Thursday, December 12, 2013

Stoned Horses

When students learn to read & write Chinese characters, there are broadly two ways of doing it. The first is 'brute force' where you practise the strokes over & over again until you have internalised them, and the second is to use some method of visualisation which allows you to decompose the characters into parts - and piece them together again using imagary (which is much easier to remember that just pure strokes).

Although I used the Heisig method to learn 3000 characters (and I've blogged extensively on this - you can find the full collection here), note that what I'm writing below is about visualisation in general, and is not specific to the Heisig approach.

Take for example the character for 'numeral' - which is 码 (mǎ, also written 嗎 in the traditional system). You can see it's made up of 石 (stone) and 马 (horse). When I learned this character, I naturally had to create an image of why stone+horse=numeral. In this case, a flood of images came to mind, and I realised there were so many options.

So many examples!

It got me thinking of times I've spoken to people about visualisation methods, and they say it's so hard to create images. So in addition to the very popular article Tips & Tricks for Heisig Visualisations, I decided to share here a range of images that I could use for this character.
  • I picture the Terracotta Army, but instead of rows and rows of soldiers, I picture rows and rows of stone horses. And of course, since this is a very valuable collection, I imagine each horse is numbered - as you often see in museums. I suppose you can use this & this to help you create the image yourself. Ultimately this is my preferred image for remembering that stone+horse=numeral. Your preferred image may be different, and that's OK.
  • Or I can see a horse doing maths. You know, with numerals. But horses can't write in books, so this horse has a few stones laid out on the ground before him, and he is moving them around, a little like someone might use an abacus, to do the calculations. 
  • I can also visualise a ten-pin bowling alley, but you won't find pins at this place - instead you will find 10 stone horses at the bottom of the bowling lane. Can you see as your ball hits them, they break from the impact - and your score (such a high number!) appears on the board above you.
  • Maybe there are horses running a race, but the track has lots of loose stones on the track, and each time a horse stumbles on the stone and falls, someone keeping score of 'lost' horses chalks up a higher numeral on the board.
  • How about a large piece of cardboard which is part of a colour-by-numbers approach. But with this one you don't paint according to the number, you place a stone of different colour on that number. And when it's done and you step back, you can see it's a horse!
  • Another possibility is to imagine cave paintings of horses scratched into the stone walls, but when you look more closely you notice that between the pictures of horses there are numbers - almost like the person was doing maths with horses as numerals
  • Alternatively, I can see a gateway with a stone horse head mounted on top (it looks a little like this) - there is someone sitting astride that head, and as people pass through the gateway, she updates the numerals in her notepad, since she's counting people who use this entrance. 

Choosing the best one

Let's be clear, the one that is best for me may not be the best for you - so don't simply choose the one that I have chosen, but recognise which one best matches the way your own thinking works.

(It is possible to come up with really bad images, which I've written about here, but none of the above ones fails the tests in that article.)

After having done 3000 characters this way, I know instinctively how my brain works. And if you repeatedly hypnotised me to forget this character, and kept asking me to (re)create an image, it would probably be the first one, again & again. This is important, because in future when you're facing the character in The Real World © you will indeed need to see 码 then think stone+horse, and if your mind comes up with a different image, then you're never going to be able to work out what character you're looking at!)


Did this help? Is it useful to be reminded that there really are so many (good) ways of creating images, that we shouldn't feel helpless, and we shouldn't forgive ourselves for feeling we can only come up with poor images?

So while you're in a visualisation mood, challenge yourself … Pick one or two of the characters below and create a few images that actually work. For fun.

  • 敌: tongue+taskmaster = enemy
  • 妄: perish+woman = absurd
  • 坏: earth+NO = bad
  • 如: woman+mouth = if

Leave a comment if you have any clever thoughts. Or if you have any dumb thoughts, that's OK too.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Heisig Book 2 - now finished! (this is how)

Today I completed the 1500 characters of Heisig & Richardson's Book 2. (Actually there are 1519 characters in this book, including the bonus ones.) This takes me to a total of 3019, which is about as far as I plan to go.

I finished Book 1 about four years ago, and was happy for quite some time not to bother with Book 2. Then about 1.5 years ago, I tried starting Book 2, but failed. By the start of 2013, I had decided I would begin again - but the difference that time was that although I managed Book 1 in just over 100 days, my decision in January was that I would take my time, and focus on finishing the book by the end of the year.

And that's what I did - I stuck with the slow-and-steady approach, and completed the book in 11.5 months. And it feels great! (you should try it one day)

Although there is something to be said for throwing yourself at it - like I did with Book 1 - it does take a bigger time commitment and certainly more focus. My first attempt to begin Book 2 was too intense, and that's why I failed. The second time I was ready to focus on just 5 new characters a day - and that succeeded perfectly.

There is no Book 3 - and to be fair, even if there were, I think I would be focusing on actually reading books now, rather than memorising new characters. So for 2014 my focus will be books and not textbooks.

It's not even noon here in HK right now, so perhaps a little early to go out and drink champagne. But I will do that this afternoon.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ridiculously flexible words

When you start learning Chinese, you figure out relatively quickly how the language puts characters together to make words.

Since 好 (hǎo) means 'good', it makes sense that 友 is a 'close friend', 看 is 'good looking', 处 is an 'advantage', 心 is 'kind hearted', and so on.

Deep down, I want Chinese to be like this all the time: consistent, and easy to learn. Unfortunately, life isn't fair. And Chinese isn't like this.

The one character, more than any others I have found, that seems to represent so many different things, is the character 节 / 節 (usually pronounced jié). The MDBG dictionary provides this selection of possible meanings: "festival / holiday / node / joint / section / segment / part / to economize / to save / to abridge / moral integrity / classifier for segments, e.g. lessons, train wagons, biblical verses".

I was seeing this character appearing in so many (very different) words, which is what got me thinking,  including: 节目 (jié​mù) = program;  春节 (Chūn​jié) = Spring Festival (but it also applies to most festivals including Christmas & Valentines Day);  章节 (zhāng​jié) = chapter;  细节 (xì​jié) = details;  空气调节 (kōng​qì​tiáo​jié) = aircon;  etc.

Not sure about you, but I find this confusing!

In an attempt to gain control of this character, with Judy's help, I came up with the following sentence to put in my flashcard pack.

     On Thanksgiving, frugal people might buy energy-saving lightbulbs in order to save money
     zài Gǎn'ēnjié, jiéjiǎn de rén kěnéng mǎi jiénéng de dēngpào lái jiéshěng jīnqián

(And if you remember, it really does help to create 'special' sentences for you flashcard pack, as I've written about here: The clever butcher uses a cleaver)

What about you? Do you have a character in mind that has many meanings? If so, please leave a comment below (anonymous notes are welcome too!).

Monday, October 14, 2013

Don't kiss while learning Chinese!

I read an article in The Guardian yesterday, entitled 'Eating popcorn in the cinema makes people immune to advertising'.

Simply reading the heading, even before I reached the article, made me think that eating popcorn is probably just distracting for the viewer, and so the advertising would be less effective. But when I actually read the article, there was one paragraph that caught my eye ...

The reason why adverts manage to imprint brand names on our brains is that our lips and the tongue automatically simulate the pronunciation of a new name when we first hear it. Every time we re-encounter the name, our mouth subconsciously practices its pronunciation. However, according to the study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, this "inner speech" can be disturbed by chewing, rendering the repetition effect redundant.

That immediately got me thinking about how we learn Chinese, and how a fair amount of learning (vocab, tones, 'flow' ...) is tied into this subconscious pronunciation that takes place while we're learning. Of course this affects all languages, but I wonder if it's even more marked for Chinese, given the tones that have to be mentally practised while learning too.

So, to avoid interfering with your "inner speech", don't occupy your mouth while you're learning Chinese.

No popcorn. No chewing gum. And certainly no kissing.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

That music smells good

I recently went on a business trip to Kuala Lumpur, and was eating lunch with a colleague. When our Jasmine tea arrived, we were each given two small cups, both were then filled with tea. I had never seen this before, and my colleague explained that one of them is called the 闻香杯 (wénxiāngbēi) - the smelling cup. The basic idea is that one cup is for smelling, and one is for drinking. Or something like that.

I was (linguistically) confused, however, since the Chinese characters she wrote for 'smelling' cup seemed to translate into "hearing-fragrance-cup"!  She then explained that 闻 could also mean 'to smell'.

What? I immediately launched Pleco Dictionary on my iPhone and ... she was right.

(Pleco gave me the best one yet: 闻见 ('hear' & 'see') can mean 'to smell'.  Good grief. If you refer back to my article about Chinese being a series of mathematical formulae, then this is a great example of 1+2=634.)

Mandarin continues to surprise me. But I'm past the point of these confusing incidents frustrating me, now it's just interesting. At least, it's interesting enough to write a blogpost about it.

And now I'm off to smell some music.
(Or perhaps just look at it. #thicke)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mandarin does not use these Cantonese characters

In the previous article I wrote - about Chinese people confusing 'he' and 'she' when speaking English - we discussed a very common word that is used in Cantonese, but not in Mandarin. That got me thinking about other characters which similarly appear in Cantonese, but not in Mandarin.

Of course there are many expressions that are used in one and not the other (for example, while Mandarin says 不好看, Cantonese instead says 唔好睇) - after all, they are two different languages. But in this article I'm going to avoid expressions, and rather focus on individual characters that have this feature.

As a cheat - since I don't speak Cantonese :) - my starting point was to search in the MDBG online dictionary for the word 'Cantonese', which gave me 99 results, from which I started to whittle the list down to ones worthy of being included in this article ...
  • : This is the first obvious one which means 'no' or 'not'. In theory it's pronounced wú in Mandarin, but it's only* used in Cantonese where it's pronounced m4. This is extremely common in Cantonese, generally used where Mandarin would use 不 - so for example 'bad' in Mandarin is 不好 whereas in Cantonese it would be 唔好.
  • : In Mandarin it is pronounced mǎo, but in Cantonese it's mou5. The closest Mandarin word to this character might be 没有 (méi​yǒu - which even sounds very similar to mou5). This is another very common character in Cantonese. To be clear, I have never seen this used in Mandarin.
  • : This is he/she/it in Cantonese: keoi5. No need to discuss this one - since I wrote an entire article on it before :-)
  • : This is the Cantonese equivalent of the Mandarin possessive article 的. In Cantonese 嘅 is pronounced ge3.
  • : This character as used mostly in 呢個 to mean 'this' - basically it's the same as 這個 in Mandarin (or 这个 in the simplified system)) and is pronounced ni1.
  • : Similarly, this character is used for 'that' in Cantonese - usually in the word 嗰個, which is pronounced go2go3. Mandarin would use 那個 (Simplified: 那个) instead. 
  • : This is the Cantonese equivalent of 在 (to be at) - and it is pronounced hai2.
  • : This is pronounced me1, and it indicates surprise by turning the sentence into a question. For example, 係咩 (hai6me1) means "Really?"
  • : If you're a foreigner living in HK, you will hear this character every day - part of the word 'gweilo' - this character is actually pronounced lou2. Therefore 'gweilo' actually means 'male ghost' (and not 'old ghost' - which is a common mistake that confuses 佬 with 老).
  • 乜嘢: This is pronounced mat1 je5 in Cantonese, meaning 'what' or 'why'. Since both characters are unique to Cantonese, and since they are commonly used together in this compound word, I just gave them a single entry. It has the same meaning as Mandarin's 什么 or perhaps 东西.
  • : This is pronounced zo2, and puts the sentence into past-tense, in the same way that Mandarin might use 了 or 过 (過).
  • : The character is pronounced gam3, and can mean 'so' (like Mandarin's 这样) or 'very' (like 很).
  • : This is the other 'gam' word of interest, although the tone here is different: gam2. It means 'in that case' or 'and then'. When I'm listening to my colleagues speaking on the phone, I hear this word a lot! (In written Cantonese, this is sometimes just written as 咁, apparently.)
  • : The character is the Cantonese equivalent of Mandarin's 对 (Traditional:對), meaning 'correct'. It is pronounced ngaam1.  (And because you, Dear Reader, are so clever - you probably already worked out by yourself that we can piece together two of these characters to get the Cantonese word for incorrect: 唔啱.)
  • There are a few more that are worth listing here because they are quite common, but I will just group them together: They include  (find, like 找),  (sleep, like 睡),  (gossip),  (tired, like 累),  (to waste),  (to fuck), and finally  (a side dish). 

In the past (before moving to HK), I had been reading Chinese comics which I picked up on my travels, wondering why I was struggling to understand the text so much - and I kept seeing strange characters (like 冇). That is how I originally realised that there are indeed characters which are used in Cantonese and not Mandarin, which explains why at the time I couldn't easily work out what the text was saying.

So now we all know. 冇問題.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A message to my little brother

Hey Bro*

I was sitting in a coffee shop this morning, and realised how often I think about you while I'm learning Chinese.  Here, let me show you …

Take a look at this (poorly-taken) image from the book** that I'm reading at the moment for learning to read ...

I won't bore you with the details, but the method I use basically breaks complex characters into components - then you create an image that uses all those components, which is easy to remember.
  • So you can see that #2279 has two halves - the left half means little brother (uhm, that's YOU!) and the right half (those two lines) means sword/sabre/knife. And you can see on the very right of the page, that overall character means shave. So the methods requires me to create an image of those words … so obviously the image I have in my mind is of YOU shaving with a sword!  (Glad you got rid of that beard!)
  • Similarly #2280 involves YOU and a road - I picture us standing outside [the home where we grew up], on opposite sides of the ROAD (辶 means, in general, 'road'), and you're HANDING OVER something to me. Doesn't matter what you're giving me - it's the process of handing something over. And that's the image.
  • In #2281 I'm stuck in a TREE (that's the 木 character on the left), and YOU are climbing up a LADDER to help me down.

The 'little brother' component is quite common, and you can see it is connected with such different words - but ultimately all those images involve you. So thanks for 'joining me' while I study Chinese. I look forward to your next visit out to Hong Kong.


* Yes I sometimes call him 'Bro'. Don't judge me :-)
** This is from Heisig Book2. You can read my whole collection of Heisig articles here.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Heisig - book 2 (halfway)

Just a quick note to let you know that last week Thursday (20 June) I reached character 2250, which puts me halfway through Book 2 (1501-3000).

As you know from my post earlier this year, I have set myself the goal of finishing the book by the end of the year, and arguably - since I hit the midway point on 20 June - I am 10 days ahead of schedule.

So, I'm definitely on track!

As a reminder, you can find the full collection of Heisig posts I've written (and some reference pieces) summarised in this popular article here.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Luke, SHE is your father

I'm sure you've noticed, when talking English with native-Chinese people, that they sometimes mistakenly interchange 'he' and 'she'. And although I noticed it in China, it is certainly more common in Hong Kong.

In Mandarin, 'he' (他) and 'she' (她) are both pronounced 'tā'  (same sound and same first tone). And I had convinced myself that because the two words sound the same, that in the mind of Chinese people it must be easy to confuse the translation into English.

But there were two things that kept bothering me ... (1) I figured Chinese people were more likely to think in terms of characters than pronunciations (since so many words sound the same), and (2) Why was the confusion of he/she so much more common in Hong Kong than mainland China?

Clearly, this wasn't the explanation I was looking for.  (*)

And it was only a couple of weeks ago that I found out!  Which surprises me since I've been living in HK for nearly three years already.

It turns out that in Cantonese they actually use the same word for 'he' and 'she' - 佢. In Mandarin, this is pronounced , and in Cantonese it's pronounced keoi5.  Yes you can find both 他 and 她 in a Cantonese dictionary (both pronounced 'taa1'), but it's not the one they use. So now we know.

佢 ... Yes, the force is strong with this one. (*)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Heisig Method ("Remembering the Hanzi") - the full collection

The so-called "Heisig Method" for learning to read, write & remember the meaning of Chinese characters is a fantastic method, and one that I have blogged about extensively. I used it to learn the first 1500 characters in about 3 months, after many other methods have failed me.

Given how much I have written on the subject over an extended period of time, it made sense to create just one source which puts all the material in one place.  And that place is here.

All links are placed in three sections:
  • What is the Heisig method?
  • My personal story of success
  • Instructions, Hints, Tips, Suggestions

What is the Heisig method?

My personal story of using the Heisig Method


Instructions, Hints, Tips, Suggestions - for the Heisig Method
  • Tips & Tricks for Heisig Visualisations (This is my most important post on the topic - people are bad a visualising in general, but Heisig needs you to get good at. If you read this post and follow the advice, your Heisig journey will be more fun, quicker, and longer-lasting. Seriously.)
  • Early traps not to fall into (although the post was an update post, I made some important points that people starting out should be careful with)
  • Pinyin proves that Heisig is right (You don't need to learn pronunciation while you're learning the book, it can come quite naturally too)
  • Using Modern Art to Learn Chinese (Many characters that you're trying to create images for are very abstract (like peace, great, grand, deliberate) - and this post is filled with tricks to make abstract words easy to get concrete images)
  • Bad Heisig images & great Dali paintings (In order to revise after 2.5 years, I pick up book 1 again, and I look at Heisig stories/images on the Net; Here I give detailed examples on why so many of them are terrible, and will be impossible to remember for long)
  • Just stick to one image, OK? (Consistency in image-making is part of why I did book 1 so fast, and I highlight how book 2 is itself failing to teach this consistency)
  • How to revise, once you've finished the book (this is part of an update post, but I give some detail about how my revision process is shaped)
  • Stoned Horses (examples of how easy it is to think of many possible visualisations for a single character)

If you find this collection of articles helpful, please share them.  And as always, your comments below are welcome and appreciated.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Heisig 2 - past 2000 characters

Hi all

The last you heard about my progress studying book two of the Heisig method [of learning to read & write Chinese] was in January, where I admitted that I had started studying the book again, after failing to get off the ground a few months before that.

Back in July 2012 I kinda started the book for the first time, but because I didn't get into a regular habit, the days between picking up the book kept increasing, and after a while I just shelved it. Literally.

So why was this year's attempt more successful? Mainly because I went with the flow more, put less pressure on myself, and took time to enjoy it more. And three months later, I'm still progressing nicely, according to plan.

So this is how it looks:

  • I had to accept that although I did Book 1 in three months - that was right for that book at that time. This book is different, and this time is different. So this year's goal suits this year's circumstances.
  • Thus I have set myself the goal of completing the book by the end of 2013, which amounts to just over 4 characters a day. That doesn't seem like much, but given that I'm also doing podcasts and other full-sentence flashcards, this is on top of that. It's enough. 
  • I completed the first 500 characters of Book 2 (making it a total count of 2000) on 9 April, which is about 5 characters a day - not bad.  I don't do it every day, I'm still not fully into the habit, but it's regular enough.
  • I'm much better about revision than I was with Book 1, which is part of the reason I'm taking longer to finish the book. I am OK with that :)
  • I use TWO METHODS to revise: (a) I keep going back in the book, sometimes the most recent chapter, sometimes even earlier chapters; (b) I also started using an Anki flashcard pack (downloaded off the site's free collection of packs) - which tests Chinese-to-English. I began that in late Feb, setting it to introduce five 'new' characters a day, so that it will also reach the end of the set by the end of the year. Of course, I will always be slightly further ahead with the book than with the flashcards, so actually it is a pure revision mechanism.
  • Although I complained in January that the characters in this book were much more complicated, actually it's not that bad. Of course, on average, they are more complex than Book 1, but they're really not that bad. So far.
So that's where I am.  Is anyone else reading this post also doing Book 2? Or anyone who has already finished Book 2 that has comments or suggestions? Would love to hear from you.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Counting to THR三三

Following on from the recent post I did on The 'correct' (sic) way to count in Chinese, it reminded me of a sign I saw when visiting Singapore on business a couple of weeks ago.  I think it was a restaurant, and the name of the place was:  FIV五

I liked that :-)  It was an interesting way of merging the English alphabet with Chinese characters, and I started wondering how much I could extend this ...

In terms of single digit numbers, this is what I came up with ...


Sadly, 1 & 2 can't be done nicely, and even 0, 4 & 7 are pushing it a bit!

For bigger numbers ...


(I'm quite proud of the last one, but the way. Be sure to leave comments below to tell me how much it impressed you too :-)

Will this make the quality of your life better?   No.
Will it help you learn Chinese better?   I doubt it.
Is it interesting?   I think so.
Should you leave a comment below?   Absolutely!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The 'correct' (sic) way to count in Chinese

I'm sure you've all seen cartoons of people in prison or on dessert islands, counting the number of days that they have been there. Here is a Punch cartoon, showing the usual way this is done ... each of the first four counts gets a vertical line, and the fifth one is represented by crossing through those four.

I was told a couple of years ago about an equivalent method that Chinese people use, also counting to five, but instead it uses the Chinese character 正 (zhèng - which means 'correct' or 'proper').

You can see the stroke order for this character here:

Or if you prefer the animated version:

So yes, that's how (at least some of) the Chinese do it.  You can use it to count the number of days in a row you practise flashcards, how many times you phoned your mom this month, or anything else You want to count ...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mandarin is just a series of maths formulae

I have successfully found a series of formulae that works out a word's meaning by looking at the characters which make up that word!!!!

An earlier post of mine entitled Permit Access (permit+permit+exist+take) got me thinking (and it's always scary when I think) ...

In taking the phrase "permit access" and dissecting the Chinese word 允许存取 into its component parts, I found that while on one hand (permit+permit=permit, because both 允 and 许 mean permit, as does the compound word 允许); and on the other hand you also get (exist+take=access), which is a completely different make-up.  

As an actuary, I have a background in maths & stats, and I started wondering whether I could create a series of mathematical equations to help you work out how to derive the meaning of any two characters which have been combined to create a compound word.

And by golly I think I've done it!   It's time to take out your high school maths textbooks in order to understand Chinese better :-)

When 1+2=3
As we saw in the above-mentioned article, the word 存取 (cúnqǔ) can be calculated as follows:  access=exist+take.  Think of it like "take something that exists" - it makes up a logical build-up, like 1+2=3. Simple. This logic can be seen in many other two-character words, including:
     你好 (nǐhǎo): hello = you are good
     满意 (mǎnyì): satisfied = full thinking
     意外 (yìwài): accident = outside your thoughts
     过奖 (guòjiǎng): flatter = pass the reward
     怕痒 (pàyǎng): fear the itch = ticklish

When 1+1=1
This one is mathematically slightly less intuitive, but in Chinese it makes total sense.  We also have from the previous article that 允许 (yǔnxǔ) is 'permit', and in simple terms: 'permit'=permit+permit (允+许=允许).  Good, for once Chinese seems simple. Mathematically, this can be written as 1+1=1  :-)   This is a common enough construct, and you can also see it in words like:
     讨论 (tǎolùn): discuss = discuss+discuss
     练习 (liànxí): practise = practise+practise
     自己 (zìjǐ): self = self+self
     选择 (xuǎnzé): choose = choose+choose
     依赖 (yīlài): reply = rely+rely
     应该 (yīnggāi): should = should+should
     休息 (xiūxi): rest = rest+rest
     帮助 (bāngzhù): help = help+help
     号码 (hàomǎ): number = number+number
(And so many others: 犯罪, 错误, 继续, ...)

But going beyond the equations from the earlier article, we can also observe some others in use ...

When -1+1=0
This is well-known way of creating words in Mandarin, and there are plenty of blog posts where people have written about this. Some of the better known examples include:
     多少 (duōshao): lots+little = how much
     左右 (zuǒyòu): left+right = approximately
     上下 (shàngxià): up+down = about
     大小 (dàxiǎo): big+small = size
     东西 (dōngxi): east+west = things
     买卖 (mǎimài): buy+sell = business

When 1+2=12
     楼下 (lóuxià): building+down = downstairs
     水平 (shuǐpíng): water+level = horizontal
     领带 (lǐngdài): neck+strap = necktie
     声频 (shēngpín): sound+frequency = audio frequency
(And I'm sure you can derive many more instances of this type yourself!)

When 1-1=1
Yes, this exists too - where even introducing a completely contradictory word doesn't change the meaning of the first ...
     忘记 (wàngjì): forget+remember = forget
     全部 (quánbù): whole+part = whole
     但是 (dànshì): but+indeed = but
     毒药 (dúyào): poison+medicine = poison

When 376+1=1
     白痴 (báichī): white(!)+dumb = dumb
     干净 (gānjìng): dry(!)+clean = clean
     原谅 (yuánliàng): source(!)+forgive = forgive
     愉快 (yúkuài): pleasant+fast(!) = pleasant

When 1+2=634
How about this ...
     漂亮 (piàoliang): pretty = tossed light
     面包 (miànbāo): surface+package = bread
     马上 (mǎshàng): horse+on = immediately
     有机 (yǒujī): have+machine = organic
     厉害 (lìhai): severe+injury = awesome
     消息 (xiāoxi): extinguish+rest = news

OK, so I lied. I really have not succeeded in breaking Mandarin down into a number of mathematical formulae. I think most of you figured that out when I announced that 1+1=1   :-)   

In fact, I've warned you before about the problems of trying to be too logical with Chinese, in a post called Mandarin is not "antidisestablishmentarian".

But it's still instructive when trying to remember words - and in learning another language you really do need to learn a lot of words - to consider how compounds are put together, and to be conscious about what you're taking in, rather than relying only on brute force to absorb it all.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mando-lish-nese: the trilingual bookstore name

In the heart of Hong Kong's Causeway Bay (the shopping district with the highest rent in the world, higher even than New York's Fifth Avenue, and double that of Tokyo's Ginza district), I saw this book store:

... and the name of the place really intrigued me. You can see it better here:

If I were to tell you that the English name is derived from the Chinese name, would you believe me? Possibly not, so let me take you through my logic ...

  • 樂文 = Luck-Win  (In Simplified characters it's 乐文, but ignore that for now - this is HK)
  • You probably know 樂 from 快樂 (kuàilè = happy, S=快乐) - and 樂 by itself means 'happy', not 'lucky'
  • Similarly 文 is from 文化 (wénhuà = culture), and 文 by itself means 'culture' not 'win'
So what's going on?
  • The first clue is that 文 is pronounced wén in Mandarin, and that sounds exactly like 'win'
  • But that hasn't solved the problem, because 樂 is pronounced 'le' and not 'luck'
  • So now we leap across to Cantonese, where 樂 is actually pronounced 'lok', and yes - that does sound a little like 'luck'
So I thought that was cute - like many Chinese brands, the name of the book store is so positive (Luck-Win), and actually the English name can be derived from Chinese ... but not from the meaning of the characters, only from the pronunciation.  And even better than that, one comes from Cantonese pronunciation, and one comes from Mandarin pronunciation.

I think my next project will be an online Mando-lish-nese dictionary. Clearly there is need for something like that :-)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Parseltongue! (the Year of the Snake is coming)

calligraphy by Jasmin
On the 10th of February it will be here - the Year of the Snake.

There is plenty of information about this coming year in the Chinese Zodiac, and for your convenience, here's a quick link to summarise some of the key points.

But since this is a language-learning blog, I thought now would be a good time to provide you with some words & idioms associated with snakes in general, in a WordPack kinda way. You're obviously using flashcards (right?) so copy some or all of these into your pack, and learn them when they make it to the front of that pack.

(And in case you don't get the heading of this post, in the Harry Potter series, 'Parseltongue' is the language of snakes. Now you too can be a 'Parselmouth'.)

The character
The character for snake or serpent in Chinese is 蛇 - pronounced shé  (and if you haven't heard this word before, make sure you don't make this common mistake when saying it).

It's component parts are 虫 and 它, meaning insect+it ... just in case that's either interesting or useful to you in memorising it. (I use Stephen King's IT character ('it') to help with the visualisation.)

Both Simplified & Traditional character sets use the same character, although I have found an alternative Traditional character of 虵 which seems to be the same thing.

Some relevant words
Using my favourite MDBG online dictionary, I found some words that might be useful for you.
  • 蛇皮 (shépí): snake skin
  • 蛇毒 (shédú): snake venom
  • 蝮蛇 (fùshé): venomous snake
  • 蛇年 (shénián): Year of the Snake
  • 蛇形 (shéxíng): S-shaped / coiled like a snake 

Snake (and Snake-like) characters
In the Chinese Zodiac, the character of the snake does have implications of malevolence, sorcery, mystery, divination. So it's interesting to note the following too:
  • 虺蜥 (huǐxī): figuratively a vicious person, but literally a poisonous snake
  • 蛇头 (shétóu): figuratively a human smuggler, but literally the head of a snake
  • 法海 (Fǎhǎi): Fahai the evil Buddhist monk in Tale of the White Snake
  • 白蛇传 (BáiShéZhuàn): Tale of the White Snake / Madame White Snake
And also ...
  • 摩喉罗伽 (móhóuluójiā): Mahoraga, the snake protector deity of Buddhist law

Idioms / Chengyu
Chengyu is a massive body of Chinese idioms (usually four characters) which you can read about here. Below are the ones I have found which have something to do with snakes:
  • 虎头蛇尾 (hǔtóushéwěi): a strong start but a weak finish (literally tiger's head snake's tail) T:虎頭蛇尾
  • 画蛇添足 (huàshétiānzú): to go too far with something (literally to draw the legs on a snake) T:畫蛇添足
  • 打草惊蛇 (dǎcǎojīngshé​): to inadvertently alert an enemy (literally beat the grass to scare the snake) T: 打草驚蛇
  • 引蛇出洞 (yǐnshéchūdòng​): to draw something bad out into the open (literally to pull a snake from its hole)
  • 杯弓蛇影 (bēigōngshéyǐng​): unnecessarily suspicious (literally to see a bow reflected in a cup as a snake)
  • 佛口蛇心 (fókǒushéxīn​): two-faced (literally words of a Buddha, heart of a snake)
  • 打蛇不死 (dǎshébùsǐ​): nip the problem in the bud (literally beat the snake to prevent death)
  • 强龙不压地头蛇 (qiánglóngbùyādìtóushé​): a gangster who is above the law (literally strong dragon cannot repress the snake) T: 強龍不壓地頭蛇
  • 一年被蛇咬十年怕井绳 (yīniánbèishéyǎoshíniánpàjǐngshéng​): once bitten twice shy (literally bitten by a snake in one year, fears the well-rope for ten years) T: 一年被蛇咬十年怕井繩
  • 虚与委蛇 (xū​yǔ​wēi​shé​): pretence of complying (literally false gift by sending a snake) T: 虛與委蛇
  • 龙蛇混杂 (lóng shé hùnzá): a mingling of good & evil within a person (literally mixing dragon & snake) T: 龍蛇混雜
  • 牛鬼蛇神 (niú guǐ shé shén): evil people of all types (literally cow ghost snake spirit)
  • 人心不足蛇吞象 (rénxīnbùzúshétūnxiàng​): a man who is never content is like a snake trying to swallow an elephant

So yes, Year of the Snake. At least now you'll be ready - and armed to the teeth with words and idioms to impress anyone that you might slither into. Good luck!

Edit: I can't believe I didn't think of it while I was writing the article, but you might now also be wondering how they say "Parseltongue" in the Chinese translation of the Harry Potter books. With the help of a couple of friends at a language exchange meeting yesterday (thanks Fiona & Wavy) we found two versions:  蛇老腔 (shélǎoqiāng) which is perhaps best translated "ancient snake speech"; and 爬说语 (páshuōyǔ) which is more of a loanword that sounds similar, albeit with clever choice of characters.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Under the blankets, with a torch

It's a secret, so I'm not telling anyone, but I have started Heisig Book 2 again. Shhhh ...

As you might remember from last July, I wrote a post called I have begun Heisig Book 2. Kinda.  At that stage - just 3 weeks after beginning - I was already behind 'schedule', and that was really disappointing for me because I managed to do the entire Book 1 in about 3 months. By August, just a month later, I was writing a post called Total failure - I simply did not have enough time to study Heisig, and decided that the little spare time I had should rather be spent doing flashcards rather than additional characters.

(To give you a sense of my time shortages, last year I did over 50 flights, which is approximately one business trip every second week. Ouch.)

Well, at the start of January this year, I picked up the book again, and began with character 1501.

What I'm doing differently - lessons from last time

1. No goals
I didn't set myself any goals - last time I actually found that disheartening. Instead I decided I would first get some momentum going, and get a sense of what time I would have available - and only then decide what goals to set myself. I still don't have a solid rhythm going, and I'm still not working through the book each day, but I'm enjoying the pressure-free attitude to Book 2, which means at least I'm enjoying it.

2. More revision
As I had remarked in the July article, Book 2 is more difficult - obviously. This means I really need more time with the revision because these more complex images can fade quite quickly in the beginning. I'm less panicked about finishing within a certain time frame, so revision actually feels like it's contributing to my goal of learning to read, rather than delaying my goal of getting through the book.

3. Character-to-English
When I did Book 1, my focus was on being able to see the character and know it's meaning. This is, after all, my challenge when I'm trying to read.  Learning to write was less important to me, so the need for English-to-Character is less. After focusing on C2E when studying the book, I loaded up an Anki flashcard deck, and my revision of the book was based on E2C.  I found this an extremely enjoyable and efficient approach, and I'm doing the same ... learning C2E mainly while studying the book. Later on I will load up a flashcard pack for Book 2.

4. Enjoy
I was not enjoying learning Book 2 when I picked it up last year. Don't get me wrong ... I wanted to learn the book, and I remember how excited I was when the book was first delivered to me, but it was the wrong time, and the wrong attitude - and it failed.  Now I'm enjoying it - and although I can't guarantee that I won't fail again, I at least feel like I'm on the right track.

5. Don't give up (in the long run)
I gave up in August, it was the wrong time for so many reasons. But I didn't give-up totally. I knew I would pick it up again, at the right time. And I did pick it up again. And this might be the right time :-)