Friday, December 31, 2010

Who's on First?

Gym has been helping me improve my Chinese since I moved to HK. (And my Chinese would be even better if I went more often!)

While running on treadmill, not only am I listening to Mandarin music, but I'm also watching the (silent) TV screens. Actually, I'm not even looking at the picture - just reading the subtitles as they flash past.  It's too fast and too complicated for me to work out what's going on, but it's good practice for the characters that I know ...

This time there was one character that kept on flashing past - I couldn't remember seeing it before, but sadly I also couldn't remember it well enough to reproduce it - which meant even a few minutes with a dictionary came up with blanks. (Forgive me, I was concentrating more on the burn in my thighs, and less on the shape of Chinese characters at that time.)

I got to work this morning, and asked a colleague what this character meant - and after a few failed attempts, she recognised it as 甚. She pointed out that it is usually associated with another character: 甚麼.

The dialogue then went as follows:
     G: 这是什么?  (zhè​ shì​ shén​me​?) ("This is what?")
(Yes, I've been learning Simplified characters, so I talk in Simplified too :-)
     E:  这是甚麼   (zhè​ shì​ shén​me​) ("This is 'what'.")
(Note the identical pinyin, which is why I was confused ...)
     G: 我问你: 这是什么?  ("I'm asking you: This is what?")
     E:  对 我告诉你: 这是甚麼  ("Correct, I'm telling you: This is 'what' ")

If you haven't worked it out by now, the word for 'what' in Simplified is 什么 - which according to the dictionary is written as 什麼 in Traditional Characters. However, there is a variant of this word in Traditional which is 甚麼.

This is what?
Yes, this is what.

Kinda reminded me of the old Abbot & Costello sketch called "Who's on First?". If you don't know it, you'd better see it!

Have you ever listened to a story that sounded like it was going to have an amazing climax, but didn't?  Ah yes, well this is one of those :-)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Neither Coke nor Water

Sometimes I really don't understand why people can't understand my Chinese.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure I use the wrong words, the wrong tones, the wrong facial expressions a lot of the time. But still, if you don't understand a person, don't you sit there trying to work out what they might have meant?

Of course, it's not just with Chinese - this is an English problem too. Let me start with an example that happened in Boston USA about a year ago. A small group of us were sitting in a restaurant (including my cousin, who had been living in Boston for 10 years).

The waitress asks us what we'd like to drink, my cousin orders a coffee, I order a "Sam Adams" (the beer is actually called "Samuel Adams", but this waitress is so smart, so she managed to work out what I wanted), and Charlie orders a water. She orders water using her English accent, saying "water" very clearly.

"Sorry, what?"

The waitress is really struggling to understand the word "water", in spite of the fact that she just asked us what we'd like to drink. "Wheelbarrow" would not have made sense, but "water" seems quite obvious.

My cousin interrupts: "She wants water."  Lynn says this with a Boston accent, which sounds more like "wadder" than "waw-tuh".

"Oh wadder?  Sure, no problem," and off the waitress goes.

Seriously. This really happened.

And so to Chinese.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Shenzhen. I'm in a restaurant, and wanting to order a Diet Coke. Dammit! I can't remember the Chinese word for diet Coke - so I say ​kě​lè​ (可乐)(可樂)('cola'). This part she understands.

I remember that the word for "lose weight" is jiǎn​féi (减肥), which kinda rings bells. I know it's not quite right, but it's close ... so I take a guess by asking for "jiǎn kě​lè".

She doesn't get it. I clarify by saying "méi​yǒu​ táng​" (no sugar), then I repeat "jiǎn kě​lè".  This is not going anywhere, and after another minute of trying, I give up and just order a normal coke.

Now the truly frustrating part is that the word I was looking for was "jiàn​yí​ kě​lè" (健怡可乐)(健怡可樂). When I looked that up back in HK, I was dumbfounded - because she knew I was looking for a type of cola, it doesn't contain sugar, and it sounds like "jiǎn kě​lè".

Wouldn't "jiàn​yí​ kě​lè" be an obvious guess?  I guess not.

tom-A-to is different to tom-ah-to,  but people can work that out.
water is almost the same as wadder, but people can't work that one out.

And I know that what I speak is is waaaaay different to proper Chinese, but still ....

Monday, October 4, 2010

Now blogging from Hong Kong

Hi all

I was shocked to notice that I haven't posted in nearly two months!  Thanks for the emails from those of you who were wondering if I was still "around" ...

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had plans to move to Hong Kong. And in fact, I have moved to HK. Indeed, this is me now, blogging from Hong Hong.

The picture you see to the right is from my current apartment window, in the heart of Wanchai. This coming weekend I will move to my permanent apartment further east.

In the last couple of months I got tied up with the process of moving, using up some leave that was still due to me (in the US & South Africa), and coming across here. I've also been settling in HK, doing 'domestic' things grocery shopping and getting haircuts.

I've not had that much opportunity to practise my Mandarin (well, more than London, but less than I would want) - except for the last two days which I spent in Shenzhen for China's 61st birthday. I've also been having to re-learn some of my reading, because HK uses the Traditional character set, whereas I learned the Simplified set - but I've done this learning "in the wild" and not from books.

So, following soon, I'll be writing more articles. I've got so many ideas in the last couple of weeks. Keep an eye out for my next post called "Neither Coke nor Water".

If you're still reading, drop me a note below to say hi. (And if you're based in HK, let me know - it would be fun to meet up.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Getting Sentenced in Mandarin

This is another article in the Life Sentences series.  In my opening post, I wrote the following:

"Copyright acknowledgement: Over time I have collected a variety of sentences, and loaded them into my flashcard system. By this stage, I no longer have any idea where they came from. Some are of my own construction, or from friends who have emailed or instant-messaged me. Others have been copied from websites along the way. To make sure I give credit where due, the following sites are the most likely external sources ... "

The purpose of this article is to say a few words about why I bother getting sentences, and where.

Originally I used to just read the sentences and convince myself that I 'got' the structure, but over time I realised I didn't - so I then started adding entire sentences into my Anki flashcards collection. There are two major benefits to this:
  • Chinese sentence constructs can be really different to English (as mentioned in my previous post). You can't just memorise lists of words and do literal word-by-word translations, it doesn't work that way.
  • You should make sure you're using the words in the right context. In English, for example, there is a difference between jealousy & envy,  disinterested and uninterested - and you'll want to use the right words in Chinese too.


Daily sentences
  • Whether you're a beginner just learning words, or an intermediate learning sentences, it's worthwhile subscribing to's Word of the Day. Here you can see a sample for yǐngxiǎng (影響)(影响). Almost every day, I pick a word or sentence from the email, and enter it into my flashcard system. Highly recommended.
  • There are several pre-made databases for the Anki flashcard system, one of which contains 20,000 thousand sentences. Whether you set it to one new sentence a day, or many, is up to you - but start that habit today.
Rolling your own sentences
  • The website is basically designed to take words that you input (English, Mandarin, Japanese) and track down sentences which use that word. I find that lots of the resulting sentences are too long to interest me, and often of a technology theme, but you can still get some great sentences to copy into your flashcard system. Here's a sample using the word yǐngxiǎng again.
  • The nciku dictionary is one of the better web-based Mandarin/English dictionaries, and it also has a sample sentence facility - take a look at the yǐngxiǎng examples.
  • I only discovered while in the final draft of this article, but so far I'm very impressed.  The sentences tend to be quite long, but the front-end is quite polished. You can see the yǐngxiǎng examples here.
  • iChaCha offers yet another option, neat presentation and nicely short sentences. You can also see the example sentences for yǐngxiǎng.
  • Of course, you always have the option of simply entering the Chinese characters into your favourite search engine (I'm now using Bing, but you may still be using Google). It certainly takes more effort than the above options because it requires a lot more reviewing of the results to find good sentences, but maybe that's your preference.
  • I have a little paper dictionary  called Collins Chinese Dictionary (in colour), which often gives sample sentences for the words I look up. 
  • Finally, I have installed the free Pleco dictionary on my iPad,  which usually gives example sentences for looked-up words. For yǐngxiǎng it provides about a dozen sentences.
Pre-loved sentences
  • Sometimes when I'm listening to Chinese podcasts (usually ChinesePod or Popup Chinese) I hear a sentence that I really* like - whether because it contains useful words, or has an interesting structure, or simply because I think I will use it often. I then enter a version of that sentence (English, pinyin, hanzi) into my flashcard system, and wait for it to come into the queue.
  • When emailing or instant-messaging (let's pretend that's a verb, OK?)  with a Chinese friend, they might use a sentence which strikes me as likely to be of common use, or it may have interesting vocab or sentence structure. So I sometimes paste sentences like that into my flashcard collection.

If you use other sites for finding sentences, or even completely difference methods, then please leave a comment below. I hope you find this useful ...

* JP, I know you're reading this. One of the sentences coming through my flashcards at the moment is from an old ChinesePod QingWen episode with you, Connie & Amber. From that, I took this sentence: "难怪你那么佩服JP" :-)
** Some links are affiliated. 

Friday, August 6, 2010

Karate Kid - the qi force

I recently watched the new Karate Kid movie, with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. It really is a good movie - but this post is not a movie review.

This (very short) post is actually about Chinese writing systems.

The movie is based in mainland China, where the Simplified Character Set is used. And throughout the movie you see writing in this Simplified set, as you'd expect.

But there is one scene (no, this is not a spoiler) where Jackie Chan is explaining the concept of life-force or qi, and he writes the symbol as follows: 氣. Of course, this is actually the Traditional version, whereas the Simplified version is: 气  (and you also get a Z-variant: 気).

OK, so Jackie Chan is from Hong Kong where they use Traditional characters, and I accept that the above version looks more 'appropriate' for a scene in a movie.

So I begrudge that it is the right thing to do for Karate Kid.  Although, to be fair, my heart did miss a beat when I saw the technical goof.

Small things amuse small minds.   (Go on, don't be shy to tell me that in the comments below ...)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I'm moving to Hong Kong!

No, this is not a lesson to teach you how to say that in Mandarin.  This is an announcement: I'm moving to Hong Kong.

This probably won't come as a surprise to most of you that I'm interested enough in Asia to want to go spend some time there. For the last five years, I've been travelling to Asia up to half a dozen times a year, and it was through these business trips that I (by mistake :-) ended up learning Mandarin. And my interest in the language, the people, the culture, has continued to grow.

I work for a large international company, and I put it out there that I'm available for an Asian opportunity. I had done this before, over 10 years ago, when I was working for their South African operation, and got transferred to the UK. And now it's time to do it again. My bags will already by unpacked by mid-September.

There's a lot I'm going to miss about London - it's an amazing city.  And I'll obviously miss my family and friends too (you know who you are - because I know you're reading this). But there is also so much that I'm looking forward to.

Of course I'll try pick up some Cantonese too, but HK gives plenty of opportunity to improve my Mandarin. One of the big changes is having to re-learn my reading skills, because I've been focusing on Simplified Chinese, yet HK uses Traditional Characters. But that's another story for another blog post.

For the readers of Mandarin Segments who are based in HK, please leave me a comment, or send me an email to say hi. And for those passing through the city, let me know when you're coming.

Anyway, I better go pack another box ...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Reading Chinese (in Japan!)

Another trip, another (Mandarin) discovery ...

I have just spent a couple of weeks in Japan - my last trip having been three years ago. At that time, I probably knew only about 12 Kanji (Japanese characters, which were originally borrowed from Chinese about 2000 years ago), whereas this time I know about 100 times as many characters.

I was curious to see how my Chinese reading skills would work in Japan.

Here is the background:
  • I have been studying the Simplified Chinese character set - whereas of course Kanji would be closer to the Traditional Chinese character set
  • I am referring here to recognising individual characters, and piecing together enough of them to get the general meaning of what I'm reading
  • After all, I'm not a fluent Chinese reader, so I couldn't exactly expect to manage Japanese without a hitch.
And here are some quick observations about my experiences understanding:
  • In spite of the above points, I was still able to follow much of the Kanji which I read in signs, menus, posters, etc.
  • Even when signs were a mixture of Kanji and Hiragana (the one phonetic alphabet of Japanese), I sometimes found that the core meaning came from the Kanji. (For example, if you look at the picture below (sorry for the bad lighting, I took it in a shrine) in the right-column you can recognise the characters 帽子 (hat) and 脱 (take-off) -I'm sure you can work out what you have to do!

  • Sometimes the Kanji means exactly the same as the chinese, for example 注意 (zhù​yì, see below)
  • And whereas the character 天 (tiān)​ is used in day-based words in Chinese (昨天: yesterday,  今天: today,  明天: tomorrow), in Japanese the 天 doesn't appear, and instead 日 is used in it's place  
  • Sometimes the Japanese have different words for common objects to what the Chinese use, even though you can still read the Japanese version and work out what they mean. For example (Chinese/Japanese):  'car' (汽車 = gas vehicle / 自動車 = automatic vehicle), 'emergency exit' (紧急出口 = urgency exit / 非常口 = extreme doorway), 'no smoking' (吸煙禁止 / 禁煙), 'train' (火車 = fire vehicle / 電車 = electric vehicle), 'push' (on doors) (推 / 押), 'fire extinguisher' (灭火器 vs 消火器) etc.

Finally, here are some fun observations:

  • The Japanese love the word 注意 (zhù​yì, meaning 'notice' or 'caution') - I saw it all over the place - either stand-alone or at the end of the sentence
  • I discovered that the Chinese word 先生 (xiān​sheng​, or 'mister') is the same word as Japan's "sensei".  Similarly, Japan's "onsen" (the famous style hot baths, usually from spring water) is written as 温泉 (wēn​quán)​, which is of course "hot spring" in Chinese
  • In China the word for 'tap' is 水龍頭 (water dragon head) whereas in Japan they call it 蛇口 (snake mouth)

  • Before I knew that 自動車 is the Kanji for 'car', I was seeing the following words (see below) a lot: 自動車x除x. I read this as "automatic vehicle blah blah" - and for some odd reason I started thinking about those automated parking lots in Japan, where you drive onto a platform, and that takes your car away in a space-efficient manner. When you return for your car, you select the bay number, and it comes out again, almost like a vending machine :-)   So I had assumed the sign below made reference to there being one of those automated parking bays being in the vicinity - only to discover that it's not meant to imply 'automatic car-park', but rather just 'car-something'. (I'm sure the above paragraph is confusing to you, the reader. Please treat it as a stream-of-consciousness description of little import.)

Conclusion? Learning to read Chinese has use even outside the Chinese-speaking countries. It was fun to see that for myself.

If you know of other differences or similarities between between Chinese and Japanese, please drop a note for us below. And if you don't, then pretend you do and just make something up!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Life Sentences - a new series

This is the first part of a new series about sentences in Mandarin Chinese.

For a few months now, I have been on a new journey in my Mandarin learning. The previous one was working through Heisig & Richardson's first book (simplified or traditional, affiliated links) on learning how to read and write Chinese. I made it through 1500 characters in about 3-4 months, and I had great support from all of you as I did so.

But now being able to read & write characters, and having learned a whole bunch of compound words (through flashcards), I have extended this into understanding how Mandarin sentences are constructed. In my opinion, this is the least intuitive part of learning Chinese, and it's what keeps me from having coversations which flow as smoothly as I'd like.

Don't believe people who tell you that Mandarin is the same as English: subject-verb-object.  I mean, it is. Kinda.

The problem is that when you first get past "I drink beer" (我喝啤酒, wǒ​ hē​ pí​jiǔ) (subject-verb-object, in both cases), things get a bit fuzzy and non-intuitive. But once you've got a feel for Chinese sentences, it starts to come back into focus, and you realise that to a large degree (again!) it is S-V-O.

Just to show you what I mean about this being non-intuitive, take a look at the following sentences, which are arranged as follows:
   Simplified Chinese
   Traditional Chinese
   Literal translation

S1. What should I give him as a gift?
wǒ gāi sòng shénme lǐwù gěi tā?
(I) (should) (give) (what gift) (give him)?

S2. She enjoys sharing her experience of learning the Chinese language.
Tā hěn xǐhuan gēn biérén fēnxiǎng tā xuéxí Zhōngwén de jīngyàn.
(she) (very likes) (with others) (share) (her) (study Chinese)'s (experience).

S3. People who want a tattoo must go to a proper tatto parlour.
要文身的人, 必须去专业的文身店。
要文身的人, 必須去專業的文身店。
yào​ wén​shēn​ de rén​, bì​xū​ qù​ zhuān​yè​ de wén​shēn​ diàn​.
(want tattoo)'s (people), (must) (go to) (professional)'s (tattoo parlour)

Certainly not intuitive, but definitely learnable.

The purpose of this series is to get you as quickly from the "newbie S-V-O" to the "more advanced S-V-O" phase, without getting too stuck in the middle. And this is as much to document my learning for myself, as it is to share my learning for your benefit.

To make sure you don't miss out, ensure you subscribe to Mandarin Segments. I look forward to your active participation.

Copyright acknowledgement: Over time I have collected a variety of sentences, and loaded them into my flashcard system. By this stage, I no longer have any idea where they came from. Some are of my own construction, or from friends who have emailed or instant-messaged me. Others have been copied from websites along the way. To make sure I give credit where due, the following sites are the most likely external sources:
   About Mandarin
   Bing Search
   20,000 Mandarin Sentences
   Nciku Dictionary
   Popup Chinese
   Collins (paper) dictionary

Articles in the Life Sentences series so far:

To see all posts in the "Life Sentences" series, click here

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I was Chinese for 1.5 minutes today ...

I had lunch today with a friend from New York. He knows I'm learning Mandarin, so he got his one work colleague - a Chinese person - to teach him a couple of phrases before coming to London. The dialogue went roughly like this ...

NY:  This is the phrase I learned ...
Greg:  Go ahead.
NY:  wǒ​ shì​ huàn​ hé​chà​
Greg:  Uhm ...

So in my mind, I'm trying to work out what he said. And the thoughts are buzzing through my head ...
  • The sentence clearly begins with "I am" (wǒ​ shì​) - I can hear that. 
  • Next is huàn, which sounds like 换 (change/exchange). There are probably other versions of huàn, but right now I can't think of others. If I can work out the rest of the sentence, then maybe this part will make more sense. I'll come back to it ...
  • What on earth is hé​chà? I've seen a few words lately that begin with 合 (join/together/...)​, like 合适 (hé​shì=suitable), 合资 (hé​zī= joint venture), but what is hé​chà??
  • No, I really can't work out what he said. Let me ask him ...

Greg: Uhm, sorry.  I give up. What are you saying?
NY: wǒ​ shì​ huàn​ hé​chà​ ...

(Dear readers of Mandarin Segments, have you worked it out yet?)

NY:  "I like to drink tea."
Greg:  Oh ... you mean "wǒ xǐ​huan​ hē chá​" !
NY:  Yes, that's what I said.
Greg:  !!!

And this, ladies & gentlemen, is the moment when I experienced how Chinese people must feel when foreigners speak to them in Chinese. The words are wrong. The tones are wrong. And they (just like me) have no idea what is being said.

But I was flattered that he had bothered to memorise a short phrase for me, and it led onto an interesting conversation about tones.

And you know what? It's not so bad to be Chinese and hear a foreigner make mistakes when trying to speak Chinese. Why was I so nervous to try in the beginning?

You're not nervous, are you? I can say for sure, having been Chinese for 1.5 minutes, that you have nothing to be nervous about!

You're welcome to leave comments in English, but for fun, why don't you leave comments in Chinese - whether using hanzi or pinyin? Keep it as simple as you like, and take a risk. How many of you will dare?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Quickies don't work for me

I recently got back from two weeks in China (having visited Yangshuo, Guilin and Beijing), and I wanted to share a quick observation about my ability to interact with people in Mandarin.

Am I the only one who experiences this? I'd love to hear from you - either way - so please leave a quick comment below.

Basically, when I have a conversation which lasts more than a few minutes, I have a relatively high success rate: I can understand them, they can understand me, and we can cover a decent range of topics. But when the conversation is just a quick one - one of us asking a question and the other required to answer - the success rate is definitely not as good.

For example:
  • I might ask someone for directions - and they reply back to me with a series of rapid sentences which I just don't get. Sure, I hear words like "qián​miàn" (forwards), "yòu​bian" (on your right) and "rán​hòu" (thereafter) ... but it's too much too quickly, and I invariably have to ask them to repeat themselves more slowly.
  • Interestingly, when I first engage them in a short-ish conversation first, and so give them the opportunity to gauge my vocab and listening-skills, then I have a much greater success rate in understanding the directions which I then ask for - because they will have calibrated to my level.
  • Similarly, when I enter a shop, and the assistant comes up to me and speaks a few sentences - I often have no idea what they're saying. Again, too much, too fast. It might be something as simply as "Thanks for popping in. We've got some great special offers, but I'll leave you to look around yourself for a while, and then when you're ready please come speak to me again." Or maybe they're just asking me not to touch anything because I might break it.
  • Also, when getting into a taxi (especially in Beijing) and telling the driver where I want to go, I guess his assumption is that I can speak Chinese well - because they then launch into a one minute speech, which usually goes right over my head. (When I tell them that I didn't understand, usually the younger drivers will try again more slowly, probably using simpler language, while the older drivers either tend to say it again just as fast, or they simply shrug and remain silent.)

Is there a moral to this story? Probably - I can think of a few. But why don't you take a moment, think about what this means to you in relation to your own Mandarin studies, and then leave a comment for other readers.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The two most common mistakes of Mandarin podcasters

I listen to Chinese podcasts to learn Chinese, and I accept it's perhaps a little off-colour to be commenting on their English. But there are two very common mistakes I hear these podcasters make - which (oddly) seems to be as common with the native-English podcasters as with the Chinese - and I really need to get this off my chest.

1. pronunciation
The word is "proNUNciation", and not "proNOUNciation". I know it's a little confusing because the verb is "proNOUNce", but when it becomes a noun it loses the "O". Yes, the spelling actually changes. Given that this word is often heard on language-tuition podcasts, this mistake occurs regularly.

(And if you don't believe me, look it up in a dictionary :-)

2. mnemonic
Again, this word is commonly used, and often pronounced incorrectly. The correct phonetic pronunciation (proNUNciation, BTW) is "NE-mon-ic". It is not "NOO-mon-ic". Maybe you're thinking of a word like "pneumatic", which does indeed begin with "NOO-...".  But not this one.

(And if you don't believe me ... )

There, I've said it.  I feel better now.  Thanks for listening.  (And if you can think of a mnemonic for getting the pronunciation of "pronunciation" correct, let us know :-)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mandarin Segments!

Mandarin Segments is 1 today!

Happy birthday!

  • During the last year, I have posted 63 articles
  • There have been hundreds of comments left on this blog
  • According to Feedburner, I have many hundreds of subscribers (and this excludes all potential subscribers from China, because BlogSpot remains blocked there)
  • I have had around 10,000 unique visitors, according to StatCounter
  •  My monthly visitor count has grown consistently over the last year.
A special thanks to you, the readers.  Thanks for reading the articles, for leaving comments, and for sending me emails.

If you have any special requests for the coming year, please let a comment below ...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mandarin is not "antidisestablishmentarian"

This article answers a question that most of you have been thinking about since you started learning Chinese: How does Mandarin link together the following: Mary Poppins, long English words, mermaids, and total indifference??

I took a huge amount of pride as a child being able to say Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and in later years my long-word-of-choice was antidisestablishmentarianism. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what either of them meant, but because of the nature of the English language, I'm now able to note the following:


   anti-X  --> against or opposite to X
   dis-X  --> against or opposite to X
   X-ment  --> generally makes a noun out of X
   X-arian  --> having a nature of X
   X-ism  --> the system of X

Putting it all together we are not surprised to see that the dictionary provides the following definition: "opposition to the belief that there should no longer be an official church in a country". Other than the church referenc, it's quite logical.

But Mandarin doesn't always work that way. And this is part of the reason, I suspect, that so many Westerners have difficulty learning the language. (In other words, sometimes you have to learn something, and not just rely on intuitive extrapolation to guess it.)

Of course, you do get words like 'diving' (跳水, tiào​shuǐ​, literally: 'jump water'),  'mermaid' (美人鱼, měi​rén​yú, literally: ​pretty person fish) and 'chameleon' (变色龙, biàn sè lóng, literally: change colour dragon) (see this great blog for more unusual examples) - words which are neatly "built up" out of their components. But below is an example I was thinking about recently which demonstrates my point:

   无 (wú): not / without / un-
   所 (suǒ): place / actually
   谓 (wèi): to speak / to name / meaning

Our first attempt is to piece together 所 and 谓  - which gives us (according to the dictionary)
   所谓 (suǒ​wèi): so-called

It is not impossible to reverse-engineer using the definitions above ("actually" & "to name"), but if you hadn't learned the word already, you're probably unlikely to guess its meaning. That's OK - we see this a lot in Chinese.

But the next step is simply to put the "not" in front of 所谓. This should be straight forward, and I would expect the word to mean something like "not so-called". Right?  But instead we get:
   无所谓 (wú​suǒ​wèi): to be indifferent / no matter


Sorry, but even knowing the meaning of all three characters and knowing the meaning of the "meaty" part of the word, there is no way I would guess it has this definition.

This is not an excuse not to learn Mandarin. It certainly doesn't prove that Mandarin is impossible. It merely means that sometimes you have to go past the 'intuitive' - and just learn it.

If you have words that you find non-intuititive, please mention them in the comments below. I'd also love to hear from some of you who have never commented to MandarinSegments before ...

Monday, May 24, 2010

The taxi driver who taught me everything

During my recent trip to China, I spent 40 minutes in a taxi to Guilin Airport, and I got an important perspective on language learning - both a kick up the butt and a gentle pat on the head. (No, that was me doing it to myself - not the taxi driver!)

The conversation started off well, and we spoke (in Mandarin) about language learning, working in different countries, the most interesting things I did in Guilin, and so on. I felt good, I understood what he was saying, and was able to communicate my thoughts to him. This lasted about 20 minutes.

Then the conversation moved on to traffic-related topics. We were still doing fine while talking about traffic jams, dangerous driving, accidents, injuries vs deaths, and so on. But it started to go wrong at the time when he was trying to say "driver's licence" - a word I did not know. Eventually he showed me his, I said the closest word I could think of (证书, zhèng​shū, certificate/credentials) to confirm.

He agreed, and we were on track again.

But not for long.

At this point I really wasn't following him anymore, and I spent a fair amount of time saying 'ting bu dong' ("I don't understand what you're saying"). My mind started to wonder, and I started thinking about what the various English words that might be relevant here ...

roadworks, tar, pedestrians (yup I know that one), diversions, petrol (know this one too), oil (again), accelerator, brakes, parking (ting che), headlamps (I can take a guess this one), toll gates & toll fees (words that probably end in 'men' and 'fei') ...

This reminded me that to truly become fluent in a language, there really are a lot of words you need to know - there are so many words I don't know, even about cars & traffic (which is just one topic out of millions). So many more.

For a while there I became disheartened. At that stage I started talking to the taxi driver again, and he was saying that one day he would want to learn English too. And I realised that whatever language you learn, you would have to learn all these words.

Sometimes I just find myself convinced that Mandarin is ridiculously difficult, and it would be so easy if I were learning another language. But of course that's not true. Ultimately, if you're learning a new language you have to learn lots of words, sayings, and sentence structures.

So stop complaining and just get on with it.

How committed are you to your studies? How many new words did you learn today? And in the last month?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How to subscribe to Mandarin Segments (for free!)

Are you already subscribed to this blog, thus getting updates automatically? (Or do you have to remember to remember to visit on a regular basis?)

Make it easy on yourself, show an additional level of commitment to your Mandarin studies, and have the updates delivered to you automatically. This is especially true for any series on this blog - where you don't want to miss an article.

You have various options:
  • this is the raw RSS feed - for however you manage your usual updates
  • subscribe using your existing feed reader (for example, if you use Gmail, MyYahoo, Newsgator, etc.)
  • have new articles emailed to you as soon as they're published here.

Remember that the above methods will only give you access to the main article. There are usually excellent contributions from other readers, which will definitely add to your understanding of the topic. So once you've got the article update, make sure you go to the online version too - to read their comments, or perhaps to leave your own.

Finally, you can always follow me on Twitter (@MandarinSx), where I will mention when a new article has been published, and provide other updates along the way.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The "sleeping cats" guide to pinyin pronunciation

How much does pinyin confuse you? Which is the worst part for you?

In this short post, I show how "cats & zeds" will help you overcome a common pronuncation mistake. (PS. I know Americans say "zee" not "zed" - but for this to work, pretend you don't.)

Pinyin is the system which provides a method for pronouncing the Chinese characters using a Roman alphabet (and tone marks). It was developed by the Chinese for the Chinese - and let's face it, although it's the system we use in the West, if Westerners had designed it, I think we would have used different letters to represent the different sounds.

c is pronounced "ts",  z is "dz", zh is like "j", x is "sh" (kinda) ... sigh.

For me, the parts I got wrong in the beginning were mainly 'c' and 'z', and even today I find myself stumbling over words like "cún​zài" (存在 - to exist) when I talk too fast for my brain.

You might have a similar problem. In fact, you might not even realise you have the problem!

For example, when I meet other students of Mandarin in London, and I listen to sentences like "I live in London" (wǒ​ zhù​ zài​ Lún​dūn​), the 'zai' is often pronounced 'tsai' and not 'dzai' - so I know I'm not the only one.

Perhaps this might help ...
    cats & zeds
    [c]a[ts] & [z]e[dz]
    c is prounced 'ts'  &  z is pronounced 'dz'

Test yourself - how do you pronounce 汉字 (Hàn​zì​ - Chinese character), 现在 (xiàn​zài​ - now), 菜单 (cài​dān​ - menu), 词典 (cí​diǎn​ - dictionary)?

So cún​zài would (phonetically) be [ts]un-[dz]ai. Got it?
Cats & Zeds. Got it?


Monday, April 12, 2010

Chinese words which contain letters?

I remember doing a ChinesePod (affiliated link) lesson about going Dutch (i.e. splitting the bill), and I was surprised to find out that the Mandarin word for this is "AA zhì" (AA制). 

Yes, honestly - the actual Mandarin word contains the letters "AA". Very odd. (You can research why this is, and what the AA stands for, if you want ... there are plenty of different opinions out there.)

So I got to wondering ... what other Mandarin words contain English letters?  (And I'm not referring to 'cheats' like the word 'DVD'.)  So I compiled a list of some words, but would really appreciate any additional suggestions you might have. So leave us a comment with others that you know ...

   AA zhì (AA制):  going Dutch / splitting the bill
   A piàn (A片):  adult movie  / porn film
   B chāo (B超 - or 'B型超声' in full):  type-B ultrasound
   BP jī (BP 机):  beeper ​
   kǎ​lā OK (卡拉 OK):  karaoke 
   M (M): menstruation (as in: 你有M吗?)
   niú​ B (​牛B):  awesome  / cocky
   N xíng​ bàn​dǎo​tǐ​ (N型半导体):  N-type semiconductor
   N zhǒng​ (N种):  n-type (anyone know what this one is?)
   T xù (T恤):  t-shirt
   X guāng (X光):  X-ray

FYI creating this list wasn't as easy as ABC. i.e. It took some effort. But it's now A-OK (AFAIK). So TTFN.  (And of course I'll BRB.)  OK?

Monday, April 5, 2010

A (flowery) connection between Chinese & English

There are a number of reasons why I find learning Mandarin a bigger challenge than the other languages I have learned. Basically, Mandarin and English are just so damn different.

There is almost no overlap in how words sound in English vs Mandarin. (Just open up a Spanish-English dictionary to a random page, and see how much similarity there is!). Also, sentence construction is very different.

And yet, every now and then, I come across something which links the two languages, but it is difficult to explain how that came about.

I'm not referring to words like 'microphone' (麦克风) - which is pronounced "mài​kè​fēng​" - this was intentionally created as a loanword from English.   No, I'm talking about something odder.

Take, for example, the word 花 (huā​) which means 'flower'.

It has another meaning, and that is "to spend" - which I first heard in a ChinesePod* lesson. In English, we talk about "spending time" or "spending money". And this is the interesting thing ... in Chinese, when using the word 花 (huā​) - is is also used both for spending time and for spending money.

For example:

   Spend your money where it's needed most
   qián yào huā zài dāokǒu shàng

   Spend a lot of time
   hěn huā shíjiān

This realisation hasn't improved my Mandarin learning - oddities like this aren't common enough to rely on.  However, by the time you've finished reading this, you'll probably never forget: 花 (huā​) means flower, to spend time, or to spend money.

If you're feeling brave, can you work out for yourself how to say "I spent a bit of time deciding which flower to spend my money on".  My version** (with Yen's support) appears below.


* affiliated link
** 我花了一些时间决定花钱买哪种花

Saturday, April 3, 2010

If I lived in Asia ...

I've just returned from two weeks in Asia - and without a doubt my Mandarin has improved during that time. It does so every time I go - and although some of the benefits fade over time, other benefits are retained.

So I got wondering ... how much better would my Chinese be if I actually lived in Asia?

Now before I begin, you've probably already come to a conclusion yourself. You've probably convinced yourself that your Chinese would also improve if you lived in Asia. But don't be so sure. Let me explain ...

In support of My Asian Explosion

Firstly, I need to point out that I was in Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan & Singapore) on business. I most certainly cannot hold meetings in Mandarin - the financial issues I talk about are way beyond my knowledge. Additionally, some of my colleagues at these meetings come from different countries and so don't necessarily speak Mandarin. This means a very large proportion of my time was spent talking English - so the benefits I'm about to describe do not come from huge amounts of talking Mandarin - there are actually more subtle benefits.

a. constant exposure
Wherever, I looked, there were signs, menus, adverts, papers, magazines, business cards, ... I couldn't help myself. I would practise my reading, try work out what signs meant, test my ability to recall my Heisig-stories, and so on. Some characters, for example, kept coming up - but I couldn't recall the meaning. So I looked them up, and now remember them clearly because of how often I saw them.

b. bilingual signs
All over the place, there were signs which had both hanzi and English - which is a neat way to learn new words, particularly because they're actually being used in context. At train stations, the room-service menu ... everywhere.  Learn words just by opening your eyes!

c. transliterations
The above point was about learning the meaning of certain hanzi. However, in this case, it was useful to look at road signs, where I could see what characters were being used to create similar-sounding words with hanzi. Using Mandarin pronunciation, the above sign (告士打) is pronounced "gào​ shì​ dǎ". Not quite the same, but it provides a bit of a reminder of how certain characters are pronounced. 

d. self-learn new words
Law Courts
In this case, I knew the first two hanzi spell "Wanchai" - so skip those. Now I had to work out 法院 (fǎ​yuàn​​). I already knew that the word 法定 (fǎ​dìng​) meant legal/rightful, and that 医院 (yī​yuàn) means hospital. So it didn't take a genius to work out that ​法院 must relate to a place of law i.e. law courts. The English writing above confirmed my guess. This kind of self-learning words came up many more times, like 目的地 = purpose place = 'destination'.

e. speaking & listening 
Of course, it isn't just exposure to written Chinese - there were plenty of opportunites to practise my listening & speaking skills. At the hotel there were doormen/women (in Taipei, the one woman was so impressed I could speak Chinese, she rushed off to get me a cup of tea to drink while I was checking in), elevator & train announcements, waiters & waitresses, and people sitting at the table next to me (like the two Chinese women where one was saying that the other's mother must have had an affair!).

e. general revision
And of course, even if I see words that I already know, by seeing them over & over again, I move from 'see-interpret-understand' to 'see-understand'. This is something I recently wrote about here.

My Asian Explosion might never happen

Ultimately, it looks like it's all about exposure, right? And if I lived in Asia, my Chinese would be much better, right? And all I have to do is move to Asia, and my Chinese will improve, right?

Hmmm, maybe.

But maybe not. When I stop to think about it, I realised there are a few flaws in my thinking ...

a. There are plenty of foreigners who live in Asia, who can't speak more than a dozen words of Chinese (or Japanese, or Korean, or ...). That proves having access to all the above "benefits" is only part of the deal - you actually have to access this all to get better.

This comes down to motivation, which I've written about here.

b. Is it really so difficult to increase my exposure to Chinese material? Sure, if I'm in a taxi in Taiwan, I can see lots of signs outside to practise my reading skills. But if I were motivated enough, wouldn't I carry around a printout from a Chinese website, or a Chinese book, or a copy of Heisig?

I already listen to quite a lot of Mandarin music, I plug into Chinese podcasts when I travel, I have Chinese fridge magnets (more about this in another article), and I have a few language exchange partners which I meet every now and then. I have a Chinese cartoon book next to my bed, and a few Mandarin movies.

So I guess I've already partly created a Mandarin environment. But I could do more. Yes, if "living in Asia" were the key to improving, I could easily make an effort to artificially create an Asian-like environment.

This comes down to motivation, which I've written about here.

So although my Mandarin skills do improve when I'm in Asia, it's not just about exposure, but it's about doing something with that exposure. And extending that idea, if it's my motivation that allows me to do something, then with the right motivation I really should be able to increase my exposure - even here in London - and so boost my Mandarin learning.

Like so much in life, it comes down to motivation.

Is there something you can do now, to improve your learning?  Listen to a podcast, learn a few words, label objects around your home in Chinese, subscribe to this blog. And don't forget to enjoy yourself.

In the meantime, leave us a comment ... what do you do to increase your exposure to Chinese?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Back from Asia ...

Hi all

Well, I'm back from Asia - having spent the last couple of weeks in Hong Kong, Taipei & Singapore on business.

On the right here you can see a picture of me at a late-night Pearl Bubble Tea place (珍珠奶茶) (zhēn​zhū​nǎi​chá​) in Taipei, near the main station. Medicinal purposes only, of course. :-)

I made some purchases while out there, including two Taiwanese TV series, a couple of Chinese movies, some Mandarin music, and a few cartoon books in simplified Chinese. I can't wait to get the time to start working (playing?) through them.

Ten months ago I came back from a business trip to China, unable to read any Chinese, and with a much more basic conversational skill. Being there at the time really gave me the incentive to boost my learning, which is why, upon my return, I started actively using flashcards, looking for a method to learn to read & write (I chose Heisig) ... and I started this blog.

And now I am pleased to see that the difference in my skill level was really obvious. I could read lots of the signs (although knowing the individual characters didn't always help me work out what it actually meant!) and my conversations were very much more, uhm, substantial. I'm very pleased.

And for the record - I've not been much of a student. I've only put in about 30-45 minutes a day, most of which is just listening to podcasts while travelling to and from work. But I was at least consistent.

Also, being in the environment, I was thinking lots about learning Chinese - and I drafted the skeleton of a number of articles which I intend to fully write up over the next couple of months.
I'd love you to follow along, so make sure you're subscribed - using the usual RSS feed, via email, or even on Twitter.

Speak soon

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Something happened to my Mandarin!

Have you seen it too?

Over the last couple of weeks, I've noticed something has changed in my Mandarin.  I'm focusing here on the difference between (mentally) translating, and (intellectually) understanding.

I would love to be able to tell you that I woke up one morning and discovered I was perfectly fluent - but that's not true. And I don't know exactly when it happened, but given the level of the material & discussion partners I've been working with lately, I can see signs of it now.

Basically, I'm understanding without understanding. Bruce Lee would have been proud of this statement ("The art of fighting, without fighting"), but it makes sense if you think about it ...

I'm sure you know what it's like in your Mandarin world too ... when someone says 你好 (nǐ​hǎo​) to you, you probably don't have translate nǐ​hǎo​='Hello' (thinks: "Ah, they're saying hello to me. What friendly people."). You just know they mean 'hello' and you respond to that.

OK, so in recent months I've mainly been listening to elementary-level podcasts (ChinesePod equivalent), and I could understand most of what I heard. The conversation was at a slow enough level that I could pretty much translate sentences, word-by-word, and understand it all as I went along.

But my language partners have been speaking a bit faster to me, and I've been listening to intermediate-level podcasts, and although it's too fast for me to be able to mentally translate  word-by-word, I still find that I'm reaching the end of the conversation with a rough idea of what I'm hearing.

Of course, there are plenty of cases where I can understand (without translating) most of the sentence, but because I don't get the main word, I don't fully know what the sentence actually means. But I still get enough to know that I'm on the right track.

So I'm responding to this by trying to shut down my conscious mind, and just listen (without trying to translate). And although it's still managing to evade me, I have noticed I am definitely operating at a higher level.

Something has definitely happened.

Have you experiened something similar? Do you remember the first time you understood what someone was saying to you even though you didn't seem to hear the words they were using? Or is this something you're still waiting for? Please leave a comment - I'd love to hear from you. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore ... here I come in March

In the second half of March I will be visiting Hong Kong, Taipei & Singapore on business.

I'm guessing that I'll only be in those cities for about 3 days each - but I'm hoping I'll have a little bit of spare time in the evenings, or weekends (depending where I am) to meet up with some of you.

So if you live there, and you'd like to meet up, please drop me a note at the following address (I'm sure you can work it out):

   greg ((at)) Mandarin Segments ((dot)) com

I look forward to meeting some of you.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Heisig - wherefore art thou now?

Nearly three months ago, I announced that I had finished working  my way through Heisig's "Book 1" on learning to read & write the first 1500 characters Chinese characters. I just wanted to update you on what I've been doing since them in terms of reading/writing.

Whether you're interested because deep down inside you're a voyeur, or because you're curious what may be in store for you when you finish book 1,  please keep reading ...

This is an update on my experiment to learn to read Chinese. You can also read my original post on this topic, or check out all other posts on my experiment. After a bit of research I settled on Heisig's "Remembering the Simplified Hanzi" method - which is progressing really well.

The observations are quite simple:
  • I have done almost no revision using the Heisig book (although I did try for the first week after completing the book). I have not used any Heisig flashcards either.
  • I did become increasingly aware, while doing Heisig, of the importance of knowing lots of compound words, and have since put lots of effort into that - instead of revising Heisig.
  • I do try to read some tweets in Chinese, the odd Chinese website, and some Chinese cartoon & children's books I bought a few months ago.
  • Of the 1500 hanzi that I learned, I would guess that I know 500 really well so that I can read them without having to work out what it means, 500 I have to work out using the Heisig image system, and 500 I have probably forgotten and will have to re-learn (although that will be pretty quick I'm sure).
So basically, there has been a "polarisation" of those 1500 characters. Some of the characters have become increasingly firmly embedded, and others have faded away.

Of course I'm disappointed to have forgotten anything at all, but sometimes that's the reality of living in the Real World (tm) - and not having enough time to do what you want. However, don't confuse forgetting some characters with having wasted my time.

This has not been a waste of time. In fact, my time with Heisig still feels like a massive success.

I am now very comfortable using instant chat with my Chinese friends (Skype, QQ, Sametime), communicating only in hanzi. There is very little more satisfying for me at the moment than closing down a Skype window, for example, staring at dozens of lines of pure Chinese characters.  (Even now, a little self-satisfied shiver runs down my spine :-)

I'm sure I will spend time with Heisig Book 1 in future, actively revising. I just don't have time. Bit by bit, when I come across hanzi I don't recognise, I will look them up, remember the Heisig image, and they will become firmly embedded too.

And eventually, I'll take up Book 2. (Although at this rate, I might be ready for Book 2 before Book 2 is ready for me!)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Mandarin Moment

Hang on a sec', can I get your help quickly? Just hold this for a moment ... thanks, now take a quick look.

These are really common English phrases, and it's quite useful (nay, very useful) to be able to say it in Mandarin. Fortunately, in true WordPack style, there is a very familiar pattern that links these, and other similar phrases.

The pattern is:   一下

yí xià:  Literally this means "one down", but the dictionary translations look more like: one time / once / in a while / all of a sudden / give it a go (when used after a verb).

Here are some of the more common phrases that you'll hear, and certainly ones that you're very likely to use. If you're a little beyond beginner, then you probably already know most of the opening hanzi, in which case the phrases will be really easy to remember.

看一下: kàn yíxià: take a quick look
等一下: děng ​yíxià: wait a moment
让一下: ràng ​yíxià: literally this is "yield a moment", but it's used in the context of, for example, "Excuse me, can I get past you?"
拿一下: ná ​yíxià: hold this for a second
挑一下: tiāo yíxià: usually it's like "let me take my time to choose" (literally: choose a moment)

 Now that you've got these phrases sorted, take a moment ...

Friday, January 22, 2010

Volunteering in China - charitable projects

Hi all

I have two trips planned to Asia in March & May (and another to Japan in July, but we'll skip that since this is a Mandarin blog :-) ... and I am looking for your input. Please.

One of the things I'd like to do while in China is volunteer on some kind of charitable project for a week or so.  I've done some research, and found some ideas - but perhaps you know of others?

Although I'd like to pretend that my interests are purely altruistic, there is of course a (slightly) selfish side. This would expose me to a different type of China experience, and perhaps give me an opportunity to practice my Mandarin in a non foreigner-in-big-city kind of way!

These are some of the ideas I've come across so far, but would really appreciate it if you could leave comments with other ideas, websites or suggestions.

  • Volunteer teaching in Beijing
This is organised by Gap Year in Asia, and is my most likely option at the moment. You can start at any date, and assignments last from 1 week to 12 weeks. This includes a choice (or mix) of working at the following places: Orphanage, Charity for the Disabled, School for Poor Children, Project for the Children of Convicts, School for Disabled Children, Charity for Autistic Children. Activities would include teaching English, caring for children, working with disabled children.
  •  Friends of Dulwich College, Beijing
The charity work done by this organisation covers a foster home, a life centre for disadvantaged children, care for children, and Harmony outreach. Their site talks about projects you can work on, but it also seems that you can volunteer on work which simply involves email address. Good for non-residents of China?
  • Bean in Shanghai
According to the BEAN website, "BEAN is a networking, volunteering, and social group for young professionals in Shanghai. It affords many awesome opportunities for busy, young professionals to network, socialize, and make a difference." Although I think what they do is a great idea, it seems to be more short-project based - ideal for people already living in Shanhai.
  • Compassion for Migrant Children
This group  also takes on volunteers, but I get the sense they're looking for people who might be happy to volunteer on an ongoing basis (I guess if you live in China) - rather than me who is looking for something to last about a week.
  •  The Library Project
 Their website talks about ways you could volunteer - but again, this appears to be more of an ongoing commitment rather than just spending a week with them.
  • SOS Children's Villages
This is the China branch of their international network. Interestingly, they state on their website that they prefer not to use short-term volunteers - because they believe the children benefit more from long-term relationship with their teachers and helpers. For those who don't have time, you could always sponsor a child.
  • Chinese Children Orphan Sponsorship
If sponsoring a child is your preference, this is organised by Chinese Children Adoption International, where you could sponsor a children for as little as $40 a month.
  • Western Academy of Beijing
In the charity section of their website, they list the details of about a dozen charities.  As far as I can tell, there don't appear to be any volunteer projects available - but plenty of opportunities to donate money to a cause that means something to you.

I was convinced than when I trawled through the Net there would be so many options to volunteer on projects - and yet, as you can see, I'm struggling to find many choices.

So if you know of projects that might be of interest, or you know of someone who might know of projects of interest, please leave a comment.  I'd love to help.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

New Year Resolution: learn to speak Mandarin Chinese

OK, so here's the deal.  What if you were offered $1 million dollars to learn to speak Chinese?

It's a simple challenge. As soon as you can speak Chinese at the level of the average school-leaver, you'd get your money. (This is hypothetical situation, please don't send me an invoice.)

Do you think that, before you went to bed tonight,  you'd learn 10 more words? And maybe you'd revise yesterday's words too? Do you think, if getting a language-exchange partner would get you to your million dollars one year sooner, that you'd make the effort to find someone you could converse with?

Would you listen to more podcasts? Use flashcards more? Watch more Chinese-language movies?

Forgive me for being presumptious ... but of course you would!

What you do, and Why you do it

There are two aspects to achieving any goal: (1) the technique behind what you're learning, and (2) the motivation to keep on applying that technique.

The reality for most people, however, is they focus on the technique - and they ignore the requisite motivation. And then they fail. Bummer.


Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that you get all psyched up, banging your head against the wall, shouting, "Yes, dammit yes. I can do thisssssss!!"

But if you go back to the million dollars example, I think we all know that if there was enough resting on it, you'd find the time, you'd make the effort. And your excuses about how hard Chinese is, and how little time you have, would be forgotten as you work your brains out to get your reward.

But of course you don't need to have a million dollars at the finish line. Sadly, no-one has offered to pay me money once I'm fluent in Chinese - and yet here I am, 00:50 on a Monday night (uhm, Tuesday morning) blogging about learning Mandarin, thinking about what works and what doesn't work.

Make it happen

So spend a little time trying to work out why you're learning (or going to learn) Chinese.

But don't be lazy - don't wait for the inspiration. Try to create the inspiration. Get excited about travelling to China, or conversing with Chinese people in your local area.

And if you really think it's better to focus on learning, and to not worry about your motivations, then ask yourself .... who is going to become fluent first? Will it be the person who only has access to one podcast series, one textbook and one dictionary (but who has a million bucks resting on fluency)? Or will it be the person who had access to lots of podcasts, many textbooks, medical research papers into the optimal way to memorise lists  - but no real interest in becoming fluent?


So some of you are reading this post, rolling your eye-balls, and wondering if I've lost the plot. But others of you are (I hope) are going to take a little time to examine your own motivations.

If you're already learning Chinese, what got you motivated in the beginning? And what excites you now? Are there things you could do to re-ignite the flame?

And if you're new, take a moment to work out why you've set yourself the goal of learning Chinese. It really doesn't make a difference whether it's a dumb reason - if it fires you up, then use it.

Perhaps rate yourself on these questions, on a scale of 1-10 ...
  • Do you want to know another language?
  • Are you embarrassed about only knowing one language? (Or two, or ...)
  • Would you like to be able to impress the cute girl/guy in Accounting because you can speak their native tongue?
  • How about aiming to impress your friends by ordering in Chinese, at a Chinese restaurant?
  • Would you like to travel China, speaking to the locals in their own language?
  • Would you like to make more friends? (There is no shortage of awesome Chinese people wherever you look.)
  • Or would you like to move to China because of the opportunities that country offers, but you'd like to be different to all those people who go there and hang out in their little communities without learning the local language, even after several years? 
  • Is this just another challenge, because you're the kind of person who thrives off challenge and personal growth?

But don't take my word for it ...

Once you've read this post, there are two things you could do.
  1. Quickly learn some Chinese words. You might start off by reading one of my WordPacks, and find 3-5 words you don't know - and learn then. It won't take more than a couple of minutes.
  2. Do something else. 
If $1 million were resting on it, you'd do #1.  But I'm guessing you're probably going to opt for #2.

What more evidence do you need that - ultimately - motivation is everything?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Tasting your way around the world

I recently wrote an article for Mango Languages with the above title.

Please pop in and have a read, and make sure you leave a comment if you've had similar (or better) experiences.

To whet your appetite for the article, here's a picture of me eating a chicken head in Beijing  :-x