Learning Mandarin

We’re spending 3 weeks this summer on holiday in China. As soon as Helen suggested it we both immediately agreed it would be China this year. Plans are firming up – we’ll fly into Beijing, then move on down to Xi’ian, then a round trip ending up in Shanghai that’ll see us taking bus trips, one sleeper train and two internal flights.

Of course we know hardly anything about the country and we don’t speak the language. I’m trying to remedy this. Stacked up on my Kindle already are:

  • What Does China Think?
  • Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong
  • The Analects (Confucius)
  • The Book of Chuang Tzu
  • Tao Te Ching
  • Behind The Wall  (Thubron)
  • China: A History

…and I’m very much enjoying the Thubron at the moment. And I’ve started learning Mandarin.

There are two main problems for a westerner learning Mandarin. The alphabet, of course, which is not an alphabet but, I think, a ‘syllabary’, a huge barrier to learning and beginners like me have to rely on Pinyin, a Romanisation of Mandarin. The other big problem is that the language is tonal, with each syllable being expressible in 5 different ways – 4 standard tones and an ‘untoned’ version, with the added complication of ‘tone sandhi’ – variation of tones in response to other nearby tones.

The grammar’s pretty simple, with verbs not varying according to tense, gender etc, but with the use of ‘particles’ instead to mark tense, interrogatives and suchlike.

I’m using two podcast series. Serge Melnyk’s excellent Mandarin Chinese Lessons and Chris Parker’s Survive in Chinese.  I’ve been motoring pretty well with Melnyk until recently when I seemed to hit  a barrier. I just couldn’t get the vocabulary to stick or even understand some of the dialogue. So I’ve taken to writing out the conversations and creating Pleco flashcards for each podcast. 

To help with the reading and writing Helen bought me a copy of the beautiful and fun Chineasy  bu tI’ve just realised that it teaches Tradtional characters, which are used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, rather than Simplified characters, which are the mainstay these days on the mainland.

I’ve no idea if I’ll persevere and no idea either of how much I’ll be able to speak by the time we fly out but it’s fun so far and I always like to have a stab at speaking the language of the country I’m in. I have half   a mind to keep it up when we return

After Darwin

I started automating  tweeting real-time excerpts from Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary several years ago, beginning just in time to coincide with the bicentenary in 2009. I jumped into the Beagle voyage already underway in 1833, so I missed about a year of travel.

In Beagle time it’s now 1836 and Charles, Fitzroy and The Beagle are heading north for Ascension Island and then home to England and then that’s the end.

So here’s the question: what should I do with the Twitter account?

Biologist and Galapagos-visitor Karen James has asked if I’ll keep tweeting from it. Academic and author J F Derry (new book project here) makes me wonder if I could use it to promote various Darwin-related stuff.


I don’t know. The diary has a natural end so while I could carry on tweeting from Darwin’s subsequent life there’s no obvious and easy narrative source to use and the account’s pretty specific – it’s the Beagle Diary – so I’d feel it wrong to use it for another, very different purpose. 

If anyone has any ideas I’d be interested in hearing them

My pre-holiday newsletter

To make the most of the run-up to our holiday I knocked together a simple newsletter that aggregates various sources of information.

So, the weather information I’m pulling from Google RSS feeds
(eg: http://www.google.com/ig/api?weather=Portland,Oregon).

Photos of the area, I’m pulling from Flickr – for example,

News feeds are being pulled from a variety of sources – one, for example, is the The Montana Standard (RSS for the local area news at http://www.mtstandard.com/?rss=area).

And, of grim fascination, the exchange rate for Sterling to the Dollar is being scraped from a simple Google query.

The whole lot is compiled using a cron job once a day, and a prettified email  including a dynamically generated countdown image is sent to me and my partner, Helen.  The finished thing looks something like this: