Finally caught up with BBC’s “Sherlock”

I know BBC started airing “Sherlock” in 2010. I know it made a Benedict Cumberbatch a much watched actor with a strong following. I know “Sherlock” has been well received. I just did not have the time to watch a single episode of the series. There’s only so much time in a day, and there’s so much out there to consume already. It was my pop culture blind spot. But it’s a blind spot no more, because I have now watched all three seasons.

To celebrate Sherlock’s 2014 Primetime Emmy wins, PBS announced it was streaming all episodes of Season 3 (until September 25, 2014). Thankfully I had time to finally experience the series. I found all three seasons on Netflix and started watching. It wasn’t until later I found out that even the episodes on Netflix were only made available recently. So I suppose I jumped in at the right time since “Sherlock” is now available where I can watch it.

I’m not sure when I first learned about the stories of Sherlock Holmes. I do remember my parents mentioning them when I was young. In Chinese, Sherlock Holmes is 福爾摩斯 (I know it sounds nothing like Holmes, but that’s for another post). I remember reading a few stories when I was young. I also remember watching some episodes of “Sherlock Holmes,” the series starring Jeremy Brett, on PBS. The only impression I have of that series is that it seemed rather dark.

I did watch some of the first season of “Elementary,” the updated Sherlock Holmes series on CBS. Unfortunately I lost track of it. Maybe the episodes will show up on streaming media so I can catch up. I did become a bit tired of the narcissistic version of Sherlock Holmes in “Elementary,” so it would be interesting to see how that developed.

I am completely enamored with “Sherlock.” It is witty and funny and a whole lot of fun. The actors and actresses are a delight to watch and really pull the audience into this particular world of Sherlock Holmes. I do like the socially awkward, but slowly becoming human, Sherlock Holmes. I also like the lively John and Mary Watson. I really like the caring, but still caustic, Mycroft Holmes. I’m completely terrified of the creepy Moriarty. This entirely updated version with modern technology is an absolute delight. I also really like the music and graphics. Ok, fine, I like it all.

“Sherlock” also gives me a glimpse of London. I was supposed to go to London on business around this time last year. The trip was canceled at the last minute so I didn’t end up going. Hopefully I’ll still be able to visit on my own at some point.

Now like everyone else, I’m waiting for Season 4. I’m not dismayed, as undoing this blind spot has given me a chance to go back and revisit Doyle and the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Digging through my books also resulted in a collection of Donne poems that I’m curious to revisit. It has also opened my eyes to the wonderful talents of one Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m particularly looking forward to “The Imitation Game,” which is scheduled for release on November 21, 2014.

I first learned about Alan Turing in my computer science courses. He is known for developing an early form of the computer and breaking the Enigma code. Although he died in 1954, his story continued this year when he finally received a royal pardon. I’m really excited to see his story brought to life through film.

Now, hopefully I have time to get through the first season of FOX’s Sleepy Hollow since all episodes are available on Hulu and a new season will be starting soon.

Yes, I know Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Mison (who portrays Ichabod Crane on Sleepy Hollow) were both in Parade’s End.

No, I haven’t had the time to watch it.


Michael Erard at Stanford Bookstore

I first learned about “Babel No More” by Michael Erard from an interview on The World in Words. The paperback version of the book has been published and I had the chance to attend a reading and signing event at the Stanford Bookstore.

There was a great group of people – all with an interest in languages. We had a great discussion about different aspects of language learning and hyperpolyglots. One concept that came up was the idea of “picking up” a language. The book covers research done in India, where people move to different parts of the country and end up with usable knowledge of the language. I’m looking forward to reading about that research because it is distinct from people who specifically decide to learn a new language.

I’m glad I now have the book and hope to read it soon!

Foreign language exam results and ability

I’ve been curious lately about the meaning of the results from foreign language exams. I used the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) as the main rubric and found the equivalent levels given by the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages), and for the following exams: TOEFL iBT (Test of English as a Foreign Language internet-based Test); TOCFL (Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language); and JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test). The CEFR and ACTFL are two proficiency guidelines.




TOCFL level3

JLPT level4


Novice (high)



Intermediate (low, med)

Level 2



Intermediate (mid, high)


Level 3



Intermediate (high), Advanced (med)


Level 4



Advanced (mid, high)


Level 5




1Centro de Lenguas Modernas (UGR), Formación y Gestión de Granada – CEFR, ACTFL comparison.
2TOEFL: For Academic Institutions: Compare Scores – TOEFL iBT, CEFR comparison.
3Steering Committee for the Test of Proficiency – Huayu – TOCFL, CEFR, ACTFL, FSI/ILR comparison.
4Josai International University, Department of International Exchange Studies, English/Japanese Language Program – JPLT, CEFR comparison.

The CEFR, each letter reflects a different language level. Each level has a thorough description about the person is able to do in that language. The ACTFL also has a extensive description about what a person is capable of doing at each proficiency level. The descriptions are rather general. I like this post because it describes the proficiency levels in real-world terms. I especially like the TV show for reference.

I think it is telling that none of the exams test beyond C1 (CEFR) or Advanced High (ACTFL). I think it would take a native speaker some preparation before they would be ready for the level of discourse on “Charlie Rose.” A difference is that the exams are testing for proficiency in listening and reading skills in those languages, but not speaking. Most universities use these exams to determine if the applicant has a good handle on the language to be able to study get by in that language at the university level or beyond. I think most other exams would determine if the applicant’s academic level is adequate.

So, what does this mean to take any of these exams? I would like to think that a passing score at the highest level in the exam means that a person has acquired enough skills in the language to be able to understand an university lecture. These exams are not perfect and do not test for speaking. But I suppose it is a reasonable way to determine one’s proficiency in a language in a format that is easily accessible.

The word ketchup came from Min Nan?

I was very curious about the Chinese words mentioned in the article “The Cosmopolitan Condiment: An exploration of ketchup’s Chinese origins.” on It is a very thorough article about origin and evolution of ketchup. The condiment started out as a fish sauce in China and made its way to Southeast Asia. European traders in Asia became accustomed to the taste and found a way to make it themselves. Slowly the fish disappeared and was replaced by mushroom and tomatoes into the current form of ketchup. The paragraph that caught my eye was:

The story begins more than 500 years ago, when this province on the South China Sea was the bustling center of seafaring China. Fujianese-built ships sailed as far as Persia and Madagascar and took Chinese seamen and settlers to ports throughout Southeast Asia. Down along the Mekong River, Khmer and Vietnamese fishermen introduced them to their fish sauce, a pungent liquid with a beautiful caramel color that they made (and still make) out of salted and fermented anchovies. This fish sauce is now called nuoc mam in Vietnamese or nam pla in Thai, but the Chinese seamen called it ke-tchup, “preserved-fish sauce” in Hokkien — the language of southern Fujian and Taiwan. (Of course, Hokkien isn’t written with the Roman alphabet; ke-tchup is one of several old-fashioned Westernized transcriptions, like catsup and katchup. The word has died out of modern Hokkien, but the syllable tchup — pronounced zhi in Mandarin — still means “sauce” in many Chinese dialects.)

Some characters, after the jump.

My preferred Chinese-English online dictionary

Since I learned Mandarin Chinese and American English separately, I do not have an Chinese-English/English-Chinese dictionary. I have one dictionary for each language. For my latest project involving “Word of the Week” (in which I am going through a list of characters covered in the Taiwan school system), I needed to find an accurate and appropriate dictionary to provide the translations. My own translations are most likely not as accurate.

I tried Yahoo!奇摩字典 and found exactly what I prefer in a dictionary. My problem with dual language dictionaries is that the dictionaries tend to attempt to provide a one to one correspondence between terms in a language. However, that is usually never the most accurate translation. I prefer a translation of the definition to get the most accurate understanding of the term. Which is exactly what this dictionary does.

I was able to compare the English translations from Yahoo!奇摩字典 to the Chinese definitions from 國語小字典 (the mini dictionary from the Taiwan Ministry of Education). The results were very close. The first definition is usually a direct translation of the meaning of the word. Subsequent translations were translations of the different meanings from the mini dictionary. It was very accurate. I am really picky about dual language dictionaries, and I strongly recommend Yahoo!奇摩字典 for a Chinese-English dictionary.

How often do news sites publish articles on Taiwan?

After the appearance of Kane’s op-ed in the NY Times, I started wondering about Taiwan’s appearance in English news sites. I know from collecting articles on Taiwan (in the time of paper newspapers) that articles did not come up often unless a major event occurred or was going to happen. The major articles of the late 1980s to 1990s on Taiwan were about China’s missile tests and the first presidential election. Now, I’m wondering about articles in the world of the internet and news websites.

I have started a page to track various news sites. Most of these sites are from the U.S., but I’ve added some major English sites that are available worldwide. I do not include sites from Taiwan. I have chosen these sites because there are specific sections on Taiwan. This is not equivalent to a site search for Taiwan. The two are equivalent on some sites and I have not listed those. I have also chosen news agencies that produce their own content and are not completely reliant on wire services.

When a news site has a specific section for Taiwan, it is a promising start. I figure it means that the organization thinks that it is a large enough topic to have a page of its own. I also hope that it means the news site thinks there is plenty of news to publish. However, it could also mean that Taiwan comes up in plenty of articles, but there may be few articles devoted entirely to Taiwan. I am not distinguishing the two articles. I am, however, determining that an article is a piece of writing (instead of, say, a list with pictures).

The date of the last article published is also important. I have a feeling that that there are gaps of time where nothing is written about Taiwan. Then at some point, some large event occurs and that event becomes the token article about Taiwan for another period of time. I will keep note of the last date that I checked the sites. If the next to last article published was more than a month prior, I will also note it. I hope this will start to give us some idea of the prevalence of Taiwan in English news media.