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Tips and Strategies for Learning to Speak Mandarin Chinese
Updated: 5 hours 36 min ago

Chinese Southern Charm

Fri, 10/05/2018 - 06:04

In the United States, the charming southern accent is all about vowels that get swapped around or changed. I still remember this great game of Catch Phrase where the southern belle mother gave this clue “It’s long and thin” and someone guessed “pin!” She was delighted and passed the thing to the next player (her own child). “Mom! This is ‘pen’ not ‘pin’.” But the mom didn’t understand, “That’s what they said!”

It was funny to everyone because her own children (growing up in Arizona) had lost the southern accent but their mother pronounced “pen” and “pin” exactly the same.

In Southern China, the accent comprises not vowel differences, but rather consonants that the locals can’t distinguish. There are many vocabulary differences between the North and the South (and everywhere in China, for that matter), but the biggest challenge to learning Mandarin in the South is the pronunciation.

One example is: “s” and “sh” sound different to me because in my native language (English) they are different sounds (it matters very much which one you use when you tell some to “sit.”). But in Southern China “s” and “sh” sound the same to them (they are what linguists call allophones).

This makes for many misunderstandings, but also some cute jokes that are only possible in the South. For example this fruit shop’s name:

The hanzi is 随果 suí guǒ which is a mispronounciation of 水果 shuǐ guǒ (meaning fruit). You can see the “s” and “sh” switcharoo. But there’s one other thing that makes the joke possible: “shui” in the real word for fruit switched to sound like a 2nd tone because of the “double 3rd tone rule.” So these two words would sound exactly the same with a Southern Chinese accent. Clearly this is a tongue in cheek mocking of Southern pronunciation that most Chinese people I’ve talked to find pretty cute.

There are several other features of the Southern accent (enough for a whole post or book chapter just on that), but I’ll give just one more, this time, unintentional evidence of a 分不清楚 fēn bù qīng chu sound: “-n” and “-ng” at the end of a word. In English this is important because we want the church choir to “sing” not “sin,” right? But in Southern China they can’t always tell the difference. Look at the login info for a local “Lanzhou” restaurant’s WiFi:

The really interesting thing about this is: Lanzhou is in the north and you would think those running the restaurant would be too. We can only surmise that the internet was installed by a local.

If you live in Southern China, and you have some printed material showing the local pronunciation of Mandarin, please feel free to leave a comment and tell us about it!

Top 10 Most Feared Questions for Chinese New Year

Sat, 02/10/2018 - 08:44

Testing… 1, 2, 3… does this still work? Great! I still have a blog. Let me see if I can remember how to work this thing…

Walking through the Guangzhou subway the other day I saw this advertisement for real estate. it’s one of those priceless looks into Chinese culture that is so valuable because it’s Chinese people critiquing themselves.

Here’s a direct translation (with pinyin) and my commentary.

Billboard Title

xīn chūn shí lián wèn 新春十连问 = New Year’s 10 Connected Questions

My Commentary
  • Interesting they used the words “xīn chūn” for “New Year’s.” The other ways to say it are “xīn nián” 新年 and “chūn jié” 春节. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is besides combing both of them.
  • The “connected” bit means sort of “non-stop.” This is the cultural commentary. Young people heading home for the holidays are dreading the barrage and wèn huà 问话 from their family members about their economic, marital, and child-bearing progress. So this real estate company is trying to establish credibility with struggling, young workers by showing they sympathize with how NOT-fun it is to face these questions. “So why not let our real estate company help you answer at least one of them?” (the 2nd one in my list).
The (Dreaded) Questions
  1. nǐ jīn nián shōu rù duōshao a? 你今年收入多少啊?= What’s your yearly income this year?
  2. shénme shíhòu mǎi fáng a? 什么时候买房啊?= When will you by a house?
  3. mǎi chē le ma? 买车了吗?= Have you bought a car?
  4. shénme shíhòu jiéhūn a? 什么时候结婚啊? = When will you getting married?
  5. shénme shíhòu yào háizi a? 什么时候要孩子啊?= When do you want to have kids?
  6. shénme shíhòu shēng èr tāi a? 什么时候生二胎啊 = When will you have your 2nd child?
  7. shénme shíhòu jiǎn féi a? 什么时候减肥啊? = When will you lose weight?
  8. xīn nián méi qù guó wài wán ma? 新年没去国外玩吗?= You didn’t go travelling abroad for New Year’s?
My Commentary

I’m going to talk mostly about culture here.

Questions 1-3

  • You can see these are mostly about money. I’ve been asked all three of these by taxi drivers, so I can imagine that family members would be even more interested. It’s very common in China to talk openly about personal finances. But, as this billboard implies: just because it’s common doesn’t mean Chinese people enjoy it.
  • It’s commonly thought that men have to have their own house and car before getting married, so I put these questions at the top of the list.
  • The BIGGEST question on the billboard is question number one. Does that mean it’s the most feared of them all, or that it’s the most important for the remaining questions?

Questions 4-6

  • This is the order the questions will get asked. This billboard is implying that no matter what your current situation is (single, married, have one kid already) there is still one more dreaded question waiting for you.
  • Question 6: starting in 2016, the famous “One Child Policy” was officially updated to be the “Two Child Policy.” Hence, the chance to get asked about a second child. By just observing the Chinese mom’s around me, it seems like a whole bunch of families are making use of the new law!

Question 7

  • This is a hilarious and awkwardly realistic question to be asked by family members and friends. But again, just because talking openly about weight problems is common in China doesn’t mean they all enjoy it. Otherwise, why would it be on the “10 Dreaded Questions” list?

Question 8

  • There is an interesting tension in China: come home for the holidays vs. go travel for the holidays. With the growing popularity and status associated with “international” experience, I can imagine young people going home for the holidays and getting mixed messages about “nice to have you home but why aren’t you out traveling?”


  • I could only find 8 questions. Can anyone look at the picture and find the other 2…?

Gǒu Nián Kuài Lè! 狗年快乐! Happy Year of the Dog! 

Lucky Money for Big Kids

Sat, 02/20/2016 - 00:11

Since this is my first year working in business in China, I was introduced to a new tradition this week.

Everyone (well, almost everyone) came back to work on Monday after being home with family for the Spring Festival holiday. I was told by the CFO that we need to do 开门利事 kāi mén lì shì (also apparently written 开门利是), and the responsibility fell to me to do it. This (of course) made me very interested to know what in the world it means.

Basically, it’s a 红包 hóngbāo (often translated as “lucky money”) for adults.

The standard “red envelope” tradition goes like this: unmarried children can get lucky money from their parents, relatives, or close friends at Spring Festival time (but the kids often give all the money to their parents who then give some of it back to the kids to buy things… it’s complicated!).

But the “open door lucky money” that I handed out to employees is more about the symbolism of starting the New Year right rather than financial gain (which I’m sure is how the kids think about their hongbao-s). It means good wishes for our working relationship this year, and also for the company’s business, oh and also for your own personal health and success.

Since I’d never done anything like this before, I actually did a little rehearsal with the CFO. I asked her what to say and what they employees might say in response. That’s when I learned this new phrase:

  • 开工大吉 kāigōng dàjí = (wishing you) an auspicious start of the work year

Replies ranged from standard ones (more here):

to simply thank you (usually double dose 谢谢谢谢 xièxie xièxie).

But one thing is for sure: everyone was really, really happy to get it.

It was fun for me to do because it was so clearly important to everyone.

One guy wasn’t here on Monday and he came in to my office on Thursday for me to sign some other thing. After I signed it I saw he was still just standing there. I said, “Was there something else?” and he kind of looked nervously around and didn’t say anything so I asked again. He cleared this throat and said, “Uhhh… hongbao?”

哦!太不好意思了!对,你周一不在,我忘了!对不起!” I replied and quickly got his hongbao and wished him a (retroactive) auspicious start to his work year. He laughed and left the office smiling.

I also smiled to myself as I realized (for the thousandth time since starting this new job), just how much I still have to learn!

I’d be interested to hear about anyone else’s business traditions for the New Year. Also, for the native speakers out there (if there are any that read this!), do you usually see this written 开门利事 or 开门利是? Feel free to write here.

Business Chinese: Resigning or Making a Speech

Mon, 12/07/2015 - 23:18

I was greatly encouraged to read in the news this morning that some Chinese reporter made the ol’ 2-syllable-mix-up mistake that’s been my Achilles heel these past 10+ years of speaking Mandarin.

I get bizarre looks when I ask a store clerk if they sell any “honeybees” (mì fēng 蜜蜂) when I really mean “honey” (fēng mì 蜂蜜), but this reporter apparently got suspended for mixing up:

  • cí zhí 辞职 = to resign
  • zhì cí 致词 = to make a speech

And it was about the current president of China! (He actually made a speech and did NOT resign, by the way.)

I’d also like to mention the grammar involved (as you can see from the screenshot in that news link) was:

zài cízhí zhōng shuō 在辞职中说 = “(The President), while resigning, said…”

I’ll write more in detail later about the different words for ending a job in Chinese, but just one final thought before rushing off to the office this morning. Look at how quirky English is: a hyphen can change a word into it’s opposite.

That’s almost as fun as the fact that the word “cleave” can mean “stick together” or “separate!”

Have a great day full of careful proof-reading!

New Job Forces Me to Study Chinese Again

Wed, 11/25/2015 - 00:25

(Now that my coughing fit has stopped after blowing the dust off this blog, I think I’m ready to write something.)

After 10 years of teaching English at universities in China, I have made a career change (gǎiháng le 改行了) and jumped into the exciting world of business!

This is the introduction to a new series of posts about business vocabulary and gaps in my own Chinese knowledge that are only getting filled in now that I’m in a new career. But first, a word about teaching Oral English.

The end (for now) of my teaching career is marked with the publication of a brand new book:

Coach Them to Speak: A Practical Guidebook for College Oral English Teachers in China

My friend Elizabeth and I wrote it specifically for Oral English teachers in China, and more information is available about it on my other website here.

I very much enjoyed teaching English, and especially doing it at Peizheng College 广工培正学院 where I spent 8 years. I’m so happy to compile the experiences, tips, and resources from all these years into a single publication.

My new job is working for a company in Guangzhou called 小康之家 Xiǎokāng zhī jiā, or in English “Healthy Household,” owned by my friend Paul Condrell. (Here are 2 different videos on Youtube (English) and Youku (Chinese) introducing the company).

Because the whole job is in Chinese, I’ve found that my normal “cruising speed” for learning new vocabulary hasn’t been enough.

In other words, here I am in my 11th year in China, and for the last 8 years or so I haven’t needed to take notes or really do anything to learn Chinese because:

  1. New words started “sticking” on their own (this happened in about year 3). I could just remember them.
  2. The daily number of new words was so low (0 to 5 most days) it was easy to manage.
  3. The likelihood that I’d have a chance to reuse a new word was fairly low (because of the random situations that I’d learn a new word in) unless I made a point to use a word again (which I loved doing but often forgot to do).

But not anymore! All 3 of those things are different now.

So I went back to the basics.

Here’s my “自学 Chinese kit” from years 1 and 2 (I saved all this mostly for sentimental reasons):

You can see

  • 7 “flashbooks” (about 150 pages each with one word per page = 150 flashcards in each book)
  • 3 “field notebooks” (for taking notes when I’m out and about)
  • My favorite dictionary, “Chubby” (no Pleco back then!)
  • Microcassette recorder (no smart phones back then!).

And now, after 8 years away from the Chinese-learning game, I’ve just created flashbook number 8:

It’s already half full of little goodies that I’ll be sharing in the upcoming posts.

But most importantly: please, always, ALWAYS remember what these little critters say, no matter what muffin-shaped environment they might be in…

With that kind of attitude, how can you NOT learn Chinese?


Cool World Language Stats Graphics

Wed, 04/29/2015 - 22:08

(I… can’t… quite… remember how to use my blog… Oh yes. It’s coming back to me now. I type here, right?)

I saw this fun article “The world’s languages, in 7 maps and charts” from the Washington Post today and wanted to mention it. Notice where Chinese shows up in each graphic, for example:

It was also fun to be reminded (read: actually know for the first time) how many people are in the world (7.2 billion) and how many languages there are in the world (7102).

Another Facelift for the Blog

Wed, 02/04/2015 - 07:04

It appears that every 7 years or so (that often?!), I update my blog’s appearance. This new layout, while feeling a bit… umm… “thick” to me, actually works much better for mobile devices so all my readers with smart phones (aka me and my mom) can enjoy all the non-stop action of this blog while out and about.

This update also happened to coincide with switching servers. So some things may be huài le 坏了 that used to work.

But at least one thing is NOT huài le 坏了 anymore: the contact form!

All that to say, if anyone finds something is broken or missing on this site, please let me know and I’ll try to fix it. Thanks for your patience!

Free Hanzi Reader for your Smart Phone Camera

Sun, 09/21/2014 - 23:30

Yesterday a friend showed me Waygo, an app that uses your camera to read hanzi off menus in restaurants, etc. (By the way, that feature is called an OCR = Optical Character Recognizer.) What impressed was that it’s free!

Here’s the catch: you get “10 daily translations” with an optional paid upgrade to “unlimited translations for life.”

Of course, I won’t be getting it because Pleco (my favorite cell phone dictionary) has a paid upgrade that includes an OCR (which I already bought and love). But I wanted to make sure to spread the word about the free one for those who might be content with only 10 translations per day.

By the way, does anyone else know of any other apps I should know about? Please let me know.

Video of Q & A Broadcast with Yangyang

Fri, 09/12/2014 - 23:33

As I mentioned before, on July 17 Yangyang and I did a live broadcast answering viewers’ questions about learning Chinese. We had a GREAT time (and I hope the viewers did too).

Just so you know how the technology works: viewers type in their questions, and then other viewers can vote for the questions they like the best. Then, Yangyang and I just worked our way down the list of questions.

There were some technical difficulties at the beginning, so I’ve cued the video to 4:09 where it gets sorted out.

(blocked in China, but is cued to 4:09)

(works in China but has a minute of ads at the beginning, and I couldn’t figure out how to cue it)

Why I Love Laokang Lookup for iPhone

Sat, 09/06/2014 - 11:23

Yesternight, I was on the bus and saw this fairly typical sign:

I’ve taken this same bus lots of times, but never really paid attention to this sign. I found I could read every character except the one I’ve circled in blue. I also couldn’t use my usual trick of guessing from the context (because this is a kind of formal way of saying “get on and off” the bus).

So, zěn me bàn 怎么办? I could use Pleco’s awesome hand drawing thing and sketch in the 15 (or whatever) strokes. But I don’t do that as much anymore now that I have my friend Paul Condrell‘s beta version of Laokang Lookup on my iPhone. I was able to find the character in only 2 steps.

Here’s How it Works

Boom! Luo and behold, the first character in the result list was the very character I was looking for!


This is similar to (and is perhaps better than) my idea of Hanzi Craft. It’s certainly way better than the Dark Ages before smart phones, and even before online dictionaries, when I would have had to look up all unknown characters by radical in a paper dictionary.

I use the app all the time when I’m out and about. On the same bus trip, I saw a restaurant that specialized in  huàn (a kind of carp), which I couldn’t read. The Lookup app says that it’s in the top 6500 characters (very infrequent). But I was able to find it from the moving bus having only glanced at it because I knew most of the components (the first of which is just yú).

The only downside to this method is you have to learn all the components and their variations, and that takes some doing. But I like it better than radicals because the components seem to be bigger “chunks” of characters than radicals (although, some are the same as radicals).

More on this later, but for now, I just wanted to mention that I love the component search idea and can’t wait to see how the app develops.

Teachable Moment

Here’s the full text of the sign (click on the hanzi to see pinyin and translation):


Live Q & A Broadcast Tomorrow with Yangyang

Tue, 07/15/2014 - 17:03

I’m currently back in the USA for a short trip and Yangyang from Yoyo Chinese has invited me to do a live Google Hangout with her tomorrow. I’ve never done this before, but from what I understand she and I will sit in front of the camera and anyone who “tunes in” (how THAT works, I don’t quite know) can type questions to us. Then, everyone watching can vote questions up to the top of the list and I guess we’ll just start at the top and answer them as we go (I’ll follow Yangyang’s lead on that).

The time zone is hard to figure out so I suggest looking at the time zone conversions Yangyang has already worked out in the official hangout page on the right, look under the “Details” heading, click “Read more (33 lines)”.

Oh, and it appears there’s a countdown on Youtube if you’re in a country where that’s not banned, or even if you are and you have a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, know-what-I-mean.

I’m excited to try this and see what kinds of questions we get asked!

Five Two Zero So Much

Thu, 05/22/2014 - 22:10

The month of May sports one of what I call (for the first time) “fakie-sounding pun-tastic number-slang days”: 5/20. (Here’s a Baidu link so you know I’m not making it up.)

May 20th, pronounced in Chinese as “wǔ èr líng” 五二零 is supposed to sound like “wǒ ài nǐ” 我爱你 (“I love you”). As best as I can figure out, it’s a sort of combination of Valentine’s Day and April Fool’s Day that young people use to biǎo bái 表白, or make jokes, or both.

When I wrote an analysis of the two supposedly similar-sounding phrases on the board for my Chinese students, it was easy to see that in only 3 syllables there are about 5 differences:

520 I love you Difference wu3 wo3 “u” vs. “o” er4 ai4 “er” vs. “ai” ling2 ni3 “l” vs. “n” ling2 ni3 “-ing” vs. “-i” ling2 ni3 2nd tone vs. 3rd tone

I think those are significant differences, and therefore I downplay the cleverness of the day. My students strongly disagree.

Here’s why: I’m comparing it to what I consider clever puns and such in English, like “May the 4th” for Star Wars Day. “May the fourth be with you” and “May the force be with you” has only a single phoneme difference (“th” vs. “s”) for the whole phrase. And that lispy switcheroo (the technical linguistic term for mixing up “th” and “s”) has been known to occur independently of this fakie holiday (“the Wellth Fargo wagon is a comin'”). Therefore, I smile smugly and nod slowly when I think of “May the 4th” but I don’t smile and do shake my head slowly when I think of 5/20.

But my students are thinking: “There are no other numbers that are closer to wǒ ài nǐ, so it’s awesome!” It presupposes (for some reason that is mysterious to me) that numbers MUST sound like SOMETHING else! This is the same thing that happens with the number 8 being so lucky because “bā” sounds like “fā” (meaning “get rich”). It doesn’t REALLY sound like it to me. But hey! I admit “ba” sounds more like “fa” than any other number does.

But this may give us insight into the significance of tones to native speakers. That’s really the strongest link between these fakie-puns. The tones for 8 and “get rich” are identical, and two out of three tones from “May 20th” and “I love you” are the same (although, to get even closer they should equate it with “wǒ ài nín” 我爱您, but I see why that would be sillier for a different reason).

One last thing: the “l” vs. “n” switcheroo we see in “líng” vs. “nǐ” makes me wonder if this day originated in some region of China where the “l” and “n” sounds are allophones (like the South, perhaps?). Hmm… I wonder… Oh well.

Tone Colors and What Pleco Did with Them

Wed, 02/26/2014 - 22:53

A: “Dude! Have you ever wondered if what I see as ‘red’ is the same color that you see as ‘red’?”

B: “No dude! It’s scientific. ‘Red’ is just a label for a certain wavelength on the spectrum.”

A: “I know, Dude. But how do we know what our brains ‘see’ when our eyes perceive that wavelength? Maybe what I call ‘red’ is what you see when you say ‘green.’ We’d never know because we always call the same color ‘red’ or ‘green’ when we see it. But what color are we ACTUALLY seeing?”

B: “Dude…”

Have you ever had THAT conversation before (with or without the ubiquitous use of “dude”)? That’s exactly what this post is NOT about.

Before I go on, I’d like to announce that I am deeply in like with my new iPhone 5s. I’ve only had it for a little over a month, but I finally know what all the fuss is about (it’s my first zhìnéng shǒujī 智能手机 ever).

Naturally, one of the first apps I got was Pleco (coming soon: a post about why I love Pleco). One of the options that was on by default was the “Tone Colors.” (If you’re not familiar with what tone colors are, please see John Pasden’s review of  Chinese Through Tone & Color by Nathan Dummitt.)

I love tone colors, and left them on in Pleco. But the problem (as John and his commenters discuss) is: What’s the biāozhǔn 标准? What colors should be assigned to each tone?

Here’s a summary of what 4 people think: [updated to include Hanping]

According to Pleco’s creator Michael Love, Pleco first introduced tone colors in Pleco 2.0 Beta 1 (October 2007). Drummitt’s book came out six months later in March 2008, and then MDBG added tone colors a year later.

Right now, I’m an avid user of MDBG and Pleco. But the tone colors don’t match. I don’t want to discuss what the “right” colors for each tone should be, I just want it to be consistent. But I’ve found that people feel very strongly about “their colors.” And I think a consensus is impossible to reach.

But no problem. Pleco has set an example of how apps should handle this issue. Look at the option in Pleco’s Settings > Colors > Configure colors > Tone 1 color:

That’s the solution! Just let everyone set their own tone colors. Since MDBG doesn’t offer this option (yet), I’d have to set Pleco’s colors to match MDBG’s. UPDATE: MDBG now offers Pleco’s colors as one of the options (see here).

(Note: the Pleco colors are in HSB by default, but if you touch the number itself you can toggle through RGB or Hex.)

I hope all you who are developing apps that include tone colors will follow Pleco’s lead on this: go ahead and pick your favorite defaults (Michael Love said “I believe the (Pleco) colors were originally chosen based on what colors of pen the friend of mine who came up with it had available”), but please PLEASE let us users customize them.

UPDATE: Hanping has a big preset menu to allow users to choose their favorite color schemes (but I don’t know what some of those presets are).

Beginning Chinese Class, Term 1 Report

Thu, 08/15/2013 - 12:15

I had a great time teaching the Beginning Chinese class to the foreign teachers here at Peizheng College last term. I learned a lot and I’m very much looking forward to teaching it again next term.

I’ve decided to share the following information from my first term teaching Chinese in hopes that other Chinese teachers (and students) may derive some benefit from my experience:

  1. My reflections on what went well and what could be improved.
  2. The database of all the vocabulary we covered over the term including a hanzi frequency report.
  3. Syllabus I emailed before first day of class.
  4. Agreement the foreign teachers and tutors signed.

The database was created by Iris (my assistant coach) who brought her laptop to class every session and faithfully typed in everything that went on the board. There was a little confusion about the total weeks (was it 12 or 13?) but besides that I’d call it a big success.

I’ll be reworking the syllabus slightly but the basic format will remain unchanged:

  • 1-on-1 Tutor Session + Group Class Session

Thanks again to all the foreign teachers and tutors who made the class so fun!

Note: There is a file embedded within this post, please visit this post to download the file. Note: There is a file embedded within this post, please visit this post to download the file. Note: There is a file embedded within this post, please visit this post to download the file. Note: There is a file embedded within this post, please visit this post to download the file.

The 5th Skill: Handwriting

Wed, 08/14/2013 - 07:26

WARNING: This article is an explanation of the footnote in my conceptual breakdown of foreign language teaching. It’s really written more for language teachers and testers than learners.

Language instruction is typically divided into four skills:

4 Skills for Most Foreign Languages Aural Visual Reception Listening Reading Production Speaking Writing

But for learning Chinese, the visual skills involved are so special, I recommend breaking writing down into two separate skills: typing and handwriting.

5 Skills for Chinese (and any language that uses Chinese characters) Aural Visual Reception Listening Reading Production Speaking Typing Handwriting

Allow me to oversimplify the state of all world languages before I explain why this is a good idea.

(clip source)

World Writing Systems

There are basically only two major categories of writing systems in the world. The most common type (phonograms) is when you write something that shows the sound of the word. For example, “c” + “a” + “t” gives you all the information you need to to put together the sounds for the English word that means this animal:

With his highness’ permission, I’ll explain the other type of writing system (logograms): writing something that stands for the word itself or the meaning of the word without having as direct a connection to the sounds. For example, the Chinese word for the pictured animal is . But various dialects of Chinese might pronounce that character in different ways. Additionally, although there may be clues about the pronunciation of a character built in, it is not the primary purpose of the character to show the sounds required to produce the word. The 3 pieces that make up the character are + + but they are not representing 3 sounds like the English letters “c” + “a” + “t” are.

So that’s the general state of world writing systems. Of course, there are overlaps, and it seems that no writing system stays completely in the category of sound-based or meaning-based symbols. But it’s a useful rule of thumb to keep in mind.

The Place of Chinese Characters in the World

As far as I know, Chinese is the only major world language that has only logograms in common use. Other languages may use some logograms, but they also use phonograms. For example:

  • Japanese uses some Chinese characters (which they call kanji), but they’ve also got their hirigana and katakana syllabaries, which are phonograms and are in common use by native speakers.
  • Korean uses the hangul alphabet to build syllables.
  • English uses the logograms {0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9} and a few others like @ and %, but basically everything else is written with a Latin-based alphabet (like many other world languages).
  • Other major world languages like Arabic, Russian, Thai, etc. use non-Latin alphabets.

But with Chinese, even though pinyin exists, it is never used by Chinese people to represent their language in written form after they’ve learned to write hanzi. It appears on road signs and maps for the benefit of foreigners only. This fact came up the other day in my Chinese class after I’d written on the board:

Happy Birthday = shēng rì kuài lè

A learner asked if we should capitalize the pinyin when writing a note to Chinese friends. I said it didn’t matter because they’re really not used to seeing pinyin at all. It would be like writing a note to an English speaker that looked like this:

ˈhæpi ˈbɪrθdeɪ

That IPA shows merely the pronunciation for “happy birthday” in English just as “shēng rì kuài lè” is the pronunciation for 生日快乐. But English native speakers would always write “happy birthday” and Chinese native speakers would always write 生日快乐. In that sense, pinyin is to hanzi what IPA is to English. They are both “pronunciation helpers” to reveal exactly how the written word should be said, but are not used by native speakers.

Here’s a table to summarize the analogy (using the word “cat” as an example)

Writing System (Example) Pronunciation Helper (Example) Chinese Hanzi () Pinyin (māo) English English (cat) IPA (kæt)

Of course, we could also transcribe hanzi with IPA if we wanted to. I also know that most native speakers of English don’t use the IPA for pronunciation help (for example, gives “[burth-dey]” as the pronunciation of “birthday” with an option to “show IPA”). But English speakers can learn IPA with very little difficulty.

The fact that we need the IPA to show us how certain things in English are pronounced proves that the pronunciation and the writing are not a “perfect fit” (one sound per symbol and one symbol per sound) but that’s not really important.

Here’s the point: hanzi characters are the only writing system currently in use today (that I’m aware of) that have basically nothing to do with the pronunciation helper system. In English, the phonograms used for writing are not a perfect fit, but there are many words you can immediately guess the pronunciation of just from seeing the written word, and there are many words where the IPA and the written word are virtually the same (like “wad,” or “pig”).

Handwriting vs. Typing

I’ve always encouraged learners to focus on pinyin and neglect hanzi at the start of their Mandarin studies. But if you only learn pinyin for Chinese, it’s like only learning IPA for English. It’s the same as being functionally illiterate (which might be just fine with you as it was for me in the beginning). The problem is the huge amount of time and work it takes to handwrite characters.

Handwriting the character “wǒ” (I / me / me)

Total pen strokes = 7

Typing the the character “wǒ” (I / me / me)

Total keystrokes = 2 + 1 (“w” + “o” + “1” to choose the first item on the menu)

It’s Not All About “Strokes”

The biggest difference between handwriting and typing Chinese isn’t just the number of “strokes” required (whether by pen or keyboard), it’s about the relationship of those actions to the spoken word. Handwriting the character “wǒ” means memorizing and reproducing all those complex lines in the right relationship to each other. Typing it just means remembering the sounds your mouth makes when you say it and then recognizing it from a list of choices that are pronounced like that.

If we had something similar for English it might look like this:

See how the words all start with the same sound even though they’re all written differently? But it’s not necessary to have a system like this for English because we can just learn the 26 letters and use them in the right combination to make any word we need. Of course we have to memorize some spelling rules, but the basic “building blocks,” the letters, are so limited in number it’s just a matter of remembering their arrangement. And there are only two places letters can go in relationship to each other: in front or behind (e.g. “ab” or “ba”).

In Chinese, handwriting is not like that at all. The “building blocks” are still limited in number (even if you just think of one line / stroke as one building block) but the number of possible arrangements of them is astronomical. Think of all the ways you could arrange just those same 7 strokes required to write the character above. Handwriting Chinese requires a huge repertoire of knowledge and practice that handwriting other languages does not.

And typing Chinese does not require that huge repertoire of knowledge either. Typing in Chinese is equivalent to SPEAKING + READING. You need to speak so you can input the correct pinyin (e.g. “w” + “o”) but then you need to be able to read to recognize which character in the list is the one you’re looking for (which is why you type number “1” and not number “2” or “3”).

Personally, I can read and type computer or cell phone messages that contain hundreds and hundreds more characters than I can handwrite. I really can’t handwrite very many characters at all because I’ve never spent a single moment practicing that skill. But my typing skills aren’t too bad.

We Need a Double Standard

Let’s look at the ILR scale for writing that the US government uses for assessing foreign language proficiency across various agencies. There is no mention of typing anywhere, so we can assume they’re talking about handwriting or don’t care about the difference. The requirement for level “0+” (just above nothing) does, to their credit, make allowances for character-based systems and asks you to write “50 of the most common characters.”

But then look at the next level (level 1). They’ve forgotten to keep making allowances for non-alphabetic languages and assume “continual errors in spelling.” It’s not really “spelling” to get the strokes wrong with hanzi, but we’ll let that slide. But look, you’ll be expected to write “simple phone messages, excuses, notes to service people and simple notes to friends” at this level.

First of all, there are very few Chinese names I could write by hand in their entirety (吴安平 might be one). But I could type a bunch. Now let’s look at how difficult it is just to write the two extremely common characters that introduce that you’re about to make an excuse for not going to class or work: qǐng jià 请假 = to request leave / time off

Total pen strokes = 10 + 11 = 21

Total keystrokes = 9 (max) but as few as 3 (depending on your IME)

It’s time to take the difference between handwriting and typing hanzi into account when creating language standards.

The CEFR’s writing standards (PDF) for the lowest level (A1) also ignore the distinction between typing and handwriting that Chinese demands:

“I can write a short, simple postcard, for example sending holiday greetings. I can fill in forms with personal details, for example entering my name, nationality and address on a hotel registration form.” (page 26)

Those things may be easy to write in other languages, or even to type in Chinese to achieve the lowest level of proficiency, but handwriting them in hanzi is far more difficult.

The ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines (PDF) at least recognize that “instant messaging, e-mail communication, texting” (page 10) may be used, but they still don’t give the typing / handwriting distinction for Chinese the special treatment it deserves. As with other organizations’ standards, a hat tip is made to meaning-based writing systems at the lowest level (Novice Low). They say learners should be able to “copy and produce isolated, basic strokes in languages that use syllabaries or characters” (page 14).

But then, by the time they talk about Novice High, the same oversight has been made. “Due to inadequate vocabulary and/or grammar, writing at this level may only partially communicate the intentions of the writer.” Not with hanzi. It’s possible to have all the vocabulary and grammar you need, and STILL not be able to handwrite at this level. But by allowing typing, you can start to mitigate the problem.

The Solution

To their undying credit, the HSK now offers a choice for the writing section: handwriting or typing. As Laokang said when he took the test, “Not a single person took the paper version (which requires writing characters by hand).” Of course not!

But that’s only half of the solution. The HSK could offer a special certification for handwriting. If handwriting and typing hanzi were officially considered two separate skills, then two separate sets of standards and tools for assessment could be created. This not only applies to HSK, but to the IRL, CEFR, ACTFL, and every other organization that sets standards.

As nice as it would be to have just one set of standards for all languages, the special place of handwriting hanzi in this world makes that unreasonable. The technology exists now to test typing as a skill, not necessarily to the exclusion of handwriting, but in addition to it.

Theresa Jen & Ping Xu foresaw this change in March, 2000 in their article entitled “Penless Chinese Character Reproduction” (PDF):

“[N]ow for the first time, it becomes possible that a person who cannot write a Chinese character by hand can “write” it on the computer screen, without having to go through the extremely painful process of learning to hand-write the characters. Also for the first time in history, the writing of Chinese characters has something to do with their phonetic characteristics, as one has to enter romanized letters on the keyboard in order to bring Chinese characters onto the computer screen…To the language of such a long history, computer technology has brought along with it a real revolution, of which the Penless approach is both an outcome and a precondition” (page 9).

The HSK has taken the first step towards officially embracing that revolution. I’m anxious to see other organizations do the same.

Conceptual Breakdown of Foreign Language Teaching

Sat, 07/27/2013 - 01:28

A Conceptual Breakdown of Foreign Language Teaching

(See also my explanation and definition of some key terms, especially “concepts” vs. “skills”)

(See also an explanation of the footnote about handwriting vs. typing)

I have the privilege of teaching three different subjects at Peizheng College: English, music, and Chinese (coming soon is a report on how my first semester of Chinese teaching went). I’ve found that in each of my courses, students benefit greatly from having the huge task that is set before them (“learn English / music / Chinese”) broken down into more manageable pieces.

While there are several ways to analyze and divide the task of “learning something,” I’ve found a very useful model is the breakdown into:

  1. Concepts
  2. Skills
  3. Materials

My father provided me with such a breakdown for teaching music, and that inspired me to create a Conceptual Breakdown for Foreign Language Teaching.

(Please see my explanation here for definitions of some of key terms, especially “concepts vs. skills”)

Although I wrote this mainly to assist teachers of English, I imagine it could help teachers and students of Chinese as well. For example, this bog focuses almost exclusively on the skills of speaking and listening, although I do have an occasional post about hanzi (reading and writing).

What skills does your class, blog, website, etc. focus on?

Here are some examples of how each of the nine concepts relate directly to difficulties faced by English speakers learning Chinese:

  1. Pronunciation = Pinyin chart, the “ü” sound, etc.
  2. Intonation / Rhythm = 5 tones, 20 tone combinations, etc.
  3. Penmanship / spelling = Different styles of handwriting characters, traditional vs. simplified, etc.
  4. Punctuation = The mark used for enumerating lists, titles appear in 《》, etc. (see also Chinese Punctuation at Wikipedia)
  5. Grammar = Word order, the use of “le” , etc.
  6. Vocabulary = Individual words (“apple” = píngguǒ 苹果), phrases, idioms, chéngyǔ 成语, etc.
  7. Context / setting = “1” can be written as or , and can be pronounced as “yī / yí / yì / yāo” depending on the situation, “ràng”  can mean “let / ask / make” someone do something depending on the situation.
  8. Organization = Chinese friends may leave out or delay what English speakers consider to be essential introductory information, etc.
  9. Culture = “She is a chicken” in English means “she is cowardly” but in Chinese “she is a prostitute.”

Which of those concepts do you have questions about? Which are you weakest in? Strongest in? Which ones are you going to focus on next?

These are just a few examples to give an idea of what each concept includes. There are certainly overlaps between them, and they flow throughout the skills as well.

I hope this model will provide a useful framework for analyzing, discussing, and making decisions about your own learning or teaching of Chinese, or any other language for that matter.

Blog Bank updated to be Resource Bank

Sun, 04/07/2013 - 01:33

Umm… it’s not often that I update something as quickly as I’ve updated my Blog Bank. It was just after I published that last post that I realized I can actually add far more than just blog RSS feeds. I can add EVERYTHING.

This has been a problem I’ve long wanted to solve:

When someone new arrives in China or wants to start learning Chinese, how can I get all the information and resources to that person in a way that is:

  • Concise 
  • Organized
  • Up-to-date
  • Thorough
  • Useful

Thanks to NetVibes, I’m finally able to do just that. I have removed my (extremely un-useful) long list of links from my sidebar, and have put everything in that NetVibes page, with its various tabs.

There are still a few things missing, I know. So please email me or leave a comment if you’ve got a favorite resource that’s not listed.

Oh, and if your site or resource is listed, but you hate the image I’ve chosen or have a better suggestion for how it can be listed, please just let me know. I want to respect everyone’s wishes as to how their own brand or product is represented.

Also, I get no revenue from or even information about how many visits the “Learn Chinese” Resource Bank gets. So if you find it useful, I’d also love to know via a comment or email. I have no other way of knowing if anyone has even seen it.

Oh and one last thing, if you think the Resource Bank is worth sharing, I’ve provided some code to do so easily on your own site. (I know it’s still called the “Blog Bank” in the image. I might change that someday. Or better yet, if someone wants to SEND me a better image to use that would be even better!)

“Blog Bank” Replaces iGoogle Page

Fri, 04/05/2013 - 04:55

[Update: See Blog Bank updated to be Resource Bank]

With the upcoming demise of iGoogle (see image above), I’ve decided to explore better options for what used to be the “Learn Chinese” iGoogle Page. The best new thing I’ve found is NetVibes.

So I’m very happy to announce the release of the “Learn Chinese” Blog Bank (which I’ve translated as  xué zhōngwén bókè kù 学中文博客库).

This is supposed to be your “one stop shopping” place to see all the blogs about learning Chinese, as well as a few daily word feeds, videos, podcasts, and forums. I’m sure I’ve missed some good ones, so please let me know and I’ll add them in.

Share the Good News

Since a lot of us bloggers benefit from being included in this, I hope you’ll promote this on your own website so that more people can use it. If you’d like to do so, just copy this code into a sidebar widget or wherever.


<a href="" target="_blank"><img src="" alt="" /></a><br /><a href="" target="_blank"><i>What's this?</i></a> 

Looks like this:

What’s this?

Or a smaller version:

<a href="" target="_blank"><img src="" alt="" /></a><br /><a href="" target="_blank"><i>What's this?</i></a>

Looks like this:

What’s this?

Advantages of NetVibes over iGoogle or Other Aggregators:
  1. It’s a web page, so it’s viewable on all devices (there are other readers I like more, but they’re either only for Apple or not for Apple, etc.)
  2. I can make tabs (such as “Word of the Day / Lessons” and “Videos / Podcasts”)
  3. Any changes I make will “go live” immediately, so the next time you view the “dashboard” (as it’s called) you’ll see the latest version of the Blog Bank. (The iGoogle page was “frozen” in whatever state it was in when you added it to your own iGoogle account.)
Decision-Making Process

I consulted my old iGoogle page as well as sites I know plus  a thorough browsing of China Blog Network’s “Learning Chinese Blogs” category to try to get the most comprehensive listing possible. Again, if I missed you, and you’re still blogging about learning Chinese, please let me know and I’ll add you in.

I removed blogs that hadn’t been updated in 2013 just to try to keep the collection as current as possible. Exceptions were made for a few classic bloggers who might not write that often but I like them and so they got thrown in anyway.

You might have noticed my own blog is in “pole position” at the top. After that, I roughly arranged blogs in order of my own personal preference and also frequency of posting. Blogs that haven’t been updated in a month or so appear farther down than those that have more frequent updates. I do, of course, realize the hypocrisy of putting my own at the top, since I’ll often go months without posting.

Also, I specifically did not include blogs that are only about life / culture in China. I really want this dashboard to be a resource about Chinese language learning.

So if you’ve got any feedback or suggestions for missing resources, please either leave a comment or email me.

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Posters for Teaching Chinese

Wed, 03/27/2013 - 05:39

I’ve really been enjoying teaching the Beginning Chinese class here at Peizheng College this term.

I’ve got two posters on the wall that I use every time we hold class:

  1. Tone Combo Chart
  2. Pinyin Chart

I’ve also given handouts of the posters.

The Tone Combo Chart is from Paul Condrell. The handout is available here and the poster size image is available by emailing him.

I’ve updated my Pinyin Chart page to include two different handout versions of the chart (a 2-page and a single page) as well as the poster size image that’s on my wall.

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Why Non-Chinese Make Good Chinese Teachers

Sun, 02/24/2013 - 01:34

This semester I’ll be doing something new here at Peizheng College: I’ll be teaching Beginning Chinese to foreign teachers. I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of designing an actual Chinese curriculum for expats living in China and I’m excited to finally get the chance to try out some of my ideas.

As I go through the semester, I’ll be posting the materials that I develop for my classes so that other Chinese teachers in the world (but especially in China) can use them too. Even if you’re not a Chinese teacher, you might find the process interesting.

There are plenty of examples of non-native speakers teaching foreign languages. The entire English department here at the college is full of Chinese teachers giving English instruction. I’ve always held them in such high esteem because it’s hard to teach a language that’s not your own. Now I’m sure I’ll gain an even greater appreciation for what they do every day.

Of course, the big question on my mind these days is: with so many Chinese people all over the place,

Why should I (an American) teach Chinese in China?

I still believe that highly qualified native speakers of Chinese like Yangyang (whom I work with at Yoyo Chinese) do the best job. But she has lots of experience explaining things to English speakers and has figured out what they can understand and what works best. Simply put, there’s a difference between a great speaker of Chinese and a great teacher of Chinese (the same could be said of any skill such as piano playing and piano teaching). Just because the country is full of Chinese speakers, it doesn’t mean they’d be great Chinese teachers. Yangyang and others like her happen to be both.

So what do I bring to the table? It’s certainly not native-level Mandarin. But I offer the following three advantages (in order of importance) that native Chinese teachers may struggle to provide.

1. Sympathy for the Learner

Even the most gifted native Chinese teacher can not honestly say, “I remember when I didn’t understand the tones.” Just like I’ve never been baffled by when to use the past tense in English, native speakers of Chinese have grown up automatically doing lots of things correctly that learners can’t do at first.

As a non-native speaker, I can constantly:

  • Give insight into how I mastered various tricky parts of the language (tones, particles, etc.).
  • Commiserate about listening comprehension (when I didn’t understand what the taxi driver said and how I dealt with it).
  • Tell anecdotes about major and minor gaffs I’ve committed in the language and culture.
  • Skip over or spend little time on things that are easy for English-speakers to grasp.

That final point is a new one to me. I’ve found when working with Yangyang that she’ll sometimes want to spend time explaining something in great detail and I’ll say something like, “Actually, this is pretty easy for English speakers to grasp. I think we only need one example and then we can move on.” It doesn’t mean her explanation was bad, just unnecessary because she didn’t know what it’s like to be an English speaker learning Chinese.

2. Confidence Boost

All of the above insights and sympathy I provide can help boost students’ confidence.

But there’s a sort of gestalt effect as well: no matter how discouraged students of Chinese may feel,  standing before them is a real, live, Western-looking lǎowài 老外 speaking Chinese. And he started learning the language when he was 24 years old and can now communicate easily in Mandarin. It’s possible!

Of course, this confidence boost for the students will fade over time (unlike my sympathy for the learners, which is eternal). But it prevents the students’ thinking: “Well she’s Chinese. Of course she can speak the language.” Students may come up with other excuses why their non-native teacher is “special,” but really it just comes down to hard work. Seeing the lǎowài 老外 actually speaking Chinese serves as constant subliminal (and superliminal) proof that you don’t have to be born into the language.

I’ve noticed a related, and bizarre, phenomenon in my English classes. Most Chinese students have some pronunciation problems. Let’s take, for example, not closing their mouths for final /m/ so “some” sounds like “sun.” When I sit down and show them patiently and methodically how the lips must touch to get an /m/ sound, many times they persist in saying /n/ instead. I’ve been quite literally at my wits end in these situations when suddenly a neighboring student explains in exactly the same way what I just said and demonstrates exactly the same thing and voila! Magically, the erstwhile “m”-a-phobe is saying “some” for the first time (perhaps in their life)!

What happened? I can’t say for sure, but I think part of the problem is the thinking that a foreigner speaking English is somehow fundamentally different than another Chinese person speaking English. It’s probably a complex psychological issue. But the point is: the reverse may be true of learners of Chinese who see a Chinese person speaking Mandarin. At least at the initial stages, a non-native teacher can eliminate any doubts as to whether speaking Chinese is possible for the students.

3. Superior Teaching Methodology

As I have already outlined in the second part of the much-discussed post “Gaps in Current Chinese Teaching Materials and Methods“, many traditional methods of teaching Chinese are misguided, at least for Western learners.

Of course, there are many excellent native Chinese teachers who are doing a great job. But I propose they are doing so by not using the traditional methods.

Most native Chinese teachers have grown up in the Chinese education system. It’s no secret that Chinese education emphasizes standardized testing, lecturing, and rote memorization. These are not the best methods to teach a communicative skill like a foreign language.

In addition to the problems with the general education philosophy, the specific traditional approaches to teaching pronunciation, tones, hanzi, vocabulary, and grammar are often inefficient at best and misleading at worst (for example, the idea that the 5th tone is “neutral” and “has no tone” is the traditional wisdom yet is unhelpful and wrong).

It’s probably in this third category of methodology (and also materials) that I’ll be posting most often as I go through the semester. There are already some great materials out there that I’ll be compiling for my students. As I do so, I’ll put them here on this blog for everyone else to use as well.

Limitations of a Non-Native Teacher

Even if I do a great job because of the above listed advantages, there are some things I can’t do that native speakers can:

  1. Give a perfect pronunciation model. Even though I’ve been mistaken on the phone for a native speaker of Chinese, after a while (sometimes a very short while) my pronunciation will “give me away” as a non-native speaker. Most often this occurs with tone mistakes (because they’re so hard to keep track of, especially in combination). Native speakers usually will not make pronunciation or tone mistakes (especially if they speak good Mandarin).
  2. Say definitely whether grammar or word usage is “wrong.” I often encounter uncertainties as to whether an utterance would be deemed “correct” by a native speaker. When learners make common mistakes, I confidently label them as “incorrect.” But when learners’ produce language that goes beyond the well-trodden path of what I know is definitely correct or incorrect, I have to consult a native speaker. I can call such utterances “uncommon,” but that may be as far as I can go.
  3. Produce immediate and unlimited sentence examples. When I teach spoken English, I can give as many examples of correct usage as the students want. And I know all my sentences are correct. Often, students will ask about some English grammar that I’ve never thought about before and I’ll just start filling the board with examples until I see a pattern emerge. Then I can explain the rule. But in Chinese I can’t do that as easily.
  4. Translate anything into native Chinese. It’s easy for me to be stumped by the question “How do you say such-and-such in Chinese?” I can probably “get the point across” in Mandarin, but it may not be what a native speaker would say in that situation. Appropriate idioms and expressions for every situation that I may not be familiar with come readily to mind for native speakers .
  5. Write anything in Hanzi. My handwriting is woefully beneath my reading level which is way below my speaking level. Native speakers can usually write everything they can read and say. But even native speakers forget how to write infrequent characters, so there’s no way I’ll ever be able to keep up with them.
  6. Give vast cultural insights. It’s a good thing I know that calling a girl a “chicken” in Chinese is the same as calling her a prostitute. But what about all that cultural stuff I don’t know? Native speakers can give so many more cultural insights and anecdotes than non-native speakers. (For example, what do the words “snap, crackle, pop” mean to you?)

However, I don’t think those are reasons that I shouldn’t teach Beginning Chinese. My pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar are good enough to teach the basics of Chinese. As for hanzi, I won’t be emphasizing handwriting from day 1 so it won’t be an issue. As for the culture, I’ll share what I know, but I admit I’ll never know as much as a native speaker.

But of course my class does not rule out the students’ contact with native speakers. In fact, I’m going to require it (more on this next time).

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