Friday, 25 September 2015

academia is a weird thing

This is one of the best writings on research academia I’ve ever read.

This week, I resigned from my position at Duke University with no intent to solicit employment in state-funded academic research positions in any foreseeable future. Many reasons have motivated this choice, starting with personal ones: I will soon be a father and want to be spending time with my son at home.

Other reasons have to do with research academia itself. Throughout the years, I have been discovering more and more of the inner workings of academia and how modern scientific research is done and I have acquired a certain degree of discouragement in face of what appears to be an abandonment by my research community of the search for knowledge. I found scientists to be more preoccupied by their own survival in a very competitive research environment than by the development of a true understanding of the world.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

zàijiàn, MX101x

After finishing the Spanish MOOCs, I thought I may try starting another language course at edX. I was in for a disappointment here. No languages apart from English and Spanish! Then — hey, what’s that? Starting, wait a minute, yesterday?

I have to say that learning basic Mandarin was not on my wish list, let alone to-do list. On the other hand, why not.

Now I’m sure you’ve came across many misguided opinions that rank Chinese among the hardest languages to learn. Take orthography. For instance, in Finnish, each phoneme (sound) corresponds to exactly one grapheme (letter), and each grapheme represents exactly one phoneme. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we find Chinese with no correspondence between graphemes and phonemes whatsoever. English and French fall somewhere in between. From this, one may conclude that Finnish must be easier language to master, compared to Chinese. Now let’s see, how many native speakers of Finnish versus Chinese are there? That’s right, 5.5 million vs 1.2 billion. Granted, one more Chinese speaker won’t make much difference, but why don’t give it a shot?

MX101x is a six-week course with estimated effort of 4 hours/week. Each of the six lessons contains the following sections:

  • Introduction
  • Vocabulary
  • Supplementary Vocabulary
  • Grammar and Sentence Patterns
  • Dialogue
  • Quiz (Homework)
  • Dictation & Cultural Notes
Each section, apart from the quiz, contains one or two videos. In addition, there is Workbook (four or five pages of exercises for each week; you are supposed to print it out) and Textbook (which is basically a transcript of the video lessons on Vocabulary, Supplementary Vocabulary, Grammar and Dialogues). Both Workbook and Textbook is available in both traditional and simplified Chinese. Well I don’t have a printer and to print out all of this elsewhere is too much a bother. Instead, for the first time in any edX course I did so far, I was taking notes. Which, I think, was useful because I’ve got to practice writing down the Han characters. On top of that (or shall I say on bottom of that?) there is Before You Start... section which explains tones, Pinyin, numbers, and traditional and simplified characters.

MX101x Chinese Language: Learn Basic Mandarin

  • Overview / syllabus
  • Before you start: tones, Hanyu Pinyin, Chinese numbers, traditional and simplified Han characters
  • Lesson 1: greetings; introducing yourself; countries and continents
  • Lesson 2: arrival to Taiwan
  • Lesson 3: checking in a hotel; things that can go wrong in a hotel and how to deal with them
  • Lesson 4: talking about food
  • Lesson 5: getting around; transportation
  • Lesson 6: intonation and tone; small talk; making friends; joking
  • Final exam

As you can see, the topics range from mundane/boring (how to say “the air conditioner in my room does not work”) to exciting and perhaps too subtle for this basic course (small talk). Vocab, grammar points and cultural notes are presented by a “talking head” of the course’s charming instructor, Estella Y. M. Chen. Most of the dialogues feature the very same Estella and an American tourist called Calwin. So if you expect some visuals of China, Taiwan and other places where they speak Mandarin, you’d better look elsewhere.

Some of the dialogues used the words which were not given in the vocab sections. This is all right, you don’t have to know all of them. But, while I was trying to figure out the meaning of those extra words, I made an important discovery. Google Translate works much better translating Chinese to English than, say, Russian or Spanish. Also, there is a number of ways of entering Chinese, including Pinyin and handwriting. Could it be that there are more Chinese-speaking programmers employed by Google?

Grading is working like this: each weekly quiz is worth 10% of the final score and the final exam is worth 40%. You need to get at least 80% to pass and earn a certificate.

100 = 10 × 6 quizzes + 40 for final exam

I found the quizzes far too easy. You have 10 (ten!) attempts for each multiple-choice question. You can pass all of them just by brute force. In the final exam, you are only given two attempts: that’s more like it.

“But can you speak any Mandarin now?”, you may ask. Alas, the answer is “no”. My vocabulary is still restricted to a few polite expressions and those Chinese words that everybody knows. One has to practise daily, which I find impossible without looming deadlines. However I started to understand how the language works, and as such the mission of MX101x is accomplished. I am looking forward to further instalments of MandarinX series.