Lockdown protesters need to sit down – at home or in jail.

“Freedom!”, you cry. “Vrijheid!” Your right to personal freedom and movement shouldn’t trump everyone’s right to stay healthy and to not have to be in quarantine. I guess it’s escaped some people’s minds that when someone has to go into quarantine, that person has to give up their personal freedom and movement. If you get that person sick with an infectious virus, you just took away that person’s right to personal freedom and movement. Freedom is a universal ideal. It’s for everyone, not just you.

Which side of the fence were you on regarding Syrian refugees? Which side of the fence are you on regarding foreigners (like me) and future refugees moving to your country? This is about freedom too.

Please stop using “freedom” as a tool just to get what you want. Stay home. Blijf thuis.

Your local Canadian living in the Netherlands

P.S. What I just wrote applies globally even though I’m thinking about the protests in the Netherlands and my situation here.

Is “Chinese” a complicated/difficult language? (And how does it compare to Russian?)

When someone mentions the language “Chinese”, nowadays they are usually referring to the current standard promoted by the Chinese government. That standard is currently Mandarin using simplified characters. However, there are other varieties of spoken Chinese such as Cantonese (considered to be a lingua franca), Taishanese (formerly considered to be a lingua franca; it was the most common variety of Chinese spoken in the Chinatowns of North America – this might be why, in the 1960s, the U.S. Defense Language Institute offered a course teaching it), Shanghainese (also once considered a lingua franca), and Hakka. It is estimated that there are hundreds of varieties of Chinese. For political reasons, some may claim these are all just dialects, even though the varieties are not necessarily mutually intelligible. Based on my own knowledge of the following languages, I’d say Taishanese and Cantonese are closely related like Spanish and Italian, but Mandarin is to Taishanese as French is to Spanish.

When learning a Chinese language, we are really learning two languages – the written language and the spoken language. By that, I mean that the written language does not indicate what the spoken language sounds like phonetically. Even though there are “sound-loan” characters and “sound-meaning compound” characters, we still need to learn the sound associated with the original “loaned” character. Written Chinese is “logosyllabic” and each character represents a syllable. Each character can also represent a word, but other words may be made up of more than one character/syllable. Technically, there is only one writing system for Chinese. However, there are two different sets of characters in the system – simplified and traditional. The simplified characters are so named because they were “simplified” from their traditional, more complex forms. Not all characters were simplified though, which means that some characters are the same across both the simplified and traditional sets. Some examples include 我 (“I”), ä½  (“you”), 女 (“female”), ç”· (“male”), æ°´ (“water”), and 火 (“fire”). As mentioned, the standard by the Chinese government is to use the simplified characters. However, traditional characters are used in other varieties of Chinese such as Cantonese and Taishanese. Additionally, even though Mandarin is spoken in places like Taiwan and Macau, traditional characters are used.

When comparing “Chinese” to another language, we should first compare the writing systems.

As mentioned, written Chinese is logosyllabic. Russian uses an alphabet, which consists of 33 letters. That’s only seven more letters than in the English alphabet. Some of the Russian letters look like English letters and are pronounced like in English (e.g. “а”, “о”). Others only look like English letters, but have different pronunciations (e.g. “е”, “Ñ€”). If someone has learned a bit of Greek, then some of the Russian letters simply look like Greek letters (e.g., “г”, “Ñ„”, “п”). Once someone manages to learn these 33 letters, he/she can read and write Russian.

For written Chinese, learning about 2000 characters is considered the most basic level. Learning about 4500 is considered to be a decent foundation for reading most contemporary Chinese materials. That is significantly a lot more to remember compared to an alphabet of 33 letters. This is also assuming that we are only learning one set of characters (either the simplified or the traditional; if we are learning both sets, obviously the number of characters would increase). Granted, Chinese characters can be broken down into individual smaller characters, but we still have to pay attention to how the character is composed. Then there are also similar looking characters where the type of stroke makes all the difference. For example, compare the traditional characters 貝 and 見. Both these characters are fairly simple, but both can also be used as components in other, more complex characters. Generally, for written Chinese, we need to be quite discerning when reading and writing.

However, written Chinese is becoming easier to learn because of technology. With pinyin for Mandarin and jyutping for Cantonese, typing Chinese characters is pretty easy because all that is required is the ability to recognize the characters that appear in a table after typing the romanization of the Chinese words (for Mandarin, pinyin romanization is used). Additionally, an English speaker who is learning the Chinese writing system nowadays may not ever need to learn to _handwrite every character perfectly in the correct stroke order_ as was the case before modern computing. Basically, written Chinese _can_ be relatively easy to learn for an English speaker who does not need to be concerned with being able to handwrite Chinese characters from memory.

Before comparing the spoken languages of Russian and Mandarin, let’s first compare Mandarin with Cantonese. Mandarin and Cantonese are fairly easy to learn _if_ one has a good ear for recognizing change or no change in pitch (i.e., tones). Compared to Cantonese though, Mandarin is easier to learn since it has fewer tones (four, plus a neutral tone). In the traditional analysis of tone contours, Cantonese is said to have nine tones, although effectively, it has six tones (in Hong Kong) and seven tones (in Guangzhou) (see “Cantonese phonology”). Regarding the other aspects of pronunciation, for Mandarin the pinyin system is slightly misleading. Technically, what is romanized as “b”, “d”, “g”, “z”, “zh”, and “j” should be pronounced as unvoiced consonants. A common mistake among English learners is to voice those consonants. The same is true for Cantonese – “b”, “d”, “g”, “j”, and “gw” should be unvoiced. It is kind of assumed that over a period of time, an English speaker will gradually learn to devoice those consonants. However, this may not even happen if the learner isn’t even aware of the subtle difference. Mandarin does have a few consonants that are tricky for both Cantonese and English speakers. These would be the retroflex “zh”, “ch”, “sh”, and “r”. All of these should have the tongue rolled back. To my ears, these consonants sound muffled, as if someone is speaking with a sock in his/her mouth.

Russian does have a few difficult consonants for English speakers. Ш and щ seem to be the most troublesome consonants. Although, ш and the Mandarin “sh” are quite similar (see “Voiceless retroflex sibilant”). Ж is not too troublesome if one is already familiar with the French “j”, as in “je t’aime” (“I love you”). Learning stress in Russian words isn’t that different than learning the stress in English words. English speakers are used to words having different stresses, but they are not used to every word having a tone. English speakers use tone completely differently than how they are used in tonal languages like Mandarin and Cantonese. For example, the rising tone at the end of a sentence turns it into a question in English. It may take an English speaker some time to adjust to the fact that the rising tone over a syllable at the end of a sentence in a language like Mandarin does not indicate a question; but rather, a sentence final particle is used to indicate a question (e.g. å—Ž). Fundamentally, an English speaker should find a lot more common ground with Russian than with any Chinese language.

In regards to grammar, the type of grammar found in Mandarin or Cantonese is just fundamentally different than the type of grammar for an Indo-European language like Russian. Both of these types of systems have their own complexities and nuances. There may not be noun cases and verb conjugation classes in Mandarin or Cantonese, but there are different categories such as “classifiers” and “particles”. Leaving out a classifier or using the wrong classifier is considered to be poor grammar just as putting the noun in the wrong case is in Russian. Mandarin and Cantonese are also “topic-prominant languages” meaning that the topic of the sentence is placed first in the sentence followed by the comment on the topic. Native speakers of Chinese languages use this “topic-comment” structure quite easily and readily. I can recall my mother (who speaks both Taishanese and Cantonese) saying things like “This dress, my aunt gave me, I give to you”. This kind of sentence structure serves to place a kind of importance on what is said first. In the example with my mother, “this dress” is the most important part of the sentence. If my mother were to say this sentence in any other way, “this dress” would not have the same importance. By choosing to put “this dress” first in the sentence, my mother is indicating how important “this dress” is to her. In English, this would likely be indicated by using emphasis in the sentence (“I’m giving you _this dress_ that my aunt gave me”). In comparing Russian and a language like Mandarin, I’d say it is simply a trade-off between different types of grammar. Neither kind of grammar is easier or harder. They’re just different, and they might just take about the same amount of time to pick up, or not. I think that depends entirely on the individual learning the language. In a language like Russian, declensions and conjugations are about recognizing the pattern of a word and how that word changes; while in languages like Mandarin and Cantonese, the grammar is more about recognizing syntax – the pattern of the whole sentence.

It is interesting to note that the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has consistently listed both Mandarin and Cantonese, along with Japanese, Arabic, and Korean as some of the toughest languages for English speakers to learn (see Language Difficulty Ranking ). Their ranking is based on the amount of time it should take an English speaker to reach a specific proficiency in speaking and reading the language.

An interesting article to read is Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard. “I would say that it takes about three times as long to reach a level of comfortable fluency in speaking, reading, and writing Chinese as it takes to reach a comparable level in French. An average American could probably become reasonably fluent in two Romance languages in the time it would take them to reach the same level in Chinese.” Indeed!

Я изучаю русский язык (I’m learning Russian)!

I reached Level 10 Russian! https://www.duolingo.com

I still have a long way to go though. Since Russian is significantly harder than Spanish, Italian, French, and Dutch (the language trees I’ve already completed on Duolingo), I’ve been doing quite a bit of the “strengthening” for it (at least three a day). While I was able to finish the trees for the other languages (I finished two trees each for Spanish, Italian, and French – there is only one tree for Dutch) somewhere between level 11 and level 13 (doing little to no strengthening), I think I will be aiming to finish the Russian tree by level 20.

(By the way, Italian is fairly easy to learn once you already know Spanish and French. ^_^)

Learn Taishanese (aka Hoisanva, Toisanwa) – 學台山話

我講台山話,未講普通話。我曉少少廣州話。I speak Taishanese, but I don’t speak Mandarin yet. I know a little bit of Cantonese. It’s taken some time, but I can finally type a bit of Chinese. 🙂

Some time ago I mentioned that I had found learning materials for Taishanese. I have finally finished volumes one and two of that material. 😀 The process of going through the DLI Chinese-Cantonese (Toishan) material has been slow-going for a few reasons (the material consisted of hand-written characters and I also had to make notes and flash cards by hand since I could not type Chinese characters at first), but now I should be able to make it through the next few volumes in a shorter time frame (there are seven volumes in total, though the last volume appears to consist of mostly military and political vocabulary).

Once I started learning how to type Chinese characters (using the Cangjie input method), I set up an Anki deck. If you use Anki, you may download my Anki deck consisting of characters, vocabulary, and expressions from Volumes One and Two of the DLI Chinese-Cantonese (Toishan) material. A permanent link can be found on my LEARN TAISHANESE (台山話) page.

I have also created corresponding courses on Memrise. If you use Memrise, you can search under Taishanese for my courses. The direct links to the courses are:

DLI Toishan-Cantonese Volume 1
DLI Toishan-Cantonese Volume 2

Under the Taishanese courses, you will also see a short course called Beginner’s Chinese Characters (in 台山話). This is based off another Anki deck of mine, which is also available for download (permanent link can be found at LEARN TAISHANESE (台山話)).

Now, I’m ready for Volume 3! 🙂


A Small Tribute to “Ai Gu” (Daddy’s Elder Sister)

I was just about to get comfortable to study some languages again. Then, I find out my 90-something-year-old aunt died last night. Now, my brain is busy trying to remember something more concrete about her. Most of my memories of her are from my childhood. Those memories are pretty vague. 🙁

This is the aunt who in her 80s would go to the casino by herself. (She doesn’t speak much English from what I recall.) A cousin of mine (my aunt is her grandmother) had told me this. My reaction at the time was “That’s just awesome”. 🙂

Funny enough, the most concrete memory I have of my aunt (who is my dad’s elder sister) is from my dad’s funeral almost 18 years ago. His funeral hadn’t started yet. People were lingering around, then this lady comes in and starts wailing. It was my aunt. I’m pretty sure she startled both my brother and I. Later, my sister told me my other cousin had to tell my aunt to stop because she was scaring “the children” (lol). My sister then told me that the wailing is a Chinese tradition. Someone had to wail at the funeral so that the Chinese spirits could hear. It usually has to be someone really close to the deceased. Because this was my aunt’s younger brother’s funeral, she fit the role for that well.

Now, I’m wondering who will wail for my aunt.

Another Chinese funeral custom is the burning of “hell money”. This money supposedly pays off any spirits that block the passage of the deceased to the underworld/otherworld. I think it is similar to the Greek tradition of paying the ferryman so that the deceased can cross the river.

I wasn’t especially close to my aunt, but I recall her visiting my mom off and on during my childhood. I wish I knew more about my aunt, my mom, my dad, and my other relatives.  I wish I knew what it was like for them to leave their home country to immigrate to a new country. Language barrier and time seem to be the biggest obstacles in that regard.

It’s funny that when a relative dies, no matter how close you are or not (or how much you liked or disliked that person), you feel like a part of you dies with them. I think it’s the connection to the past and to a history that you never knew about that you end up missing. Next time I’m at my mom’s, I’ll have to get her to dig out her old photo albums. Pictures tell so much and yet so little, but they are better than nothing.

Immersion, interactive, or rules-based learning? What’s best?

The following is copy of what I posted in DuoLingo’s discussion section. (See https://www.duolingo.com/comment/5380893)


Every few discussion threads, I keep seeing the topic of how best to learn a foreign language pop up. I think I should post some of my thoughts on this issue.

I think it’s been proven so far that the best way to learn a language is through full immersion. However, even in full immersion programs, they explain grammar rules to the school children. My sister teaches French Immersion to grade school children and they stress grammar rules. I was taught French from grade 4 through high school and also through one year in university (I got placed in the advanced university course). For most of those years, I was learning French in as close to immersion as possible. (The program name was called “Extended French”, “extended” because we also took other classes in French, such as history and geography.) They placed a lot of emphasis on grammar and understanding the structure used for the language (because they wanted the students to be literate as well as able to speak the language).

While it is true that during the earliest stages of life a person picks up their first language via experience, this doesn’t mean that you can’t pick up the grammar rules fairly early, especially once someone reaches school age.

The main reason why some “rule-based learners” would have problems with a language is that they simply have not internalized what they’ve learned yet by repeated exposure to the new material (this is part of why immersion works – repeat exposure). What I’m saying is that it’s good for these types of learners to have some understanding of grammar and structure for the language so that they can stop asking “why?” all the time and then they can sit back and absorb the new material.

I wouldn’t exactly call DuoLingo’s method of teaching languages on here as “immersion” or even close to it, although it is interactive. In immersion, students don’t focus on translation. They focus on understanding the language in context. The only part of DuoLingo that is like immersion is the exercises with pictures. In my opinion, DuoLingo should use more of those exercises, but they might be worried about being too close to Rosetta Stone’s model. In comparison, Rosetta Stone is ideal if you wish to learn a language through context only.

However, the minute a language student starts to ask “Why?”, I think it’s good that the students gets accurate and detailed answers.

There are also other classes of language learners to consider: those with previous experience in learning a foreign language as well as those who have an academic or linguistic interest in a language. I think these classes of language learners will be more than ready for the “rules”.

All this being said, I think that no language learning tool is valueless. If learning a language is mostly about exposure to it, then having more than one learning tool and different methods of learning is better than not having any at all.

Language Learning – Working on More Languages

My recent study list has been mostly languages – Chinese (Hoisanva aka Taishanese), Korean, Spanish, Dutch, Irish, and Russian. I have yet to add German and Japanese to that.  Technically, I’m bilingual as I’m able to speak and understand English and my dialect of Chinese (which is a weird mix of Taishanese and Cantonese due to my parents’ upbringing). I studied French in the past for ten years (though it’s rusty now). When I get around to studying Japanese, it will be my tenth language! 🙂

I’ve resigned myself to learning Mandarin Chinese at some point, which is quite different from my Taishanese dialect. Cantonese is very similar, but there is still enough differences to Taishanese to make Cantonese somewhat challenging. If one counts Cantonese and Mandarin separately as languages and not just dialects, I might be able to speak and understand twelve languages. 😮

Some links:
Learn Taishanese
Studying Korean 한국어을 공부해요 – Some Sources for Beginners

Review: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’ve never read a zombie apocalypse novel, World War Z is the one to read.

The above statement can be considered a little biased since this is the first zombie apocalypse book I’ve read. It’s also maybe a little unfair considering there hasn’t been a huge amount of zombie literature prior to the new millennium (likely the reason why this is the first zombie apocalypse book I’ve read). If the list on Wikipedia is accurate and up-to-date, it appears zombie literature has increased since the new millennium began. There weren’t a lot of contenders for “Best Zombie Apocalypse Novel” prior to the publication of World War Z (Note: I’m not including the various Resident Evil novels because the series didn’t start out from a novel, but are based on the first video game of the same name; Resident Evil also consists of a series of movies. It’s also a little unfair to compare one small book to a whole series about a zombie apocalypse, especially a series as popular as Resident Evil.)

In contrast, there has been a significant amount of zombie films prior to the new millennium. (See “List of zombie films”.) Probably the most influential movies on that list are Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, both written and directed by George A. Romero. Of the two movies, Dawn of the Dead more directly shows the apocalyptic effects of a zombie outbreak. Would it be fair to judge Brooks’ novel against a movie? Perhaps. In fact, Brooks was inspired by George A. Romero’s works (as indicated in Brooks’ “Acknowledgments”: “a final thank-you to… and, of course, the genius and terror of George A. Romero”)

World War Z is written from the perspective that the zombie apocalypse has already happened. That we survived the apocalypse is certain from the very beginning of the book. How did we survive though? What were the key factors that brought about the survival of humanity? Most importantly, what are the feelings of those who survived? In order to answer these questions, Brooks decided that the best way to achieve this was to have each of the various survivors narrate their stories. The format of the novel is not a straight narrative from only one or a few persons. The format of the novel is a compilation of stories, with a little introduction from the person who compiled the stories. The identity of the compiler is never revealed. It’s only revealed that the compiler worked for the “United Nations Postwar Commission Report”, perhaps as an investigator. This is intentional though. Since the novel is written from the perspective that the zombie apocalypse already happened and that the most important stories are those of the survivors, there is no need for the reader to know more about the compiler of the stories. As written in the chapter, “Introduction”:

This is their book, not mine, and I have tried to maintain as invisible a presence as possible… I have attempted to reserve judgment, or commentary of any kind, and if there is a human factor that should be removed, let it be my own.

Since the compiler could not have the bulk of the survivors stories in the report’s final edition, a separate book was published where he did not have to remove the “human factor” in the survivors’ narratives.

The compilation of the narratives was then divided into sections, which are essentially the chapters in the novel. Thus, the novel starts with “Introduction” followed by “Warnings” and ending with “Good-byes”. “Introduction” gives the reader a bit of background into the compiler of the narratives as mentioned above, but also serves to give the reader a bit of background to the world after the zombie apocalypse. The chapters “Warnings” through to “Good-byes” give the reader the flow of the overall narrative of the story. We first read about the beginnings, then the mass panic followed by narratives detailing how people resisted becoming one of the infected, and then how the apocalypse ended and humanity survived.

As for writing style, each survivors’ narrative is presented like a journal article with an introductory blurb placed before the narrative. The blurb introduces the survivor as well as gives some background to the narrative which follows it. The narratives are first person accounts of what the survivor experienced during the zombie apocalypse.

The format and writing style of World War Z may put off some readers, but frankly it works. It works well. In fact, each account reminds me of various human rights journal articles or accounts from people who have lived in some of the countries currently under strife. If you wanted to write a story and make the reader believe the events already happened, this is the format and style to take. Some may think it’d be hard to read a novel with too many narratives, but I found it quite easy to read from one narrative to the next. At the end of each narrative, I found myself wondering what the next account would be about.

This format for the novel also presents the reader with not just one story, but many smaller ones. You’ll read about a doctor in China, a soldier in Vermont, a computer geek in Japan, and various others. Each narrative isn’t random, however. Each narrative helps to explain the overall story and there are interconnecting threads between various narratives. Each individual story helps make up the whole.

While reading World War Z, I felt as if one had taken key pieces out of every other zombie story ever told as well as key pieces out of every apocalypse story every told. Brooks has thought through a lot of scenarios that someone may have to face in the event of an apocalypse or global war. He’s also thought about how various social groups might react. I felt that Brooks either did a lot of research or just knew much about different world cultures. For example, he describes the Japanese kami as well as the disparity between China’s city-folk and village-folk. Also, I thought Brooks described the political scenarios quite accurately.

Some may pick fault with Brooks for not having an explanation in the novel for the zombie outbreak, but I think this may be realistic. It takes a while to determine the origins of a disease. Some may recall when A.I.D.S. was first discovered. People were infected with a disease, but doctors didn’t know exactly why the people were being infected. “In the early days, the CDC did not have an official name for the disease, often referring to it by way of the diseases that were associated with it…” (See “HIV/AIDS”.) Later, it was called A.I.D.S. World War Z is less about providing an explanation for zombies, but more about the human spirit to survive.

To sum up World War Z, I’d say it has heart, brains, and brawn – all of which are required for humanity to survive.

(Note: Some readers may be wondering, so I thought I’d address this now. Yes, I read this book before watching the movie version. In fact, this book has been lying on my bookshelf for a good while before the movie was announced. When it comes to movies based on books, I prefer to read the book first because I like to know what the original creator of the story intended. After, I will review a movie based on other factors than for a book. This is simply because movies and books while both intending on telling a story do so in different ways. They are different mediums, and therefore have different techniques and methods for telling a story and for being artistic. That being said, I did watch World War Z and the jury is still out. There’s supposed to be a sequel later, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens in it.)

My site: feyMorgaina.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Fires of Azeroth by C.J. Cherryh

Fires of Azeroth by C.J. Cherryh is the third book in The Morgaine Saga omnibus. In this story, Morgaine and Vanye travel to a world where Qhal and Man co-exist peacefully. However, Morgaine and Vanye are pursued by their enemies from the previous story and it’s only a matter of time before their enemies bring disaster to this peaceful world where Morgaine and Vanye have taken refuge. Morgaine has not forgotten her mission though. However, this peaceful world has a few secrets of its own.

While Fires of Azeroth isn’t the ultimate conclusion to Morgaine’s mission, it concludes Vanye’s story. Indeed, The Morgaine Saga is much more about Vanye’s personal quest and development than about Morgaine’s mission. If anything, Morgaine’s mission allows Vanye’s character to grow. The fact that Morgaine’s mission has not yet been completed might be the reason why nearly ten years later C.J. Cherryh wrote a fourth novel, Exile’s Gate, for the series.

Overall, The Morgaine Saga is an interesting read. There is more sense of completion having read all the books in the omnibus than just the first novel. The only criticism I have is that Morgaine’s universe feels quite empty. I realize this may be because she is travelling through the Gates in order to close or destroy them, but I keep wondering why she ends up on worlds that have very little or no advanced technology besides the Gates and items related to the Gates. Cherryh does a decent job of character-building in this series, but I think that there could be more world-building. I also wonder what’s happening back at the Union Science Bureau.

In any case, I’m not sure if I’m going to read Exile’s Gate. I wanted to read this omnibus since it was Cherryh’s early writing. The other novels written in the same time period are Brothers of Earth and Hunter of Worlds. I, however, am wanting to get back to her Alliance-Union Universe with the novel Merchanter’s Luck.

For my review of Gate of Ivrel, see “Book Blog”.
For my review of Well of Shiuan, see “Book Blog”.