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Tips and Strategies about the Chinese Language and Culture
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New Internet Slang: Mù yǒu 木有

Tue, 11/22/2011 - 13:22

Strangely, I’ve been inundated with new Internet slang recently, and I just can’t help writing about it. It’s gotten me wondering about the specific processes and devices are at work for introducing and popularizing these “new” words. I’m getting closer to a unified theory about how it works, but for now, here’s the latest:

  • mù yǒu 木有 = don’t have [wood have]

That mù is actually a purposeful mispronunciation of méi (as in méi yǒu 没有).

My students have cited two sources for this slang way of saying “don’t have”:

  • A cartoon called “Mcdull” (mài dōu 麦兜 in Chinese)
  • A TV advertisement where someone speaks in “non-standard” Mandarin

Apparently, up north somewhere (Shandong?) the pronunciation of 没有 sounds like “mù yǒu” in their dialect. So, to imitate that dialectal, “non-standard” way of pronouncing the characters 没有, Internet users have chosen to use the characters 木有 to remind people to imagine it being said as “mù yǒu” instead of “méi yǒu.”

I’ve seen stuff on the weibo (you need a sina or weibo account to view) to the effect of:

It has also, as always, seeped into spoken Chinese. The other day I was asking some of my drumline students if they had seen something or another. One boy replied that he hadn’t seen it. But he said “mù yǒu” instead of “méi yǒu.” Everyone around us laughed approvingly.

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New Internet Slang: Kēngdiē 坑爹

Sun, 11/20/2011 - 01:02

Recently, I’ve noticed a word making waves in the weibo-sphere and even in my oral English classes:

  • kēngdiē 坑爹 = dishonest [defraud father]

I’ve heard it used in the following contexts:

  • The kēngdiē doctors (坑爹的医生) didn’t know what they were talking about. They just told me to take some medicine and go home!
  • That cafeteria is so kēngdiē! I paid 7 yuan and only got a little plate of food.

Supposedly, it came from some Japanese cartoon but I’m not sure about the details.

I also asked my students if it was considered to be profanity (cūkǒu 粗口), and most of them say it’s not.

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My New Book: faceless (novel)

Mon, 11/14/2011 - 22:49

I’m very happy to announce the recent release of my first novel: a techno-thriller called faceless.

It’s not about learning Chinese. But it does have some Chinese in it. And, without giving anything away, I would like to say that any reader who knows Chinese will appreciate at least one little joke more than readers who don’t know Chinese. If that’s not a reason to read a whole book, I don’t know what is!

If you’d like to see some sample chapters and/or the back cover text, they are available at the companion website.

This blog will get back to Chinese-learning tips soon (within the year).

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Linguistic Laughingstock-a-phobia

Sat, 11/05/2011 - 00:53

WARNING: This post contains explicit content because the Chinese language contains explicit content and we sometimes say it without meaning to.

Fear of getting laughed at (not with) is a common affective problem for language learners. While there’s no escaping it in any language, there are a few reasons why Chinese is especially nerve-wracking to learn.

1. Getting the Tone Wrong

I still remember my first traumatic experience in this realm. It was a coldish day in winter during my first few months in China. I was teaching a class of 40 students and asked a girl, in Chinese, if she had a pen…or so I thought.

I meant to say:

The whole class erupted into laughter and the girl’s face turned bright red. I knew something was wrong, but no one would tell me what. It wasn’t until some time later that I guessed I’d actually said:

Now people. Seriously. Getting three 3rd tones in a row right is hard under any circumstances. Not to mention the fact that I’d only been in China a matter of months. Also, considering the tone wars that inevitably go on in non-Chinese speakers’ heads, I’m sure I emphasized “pen” like I would have in English (which probably is what lead to my saying the first tone).

Needless to say, I’ve never really recovered from that. When talking about pens now, I always add the measure word (zhī ) and I just refuse to use the word bī , meaning “to force” (I always use qiǎngpò 强迫). And that’s just one of many examples.

A new teacher who just arrived in China told me yesterday he’s terrified of ordering boiled dumplings (shuǐ jiǎo 水饺) because he was told he’s been saying “sleep” (shuì jiào 睡觉). Even though context should help him out, he’s still shaken up.

2. Getting the Tone Right

Because of the huge number of homonyms in Chinese, even when I get the tone right, I’m laughed at by some immature people (remember I work with college students) who want to mock me or someone else.

For example, one of my student’s name is chún (“pure”). But even when I say it right (by now I can tell if I’ve nailed the tone), I hear giggles ripple through the class as her classmates say chǔn (“stupid”) to each other.

I’ve also got several students named xiǎo zhū 小珠 (“little pearl”). Inevitably, I’ll hear giggles as the students repeat exactly what I said (tones and all) but simply think of xiǎo zhū 小猪 (“little pig”).

There’s nothing I can do about these. It’s not like when a student of English mispronounces “six o’clock” and it comes out “sex o’clock.” That would no doubt get a few giggles in an American college class too. The problem is when I say it exactly right and it still causes laughter. It’s just the nature of the language.

3. Switcheroo Words

Because of my mild dyslexia, I live on constant fear of “briefcase,” “honey,” and “marriage.” I’ve already written briefly about these and advised us to try to enjoy the silliness of our mistakes. Once they happen, that’s absolutely the best approach. But the fear of making them again can be very detrimental to the learning process.

4. Double Entendres (aka Chinese people get laughed at too)

This past week, two things happened that have encouraged me in my laughingstock-a-phobia.

Story 1

A Chinese student of mine went into the cafeteria and told the worker she wanted some rice. She said simply:

  • yào fàn 要饭 = I want rice

She said the other Chinese students who heard her burst into laughter because that also means “to beg.” I asked her how she felt at that time. “Embarrassed,” she told me with a serious face. She was not relating this story to show how funny it had been but rather how bad it had made her feel. I sympathized with her. Just to remind you: she’s a native speaker of Chinese. But because the characters “want rice” also mean “to beg,” she was not allowed to ask for rice in that way without receiving ridicule from her peers.

Story 2

On Monday night I was the only foreigner in a little gathering of Chinese students and teachers. One boy shared some advice his mother had given him. A 60-year-old Chinese lady wanted to say she really like the advice of his mother. She said:

And was interrupted by uproarious laughter. She immediately realized what had happened and put her hand to her mouth and started laughing too.

Because tā mā 他妈 and tā mā de 他妈的 are curse words in Chinese, she was not allowed to use perfectly good grammar and vocabulary to say what she wanted to say. Instead, she amended her sentence to be:

Amazing how that extra syllable is the difference between laughter and an otherwise serious discussion.

Story 3

Oh I just can’t help myself! I’m on a roll.

In my first year in China, a student told me he’d gone to get some photos developed and the worker wanted to ask him if he wanted them in a kind of cardboard carrying thing to protect them. The worker said:

Being the kind of guy my student was, he started laughing and said:

The worker was embarrassed because she had actually said “condom” (ānquán tào 安全套) even though she hadn’t meant it that way.


Learning Chinese is scary. You never know when you might say something wrong. The more pitfalls we can know about ahead of time the better we’ll be at avoiding them. But even native speakers can’t avoid all of them.

Any other examples are welcome in the comments section.

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The Future for Chinese/English Dictionaries

Sun, 10/30/2011 - 09:41

RIDICULOUSLY LONG ARTICLE AHEAD: I’ve had this stuff in mind for about 6 years and I finally just needed to get it off my chest. I don’t imagine future posts will ever be as long as this.

For a printer-friendly version in MS Word, click here:

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

 The Future of Chinese/English Dictionaries

Albert Wolfe, October 2011


This blog is usually for us “Old Hundred Names” (common folk) learning Chinese, but this article is different because I’m appealing for help and trying to cast a vision for the future. Unlike my usual posts that have something immediately applicable for learners of Chinese, this article is one step removed and talks about a gap in the materials, something we learners of Chinese need but can’t get for ourselves: a complete and useful Chinese-English/English-Chinese (C/E) dictionary.

In this article I’m going to describe the ideal “Super Dictionary” of the future in hopes that people who can bring it about (which includes us Old Hundred Names, as you’ll see) can make it so.

This article is inspired by:

  • Six years of frustration with the currently available C/E dictionaries.
  • MDBG: the closest thing I’ve seen to the community project required to solve the problem.
  • The Longman English Dictionary: a model for the sort of information a foreign language learner needs in a dictionary.
  • The advent of CreateSpace: high-quality, super cheap, print-on-demand self publishing.
  • Skills 4, 9, and especially 10 from The Institute for the Future’s “Future Work Skills 2020 (pdf)” report.


The Problems

Not Complete

Missing Entries and Definitions (E→C)

Missing Entries and Definitions (C→E)

Missing corresponding words (C↔E)

Not Useful

E→C: Can’t find the word everyone uses

E→C: Too Many Choices (and Different Dictionaries Don’t Agree)

C→E: Too Many Definitions

The Problem of Pages

The Solutions

What We Need

How We Can Get It



The Problems

We learners of Chinese turn to dictionaries to answer the following two questions:

  1. What does  (Chinese word)  mean in English?
  2. How do you say  (English word)  in Chinese?

Problems trying to find the answer to question number one, going from Chinese to English (C→E), are less common than problems with question number two. But there are still a disturbing number of times when the dictionaries we consult aren’t complete enough to give either the appropriate definition of a Chinese word or the word itself. There are also some English words that do not appear as headwords in the dictionaries, making an E→C search frustrating.

The majority of our problems with C/E dictionaries come from trying to answer question number two, going from English to Chinese (E→C). We cannot trust that the Chinese definitions given in our dictionaries are the appropriate ones to use. Furthermore, cross-checking multiple dictionaries often yields different words rather than confirmation of certain words. So we are at best insecure about our word choices and at worst secure but wrong. We need a more complete and more useful dictionary.

Not Complete Missing Entries and Definitions (E→C)
  • Common words and phrases. “Velcro” and “grade on a curve” are missing from every dictionary I’ve ever seen. (Velcro has been added to MDBG but I still don’t know how to say “grade on a curve”, and I’m even required to do it at my college here inChina. They just explain it in terms of the number of As, Bs, etc. I’m allowed to give.)
  • Special / technical terms. For example, medical terms seem to be getting slowly added to the online dictionaries. I needed a new Albuterol inhaler and had to figure out how to say it without the aid of a dictionary. (Here’s the story of how I found out and then added it to MDBG).
Missing Entries and Definitions (C→E)
  • Common words or definitions. “Yàobù” 要不 can mean: “How about (we do something)…?” That particular meaning doesn’t appear in any of my paper dictionaries and only appears in sentence examples at Nciku but not in the definitions. (It has since been added to MDBG.)
  • Proverbs / idioms. One of my English student asked me how to say “yīn ài chéng hèn 因爱成恨” in English (so we know it’s commonly known and used, not just some ancient literary phrase). I didn’t know so we looked it up. None of the online dictionaries nor my paper dictionaries including a specialty proverbs/idioms dictionary had it, yet it got over 2 million hits on Google. (I’ve since added it to MDBG.)
  • New slang. Of course, every language is evolving. That’s why adding new slang like “gěilì” 给力 is essential for us to keep up with the modern usage of Chinese.
Missing corresponding words (C↔E)

Paper dictionaries have a special problem that online dictionaries don’t have to deal with because of the nature of online searches.

I’m going to pick on the Oxford Minidictionary (affectionately know as “Chubby“) for a moment. Here’s the entry under “shower in the E→C side:

“n (for washing) línyù 淋浴; a shower yí gè línyù 一个淋浴;to have a shower xǐ línyù 洗淋浴(rain)…”

And then it moves on to rain, which we’re not interested in right now.

Now the problem is that in the C→E side you can find this entry:

洗澡 xǐzǎo vb to have a bath/shower”

So, why isn’t “洗澡 xǐzǎo” listed in the E→C side? It’s an oversight, that’s all. This is just one of many examples of inconsistent internal cross-references that occur in every paper C/E dictionary I’ve ever used (see another example).

Not Useful

Even though incomplete dictionaries are frustrating because we can’t find a word we’re looking for, the problem of usefulness is much more urgent. When we want to find how to say an English word in Chinese, even if the dictionary contains an entry for the English and Chinese, we cannot trust that the word we get is the right one.

E→C: Can’t find the word everyone uses The Problem of “Shower”

First of all, “xǐ zǎo” 洗澡 is definitely the most-used word for “to take a shower / to bathe” all over the country. I can even remember a joke (one of the few I understood) from the Spring Festival Variety Show (春节晚会) a few years ago when one of the actors used it. There are other ways to say it, and the noun and verb form are different (as confirmed anecdotally by this post), but I’m convinced that “xǐ zǎo” 洗澡 is the word to use.

So we need that to be indicated in the dictionaries. Remember, the chubby little Oxford Minidictionary only gives “xǐ línyù” 洗淋浴and I’ve never heard that used once. My shower post on this blog confirms that xǐ zǎo” 洗澡 is missing from other dictionaries. Yet it is the word everyone seems to use for something they do every day. That makes the dictionaries useless for answering the question, “How should I say ‘shower’ in Chinese?” And there are many other examples just like “shower.”

The Problem of “Go”

My friend Brad asked me a question his first month inChinathat perfectly illustrates another aspect of the learner-unfriendliness of our dictionaries.

“Hey, how do you say ‘go’? You know like, ‘I’m going now.’”

I explained “go” in English can be translated into many different words in Chinese, but in this situation “zǒu” is the best.

He couldn’t find the answer himself in the dictionaries. I checked the two little dictionaries I always recommend, “Chubby” and “Lenny” (the little Langenscheidt), and neither helped.

Lenny gives “qù” first (which would be used in “I’m going to China”). Next is “líkāi” 离开 which would work for Brad’s example, but isn’t as common as “zǒu” , which appeared halfway down the list under “I must be ~ing”. The translation is good: “wǒ děi zǒu le” 我得走了. But there is nothing to indicate which of the four words is “go.”

Chubby gives almost a full two pages to “go” and various collocations of the word, arranged in alphabetical order rather than by usefulness or frequency. First is “go across” chuānguò 穿过 and then “go after” (physically) zhuī . “Zǒu” makes a few appearances, but is buried among such nuggets as “go off (when talking about food becoming bad)” biànzhì 变质.

Online dictionaries don’t help much either. A search at MDBG for “go” gives 100 results (on the first page). “Qù” is number 9 and “zǒu” is number 15. A search at nciku shows first (no pinyin until you hover your mouse) and then “zǒu” after about 20 other entries.

Poor Brad. He was deluged with information and the dictionaries gave him no guidance as to what information is more or less important. The dictionaries need to be sorted for learners in terms of usefulness rather than just alphabetically. Since they aren’t, he really couldn’t find the word he needed without asking for help.

E→C: Too Many Choices (and Different Dictionaries Don’t Agree) The Problem of “Spoon”

Finding out how to say “spoon” is hard too. Just to clarify, this is not a Western invention that is rare in Chinese restaurants (like the fork). I’m not demanding the Chinese come up and agree on a word for a strange foreign object. I’m talking about the sort of spoon that every single restaurant inChinabrings every customer automatically with soup or fried rice, and has been doing so for centuries.

Let me show you the entries for “spoon” in the various dictionaries I’ve got lying around:

The little “zi” and “r” endings may not be as important as the other differences. But still, how should I, a learner of Chinese, go ask the waitress to bring me a second spoon at the restaurant tonight? And what’s the difference between all of the choices? Are some more “correct” than others? Judging from the comments, the differences seem to be largely regional. So which word is most likely to be understood no matter where I go inChina? These are questions that I can’t find the answers to.

The Problem of “Bus”

Sometimes, the differences between the words are more about usage than region. Take “bus” for example. I’ve heard all the following words used for “bus” in the same general area:

The word you choose depends on the situation you’re talking about. For example, “bus station” uses qìchē 汽车 but “city bus” is usually gōngjiāo chē公交车. To be truly useful, the dictionaries need to explain the usage differences and give example phrases or sentences to illustrate the differences.

C→E: Too Many Definitions

Especially in online dictionaries, where no editing choices need to be made to save pages, there are often just too many definitions for a single Chinese headword. As a result, the guys at Skritter have started trimming down MDBG’s CC-CEDICT database, which Skritter uses for their excellent writing training site. They’ve ended up creating their own version of the MDBG dictionary—one that they feel is more useful to learners.

For example, here is MDBG’s definition for “jiǎ” :

jiǎ : first of the ten heavenly stems 十天干[shi2 tian1 gan1] / (used for an unspecified person or thing) / first (in a list, as a party to a contract etc) / armor plating / shell or carapace / (of the fingers or toes) nail / bladed leather or metal armor (old) / ranking system used in the Imperial examinations (old) / civil administration unit (old)

And here’s Skritter’s definition:

jiǎ : one; armor (1st Heavenly Stem)

For beginners, I think Skritter’s is much more useful. I would suggest adding “nail (finger or toe)” to Skritter’s as well. But the point is: Skritter has helped the learner sort through the huge volume of information by simply removing what they feel is less important.

Just to give MDBG a break, the goal of MDBG and the CC-CEDICT database behind it is to provide a one way, Chinese-English translation tool that provides the most complete English definition list possible (including all the ancient meanings). But for learners of Chinese, it’s not as useful as we’d like.

There is a solution that can meet both goals: weight the definitions for usefulness rather than removing them. I’ll explain how in the next section.

But sometimes the definitions are so out of date they’re laughable and need to be edited rather than just weighted. For example, compare the following:

(MDBG) tāo tāo bù jué 滔滔不绝: unceasing torrent (idiom) / talking non-stop / gabbling forty to the dozen


(Skritter) tāo tāo bù jué 滔滔不绝: (saying) talking non-stop; gushing; torrential

I think it’s obvious that the Skritter dictionary’s definitions are more appropriate for this century. In this case I would recommend changing the MDBG definitions rather than just weighting them.

The Problem of Pages

It would be impractical to include every Chinese and English word in a printed dictionary (see what happened when a UK student printed some of Wikipedia). Editors have to be selective. But before that selection can happen, all the data and definitions need to be compiled.

I understand that printers of dictionaries such as my old favorite the Oxford Minidictionary have to pick and choose what to add. But I have the distinct feeling that those choices are not made very scientifically. For example, consider this entry that made it into the 633 pages of the little dictionary:

showjumping n qímá yuè zhàng yùndòng 骑马越障运动

And yet headwords such as “similar” are missing.

How are the decisions made about what to include in paper dictionaries? Could it be that one of the editors, Boping Yuan or Sally Church, was interested in showjumping? I’m interested in a more scientific approach involving sorting huge amounts of data for frequency, popularity, and usefulness to inform the choices of what to include or not.

To do that, we need to make the core database for the Super Dictionary an online resource. Online dictionaries have the advantage of virtually limitless space that anyone on the planet can access at any time. At the time of this writing, there is still no single database that contains all known words and phrases.

Of course, there’s no way to ever have a 100% complete Chinese-English dictionary because of the nature of language change. There will always be new slang and new terms coming out. But we haven’t even got the old ones all compiled into one place yet.

Once the Super Dictionary is reasonably complete, the task becomes sorting and arranging the information and definitions into the most useful, learner-friendly format possible. Then various printed books can be produced if there’s interest.

So how can we 1) get that information, 2) arrange it in order of usefulness? I’ve got a few ideas.

The Solutions


  • I’m a horrible business man. (As proof: there are no advertisements on this blog and I give all my music away for free.) I don’t have any plan for how I, personally (nor anyone else, for that matter), can make money off the community project described below. I don’t claim any ownership of the ideas, data, information structure, or processes described below. All I care about it getting the information to the masses (and going on record as being the one to propose this project). If I can participate in the project in some way, I’d be delighted.
  • I’m a volunteer editor for the MDBG dictionary (although I’ve been pretty uninvolved recently).
  • I’ve recently published a book with CreateSpace at my own expense (coming out soon).
  • I have no other affiliations with any of the other individuals or companies mentioned below. None of the individuals or companies mentioned (including MDBG and CreateSpace) have agreed to participate in a project like the one described below, nor have any individuals or companies expressed any approval or endorsement of the ideas presented in this article. They are simply cited as examples of popular online services that could be included in a community project in the future if they agreed to do so.
What We Need

Look at all the info the Longman Dictionary give English learners who look up “drink”.

There are more definitions and sentence examples that I cropped off.

This serves as an excellent model of a very useful learner’s dictionary. We need something equally useful for our Chinese/English Super Dictionary.

1. Pronunciation

We need pinyin (and variations for the pinyin) for every word and sentence example. Many dictionaries neglect the pinyin for sentence examples. I’ve never quite been able to figure out why they give pinyin for the headword, but leave it out for the usage examples.

2. Part of Speech

“Chinese words don’t have parts of speech” is a common myth. Sure, some words function as verbs, nouns, and adjectives, but that’s true in English as well. And sometimes there is a clear difference in Chinese. For example, “héshì” 合适 (meaning “suitable”) usually functions as an adjective and “shìhé” 适合 (meaning “to be suitable for”) as a verb.

Chinese parts of speech may not directly correspond to English ones but we need them labeled anyway. For example, Chinese particles like “le” 了,”ba” 吧,”ne” , etc. don’t have English equivalents. But we still need them indicated as “particle” (or something) in the dictionary.

Adsotrans seems to have the most data about parts of speech at the moment, but it still needs work and could benefit from a team of users and editors constantly improving it in the way I’m suggesting. For example, at the time of this writing the two entries for “jiǎ” (meaning “1st, finger nail,” etc.) list the parts of speech as “NOUN” and “HEAVENLY,” respectively.

3. Extra Info about Part of Speech

Learners of English need to know if a verb is transitive or intransitive, how the verb is conjugated into different tenses, and whether a noun is countable or uncountable. Learners of Chinese need to know, for example, what measure words are associated with which nouns, and which category a verb falls into (“stative, activity, achievement” are the three categories given by Claudia Ross).

4. Frequency Data

The Longman entry for “Bicycle” has this icon  meaning it’s in the top 3000 written words yet “bike” has this icon  indicating it is in the top 2000 spoken words. So English learners can assume that “bike” is less formal and “bicycle” is more formal. Now the decision of which synonym to use in which context has been made easier: use “bike” when talking to your friends and use “bicycle” when writing a business contract or even a note.

Something like that would certainly help us sort through the ocean of synonyms in Chinese.

5. Sentence Examples

The Longman sentence examples are all extremely practical and useful. Compare them to the sentence examples given for “hē” (drink) at JuKuu and nciku. My favorites from the first few entries are:

7. He is fond of a dram. 他喜欢喝一点酒。(Jukuu)

1. We can’t solve these problems through arranging dinners and parties.  这些问题不是靠吃吃喝喝就能解决的。(nciku)

Not only do these example fail to use the word “drink,” notice that pinyin is not given at JuKuu and is only available on mouse hover at nciku (see number 1 in this section).

There is a new community project called tatoeba that links sentence examples from a bunch of languages together. They seem to be much more on the right track. The first three sentence examples from this search for “drink” give excellent usages of the word “hē” and provide pinyin and hanzi.

6. Other Info (not pictured)

In addition to the examples in the above image from Longman, we learners of Chinese need the following information in our Super Dictionary:

  • Regional differences in usage and pronunciation (蜗牛 wōniú / guāniú [taiwan] = snail).
  • Category and meta tags (chuānghu 窗户 = window [building, vehicle]; chēchuāng 车窗 = window [vehicle]; shìchuāng 视窗 = Windows [computer operating system]).
  • Formality tags (qīzi 妻子 = wife [formal]; lǎopó 老婆 = wife [informal]).
  • Traditional / Simplified variants for characters (中国 [simplified] / 中國 [traditional]).
  • R-hua (érhuà) 儿化 variants and whether that changes the meaning (tóu = head / hair; tóur 头儿 = leader).
  • HSK levels and TOP levels for learners who are preparing for those tests.
  • Literal breakdown of hanzi (fēijī 飞机 = airplane [fly machine].
  • Radical breakdown of characters ( = + ) and what each radical means (if anything).

MDBG and nciku have many of those things. But regional differences, frequency (or even popularity) ratings, and all the parts of speech and category meta tags are still either completely absent or incomplete.

It’s too much to ask anyone individual, or even company to do all this work. That’s why I propose a system of uniting everyone together to collect and constantly improve on the data we all need.

How We Can Get It

Because of the complexity of the project I’m envisioning, I’ve created a little diagram to use as a guide for discussing the various points.

1. Users register for Super Dictionary

Currently, the main online dictionaries don’t require registration for use. I think that’s fine. But there should be an opt-in system for allowing users to help improve the dictionary. As long as users understand the reasoning behind the registration and have assurances that private data will be protected, I think people would be willing to pitch in to improve the world of Chinese learning.

NOTE: This diagram is only showing what Chinese learners would do. But getting native Chinese speakers (learners of English) involved is essential too. Maybe each user’s first language (and region) should be part of the registration process to round out the data. I haven’t thought that all through yet.

2. They are associated with a region

The regions on the map (image credit) are simply an example. Rather than choose pre-determined regions and ask users to “pick the kind of Chinese you want to learn,” I think it would be better for users to agree to say where they are learning Chinese and then let the computer extrapolate regions from the data later. For example, if users say which cities they’re in, the computer can then look for patterns and see which cities (and then larger regions) use which words.

Also, for users who are not in a Chinese-speaking environment, they should indicate which area they are most likely more exposed to. For example, if my wife were fromBeijing, I’d list my region as “Beijing” even though I might be living inDenmark. If my Chinese teacher atCaliforniaUniversityis fromGuangzhou, I’d put “Guangzhou” as my region.

It wouldn’t be completely useful all the time, but the important thing would be to start collecting the information and then let the computer start looking for patterns.

3. Their usage data goes into to the database

Raw Popularity Weighting

The system should watch search queries and the user won’t have to do anything different for the computer to start learning. For example, I’m in Guangzhou and I search the dictionary for “pāituō” 拍拖. The computer should remember that someone searched for “pāituō” 拍拖 and also that the person was in Guangzhou.

Then, the user can help even more. When I see the results for “pāituō” 拍拖, I realize that the context that I heard it in was “to court” or “to date”. So I can click a little link on that definition that tells the computer: “This is the meaning I heard for that word.” So the computer can start to figure out that “to court” is a popular definition for “pāituō” 拍拖.

This could also help show where new phrases start from. For example, I’ve heard that “pāituō” 拍拖 is being used more and more all over the country. A system of regional tracking could corroborate the hypothesis that it originated in Cantonese-speakingGuangdongprovince.

Spoken vs. Written Popularity

It can go one step further by offering two icons, let’s say an ear   and an eye . Now, if I heard “pāituō” 拍拖 in a spoken context (if it came up in conversation, for example), I click the ear icon above “to date”. So the computer learns that it should give that definition more of an oral weighting.

Conversely, when I look up “sell” in English, the computer makes note that “sell” has been searched for. Then I see the definitions and click the ear for “mài” and the eye for “shòu” . That means that “mài” is used more for oral Chinese and “shòu” is more for written Chinese.

Of course, many times, especially when going from English to Chinese, users won’t know which word is used in more spoken or written contexts. That’s fine. You don’t have to click anything.

Missing Entries

If a user searches for something that’s not in the dictionary (for example “velcro” or “gěilì” 给力), the computer will show “no results found” but should send a note to the experts so they can determine whether it should be added or not. According to this, nciku already has some of this sort of system in place but not as sophisticated as the one I’m proposing.

4. Experts add data common users can’t

Finding the experts will be the biggest problem. I think academic institutions and volunteers could be enlisted, but that’s its own issue.

Assuming for a moment there is a team of experts, they will serve mainly to correct and enhance the data that are coming from all the common users. The experts could be associated with a region as well to monitor how geography affects their decisions.

They would be able to add (or approve) tags to entries regarding any of the following:

  • Written variations (traditional / simplified, alternative characters, etc.)
  • Spoken variations (zhè / zhèi for ; wōniú / guāniú for 蜗牛)
  • Formal / informal register tags (qīzi 妻子 [formal]; lǎopó 老婆 [informal])
  • Part of speech tags (héshì 合适 [adjective] ; shìhé 适合 [verb])
  • Sentence examples that are useful, common, and not too long.

BONUS: Corpus Data

What we really need is some objective data for written and spoken frequency. Longman put together their own corpus to get frequency data.

Frequency of single Chinese characters (zì ) in written material (like newspapers) has been done for a long time (at least since 1993). But we at least need research on the top 1000, 2000, 3000 multi-character words (cí ) both spoken and written.

I’ve recently become aware of Jun Da’s corpus data that does take into account multi-character words. Perhaps if someone like Professor Hongyin Tao at UCLA or Dr. Richard Xiao at the University of Central Lancaster could be persuaded to join the team. Xiao compiled The Lancaster Los Angeles Spoken Chinese Corpus (LLSCC), a collection of natural and scripted Chinese conversations and transcripts. Professor Tao was also heading up work on the UCLA Chinese Corpus. Work on both projects seems to have stopped in 2008. However, in 2009 Xiao and a few other editors published a Chinese dictionary with frequency data! I haven’t seen it myself, but according to the reviews on Amazon, it’s not as useful as it could have been (for example, it’s missing pinyin for sentence examples). But it’s a step in the right direction.

If Xiao’s, Tao’s and Jun Da’s data were combined (just to name a few) we could have a huge, useful bank of info that could provide guidance to the users of the Super Dictionary. Would they allow that? What’s in it for them to team up? I’m not sure what their goals are so I can’t answer that.

Also, the challenge of getting a spoken corpus will be great. I think QQ chat transcripts might be useful for that, but who’s going to opt in for sharing those?

5. Online / Mobile Services Use the Database

The Skritter guys had to do a lot of work trimming down the dictionary because the MDBG database they imported wasn’t exactly what they wanted. Now, if I want to start my own website I have to “reinvent the wheel” and start from scratch. Why not let the work that the Skritter guys have done benefit everyone in the future as well? If they’re willing to make their data available, they could provide weighting information (rather than removing things that someone might want to add back in later) so that the Super Dictionary is smarter about which definitions are more useful or important to them.

But it’s not just for services who’ve created their own dictionary (like Skritter has) to contribute back to the Super Dictionary. Let’s take Pleco and their iPhone dictionary as an example. The newest version of Pleco allows you to point your iPhone’s camera at any hanzi text and it’ll translate it for you (see cool video demo). So how about letting the Pleco users opt in to send that info back to the Super Dictionary? Then we’d start to see data about how many users scanned which characters and we’d start to know that those characters are at least in common use.

The Super Dictionary database would also benefit from knowing that there are 2,000 Skritter users who have such-and-such character in their vocab list, but only 20 users who have this other character.

It would need to be determined exactly how to use the data, but it could only help.

I just had a conversation with Ben Whately, co-founder of Memrise, and he said he was getting ready to import a dictionary database because they have more important things to focus their energy on than making a dictionary (they’re compiling some very exciting data that I hope to discuss in a future post). The problem he’s facing is whether to use Adsotrans (which is maintained by David Lancashire of Popup Chinese) or MDBG/CC-CEDICT. I told him I didn’t really think either was good enough on its own.

What he really needs is the Super Dictionary that includes both plus all the work that the Skritter guys and other people have done. And wouldn’t it be great if Popup Chinese also shared the data about which words they used in their learning materials? They wouldn’t have to make the learning materials public, just the data.

But would companies see that as helping their competitors? I don’t know. My hope is that if the Super Dictionary were available for free, and everyone were contributing to making it better and better, it would make new companies focus on offering new services and new tools rather than making their own dictionaries. Instead of a lot of different wheels being invented, we’d start to see a lot of new vehicles (and maybe some toys!) using the same wheels.

6. Paper Books Can Be Printed

CreateSpace has the following characteristics that make self-publishing a paper dictionary extremely desirable:

  • Very high quality printing and many paperback book size options available.
  • All you have to do is upload a PDF and they make the book. You buy the first book (called a proof) for about $5-7 dollars and then the book is available on Amazon for the world.
  • It’s completely free for the author to set up a book. Various add-on options are available for a price, but CreateSpace make their money each time the book sells rather than when it’s set up. Even the ISBN is provided free by CreateSpace. You only pay for the book itself when it’s printed.
  • It takes about one week from the time you upload the PDF to the time the book is ready to print. That means if you want to update the book, you upload a new PDF and a week later, the new version of the book is ready. You can do that as many times as you want.
  • The book goes directly on to Amazon so that others can benefit from it as well. You set the price of the book (above a certain minimum price based on the cost of production). CreateSpace prints and ships the book within 24 hours of an order made on Amazon.
  • An infinite number of dictionaries with various options can be printed as long as there’s a PDF for each one.

That means that as long as there’s something built into the Super Dictionary that allows users to select various options and output a PDF, the information doesn’t have to stay locked into an online format. The options could include the following:

Total Words

You would be able to choose how many headwords you want in the book. You would also be able to choose how many definitions you want for each word. For example, if you just want a little travel dictionary, you might go with only the most frequently used and popular words and definitions. In this case you’d have the definition for “jiǎ” be only “one; armor; nail (finger or toe)”. But if you’re going to be doing some sort of scholarly project, you might want the full list of definitions.


You could also produce a special dictionary for certain regions. In other words, if you’re going toTaiwan, you could have it just use the words that are commonly spoken inTaiwan. It would save on pages and then you’d be reasonably certain that you’ll be able to say what you want to say for your area. You could also choose to have traditional characters, simplified, or both.

Sentence Examples

If you want to save more pages, you could opt out of having sentence examples included. If you did want some, you could choose how many sentences examples to include and only use ones that have been marked as popular or useful.


If you’re a learner of Chinese, you’d want to have pinyin for everything (including sentence examples). But you could choose to have the Chinese side ordered by hanzi or pinyin (most dictionaries order by hanzi but that’s not necessarily the easiest thing for learners).

If you’re a learner of English, you might want to save pages by eliminating pinyin entirely. But you might appreciate English IPA included. That could be one of the options.


I’m not aware of anything like the proposed system for the Super Dictionary.

Just to summarize, I think the innovations with this system would be:

  • Combining dictionary data from competing, or at least separate, companies into one master database.
  • Adding regional data based on user location.
  • Weighting headwords and definitions for popularity based on user searches and direct “thumbs up” style voting.
  • Infinite, customizable print dictionaries created from the data.

Wikipedia is a good example of the power of collaboration, but there’s nothing built in to allow third-parties to use and then contribute data back into the database. They’ve got the support of their own foundation (the Wikimedia Foundation), which we don’t have. Also, Wikipedia offers printed books through a company (PediPress) that handles all the printing details. We don’t have anyone like that helping us either. But we don’t really need it because CreateSpace is so easy to use anyone can make a book! However, there are a few issues to solve before this can all come to be.


Who would “own” the Super Dictionary? There are “copy-left” licenses that could be applied, but decisions will have to be made, and some thought needs to be given to the legal side of this project. Also, participating users and companies will need to know what their rights are.


The sort of project will require a team of very smart people who are good at not just programming, website design, and user interface but also data management, statistical theory, and also have some savvy about China and the Chinese language. I can’t do it. I’m not sure any one person can. And even if we found one person who could do it all, would he or she work on it for free?


Even if we found a team of talented, motivated people who would volunteer their time for this project, the server and bandwidth still costs money.

Nicholas Carr, former executive editor of The Harvard Business Review, said in an NPR interview about Wikipedia and user-created web content said: “Pretty much the only business model in what’s called ‘web 2.0′ is to get as many people as possible to look at your site and then feed them advertisements.” Carr seems to be saying the future of making money off information, isn’t by owning the information itself, but by advertising revenue. I’m not sure whether that would be enough or not.

An academic institution or foundation that just has a bunch of money lying around would be a great solution to the problem. Anyone know someone like that?

I would hate to see collaboration with other companies discouraged because of licensing disputes or making the partner companies shoulder the financial burden of the project. If some companies were willing to chip in and it didn’t discourage their participation, then that would be fine. But I think some thought needs to be given to the bottom line.


The success of the project depends largely on how many partnering companies can be brought together to share their vocabulary usage data (point number 5 on the diagram). All businesses must ask the question “But what’s in it for me?” I’m not sure my answers are good enough for the bottom line: the quality of your product will improve as the database improves. Also, it might be good press for participating companies. I’d love to see some sort of logo that gets slapped on each participating website that shows they’re using and contributing to the Super Dictionary database. If users were educated about what it meant, it would mean the customers would have more confidence in joining a service that’s participating rather than one that’s independent.

But should all companies who want to participate be allowed? Who’s going to screen them? How will their data be used / weighted? These are all problems to solve.


If the Super Dictionary does lead to a print book (or many print books) as I hope it will, how will that come to be? How will the PDFs required to print the books be generated? Where will the revenue from the printed books go?


There’s no reason why only English should be used for the Super Dictionary. But making a Chinese-multilingual dictionary is a much bigger project than just Chinese English. Still, with the right talent on board, it might make more sense to design it to accommodate other languages from the beginning so even if it starts out as only Chinese/English, it could be expanded to Chinese/you-name-it more easily.


So what to do now? Any suggestions? You’re welcome to leave comments here on this blog. Or someone could start a Google Group or something. I’ll help if I can.

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Gaps in Current Chinese Teaching Materials and Methods

Fri, 09/16/2011 - 09:53

Chinese is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn (see How Hard Is Chinese to Learn, Really?).

But it’s made harder by a lack of good materials and inefficient teaching methods.

The Problem

Contrast studying Chinese with, say, Spanish. There are endless dictionaries, flashcard sets, verb charts, grammar explanations, pronunciation guides, audio recordings, etc. for the motivated learner to use. Indeed, with Spanish the problem is having too many materials to choose from. Not so with Chinese. Probably because it hasn’t been taught as widely as other languages in the West, the materials are still lacking in almost all the above listed areas.

Also, Spanish teachers don’t face the same problems that Chinese teachers do (specifically tones and hanzi). Chinese teachers are usually native speakers of Chinese who don’t have natural insight into what it’s like for a learner not to know how to deal with tones and hanzi. They don’t remember how they learned tones (as children) and they do remember how they learned hanzi (in elementary school). Neither of those experiences is particularly relevant to an adult learner of Chinese as a foreign language.

This article will briefly outline what I think are the most pressing needs in Chinese materials and teaching methods. I’ll also give a few solutions, but the purpose of this article is simply to shine a light on the problem so that creative and motivated readers can begin to fill the gaps. Or, if solutions already exist, I’ll be thrilled to hear about them!



  • The current English-Chinese / Chinese-English dictionaries I’ve seen lack the completeness and usefulness that learners need. Community projects with free licensing options (like MDBG and its CC-CEDICT) are a great start but still not quite enough. There is so much potential for greatness here, I just won’t be able to resist writing another article soon on exactly what we need and how I imagine we could get it. But it’ll take cooperation and a willingness to sacrifice profit for the simple goal of improving the bank of knowledge available to learners (and I’m not sure how many people will be interested in that kind of approach if it doesn’t necessarily generate revenue).
  • Divergent concepts, countless synonyms, and unknown connotations are just some of the pitfalls we learners face when just trying to answer the simple question “How do you say ___ in Chinese?” I still haven’t seen Using Chinese Synonyms by Grace Qiao Zhang but it might help with some of these questions.
  • There’s also the unique interconnectedness of Chinese vocabulary (as illustrated by the hanzi web). I would love to see someone come out with a whole book of those diagrams (using only useful words). There could be different levels of books depending on the frequency of the words (which is also information we don’t have readily available, although people like Jun Da are taking steps in the right direction).


  • I’d also like to see a “Radical Web” book come out. It would be like the hanzi web but instead of showing which vocabulary words contain the central “hub” character, the hub would be a radical. In other words, once I learn the kǒu radical, what characters can I write with just that one ( kǒu,品 pǐn) and which other characters does that go into? I think I’d better just write a separate post explaining this one too.
  • I myself still have unanswered grammar questions and I’m not sure exactly where to go to get the answers. I’ve heard rumors of a comprehensive grammar resource coming out soon, but I’m not at liberty to divulge any details yet.


  • One of the reasons I wrote Chinese 24/7 (and its 28 pages dedicated only to the tones) was that I felt the available materials didn’t adequately describe what’s going on with the tones (especially in combinations and natural speech).
  • The 3rd Tone seems to be the main issue that needs to be addressed now. It’s clear now (to me and many others) that the 3rd tone should just be called the “low tone”. Here’s a short article about John Pasden’s better tone diagram. Olle Linge recently came to the same conclusion in his thesis for Lund University.
  • A friend of mine has just released an excellent tone drill app for iPhone and iPad. The Laokang ® Tone Test is elegant in its simplicity, and it also assumes 3rd tone = low tone. It’s also the only thing I’ve ever seen that distinguishes between 3+3 combos and 2+3 (I thought they were exactly the same!).

Audio Recordings

Teaching Methods

Full disclosure: I’ve never actually taken a Chinese class. But I’ve talked to a lot of people who have and I’ve noticed a few patterns.


The following list of problems is based on these presuppositions:

  • The tones are the hardest thing for students learning to speak Chinese.
  • Tones should be emphasized from the beginning of a student’s study of Chinese.

I see the following problems with the way tones are taught in most Chinese classes:

  1. Native Chinese teachers still use the traditional tone diagram (that says the 3rd tone is a “v” shape) which I believe is not as useful as the 3rd tone as “low tone” diagram.
  2. Teachers also focus too much on the tones in isolation rather than the much more important combinations.
  3. Teachers expect students to produce the tones before they can even hear the difference between them (especially in combinations). That’s asking too much.
  4. Some teachers try to “skip over” the tones with the assumption that students can “add the tones” later after they’ve had some more experience with the language. I believe this is a little bit like learning to drive an automatic transmission and then trying to “add the stick shift” later. It’s usually better to just get going on the tones from the beginning.

One reason I like the Laokang ® Tone Test is that it addresses the first 3 problems in a single screen.


The following list of problems is based on these presuppositions:

  • Hanzi is extremely time consuming to learn.
  • A knowledge of hanzi is not necessary when learning speaking and listening (pinyin is enough).
  • Hanzi is best learned after a learner has a certain degree of fluency in the language (as the Chinese all had before they started learning hanzi).
  • Hanzi can be learned just as efficiently (or maybe more efficiently) without a teacher through sheer rote memorization.

I see the following problems with the way hanzi is taught in most Chinese classes:

  1. Teachers require students to learn hanzi from the first class. This takes most of the student’s time and energy and yields very slow results. I’ve met people who’ve had a year of formal Chinese classes and still couldn’t communicate with the clerk at the front desk of a hotel. I think the emphasis should be on pinyin, speaking, and listening for at least the first year (maybe two) or until students reach a reasonable level of fluency so their already useful vocabulary need only be linked to the characters rather than trying to learn it all at once.
  2. Teachers don’t teach simple characters first. I’ve talked to students who came away from their first week of Chinese class being able to write 你好 nǐ hǎo in hanzi and explain the little “girl + son = good” legend. But they couldn’t say “nǐ hǎo” with the right tones, nor could they explain what’s going on with a 3+3 tone combination. Those two characters are both kind of complicated. If the student already had a working fluency in the language, there could be a system of teaching the characters based on complexity starting with simple first (一, 人,大,太,etc.) instead of starting with the first thing you want to say in a Chinese class (你好).
  3. Teachers ask students to spend class and homework time copying and memorizing the characters. I don’t need a teacher to ask me to write a character 20 times. I just need to do it myself. Programs like Skritter (go here if it’s blocked in China) provide all the structure necessary for a systematic review of hanzi (including stroke order) without any need for a teacher.
  4. For most of us, reading is more important than writing. Computers and cell phone inputs allow us to choose hanzi from a drop-down list based on pinyin we type. For example:
    So if I don’t need to write anything by hand, I can still write emails, text messages, and even contracts, etc. with a working knowledge of reading and pinyin. Of course this doesn’t produce a “fully literate” student, and students wouldn’t be able to pass hand-written tests like the HSK, but maybe those aren’t part of the student’s goals. If the student’s goals don’t include hand writing, why not give computerized / text message tests? Conversely, if a learner’s goals involve writing, why not organize a separate class for those kinds of learners?

Because of the time-consuming nature of hanzi, teaching Chinese writing should not be treated the same way other foreign language programs (e.g. Spanish) treat writing .

L1 Environment Learners vs. L2 Environment Learners

The following list of problems is based on these presuppositions:

  • Most Chinese teaching is focused on materials (textbooks) rather than the concepts of the language (vocabulary, tones, grammar, etc.)
  • Learning Chinese in a classroom in America (L1 environment) should be different than learning Chinese in a classroom in China (L2 environment).

I see the following problems with the way Chinese is taught in most Chinese classes:

  1. Teachers rely on textbooks too much. I realize that curricula must be planned, syllabuses distributed. But the fact is: a native speaker of Chinese has a brain full of excellent, correct Chinese. That’s all we learners really need access to. Regardless of whether I’m in a Chinese class in America or in China, there are countless real-world situations and objects (i.e. within actual reaching distance of where I’m seated) to drive a class forward. Beginning Chinese class can basically just be the students asking “How do you say ___ in Chinese?” and the teacher modeling correct pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.
  2. Learners in China especially don’t need a text book. The entire class, regardless of level should be organized around the learner’s own experiences (shopping, buying bus tickets, etc.) and materials (a flyer on the ground, a photo of a street sign, etc.). The teacher should just serve as a consultant to answer the student’s questions and correct errors. I realize most programs require the teachers to give grades at the end, and this can be tricky with the sort of consultant, learner-driven class I’m describing. But even a little more focus on learners supplying the materials would be a great start.
  3. Learners outside China might benefit more from a textbook because they probably won’t be “needing” the language in their daily lives like someone in China would.

Those are the main problems I see for now. Anyone see any more? Any solutions to these problems that I don’t know about? Please let me know if I’ve left something out.

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New Song: Chinese Do Re Mi (Dou Rui Mi)

Thu, 08/11/2011 - 23:14

Contrary to what one of my students said,

It’s very fun! I think that it is a good for learning Chinese.

I actually don’t think there’s much pedagogical value to the song (although I did try to use the most common / useful characters I could). But I still thought it might be fun to post here since it does at least include Chinese.

Notes about the Lyrics
  • There are no good “rui” options. I did as well as I could. I considered using Zhao Ruirui (the Olympic volleyball player) at one point, but…nah.
  • The first verse is mainly nouns, the second is mostly verbs.
  • In China (and, I guess, most of the world besides the USA) they actually say “see” (written “si”) for the 7th scale degree instead of “ti” (wiki). I stuck with the original “ti” because it’s a spoof of a Rodgers and Hammerstein song more than a tool for teaching music to Chinese.
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Taiwanese “Panda” = “adnaP”

Mon, 08/08/2011 - 23:54

A friend just came back from Taiwan where he (somehow) met a local bear expert. The man told him:

“On the mainland they call pandas ‘xióng māo’ 熊猫, but here in Taiwan we say ‘māo xióng’ 猫熊.”

Regional differences are common in the Chinese-speaking world (e.g. spoon). But what’s notable about this example is the man’s explanation for why they say “māo xióng” 猫熊 in Taiwan.

He said, “We think the adjective should be first and then the noun second. It’s not a ‘bear cat’. So we call it a ‘cat bear.’”

I’ve often wondered about this little inconsistency in Chinese: sometimes compound words put the noun first (like the mainland word for “panda”), but usually (it seems to me) the noun is second like it would be in English.

For example:

  • yá shuā 牙刷 = toothbrush [tooth brush]
  • xiàn sù 限速 = speed limit [limit speed]

I should clarify: in a language where words can be nouns, verbs, and adjectives all at once, what I’m talking about here is their function. In other words:

  • “It’s a brush. What kind of brush? A tooth brush.”
  • “It’s a speed. What kind of speed? A limit speed.” (seems to break the rule)

And that’s the bear man’s (what kind of man?) point:

  • “It’s a bear. What kind of bear? A cat bear.”

Let’s ignore for a moment what “cat” has to do with pandas, and concede the man his point. But does that mean they also say “speed limit” differently in Taiwan? I would guess not because there is precedent in the language for N + ADJ construction of compound words (even though I’ve stricken through the above red line).

Can anyone:

  • Confirm / deny that “Panda” really is “māo xióng” 猫熊 in Taiwan?
  • Give other examples of either N + ADJ compound words?

The comments section welcomes you.

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Learning Mandarin in Cantonese Land III: Grammar

Fri, 07/29/2011 - 02:17

This is part 3 in a series (part 1 here, part 2 here) about learning Mandarin while living in Guangzhou (Canton).

One challenge to be aware of is grammar, specifically word order.

In Mandarin, the most common way to say “You take a shower first”* is:

xiān xǐzǎo 洗澡 [you first shower]

However, in Cantonese, the word order changes to:

 nǐ xǐzǎo xiān 你洗澡 [you shower first]

*For some reason, this is the example sentence that gets used most often when talking with my students. I suppose since the order of who’s taking a shower is an important issue for students sharing a dorm room.

This also applies to the ubiquitous “taking leave” sentence when you’re leaving someone behind:

Mandarin: wǒ xiān zǒu  [I first go]

Cantonese: wǒ zǒu xiān 我走 [I go first]

The good news is…

Down here in Cantonese Land, people probably won’t care or look at you strangely or think nasty thoughts about your Chinese regardless of which word order you use. The word order is much more flexible since Cantonese speakers are speaking Mandarin as a second (at least) language, and the word order of Cantonese is perfectly acceptable to them in Mandarin.

The bad news is…

An informant who is a native Cantonese speaker might not be as clear on the “rules” of Mandarin grammar. I’ve had native Cantonese speakers tell me that “there are no rules for Chinese word order.” I tried to point out that I thought the following would be unusual for a native Mandarin speaker to say:

UNUSUAL: wǒ fàng bāo zài zhuōzi shàng le. 放包在桌子上了.

COMMON: wǒ bǎ bāo fàng zài zhuōzi shàng le. 把包放在桌子上了.

= I put the bag on the table

They said, “Both are ok!”

Poll the audience

So my questions for all y’alls outside of Guangzhou are:

  1. Do you ever hear “xiān” put at the end of a sentence like in my “shower” and “I go first” examples?
  2. What do you (and your informants) think of the “Both are ok!” statement and the “there are no word order rules in Chinese” statement? Would native speakers in your area be likely to say “wǒ fàng bāo zài zhuōzi shàng le” 我放包在桌子上了?

I’m most interested to hear any feedback in the comments section of this page.

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Learning Mandarin in Cantonese Land II: Vowel Shifts

Mon, 06/06/2011 - 01:15

In addition to the consonant changes listed in the table in my first post, there are some interesting vowel changes that occasionally occur when Cantonese speakers speak Mandarin.

Example 1: “i”

First of all, a little review about now “i” is pronounced in Mandarin (sounds from here):

  • “chi”
  • “ci”
  • “qi”

As mentioned, the Cantonese (and other Southerners) will frequently mix up the first two (“chi” and “ci”). The only difference will be the initial consonant because those two vowels are roughly the same. But on rare occasions I’ve also heard them actually change the vowel (and the initial consonant).

For example, a fruit seller asked me “吃饭了吗?” which should have sounded like:

  • chī fàn le ma?


  • cī fàn le ma?

But actually became:

If you don’t know that’s possible (and even after you DO), it makes it very hard to guess the meaning of what you’re hearing. It’s basically like a fāngyán 方言.

Example 2: “-an” vs. “-ang”

Remember how the “-n” and “-ng” get mixed up in Cantonese land? It can be a big problem for listening comprehension.

The “a” vowel stays roughly the same in words like:

  • chuán = boat
  • chuáng = bed

These I can usually handle. Similar to the confusion that might arise if someone says in English “Do you like to sin at KTV?”, you can probably guess that she just meant “sing.”

When Cantonese speakers make the same “mistake” in Mandarin, you can usually guess from the context which one they meant (but they still giggle even if a Chinese speaker means to ask “When did you two get on the boat?” and actually says “When did you two get into bed?”).

However, for words beginning with “y / q / j / x”, the “a” vowel is actually different depending on whether the ending is “-n” or “-ng”:

  • yán = salt
  • yáng = sheet / goat

I was talking to one student and was totally stumped when she asked me if I had a:

  • bīnxiān

Her classmate (somehow miraculously knew what she meant and) hit her on the arm and said:

If she had just been asking whether I wanted ice in my drink, and she’d said “bīn” instead of “bīng”, I could have figured it out because the words sound the same except for the “-n” or “-ng”. But the kicker was really “xiān” because the vowels are different from “xiāng.”

  • xiān = first
  • xiāng = box

Ironically, the same student, only a few minutes later made the opposite mistake and asked me what kind of “xiàng” I like in my dumplings (it should be “xiàn” ). I still wasn’t ready for it, but there was only one word it could have been.

The amazing thing about the “xian” / “xiang” experience was that they were so clearly phonemic packages in her mind. “If it’s got an ‘-ng’ at the end it must have such-and-such vowel.” Until I heard that, I thought that syllables in the “y / q / j / x” family would be safe from “-n / -ng” changes because I assumed the memory of the correct vowel sound would prevent any confusion. Or, I thought the vowel would stay unchanged even if the speaker failed to produce the “-n / -ng” correctly. How wrong I was!


Although the changes to consonants (listed here) that occur down here are tough to deal wtih, awareness of the options, practice, and some guessing can get me to where I can still understand what’s being said. On the other hand, the meanings of words that have undergone these vowel changes are nearly impossible to guess except in extremely high frequency words (like “have you eaten”).

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New Internet Slang: Gěilì 给力

Sun, 05/29/2011 - 14:03

Through my new two new wēibó-s 微博 (pzAlbert and pzEnglish, NOTE: you have to be a member of sina or weibo to view them) I’ve been exposed to some interesting new language. The most chīxiāng 吃香 of which at the moment seems to be:

  • Gěilì 给力 [give strength]

I’ve asked for usage examples and it seems to mean:

  1. lìhai 厉害 (awesome)
  2. jiāyóu 加油 (in the cheering sense)
  3. hǎo

For example:

  1. tài gěilì a! 你太给力了! = You’re so awesome!
  2. nǐ xiǎng zuò ma? gěilì gěilì! 你想作吗? 给力给力! = You want to do that? Go for it!
  3. 140 zì tài bù gěilì le. 140字太不给力了. = ( only allowing 140 characters per post is so bad.

It’s also morphed into some bizarre Chinglish words:

  • geilivable” or “gelivable” (the latter gets more than twice as many google results even though the former is “correct” pinyin)
  • ungeilivable” or “ungelivable

Apparently, “geilivable” means “incredible” or “excellent.” But “ungeilivable” is bad. According to an article at Beijing Today earlier this month, “geilivable” has even made it into the news.

I’ve also heard “gěilì” and “geilivable” spoken by my students which means it’s not only confined to online communication.

See also this Xinhua article about new internet slang. The only other internet slang from that article that I’ve heard or seen is “niubility” (from niúbī 牛屄), but that doesn’t mean anything. I’m ungeilivably out of touch with the internet slang world.

Anyone else heard this or any other new slang we should know about?

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Parents Hurt Rather Than Love Their Children

Sun, 05/08/2011 - 23:46

In one of my English classes last week, the students wanted to talk about mǔqīn jié 母亲节, so I let them.

After a while, the discussion turned (I turned it) to whether the students had ever said “I love you” to their parents or heard their parents say “I love you” to them. The overwhelming majority said “no” to both. They said that they knew their parents love them because of all the sacrifices they’ve made, but they’ve never heard them say “I love you.”

I said, “But in songs it’s always ‘wǒ ài nǐ 我爱你 this’ and ‘wǒ ài nǐ 我爱你 that’, right?”

They agreed it’s common in songs, and lovers might say that occasionally to each other, but it’s rarely said between parents and children.

Then one student said, “My parents will say ‘wǒ hěn téng nǐ 我很疼你’, but never ‘wǒ hěn ài nǐ 我很爱你’.”

Ok, just to put closure on my cheap, shock-value title, “téng ” really does mean “to love” in addition to being the same character for “hurt” (although, I’m pretty sure it can’t be used transitively for “to hurt” the way I did in the title). What was interesting to me was: when I asked them in English “Do your parents say ‘I love you’”, they (most of them) shook their heads. But later when the student said her parents say ‘wǒ hěn téng nǐ 我很疼你’, they (most of them) agreed with that.

So, questions for the reader(s):

  1. What does that ‘wǒ hěn téng nǐ 我很疼你’ REALLY mean? Is it really just another way of saying “I love you”? If not, what’s the difference?
  2. (For our Chinese reader): How prevalent is this phenomenon? Is it true that parents prefer to use the word “téng ” over “ài ”?

If you’ve got answers or theories, please enlighten us.

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The Quest for Anti-inflammatory

Sat, 04/30/2011 - 01:35

I’ve long since seen the need for better medical definitions in our Chinese/English dictionaries. But my recent quest for a stronger anti-inflammatory drug has made me think there’s a problem that might not be the dictionaries’ fault.

The standard over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and painkiller out here is Fēnbìdé 芬必得 (picture here). The English on the back of the box says “Ibuprofen Sustained Release Capsules” and according to Wikipedia, Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory.

Ok, so I’ve got Ibuprofen. But I want something stronger for a little case of tendinitis. So I go to the pharmacy and ask for what most dictionaries agree is the Chinese for anti-inflammatory drug:

xiāoyán yào 消炎药 [disappear inflammation medicine]

The guy nods knowingly and gives me a box of Cefradine, an antibiotic!

Pharmacists out here aren’t always the most knowledgeable. Maybe the guy just made a mistake. So I go to the local (village) hospital and talk to a doctor.

Here’s the English translation of our conversation (with some select Chinese words to show what was said):

Me: I’m looking for a stronger anti-inflammatory (xiāoyán yào 消炎药).

Doc: (picks up my box of Cefradine) You’ve got it. All we can give you is this.

Me: But that fights bacteria (xìjūn 细菌), right?

Doc: Right.

Me: I don’t need that. I’m looking for something to fight inflammation (yánzhèng 炎症).

Doc: We don’t distinguish between those kinds of medicine.

Me: What?! For example, this box of Fēnbìdé 芬必得 that I’ve brought. What kind of medicine is this?

Doc: That’s just a painkiller (zhǐtòng 止痛).

Me: Ok, you know if I play tennis for a long time, the tendons in my elbow will get inflammed?

Doc: It’s called tennis elbow (wǎngqiú zhǒu 网球肘).

Me: Yes exactly! What kind of medicine would you give me for that?

Doc: (picks up box of Cefradine again) This.

Now, I’m no doctor. But I’m pretty sure antibiotics aren’t going to help with tennis elbow.

I went to another pharmacy and faked a back injury to see what medicine they would give me. I kept asking for the strongest stuff they’ve got (stronger than Fēnbìdé 芬必得, please) and finally ended up with Meloxicam. Now, that actually is an anti-inflammatory.

So why this blog post? I’ve noticed that, perhaps just as we don’t have a concept of shànghuǒ 上火 (which amazes the Chinese), the Chinese don’t really have a concept of what antibiotic and anti-inflammatory drugs really are. The recent news about cracking down of overuse of antibiotics in China usually cites corruption as the main contributing factor. Only one article I found (in my 2-second Google search) talked about the need for better education to correct the problem, and that was public education. But remember it was the doctor himself who said “We (doctors? Chinese?) don’t distinguish between those kinds of medicine.”

From time to time, I’ve asked students or friends what kind of medicine they took for various things (ear infection, etc.). While I’ve heard names of antibiotics like amoxicillin (ā mò xī lín 阿莫西林) thrown around, they’re always called “xiāoyán yào” 消炎药 by the Chinese. I’ve never heard anyone say “kàng shēng sù” 抗生素 or “kàng jūn sù” 抗菌素 or any of the dictionary entries for “antibiotic”. MDBG is the only dictionary I’ve seen that lists “antibiotic” as the definition of “xiāoyán yào” 消炎药 (which, remember, literally breaks down to “disappear inflammation medicine”).

So, please leave a comment if you have any theories as to:

  1. What words I really should use when referring to “antibiotic” or “anti-inflammatory”?
  2. Why doctors and Chinese don’t differentiate between the two (in my opinion) very different kinds of medicine?
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Learning Mandarin in Cantonese Land

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 00:19

“Tiān bú pà, dì bú pà, jiù pà Guǎngdōng rén shuō pǔtōnghuà”

天不怕, 地不怕, 就怕广东人说普通话,

“I’m not afraid of the heavens or the earth, the only thing I’m afraid of is a person from Guangdong speaking Mandarin.”

That’s often the first thing a Chinese person from outside Guangdong Province will tell me when I tell them I’ve learned Mandarin in Guangzhou (in the boonies outside the suburbs of Guangzhou, actually). They’re amazed that I don’t have a Cantonese accent or even a southern accent (more on this in a moment) despite my having learned all my Chinese in the South (Nanchang, Jiangxi Province for 1 year, then Kunming, Yunnan Province for 1 year, and the rest of the time in Guangzhou).

A quick (though advanced!) Google search shows that Sichuanese and others get substituted into that little epigraph. But it seems Guangdongers get picked on most for some reason.

John Pasden once told me he’d be interested in hearing what it’s like learning Mandarin in Cantonese Land. So here’s a basic outline for you, John (although it’s been so long you’ve probably forgotten that we even talked about this), and I hope others find it informative as well.


Listening (Mandarin)

I’ve lived in Guangzhou for a over three years now, and certainly the biggest challenge to learning Mandarin here is listening. Most people around me can speak Mandarin but usually prefer to speak Cantonese (called báihuà 白话 here rather than the more specific yuèyǔ 粤语).

Since Cantonese is most people’s first language (or Kèjiāhuà 客家话 or something else), their Mandarin accent is heavily influenced by their own fāngyán 方言.

Here are some typical pronunciation differences between “standard” Mandarin and the “southern” accents that I’ve been exposed to (including those in Jiangxi, and Yunnan):

Change Hanzi Standard Southern 

(could sound like any of these) English sh = s 十四 shísì sísì 


síshì fourteen ch = c 操场 cāochǎng cāocǎng 


chāocǎng sports field zh = z 组织 zǔzhī zhǔzhī 


zhǔzī organize n = l 辽宁 Liáoníng Liáolíng 

Niáoníng Liaoning Province -n = -ng 欢迎 huānyíng huāngyíng 


huāngyín welcome h = f huā fuā flower

Amazingly, it was just the other day that I bought something I’d never bought before (and therefore didn’t know how much it would be) and heard “40″ as “14″. I gave her 15 yuan and she said “Eh hem…it’s 40.” When the tones go by really fast, and you’re not really paying attention, you can still get snookered by those switcharoo consonants.


Listening / Eavesdropping (Cantonese)

While eavesdropping is difficult everywhere in China (for a variety of reasons), it’s basically impossible here because everyone is speaking Cantonese. How different is Cantonese from Mandarin? I’m glad you asked.

Some things are similar enough to guess:

1. nǐ hǎo 你好 (Mandarin) = hello

[See original post to listen to audio]

2. nei5 hou2 你好 (Cantonese*) = hello

[See original post to listen to audio]

NOTE: I’ve also heard “nei5 hou2″ pronounced “lei5 hou2″ (see above table).

But a lot of the time Cantonese is just a totally different language:

1. chī fàn le ma? 吃饭了吗?(Mandarin) = Have you eaten?

[See original post to listen to audio]

2. sik6 jo2 faan6 mei6 a3? 食左饭未啊? (Cantonese*) = Have you eaten?

[See original post to listen to audio]

NOTE: Those same characters would be pronounced like this in Mandarin: “shí zuǒ fàn wèi a”

There are also some situations (though very rare) where the shopkeeper or someone doesn’t (or won’t) speak Mandarin. Then I’m screwed. She can understand me, but I have no idea what she’s saying back.

Good news: subway announcements in Guangzhou are in Mandarin and Cantonese. Most official functions (staff meetings, etc.) are in Mandarin since there are plenty of wàidì rén 外地人 who don’t speak Cantonese either.


Speaking (Accent)

As often as I get compliments on how “standard” my accent is (shockingly, when I met my new neighbor, he even complimented me after I’d only said “ni hao”!), I’m still aware of a few little uncertainties that have crept into my Mandarin.

I usually don’t have trouble remembering which words start with “s / sh” or “z / zh” etc. and I CERTAINLY don’t have any trouble with the “n / l” issue. But I still get confused with some words ending in “-n” or “-ng”. For example, “huānyíng” 欢迎 (welcome) is a word I hear all the time around here and I literally hear it pronounced as often as not with the “-n” and “-ng” wrong…oops!…I mean “not standard”.

Many times the Chinese people I’m with don’t have any idea if a word ends in an “-ng” (hòu bíyīn 后鼻音) or an “-n” (qián bíyīn 前鼻音). I even had one lady insist that “hěn hǎo” 很好 was actually spelled “hěng hǎo” in pinyin!


Speaking (Vocabulary)

In addition to the little uncertainties about pronunciation that have crept in to my Chinese, I’ve discovered there are some vocabulary choices that I make differently since I live in Cantonese Land. I’ll actually do a whole post on this soon, but they would probably be analogous to saying “vacuum” rather than “hoover” or “stroller” versus “pram”.



If you go to Hong Kong (another Cantonese speaking area) you’ll see they use fántǐ zì 繁体字 rather than the jiǎntǐ zì 简体字 in use in the Mainland. While Guangzhou uses simplified characters, there are two issues for reading Cantonese:

1. They use the characters differently / The grammar is different.

I’m not going to say much about this, but as you saw in the “have you eaten” example above, the character for “eat” was “chī ” in Mandarin and was replaced by “” (which is pronounced “shí” in Mandarin) for the Cantonese. In fact, only the character for “rice / food” () was the same between the two utterances.

Also, for the verb “to be,” Mandarin speakers use shì. But Cantonese speakers use xì, which we know as “department”!

2. They have their own special characters.

You think you’ve cracked the code? To say “I’m not” in Mandarin is 不是. So it should be 不系 in Cantonese, right? Sorry. They’ve got their own special character for “not”.

Mandarin Cantonese English 不是 bú shì 唔系 m4 hai6 Not to be

For other examples of special Cantonese characters see this MDBG search.


Conclusion / Should I Go To Beijing to Learn Good Chinese?

I always hear “go north to learn good Mandarin.” I suppose I should say yes, that’s true. If given the choice between Guangzhou University and Beijing University (or other southern / northern choices) to work or study at, I guess it would be technically “better” to go north to avoid the linguistic challenges listed in this article. I suppose you’re more likely to learn “standard” English accents in Colorado and London than you would in Arkansas and Newcastle, respectively.

But, for what I want to do with the language, I’ve done just fine. It’s not impossible to learn “standard” Mandarin in the South. Also, the North may have it’s own linguistic challenges (érhuà 儿化 and other variations on the “let’s not speak clearly” theme, some of which can be found at Beijing Sounds).

It’s more about who you learn from then where you are. Wherever you are, it’s important to find a good, “standard” Mandarin speaking informant (tips on how to do that here). It’s out “on the street” that you’ll notice the difference.

And most importantly of all, it’s how hard you try. If you really want to learn Chinese, you’ll do it no matter where you go. If you’re not that motivated, you could be stationed in the very heart of Putonghua Land (wherever that is) and still not learn it.


*I’ve chosen the Yale transcription system because I hate that I don’t even know how to pronounce Jyutping.

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Tomb Sweeping Day Poem

Tue, 04/05/2011 - 00:18

Yes, it’s time for my triennial Qīngmíng jié 清明节 post. This poem is famous, so you’ve probably already memorized it. But just in case you haven’t, here it is:

Qīng míng 清明 Tomb Sweeping Festival

by Dù Mù 杜牧 (803–852, Tang Dynasty)


qīng míng shí jié yǔ fēn fēn
lù shàng xíng rén yù duàn hún
jiè wèn jiǔ jiā hé chù yǒu
mù tóng yáo zhǐ xìng huā cūn

English Translation from Wikipedia

A drizzling rain falls like tears on the Mourning Day
The mourner’s heart is going to break on his way
Where can a wine shop be found to drown his sad hours?
A cowherd points to a cot’ mid apricot.

English Translation from eChinaExpat

Heavy raindrops fall like tears on Qing Ming,
Even the people on the street look lifeless.
Where can I find a wine shop to drink?
The shepherd boy points to Xing Hua Village.

English Translation by Wu Junta (pdf)
(I just love the 3rd line in this version)

It drizzles thick on the Pure Brightness Day
I travel with my heart lost in disway
“Is there a public house somewhere, cowboy?”
He points at Apricot Bloom Village faraway.

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Does Dating a Native REALLY Help Your Chinese?

Sat, 03/19/2011 - 23:29

(The reports of this blog’s death have been greatly exaggerated. )

To quote myself (again), I once said:

“As cliché as it sounds, the two ways people usually learn Chinese the fastest are:

  • Get a Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend
  • Go to bars a lot”

But since I haven’t had a (very long) romantic relationship with any Chinese girls, I decided to invite an American friend of mine (using her Chinese name) to do the first ever guest post! She’s engaged to a Chinese guy and has learned quite a bit of Chinese so far. But was it because of him…?

==== Begin Guest Post ====

By Xiao Yi (小一)

So you’re in China, you’ve been studying Chinese, and now you’ve even got this great Chinese boy/girlfriend who can teach you. You’ve got it made! You’ll be fluent in no time. Right? Not necessarily.

While it seems to make sense that having a Chinese signifiant other would quickly cement your language skills, my experience tells me differently. My fiance, Mr. X, is a talented linguist and a patient teacher, and being with him has certainly boosted my motivation to learn. But there’s a long list of people I would rather study Chinese with than him. Now, I realize that every relationship is different. It’s important to note what your default language is. Mr. X’s English far outstrips my Chinese, so our default language is English. That being the case, I find it counterproductive to use him as my primary language informant for three main reasons:

  1. The roles can get mixed. While I appreciate Mr. X’s occasional tips on pronunciation, I do not appreciate him correcting my grammar when I’m trying to vent my frustration about a bad day. When you spend too much time in teacher/student mode, it can be difficult to snap out of it and back into relationship mode. Good teachers consistently correct grammar mistakes. Good boyfriends do not.
  2. You turn into a zhongwen bandit. Just like you hate those random students who come up to you while you’re doing your shopping, trying to steal bits of English practice, your partner could end up feeling used. Interactions need to be primarily about building the relationship, not the language acquisition.
  3. The message is more important than the medium. We’re trying to build a life together here. We need real communication to happen, so we go to our default language: English. Neither of us want to waste our precious moments together waiting for me to fumble through an oversimplified Chinese sentence just because I need to practice passive voice.

This is not to say that we never speak Chinese together. On the contrary, we frequently have basic conversations and send text messages in Chinese. I’m quick to try and impress him with every bit of new ability I acquire. But I acquire it elsewhere. Your experience might be quite different, especially if your partner doesn’t speak English or your Chinese and her English are at about the same level.

==== End Guest Post ====

Any laowai-s out there with a Chinese significant other with anything to add to this discussion? Please feel free to leave a comment. If you ask Xiao Yi a question she might even reply!

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What’s up with Persuade?

Sat, 01/01/2011 - 01:11

Another post from the ranting “What’s up with…?” series that focuses on vocabulary words we can’t quite get a straight answer about.

Look in the dictionary for “persuade” and you basically end up with:

Now, let’s ignore (for this whole post) the fact that these words often mean “try to persuade” and talk about the following two statements that native speakers around me insist on:

1. “We don’t use shuōfú 说服. That’s more of a formal / written form.”

They claim to prefer quàn in spoken Chinese. It would be nice if the dictionaries mentioned that, but I’m actually not even convinced it’s true. I’d like to hear what other people from other parts of the country (I’m in Guangzhou) have to say on this matter (please leave comments here).

2. “And besides, 说服 is really pronounced ‘shuìfú’. So ‘shuōfú’ is a mistake.

MDBG gives “shuìfú” as the Taiwan pronunciation, but I’ve never heard anyone down here say anything BUT “shuìfú” (and my friend Tommy has never heard anything BUT “shuōfú”). Also, a student told me the other day that during high school, in preparation for the gāokǎo 高考 (which includes a pinyin section to test students’ Mandarin–I’d love to get a hold of some online materials for that by the way if anyone knows of any), they were told to give the correct pinyin for 说服 and if they put “shuōfú” it was marked wrong.

Now, I know that informants are flawed and can be prone to shooting from the hip, selling their own opinions as universal laws, and are always influenced by their own fāngyán 方言 (this is Guangzhou, after all). But it’s not only one person who’s saying these things.

Also that gaokao story had a sort of ring of truth to it. Why would the character be included on a test if it was meant to be pronounced the same way it always is (“shuō”)? At the same time, none of my dictionaries give “shuìfú”. So, what are we to think? Any ideas are welcome.

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Musical Gifts for the Holidays

Sat, 12/18/2010 - 06:53

In the spirit of the season (and also because I haven’t had time to get to any of the 70 drafts waiting for me), I’d like to give you 3 new, original songs as a little present for the holidays.

1. Yǐwéi 以为 by me

Part of the ongoing 我不是东西 collection or Chinese pop songs that I write based on vocabulary I learn (here’s the direct link for the mp3 – right click and “save as…”)

2. Christmas Every Day by me and my friend Danny

Disclaimer: English song. We wanted to write a Christmas song now since it would seem so out of place at other times (here’s the direct link for the mp3 – right click and “save as…”)

3. Bú Ràng Nǐ Líkāi 不让你离开 by Danny and Blueberry (one of our students)

I didn’t help write this song (although I do play the piano on the recording), but I like it so much I had to give it a little publicity. By the way, I tried to help with the English translation, but I must admit I was stumped by:

láibùjí bǎ guòqù shōucáng biànzuò chénnián de sī niàng 来不及把过去收藏变作陈年的私酿

Which is currently translated nonsensically as:

(Otherwise) there won’t be enough time change the past collection into mature privacy

If anyone has any suggestions on a better translation for that line (or any of the other lines), please let me know and I’ll pass the word along.


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Stump the Chinese: Kànglì 伉俪

Sat, 10/23/2010 - 21:54

I was at a wedding recently, and there were little cards at the center of each table that showed who was supposed to sit there. The Chinese friend I was sitting with found his name and then pointed to the characters “(伉俪)” written underneath. He somehow knew it was supposed to be pronounced “kànglì” but had no idea what it meant.

After a few minutes, another friend sat down and he asked her what it meant. She answered immediately that it meant “fūfù” 夫妇 (which he also didn’t understand on first hearing, probably for acoustic reasons though). According to her, it’s a very formal, written way of saying “husband and wife.” If you look at the characters individually, you find that means “husband and wife” and also means “husband and wife” (although I suspect really means “husband” more than “wife”).

I just always think it’s interesting when I come across whole characters that are still in use that are mysterious to Chinese people. I wonder whether my friend’s wife would have known if she’d attended.

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Eavesdropping is Too Hard

Sat, 10/09/2010 - 06:40

[See original post to listen to audio]

One of the first things I noticed upon returning to the USA after my first year in China was: Wow! I can understand strangers’ conversations!

Many of my English major students get discouraged when they sat in front of two foreigners on the bus and couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other in English. I, too, once thought my inability to successfully eavesdrop meant that my Chinese listening skills still have a long way to go. But here’s the truth I’ve come to accept: my Chinese listening skills still still have a long way to go, but eavesdropping isn’t a good test.

Here’s why eavesdropping is too hard in China:

1. They’re probably not speaking Mandarin.

I’ve noticed that Chinese people prefer to speak their local language over Mandarin whenever possible. Even up North, where a lot of the fāngyán-s 方言 are close to Mandarin, there are different tones, or words, or other things that make listening difficult to impossible.

2. You don’t know what they’re talking about.

They could be talking about a májiàng 麻将 marathon and all the specific tiles they got while lamenting the ones they wished they’d gotten. They could be talking about the hanzified names of their favorite Olympians, all of whom you know and could even guess if you knew the context. But since you don’t, then don’t bother even trying.

2.5 The conversation could change topics immediately.

And then, even if you had figured out what they were talking about, it’s now back to square one just because someone transitioned from “Beijing Duck” to that “creepy guy in the parking lot.”

3. Inside Jokes.

If they’re not strangers (and even if they are), then the people you’re eavesdropping on have more in common with each other than you do with them. If they’re colleagues, they might be talking about work at the nutcracker factory or the latest internal memo about clocking-in procedures. And if they’re good friends it’s even worse.

Imagine someone trying to eavesdrop on a conversation between you and your best friend about that one time at Disneyland when Jonno had that inflatable Oscar Mayer wiener that he shoved into the mouth of that animatronic crocodile on the Peter Pan ride. “Hahaha! And Bobby was like, ‘Ticktock this!’ Hahaha! That was awesome.” Sometimes you really had to be there.

All that’s to say:

4. Native speakers can easily ditch non-native speakers

Never underestimate your ability to leave a non-native listener in the dust when you’re talking to a third person who is a native speaker. Conversely, native speakers of Chinese can lose us any time they really want to. Imagine Superman (or that kid in The Incredibles) jogging along with a normal person and then suddenly throwing it into high gear. That seems to be what native speakers can do to non-native listeners at any moment (and not always intentionally).

I’m not just talking about talking faster (although that’s part of it). They can use a synonym, slang, or idiom, or worst of all a chéngyǔ 成语 that we’ve never heard of and immediately change the course of the conversation. Sometimes words that we actually know have meanings we don’t know about. And then there’s the whole context issue again. We don’t have the kind of background in the language that someone has who’s grown up here, gone through the whole education system, watched all those TV shows, listened to all that music, and seen all that news over the years.

On the one hand, it’s comforting to know I’ve probably got a way to communicate a secret message to a native speaker of English in front of a non-native speaker if I need to. But on the other hand, all messages between native speakers of Chinese have the potential to be baffling. Especially if…

…and here’s the point:

5. They’re not talking to you.

If someone really needs to communicate a life-or-death message to you, regardless of your listening level, they’ll probably find a way. But without the context, avoidance of inside jokes, and simplification of vocabulary, etc., I’m afraid odds are against understanding.

So by all means, try to tōutīng 偷听 as much as possible (within reason). Just don’t beat yourself up if it’s not working.

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