Friday, November 13, 2009

Talking Chinese (and not talking about talking)

Last night, I joined a group of people from the recently-formed London Mandarin Learners meetup group at their first meeting.

It was a really good evening, with about a dozen Mandarin students and four native Chinese speakers. The skill ranged from beginners who only knew the basics through to advanced people who had lived for a few years in China.

I was slightly nervous - not knowing how the evening would work out. But it was fantastic. I would say I spoke Mandarin over 80% of the time, covering topics such as:
  • what is the Chinese word for "gherkin"?
  • does "ying guo" mean England, or the whole of Great Britain?
  • why people learn faster when they want to learn, rather than when they have to
  • (and of course the usual stuff like what's your name, where are you from, what do you do, how much do you earn, and who is that masked man?)
In summary - we arrived, we drank & spoke, and then left.

Only in the movies ...
For those of you who have listened to more than a few Chinese podcasts will have heard a dialogue exactly like this many times ...
   A: ni shi na li de ren? (where are you from?)
   B: wo shi ri ben ren (I'm Japanese)

Well, last night it happened. That was exactly the one dialogue I participated in, when a Scottish 'Don' was speaking with Japanese 'Tea'.  Classic.

Common Structures
I really don't want to take a fun evening and make it dry by over-analysing, but I know there will be others like me that wonder how they will cope, will their vocab be good enough, etc.

Observing the conversations during the evening, I note there are several sentence structures that came up really often. So if you're not already fully comfortable with these, I recommend you learn them, and use them, soon.

xiangji de xiang / suoyou de suo / gualian de gua / etc.
  • There were many occasions when someone used a word, and you wanted to check that you heard them correctly.
  • So I recall hearing someone using the word "xiang" and I wanted to check if it was the same "xiang" as in "xiangji" (i.e. camera)
  • So I asked "xiangji de xiang?" - and they confirmed.
ruguo X suoyi Y
  • if ... then ...
  • and because Chinese can get really simple, sometimes (usually?) it's good enough to say "X, Y" - and people will get what you're saying
X ranhou Y
  • X and thereafter Y
yingwei ... suoyi ...
  • because ... thus ...
And many variations thereof. Basically, with this kind of basic sentence knowledge, and a chunk of vocab, you can talk for hours. (And we did.)

Your turn
If you haven't been to one of these meetups, I can recommend it. Try find one in your city - you can start searching the above link for groups near you. And if there isn't one, try create one.

And for those who regularly meet up in groups like this, I'd love to hear from you about what "format" you find works for such meetings.


  1. Hi Greg

    This is steve from Mandarin learners - I think I was on the other table to you we didn't get to speak. Still really interesting post. One thing I find is that in real time same place interaction in conversation - for some reason - words lodge in memory more easily. At a previous meetup Don explained the word for government (zheng fu) - very often in Chinese if I am told a word (over the internet - which is where I mainly learn) I often need two or three more reinforcements before it lodges. However, spoken in a pub it does not. Similarly the other night I learnt mathematics (xu xue or is it shu xue - anyway I know what it more or less sounds like) - and I don't know why it is easier to remember. There is something in cognitive psychology about the place where you learn something has importance for its memorability - but cant remember what the theory is called. anyway, great post (though I think it is "yinwei..suoyi" not "yingwei...suoyi")


  2. Hey Greg, nice!! That is one of my fears, speaking with other users of Chinese unless it's over the internet. Also, 叫‘yinwei’不是‘yingwei' :D

    One thing that you should learn is 除了。。。以外,也。。。。 Which means in addition to, I also -blank blank blank- but, it can also mean except for such and such, but I forgot what's the small difference that changes them. Example:

    Except for XiaoMing, everybody went to the restaurant to eat.

    (Besides/ In addition to) me, my sister also went.

    I think 也 (ye) is what made the difference.

    Anyway, I hope you use those well in conversation, and if you need more 'grammar points' for conversation I can help you! :)

    Here's another for you to study:


    Although. You do NOT read Danshi as 'but' while translating this sentence. The sentence is simply, Although such and such . . . and after Danshi you display your opinion. Like,

    虽然 (suiran) 我很累但是我应该上课。
    Although I'm tired, I should go to class.

    Think of danshi as the comma in this case! :D

    Anyway, I hope I don't confuse you and that it only helps you out more; I'm really glad to see that you're doing so well with your Chinese Greg! I hope to meet with and chat with you in the future when we're both fluent! :)


  3. Steve, thanks for your post. Yes, I agree that when you're focusing on a particular word, really focusing, then it sticks better. The word I remember from the Meetup is 容易 (róng​yì - easy), which is one I've tried memorising before, but this time it really stuck!

    And yes, "yinwei" not "yingwei" ... you'll notice the timestamp was nearly 1am - so I forgive myself for the typo :-)

    I look forward to seeing you at another meet (I'm travelling to India at the end of the month, so I can't be at the month-end dinner & chat).

  4. Kara, thanks for those examples. They're really useful, and I'm going to copy them into my flashcard 'sentence' collection!

    I know & use 除了, but I like the extension using '以外也...'. Similarly, I would have thought that I'd hear 虽然 used quite often, but I don't recall anyone using it the other night.

    For me, when I started moving into conversations and not just reciting sentences, was how to move from Chinese phrases, to complex thoughts that required a mix of conjunctions and other sentence constructions, as you've suggested.

    If you think of other common sentence constructs, pop back and leave another note. Please :-)

  5. I would to join such a group. That's cool. Although I study Mandarin, we seldomly speak it. Odd, I guess. They focus more on reading.

    This post is really informative! We often use the first example in class.

    Another nifty contstruction is: 连... 也. Which basically means "even". For example: 这个汉子很容易,连孩子也会写。 (This Chinese character is very easy, even a child could write it).

  6. Yeah Niel, in addition to my English I also learned German & Afrikaans at school. And by the end of those studies (5 years & 12 years respectively) I could read literature & write essays, but I wasn't very confident in speaking those languages. So much for an education system!

    They great thing about leaving school is it allowed me to speak without "studying", which is when my speaking skills took a leap!

    Definitely recommend connecting with other like-minded people to start practising. You can set up your own meetup group at

    BTW, aren't there others in your class who would also like to speak Chinese (and not just speak about speaking :-) ? Wouldn't they be the first port of call in setting up a group?

  7. Interesting post. Learning Chinese is a lot more fun when you do it in a group or community.
    By the way, I have a Chinese learning website, learn a Chinese character a day. If you are keen to learn Chinese, check it out at

  8. Good to know that you are so active in meeting other Mandarin students! Personally speaking, language is nothing but practice. It is of vital importance for people to create a language environment by themselves, instead of dreaming of flying to China one time per week.

    I think the idea of organizing such activities is good for you to keep strenghtening your accumulated vocabulary, be it newly absorbed or learned long time ago.

    As to suggestions of the meeting, I suggest:

    1. You can set topics for casual discussion, such as: movie made by Chinese directors, hobbies, wild life in China, ..., even the economic situation and policies made by the goverment.

    2. Role play. If you want to practise bargaining, maybe you could find a partner and the two of you then could play seller and buyer.

    3. Prepared speech session. You can make self introduction, voice your view on your favorite singer in China,etc. After you deliver the speech, you will stand questions from others regarding how much they understand and how much you think you have delivered clearly. Including native speaker might be important, because whether they can understand you is more important than others, and their suggestions would help you a lot in making your expression sweeter.

    4. At some point, you can divide people into different groups and carry out mild or heated argumen/debate, which helps triggering memory and motivation. You might find yourself surprising in voicing words/phrases that you never thought you'd think of.

    Congratulations and 加油!


  9. Great ideas - I will definitely mention them at the next meeting. I know there is one on Tue (which I can't make) and the theme is Christmas ... so that matches your suggestion #1.

    And I really like idea #4. But it it's going to be a heated argument, I think I need to learn some swear words first! :-)

  10. A bit late to the commentry on this one, I am pretty isolated from other Mandarin learners apart from on the Internet, I would certainly like to meet some face to face at some time.

    One thing though, I can't imagine speaking Mandarin with other Westerners (how does that work?). My favorite (and hard to find) conversational partner would be Chinese speaker with little English (no fear) ranging up to a Chinese speaker with good English (sometimes a little trepidation).

    Unlike the other commenter I much much prefer to speak face to face, I quickly get anxious without visual cues (lagggy video etc. doesn't stop this, I can't read peoples expressions fast enough).

    I guess that conversation practice preference and the situations that cause us to be anxious vary very much between individuals. My unwillingness to talk Mandarin with other learners is simply down to the fact that it would seem to add so many more variables to the problem of having a conversation, although I could see a mixture of native speakers and learners working well. I often see a small group of Hongkong students chatting away in a rolling mix of Mandarin, Cantonese and English, occaisionally with a Westerner involved.

  11. Hey Chris, I know you're busy, so thanks for stopping by.

    In my case, these are some of the reasons why the discussion group was good:
    - opportunity to practise
    - there were those better than me I could ask questions, and others not as good where I could answer theirs
    - in speaking with other students, vocab was easily managable, because we were all using 'mainstream' words, so a larger proportion of the conversation could be understood
    - also, talking to other students rather than only native speakers means that I'm less concerned about "holding them back"

    In your case, given your level, you might specifically only want to speak with native Chinese, because they would both challenge you, and be able to answer your questions.

    But overall it was good fun, and some of the enoyment came from being in a group of like-minded individuals with a common goal. So language practice was the main thing, but it wasn't everything.

    I'll let you know when I'm going to another. Just in case :-)

    In your case, my guess