Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Chinese paper trail

The Chinese invented paper, so it's only fair that we should use it. And say it.

In Mandarin, the basic hanzi for paper is 纸 (zhǐ). And using the WordPack concept, there are a whole bunch of types of paper (specifically words ending in 纸) that you ought to know.

If you're a beginner, learn the first three. Everyone else ought to know all of them.

newspaper: 报纸 (bào zhǐ)
facial tissue: 薄纸 (báo zhǐ) or 纸巾 (zhǐ jīn)
toilet paper: 手纸 (shǒu zhǐ)

paper napkin: 餐巾纸 (cān jīn zhǐ)
wallpaper: 壁纸 (bì zhǐ)
wrapping paper: 包装纸 (bāo zhuāng zhǐ)
recycled paper: 还魂纸 (huán hún zhǐ)
cardboard / stiff paper: 硬纸 (yìng zhǐ)

If it makes it easier for you to memorise some of these words, note that three of them begin with 'bao' (1st, 2nd and 4th tones).

And if there are other 'zhǐ' words that you use relatively often, drop us a note in the comments below.

HowTo ... look up a word really fast

When you need to look up a word quickly - what do you do?

(We're assuming for a moment that you're at your computer. If not, then add an extra step: Go to you computer.)

You could open your paper dictionary (which you keep next to your computer, of course), you could surf to a dictionary website (like or - which would be even faster if you've bookmarked it), or you could phone a friend.

So here's how I do it ...

I might be at work, sending an email which contains the word "fortunately", and (at the back of my mind, because the front of my mind is for work only) I challenge myself. I can remember that the word in Mandarin is "xìng hǎo" (see the WordPack post on this) - but suddenly I can't remember how to write "xìng" in Chinese.

For a quick lookup, I use:
  • {apple}{tab} (switch to Firefox)
  • {apple} T (open a blank tab)
  • type: m xing hao {enter}
And that's it! Just a few keystrokes which take less than 3 seconds. The listing appears like this, and it's easy to see in the results which hanzi I'm looking for. It's just like magic (but without the annoying background music).

HowTo ... do it
  • (I use a Mac, but it's easy to make this work on Windows)
  • Switch to Firefox (and if you're not already using it, tsk tsk)
  • In your Bookmarks Menu right at the top, there is probably one called "Quick Searches" (create it if you don't have it)
  • Create a new bookmark in that folder with the following characteristics: Name="MDBG", Location="", Keyword="m"
  • Don't type the inverted commas above, just the content.
HowTo ... use it

From now on, when you begin a URL with the letter m, Firefox will send everything that you type after that into the URL you have entered, in place of the %s that appears in the address. So here are some examples of how you might use this:
  • m xing hao
  • m shi3
  • m shuō
  • m milkshake
  • m on good terms
  • m 纯文字页
  • m 开*

  • You can use different keywords instead of m (like 'lookup', 'dictionary', etc.) - but a single letter is the fastest.
  • Other browsers probably have a similar functionality to Firefox, so if you have the details on how to do it for them, please make a note in the comments below.
  • You can use other Net dictionaries, although in order to do this, the word or phrase that is being looked up must appear in the URL. For example, it doesn't work with If you have the location-text for a different dictionary, please leave it in the comments below for others to use.
OK, so your work here is done. Now go look something up.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Running away from the Sea

One of the first memories I have of breaking words down into their component parts is doing it with "Shanghai" (上海).

The first step was easy, since the two characters were 上 (shàng, meaning 'on') and 海 (hǎi, meaning 'sea'). Shanghai ... "on the sea" ... fantastic. Even I could remember that!

It was very easy to remember '上' - but '海' remained elusive for me. So I got to wondering how that character might be made up. (And if you haven't already starting asking questions like this, don't worry ... you will!)

So with use of a decent dictionary (I used both and here), we find that:
  • 海 = 氵 + 每
hǎi (sea) is made up of shuǐ (the water radical, usually 水) and měi ('every')
  • 每 = 艹 + 母
měi ('every') is made up of cǎo (the grass radical, usually 艹) and mǔ ('female' or 'mother')

So now it's quite easy to remember:

Linking words together like this is another example of what I've called Wordpacks (see here for an introduction, and click here to see all Wordpacks in Mandarin Segments so far). I find it makes it easier to memorise words, and certainly more interesting to learn.

And please don't just read this post, nod your head sagely and think that it would make it easier to learn, if you could just be bothered. Look at the three characters, note the similarity, note the build-up (or the the 'build-down'), make up a sentence ('a sea for every mother'???) - and learn it. Actually learn it.

And if you have similar hanzi build-ups that you use, drop us a note in the comments below.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ways of applying Current (目前)

People say that Chinese is hard to learn, and as a native-English speaker, I agree.

One of the difficulties I find is that the sentence construction can be non-intuitive. Sure, it's still Subject-Verb-Object, but it's what happens in between that's difficult.

For example, take a look at this link from, where it uses mù qián (目前) (which means 'currently') in two different styles:

Tā shì mùqián zuì shòuhuānyíng de nǚ míngxīng.
She's currently the most popular star.

Nǐ mǎnyì mùqián de gōngzuò ma?
Are you currently satisfied with your job?

The English translations looks the same, but ...

In the first case, it's an adverb of time - in terms of when this action is taking place. Structurally: [subject] [verb] [time adverb] [object].

In the second case, the English translation also seems to be referring to time in the same way. However, in Mandarin it's used as an adjective - referring to the current state of the job, rather than the current time of being satisfied. Structurally: [subject] [verb] [time adjective] [object].

This post isn't going to completely change the way you learn Chinese, but hopefully it triggers a little more scrutiny in your processing of Chinese sentences as you continue to learn.

PS. Make sure that you get updates to Mandarin Segments as they are released, by subscribing to a feed, or via email.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Asking a waiter for permission?

When I was growing up I would ask my mother, "Can I have some juice?" She would correct me and say:

" No, Greg. It should be 'MAY I have some juice'. 'Can' is about ability, and of course you have the ability to have juice. The question is ... are you allowed to have juice? So you should ask: "MAY I have some juice?" "

So I grew asking 'may I' and not 'can I'.

And when I learned to speak German, I automatically applied this convention there too. I recall a specific occasion when visiting Zurich, and I went drinking with some German-speaking colleagues. The waiter arrived at the table and I asked "Darf ich ein Bier haben?" (May I have a beer?) Everyone looked at me, and laughed.

In German, the convention is actually "Kann ich ein Bier haben?" (Can I have a beer?). And unlike in English where "may" is good manners, in German it's like asking permission from the waiter - to see if he thinks it's OK for me to have a beer! And apparently it sounded really funny to German native-speakers.

Of course, since you're learning Mandarin, you're probably aware how difficult (and wrong!) it is to translate directly from English. This applies in terms of vocab, grammer, and of course culture.

And in this case, if you're ordering a beer in Chinese, you don't ask "May I ..." (ke yi), or "Can I ..." (neng). You simple state "yī píng pí jiǔ" (一瓶啤酒) - literally: 'one bottle of beer'. It's short (because Chinese is efficient that way) and commanding (after all, you're the customer).

And if you wanted to be really polite (yet still speak like Chinese people speak), you could say "qǐng gěi wǒ yī píng pí jiǔ" (请给我一瓶啤酒) - 'please give me a bottle of beer'.

No questions asked.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Why a meal is worth more to me than my grandmother

Usually the first lesson in a Chinese course includes phrases like:
  • Hello
  • How are you?
  • I am fine
  • Goodbye
These are useful phrases and you're probably going to use them often - so the sooner you learn them, the better.

Then you learn further, and you reach the chapter where you are meant to memorise words for various family relationships. Father & mother are easy enough, and it probably takes little more effort to learn these words than to actively decide not to learn them.

But then the chapter offers words for: brother (big brother, little brother), sister (ditto), grandmother & grandfather (different words for paternal or maternal grandparents), aunts & uncles (with more variations) ... and my eyes glaze over.

The reality is I don't use these words often (not even in English) - so I'm certainly not likely to use them in Chinese. Sure, if someone talks to me about their family, I really ought to know who they mean, but not now.

In the meantime, I would rather learn other words, like: eat, drink, water, bathroom. And I could learn phrases like "Do you want to eat lunch now?, "Let's go", "What would you like to drink?" These are words & phrases which I definitely use, several times a week.

And to be honest, I still don't know what the word is for Grandmother. I just haven't bothered learning it. If I have use it with a non-English speaking person, I could cheat and say "my mother's mother" for example.

My suggestion to you is that if you're going to learn words, take the time to memorise words you'll use often. (For example, do you know how to say each of these words: now, later, earlier, usually, sometimes, always, never?)

And yes, I know that right after I post this, I could take 1 minute to learn the words for grandmother & grandfather. But I think I'll rather go look up the word for 'milkshake' ...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A laughable blog post

It's Friday, and I like Fridays. Not as much as Saturdays or Sundays, but it's heading in the right direction.

So using the concept of WordPacks, here are some common (and useful!) words which are all tied around a "laughable" theme ...
  • hǎo xiào (好笑) funny (adjective)
  • xiào huà (笑话) joke (noun)
  • wán (玩) play, have fun (verb)
  • kāi wán xiào (开玩笑) to make fun of / to joke (verb)
  • wēi xiào (微笑) smile (verb)
  • kě xiào (可笑) funny (adjective)
  • gé gé xiào (格格笑) giggle (verb)
And to make it easier to memorise, note there are many words which end (or begin) with xiào (笑). Also there is a short "run-on" (hǎo xiào / xiào huà) which - if as a beginner that's all you memorise - then that's 90% of the usefulness for 10% of the effort.

PS. If you know any short Chinese jokes, or links to any jokes in Chinese, please leave a comment to this post ...