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 :-)


  1. I always do this tired joke on my students.

    me: Todos, "¿Cómo?" (Repeat after me... "what?")
    students: ¿Cómo? (repeating)
    me: ¿Cómo? (what?)
    students: ¿Cómo? (repeating)
    me: ¿Cómo? (huh?)
    (continue, ad nauseum)

    It's not funny, initially, and it only grows more tiresome but long past that point there is always one slow student who finally gets it and that's the payoff.

    ps. i am an annoying Spanish teacher.

  2. That's perfect Greg xD i had a feeling that would happen! I'm glad your Chinese learning is going so well. That's so lucky. :)

    For me, my Chinese is just slowing down. My college only has elementary and intermediate Chinese, and you can't major in it, so I'm sort of screwed over big time. I've been watching Chinese dramas to retain everything, but I really miss learning in a classroom setting.

    Because of that, it makes me really happy to see you becoming fluent. It's so good that you have the resources to do so!

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


  3. @Kara, which Chinese dramas are you watching and where do you get them? I'd like to practice this way myself but I'm not sure where to find 'interesting' Mandarin television. (I did see a soap opera once in a Las Vegas hotel room (gosh I wish I had that channel) that seemed fun but I couldn't tell you what it was).

  4. @Temujin: Go to and look at their list of Taiwanese dramas (which are soap operas) and movies! Very good, streaming so no downloads, and they almost all have both Chinese and English subtitles so you can figure out new words based off of context clues or look them up yourself.

    Also, a good Chinese channel is Sinovision. I'm not sure what channel it is through your cable service provider but be sure to find out!


  5. Hi all, again (as per other post) I've been unable to add comments on my own blog, but it seems to be working again.

    Being in HK has helped my improve my reading skills, but since all I hear is Cantonese & English, my listening skills have certainly not improved.

    Am now actively looking for a teacher to meet with weekly. Watch this space ...