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. 


  1. Love Anki as well. Good advice on learning language in context and not just being a slave to a vocabulary list.

  2. Another source for sentences:

  3. Agreed! In the beginning I could only cope with single words - sentences would have been too much to deal with. But it didn't take long to break out of that.

  4. Greg, haha, I wish I had learned that as well as you did! Doing Qing Wen always stressed me out, and Connie would never be mean to me like she was in real life. My favorite was Amber, Clay, and Connie!

  5. You guys were a great team, JP. Those old(er) episodes are classics!

  6. Hi Sir! Just dropping in to take a peek at your blog. Love your title!


  7. Hi Greg-
    Just a suggestion (not a plug), I created a roll-my-own site for sentences and flashcards for my Chinese: Might work for you.

  8. Dasy, that's your site? Wow - quite impressive. Seems to contain lots of material, will definitely look more closely.