Monday, April 27, 2009

How (and Why!) to Write Chinese by Typing it!

For all intents and purposes, these days “writing” in Chinese is really just typing it – and if you can spell the pinyin for each character, then you can become literate at the same pace as you become verbally fluent in Mandarin.

Windows (98, XP, Vista) generally includes Language Interface Pack (LIU) in its operating system. If you only have the Basic Vista package, it’s not included (which I just found out) but you can download it free of charge from the Microsoft website (which I also found out, in short order). If you’re having trouble getting characters to work after you've loaded the LIU Pack, here's how you do it:

To install Traditional Characters (with Pinyin input):

Go to StartControl PanelRegional Languages OptionsKeyboards and LanguagesChange KeyboardChinese (Taiwan) double click → Chinese Traditional New Phonetic

Now click on Chinese Traditional New Phonetic (in your list of languages. Look at the sidebar, which says add, remove and properties) → propertieskeyboardHanYu Pinyin

To add Simplified Characters as well:
Click add scroll down and pick Chinese (PRC)

Done? Yay! Now you’re ready to type in Chinese!!

This predictive text program makes typing so easy! For example, if I want to type “I am a student”, I will type “wo” (I) and 我 appears. Then I type “shi” (am) and then 是, the correct character, appears. Given that there are so many different characters with the pronunciation “shi”, how does the program know that 是 is the right one? Because this 是is the most logical choice for this sentence – and in this case, correct. The rest of the sentence continues in the same way…next I type “yi” and get 一 (which means one, and combined with the classifier “ge” 個, the next two characters I type, together mean “a/an”. Finally, I type “xue” and 學 pops up, which I follow with “sheng” 生. The 學 appeared because, again, it is one of the most common characters, and the most logical in this sentence. 生 follows, because there’s only one compound word with the combination “xuesheng” (student) – and the program knows this. It’s smart!

What if I don’t want the default characters the program provides? Let’s say I type “yao”. The most common one, 要, comes up, however I don’t want the “yao” that means “want”, but the “yao” that means “medicine”. Since 要 has a dotted line under it, I can change it. (It only “sets” when you press enter, and the dotted line disappears.) To change characters, I use my down and side arrow keys at the bottom right hand of the key board. To get the correct character, 藥, I press the down arrow (↓) and see 9 options, each with a handy key in number on the left. I scroll down to number 3 because that’s the “yao” I want. To see all the characters, I can press the down arrow (↓) and then press the right arrow key (→) and presto, 81 different characters for the sound “yao” appear. (The one drawback to this program is that the characters are so darned small. You have two options – you can squint like me, or you can invest in a magnifying glass like my student, who assures me it works like a charm!)

We have taken great pains to ensure that the pinyin equivalent is either under or beside every character in the Very Practical Chinese Book and its accompanying Study Guide – ensuring that you are able to write anything you find in either one. As you get more and more comfortable with the dialogues, absorbing the syntax and vocabulary, you will be able to write your own thoughts in emails, MS Messenger and text messages. You will be literate as long as you are supported by the current level of technology we have. And let’s face it: If the day comes when we no longer have cell phones and computers, chances are the inability to write in Chinese will sadly be the least of your worries.

So, presuming you’ll always have access to the equipment that allows you to type in Chinese, is there any reason that you would still want to learn to write characters old school, stroke by stroke? Well, while it’s a very artistic language to “draw”, the beauty and spontaneity of the “brush strokes” is lost on all but the most diehard purists by the 10th or 20th time you write a character, bearing in mind that it might take 100 times for you to actually commit just one character to memory. Ditto for being able to keep a Chinese diary of your secrets, strictly for the purpose (well, this was my pathetic purpose) of leaving it around the house, knowing no one else in your family would be able to read what it says. (As it so happens, no one was that interested in my secret thoughts, so the effort to payoff ratio was dismal.) Perhaps you’re worried that you might be on the street and run up against a situation where you have to give someone an address…well, your cell phone has all the same characters as your computer, the same Pinyin (or BPMF, if you prefer) input. Finally, let me assure you that unless you are very different from most of us, the day you stop copying characters out 10- 20 times each is the day you start to forget them. A year from the day you stopped, you might remember how to handwrite 1/20th of what you once knew if you’ve got a VERY good memory. It’s depressing but true, and I speak from personal experience.

The bottom line is that learning to handwrite characters stroke by stroke is not a viable option for time sensitive non-native adult learners of Chinese. We don’t have all the time in the world, unlike those industrious grade school children all across China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan who tack on a good hour or two to their homework schedule every night for 15 years, just to become literate.

So why not give it a try? You’ll be amazed at how fast you’re able to express your ideas in writing. Be sure to make use of all the FREE study materials at to become impressively fluent and literate in Mandarin in no time flat!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

An Introduction to VPC

I got the idea for Very Practical Chinese while making up ad-lib conversations to have in stores or restaurants the first year I lived in Taiwan. I’d often go to big department stores to practice my fledgling abilities. First would look up vocabulary words (colors, sizes, clothing styles) and then do my best to piece together conversations (“If she says this, then I’ll say that, then she’ll say this and I’ll say that!”). Of the books that existed for learning Chinese, very few had a primary focus on conversation, and I found the little conversation provided to not be very useful. I felt and still feel very strongly that if you are in a Chinese speaking environment, you should adopt a “the world is my oyster” approach to studying, using every outing, shopping trip, restaurant visit and chance encounter as a way to improve your Chinese.

While the vast majority of Mandarin speakers (in my experience over a decade in Taiwan) are unfailingly polite and helpful, eager to help you learn, it was my experience also that a student could help conversations along – after all, there are only so many ways a conversation in a market buying fruit, in a hair salon, or in a clothing store are likely to go, realistically. I felt that if, before going out, you learn (or even better, commit to memory) conversations you’ll be likely to have, your chances of having useful encounters with native speakers on a daily basis that quantifiably improve your Chinese would be much likelier to occur.

Many of the unique VPC dialogues focus on starting conversations using compliments: “Your hair looks great!” (Chapter 14), “You look great today!” (Chapter 29), “I love your bag!” (Chapter 33), and “What a pretty baby you have!” (Chapter 43) are just a few of the chapters designed to start a conversation by saying something nice. If you commit enough of these dialogues to memory (by listening and repeating the audio with/without the book) and practice them until you can say them in your sleep, you’ll find that sooner or later, real, spontaneous conversation starts to develop. What first begins as a conscious effort to make piecemeal conversations, grabbing a sentence from one dialogue and pairing it with another, soon evolves into a very natural conversation where your 45 conversations (and 3000 plus words and phrases from the VPC Book and Study Guide) give you a strong, supported base, from which you can jump to specific topics.

If you’d like to learn more about the VPC Books, check out our website at: Here you’ll find sample chapters of the first three chapters of the VPC Book and Study Guide, including the audio tracks, as well as the table of contents and a selection of other material from the books. In addition, our website has a good selection of high quality, supplementary materials, such as flashcards and writing templates. Designed to be used in conjunction with the VPC Book and Study Guide, they are FREE for you to download and use, to speed your fluency in Mandarin!

We welcome you to follow this blog for excerpts from the VPC Book and Study Guide, as well as postings on a wide variety of topics, including how to achieve success with tone, tips for a language exchange, study tips and much more!