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?