very potent reminder of what happened to me on Friday.

Last Friday, I was tired and went to bed early, and around 5:30 pm or 6:00 pm. I woke up around 11:30 because of a feeling of indigestion. I took some generic Tums and sat at my desk awhile, waiting for the indigestion to subside, but it didn’t exactly. Instead, I felt nauseous. Shortly before midnight, I was in the bathroom, vomiting heavily. I felt terrible. I tried to go back to bed, but about half an hour later, I began to feel nauseous again. A little after 1:00 am, I was back in the bathroom, vomiting. Sadly, this became a routine over the next several hours. Between 11:30 pm Friday and 7:30 am the following morning, I vomited seven times.

I’ve been sick before; with the flu, food-borne illness, and alcoholic over-indulgence, but I’ve never been as sick as this. In the past, when I’ve been sick, I might vomit two or three times over the course of a few hours. This weekend, was much worse than any of those previous episodes.

Vomiting can lead to dehydration. Knowing this, after the first time or two I vomited, I rinsed out my mouth with water (spitting it all out), then drank some water. I also thought it might help calm my stomach. It didn’t. By the third time, I decided to try some coconut water that I had in the fridge. On the container, it says it’s good for rehydration, so I figured it couldn’t hurt. It didn’t help either, since I vomited again later on. After that, I didn’t drink anything, but still used water to rinse my mouth, trying to console myself that it must be over soon.

Knowing that vomiting can lead to dehydration, and unable to keep any water down by the traditional route, I knew I would need an IV to get rehydrated. After vomiting for the seventh time shortly after 7:00 am, I decided to walk to the Methodist Hospital ER, six blocks away. I was there for a couple of hours and got an IV of saline, and they also gave me a shot of some anti-nausea medication (anti-emetic). They discharged me with a prescription for Zofran, a sub-lingual tablet for nausea treatment.

I picked up the prescription, along with some ginger ale (a good home remedy for nausea), and went back home. I felt better, but still wasn’t great. I felt a bit feverish, and my body ached all over. I went to bed around noon and woke up around 5:00 pm. It felt great to sleep that long without being nauseous. I had a fever of 101ºF, and my body ached, so I still felt miserable, but at least I wasn’t nauseous. Around 6:00 pm, I went to sleep again, and woke again around midnight. Around 1:30 I went back to sleep again, and woke up around 8:30. That morning, for a few hours, I had some diarrhea, but I was still glad it wasn’t nausea.

Throughout Sunday, I gradually started to feel better. My back still ached, but I attributed that to all the vomiting (it felt a bit like I had done too many sit-ups, and the bouts of nausea were definitely an intense workout).

This morning, since waking up, I’ve taken a Zofran pill and drank some coconut water. I’ve had some diarrhea, and haven’t decided if I’ll go into work or not (probably, yes, I think).

I suspect that the reason I got sick was due to something I ate, but I don’t know what. The brands of food shall be nameless, but I’ll be leery of trying them again for awhile. It’s also possible that I had the flu, though I got a flu shot in September. In the past, when I’ve gotten sick from bad food, I don’t remember getting a fever, which makes me think it was the flu. However, according to Wikipedia (caveat emptor), fever can sometimes accompany this illness.

One strange side-effect I noticed after first vomiting was that the skin on my face got all blotchy. I washed my face, but it didn’t go away. My face is still a bit blotchy in places, but not as bad as it was on Saturday. I also have sub-conjunctival hemorrhages in both eyes, but that’s not surprising given the frequency and intensity of the vomiting. Luckily, those cause no pain, and go away on their own.

Personal goals for Chinese

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I think goals are a good idea. Goals seem to have more specificity, in my mind. I’m sometimes been asked why I want to learn Chinese, but there’s no simple answer for that. However, I have come up with some simple goals for my Chinese studies that I want to accomplish over the coming year.

  • To take and pass HSK levels 1 and 2.
  • To be able to write 印第安纳,印第安纳波利斯 from memory.
  • To read a Chinese language article and understand it without having to rely on Pleco or Mandarin Popup.
  • To listen to a Mandarin newscast and understand it.
  • To do my resume in Chinese.
  • To engage in a conversation in Mandarin with a native speaker.

These are just the goals for this year. I don’t anticipate becoming fluent, or even very good, but I hope to understand and be understood.

回中文课

Classes started again this past week, so that means I started in the next level Chinese class EALC-C132. EALC is East Asian Languages and Cultures and the second C stands for Chinese. They only have Chinese and Japanese, which is a shame, since 我觉得 it would be cool to learn Korean or Thai. The Bloomington campus of IU has a much larger selection of language programs to choose from. But, I digress…

This class looks like it will be more interesting than other language classes I’ve taken. Some of the required assignments include using QQ (a Chinese instant messaging app) to engage in conversation with our 同学们 (classmates), and submitting audio and video recordings to OnCourse (a IU website for classes). If I understand correctly, the recordings will be of us using Chinese. We’ll see how that goes.

Just before the first class, I mentioned to 吴老师 that I thought I did fairly well on the HSK level 1 practice test, then she suggested I try the level 2 practice test. The HSK exam isn’t until March 16th, and registration doesn’t begin until sometime in February, so I have a bit of time to try it out. 0_o

I’ve tried a couple new recipes for 包子 which I’ll post sometime.

Fight tube

While there are a lot of porn tube sites, there should be a fight tube site. There are sites that show professional and amateur bouts (MMA, boxing, etc), but that’s not what I’m thinking. The fight tube site I want to see is one with fights taken from films and TV shows.

There could be categories, like gun fights, martial arts fights, one-on-one fights, one-vs-many fights, sword fights, aerial dogfights, epic battles, car chases (which I think of as a type of fighting with vehicles), and so on.

I thought about this while watching Bruce Lee’s Game of Death. 李先生 died before it was finished, so the producers cobbled together a storyline to paste together a bunch of Bruce Lee fight scenes. Basically, the film is a bunch of Bruce Lee fight scenes interspersed with some scenes to let the audience know there’s a plot, too. Then I started wondering how those fight scenes compared to fight scenes from other movies. It probably wouldn’t be fair to compare a fight with Bruce Lee to a fight with Clint Eastwood (Epic Rap Battles of History, notwithstanding), but it would be easy to compare his fights to those in more modern martial arts films, such as Ip Man.

The weather outside is frightful

As the old song says, “The weather outside is frightful.” I’ve lived in Indy 14 years and this is probably the worst storm I’ve seen in that time. Work (IUPUI) is closed tomorrow. That’s not such a big deal, since they’ve closed the campus because of weather on previous occasions. However, those previous closures were called around five or six in the morning on the day of those closure. This time, they closed it more than twelve hours ahead of time.

While I’m not one to complain about closures, I’ve been on vacation the past two weeks and have stuff to do. Some of the things might be easier to get done if no one else is around (i.e. a computer/device inventory), but other stuff will be hard to do, such fixing people’s computers when they’re not around to tell me what’s wrong.

At the moment there’s a lot of snow on the ground, it’s about 10ºF with gusty wind. Sometime tomorrow (er, today), the wind chill is supposed to be around -24º. The snow doesn’t bother me so much, but the temperatures make it a good day to stay home.