Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Discovering Mandarin

So I was sitting in a restaurant the other day, and I noticed some Chinese writing on top of a nearby building (on the right you will see the picture I took at the time). Unconsciously I found myself trying to read it, which I tend to do all the time. I can't help it.

I had earlier discovered that you reach a point in your Chinese studies where you kinda pick words up along the way, you learn new words without trying.

It becomes partly about discovering Mandarin, and no longer just about learning Mandarin.

Here is my stream of consciousness as I tried to work the sign out ...
  • My eyes gravitated to 是主 which I immediately (mentally) translated as "is master"
  • So then my eyes settled on the 耶穌 on the left
  • I knew I had seen the first character 耶 before, but couldn't remember how to pronounce it, nor what it means
  • The second character 穌 I know well, from Scotland (蘇格蘭) and soda-water (蘇打水) - but I only seemed to remember how it was pronounced , and I couldn't remember the meaning!
  • For a fraction of a second, it felt hopeless - I couldn't work it out
  • Suddenly I noticed the cross in the middle (why didn't I notice it before?) and realised immediately that there was something of a religious theme going on
  • Right away, my mind clicked that the right probably meant "is Lord" ...
  • ... so the left in all likelihood must be "Jesus"
  • Another piece of the puzzle fitted in place with the second character being pronounced sū
  • So I deduced that the first probably sounds like "ye" - making the left half sound like "Yesu"
  • Got it!
Of course, the next time I see those words I won't have to go through that whole process - which probably took no more than a second or two anyway. But now I know a new word - and I wasn't even trying.

This has happened to me a number of times before - where I saw a word that I'd never known, and based on the context I worked out what it meant - and I've never forgotten it.
  • 防水 (fángshuǐ): I know that 防 means defend (from the expression 防不胜防 which I knew) and 水 is water, and after seeing what they were selling, it was easy to see that every was waterproof. Yes 防水 means waterproof.
  • In the shopping district part of Causeway bay, Hong Kong, there are a lot of signs with 水晶 (shuǐ​jīng) written out front - meaning "water bright", which I could similarly work out meant "crystal" from the context.
  • In a store in Taipei one I saw a sign on the wall which read "手工" (shǒu​gōng) which literally means "hand work" - and it was easy to deduce that it was indicating that the items there were hand-made. Now I know.
  • Other words that I discovered without learning included: 法院 (law court), 石油 (rock oil = petrol), 加油站 (add oil station = petrol station), 海绵 (sea cotton = sponge)
Chinese isn't easy, but it certainly seems to get easier over time!  And if you've discovered words this way too, please leave a note below, for others to share ...


  1. Great to see you blogging again - you have plenty to share and many to inspire.

    Unfortunately I can't think of any words I've figured out in this way. (I don't think there are many / any to be honest.)

    That said however - when learning new words I love discovering how basic words are combined to form new words. Specific example: 火舌 = huǒshé = flame and combines the characters for 'fire' and 'tongue'. Love it even more if I think of the word 'vuurtonge' Afrikaans (possibly Dutch too) word for the same thing. More of a poetical description for flames in Afrikaans - wondering if it's the same in Chinese.

    Simple example but still a lovely discovery :)

  2. Thanks Peckish, yes Chinese does piece together nicely. And there is definitely an intuitive component to the learning.

    One of the reasons I decided to learn to read Chinese after a year or so, was because I was getting confused with all the similar-sounding pinyin, with no way of differentiating between - for example - the two different 'huo' sounds in 火舌 and 暖和 - even though both words seemed to have a fire/heat meaning.

    One I could read a bit, it made it so much easier to 'discover' Mandarin, and piece together component words like this myself.

    Thanks for popping by.

  3. That said however - when learning new words I love discovering how basic words are combined to form new words.