Studying Smarter is still Hard(er)?


I decided after living in Montreal for a year, I should learn some French. I guess it’s more like a year and a half. Plus 7 days.

I took a class called Corpus Linguistics (machine readable, easily searchable language databases) last year in which the professor, Dr. Marlise Horst, had impressed upon us that when learning a new language, people are often taught very little vocabulary and quite a lot of grammar. It’s such a weird idea that somebody would be learning complicated grammatical principles before they know the most frequently used language, isn’t it? I mean, I think so. Maybe you don’t. It’s a free country.

This focus on grammar could be because of a number of reasons such as students wanting to learn grammar early on, curmudgeony teachers stuck in their old curmudgeony ways, or, my personal belief, teachers really don’t want to teach vocabulary heavy courses because it might be boring.

Well, let’s forget about them for now. I’m teaching myself, and I’ll decide how I want to learn because I said so, and I’m a big boy now. Learning the most frequently used words in a language can be a great way for a new language student to move up from beginner to intermediate in a short period of time. In English, the average native speaker knows 20,000 words which is an aggressive goal for any non-native speaker. In fact, high level non-native speakers of English might know 12,000 words. However, the 2000 most common words in English comprise 80% of written English or 90% of spoken English. So if a new learner acquires 1/10 of the vocabulary of a native speaker, they know 90% of the words they might encounter on any given day. Being a personal fan of minimum effort for maximum gain (that’s just the way I role), I have started studying French vocabulary daily now without any support from a text book (yet).

For memorizing French vocabulary, I have been using my favourite learning program, ANKI. This was the program that helped me learn literally thousands of Chinese characters, so I am willing to once again put my faith in it. There is even a pre-made deck of the 5000 most common words in French which introduces each new vocabulary item in order of frequency. My goal is to reach 2000 in 200 days, and right now I’m sitting at about 100.

When I learned Mandarin, the order of the vocabulary was determined by my textbooks. I would add new flashcards whenever I found new vocabulary, and after starting to learn French using frequency to determine learning order, I have come to realize that neither method is superior. Mandarin textbooks are hit or miss, and I learned a ton of crap that I would never use in daily conversation. At what point in your learning should you learn the vocabulary associated with ancient poetry? Never. That’s when.

Still, at least it meant that there was a lot of variety: a few new nouns, a few new grammatical items, etc. However, when you learn using frequency only, almost all of the first 100 words are grammatical items. I knew this intellectually, but trying to remember the difference between a dozen prepositions on your first day is rough. Trying to remember the difference between 50 prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns in your first week just plain sucks. Luckily, I have moved heavily into the most frequently used verbs and nouns and have starting having way more fun. When somebody speaks really slowly to me like I’m an idiot, I can even understand that they’re telling me to stop blocking the metro door!

One estimate I read said that the 100 most frequent words of English accounts for almost 50% of all words used in writing, and I imagine French is similar. So I currently can recognize 50% of all the words in a newspaper! I have no chance of understanding anything, but that’s cool. Baby steps, right?

Guy on the metro: <<Get out of my way! Why don’t you speak French?!>> Tabarnak!

Me: Yes! I know one of those words!



The Student Life/ Visitor from a Far Away Land

I’ve been missing in action! Incognito! AWOL! A runaway and a… very lazy person. Since February, I’ve been enrolled fulltime at the local language university. I’m not enrolled in university courses per sey, but in the single semester language course. This has involved all sorts of shenanigans from herding cats to singing and dancing in Mandarin. That’s right. I was their dancing monkey. AND I LIKED IT.

I also may have asked at least one person to marry me, but since it was all in good fun I don’t think she took it seriously.

At least she probably didn’t… right?

The last few weeks have been so eventful that I’ve barely studied the last few days. For the first 3 months, I can safely say I studied with the best of them. I mean, I studied a lot. Not necessarily with the best although there was some pretty cool peeps.  I was doing 4 hours a day in class, then going home and averaging 4 hours with many days going as high as 5 and a half!  I was a studying machine.

I’m still keeping up with the classes in general, but I can feel myself slipping. I know I’m not the only one feeling the burn out. Some classes are straight up empty at the start of the day at 8am, and I often do not see any students rollin’ in those classrooms until around 10am. My class is considered a good class because we have slightly above a 50% attendance rate. We have about 11/21 show up on any given day.

Now on to why I’ve been busy!

My brother arrived last week, which makes him the second relative to visit me while I’m in China! Huzzah! I think my mom just sent him to make sure the food isn’t poisonous to prepare for her own triumphant arrival. He’s sleeping on my couch and making a mess of my carefully controlled and orchestrated disaster zone of an office, but seems to be doing alright.

The day before he arrived, I went to the Great Wall Music Festival! A frickin’ concert on a section of the Great Wall. It was stupid expensive and was poorly run by whom I can only presume are very “special” people, but it was quite a party. There are currently pictures of it floating on the internet that involve me which will need to be edited to remove my face. I have a reputation to keep, and I can’t be seen drinking from no-name drinking cups.

The best part was when the VIP area. I’ve never seen such poor planning in my life. They blocked off the front 100 metres of the main stage, and put the one entrance to it smack dab in the middle of where the non-VIP crowd was being squished into as the vast majority of people tried to get a glimpse of the stage (which the highly paid organizers expertly blocked with a giant blurry TV screen of the stage). The VIPs were entirely unable to enter because the non-VIP crowd was somewhat confused as to why they would put a barricade up blocking… well, everything, and had accidentally (awesomely) blocked the only possible way in or out. A man came out to yell at everybody, but he was quickly subsumed and devoured by the rampaging host. Eventually the barricades were torn down, but only after the security guards were straight up pushed out of the way.

The music was awesome, and if I could be sure that the audience would devour more people that stand in the way of my happiness, I might go back.

As for my brother and I, we’re both currently sick. Updates forthcoming. Probably.

There’s definitely only maybe juice in those cups.

First Day of School Jitters or Pre-Holiday Shakes?

I decided to wait a couple extra days to write this blog because it was only a couple of extra days until school started! Huzzah! Right? Right!? RIGHT?!

This year I’m lucky enough to teach the freshmen again! I find it a weird turn of phrase because it’s not the same freshmen as last year, but I am still teaching them again. Last year’s freshmen have been upgraded to sophomore who for the more than half of them that are taking a double major comes with at least 15 more hours of class a week. Also, my very first students in China have just graduated! They’re all grown up now.


The new freshmen have that glow in their eyes that both create fear in parents and maniacal happiness in their teachers that will sculpt them in their own image. I do miss my old students, but I suspect these ones will provide me with hours of stories for around the long tables. At this rate, I might be able to write a book: “”What Does $^#$ mean?’ and other Conversations you would never want to have with your Mother”

I had to purchase a new guitar… The old guitar had served me well for a 100 dollar pile of junk wood, but it’s no longer keeping tune. I made my way to the other side of the city to the only guitar store I ever go to (for some reason), and managed to pick up a nice Ibanez for about 120 dollars. I know, it’s a little more than the last one, but damnit… sometimes I just need to spoil myself. It sounds a million times nicer than my old one, keeps tune, and harasses the neighbours just as good as any 1000 dollar guitar. That’ll do, pig.

Right before school started, there were to lads of the motherland invoking their rights as Queen’s men to lay claim to the colonies and all their holdings. Basically, they slept on our couches. They mocked me for being of the colonies, my roommate for being American (the greatest of sins), while we mocked them for being from a defunct world power that’s only claim to fame is they all speak real funny like. It was all in good fun until I said the Queen had a big butt. Apparently her royal heiny is out of bounds. We kicked them to the curb… or they got an apartment. I forget.

There are days when China bewilders and confuzzles me more than even how they get the caramel in a Caramilk bar. We are now in the beginning of the 2013 fall semester, and there is a holiday on Thursday, and then a whole week off the week after that. I mean, sure it’s a good way to ease yourself into the semester, but this is damaging to my already fragile work ethic. So far there are tentative plans to do some doings during the many holidays, but I can’t really disclose anything before the lawyers have a look at them. 

I’ve had a lot more motivation to learn a decent repertoire of songs since I found out the local bar gives away a case of beer for a song. Literally. 

We Sail Tonight For Beijing!

I mean… I’m back in Beijing! I just got back to the land of well-priced food and interesting driving techniques after doing a two week whirlwind tour of southern Ontario. I managed to see only a small fraction of those I intended to see, but I want everybody to know that I appreciate the time and effort you all put in to allow me even see a few of you. Thanks.

People often tell me reverse culture shock is worse than just plain old culture shock. Things like the higher price of food, people constantly saying ‘excuse me’, friends that have moved away, etc. That doesn’t seem to be completely true for me. As soon as I got home, I was back into the swing of things. The daily Timmies. Random strangers saying ‘Hello!’ to you on the street. All you can eat sushi around every corner. THE FOOD NETWORK! It was the dream.

The only thing that I found really difficult was the difference in driving… etiquette. I’ve been driving my electric bike in China for about 2 years now, and I’ve developed a prescience that has stopped me from becoming a smear on somebody’s Audi A4 (so far). This has had the unintended side-effect of making me scared poop-less of 10 year olds on bicycles and anybody that stops their car within line-of-sight of me. Basically, I assume they won’t stop, and pre-preemptively dodge what seems like attempted vehicular manslaughter. When you’re on an electric bike, this amounts to a slight course deviation and no one is really the wiser. When you’re driving a half-ton SUV, it’s… well… it’s bad. Anyway, there were no reported deaths, and for the most part I doubt anybody noticed. Still, it’s nice to be back where I can safely assume that people won’t stop at red lights, slow down for little old ladies, or show any indication they notice the smear on their car that used to be a foreigner on an electric bike.

My flight back was uneventful. I did find out that according to Chinese law, wine is not liquor!… I’m sure some of you can figure out how that went.

The plane itself was almost empty. Most people had at least 3 seats to themselves, so we could all just lie down on all three seats and comfortably nap… except a woman thought it would be genius to bring their little annoying rat of a dog as carry-on luggage. If you think a baby is bad, wait until you have a dog sitting next to you. On the bright side, I got to watch the new Star Trek! It was good!

I am jet-lagged to the EXTREME! Meaning I’m still waking up at 5am and falling asleep at 8pm. I keep waking up to emails and text messages of people assuming I’m still awake, and I’m starting to feel like both sides of the world are moving completely out of sync from me. I get messages from people on both sides of the world, but I seem to get none of them while I’m awake! Just so everybody knows, I’m safe but very very sleepy.

I know I promise this every time, but I have every intention of going back to a weekly blog. Perhaps even bi-weekly again! We’ll see how my adventures pan-out. Until the next time!

Me: AHHH! Did you see that kid? He almost ran that red light! I swear he has a death wish.

Normal Person: He stopped and walked his bike to the corner to wait for the light to change…

Lord of my Domain

So a few weeks ago I made the decision to save money by curtailing my spending. First, I started to write down every purchase I made (which I will post after some slight editing), and then I would also start trying to cook at home more often.

The experiment started with a friend hence forth known as “Special K” coming over and teaching me how to cook Chinese food! She gave me a list of the following dishes and their ingredients:

菜单 Menu:
1 西红柿炒蛋 tomato (medium/big)x4 eggx4 some spring onion

2 泡椒鸡肉 chicken legs(chop into cubes later to stir fry) Green and red pepper  few, fresh Garlic

3 葱爆羊肉 sliced lamb (same one we use to do hot pot), few spring onions

4 泡菜猪肉土豆片 pork (fat and thin together, we will slice it later), potato x 2-3

5 牛肉炒洋葱 beef 牛里脊=(belly meat)1 egg and some onions

6 炒豆腐 Tofu=北豆腐 x1,eggx2,green pepper x2, rice vinegar and sugar

7 鸡蛋黄瓜汤 cucumber x2 egg x2

The Goal: feed 6-8 people

The deal for her to teach me how to cook was that I had to buy everything. This seemed like a brilliant idea until I had to venture in the bowels of the local super market. I hate that supermarket. The lines are long and full of old people that are angry because they can’t do math and think everybody is ripping them off, and young cashiers who often choose to ignore their customers rather than… well, work.

I started with the beef. This ended up being the most expensive cut, but it’s actually the same cut that we’d use for filet mignon so it makes sense that it would be particularly expensive. After that the lamb slices were the second most expensive, but since they were basically processed meat that also makes sense. I ended buying half a kilo of pork, which was less than half the price of a quarter kilo of beef. The chicken and everything else eventually happened, but not before lots of hand waving and complicated gestures. On the way out, I also picked up a bit of root beer for the group.

Total cost of the meat: approx. 80rmb

Cost of 18 tall cans of root beer: 126rmb

After that I went back to my university to a bunch of vegetable stands actually run by farming families. I bought all the veggies I needed for just under 40rmb.

So basically I bought food for 86-8 people for just about 20 dollars. Beat that!

The cooking began around 7pm when Special K and her friend Special Y showed up. We began with cutting, cleaning, etc. The cooking was overall quite simple, but the prep work took a long time. I guess it’s not something I’d thought about before, but when you have to eat everything with chop sticks you have to make sure everything is bite sized.

We could only do one dish at a time since there are only two burners. Most of the dishes were very straight forward. Cut meat, cut veggies, throw into pan (sauce optional), cook until de-natured, put into small microwave oven to keep from cooling down, repeat 6 more times.



By the end of the night, we’d eaten 6 of the dishes, forgotten entirely about the 7th dish and left it to congeal on the stove top, fed what ended up to be slightly more than 8 people, and only burned one dish! And we had leftovers! Success! I would have taken a picture of the finished products, but we ate it all before I remembered to take one…

I can buy a week’s worth of eggs, bacon, and potatoes (for home fries) for 8 dollars. So basically there’s a positive correlation between my bank account and my cholesterol levels.

Temple Tantrum?

I finished the first week of school and very little seems to have gone as planned. Things have been more up in the air than normal, but it looks like next week things should have settled and congealed into the semi-solid goop that is my weekly routine.

My schedule as it stands is sprinkled throughout the week, giving me a couple days off and 3 days with only two hours of class. This gives me plenty of time to be productive, were I a productive person. 

Incisors (狗牙) had a show the other night at one of my favourite live houses in Beijing, Temple Bar. I’ve only been there once before, but they had several great bands, a good grungy yet clean atmosphere, and reasonably well priced refreshments.  I had high expectations for my second visit.

We began the night by meeting up at “The Box”, Beijing’s one and only Canadian restaurant! My group proceeded to gorge ourselves on poutine and root beer, as I told tales of my homeland and explained our strange and exotic food. Mostly I just defended my weight saying my pudge is unrelated to a propensity to eat things smothered in cheese, gravy, and bacon, well simultaneously debating world politics. We came to the conclusion the politicians would get much more accomplished with a little root beer.

After we had solved world hunger, we wandered through the back alleys because I was sure I remembered a short cut to Temple Bar. As it turns out, I did! We arrived in record time.

The first band started shortly after we arrived. It consisted of a piano player and a dj and sounded somewhat like a half drowned cat in a sack being beaten like a red headed step child. That’s only my opinion of course. I heard at least one person say they sounded great if you remembered your ear plugs.

Incisors went on next and they rocked that joint. It had been awhile since they played, but all of them looked like they’d been doing it their entire life. The whole crowd moved up after the first song, and by the end most of the crowd was moving and grooving with the band. Good times were had by all!

The last band, Stegosaurus was a spectacular surprise. The lead guitarist went on stage with a big sticker on his guitar that read “I’m special!”, the lead singer wore a shower cap with matching swim goggles, and the bassist was bald! They opened with a hard rock cover of the 1960’s Batman TV show’s theme song, and only got more hilarious from there. Between Incisors and Stegosaurus, it was probably one of the best live shows I’ve seen in months.

Other possible names: ‘Dinosaur Dance’, ‘Hair of the Dog that Bit You’, ‘Red Headed Cat’s Lament’, and ‘Mitchel’. 

Lantern Festival

Today is the last day of the holidays for me. It’s been a good run though. I’ve gone to the most famous city in the far north of China, made a fair amount of money while working insane hours, bought and built a mighty computer worthy of both song and story, and had a lovely home cooked meal with some friends just last night. It involved strange looking but delicious tofu, and bacon cooked six different ways! Each way even more delicious than the last!

This next semester is going to be interesting. My roommate will start teaching at CAU with me, and will actually be teaching speaking to my first years from last semester while I teach them writing. I’ll also be teaching speaking to the second year students since their normal teacher finished her contract and went home. I taught them last year, so I’m looking forward to see how much they’ve improved!

Tonight is the lantern festival, which mostly involves some holiday treats and tons of fireworks. There’s been fireworks going off every morning and night for the last month, but tonight is particularly loud. I’m not really worried about sleeping though because I’ve never slept well the day before work, school, doctor’s appointments, and any kind of vacation or trip. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a train or plane with more than 4 hours of sleep.

Today’s blog will have to be a little short since really not much has happened lately. Luckily with school starting, I’m sure the shenanigans will be plentiful and hilarious!

Mostly I’ve just been playing video games.